Have you noticed the steadily increasing number of bargain-basement PCs, fully assembled? Well, I have. I live in Austria and it has taken a while for them to make it here; but there are a few places in Europe that donít have their markets swamped yet. Don't fret if you live in a country where it hasnít happened yet. You wonít have long to wait, I am sure.
Now, I have been an avid PC-builder for around 10 years now and I know that a lot of the cheap PCs are basically various retailers looking for a good way to ditch all their old hardware that is lying around. That is true here, true in the USA and probably true everywhere. However, some digging around in the online catalogues and keen eyes while walking past a few retailers on my various journeys through Vienna have allowed the glimpsing of one or two actually fairly decent systems, even if the hardware in them is not the latest and greatest.
I decided to try one out, as it's company money anyway so it's not like I care if it turns out to be a stupid system. It is a midi-tower system, very non-descript, from your average run-of-the-mill retailer specializing in electronics rather than just computers. I chose one of these retailers deliberately because a lot of PCs are sold by these companies to people who donít have the courage to go into a dedicated PC retailer staffed by what they perceive to be geeks with a sales-pitch.
- P3-866MHz CPU
- 256MB PC-133 SDRAM
- Intel i815 Mainboard
- 30GB IBM DTLA 305030 HDD
- RealTek 10/100 mbps NIC
- 3D Prophet II GeForceMX with 32MB SDRAM
- SoundBlaster Live
- Mitsumi 1.44MB FDD
- 45x ASUS CD-ROM
There is absolutely nothing spectacular about any of the hardware present in this system. It comes in a plain beige midi-tower casing and it looks about as aerodynamic as a brick. But, for the Ä529 (463USD) this place was asking for it, which includes a 1 year warranty, I expected nothing more.
The PC - Front View
The PC - Rear View
The first thing I did once I got the system to the office was to open her up. After removing the bag containing the extra screws and other assorted parts of the casing that weren't used I had a good look at how everything was assembled.
Chassis & The Interior
The chassis, as mentioned before, is nothing spectacular. It has an On/Off/Suspend all-in-one button and a reset button, which requires a pin to use. It also has two LEDs: Power (Green) and HDD (Yellow). A lot of the interior is all sharp edges and care is required when adding or removing drives, RAM or the heatsink from the CPU. The casing is of a particularly solid design and I gives me the general impression that it could take a lot of abuse. I was also unable to make it rattle or produce any unpleasant resonance.
The PC - Inside, as assembled by the retailer
As you can probably guess, the inside was not done particularly well. The IDE and floppy cables were on the verge of obstructing the airflow to the CPU and their proximity was also needlessly adding to the noise level of the computer. In addition to this the video card and the two PCI cards were all placed next to each other, obstructing airflow to the video card's heatsink.
The PC - Inside, as improved by myself in under 10 minutes
The PC - Inside, as improved by myself in under 10 minutes (alternate view)
Some minor re-arrangement of the cables solved a lot of (potential) problems and only took a few minutes. In my experience, all you will need to drastically improve the airflow in a cheap assembled PC is a few rubber bands, string or anything that will hold a few IDE, floppy and LED cables together. I also moved the SBLive! and NIC as far away from the GeForce2 MX as I could. This made some difference as the video card got really hot before and is now just warm to the touch.
A touch irritating was the fact that the audio cable from the CD-ROM was connected to the onboard audio device as opposed to the installed SBLive!'s CD-input. This was clearly an oversight, but one which might cause a lot of problems for someone who has no idea of how these things are supposed to be connected.
The Heatsink on the CPU, which is quite large for a Pentium 3 CPU, is copper-based and has a quiet ball-bearing fan on it. Its design reminds me a great deal of a brand-name cooler called a "Volcano II" but I could not find any recognisable markings on the heatsink or the fan.
