PC Hardware in a NutshellBy Robert Bruce Thompson & Barbara Fritchman Thompson
1-56592-599-8, Order Number: 5998
526 pages, $29.95
Designing a PC
This chapter lets you look over our shoulders while we design PCs for various needs and budgets, and then buy the components to build them. Each section describes a project system we actually built in late 1999. By the time you read this, many of the prices may be laughable and many of the components we chose will be discontinued. Whatever replaces them will no doubt be better, faster, and cheaper. That's not the point. What is important is the process of selecting components and making trade-offs to meet a target budget. When you design a system, the most you can hope for is to choose good components at a good price at that moment in time. The following sections detail choosing components for four representative systems: Low-End, Mainstream, High-Performance, and Personal Workstation.
Low-end systems are typically sold by resellers like Best Buy and Circuit City for $500 to $1,000. At the mid- to upper-end of that range, they may include a small, entry-level monitor and perhaps an inexpensive inkjet printer. Most low-end systems include things you either don't want or will end up replacing, but have to pay for anyway: Winmodems, entertainment or edutainment titles of questionable value, no-name small business suites, mushy keyboards, bar-o'-soap mice, and really, really bad sound cards. These systems use slow, small, inexpensive IDE/ATAPI drives, have barely adequate RAM (typically, 16 to 32 MB), and offer limited expandability. The least expensive systems use an AMD K6-2 processor. Better models use an Intel Celeron or AMD K6-III processor.
At first glance it may seem there's not much hope of matching the price of an off-the-shelf low-end system with one you build yourself. In fact, low-end systems have a fair amount of margin built into their prices. Not only does the manufacturer need to make a profit, but so does the store. As it turns out, you can do a lot better by building a low-end system yourself. For the same price, you'll get a system with much better quality components.
We designed this first system for a friend on a tight budget. She actually called us on her cell phone while standing in front of the computers at Best Buy. We convinced her to let us see what we could do for her before she decided to buy a packaged low-end system. She already had an HP DeskJet printer and an external U.S. Robotics 56 K modem. She also had an old 486 with licensed copies of Windows 95 and Office 97 that we could transfer to the new system. The original monitor was failing, so she needed a decent new monitor. Her budget was $1,000 with monitor. Here's what we came up with:
- Case and power supply
- We wanted to use a PC Power & Cooling case and power supply, but budget ruled that out. You can buy cheap cases for $50 or so, but those are shoddily constructed and have very poor power supplies. Instead we opted for an Antec KS-288 Mid-Tower case (http://www.antec-inc.com), which costs $15 more, but is built like a tank, has no sharp edges or other signs of cost-cutting, and comes with a decent 250W power supply.
- The most CPU we could afford was a K6-2/III or PPGA Celeron. Celerons provide better performance for the price and use Socket 370, which is more stable than Socket 7. As a baseline, the Celeron/400 ($60) costs only $10 more than a K6-2/400, and is faster and more stable. The K6-III/400 ($110) has similar speed, and is Socket 7. The Celeron/433 ($75) and 466 ($95) run only 8.25% and 16.5% faster, respectively, not worth the cost. The Celeron/500 ($160) runs a barely noticeable 25% faster, and is certainly not worth $100 more. We chose the Celeron/400, which is more than fast enough. (http://developer.intel.com/design/celeron/)
- Staying within budget forced us to use an integrated Socket 370 motherboard rather than buying separate video and sound cards. The best such motherboard is the Intel CA810E, which has embedded Intel 752 graphics (excellent 2D and adequate 3D performance) and Creative Labs SoundBlaster Audio PCI 64V sound. Neither is cutting edge, but both are good enough. The CA810E is also very flexible about the CPUs it can use. It supports the FC PGA Pentium III Coppermine processors, the forthcoming 100 MHz FSB Celeron processors, and 133 MHz FSB. All of this will allow an easy, cheap upgrade in a year or two, when 600+ MHz Celerons with SSE will likely cost $50 and 800+ MHz Socket 370 Pentium IIIs $175. (http://developer.intel.com/design/motherbd/ca2/ca2_ds.htm)
- This system will run Windows 9X, for which 32 MB is usable and 64 MB ideal. The CA810E has only two DIMM sockets, and requires at least PC100 memory (even for a 66 MHz FSB Celeron). We had room in the budget, so we elected to install 64 MB, which will improve both speed and stability. Using commodity memory is never a good idea, so we chose a Crucial Technologies 64 MB module, leaving one free socket for later expansion. At the time we configured the system, a 64 MB PC100 DIMM cost $94.50, but the same module in PC133 form cost only $4.50 more. We elected to go with the PC133 module, which will allow upgrading to a 133 MHz FSB processor later. (http://www.crucial.com)
- Hard disk
- This system will be used mostly for creating documents and browsing the Web, so drive size was not a major issue. We've had good experience with recent Seagate IDE drives, so we chose a 4.3 GB DMA/66 drive from their value-line U series. The 5,400 RPM spin rate of this drive means it's not as snappy as a 7,200 RPM drive, but the price is right. (http://www.seagate.com/disc/disctop.shtml)
- CD-ROM drive
- We definitely needed a CD-ROM drive, and we wanted a tape drive for backup. But even inexpensive tape drives cost $300+ with tapes, a budget buster. We decided to kill two birds with one stone by installing a CD-RW drive. Although not the perfect backup device, a CD-RW drive can back up 500 MB or so to $3 CD-RW discs, which suffices for this system. We like Hewlett-Packard ATAPI CD burners, but they're a bit pricey for this system. Fortunately, we can recommend the Smart & Friendly CD*SpeedWriter Plus, an inexpensive ATAPI CD burner that does 4X writes, 2X rewrites, and 24X reads. That drive comes with Adaptec Easy CD Creator and DirectCD, which are the packages we would have chosen anyway. With only one CD drive, we'll have to dupe CDs by first creating a disk image, but the Seagate drive has plenty of space for that. We'll install this drive as Secondary Master to avoid coasters and to prevent the data corruption that occurs if the CD burner and hard disk are on the same channel. Once we've installed the OS and applications, we'll also use it to create a master restore CD-R disc. (http://www.smartandfriendly.com/cdr_cdspeedwriter_plus.html)
When we originally designed this system, the Smart & Friendly SAF798 was the best CD burner for the money, and Plextor made only SCSI CD writers. By mid-2000, Smart & Friendly had ceased operations, we had become disenchanted with HP CD burners and with Adaptec Easy CD mastering software, Plextor had begun shipping excellent IDE CD writers, and we'd discoverd Nero Burning ROM mastering software. Accordingly, if we were designing this system today, we'd choose the $250 Plextor 12/10/32A or the $185 Plextor 8/4/32A CD burner with Nero software.
