Computer Rules of Thumb
Version 3.0 (29 January 2017)
(Revised to take into account the vast changes over the last few years)

(Older Version 1.1 HERE
Older Version 1.5 HERE
Older Version 2.0 HERE)
Older Version 2.1 HERE)

PSA Regarding Home-Builds
(New for v3.0)

If you are thinking about building a PC for yourself in 2017 and you're 25 years older or more; just buy a pre-built or partially built system.

This is a lesson I've had to learn painfully twice in the last two years as I set about first building a large desktop replacement and then a year later, a HTPC.

Nowadays, with Microsoft operating it's own network of stores across the country and making sure that only “Clean” Windows installs are available on the PCs sold there; there's little real reason anymore to actually build your own anymore, unless you have some extremely demanding requirements or just trust only one specific manufacturer.

Likewise; with Intel's Next Unit of Computing (NUC) boxes; there's little reason to build your own HTPCs anymore. The costing just isn't there anymore (see below).

Item

Build Your Own PC

Intel NUC Box

MS Windows [Insert Version]

$110-120~

$110-120~

330W Un-Interruptible Power Supply

$45~

$45~

MS Media Keyboard (Wireless) with built in trackpad.

$40~

$40~

WD Blue 2 TB HDD (3.5” or 2.5”)

$70~

$70~

Corsair PSU, 550W Modular

$70~

Not Needed

LG Blu Ray Combo Drive

$40~

Not Needed

Chassis/Case Fan #1 by Coolermaster

$18~

Not Needed

Chassis/Case Fan #2 by Coolermaster

$18~

Not Needed

Grandia HTPC Case (ATX)

$80~

Not Needed

Intel i3-6300 CPU

$140~

Not Needed

Multi-Brand CPU Cooler

$30-40~

Not Needed

8 GB DDR4 PC2400 RAM

$55~

$70~
(for smaller SODIMM)

Arctic Silver 5 Thermal Compound

$26~

Not Needed

SATA 3 Cable #1

$5~

Not Needed

SATA 3 Cable #2

$5~

Not Needed

PCI-E Adapter for Wireless-N

$35~

Not Needed

Gigabyte Geforce GTX 1050

$110~

Not Needed

Asus B250+ Motherboard

$80~

Not Needed

Intel 600P 256 GB M.2 SSD

$90~

$90~

Intel NUC Kit NUC7i3BNH (i3-7100U)

Not Needed

$500~

Totals

$1,077.00 ish

$930.00 ish

Essentially, things come out about somewhat the same cost wise.

If you drop the GeForce 1050 from your HTPC build, then suddenly, they become within parity, cost wise.


Advantages

Disadvantages

Intel NUC Kit

  • Extremely simple to build. Drop and plug many components.

  • No need to have to worry about CPU cooling, case management of wires, dropping a tiny screw into the case, etc.

  • No Optical Drive possible, unless you hook it up externally.

  • No way to upgrade built in GPU beyond that already in the box.

Build your Own HTPC

  • Can tailor graphics performance to your needs via discrete video cards.

  • Have a optical drive for playback of DVDs or BluRays

  • Construction is significantly more time consuming than a NUC build.

  • You have to worry about configuration collisions (is your CPU cooler too big for your case?)

It's worth noting that the Intel HD 620 graphics on the i3-7100U is about 15-20% faster than the old GeForce 8800 GTS, and that card was enough to play many XBox 360 era games at appropriate resolutions (Mass Effect 2 at 1920x1080) with a decent framerate; so while you won't be able to play the latest AAA+++ title at ultra detail, you won't be getting horrible graphics if you go with a NUC. The same thing also applies if you don't get a discrete GPU for your HTPC, as the i3-6300 is about as powerful GPU wise as the i3-7100U.

It all comes down to what is more important to you:

Your Time and Sanity or your Wallet.

Walletwise, you CAN get a decent boost for your money (Optical Drive + a Pretty Decent GPU) if you roll your own but the issue is....time and frustration.

I think a big issue is that because computers are still very much a “young” market, there's a never ending stream of teenagers and early 20 somethings that “come of age” each year, and they all want “enthusiast” stuff like gigantic CPU coolers that require reinforcement on the other side of the motherboard so they can overclock a $40 CPU to be as powerful as a $120~ CPU. Never mind the fact they'll need a $50~ or upwards priced CPU cooler to keep that overclocked CPU from burning up.

