Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

October 7th, 2009:

Computers Are Basically Free

CheapSX270.jpgI keep the tired old PCs at our church running, and I’ve decided that the church office needs something new. Or at any rate, something newer, and more compact. The church office is smaller than most bedrooms I’ve had, and yet includes two desks at which people work, plus file cabinets and many other things. Small is better.

So I’ve been sniffing around for a month or so. As I’ve mentioned here many times, I like the tiny Dell SX270, but it doesn’t support video modes suitable for the widescreen displays that have basically driven 4:3s off the market. Video is done by the mobo chipset, and there is no expansion slot into which a better graphics adapter could be plugged. I bought a newer Dell 2.8 GHz SX280 last week at auction on eBay, and I got a system minus monitor for $90. Mouse, keyboard, power supply (which is a wall brick) and reinstall disk, all for $90. Boy.

And that’s a much nicer machine than the older SX270s. I checked recently completed auctions this morning, and see that a similar SX270 combo (everything but a display) went for the staggering sum of $69.50 last week, after furious last-minute bidding. (The photo above is of that system.) The PC sold at that price is exactly what I have at our condo outside Chicago: A 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 with 1 GB of RAM and a 40 GB hard drive. I’ve been meaning to drop another RAM stick into it but so far, I haven’t seen the system gag on anything I’ve been doing, suggesting that for the time being it has all the RAM it needs.

The Dell ultra-small form factor (USFF) systems like the SX270 and SX280 are pointedly not gamer machines, but most people aren’t gamers. The USFFs do static graphics superbly (Photoshop, InDesign) and play conventional videos without stuttering. I haven’t tested HD video, but DVD video and the videos I take with my Canon camera of the dogs running around play just fine. Spare parts are abundant and cheap on eBay, and anybody who’s ever built a system won’t have trouble swapping things out. The SX280 has better graphics than the SX270 (the chipset for integrated graphics is the Intel 915G Express) and uses the SATA interface for its 2.5″ internal drive. Both have gigabit Ethernet and 6 USB 2.0 ports. The adjustable-speed fans are normally silent, rising to whisper-level only when the machine is doing something intense. The SX270 (and possibly the SX280; don’t know yet) doesn’t require XP activation when you change a hard drive; they’re BIOS-locked to a specific Dell OEM reinstallation disk–which you can get for $20 on eBay, and generally comes with the used machines.

And you can get them now for under $100.

The tech world these days is about specialty devices like smartphones and ebook readers; generic Intel computers are a glut on the market, and basically free. As Joli Ballew and I learned while researching Degunking Windows five years ago, many people send systems to the recycler for being “slow” when the real problem is Windows registry clog and spyware. Do a fresh Windows install (or just be careful not to crap up the system to begin with) and those old machines still glow in the dark. The best way to keep older computers out of our landfills is to keep using them. Saying “that box won’t run Vista” is a little like saying “that petri dish won’t grow a staph infection.” Unless you need a staph sample for research, that doesn’t strike me as much of a problem.