- Here's another place where it's a mistake to compromise on quality. Budget puts a 17" monitor out of reach, and the person we're designing this system for says she's happy running 800 × 600 on a 15" monitor. We tell people they won't go far wrong choosing a monitor from Hitachi, Mitsubishi, NEC, or Sony, so we'll take our own advice here. The best of that group is the Sony CPD110GS for about $175. It supports 1024 × 768 resolution at 85 Hz refresh, which is more than adequate, and provides Sony's typical very high display quality. It'd be hard to find a better 15" monitor. (http://www.ita.sel.sony.com/products/displays/corp/cpd110gs.html)
- Some consider a \UPS a luxury, but we won't run a system without one. We have power outages frequently around here, particularly during spring thunderstorms and winter ice storms. We've used scores of American Power Conversion (APC) UPSes over the years, and have never had a problem with them, something we can't say for some of APC's competitors. This is a lightly loaded system, so one of the small units will serve. We chose the $75 Back-UPS Office 280VA, a charcoal-grey device not much bigger than a surge protector that provides three battery backup outlets and three surge suppression only outlets, plus telephone protection. (http://www.apcc.com/products/back-ups_office/index.cfm)
- Miscellaneous components
- As usual, we don't sweat the small stuff. We used a Teac 1.44 MB floppy disk drive (FDD), although any name brand drive would have done as well. The choice of keyboard and mouse is really a matter of personal preference. Microsoft makes both keyboards and mice in great variety, and we seldom use anything else. At $35 or so, the Labtec LCS-2414 speakers are a good step up from the cheap speakers bundled with most low-cost systems. We even find them acceptable for casual listening to classical music. Table 25-1 shows the component list for a low-end system.
Table 25-1: Component List for a Low-End System
Antec KS-288 mid-tower
Antec PP-253X 250W ATX (included)
Intel PPGA Celeron/400
Crucial CT8M64S4D75, 64 MB PC133 SDRAM DIMM
Seagate ST34311A 4.3 GB 5,400 RPM DMA/66
Smart & Friendly SAF798 SpeedWriter Plus 2 × 4 × 24 CD-R(W)
Teac 235HF 1.44 MB
Microsoft Natural Keyboard
Microsoft Wheel Mouse
Sony CPD110GS 15" SVGA
APC Back-UPS Office 280VA
Shipping and miscellaneous
Our home-built system compares quite favorably with the $1,000 system from Best Buy. The case, power supply, processor, motherboard, hard disk, floppy drive, keyboard, mouse, and speakers we used are as good or better, and we used brand-name retail components rather than the generic components used in the commercial system. But there are differences.
On the plus side for the commercial system, it includes a generic 56 K Winmodem, a dubious advantage at the best of times, and no advantage for us at all. Winmodems are a bad idea, and we already have a superior USR external 56 K modem. It also includes a low-end HP inkjet printer, which is less significant than it seems. We've seen that same printer advertised for $75 with a $50 mail-in rebate, yielding a net cost of $25. HP, like all other inkjet printer makers, gives away the razor to sell the blades. The commercial system also comes with Windows 98--which would cost us about $90 if we needed it, which we don't--and an off-brand office suite. We'll use our existing copies of Windows 95 and Office 97. Even if we didn't already have Office 97, we'd be more inclined to install the freeware StarOffice Suite from Sun than use the off-brand suite.
On the plus side for the home-built system, it has twice as much memory, and that memory is Crucial PC133 memory rather than the unspecified (but probably OEM or commodity PC66) memory used in the commercial system. We've used a motherboard that can be upgraded inexpensively to a much faster processor in a year or two, which is unlikely to be true with the motherboard used in the commercial system. Rather than a standard IDE CD-ROM drive, our system has a CD-RW drive, which we can use for backup. The Sony monitor is greatly superior in both performance and quality to the generic monitor supplied with the commercial system
Here, approximately in ranked priority order, are upgrades we suggested if the budget could be increased slightly:
- Get a larger monitor. The 15" Sony is a superior monitor, but it's still only 15". The price of 17" monitors has dropped dramatically over the last couple of years, and a decent entry-level 17" monitor doesn't cost all that much more than a 15" monitor with similar resolution and refresh rate. If we had another $75 or so available, we'd go with the 17" Hitachi SuperScan Elite 640.
- Get a larger, faster hard disk. The 5,400 RPM 4.3 GB Seagate drive is adequate for present needs, but one can never have too much hard disk space. Spending another $50 or so would buy a 7,200 RPM ATA/66 drive in the 10+ GB range.
- Upgrade the case and power supply. A PC Power & Cooling case and power supply costs about $50 more than the Antec unit. We recommend this upgrade because a system with a mid-range power supply is less stable and more prone to fail than one that uses a top-quality power supply, particularly as the system ages.
As it turned out, our friend decided upgrading the monitor and hard disk made sense, so she ended up spending about $1,100 rather than the $1,000 she'd originally budgeted. That extra $100 bought her a lot more computer, one that will probably last her a year or more longer before it needs to be upgraded or replaced. We still think she should have spent the extra $50 on the PC Power & Cooling case and power supply, but the Antec is a very good case, and if the mid-range Antec power supply fails in a year or two, it's easy enough to replace it with a PPC unit.
Mainstream systems typically cost from $1,000 to $2,500. Relative to low-end systems, mainstream systems use faster Celeron or Pentium III processors, more memory, larger, faster IDE hard drives, better video cards, and larger, higher-quality monitors. Mainstream systems may also substitute a DVD-ROM or CD-RW drive for the CD-ROM drive, better speakers (with perhaps a subwoofer) for the $15 speakers supplied with low-end systems, and Office 2000 for the no-name suite. Many mainstream systems also offer Windows NT Workstation or Windows 2000 Professional as a low-cost upgrade to Windows 98. Most systems sold today fall into the mainstream category.
