Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Should You Buy a Dell?

Would I buy a Dell (or an Hp, or other tier one system)? Should you?

Yes, we as a company, have purchased Dells and other tier one systems for resale to our customers: Dell, HP, Acer, etc. Some people want a brand name for the warm and fuzzy feeling. Some want the security of having a source to do warranty work if their supplier closes up shop. Some companies want all their machines to be exactly the same for easier support and they happen to be spread all over the US or the world.

We've all seen the flyers with a computer system on the front cover and the $299/$349 price highlighted in yellow. But rarely do we read the tiny print in the corner that has an asterisk next to it saying "the monitor is not included". Can we build an equivalent system and sell it for $299/$349 as they do? In reality, not unless I want to lose money, just like they do, if they sell it for that $299/$349. Out of 100 sales order calls the salespeople at Dell may get in any one period, how many machines do you think go out the door at that price? My guess is maybe it is one, and that salesperson is probably put on 'watch' to make sure he doesn't do it too often, or doesn't do it again at all.

Last year I went online and took an advertised basic Dell model and wanted to see if I could really buy one at that price. Yes, it was available, but there were no less
than three areas where they suggested an upgrade in the hardware and gave a good reason for it.

I took that basic model and wanted to change from the 80 gig drive that was offered to a 500 gig drive. The option to go to the 500 gig drive was at the time $139. Now as a reseller of hardware also, we were purchasing that 500 gig size drive for around $100 and charging resellers around $109. Now that was $139 more to change from the 80 gig to 500 gig drive. What about the cost of the 80 gig drive built into the system price? You really have to add what the 80 gig drive was worth to the $139 to get the true cost of the 500 gig drive from them. When you do that you find that you were paying about $189 for the 500 gig drive from Dell. Most computer
resellers I know would sell that drive to you for $139 or less if you purchased it from them as a standalone product, maybe even less if it's in a system, since they are moving more parts.

The real kicker was if I wanted to add a second 500 gig drive to that system. The price for the second 500 gig drive as an option was over $300. When we build a system at Sunnytech we just charge the same amount for both 500 gig drives. One isn't priced at one level and the second at a higher level. Options are where they make their bread and butter money.

I am sure you have not looked at a Dell 3000 system with the idea of adding a second hard drive to it. You can't do it as it comes shipped from the factory. The bracket that they mount the original drive in is designed to hold just one drive. You need another bracket that attaches to it, to add a second drive. Now, think about it. That means you go back to Dell, order the special bracket and possibly the high-priced drive to go with it. They make a killing on you. You also have the inconvenience of waiting. They have saved money by not including it with the case when they built it and saved on the initial shipping costs also, as the system is lighter to ship. I'm sure the average person would not notice this, but the bean counter in the accounting office insists on it. You're talking about millions of
units saving X-amount of cents per piece. That translates into millions of dollars in a year. Our cases are all designed to handle multiple drives, usually without any additional specialized items that you have to search for.

What if the drive fails in your Dell after the one-year warranty is over and you did not purchase the extended warranty? You then have a very heavy new paperweight. Big tier one makers purchase in large quantities of products at better pricing that we may get, often with no manufacturer's warranty on the item unless it's a bad batch and a certain percentage of failures occur in that batch. With Sunnytech, most drives we use have a three- or five-year warranty from the maker. We may give you only a one-year warranty on the part or system with the hopes we can sell you an extended warranty as everyone else does. But you, as an end user, have further
protection. You can go online and perform an end user warranty request, get an RMA number, package the drive, send it in, and get a refurbished or recertified drive back in its place. If you try that with a tier one system drive you most likely will get a "contact system maker for warranty" message. By the way, when we sell an extended warranty, it's only about 5% more than the price of the system, not hundreds more like the tier ones or big box stores.

Other areas the end user may not know about are main boards and CPU's. As an Intel Premier Partner, we get a three-year warranty on all Intel main boards and CPU's we use. We use retail boxed CPU's. If we used what they call tray processors, as the big guys do, we would have only a 90-day warranty from Intel and would have to provide a system CPU fan to boot. Fans are included with Intel retail boxed CPU's. Have you ever looked at a Dell or HP heatsink/fan unit? It never says 'Intel' on it or looks like an Intel unit. We can build a system with any main board maker's board you want and we will. But our preference is Intel.

