A Christmas Computer

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I am in the process of putting together a system for a close relative for Christmas, thought it might be useful to describe what I chose and why I chose it.

If you’re a rabid gamer continuously tweaking your system, and upgrading every three months, some parts of this
probably won’t be applicable to you.

However, I’m sure plenty of you get asked to put computers together by family and friends who don’t view computers as a hobby, and what they need and would like are a bit different than what a hardcore gamer requires.

This will be a family computer. The adults on the whole will use the computer to do work at home, MS Office stuff. The only other real use will be for CD-burning for music; rolling your own CDs from current collections, along with MP3s (yeah, I
talked about MP3s with him, he’s willing to pay for them when that becomes available).

The children (two girls) will do homework and play games with it, but games like Railroad Tycoon, not Quake.

This computer will probably end up lasting quite a while, simply because they don’t have voracious computer needs. Little computer expertise; this box has to be reliable without constant tweaking.

This box is replacing a 486 DX2/66 with a tiny monitor, so waiting is not an option.

The strategy for the casual: How long before it sucks?

Building a home computer for those without voracious needs can be a little tricky, since you’re not dealing with someone who is eager and willing to replace components at the drop of a hat.

I think it a false economy to spend somewhat less on a significantly less capable box.

Would an older Celeron system suit their purposes just about as well for a while? Sure, but the key words are for a while.

Eighteen months from now, I would bet that system would start to show its age. First sign probably
would be some game not running too well on it. After that, it’s all downhill.

I think it better to spend a few hundred dollars more upfront, and postpone that game not running too well for an additional year-and-a-half to two years.

Sure, you can come up a different strategy that might save you a few bucks, but that involves replacements far more often. If you don’t mind doing that, go for it, but for folks who consider swapping computers and parts to be a major hassle if not trauma, a little extra money is well worth pain avoidance.

This is what I put together and why:

Internet Connection: Cable Modem

This is item numero uno. This was the first item I brought up, before even mentioning hardware.

I know, this is a “DUH” for most of you, but if you have a relative, friend or neighbor buying a computer, it’s not a “DUH” for them at all. It may take some convincing that
they need to lay out $40 a month for a service and if necessary, spend less on the computer.

The reality is broadband will do far more to make their computer “faster” than any hardware combination you can come up with.

(This is a recommendation of broadband over 56K modem, not cable over DSL. Cable modem service in the area is pretty good, DSL is pretty bad, but it could well be the opposite where you live.)

Monitor: IBM P260 21″ monitor (refurbished)

Right now, my relatives have something like a 14″ monitor. I find that almost a human rights violation.

What do you do with a computer? You look at it. If the monitor isn’t too good, you don’t want to look at it for very long. If it’s too small, you risk carpal tunnel scrolling around. Neither exactly increases productivity. There’s no point in the processor having you milliseconds if you’re spending fewer hours working due to eyestrain, or more hours just scrolling around.

A lot of people buy the rest of the computer first, then buy the monitor with whatever money is left. A lot of computer sellers do the same thing. It really should be the opposite.

You should buy a high-quality 17″ monitor even when every cent counts. You should get a high-quality 19″ monitor if you aren’t under quite that strain.

In this particular case, spreadsheets are going to be one big use of this computer, so for that reason alone, the bigger the better.

Besides, if you want to impress the average person seeing your new computer, the one thing they can’t avoid noticing is a much bigger screen than what the neighbors have. 🙂

But what to buy? You can buy a decent 19″ monitor for something in the neighborhood of $350 with shipping, but decent is all you’ll get. Better than the lousy often bundled with an OEM system, but we want at least good, not so-so.

It’s no doubt a personal preference, but I prefer Trinitron monitors. The two little lines don’t bother me at all, and the colors are more vibrant than with a shadow mask computer. Then again, Trinitrons carry a pretty steep premium, too.

I use an Eizo 20″ TX-D7S that I got on auction about two years ago for about $700 with shipping. The book on Eizo monitors is that they do a very good to great job, and last forever, but they normally cost too much (this monitor went for about $1,300 when I got it).

Turns out Eizo actually sells this (now discontinued) monitor, but for about the same price I got it for way back when.

A new 19″ Trinitron will set you back about $500, and expect to spend in the neighborhood of a grand or more for a new 21-incher.

So what to do?

I had been looking for a second big monitor for myself for a little while, and had started looking at refurbished monitors. I’ve had them before, and they’ve worked well enough.

Computer shows normally have these vendors. Unfortunately, they also have the bad habit of going out of business, which is not what you want with a monitor. Monitors tend to go bad either right away, or after some time, but you’d like to have a reasonable amount of coverage by a place that won’t thumb your nose at you or declare bankruptcy when you show up.

I had bought earlier refurbs on auction at Onsale.com, which provided at least a reasonable warranty on the product. They were taken over by Egghead, and unfortunately, the auction part of the business has been dwindling away ever since.

However, on occasion, they still have something worthwhile, and they have recently gotten into the business of offering refurbished monitors for sale.

The IBM P260 (and, btw, the Dell P1110) are made by Sony, and have the same characteristics as the Sony CPD-G500. Not the absolute best Sony has to offer, but it’s still a $1G+ monitor with specs a bit better than my Eizo.

