Langa Letter: White-Box PCs Revisited - InformationWeek
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Fred Langa
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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.

A year ago, in the article "In Praise Of White-Box PCs", we looked at the growing activity in generic, unbranded, or small-brand PCs, and saw how a low-end PC could be made into a functional, lightweight workstation or server. The then-current systems were inexpensive, and worked decently enough, but I had to pepper my text with caveats and warnings as to what they could and couldn't be expected to do.

Today, not only are the prices even lower, but these amazingly inexpensive systems have evolved to the point where they now can function as no-quibble, full-bore replacements for some standard, brand-name PC workstations.

For example, I recently needed a couple additional PCs for my office, and decided to check out low-cost alternatives to major-brand systems. I tried a pair of systems costing around $200 each, and ended up liking them so much I've integrated then into my standard production environment. These are really nice little PCs!

Let's look at what these two systems offer, and then compare them to some similar name-brand units:

The Microtel System
Microtel achieved some modest brand recognition last year through its marketing deal with retail giant Wal-Mart. Microtel's specialty is offering compact, very low cost, but complete PCs. For example, the $200 Microtel unit I choose came with:

VIA C3 800-MHz CPU (a clone chip roughly equal in performance to an 800-MHz Intel Celeron)
128-MB SDRAM; 133-MHz front-side bus
10-GB Ultra-ATA 100 hard drive
52x CD-ROM drive
Integrated AGP 4x/3-D graphics
Integrated 3-D audio
Integrated 10/100 Ethernet connection
Mid-tower ATX case
1 serial, 1 parallel, 4 USB ports, 1 game port, 3 audio ports (line-in, line-out, mic-in)
Standard keyboard, wheel mouse
Amplified stereo speakers
LindowsOS operating system, with wide range of free open-source office suites applications and utilities available

The system's low cost, and small size, is made possible through its ultra-integrated "Mini-ITX" motherboard from VIA Technologies.

The Mini-ITX's extreme level of integration builds all motherboard, video, audio, input/output, and network hardware into an amazingly small number of chips. This not only reduces size, cost, and the overall parts count, but also means the PC's power consumption and heat dissipation is very low. In fact, the CPU cooling fan is tiny; the sort you normally see on video cards. Combined with an impressively quiet power-supply fan, this PC generates less noise from fans and air movement than most any off-the-shelf, nonspecialized PC I've seen. (I've seen--or rather, heard--quieter units, but they've used special expensive components and cooling systems to achieve this silence.) The Microtel system isn't doing anything exotic, it just doesn't need much cooling to begin with.

The unit ships without a floppy drive. In some instances, this will be a nonissue because the unit can boot from a CD or via a network connection. But I like the simplicity of booting from a floppy when I need to, so wanted to add a floppy drive to the system. I foresaw no problems: The motherboard has the proper floppy connector, and you can buy brand-new floppy drives for around $15 or so.

But in trying to add the drive, I ran into the one and only problem this system gave me: By sheer bad luck, I got one of the very first production units of this motherboard, and the original BIOS had a bug that prevented the new floppy drive from being recognized. Once I got the proper BIOS update file, the system correctly recognized the new floppy, and everything worked as it should. (Note that currently shipping systems shouldn't have this problem.)

Although the system ran well with Lindows, I also wanted to try it with Windows. The hardware setup CD that shipped with the unit contained all the drivers I needed; I was able to install and run Windows XP on the system without difficulty.

In all, for a total cost of about $215 (including the floppy), I had an extremely quiet, cool-running PC, a refreshingly noise-free addition to my office, where it now works as a connection, print, and file server.

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