A Dell or other tier one system may boast it has an Intel chipset. That does not mean it's an Intel board. Often because the cases used by tier ones are custom
manufactured for them, they also use main boards that are made to fit those cases. These are not made by or for Intel so they do not have Intel's three-year warranty. As an Intel Premier Partner, we can offer Advanced Warranty Replacement. If an Intel part is deemed bad, we can order a replacement part and have it shipped to the site the very next business day. This is one main reason we use Intel-built products, though not all Intel products have this feature.

Memory is another area. The tier one makers may not give the end user memory with a lifetime warranty. We use memory that has lifetime warranty replacement. The big guys can purchase memory in such a quantity, as with the hard drives, that no warranty is really given by the maker.

I want to say there is nothing wrong with purchasing a Dell or other tier one machine, as long as you really know what you are getting. The problem is that most
Americans don't know. They consider a computer a necessity now, and want it to be an appliance-like unit that just works. They really don't do any research into what they are actually buying. They look at the initial price and nothing more, and often that is not the whole story, as I have tried to explain here.

I often get some used system given to me which I will refurb and either give away to someone in need or resell. If I have a choice of working on a Dell or a clone I will usually do the Dell first, mainly because I can go online and find out the components that the system originally shipped with and obtain all the necessary drivers very easily to restore the operating system. They have a service code that is easy to look up. But when it comes to cost--actually spending money to do a refurb--it is usually much easier and cheaper to work on the clone. It's usually a little more difficult to find the correct drivers than with a tier one, as each clone can be built with many more parts choices. So sometimes it is an adventure.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Did You Miss the Memory Boat?

A great scene from the "Pursuit of Happiness" movie is when the little boy tells his dad a joke while they're walking along the roadway, lugging the $250 bone density scanner that dad has to market so they can survive.

The joke goes like this: A man is struggling in a river flood and a boat comes by asking if they can help him and he says, "No, I believe in the Lord, and He will save me." So that boat moves on. A few minutes later a different boat comes by and says, "Let us help you," and again he says, "No, I believe in the Lord, and He will save me." So they, too, move on. Well, He drowns. A few minutes later when he's at the pearly gates of heaven he asks "Lord, why didn't you save me?" The Lord said, "I sent two boats!" The point is we do not always recognize things for what they are.

Well, we may have missed the memory boat. After a couple of years of very inexpensive memory prices, after a few years of much higher prices, prices are on the rise again.

This increase is caused by the large adoption of DDR3-style memory, a massive shift in manufacturing to DDR3 memory by makers, and an economic downturn that caused companies to re-evaluate how they operate.

As one of my memory suppliers, Connie, wrote: "As the economy begins to pick up, we are finding that the demand is greater than the supply. Manufacturers have converted to building DDR3, causing supplies to tighten on DDR and DDR2. This uphill trend is not expected to end any time soon. I read one article that said it was expected to keep going up over the next two years. When the economy slowed down, the manufacturers closed down some of their facilities. Now they are not able to keep up with demand."

The shame of this is that memory is probably the one, single, best item a computer user can add to or have in his system to increase overall system performance and total productivity. Windows uses lots of memory when starting up, opening multiple windows, running tasks, and closing down. Linux operating systems do not need as much as Windows to work well, but again, the more the better.

Things go faster and better with the maximum amount of memory you can afford to put into a system. A faster processor will not really make that much difference if you're still at 256 meg or 512 meg of RAM in a four-year-old or older system, for instance. I still see machines coming in for service with this little memory and see a huge difference in performance when I upgrade the RAM amount.

If you were to look back over the previous generation of mainboards and the chipsets on them, you would notice that the total amount of memory that these boards can recognise has increased considerably over the years, often limited by the operating system being used. Now today with Windows 7 released, we see a huge increase in 64-bit operating systems offered by all system builders, because it can address more memory than the 32-bit systems can, allowing the board to live up to its full potential. In general, the newer the chipset a board is made with, the more memory that board can potentially be populated with. Current destop boards from Intel can handle up to sixteen gig of RAM.

Now, that doesn't always mean that it's practical to populate the board to the max. It may be cost-ineffecient to do so. If a board can handle sixteen gig and there are only four slots for memory, that means you need to add four, four-gig RAM sticks to reach the potential. If a four-gig RAM module is three or four times the price of a two-gig module, it may be better to populate with four two-gig sticks for now and upgrade later.

The long-term problem with memory prices rising again is that it will add to the total cost of new systems. As the price of systems rises, manufacturers will try to cut costs by putting in only one two-gig module instead of two, and we will have this cycle of needing to add more memory all over again.

Another area that rising memory prices will affect, and most people don't think about, is video cards. They will also rise in price as the memory increases, causing systems to rise additionally if a graphics card is added by the manufacturer.