There's also other annoyances within the PC case/motherboard market – there has been no real push towards standardizing a case connector that includes the power switch, HDD activity LED, front USB ports and audio ports into a single connector similar to an ATX motherboard power connector. When you're young, it's neat to fiddle with all that stuff, but as you age; you want things to be simpler and easier.

The Really Important Bits

Always buy name brand hardware from reputable hardware vendors!

Avoid no-name ‘clone’ manufacturers like the plague.

I will repeat this many times through this guide; but it doesn't hurt to emphasize it again.

A large, well known manufacturer will have an actual quality control department, as well as a decent warranty/returns department. Said no-name fly-by night manufacturer won’t.

First adopters are Suckers. I repeat, first adopters are Suckers.

Do not rush out to buy the latest and greatest technology. Wait until it has proven itself and costs have dropped to the point where it is no longer a punishing hit to your wallet if it fails.

Example A:

Back in 2010, Intel's X-25M series of SSDs (solid state drives) had a pretty bad firmware problem.
Intel had been promising that when Windows 7 was released, they would release the TRIM firmware, which would greatly prolong the lifetime of the drives by enabling TRIM support, and significantly reducing the “slowdown” that occurs as the SSD's flash “wears down” from repeated use.
Sound all good and cheery? Well, it turns out that the TRIM firmware, when it was released a few days after Windows 7, when it was applied to already in-use SSDs, bricked the drives, rendering them useless. It took several more firmware updates to resolve that problem. After several months, you basically could buy X-25Ms that shipped with the fixed firmware that included working TRIM support out from the box; but the people who brought the drives before the TRIM support had been proven were the Suckers.

Example B:

In early 2012, Canon began shipping out the hotly anticipated 5D Mark III Digital SLR; and early adopters quickly found out that there were several early possible flaws. Some cameras had slightly fuzzy focus, while others had a ‘light leak’ issue where it was possible for light from the illuminated top LCD display to leak into the camera itself and affect the automatic metering of the shot in extremely dark environments. And to top it off, Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, the included software that could read/convert Canon’s RAW files into JPEG format had a number of issues.
When you pay $3,500 USD for a camera body, you don’t want to find out about these teething flaws with your money.

Example C:

When the first HDTV televisions/monitors first came out with HDMI connections, things were pretty good for a brief period of time until the standard for how copy-protected content would be played over HDMI changed. Suddenly, TVs or monitors which worked fine before now suddenly were unable to play back a protected content stream, such as watching a movie via PS3.

BIOS/Firmware Updates should be done as a last resort.

As a corollary to the above statement about first adopters being suckers, I’ve found that BIOS/firmware updates tend to cause a lot of problems, and each time you do it, there is the probability of something bad happening. So only flash them when you absolutely need to solve a critical problem and you have backed up your Really Important Stuff™.

Upgrading your computer every 6 months does not give you the best bang for your buck.

A three to four year refresh policy for your computer hardware ensues that you will have a substantive and qualitative improvement over your old hardware for your money, as shown by the table below:

CPU

Year

CPU

Transistors

Clock Speed

Benchmarks

MSRP

2007

Core 2 Quad Q6600

528 million

2.4 GHz

72,800 MTOP CTP
38.4 GFLOPs
6,500~ PC Mark Vantage

$851 @ Launch
$530 @ L+90 days

2012

Core i7-3770K

1.4~ billion

3.5 GHz

140,000 MTOP CTP
112 GFLOPs
10,643~ PC Mark Vantage

$332.00

2015

Core i7-6700K

1.68 billion

4.0 GHz

~~
113.53 GFlops
11,072~ PC Mark Vantage

$350.00

Graphics Card

Year

Card

Transistors

Benchmarks

MSRP

2006

GeForce 8800 GTS

750~ million

620 GFLOPS (FMA)

$450.00

2011

GeForce GTX 580

3~ billion

1,580 GFLOPS (FMA)

$499.00

2012

GeForce GTX 680

3.5~ billion

3,090 GFLOPS (FMA)

$499.00

Try this Before Anything Expensive!

Back in 2010, I had to troubleshoot a problem in which my brother's desktop stopped “seeing” the internet. We tried everything from resetting the router, plugging it directly into the cable modem, etc; but it would not see the internet.

