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Jonathan's Hardware Thread 1.0 (2003 Q3)

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 7:24 pm
by Jonathan
Price is everything. Discussing performance or featureset without
including price is meaningless. Determine your price point and stick to
it, as you can always spend 20% more for 5% performance. I believe you
can purchase a kick-ass system for $1000, without monitor, but we can
examine that figure with some hard numbers later.

Dual channel DDR400 is the only way to go. Everything likes bandwidth,
including most games.

The purchase timing is another thing to consider carefully. Athlon 64 is
set to debut on September 22. You can expect prices to drop across the
board on existing CPUs when that happens. Looking out farther, you have
Prescott launching in time for Christmas and the Socket-T form factor
coming in March, probably. Socket-T will be with us through 2005, at
least and probably into 2006. Most importantly, the big DX9 games will
come out soon, with Half Life 2 launching on September 30. Looking
further out, PCI Express will make its way into the mainstream market next year.

Make the determination early whether you are buying from an OEM like
Dell or Alienware or doing your parts purchases from Newegg and
Googlegear. The OEMs will skimp on parts in unknown but anticipatible
ways. As builder, you can choose what components to skimp on. I don't
recommend bare bones systems, as they provide the disadvantages of not
knowing the compromises made combined with the hassle of building your
own computer.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 7:29 pm
by Jonathan
DDR400 is the memory of choice. There's no reason not to buy at least 512 MB.
Memory has dropped to well under $1/MB.

To go with your DDR400, you want an 200 MHz FSB (800 MTransfers). That
means Intel's 865 or 875 motherboards. These boards are exactly the
same, differentiated only on featureset and some settings. You can find
875 boards at $150, but for the most part count on getting a 865
cheaper. Pick the 865 PE.

Pick a CPU two or three bins from the top bin. Do not get a Duron. Do
not get a Celeron. Do not get Thorton, or any other cut-cache part.
They're not worth it. Two or three bins from the top should land you in
the $150-200 range, which oughta be pretty comfortable. Hyperthreading
is an interesting option and can be worth the price premium, but only if
the premium is small. If you are in the habit of playing MP3s while
gaming or burning/encoding while using your computer, you should find
increased responsiveness. If you use multithreaded apps, you can net a
nice performance boost. In game-only or office-only situations, it won't

Video cards are going to cost the same as your CPU. DX9 cards are taking
over the market, but there are no DX9 games with which to benchmark them
as of yet. For Linux support, there is no one in the same class as
nVidia. ATI has the performance edge right now, but their drivers have
only recently gone from terrible to only crappy. Of course, any modern
video card will work under Linux, but if you want to 3d accelerate
things, you'll want nVidia. Furthermore, what you really want to do is
wait until DX9 games come out so you know what you're buying.

What of Linux gaming? The short story: from a 90's perspective:
excellent. From a 21st century perspective: as bad as ever. Linux ports
or clones of many popular games are available. From Warcraft 2 to Quake
3 to Gladiator, all your favorites can be found for free or the price of
the original disc. Some new releases still support Linux: Neverwinter
Nights has a Linux client, as does Unreal Tournament 2003. However,
these releases are plagued by things like release dates 9 months after
Windows' and performance not up to par with Windows'. Loki folded so
there is no commercial concern porting new games to Linux. Consider your
expected usage and decide whether you really want to 3d accelerate
things under Linux and buy accordingly.

Disks are cheap. Slap down a hundred for 100GB 7200 RPM and be happy.
SATA drives are out, but they currently do not offer compelling
price/performance over regular PATA drives. If you intend to move lots
of video across your sytem, you might want RAID to improve your
throughput. IDE RAID is pretty cheap now. However, it does nothing for
latency, which is the primary problem. Check back with SATA drives over
the new few months for improvements. One additional note: SATA RAID is
supposedly higher performing than IDE PATA RAID (not SCSI). I haven't
personally seen this, but I've been told.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 7:31 pm
by Jonathan
Sales revenue from LCD monitors recently passed that of CRT monitors.
The reasons are obvious: smaller form factor, better picture with a
DVI-compliant set up, less power consumption. However, before you dive
into LCDs, there are a few gotchas. LCDs have limited refresh compared
to CRTs. Peak refresh is 60 or 75 Hz, depending on model. This isn't an issue
for productivity apps, as the image is persistent. For gaming, though,
not only does it cap your apparent framerate, you also get ghosting
problems because of the image persistence. The less action-packed the
game is, the less this is an issue. Furthermore, some video cards/LCDs
are not really DVI compliant, even though they have a DVI port. Do some
fact checking and make sure your video card is capable of a clean DVI
signal. Finally, LCDs only work at a single resolution, so you must have
a video card capable of comfortably operating at that resolution. Other
advertised resolutions are interpolated and look like shit.