We designed this system for a writer who wanted a high-quality PC at a reasonable price. He wanted to use top-notch components throughout, but avoid "overkill." He uses the Web extensively for research, and wanted a large amount of fast disk storage to store documents and images, which he downloads via his new DSL line. He once experienced a catastrophic data loss due to a failed hard disk, and so insisted on having a reliable tape drive. He plays computer games occasionally for recreation, and so wanted something with competent 3D graphics. His budget was under $2,000 with monitor. Here's what we came up with:
- Case and power supply
- With more room in the budget, we started with a PC Power & Cooling Personal Mid-Tower case. We use PPC cases whenever possible for their high quality and solid construction. PPC power supplies are the standard by which we judge other power supplies. We don't consider using anything else for our own systems. A quiet power supply was important, so we looked at PPC Silencer models, which are nearly inaudible. We'd like to have used the $75 Silencer 235 ATX. That was a bit light for this system configuration, so instead we opted for the Silencer 275 ATX. (http://www.pcpowercooling.com)
- Processor speed is less important to this user than other factors, especially 2D display quality. We could have simply specified a Matrox Millenium G400 video card for its superb display quality, which would have allowed us to use any standard motherboard. Instead, we decided to see what was available in an integrated motherboard (see the following list item). As it turned out, the best choice of motherboard used Slot 1, which made either a Celeron or Pentium III Slot 1 processor the obvious choice. Although Intel discontinued SEPP (Slot 1) Celerons in mid-1999, they were still available when we designed this system. We chose the fastest SEPP Celeron ever produced, the /433, which nearly matches 450 MHz Pentium II/III performance. Slot 1 processors will continue to be available for some time to come, so we can upgrade to a fast Pentium III once prices drop into the $150 range. For that matter, we can later upgrade this system to a fast Socket 370 processor like the Pentium III Coppermine or Celeron II by using a slocket adapter. (http://developer.intel.com/design/celeron/)
- This user doesn't need the latest video or sound adapters, so we once again opted for an integrated motherboard. This time, we picked the Intel SR440BX, a top-quality Slot 1 motherboard with embedded nVIDIA TNT 128-bit graphics and Creative Labs ES1373 SoundBlaster Audio PCI 64V sound. 2D display quality is critical for this user, who spends most of his day working in Word and his web browser. Although TNT video is known for unexceptional 2D display quality, particularly at higher resolutions, Intel installed filtering on the SR440BX that brings the TNT 2D display quality up near that of the Matrox Millenium, the standard by which 2D video is judged. Although no longer cutting-edge, the nVIDIA TNT was the fastest 3D video adapter available only six months before we built this system, and will be more than good enough for this user for the foreseeable future. (http://developer.intel.com/design/motherbd/sr/sr_ds.htm)
- This system will run Windows 98, which is happiest with 64 MB or more. The SR440BX has only two DIMM sockets, so we chose a single 64 MB DIMM, leaving the other socket free. As always, we spec top-quality memory, in this case a Crucial 64 MB PC133 DIMM. Once again, the price difference between PC100 and PC133 was so small that it made no sense to save $5 by buying PC100 memory, even though this system does not benefit from PC133. If we swap out motherboard and processor in a couple of years, the PC133 memory will likely still be usable, whereas the PC100 memory might not be. (http://www.crucial.com)
- Hard disk
- Budget ruled out SCSI, but IDE is no real drawback on a Windows 98 system, so we looked for a big, fast IDE disk. Maxtor, Seagate, IBM, and others all make drives in this class, but we think the best of the group is the Seagate Barracuda ATA. It stores 20.4 GB, runs at 7200 RPM with an 8 ms average seek, and supports DMA/66. That last is of little use to us, because the SR440BX supports only DMA/33, but there's no real-world performance difference between DMA/33 and DMA/66 anyway. (http://www.seagate.com/disc/disctop.shtml)
- CD-ROM drive
- We considered installing a decent $50 ATAPI CD-ROM drive (like the Toshiba XM-6502B), but we had some room left in the budget. For $100 or so more, a CD-RW drive is worth having. Although our author will have a tape drive for routine backup, burning an archive CD once a week or once a month is good belt-and-suspenders insurance for his data. Once again, the Smart & Friendly CD*SpeedWriter Plus does the job and costs less than an equivalent HP burner. We've used both, and the Smart & Friendly is at least as fast and reliable as the HP. We'll install both the CD burner and the tape drive on the secondary channel to avoid problems transferring data from the Barracuda to either of them. Also, please see the note in the "Low-End System" section. (http://www.smartandfriendly.com/cdr_cdspeedwriter_plus.html)
- Tape drive
- We needed a fast, inexpensive, large-capacity tape drive. A Travan TR-4 drive meets the first two requirements, but not the third. Its 8 GB compressed capacity is nowhere near large enough to back up the entire Seagate hard drive to one tape, even if the assumed 2:1 compression ratio was achieved, which is unlikely with real-world data. Fortunately, the Onstream DI-30 ATAPI tape drive meets all requirements. It's faster than the Travan, costs only $300 or so with three tapes, and stores 15/30 GB on tapes that cost less than $30. (http://www.onstream.com)
- Once again, the monitor isn't someplace to compromise, particularly for someone like this author who spends eight or more hours a day looking at it. A good 19" monitor costs $450 or more, which busts the budget. Fortunately, the "big four" offer many good 17" monitors. The most cost-effective of that group is the Hitachi SuperScan Elite 640 at about $250. It runs up to 1024 × 768 resolution at 85 Hz, which is adequate. Better models run up to 1600 × 1200 resolution at higher refresh rates, but also cost $350+, which isn't justifiable for this system. (http://www.hitachidisplays.com/products/17_elite641.htm)
- Once again, we don't consider a UPS an option. We wanted at least five minutes of run time and some spare capacity for later expansion. The automatic UPS model selector on the APC web site recommended the Back-UPS Pro 420, so that's what we chose. (http://www.apcc.com/products/back-ups_pro/index.cfm)
- The vendor from whom we purchased the motherboard, processor, and hard disk offered a full OEM version of Windows 98 for $90 additional with the purchase of those components. Although that vendor also offered a full OEM version of Microsoft Office, our writer friend has been using WordPerfect for more than a decade, and chose to migrate his existing copy to the new machine.
- Miscellaneous components
- In this case, the Teac 1.44 MB FDD was out of stock at our chosen vendors, so we substituted a Mitsumi, which will do as well. This user likes the "melted" Microsoft ergonomic keyboards, and chose the Natural Keyboard Pro, which has many dedicated (and reprogrammable) keys for one-touch access to various web browser functions, email, and so on. He is a smoker, and was tired of having to clean his mechanical mouse every few days, so he was happy when we told him about the Microsoft IntelliMouse with IntelliEye, a fully optical mouse that has no ball and does not require any special mouse pad. The same Labtec LCS-2414 speakers we chose for the preceding system are also adequate for this user's needs. See Table 25-2 for a list of the components of a mainstream system.
Table 25-2: Component List for a Mainstream System
PC Power & Cooling Personal Mid-Tower
PC Power & Cooling Silencer 275 ATX
Crucial CT8M64S4D75, 64 MB PC133 SDRAM DIMM
Seagate ST320430A Barracuda ATA 20.4 GB 7200 RPM DMA/66
Smart & Friendly SAF798 SpeedWriter Plus 2 × 4 × 24 CD-RW
OnStream DI-30 15/30 GB ADR tape drive with three tapes
Mitsumi 1.44 MB
Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro
Microsoft IntelliMouse with IntelliEye
Hitachi SuperScan Elite 640 17" SVGA
APC BP420S Back-UPS Pro 420 VA
Microsoft Windows 98
Shipping and miscellaneous
This home-built system compares favorably to $2,000 systems from Gateway, Dell, or Micron. As an experiment, we configured a $1,900 Gateway Essential PC (they charge about $100 to ship), trying to match components as closely as possible. Dell and Micron do not offer configurations even close to what we've chosen. Neither, for example, offers a hard drive larger than 13.6 GB on a Celeron/400 or /433 system. The Gateway Essential is available with either a Celeron/400 or a Pentium III/450, but comparing specifications and options makes it clear that they're based on different motherboards. The Gateway Essential 400 appears to use the PPGA Celeron/400 on an Intel CA810 motherboard, which uses the same integrated sound as the SR440BX, but has the inferior Intel graphics rather than nVIDIA TNT. The PPGA motherboard also eliminates the possibility of upgrading later to a Pentium III, unless that particular Socket 370 motherboard supports the FC PGA Pentium III, which many do not.
