Thinking From the Box

Picking a Low End System

Chad Page - 2002.09.10

There are many different ways of buying an inexpensive PC, especially if one is willing to use Linux, BSD, or older versions of Windows.

Thrift Stores and Surplus Sales

Not for the faint of heart, these places sometimes carry great deals - and sometimes lousy ones. One of the better ones I found recently was a Pentium Pro 180 system for $30, which was used in the UCSB library for several years. The hard drive had even been upgraded with one still under warranty for the rest of the year. This can often be the best value, with 486 systems nearly given away on occasion.

Used P2/P3 PCs

Often places like Computer Geeks Discount Outlet and CC Solutions carry a range of Pentium II and III refurbished PCs. I recommend these over the AMD K6 because of the considerably more stable (IMO) platforms Intel provided at the time, and unlike Pentium (MMX) PCs, most of these can be upgraded to 256 MB or more memory without a loss of performance.

A good series - if you can find one - is the Dell Dimension XPS, which is harder to find than their Optiplex line but carries higher grade components. Typically PCs built for business use are sturdier and better performing than ones sold for home use.

Integrated Motherboard DIY (Do It Yourself) Systems

There is a wide range in performance available in these, and the higher level of integration should mean fewer compatibility issues.

The ultimate in integration is the VIA EPIA (Eden) motherboard, which even contains a VIA C3 CPU soldered onto the motherboard. This is not a very high performing solution but when given 256+ MB RAM is still fine for simpler tasks, and what it lacks in performance it also lacks in heat and noise, which is a refreshing change from typical DIY systems.

Generally the faster the memory bus the more desirable the integrated solution. DDR-based (double data rate) boards lack some of the performance problems of the SDR (single data rate) boards containing the Intel 810 chipset which is very slow. On the high end, there is the Nvidia nForce 420 which uses two DDR channels, and when properly configured performs similarly to a GeForce 2MX 400 video card.

AMD Systems with Nonintegrated Chipset Motherboards

Often the components for these can be found at very low prices, especially now that Intel has reclaimed the high end market, forcing AMD CPU prices down rapidly. You should be able to get a decent motherboard for $60-100 (Gigabyte has an AMD 760 based board for ~$60), a form of ATI video card for $30-40 (try to get one made by ATI), and a more than sufficient CPU for $40-80. As usual, when building AMD systems care must be taken in both component selection and installation. A poorly made AMD based system with poor cooling and bad power supply will be troublesome.

Right now PC components of good quality are available at very low prices (aside from memory, at least relative to last year). You can now get Lite-On CD burners for $55, usable video cards for $30-40, and other niceties. This is a good time to buy or build a new low end PC.

Lower End Consumer PCs

I don't consider this the best option, as you usually have to pay >$500 - and more often than not wind up with substandard components. You will probably get an poor-performing integrated chipset, never enough memory, and a lot of eventually annoying bells and whistles designed to dazzle the newer user.

At least they don't come with Windows ME anymore.

This has been a rather basic glance at some of the available lower end PC platforms. If there's anything you want to see written in more detail, or added, please email me at cpage@silcom.com. Thanks.LEPC


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