We began to think that our only options left were these three choices:

1.) Buy a add on wireless-N USB receiver for $60
2.) Buy an internal PCI Ethernet card
3.) Replace Motherboard

Fortunately, I found the following advice online:

1.) Shut down your PC.
2.) Unplug the power cord.
3.) If you have a laptop, remove the battery as well.
4.) Walk away from the problem for at least 20-30 minutes.
5.) When you return, reconnect battery and power cord.
5.) Start as usual.
6.) If this solves the problem, take 20 minutes and post this to all of those message boards that you didn't find the solution to.

Following this advice; the computer following start up once again saw the internet. This seems like a good piece of advice to offer for any random glitch you are facing, before you do something really drastic, like nuke and reinstall, or replacing major system components like the motherboard.

Software

Picking an Operating System

Rule #1. First, you need to decide what you’re doing with the PC.

If you’re just using it to access the internet to browse websites and check your mail; you can use one of the various major distributions of Linux, as long as you know what you’re getting into and don’t need to do anything serious on that PC.

If you need to do serious / heavy work on that PC, that leaves the Windows or Macintosh OS lineups.

Rule #2: Generally wait a month or two after a operating system’s major new release has been released to the public before using it. Let someone else be the beta tester, not you.

Traditionally, the rule of thumb was to wait six months or at least one service pack release before buying a Microsoft OS. This was born in the very bad old days of Windows 95; and then reinforced by the bad release of Vista into an environment where a lot of hardware drivers weren't ready for it. Windows 7's release was a lot better.

32-bit vs 64-bit Binaries. What do they mean?

In a 32-bit application, the maximum amount of memory space the application can address is 4 gigabytes. Meanwhile, a 64-bit application can address 16.3 billion gigabytes. That's a lot more memory space available.

Generally, for most applications, the advantages of going to 64-bit are very small (on the order of about 5-10% performance improvement), and in some cases, there is actually a decrease in performance, because of the extra number of registers which have to be handled by the computer.

A simple way of measuring whether a program you have would benefit from upgrading to a newer 64-bit version is to look at the kind of datasets that are being handled by the program.

A Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) emulator wouldn't benefit much if at all, due to the fact that the NES had only 2 to 32 kb of system memory to emulate.

By contrast, a graphics editing application that routinely handles very large images -- a 5000 x 5000 pixel bitmap at 24 bit consumes about 72 megabytes of information would benefit from 64-bitness, due to the fact that many graphics applications save "undo" steps so you can go back to a previous version of the image, and if you have several large images open at once, this causes a pretty big memory footprint.

Likewise, newer and newer 3D computer games definitely push around a lot of data, as game developers push for ever larger and ever more detailed game worlds, and want to keep track of more things within that world (which needs more memory of course), so they would benefit from going to 64-bit binaries. However, games that actually have this are still very rare, even in 2015.

Safe Browsing on the Internet (In General)

Anti-Virus/Anti-Spyware: As soon as your computer boots up that day, go into your anti-virus/anti-spyware program’s control menu and manually trigger the “Check for Updates” feature. If you’re on the computer for a very extended period of time; trigger it again after a decent interval of time (6-8 hrs) has passed. This will ensure that you are protected against the “latest” threats, which can proliferate across the internet like wildfire, even on ‘trusted’ sites; through the use of ads.

While a good anti-virus/anti-spyware program will stop an unknown threat that does something blatantly obvious like trying to delete your hard drive (because that is highly unusual) – facing a more subtle threat, you need to have up to date anti-virus profiles similar to how you need to be vaccinated against this year’s version of the flu virus.

Internet Browsers: You should always be running the most up to date browser(s) possible. Check your browser's help files to find out how to update it.

Fighting Internet Pop Up Deployed Malware

I have been fairly conscientious concerning deploying a anti-virus program, etc; and even then, I got hit by a virus/malware program. It was one of those “fake” anti virus scan programs which messed up your system among other “fun” things. How did I get hit? Well, I was browsing one of my internet discussion forums when it was being hosted on Yuku (the former eZboard).

A popup came up, asking me if I wanted to install blah blah blah.

I clicked on the windows close button (that “x” in the upper right corner of your window), and still got hit by the program.

See, what happened is that many of these programs manage to script their pop-up windows so that ALL the buttons on the window begin the installation sequence. Even the “cancel” buttons.

Here's how you deal with them. (With Windows XP/7)

Hit CTRL-ALT-DEL and start up the Windows Task Manager.

