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.

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.

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.

When To Use, When Not To Use
While the above example systems are generally indicative, they're by no means definitive--you can probably find more expensive white box/small brand systems, and less expensive name-brand units. Plus, system specs are a moving target anyway, as various configurations come and go. Still, as a general rule, it's fair to say that you can probably save a couple hundred dollars per hardware unit by opting for the white box/small brand PCs, and end up with hardware that can be just as good as brand-name.

But you do need to look at the total bundle--hardware, software, service and support--to see whether these systems make sense for you. For example, if you have to add additional commercial software or buy additional software licenses to get the boxes running the way you want, the hardware savings become less significant. But if you can use these PCs more or less as-shipped, either with the open source software that comes bundled, or with other software for which you already own a valid license, then you can realize the full savings offered by these inexpensive PCs.

With prices this low, white-box and small-brand systems are certainly worth a look, if only on a trial basis. Odds are, your trial will show that they can function as no-quibble, full-bore replacements for some of your standard, brand-name PC workstations.

What's your experience with white-box, small brand, or generic PCs? Does your company allow or mandate the use of this kind of system? What's the lowest-cost system you know of? What's most elaborate and powerful? Let's pool our knowledge in the Listening Post discussion area!

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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