Disgarding the minor difference in processor speed--we could have saved $5 by using the Celeron/400 instead of the /433--and comparing other components from the top down, the Gateway OEM case and power supply aren't as good as PC Power & Cooling. In particular, there is a huge difference in power supplies. We couldn't determine exactly which power supply (or even what size) the Gateway system uses, but our experience tells us that it's likely to be under 200W, probably well under. Gateway offers two 17" monitor options, and the better monitor has roughly comparable specs to the Hitachi we chose. We prefer the Hitachi name. Gateway offers a 27.3 GB 7,200 RPM hard drive upgrade, but doesn't say who makes it. Once again, we prefer the Seagate Barracuda. Other components, including the CD-RW drive and UPS are comparable, although Gateway uses a Sony CD-RW drive, which has had some reported problems with regard to compatibility with Adaptec DirectCD. The same holds true generally for the other components such as the keyboard and mouse. We're using top-notch branded retail products, while Gateway is using generic white-box versions.
The Gateway Essential 400 does have some extras, including Windows 98 and Works, which we'd have to buy separately. It also includes a non-optional OEM Winmodem and a year of gateway.net Internet service, which might be valuable for some, but not for us. What the Gateway doesn't include (even as an option) is the tape drive, which occupies $400 of our budget. Overall, we conclude that the home-built system offers better components (and choice of components) with full manufacturer warranties at $200 to $300 less than the cost of the Gateway.
One dirty little secret PC vendors won't tell you is that the components they use often differ significantly from the retail (or even "white box" wholesale versions of similarly named products. For example, a reader purchased a Dell Dimension XPS T500 Pentium III system in the summer of 1999. That system supposedly used Diamond Viper 770 TNT2 video and Aureal Turtle Beach II sound. The reader learned after numerous problems and support calls that the Viper was a special "D-for-Dell" OEM version that ran much slower than the retail product. The Turtle Beach sound card was another special Dell OEM version that couldn't use the standard Aureal drivers. He attempted to replace the OEM sound card with a Soundblaster Live! Value card, and found that the Dell system wouldn't boot without the original sound card installed! So, just because a packaged PC uses components with familiar names, don't assume they're the same as the retail versions. They're probably not.
The home-built system is ideally suited to the needs of the person who will use it. The only upgrades we might consider, approximately in ranked priority order, are:
- Use Windows NT Workstation. This user knows Windows 9X and is comfortable with it, but Windows NT is so much more stable (and faster, given 64 MB or more RAM) that it would be worth spending the additional $50 or so that NT costs.
- Buy a better monitor. The Hitachi 640 runs 1,024 × 768 at 85 Hz, which is about right for a 17" monitor. If we had a bigger budget, we might go with a better 17" monitor (add $100) or a Hitachi 19" monitor (add $200).
- Install more memory. Either Windows 9X or Windows NT Workstation is comfortable with 64 MB, but either uses more memory if it's available. Windows 9X seems more stable and better performing with up to 96 MB of RAM, although going beyond that shows decreasing returns. NT Workstation is rock-solid with 64 MB, but will hit its swap file a lot less often with 128 MB of physical RAM. Installing a single 128 MB DIMM would provide more than adequate memory for either operating system while leaving a DIMM socket free for later expansion.
High-performance systems use Pentium III or AMD Athlon processors and substitute SCSI peripherals for the IDE/ATAPI drives used in mainstream systems. High-performance systems are not readily available from major vendors like Dell and Gateway. For some reason, people who willingly pay a $500 premium for the latest Intel or AMD processor seldom consider instead spending that extra $500 on SCSI drives, even though using SCSI often boosts performance more than using a marginally faster processor. That means if you want a high-performance system, you either have to build it yourself or buy it from a smaller specialty vendor.
With minor configuration changes, this system is appropriate as either a high-performance personal PC or as a server for a small (10 to 20 client) network. In our case it does both, functioning as both Barbara's personal system and as the main file and print server for our SOHO network. We will transfer Windows NT Server 4.0 and Office 97 from Barbara's current system, which will be relocated to the server closet as a Linux box, so we didn't need to buy software. We didn't really set a budget, but our target was under $2,500 without monitor. Here's what we came up with:
- Case and power supply
- We considered using the PC Power & Cooling Full Tower case for its additional expansion room, but ended up going with the Personal Mid-Tower case. That case has three 5.25" external drive bays, two 3.5" external bays, and one 3.5" internal bay, with a $5 option to add two additional 3.5" internal bays. We'll use two of the 5.25" bays for a CD-ROM drive and a tape drive, leaving one free 5.25" bay that we may use later for a CD-RW or DVD-RAM drive. Should we need another 5.25" bay, we can remove the tape drive from its 5.25" chassis and install it in the other external 3.5" bay. For power supply, we considered using the Turbo Cool 350 ATX ($149) or the Turbo Cool 400 ATX ($199), but after adding up current draws, we decided that the $99 Turbo-Cool 300 ATX power supply was sufficient with room to spare. (http://www.pcpowercooling.com/home.htm)
- We definitely wanted to use a Pentium III CPU for the dramatically increased performance it provides over the Celeron when running SSE-enabled applications. Also, some of the applications we plan to run on this system saturate the small 128 KB Celeron L2 cache, and so run noticeably faster on a Pentium III with its 512 KB L2 cache. When we were designing this system, the Pentium III was available in four speeds: 450 MHz ($180), 500 MHz ($250), 550 MHz ($400), and 600 MHz ($600). Using the MHz/buck test, those processors come in at about 2.5, 2.0, 1.4, and 1.0 respectively. In other words, the 600 runs 33% faster than the 450 but at 333% the price. For most people, a CPU must be 25% to 33% faster before they notice much difference, so it's clear that using anything faster than the Pentium III/450 will be of little advantage. (http://developer.intel.com/design/pentiumiii/)
- This system won't be used for heavy gaming or anything else that requires leading-edge video and sound, so we decided to go with a motherboard with embedded video and sound. Again, the superb Intel SR440BX does what we need to do at a significantly lower cost than buying separate video and sound cards for a nonintegrated motherboard. (http://developer.intel.com/design/motherbd/sr/sr_ds.htm)
- This system will run Windows NT Server 4, for which 128 MB is the sweet spot. The SR440BX has only two DIMM sockets, so we chose one Crucial 128 MB DIMM, leaving the other socket available. This system is a server, so we decided to go with ECC memory, which costs a few percent more than nonparity memory and imposes a slight performance penalty. As always, we chose PC133 rather than PC100 memory for future flexibility. In this case, doing that cost only about $10 more. (http://www.crucial.com)
- Network card
- No question here. We run a 100BaseT Ethernet network, and Intel makes the best 100BaseT network cards we know of. They're reliable and come with rock-solid drivers. With Intel PRO/100+ network cards selling for $40 or so, there's no reason to save $10 or $15 by using a third-tier product. (http://www.intel.com/network/products/pro100_dsktop.htm)
- Hard disk