Select the browser in task manager, right click, and select END TASK.

Keep trying until your browser closes.

Sure, you'll lose whatever internet pages you had open in that browser, but it beats a zombie system that forces a nuke-and-pave.

(The previously suggested method, using ALT-F4 to close that window was depreciated, because some malware popups can recognize this and bring up an additional pop up window asking you if you want to navigate away. Better to be safe than sorry).

Picking an Anti-Virus/Anti-Malware Program and a Firewall

You don't need five or so programs running simultaneously to get the best protection. If anything else, the programs will just keep getting in each others' way and actually lower your overall system security, because you will have to set up so many exceptions and suchlike to keep them playing nice with each other.

My simple recommendation?

Get Microsoft Security Essentials / Windows Defender (or whatever they are calling it now).

You can download it and use it as long as you're using a genuine copy of Windows. Why pay $50 to $80 each year for an anti virus program, when you can get a decent program, and up-to date anti-virus definitions free from Microsoft?

Sure, it may not be as good in catching viruses as NOD32, or what, but, you don't need professional grade anti-virus programs unless you're deliberately going to the bad corner of the internet (porn, warez, etc) and clicking on every single ad and link in sight.

Windows Firewall, which is available built into all versions of Windows after Windows XP Service Pack 2, when combined with your router's built in firewall, should be more than enough.

Burning Optical Discs (CD/DVD/Blu-Ray)

Rule #1: Buy only discs with reasonable prices (no buying a 50-CD spindle for only $4.99!) and check the labels for where they are manufactured. The problem is even the "name brand stuff" can be the same media as ultra-cheap; so paying attention to the manufacturing location is important.

2010: The good stuff is made in Japan or in Singapore. Made in China or Made in Taiwan usually is inferior quality.
2012: Certain brands are starting to carry ‘made in India’, while the majority are now ‘Made in Taiwan’.

Rule #2: Burn discs somewhere in the middle of your drive’s write range.

For example, if you had a 16x maximum write (20~ MB/sec) DVD-R drive, I would recommend burning at about 8x (11~ MB/sec).

This results in a more reliable burn, especially if you are doing something really crazy like burning a huge directory that has 12,000 files in it. This also helps prevent a disc from failing silently, despite the program reporting a successful burn.

Rule #3: Keep your important optical disks (backups, the Great American Novel that you are writing) in a cool dark space, like for example in a file cabinet in the basement. This keeps them good for a long period of time, even if you didn't splurge for a premium archival brand of disc.

Rule #4: Figure out what is Really Important™ (The Great American Novel you are writing, etc) amongst your files and make double copies of it. Don’t burn just one CD/DVD. Burn two. Label them Copy 1 of 2, and Copy 2 of 2. That way, if one goes bad, you will have another. Additionally, keep one or two generations’ of backups for maximum assurance; e.g. when you burn Novel Work As of April 2012; you keep Novel Work As of December 2011, and Novel Work As of August 2011 in your storage place. Sure, they’re out of date, but in the event of your April 2012 backup being damaged or lost, you will have a fallback set and won’t lose 100% of your Really Important™ stuff.

Hardware

Warranties

Generally, the warranties offered by stores are a waste of money; since many of the parts you buy already have manufacturer's warranties.

There is one BIG exception though.

ALWAYS try to buy an accidental-damage warranty for:

1. Laptops since they tend to get jostled around quite a bit; and most of them lack a proper load-bearing frame which increases stress on key components inside as the outer shell is jostled/twisted around.
2. Tablets, as they will be handled a lot and propped up to act as media players in odd spaces, leaving them prone to falling over if the airplane hits turbulence, or the road gets bumpy. Additionally, their displays are very large for their overall size, increasing their susceptibility to damage.

The reason for an accidental damage warranty is that manufacturer’s warranties only cover manufacturing defects; they won’t cover you if you drop your LenovoBook or spill coffee on it.

That said, don’t go overboard and get the multi-year warranties. One year’s extended warranty should be enough, as it will then cover the initial side of the bathtub curve and beyond a year, the item rapidly depreciates in value due to advances in technology, making a two or three year contract a nice way of giving your money to the retailer.

Overclocking

Don't do it. Just don't. Don't even THINK about doing it in any form.

Why? Your computer's components were designed to run at a certain specification, and exceeding those specifications greatly decreases the lifetime of your computer.