Well, Egghead had a number of IBM P260s complete with a 1-year warranty from IBM for repair/replacement for about $460 plus shipping. Since I don’t think IBM is going to go out of business soon, that looked pretty good to me, so I ordered two.

Can’t say I’m absolutely pleased with that order, since they sent only one. Apparently, they got their inventory wrong. Oh well, I’m not exactly hurting, I can wait.

The point is not to do just what I did, but to point out that with a little creativity and risk-taking, you can do pretty well in getting bigger, better monitor than you would otherwise.

CPU: Duron 700

I plan to “rent” this CPU. Within a year, I plan to replace it with the fastest CPU that will work in the machine when that becomes dirt cheap. Then I plan to leave it alone (outside of maybe adding a stick of RAM) “until it sucks.” By the time that happens, we’ll probably be looking at completely different technology.

I broke my own rule and ordered the chip sight unseen from an Internet dealer, but only because I really don’t care how much it can overclock. I’m going to be very conservative about an overclock, anyway; 850 or 900Mhz will be fine by me. The chip is going to be replaced long before any evidence of slowness even at an unoverclocked speed.

Heatsink/Fan: Alpha PAL6035

Probably overkill for the Duron, but it probably won’t be for the TBird replacement.

Motherboard: Asus A7V

I’m going with this one primarily because it has four IDE channels; two from the Promise ATA100 controller, two from the regular IDE channels. I’m going to have three IDE devices, including a CD-burner, and I want to give each device its own channel.

I also have a very well-behaved A7V that I used for weeks, so I feel comfortable using that one.

I’d probably make a different choice a month from now, but I don’t have a month to play with.

Memory: Crucial Micron PC133 CAS2 256Mb stick

I’m going with Micron because it’s worked very well for me. I’m going with a 256Mb stick rather than a 128Mb stick because I think my relative got traumatized upgrading RAM on old 486, and wants as many memory slots free as possible, and a $20 premium for one stick rather than two is a cheap price to pay for it.

Why 256Mb? Additional memory is cheap enough. Putting in 256Mb affects benchmarks positively nowadays. It’s likely the machine will see Windows 2000 one of these days, and you’re a little constrained with just 128Mb in that environment. Finally, it’s nice not to have to worry about leaving a lot of windows open. 🙂

Hard drive: IBM 75GXP 30Gb

Best bang for the buck. Buying something smaller would have only saved me $20-30; and by the time they fill it up, it’ll probably be time for a new machine.

Video card: AOpen PA256 GeForce2 MX

Probably overkill at this stage for any game they’re likely to play any time soon, but this should cover the “how long before it sucks” from a game perspective for quite some time. Picked AOpen because I’ve been impressed by their workmanship over the past couple years, which is more important in this case than a couple extra fps.

CD-ROM: Teac 540-E

Since the CD-ROM is going to be used for DAE (Digital Audio Extraction); I wanted the best possible IDE DAE CD-ROM, and this is it.

Yes, there is a difference between CD-ROMs. I’ve seen a Plextor and a Pioneer SCSI CD-ROM tested side-by-side on the same music CD, and the Plextor reported zero errors, and the Pioneer report millions.

If you’d like to read more about the Teac, you can read about it here. The site also contains forums where people talk about other CD-ROMs, well worth a visit.

I’ll tell you one thing, the Teac is one huge pain to find. I could only find one website that had it in stock along with an OK resellerratings.com rating, and that was PC Progress. It is in short supply. You can order it directly from Teac if worst comes to worst.

CD-RW: Plexwriter 12/10/32 IDE

Buffer underruns are not fun. You can get them even when you know what you’re doing, and I can’t assume that here.

I spent more than I usually would on this one because I wanted the best available (for a somewhat reasonable price; a SCSI Plextor solution would have cost another $150 extra), and the newest Plextors have additional circuitry to prevent buffer underruns.

Sound card: Creative Labs Soundblaster Live! Value Why? Because everyone else has one, and any game we’ll see for years to come should work with it.

Conclusion

This system altogether is going to cost a bit over $1,800. That’s not cheap, but notice that I’ve done just about the opposite of what the average OEM does in putting it together.

Most OEMs put their money into the highest Mhz processor, and tend to skimp on the rest, especially the monitor. That’s not a good way to spend your money, since you’re spending it on the item that depreciates the fastest.

It’s far better to initially “underpower” a system that going to remain pretty much the same for years, and pour the money into the rest of your system, then do a cheap processor upgrade a little down the road.

If you bought an OEM 1.1Ghz or 1.2Ghz TBird system now, either you’re going to pay a lot more than I am, or you’re going to end up with inferior components. You may have some bragging rights initially (though I think I can fight you to a draw with my bigger monitor :)). Your machine may well be faster initially (though not by as much as you think, due to component bottlenecks), but
it’s not something the users would notice outside of benchmarks, anyway). A year from now, though, I’ll have a processor as good or better, and still will have the better components.

Again, this is not an optimal strategy for people who really need the firepower, and need it now. If that’s the case, this is not meant for you. It’s meant for those with . . . less demanding demands.

Email Ed


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