- There are two issues here, capacity and speed. In addition to storing local applications and data, this drive is the main data store for our network. After determining current requirements and then adding room for growth, we concluded that we needed a drive in the 20 GB range. There are any number of inexpensive ATA drives that size, but ATA is not appropriate here. A 7,200 RPM UDMA drive is adequate for a personal system and marginally acceptable for a small server, but not for a machine that does both. In a concurrent access environment, SCSI features like command queuing and elevator seeking give it a huge performance advantage over an ATA drive with similar seek time and spin rate. We'd like a 10,000 RPM drive, but the higher cost relative to a 7,200 RPM model probably isn't justified for the moderate performance increase it would provide for this system. Many manufacturers make 18 GB 7,200 RPM drives, but we consider the Seagate Barracuda 18LP series the best of those. We wanted U2W (LVD) for its high sustained throughput, and so chose the ST318275LW Barracuda 18LP. (http://www.seagate.com/disc/disctop.shtml)
- SCSI host adapter
- We use only Adaptec SCSI host adapters, which have been the standard ever since SCSI was invented. Second-tier adapters cost a bit less, but we know the Adaptec will work with anything. And, as anyone who bought a Diamond FirePort learned, companies that challenge Adaptec in the SCSI market may depart that niche with little notice. We know there will always be driver updates for an Adaptec. We want a U2W host adapter to go with our U2W drive. Although 80 MB/s U2W may seem excessive for a drive with a 22.5 MB/s sustained transfer rate, using U2W leaves us unoccupied bandwidth that we'll need when we add drives to the system. The choice is between the $200 2930U2 and the $240 2940U2W. Both provide 68-pin U2W and 50-pin Ultra SCSI internal connectors and a 50-pin Ultra SCSI external connector. The 2940U2W adds a 68-pin Wide Ultra SCSI internal connector and a 68-pin U2W external connector. This machine will never need those additional connectors, so we choose the 2930U2. (http://www.adaptec.com/products/overview/aha2930u2.html)
- CD-ROM drive
- Ordinarily, we would install a CD-RW drive, but this system doesn't really need one because we already have CD burners on other systems. It does need a high-performance CD-ROM drive, which we'll use to convert our audio CD collection to MP3. This is an all-SCSI system, and Plextor makes the best CD-ROM drives available. We choose the UltraPleX 32X Max, which rips audio CDs at three times the speed of the fastest ATAPI CD-ROM drive we've seen, processing a typical audio CD in about three minutes. (http://www.plextor.com)
- Tape drive
- This system is our main network data store, so backup is critical. We need a drive that will back up the 18 GB Barracuda to one tape. (If we install more drives on this system, they'll store things like copies of installation CDs and MP3 files that don't need to be backed up). We want a drive with read-while-write and hardware data compression, which effectively limits our choices to 4 mm DDS-3 or Travan NS20. DDS-3 stores 12/24 GB versus Travan's 10/20 GB and uses somewhat less expensive tapes, but DDS-3 drives cost considerably more than Travan NS20 drives. After evaluating price and features of NS20 drives, we choose a Tecmar TS520CSL drive. (http://www.tecmar.com/product/travan/travan20/travan20.html)
- Barbara is happy with her current 17" Trinitron monitor, so we don't really need a new monitor for this system. If we did need a monitor, we'd choose a 19" Hitachi, Mitsubishi, NEC, or Sony that supported 1280 × 1024 at 85 Hz and (for infrequent use) 1600 × 1200 at 75 Hz. The best in that group is the Hitachi CM751U SuperScan 751. More expensive models support the same resolutions at higher refresh rates, but cost $200 to $500 more. (http://www.hitachidisplays.com/products/19_751_752.htm)
- We wanted extended run time (to allow for orderly shutdowns) and some over-capacity to support whatever we add to this system later. Although in theory VA rating and battery capacity are unrelated, in practice UPSes with higher VA ratings come with bigger batteries, so buying additional run time also buys some over-capacity. The APC model selector recommended the Back-UPS Pro 650, which provides 23 minutes of run time, running at 38% of capacity. (http://www.apcc.com/products/back-ups_pro/index.cfm)
- Miscellaneous stuff
- We chose our standard Teac 1.44 MB FDD. Barbara dislikes the ergonomic Microsoft Natural Keyboard series, and prefers a standard keyboard layout. She chose the Microsoft Internet Keyboard, which has a built-in wrist rest, several dedicated keys for one-touch access to various browser functions, email, and so on, as well as some programmable hot keys. She loves the Microsoft IntelliMouse on her old system, so we chose another of those for the new system. Barbara listens to CDs while she works, so we wanted a good speaker system with a subwoofer. The one we chose was the Labtec ATX-5820, which provides superior sound quality for music and is also suitable for gaming and other purposes. See Table 25-3 for a component list for a high-performance system.
Table 25-3: Component List for a High-Performance System
PC Power & Cooling Personal Mid-Tower
PC Power & Cooling Turbo-Cool 300 ATX
Intel Pentium III/450
Crucial CT16M72S4D75, 128 MB PC133 ECC SDRAM DIMM
Intel PRO/100+ fast Ethernet adapter
Adaptec AHA-2930U2 U2W (80 MB/s) LVD SCSI adapter
Seagate ST318275LW Barracuda 18LP U2W 7,200 RPM LVD
Plextor PX-32TSi UltraPleX 32X Max SCSI
Tecmar TS520CSL Travan NS20 SCSI
Teac 235HF 1.44 MB
Microsoft Internet Keyboard
Microsoft IntelliMouse 3.0
APC BP650S Back-UPS Pro 650 VA
Shipping and miscellaneous
If this system is to be used primarily as a workstation role, we'd consider making the following changes:
- Run Windows NT Workstation 4 rather than the more expensive Server version.
- If disk performance is critical, substitute a 10,000 RPM Seagate Cheetah for the 7,200 RPM Barracuda.
- If CPU performance is critical, substitute a faster Pentium III for the Pentium III/450.
- If video performance is critical, replace the Intel SR440BX with a nonintegrated motherboard that provides at least a 2X AGP slot, and install a Matrox G400 Max video card and a Turtle Beach Montego II sound card.
- Substitute a less expensive tape drive (e.g., the OnStream ATAPI DI30 or SCSI SC30).
If this system is to be used primarily as a SOHO file and print server, we'd consider making the following changes:
- Downgrade the Pentium III/450 to a Slot 1 Celeron.
- If this server will support numerous shared SCSI devices, upgrade the 2930U2 host adapter to a 2940U2W.
- Replace the ATX-5280 speakers with a $25 set of powered speakers.
Workstation systems (in the true sense of the word) are characterized by their use of multiple processors, multiple large, fast U2W SCSI hard drives, copious amounts of RAM, and large, high-resolution displays driven by high-performance display adapters. Workstations run Unix, Windows NT, or both. We set out to design a workstation-class system for Robert. Within reason, money is no object for this system, because it's the one he uses all day every day. We didn't waste money, for example by buying a component that was 10% faster at five times the cost, but neither did we allow cost to play much role in our decisions. Here's what we came up with:
- Case and power supply
- We chose the PC Power & Cooling Solid Steel Tower case. With eight external and two internal 5.25" drive bays, this case provides all the expansion room we'll ever need. It also provides excellent cooling, with the power supply fan at the top rear, two supplemental fans at the bottom front, and space to add two more fans at the rear. This system will contain several high-current drives, so we opted for the Turbo-Cool 400 ATX power supply. PPC manufactures larger power supplies, including a 600 watt ATX unit and dual units of 600 and 825 watts, but those would be overkill. (http://www.pcpowercooling.com/home.htm)
- The only realistic choice for a dual processor system is the Intel Pentium III. Enthusiasts build dual Celeron systems, particularly now that dual Socket 370 motherboards are readily available. That isn't an ideal solution, though. With Celeron/500 and Pentium III/450 processors selling for about the same price, the cost advantage of dual Celerons has almost been eliminated. More important, the larger Pentium III L2 cache significantly improves performance in SMP systems.