As a “bonus”, you greatly increase the probability of data errors creeping in and compromising the reliability of your data. (MSDN Article on this), thus leading to frequent software crashes.

Central Processing Units (CPUs)

Rule #1. For a PC; you pretty much now are left with just Intel and AMD as far as choices go. The only real difference is whether you want the absolute best from a power/watt standpoint (Intel), or if you’re more budget conscious (AMD).

Over in the mobile media device space (Android tablets, phones, boxes); CPUs are still in the ‘wild west’ phase and a wrong decision can have consequences; because app companies can’t program hardware acceleration for every specific CPU out there. So when picking your mobile device; check out the CPU specifications. You want something that’s heavily used in that generation’s mobile devices, rather than a no-name chipset.

Example: As of December 2015; Lenovo has some attractive tablets that are reasonably priced for what they’re offering (10” screen and full HD 1920 x 1200), and Lenovo itself is a ‘trusted’ brand of some repute. However, their CPU chipsets are Mediatek MTxxxx, which is a “who are these guys?” brand. By contrast, picking something with the ‘Snapdragon’ brand assures you of hardware acceleration in say, video playback programs.

Rule #2. When picking your desktop CPU; try for something in the upper bracket of that generation’s CPU offerings; but not the absolute top end.

Basically, instead of getting the #1 CPU; get the #2 or #3 ranked CPU. You get a CPU that's powerful enough to be a qualitative improvement over your previous computer, and one that’s good enough to last for several years, while not paying the bleeding edge tax that picking #1 gets you.

Exception for Rule #2: If you develop rather specialist applications or use said specialist applications, Intel is becoming rapidly infamous for stratifying their CPU lineup by features, rather than by speed/performance. E.g. VT-d (device I/O virtualization) is only available on certain CPU families.

Rule #3 Sizing the CPU for the Application:

A lot of data here is from (http://m.cpubenchmark.net/cpu_list.php). This section is mainly intended to help you size HTPCs (Home Theater PCs) for the task at hand, such as emulation.

8-Bit / 16-Bit (NES/SNES/Genesis) Emulation

NOTE: The Author recalls playing SNES/Genesis emulators at near real-time speed on his personal Pentium II-450 MHz back in the day. Essentially, virtually anything nowadays that's sold commercially will play “classic” games.

Early 32-Bit (Sony Playstation, Sega Saturn) Emulation

Late Consoles (Sony Playstation II, Nintendo Gamecube) Emulation

General PC Computing Tasks: When picking out a new computer for general purpose use (anything more advanced than a simple internet PC or media center PC), you should aim for a minimum system score of around:

3DMark06 CPU Score: 3,500~
PCMark 8 Suite Score: 3,300~
3D Mark Vantage Score: 10,300~
PassMark Score: 3,000~

This approximates roughly a Core 2 Quad Q6600 and GeForce 8800 from about 2007; which will be more than enough to play a wide variety of casual games as well as be moderately powerful enough to run newer games at low to medium levels of detail. Additionally, when paired with a SSD; speed will be acceptable for general purpose computing.

To give you an example of where all these benchmarks fall on the Market, here's the current line up (as of December 2016) for various mini PCs:

You still need to add a hard drive ($100~), memory ($80~), and pay for a copy of Windows 10 ($110), so total cost is about $300 above the listed prices above.

Motherboards

The first step of buying/choosing a motherboard is to pick from a known quality brand.

Above all, avoid deals that are “too good to be true” using no name brands.

Check the specifications of the motherboard very carefully.

Thing to Look for #1: Does it have enough slots/connectors/ports for your present and future needs?

A certain model of motherboard with two SATA connectors may be fine for a simple media center (with a single optical drive and hard drive); but would not be acceptable for someone who uses more than one hard drive for storage.

The reason for paying close attention to the boards' specifications in your initial buy is while there are Expansion Cards which can add extra connectors/ports like more SATA connectors, they generally are not as reliable as a built in motherboard connector/controller.

Thing to Look for #2: How much memory can the motherboard handle? Can it handle modern-ish memory? You want to be a little ahead of the curve in regards to total memory capacity, so you don't have to replace your board that often.

Memory

Rule #1: Buy from known major manufacturers like Kingston, Corsair, or Crucial. Avoid ‘no-name’ manufacturers.

Rule #2: Buy memory within the same spec as the original memory; e.g. PC3200, if you are adding more memory to an existing installation.