The desknote, as you call it, is part of a major paradigm shift in the
industry. Intel is targeting two markets: portability and mobility.
Portability means desktop replacement: standard desktop components in a
small form factor. Desknotes are the iMacs of the PC business. Fully
integrated, one box solutions. The mobility market focuses on weight and
battery life and is currently served by the Centrino. Centrino is a heck
of a nice package, but Intel is currently charging a pretty nice chunk
of change for those. That price is coming down, but for the most part
you'll be wanting something in a desknote.

Desknotes suffer from the same problems as LCD monitors. In addition,
there's the maintenance problem. Laptops are always of a nonstandard
design. If something besides memory or a optical drive breaks, you
probably won't be able to fix it yourself. Instead, you'll have to send
it back to the OEM for service. This includes mechanical things like the
hinge. The same applies for expansion, of course. Finally, battery life
in this market segment is about an hour, which is too short for anything
except changing desks.

In their favor, desknotes don't have much of a price or performance
disparity with the desktop market. I'd check the specs, but I'm
reasonably sure you can get 800 MHz FSB chipsets in a laptop. Given
that, you can do pretty much anything. The disks will be a little
smaller for the money, but you should still be ok. I haven't kept up
with the latest, but I do believe the mobile video cards are reasonable
interpretations of their desktop brothers. Just make sure you get
something from ATI or nVidia.

Finally, desknotes have that X factor. You can put one on any surface in
your house. You can pack it in your luggage. You can plug in on your
sofa, or the lounge's sofa. Just don't expect to operate unwired.

Weigh the pros and cons and check out IBM, Dell, and maybe some of the
Tier 2 OEMs. See if it fits for you.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 7:32 pm
by Jonathan
A full duplex stereo audio is standard equipment on all new
motherboards. The question for sound cards becomes not Which? but Why?

First off, stereo sound is passe. Modern computers often ship with 4.1
or 5.1 sound systems, even in the mainstream market. You can spend more
and get a 7.1 speaker setup. You'll need a Soundblaster (actually,
Audigy now, but same thing) to support all those speakers. Furthermore,
a standalone sound card will have lots and lots of line-in and line-out
options suitable for the home music or video enthusiast. Finally, a
standalone soundcard will support the two gaming 3d visualization APIs
out there, EAX and A3D.

If you purchase a standalone sound card, you are not buying drastically
improved stereo sound quality. You are not buying improved framerates.
You shouldn't be buying a IEEE 1394 Firewire port, as your modern
motherboard should already come with one built in. You aren't buying
Linux compatibility and you're not buying something necessary.

A sound card and speakers is one place where I would personally save a
hundred bucks or so and put it in my video card. I would recommend not
buying a stand alone Creative Labs sound card and instead opting for the
built in sound on your motherboard. That means you can't support the
expensive multiple channel speaker setup. All the better. If one of the
advantages of an Audigy appeals to you or if you really want a multiple
channel sound system, then by all means pop for one.

Have you decided on a budget or whether you'll be building it yourself
yet? I can give you some pointed advice about cases and power supplies
if you decide to build. Or I can weigh in on money-saving options if you
decide on the OEM route.

For OEMs, take a look at Shuttle's small form factor PCs and see if they
click. If not, I'd limit myself to Dell and maybe Alienware. There are
two-bit shops that could do a good job, but I wouldn't know anything
about them. For laptops, I would concentrate on IBM. Their laptops are
constructed like tanks, which is exactly what you want in a desktop
replacement. A little expensive perhaps, but I think worth the price.

Places like are filled with deals and cons, making it
difficult to distinguish between the two. I stick to and Between the two of them, they always have what I want and
always at a good price. They might be a couple dollars more than the the
lowest on, but you're paying for that piece of mind.
Plus, they're still cheaper than Fry's.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 7:37 pm
by Jonathan
With a custom-built rig, you aren't paying for support, XP, or Office. is quite reliable and crossplatform, including Windows.