- Choosing which Pentium III to use was a bit more difficult. When we designed this system, 100 MHz FSB Pentium III CPUs were available in four speeds: 450, 500, 550, and 600 MHz. We wanted pure speed, so we used 550 MHz processors. Why not 600 MHz? Because the Pentium III/550 was really the fastest standard CPU that Intel sold. As regular readers of our web site know, we're not fans of overclocking, whether it's done by the end user or the manufacturer. The truth is that the Pentium III/600 is overclocked. Officially overclocked, granted, but overclocked nonetheless. The Pentium III/600 requires 2.05 volts rather than the standard 2.0 volts used by other Deschutes-based processors, which incontrovertibly proves (to us, at least) that it's overclocked. We'll sacrifice that 9% speed boost to have processors that run at nominal voltage. So it's two Pentium III/550 processors for this system. (http://developer.intel.com/design/pentiumiii/)
- We would prefer an Intel motherboard, but Intel does not make a workstation-class dual Pentium III board. Paradoxically, the primary selection criterion for a dual-CPU board is not performance. All dual-CPU boards are fast. Performance differences amount at most to a couple of percent. Stability running multiple processors is key, and boards do differ significantly in this respect. We have found Intel motherboards to be the most stable available, but EPoX boards come close. EPoX has two 440BX-based boards suitable for this system, the BXB-S, which includes embedded Adaptec U2W SCSI, and the KP6-BS, which does not. We prefer using a separate SCSI host adapter, and so opted for the KP6-BS. (http://www.epox.com/products/mboard/kp6-bs_1.html)
- This system will dual-boot Windows NT 4 Workstation and Windows 2000 Professional. For an SMP system, a good rule of thumb is to install the same amount of memory for each processor that you'd install for a single-CPU system, e.g., for a dual-CPU system, install twice the memory you would for a single-CPU system. Both operating systems are happy in 128 MB, so we decided to install 256 MB. It's usually better to install one large DIMM rather than two smaller ones. In this case we'll use two 128 MB DIMMs, because 256 MB DIMMs are problematic. Some motherboards do not support them at all, and even those that do sometimes exhibit stability problems. The KP6-BS has four DIMM slots, so we'll still have two slots available for future expansion. As always, we use memory from Crucial Technologies. (http://www.crucial.com)
- Hard disk
- This system will use two hard disks, a "small" fast disk to store the operating systems, applications, and working data sets, and a large "slow" disk to store data. For the system disk, we wanted flat-out performance, which means a 10,000 RPM U2W SCSI drive. The Seagate Cheetah has for years been the best high-performance disk drive, and it remains the best choice. We chose an 18.4 GB Cheetah 18LP for the system disk. For the data disk, we wanted sheer size, and were willing to take a small performance hit to get that. Here again, there's no contest. We chose a 50 GB Seagate Barracuda 50LP. At 7,200 RPM, it's a bit slower than the Cheetah, but it matches or exceeds the performance of competing 7,200 RPM U2W drives and is the largest drive available. (http://www.seagate.com/disc/disctop.shtml)
- Video adapter
- Robert spends 10 or 12 hours a day working in Word and browsing the Web, so the most important criterion by far is sharp, stable 2D image quality. Nothing compares to Matrox video cards in that respect, particularly at high resolution and color depth. The flagship Matrox G400 series run at 2048 × 1536 resolution in True Color in both 2D and 3D mode, with high refresh rates. With Matrox cards, extreme resolutions are actually usable if the monitor can handle them. That's not the case with most competing cards, which may support high resolutions but yield seriously degraded 2D image quality at more than 1024 × 768 or 1280 × 1024. Although nVIDIA and Voodoo cards may be marginally faster on some gaming benchmarks, we've never been able to see a difference in actual use. Overall the G400 is the best video card on the market. (http://www.matrox.com/mga/products/mill_g400/home.htm)
- Sound card
- The Creative Labs SoundBlaster series of sound cards have set the standard for PC sound for years, but to our ears their sound quality is slightly inferior to that of cards based on Aureal chipsets. Accordingly, we decided to go with an Aureal-based card. Such cards are available from several vendors, notably Diamond and Voyetra/Turtle Beach. Turtle Beach has a reputation for selling top-notch high-end sound cards for more than a decade, so we chose their flagship model, the Montego II QuadZilla. (http://www.voyetra-turtle-beach.com/site/default.asp)
- Network card
- We chose the Intel PRO/100+ 10/100BaseT network adapter for the same reasons described in the preceding section. (http://www.intel.com/network/products/pro100_dsktop.htm)
- SCSI host adapter
- Although the Adaptec 2930U2 SCSI host adapter we used on the preceding system would perform credibly on this system, we wanted a host adapter that provided the highest possible performance. Adaptec recommends the 2940U2W for systems with multiple hard drives, so that's what we chose. (http://www.adaptec.com/products/overview/aha2940u2w.html)
- CD-RW drive
- This system is our main CD burner, so we wanted a fast, top-quality CD-R drive. Plextor is widely acclaimed as the best manufacturer of optical drives--nearly all commercial CD duplication houses use Plextor drives--and our experience bears that out. Plextor makes two 8X burners, the PlexWriter 8/20 recorder and the PlexWriter 8/2/20, which adds 2X RW support. Although we seldom use CD-RW discs, the rewriter costs only $25 more, so we opted for the PlexWriter 8/2/20. (http://www.plextor.com/8220.htm)
- CD-ROM drive
- For gaming and doing direct CD-to-CD dupes, we wanted the fastest SCSI CD-ROM drive on the market. That turns out to be the Plextor UltraPleX Wide, which is what we chose. (http://www.plextor.com/40wide.htm)
- DVD-ROM drive
- We planned to use no IDE/ATAPI devices in this system, but the DVD-ROM drive we really wanted to use, the fourth-generation Hitachi GD-5000, was available only in ATAPI when we were putting the system together. We considered going with another brand of SCSI DVD-ROM drive, but we really wanted the 8X speed of the Hitachi GD-5000 for games, databases, encyclopediae, and so on, so we elected to use it in ATAPI. The lower data rates of ATAPI are really not an issue for DVD, even running at 8X, and using the ATAPI version at least gives us a drive that the BIOS will recognize as an ATAPI CD-ROM, which can be quite useful when installing operating systems. Robert doesn't plan to watch many DVD movies on this system, so we decided not to add a hardware DVD decoder card. Software DVD decoding should work fine on a system this powerful for watching an occasional movie. (http://www.hitachi.com/storage/products/dvd/dvdframe.html)
- Tape drive
- With nearly 70 GB of disk space, it might at first appear that we need an equally huge tape drive. Such drives are available, and although cost is not a major issue for this system, reality dictates that we at least consider it. There are three realistic choices for backing up huge amounts of disk space on one tape. DLT tape drives and high-capacity 8mm tape drives can be ruled out--they can easily cost as much as a decent used car. The 25/50 GB OnStream ADR-50 might be a reasonable choice, but it has two drawbacks: first, it doesn't support hardware compression or read-while-write, which makes it too slow to do a full backup and compare overnight. Second, at $50 or thereabouts, its tape cartridges aren't cheap.