Rule #3: Performance RAM isn't worth it – you only need it if you're planning to overlock, and you did read what we said earlier about overclocking, didn't you?

Graphics Card

Rule #1: You want to buy GPUs using either Intel (built in), AMD (discrete or built in), or NVIDIA (discrete or built in) chipsets from a reputable brand manufacturer. Above all, avoid no-name manufacturers.

Rule #2: Like CPUs, picking the #2 or #3 ranked Graphics card of that generation works nicely. You get a big improvement over your previous video card, and the card is powerful enough to last for several years before it needs to be replaced to keep up with newer games. You also save a bundle.

Rule #3: Stay away from mid-level or low-level cards in the ATI/NIVIDIA card lineups. Generally, due to the very confusing methods of naming both manufacturers use, a newer mid-level card may actually be less powerful than your older existing card. They also will have to be replaced more often than a more powerful card. They are however acceptable if you are building a budget box that won't be used much for other than the internet, media center streaming and maybe some old game you really do like.

Generalized Storage Medium Notes

Rule #1: Stick with major medium manufacturers if your application will be mission critical, such as your desktop computer with irreplaceable data on it, or your digital camera that you use to shoot weddings with. SanDisk is a pretty good name to stick with for USB Drives or Flash Memory, particularly their Extreme / Ultra product lineups.

NOTE: If you are just expanding your tablet’s memory with a MicroSD card to hold movies during long plane trips or layovers, you can get away with cheap “no-name” store brands, as nothing of value will be lost if the MicroSD card goes ‘blooey’.

Rule #2: Never fill your storage medium up to virtually it’s full capacity (5% or less of free space remaining); as some programs may not have error checking that prevents them from doing a large write if there is less capacity on the drive than the program’s average write.

A good example of this phenomenon is filling up completely a digital camera’s memory card with that “one last shot”, and in the process the camera over-writes something important, messing up the card and causing you to lose all the previously taken shots on that card!

Keeping a buffer of free space at all times also provides a cushion for bad sectors or other items which will occur as your medium ages.

A good rule of thumb would be to retain 25% of your medium’s capacity as free space. Below is a handy table of free space for various storage densities.

Medium space

Free Space Limit

2 GB

500 MB

4 GB

1 GB

8 GB

2 GB

16 GB

4 GB

32 GB

8 GB

64 GB

16 GB

128 GB

32 GB

256 GB

64 GB

512 GB

128 GB

1,024 GB (1~ TB)

256 GB

2,048 GB (2~ TB)

512 GB

Solid State Drives

Rule #1: Stick with Intel or Samsung if you value your data/system reliability.

If you’re just assembling a toy to play with (e.g. an arcade emulator system) with no critical data to be stored on it; then you can go with a drive made by someone else to save money.

There’s a very good reason for this rule. In the “old days”, the late un-lamented OCZ was one of the first SSD manufacturers out there; and they got high performance at good prices via playing tricks.

What they did was they sent special units with hand-picked high quality flash to reviewers; while everyone else got units made via flash ‘lotteries’. At first, these ‘lottery’ OCZ SSDs would be somewhat okay; but after a little bit of general use; they would start failing. It's a big reason OCZ no longer exists as a company.

Rule #2: Within Intel and Samsung’s lineups, there are two basic versions of each SSD – the ‘consumer’ and ‘prosumer’ versions. Generally, the ‘prosumer’ version costs about $100-150 more than the equivalent ‘consumer’ version for the same amount of storage space.

For capacities below 500~ GB or for a “toy”, you can get by with the ‘consumer’ versions. Anything 1~ TB and above; go for the ‘prosumer’ version; because at those capacities, a serious drive failure can cause massive loss of data; and with that much data in play, making backups becomes onerous and time consuming for the average user.

Internal Hard Drives

As of 2015, there were only three major HDD manufacturers left – Seagate, Western Digital, and Toshiba.

Due to the proliferation of the ‘cloud’, several online datacenters have begun to share their HDD reliability statistics; amongst them Backblaze. (Backblaze Q2 2015 Stats).

Effectively as of 2015, Western Digital (and it’s enterprise brand HGST) is the best hard drive manufacturer for consumer grade drives. Enterprise grade is a different beast, with little data available on failure rates.

