Thinking From the Box

Value and Cost: With a PC, You Get What You Pay For

- 2003.02.26

As somebody who currently uses a Mac at home but had many productive and happy years with a PC as a primary machine, I think there are some flaws in Steve Watson's recent article on Low End Mac about value and cost in PCs versus Macs.

In 1998, Watson had a PC built for himself. "It has a Cyrix 233 MHz processor, 64 MB of RAM, and an 8 GB hard drive. These were close to top-of-the line specs in 1998, at least for what the average consumer (me) could afford to pay." He doesn't mention if this was a machine he had built by a local store or if he purchased it from a major manufacturer.

He claims that the machine is virtually unupgradable and not of much use to him today. I believe that had he received better advice, made different choices, or perhaps had a little more money to spend, he wouldn't have ended up with a "desktop doorstop" (the PC equivalent of a Road Apple).

In the spring of 1998, my dad had two PCs custom built, one for himself and one for me. My dad's PC featured a then brand spanking new PII 450. My computer featured a Celeron 333 (the one that lacked an L 2 cache) and 64 megs of that new fangled PC 100 RAM. I estimate that he probably spent about $500 more on my machine than Watson spent on his.

I upgraded my PC to a PII 450 in 1999, the fastest processor it would take without my flashing the BIOS, and bought a 256 meg stick of RAM, and then, because I liked the boost in performance so much, I bought another 256 megs. (The motherboard my father picked actually supports up to 1 gig.)

In early 2000, I flashed the BIOS and dropped in a PIII 550.

Late in 2000, I decided to gut my case and use the spare parts to help a friend and my niece out. Three computers came out of it:

  • My PC, a PIII 550 (now a PIII 750).
  • The PII 450, motherboard, and hard drive went to a friend. It now serves his website.
  • My niece got the Celeron 333, the 64 meg stick of RAM (later upgraded to 192 megs), and my old video card. Though by no means a speed demon, this computer allows her to write papers and surf the Web without a hitch.

None of these machines is fast by current standards, but all are still useful, and the upgrades to max them out (nothing as spectacular as dropping a G4 in a 7500) can be cheaply found on eBay.

Early in 2002, my dad finally retired his venerable PII (which ran Windows 2000 without a hitch) in favor of another custom built computer with a 2 GHz AMD Athlon processor and Windows XP Pro. He expects to get years of useful service and data crunching out of this machine (he designs and builds optical systems for military contractors).

Granted, when buying and building a PC, there is a much wider array of choices to make than with an Apple computer. (And this is why I recommend Apples to 90% of the people who ask me for computer advice.) But with research and the willingness to invest time and money, a person can buy or build an excellent, long lasting PC.LEPC

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