- Thinking the problem through, we realized that we don't really need to back up 70 GB of disk. We need to back up the 18 GB Cheetah drive regularly, certainly, but the 50 GB Barracuda is another story. It contains data that if lost could easily be reconstructed--our CD collection converted to MP3s, copies of distribution CDs, archived data that has already been burned to CDs and stored off-site, etc. We could safely do a full backup of the Barracuda every month or two with periodic differential backups to pick up any changes between full backups.
- Realizing that, we decided to look at two mainstream backup technologies, 10/20 GB Travan NS20 and 12/24 GB DDS-3. Either would do, but we'll need many tapes to back up this system, so the cost of tapes becomes a consideration. NS20 tapes cost $40 or so. We'd need at least six for a full backup rotation for the Cheetah. Backing up the Barracuda would require at least three tapes and probably four, plus at least a couple more for differential backups. Maintaining two full sets for the Barracuda would require ten or twelve tapes. With the six for the Cheetah, that totals 16 to 18 tapes, or about $640 to $720 worth. Assuming we replace tapes every two years on average, that puts the annual tape cost for an NS20 drive at between $320 and $360. A DDS-3 drive would require a similar number of tapes (perhaps somewhat fewer due to the 20% higher capacity of DDS-3), but DDS-3 tapes cost only $10 or $12. That means we'd have to buy less than $200 worth of tapes initially, and spend less than $100 per year replacing tapes. That differential is enough to overcome the higher cost of DDS-3 drives versus NS20 drives, so we decided on a DDS-3 drive. There are many good DDS-3 drives available, but we've been using Tecmar drives for more than a decade with universally good results, so we chose the Tecmar 3900 internal DDS-3 drive. (http://www.tecmar.com)
- Robert was satisfied with his existing 17" Trinitron monitor, but that monitor stays with his old system. As long as we were building a new system, it made sense to make the jump from 17" to 19". Robert will run his monitor at 1280 × 1024 most of the time, and wanted a monitor that would support 85 Hz refresh at that resolution. He will use 1600 × 1200 resolution infrequently, and was willing to accept a 75 Hz refresh at that resolution. We looked at 19" models from Hitachi, Mitsubishi, NEC, and Sony. The Hitachi CM751U SuperScan 751 is the least expensive of that group that meets all requirements, and its image quality is superb--at least as good as any of the other models. So that's what we bought. (http://www.hitachidisplays.com/products/19_751_752.htm)
- We wanted extended run time for this system, which often runs long jobs that cannot be interrupted easily. Adding up the current draws on all components including the monitor told us that we needed at least a 650 VA unit. To provide extended run time and some over-capacity for future expansion, we elected to go with a UPS in the 1 KVA range. We've trusted our systems to American Power Conversion (APC) UPSes for many years, and have never had a problem with them. Accordingly, we checked the APC web site, and found that they make 1 KVA units in both the Back-UPS Pro and Smart-UPS lines. We chose the Smart-UPS 1000 VA model for its true sine-wave output and increased expandability over the similarly sized Back-UPS Pro model. (http://www.apcc.com/products/smart-ups/index.cfm)
- Miscellaneous stuff
- We chose our standard Teac 1.44 MB FDD. Robert prefers the ergonomic Microsoft Natural Keyboard series, and chose the Natural Keyboard Pro model, which has multiple dedicated keys for one-touch access to various browser functions, email, etc., as well as several programmable hot keys. Robert smokes a pipe, and so must clean his mechanical mice every week or so to remove ash and bits of tobacco. For this system, he chose the Microsoft IntelliMouse with IntelliEye, a purely optical mouse that has no ball and so does not require frequent cleaning. Robert listens to CDs while he works, and wanted a good speaker system with a subwoofer. He also plays some computer games that support the four-channel sound provided by the Quad-Zilla sound card, and so wanted something with four satellite speakers. The best 4-channel speaker system available is the Creative Labs/Cambridge SoundWorks FourPointSurround FPS2000, and that is what we chose. Table 25-4 shows the component list for a high-end system.
Table 25-4: Component List for a High-End System
PC Power & Cooling Solid-Steel Tower
PC Power & Cooling Turbo-Cool 400 ATX
Intel Pentium III/550 BX80525U550512E (2 @ $360)
Crucial CT16M72S4D75, 128 MB PC133 ECC SDRAM (2 @ $220)
Matrox G4+MDHA32GR Millennium G400 (32 MB)
Turtle Beach/Voyetra Montego II Quadzilla
Intel PILA8461 PRO/100+ PCI Management Adapter
Adaptec AHA-2940U2W KIT
Hard disk 0
Seagate ST318203LW Cheetah 18LP
Hard disk 1
Seagate ST150176LW Barracuda 50LP
Plextor PX-W8220Ti PlexWriter 8/2/20
Plextor PX-40TSUWi UltraPleX Wide
Hitachi GD-5000 ATAPI DVD-ROM
Tecmar TS3900I-D01 DDS-3
Teac 235HF 1.44 MB
Microsoft Natural Keyboard Pro
Microsoft IntelliMouse with IntelliEye
Hitachi SuperScan Elite 751 19"
Creative Labs FourPointSurround FPS2000 Digital
APC SU1000NET Smart-UPS 1000 VA
Drive 0 cooler
PC Power & Cooling Bay-Cool drive bay cooler
Drive 1 cooler
PC Power & Cooling Drive-Cool hard drive cooler
Shipping and miscellaneous
After you design the system, the next step is to order all the components. Rather than shopping for the absolute lowest price for each component, we try to order everything from just one or two vendors. Ordering piecemeal incurs additional shipping costs that often nullify small price breaks on individual items. Although we try to order everything from one place, we usually have to place two or three orders because one or another vendor doesn't carry a particular item or is out of stock.
We've had good experiences with Insight (http://www.insight.com), NECx (http://www.necx.com), and PC Connection (http://www.pcconnection.com). Their prices are often a bit higher than some competitors, but they're reputable and (in our experience, at least) they ship what they say they're going to ship when they say they're going to ship it. We've also never had a problem with them repackaging used items and selling them as new, something we can't say for some other vendors. Your mileage may vary, so do your own homework and don't expect us to be able to do anything if you have a bad experience with one of the vendors we like.
When evaluating vendors, take particular note of the following:
- Shipping charges
- Make sure to factor the cost of shipping into your price comparisons. Some vendors advertise very low prices, but have ridiculously high shipping charges, particularly on monitors, cases, and other heavy or bulky items. We were once quoted $28 to ship a single hard drive by surface UPS, for example, and $63 to ship a 17" monitor. Many on-line vendors automatically calculate and display shipping charges, either per item or for your order as a whole. If a vendor doesn't mention shipping, regard that as a red flag.
