Software // Enterprise Applications
09:21 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa

Langa Letter: White-Box PCs Revisited

In Fred Langa's view, some generic PCs are now good enough for use as full-bore production desktops.

The Wintergreen System
The Wintergreen system (sold through vendors such as these search?&q= wintergreen+pc+computer) was similar to the Microtel, but more complete and higher-powered. It also cost a few dollars more--$230. For that price, I got:

AMD Duron 1.3-GHz processor
128-MB SDRAM memory; 133-MHz front-side bus
15-GB hard drive
56X CD-ROM drive
3.5" 1.44-MB floppy drive
Onboard AGP 16-MB video
56-Kbps PCI modem
Onboard 10/100-Mbps Ethernet
Onboard 3-D sound
2-button mouse, standard keyboard
1 serial, 1 parallel, 2 USB ports, 1 game port, 3 audio ports (line-in, line-out, mic-in)
LindowsOS Operating System, with wide range of free open-source office suites applications and utilities available

Of note: Although this system cost $15 more than the final price of the Microtel unit, the Wintergreen yielded 1.6 times greater CPU speed, included a floppy and a modem in the base price, offered 50% more hard drive space, and provided faster video (using 16 MB of system RAM instead of 8 MB). About the only item missing was the pair of cheap speakers normally included in low-end systems like these, a small loss, as these are ubiquitous and inexpensive. In all, the Wintergreen PC was a very impressive mix of hardware for the price.

The motherboard in the Wintergreen system is made by PCChip; like the Microtel system, the system ships running Linux, but its set-up CD contains all the drivers needed for Windows. I was able to install and run XP on the Wintergreen system without incident.

The only real downside to this system is that it's fairly noisy: The AMD chip--running at 1.3-GHz as compared with the 800-MHz of the Microtel's C3 chip, and with the AMD chip-family tendency to run hot to begin with--requires a lot of air movement through its full-size heat exchanger to keep cool. Unfortunately, Wintergreen achieves this cooling through use of a cheap CPU fan and a noisy power supply fan, making this one of the loudest PCs I've ever heard--like a small vacuum cleaner or hair dryer running constantly. It was, in fact, so noisy I replaced the stock CPU fan with a $15 unit especially designed for low noise; bringing the as-used final system price for this unit to a still very low $245.

Once we tamed the noise, this system was good enough that it displaced a brand-name PC as a standard production desktop in my office.

Comparing To Major Name Brands
To get an idea of how these systems stack up to major brands, I went to the Dell and Gateway Web sites and used their online configuration forms to spec systems as close to the above as possible. While there were no exact matches, I got in the general ballpark:

Dell had a system that was generally comparable to the Microtel: A 1.7-GHz system costing $538. This system clocks 30% faster than the Microtel, but is more than twice (actually, 2.2 times) as expensive.

Gateway offered a system that was generally comparable to the Wintergreen, but faster. The Gateway system ran at 2.0 GHz, 54% faster than the Wintergreen, but cost 2.4 times more; or $586 for the system.

So, in a simple bang-for-the-buck analysis, the low-end systems come off very well. But note: Both the Dell and Gateway units had larger hard drives, more liberal return and exchange policies, and--this is perhaps the largest difference--came with Windows XP and Microsoft productivity software (such as Works) preinstalled.

In comparison, the Microtel and Wintergreen system come with Lindows preinstalled, and with open source productivity software (such as Open Office) available for free download. It's worth noting that Open Office is functionally equivalent to Microsoft Office for most normal office tasks, and is data-compatible with most versions of Microsoft Office, either natively, or through XML, RTF, or another common format. But if having the Microsoft brand is important, then--for this to be a fair comparison--you'd have to add the cost of the Microsoft operating system and applications to the Microtel or Wintergreen PCs. That would eat most, if not all, of the hardware savings of the low-end boxes. In fact, it could actually make those systems cost more than their Microsoft-equipped Dell and Gateway equivalents.

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