Rule #1: Stay away from the bleeding edge in hard drive capacities. For most of the early 2010s, 1 TB and above hard drives suffered from an abnormally high amount of failures, due to the much higher data densities of those drives making a failure much more unforgiving. I have no idea if these problems have been solved or not; but sticking to a lower density drive for drives that will be heavily used will increase reliability.

Basically, if you only hook up a high capacity drive (multi-TB) externally once or twice a month to back up your data, you should not have problems with it; but if you thrash it every day as a primary OS drive...

Rule #2: A very good rule I use (born out of the horrible bad old days of Windows 95/98/Me, where you usually had to nuke-and-reinstall your OS if a Blue Screen of Death happened, is to have two hard drives in my computer at all times. The first is the OS/Program drive, and the second is my Data drive, where I store photos, writings, or anything I want to keep. This means that if you have to nuke-and-pave, you don't have to worry about your data, since it would be safe on a physically separate drive.

Rule #3: Multiple partitions aren't really worth it anymore, due to the advances in file systems (NTFS is a vast improvement over FAT or FAT32). They also increase the probability that you may do something wrong when you tool around with your system's settings while installing the OS, and you end up nuking your data partition instead of the OS partition. Ooops.

External Hard Drives

These are only good for backup storage needs – e.g. you have 50 gigaterabytes of family photos or videos you need to backup, and you don't feel like burning 11 billion DVDs for backup purposes. They are NOT a mobile storage solution. That way lies the click of death after being put in a briefcase for a day of jostling. Likewise, they're a bit too erratic, even with the advances regarding device drivers and USB drivers for them to be used as a primary storage solution – for that, stick to Internal HDDs.

They cannot be as easily ejected/added to a system as a USB stick or Flash Card. Generally, disconnect them after your system has been turned off and the drive automatically turns off.

Cases

As before, get a case from a major manufacturer like Antec. They're put together a lot more sturdily than the cheap clone cases, are much, much easier to assemble; and tend to come with special thumb screws which sure beat using a screwdriver!

Power Supply Units (PSUs)

The power supply is the one component in your computer, if it fails, can take down just about everything, from the motherboard to your hard drives permanently via frying.

So do not skimp on it by getting cheapo-no name PSUs that are “bargains”. You won't feel like you've gotten a bargain after it bombs and takes the rest of your system with it.

So only buy power supplies from known big name manufacturers like Asus, Corsair, etc.

When you are choosing your power supply, keep three factors in mind:

1.) Add in a little bit of extra power than what you need. If you figure your system needs about 400 watts of power to run, put in a 500-550 watt power supply. The reasons for doing this are so that you have a buffer for possible future upgrades; i.e., you might want to upgrade to a more powerful video card in the future, or add more hard drives. Additionally, this provides an extra margin of durability. Power supplies designed for 500 watts when they pull only 400 watts run cooler, and because they're built for a hotter thermal environment, they last longer and have less critical failures.
2.) This does not mean that a 800 to 1,000 watt PSU will give you a ten times greater margin of durability. There's a limit of diminishing returns, and your electric bill will hate you. Plus, only a very few systems actually NEED such power.
3.) Take a close look at the output cables it offers. You want to have only the cables you need with a little overhead for expansions. Otherwise, the inside of your box will look like a spaghetti mass of wiring. which not only looks horrible through a transparent window (which a lot of cases have now); but it also cuts airflow inside the case, and reduces the effectiveness of your cooling system. A lot of mid-range and virtually all high-end PSUs are now “modular”, in that there are sockets on the PSU for the various rails, and you only plug in the cables that you need. I do not have any experience with those or their durability, so I cannot make any informed comments on them.

Computer Assembly

If you're doing major computer assembly work; e.g putting together an entire system from the boxes they came in; wear an ESD Wrist Strap. While computer parts are surprisingly durable (for example, I've had cards which have sat unprotected against other cards for nearly a decade boot up and run with no problems; but those are exceptions to the rule); you want to be sure that you haven't blown your investment in computer parts by shorting out a key component.

While you can RMA those components; it's annoying to wait for a new part to come in.

Minor assembly work; e.g. adding a new hard drive, or changing the memory in an existing system can be done safely by regularly touching unpainted metal parts of the case to ground yourself and dissipate any possible charge.

Do assembly in a relatively clean room or area. Do not do it in carpeted areas; and if you have any pets in the house, lock them out of the assembly area until the computer is assembled and sealed up, to avoid them transferring static charges from them to you via rubbing against you.