Don't bother with the 865G. Get a 865PE. You will require a stand alone
video card for any game-- Intel's integrated 3d acceleration is worthless.
We're talking chunking galore. The GF4 is a helluva DX8 card but $150 is
too much money to pay for one. It's a several-year old card, basically.
For that kind of money, you're better off with a Radeon 9600 PRO or
GeForce 5600 FX, as they're both DX9 cards and faster than a Ti4200. If
you can snag a GF4 at $100 or so, then that's about right. However, I
would anticipate a video card upgrade. DX9 will be the next DX7, a real
foundation for a generation of PC games. Nothing requires DX8, and DX6
was laughable. DX5 was a hell of an API. These things really get jazzed
on odd revisions.

A dual channel DDR setup requires two sticks of DDR to function. Get 2
sticks of 3200 at 256 MB and you'll be good to go.

You'll still need external speakers. Two satellites and a subwoofer are
ridiculously cheap nowadays.

I could provide some more detailed info on power supplies and the
selection thereof, but if you send me a link to the case/PS combo you are
looking at I can look up the specs and do some mental judo.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 7:41 pm
by Dave
i hope u copy-pasted, and didnt type that yourself

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 7:45 pm
by Peijen
LCDs have limited refresh compared
to CRTs. We're talking peaking out at 60 Hz, tops.

This is not true. My LCD which is two years old can go up to 72 Hz, and the difference is pretty noticeable. It's analog only so I don't know if that affects anything.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 7:51 pm
by Jonathan
That's true. I was at Fry's last weekend and I tested the refresh rates on all the LCD monitors. It was about evenly split between 60 Hz and 75 Hz. I will update the post.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 8:18 pm
by Jonathan
When you buy an OEM computer, what are you getting? You'll be getting a pre-installed OS almost always. Microsoft has until very recently always penalized computer companies that sell computers without operating systems with their licensing schemes. So everything came with an OS. You're starting to see some Linux desktops in the value and business markets, but in the mainstream market desktops come with Windows. You'll also get whatever software they provide on the system.

You'll also be getting a cheap power supply and a fairly inexpensive case. Depending on the amount of case cracking you plan to do, this may not affect you. OEMs carefully select a power supply that gives you as much juice as you need and no more. This is fine if you don't intend to upgrade or only intend to swap out parts. Be wary of adding three or four more hard drives, though. The case will be made so you can open it and drop some more memory in easily. If you plan to fiddle with jumpers or swap out hard drives frequently, you may find that the case design gets in your way.

You'll be getting an OEM motherboard, or one of their partners'. These offer equivalent performance to the reference and enthusiast platforms. They will not offer the same features or configurability. If you want to tweak memory timings or overclock, look elsewhere, but otherwise you should be fine.

Be careful of the fine print. You should be getting a nice quality drive, but if you score a major deal maybe you find yourself with a 5400 RPM drive. You ought to be getting a fine monitor, but enough users' eyes glaze over at the mention of dot pitch that your company may have opted to save a few bucks there. If you don't know what the specs are of a component going into your system is, chances are they're not very good.

As standalone appliances like microwaves or DVD players, OEM computers perform very well. The farther you take your computer from its original state, though, the less and less suited your OEM computer is.

Cranking the numbers

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 8:27 pm
by Jonathan
Do the math:

$100 disk
$ 50 CD-RW
$150 CPU
$130 mobo
$120 ram
$200 gfx
$100 case+psu

How do you bring this down? Cheaper 865PE motherboards exist. You can use old optical drives and not buy a new one. You can even reuse old disks. You can spend less on the video card by as much as 50%. You can get less memory, though 512 MB is very nice number.

Dell, et al. is going to give you a figure somewhere in the ballpark of this estimate. They'll tack on a few dollars for the software they install and their margin, but that's between $35-100.

Then, of course, you pay for shipping.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 8:27 pm
by Dave
as far as dell, they tell you what speed your HD is, 7200 or 5400 and the cache size. almost ALL of dell stuff is just rebadged name-brand stuff like memory, HD, and MBs. their MBs are cuustom built. (mine is a 845PE). Much like their Radeon 9700 or 9800, they too are custom built to have lower power intake and stuff since their PS are rated at around 250W typically, but can power well enough. I personally added a 120GB drive, CDRW, DVD, and Audigy 2 on top of the P4 2.53 1GB ram Ti4200 and 40Gb and it runs fine. New Dell 4500 (now 4600) cases are fairly cheap and made of plastic mostly, but are easy to open and install stuff!

