Thinking From the Box

Low End Is a State of Mind

Peter Nelson - 2001.12.13

"Low end" is a way of life for me. So naturally I liked the concept behind the Low End PC Web site the moment I found it. To me, "low end" is a state of mind, not just the specific contents of a computer case. After all, a low-end PC can be an XT running MS-DOS 3.3 to some and any machine with a CPU less than 500 MHz running anything less than NT4 to others. Low end is a mindset that approaches challenges with a maximum of mental resources and a minimum of material resources.

I'm an independent technical writer, and I work in a very narrow niche - cryogenic food freezing and chilling equipment - for a very short list of clients. My computing needs are pretty much determined by what I need to service these clients. It is important that I be able to work in the file formats that they require. That means MS Word for the manuals and AutoCAD for the drawings.

My ultimate goal is to be able to support these formats using a low-cost PC, operating system, and software. I've worked with Linux and StarOffice 5.2 but have been unable to get Word 97 compatibility that passes. I'm hoping StarOffice 6, due out in January '02, might solve that problem. I haven't tried any Linux CAD programs, though I've read than LinuxCAD is reasonably compatible with AutoCAD. So for now I'm still with Microsoft.

'Til now, I've gotten away with an older Pentium 200 running Win95 OSR2, MS Office 97 SR2, and AutoCAD Lite 98. I've patched and upgraded software and hardware from the beginning, but when the parallel port on the main board failed recently and attempts at repair just caused more problems, I decided it was time for a change.

Fortunately, there was a "low end" solution at hand. A few months ago my brother gave me a Pentium II 300 MHz machine, because it made some noises he didn't like. It turned out to be a bad chip fan and a vibrating CD-ROM drive. I resolved those issues and also replaced a failing video board. The hard disk was slower than I liked, but the price was right. Since then, I've been using it as a test bed for alternative operating systems and software.

Now it was time for it to become my workhorse. I wiped the hard drive and installed Win95 and my usual software.

About this time I read Michelle Klein-Häss's article: A "Must Not" Upgrade: Windows XP at Low End PC. She suggested Windows 2000 Professional (Win2K Pro) as an alternative to Windows XP.

I wasn't really planning on an operating system upgrade at this point, but the more I read about Windows XP's activation policy and the planned obsolescence of the rest of the Microsoft operating system family, I thought this might be a good time to make a move. I did some more research and found a number of opinions that supported Michelle's view. When I found a copy of Win2K Pro on the Net for less than half the usual price, the decision was made.

I started with an upgrade on top of Win95. The install went without a hitch, and an hour and a quarter later Win2K Pro was up and running. Everything worked. Word, AutoCAD, Opera, my Internet connection. No problem; everything went smoothly. The system seemed slow, but I knew going in that the hard disk was a little sluggish. The new operating system had accepted all of my hardware and software, and everything was fine.

After a couple of days shakedown with no problems, I decided to do a clean install. To improve performance, I pulled the faster 13 GB hard disk out of the Pentium 200 box along with its 64 MB of RAM. I repartitioned, reformatted, and installed Win2K with its native NTFS file system. Again there were no conflicts, and everything worked fine. The system was faster than anything I'd ever run.

It's been a few weeks since the switch, and I couldn't be happier with the results. I'm enjoying a faster, more stable system with less than $200 out of pocket. And I'm going to get some more miles out of the older Pentium box. It's slated to become a dual purpose machine: a Win98 trainer for my wife - if I can run down a cheap copy - and a Linux test bed for me - I think I'll try Mandrake this time. The adventure continues....LEPC


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