It's a vicious cycle, and I think the memory boat has now left the dock. I hope you were able to make a new purchase or do the needed upgrade before the last "all aboard" call was made.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Windows Home Server: One of Microsoft's Best-Kept Secrets

Windows Home Server came out a few years ago without much fanfare. It was almost like a product they developed in their spare time and did not put a lot of resources into making it, hense did not spend a lot of time or money to promote it. After all, it was based on Server 2003 which was already to market and the WHS was paired down a bit to be able to work in an environment of 10 or fewer machines. The price was one-third of Server 2003. I jumped on board marketing it to my dealer base right away. We sold a couple of dozen copies right away with several hardware sales to go a long with them. We had about a six-month lead on it before HP and others had their machines out there. The beauty of it was, it worked just as it was supposed to. Load the software on a machine with necessary hardware requirements, connect the clients and it made backups and kept them as it was told to. A little more work and you could access your files remotely from anywhere in the world.

I did set it up for a couple of clients and it was fairly easy. I have never had to do a restore from it, but friends have and they said it was flawless to put the old backed-up data and OS on a new drive.

What it does when set up with clients attached, is make a complete backup of the newly-attached clients. Then after that, it will make backups of just the data that has been changed, on an incremental scale.

It's intelligent enough to not save x amount of copies of a specific file. it will use pointers to indicate where a file is located, thus saving space on the hard drive.

They have come up with a few updates over the past couple of years, as well as lowered the price a bit to make it even more affordable. With most homes that have a computer actually having 2 or more, this product makes a lot of sense to use. It also makes the purchasing of a new, faster machine less troublesome, as the old machine can be made into a WHS machine for very little expense and the recycling aspect becomes a moot point.

A WHS machine, once set up and operational, does not need a mouse, keyboard or monitor, as anything you need to set or change can be done from a client machine that has a console icon to click to enter.

This icon also is color-coded to show the health of a system. If it's green, all is okay. If it's yellow, be cautious as something may not be correct. Red means there is an issue that needs attention quickly. So as long as you are not colorblind, you can drive a WHS machine very easily.

The current version being sold is Power Pack One. There are Power Packs Two and Three, which are downloaded through the Windows update mechanism. Basically, each one has some fixes and makes adjustments for the new Client software Microsoft has released, like Vista and Windows 7 and their 64-bit versions.

I recently had the experience of setting up the new version at a client's location. This was actually a small business that was located in the home. In all, there were 7 clients to attach to the WHS. We recycled his old Dell 3000 into a WHS with the addition of a 500g hard drive. The reason we had it was he had just purchased a new i5-661 system from me as his main machine. Let me tell you, it was great to hear him say, "Wow is that fast!" when he got his hands on it.

A couple of updates or caveats are necessary here. These are from my recent experiences and not my experiences of two years ago:

1) Windows Home Server really needs to be installed on the machine while that machine is hooked up to the router that it will used on. If you try to install the software and then bring to a location to hook up, the installation will fail and you will not be able to find the Home Server when you try to attach the clients.

2) The WHS machine needs to have a NIC that is supported by Server 2003. If you have any red X or yellow ! in the Device Manager, spend $15 for a new network interface card.

3) Make sure you do all the updates on the WHS machine. It will take a bunch of minutes but you want all the latest files.

4) Also make sure all updates are done to any machine you connect to the WHS--not just the critical updates, but the software and hardware ones also, which you can see from the Windows Custom Update button.

5) Make sure that you use the connector software from the WHS and not the disc that comes with the package. As the updates are done, new connector software is updated and placed on the WHS. If you don't, you may get some "wrong version" messages. I actually went to the WHS machine and copied the connector software to a flash drive and used the flash drive to transfer to the client machine desktops, and run the software from there.

6) I did have an issue which after several hours of frustration caused me to call Microsoft for technical help. Luckily, I did not have to pay for it and I know what to do from now on. The software and other folders on the WHS allow only the administrator to have access to the files. The Microsoft rep went in by easy access remote desktop and put the term "everyone" in the list and gave full permissions. When you log in from a client machine, usually the name is not "administrator". The bottom line was, I did not have permission to access the WHS software, and making that change gave me the permission needed.

7) Only one complete backup can be done at a time. So it may be necessary to leave all the machines on for several days till all the complete backups are done. Once one is done, you can manually start the next machine rather than waiting for the WHS to control it in the early morning (12 midnight to 6 am) which is the default setting.