I swear I dont own dell stock!

ps - Dell has free shipping year round and always has rebates and/or coupons. I got my Dell with 10% + 5% off and instead of a rebate, doubled ram

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 8:32 pm
by Jonathan
Conversely, how do you spend more? If you feel the need for more than a hundred gigs, by all means invest. You can always bump up a speed bin in your CPU, too. The easiest way to throw good money away on a new system is to buy more video card. Video cards run up to $499, no problem, so at any given price point there's something you can buy.

You can also get fancier sound+speakers or DVD[+-]RW drives, too. And, of course, there's the monitor option.

It's difficult to justify getting another 256 MB of RAM, which wouldn't cost very much but would take up your remaining 2 slots. Having a GB of RAM is not a bad idea and only costs $200-$250, but is a bigger leap.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 8:37 pm
by Jonathan
Interesting. It's been some time since I went to the end of a Dell purchase and actually saw shipping costs. I have been just doing the tweaks and seeing the purchase price go up and down.

So, free shipping is excellent, when you can get it.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 8:40 pm
by Peijen
On the topic of computer case and dell. Where can i buy dell computer cases?

I really like their case design, and I am pretty sure it's made in Taiwan or China which means I can buy it myself. But I haven't find any place that sells dell case.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 8:43 pm
by Peijen
Dwindlehop wrote:Interesting. It's been some time since I went to the end of a Dell purchase and actually saw shipping costs. I have been just doing the tweaks and seeing the purchase price go up and down.

So, free shipping is excellent, when you can get it.

Oh my cousin told me this which you might find useful for dell computer.

If you call them up within 30 days of buying a new computer and ask them to do a price check on your build, they will refund the difference if the same build would cost less in the last x days since you order your computer. The difference has to be greater than $50 I think.

So you can call them after 28~30 days and see if you will get any money back.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 8:49 pm
by quantus
You have too much free time at work. Of course I guess this is sorta job related... You're sorta selling intel products.

Lookie what I found during my break...

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 10:44 pm
by VLSmooth
Heh, interesting commentary. I'll have to say I agree with most of it, and just wanted to add my two cents from recent personal experience.

First off, I've recently purchased the following

(1) Antec Sonata w/TruePower 380S ($104)
(1) Refurbished Radeon 9500 w/128 MB ram ($105)
(1) Monster Cable3 12 ft. S-Video Cable ($62 <- ouch)
(1) Asus A7N8X Deluxe ver2 (nForce2 400 ultra with MCP-T) ($130)
(1) Retail Athlon XP 2500+ (barton) ($90)
(2) 512mb Corsair XMS (extreme memory series,CAS2,PC-2700C2PT) ($206)
total: $697

I've already received the Sonata and the refurb radeon and must say they're both great. Unfortunately for the Sonata, my CPU fan is way too loud. Luckily, that box will be leaving my bedroom (might get a quieter 80mm fan for it as well). As for the refurb radeon, I managed to successfully softmod it to a 9800, so there are no complaints there. The cable I bought for it is doubled-shielded with gas-injected insultation that provides a great image on my hdtv, however it's extremely expensive. I still have about a week to return it to best buy, if need be.

Regarding the mobo/cpu/ram buying spree, I somehow managed to damage my old mobo and/or cpu when moving from my old case to the sonata (determined through process of elimination via swapping computer hardware). The problem is that it now shutdowns due to high cpu utilization. I've ruled out heat, since it doesn't seem to exceed 52 degrees Celcius. As for the cause, it might have been static. This is what prompted me to order the mobo, cpu and ram on friday morning, right before Otakon. Luckily, the old computer won't be used for cpu intensive activites after my new box comes in.

The other components should be here tomorrow, so I'll update when they arrive.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 11:12 pm
by Jonathan
Uh, you mean 2x 256 MB Corsair, right? Because otherwise you're not getting the dual-channelness out of your nForce2.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 11:18 pm
by Jonathan
Also, ninety bucks is a dirty price for a barton. I had no idea they were that low. No wonder AMD is losing money like it was going out of style.

Also, why PC2700? I would have figured you for an eXXtreme overclocker. And you went for the 400 ultra, which says to me, "Overclock me to 400 MHz FSB." Only you have 333 MHz RAM.

PostPosted: Mon Aug 11, 2003 11:20 pm
by VLSmooth
Dwindlehop wrote:Uh, you mean 2x 256 MB Corsair, right? Because otherwise you're not getting the dual-channelness out of your nForce2.

That's 2x512 = 1 gb