- Return policy
- Read and understand the vendor's return policy. Vendors differ greatly in what they regard as an acceptable reason for a return and how they handle returns that turn out not to be defective. One otherwise highly rated vendor, for example, Bunta Technology (http://www.bunta.com), includes the following in their Terms and Policies: "All return products will be tested by BTI technicians to verify the problem. If found to be non-defective, we may ship back to the customer at his/her cost and may charge for diagnostic fee ($60/hr)." Also look carefully for any mention of a restocking fee, which may be as high as 25%, and may be charged even if you are returning an item because it is incompatible with your system. Better vendors have a no-questions-asked return policy and do not charge restocking fees. Unless the product is defective, all vendors refuse returns of opened software (except in exchange for the same title) and printers that have had ink or toner installed.
- Warranty policy
- Better resellers endorse the manufacturer's warranty. That is, if you buy a product from them and that product fails, you return the product to them and they ship you a replacement. Most such vendors limit their endorsement of the manufacturer's warranty to 30 or 60 days. The very best vendors pay for shipping both ways, and will often cross-ship a replacement before they receive the failed product, although they will require you provide a credit card number to ensure that you actually return the defective product. Some vendors have no warranty policy at all. If a product from them arrives DOA, they require you to return that product to the manufacturer. Avoid those vendors.
Reseller Ratings (http://www.resellerratings.com) rates hundreds of mail-order vendors on a seven-point scale, based on feedback from people who have purchased from them. Unfortunately, many of the listed vendors have only a few responses, which statistically limits the validity of the ratings for those vendors. Also, as far as we can see, there is nothing to prevent a reseller from "stuffing the ballot box," so use ratings based on few responses at your own risk. Ratings for those resellers that are represented by 100 or more responses are probably reasonably reliable. Ratings for those resellers from whom we have purchased generally correspond with our own experiences, good and bad.
To make it easy to compare total price and the price for each item, we create a spreadsheet with one column for the items to be ordered and other columns for two or three of our favorite vendors. After we determine which vendor has the lowest total price, we then compare individual item prices and ask that vendor to match any lower per-item prices quoted by their competitors. "NECx has this SCSI drive for $18 less than you guys are quoting. Will you match that?" Most vendors will, or will at least reduce the price somewhat.
If you want to take that a step further, use the various price comparison services available on the Web to find really low prices. We use http://www.shopper.com, http://www.killerapp.com, and http://www.pricewatch.com. Some of the prices you'll find are so low that they should raise a red flag. We've learned not to buy from "bottom feeder" vendors. They may ship late or not at all, charge your credit card more than the price they quoted, add ridiculous shipping charges, sell OEM versions as retail boxed versions, ship repackaged or otherwise inferior merchandise, and do other things to raise your blood pressure. Most stop short of outright fraud, but many tread near that line. It's just not worth the hassle to buy from them, but you can use their prices to beat down your preferred vendor.
But recognize the TANSTAAFL principle: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Reputable vendors can't match the prices offered by scum-sucking bottom feeders and still stay in business, but they can usually do better than the prices they advertise. Specifically, here's how to beat down your chosen vendor. The following is a typical transcript of a telephone conversation between a Smart Buyer (SB) and a Slimy Salesman (SS). (Actually, reputable vendors very often have quite good salespeople. We've encountered many honest ones.) SB plans to buy a Seagate hard drive and several other items. We've appended comments to indicate the reason for each thing SB says. SB checked three of his favorite vendors, who had the drive priced (with shipping) at $624.95 ($0.00), $693.99 ($6.99), and $699.00 ($5.00):SB: Hi, I need to buy a bunch of stuff. The first item is a Seagate ST318203LW Cheetah 18LP. Do you have one in stock that you could ship to me today? (It's important to let the salesman know that you're a buyer, not a tire-kicker, and that you're buying several items. Start with the most expensive item and work your way down.)SS: Yes, I have 837 of them showing as available. Which credit card do you want to use?SB: Before we do that, I see on your web site that you want $624.95 with free shipping. Is that price correct? (Always verify current pricing. We've been pleasantly surprised more than once to find that an item was on special or that its price had been misprinted.)SS: Yes.SB: [The name of the cheapest vendor SB found on PriceWatch.com] is selling this identical drive for $589, including shipping. That's $35.95 less than you guys. Can you match that? (He probably won't be able to, but you've put yourself in the dominant position. The salesman now knows that he's dealing with a Smart Buyer.)SS: Umm. I don't know. I'll have to talk to my manager. What other items are you buying? (SS is hoping that he can quote you a lowball price on this item and make up the difference on the others.)SB: Let's just look at the drive first. If you can't do better, there's not a lot of point to wasting both our time on the other items. And if you can't match, please at least find out the best price you can possibly give me. I'd really rather buy from you guys, but not for $36 more. (We've acknowledged that we know he probably won't be able to match, but left open the possibility that we'll buy from him anyway if he can come even close. And we've let him know that he's not going to make up the differential on the drive by quoting higher prices on the other stuff.)SS: Okay, my manager says I can sell you the drive for $600, including shipping. How's that?SB: That's fine, assuming you can give me a similar break on these other items too. . .
The net result was that buying from the reputable vendor cost about 2% more than buying from the cheapest source. That's well worth it for peace of mind if nothing else. We've sometimes paid a 5% or even 8% premium (on smaller orders), but we try to keep it down to 2% or 3% on larger orders. Never pay more than a 10% premium. You can almost certainly do better with another good vendor, even if their advertised prices are higher than those of the vendor you're talking to. If you can't do better, assume that your low price benchmark is simply unrealistic.
When the items arrive, open the boxes immediately and verify their contents against both your original order and the packing list. Don't stop there, however. Open each individual component box and compare the actual contents against the proper contents as listed in the manual for that component. On one memorable occasion, we received a factory-sealed box that contained manuals, CD, and cables, but not the product itself! Check carefully.
Some vendors routinely ship used product but represent it as new. Regardless of who you buy from, make it absolutely clear that you will accept only new, factory-fresh product. Repackaged products are not acceptable. Someone returned them, perhaps for good reason. Vendors should ship returned products back to the manufacturer or distributor. Instead, many vendors simply put returned products back in inventory and ship them to the next buyer.
Don't accept the fact that a box is shrink-wrapped as evidence that it is factory-fresh. Many vendors have shrink-wrap machines, and use them to rewrap returned products. Most manufacturers have taken to sealing the product box with a sticker or other means to make it obvious if that box has been opened.
If, despite insisting on new product, you receive a product that shows evidence of having been opened (e.g., broken box seal, broken CD seal, slightly bent header pins, expansion slot contacts that show burnishing from having been installed, etc.) contact the vendor immediately and demand to know why they shipped you a used product as new. Demand that they replace it with a factory-fresh product at their own expense, including issuing a pickup slip to have UPS come and get the original product. If the vendor is obstinate, threaten to request a charge-back from your credit card company and to make a complaint for wire-fraud. That gets their attention.
Back to: PC Hardware in a Nutshell
© 2001, O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.