Never one to shy away from looking under the bonnet, I decided to remove the heatsink. The heatsink came off very easily and after removing the heatsink I noticed that the retailer applied WAY too much thermal paste. I have no real way of knowing the quality of the thermal paste they applied, however anything more than a hair's width of a smear is usually too much and will end up impeding the heat-transfer. I always keep some "arctic silver" thermal paste around, so I removed the white paste from the CPU and the heatsink using a tissue and a cotton bud and then applied a thin smear on the CPU. This reduced the temperature of the CPU by a staggering 7C!
The floppy drive (Mitsumi), CD-ROM (ASUS) and HDD (IBM) are all standard makes and models often found in brand-name PCs, but I was a bit disappointed to find that the IBM drive was a model DTLA-305070 (30GB, 2MB buffer, 8.5ms seek, 7200rpm) as it has a high rate of failure and the series was quietly discontinued because of this design flaw.
The GeForceII MX video card, RealTek network card and SBLive! sound card are all very proven, reliable but slightly dated products. The SBLive! model in this machine is in fact 3 years old now.
The RAM was a pleasant surprise. The retailer promised "PC133" which almost always means some no-name CL3 (slower) memory module. The memory included with this computer was CL2 Infineon RAM, which is, on the whole, pretty decent stuff. This stick would most likely make 150MHz at CL2.
The bottom line
The computer could be relatively painlessly upgraded as there is room for another HDD and 2 more CD-ROM sized devices. There are also 4 PCI slots are available, although I would only recommend adding 3 more devices, because of the video card. This basic system would also give you two more DIMM slots to expand RAM (which I have done). There is no Firewire connector on this machine.
All the standard connectors are present and accounted for:
- 2x USB
- 2x COM
- 1x LPT
- PS/2 Mouse & Keyboard
- Onboard Audio (should you choose to use that over the SBLive!).
Now having a system that looks good and is cleanly assembled and having a system that is versatile, responsive and working in harmony with itself are two entirely different things. Its hard to be sure that a system, no matter how good the specs and the components appear to be, is in fact a really decent, solid and stable system. In line with this reasoning I decided to see how reliable this system was.
The POST screen looks very flashy, but the BIOS that lies behind it is very simple. It offers the ability to set the peripheral devices, PCI IRQ, APM settings and all other basic BIOS functions. This BIOS doesnt really contain much in the way of advanced features that would allow tweaking of various subsystem. The only real tweaks are setting the memory CAS from 2 to 3 and the FSB, which supports 5 different speeds at each major setting (a major setting being 66MHz for Celerons, 100MHz and 133MHz for Pentium 3). You can also choose to have an FSB of 133MHz while having a RAM speed of 100MHz, which is standard for an i815 motherboard.
Note: This BIOS will NOT automatically switch to PC100 for the RAM when more than one DIMM is installed which makes the system unstable. A normal user could well have a seriously bad experience with this PC because of this.
The Operating system
The preloaded OS was WindowsME. I am not a WindowsME fan and I don't know my way around it very well, so I opted to install Windows2000 on it. Installation went without a hitch, all devices were automatically recognised by Windows2000 on the initial boot-up (I installed from a "blank" Win2000 image) and I encountered no problems what so ever. The installation took about the same time as on a Pentium IV 1.6GHz I set up earlier.
Using the system: Home User
My typical Windows2000 installation is quite loaded with programs and also has a good number of tasks, programs and services that auto-start on boot.
Despite the somewhat lengthy boot-up time of approx. 3 minutes and login-time as compared to my dual XP1800 system, most programs load relatively quickly once the system is up and running. With the desktop set at a resolution of 1280x1024 on the 21" monitor I noticed only a very slight amount of lagging when dragging large or complex windows around. Everything felt crisp, clear and responsive.
After normally using (Surfing with IE6 and NS6, MS Word or Excel, ICQ, Outlook Express) the system for a week I noticed some slow-down, which is normal, however my gut feeling is telling me that this system's HDD subsystem is a little sluggish at times.
Using the system: Developers and Power Users
This PC can also cater for those of us who demand a lot more from their PCs, although I would highly recommend upgrading the RAM. When developing I typically have some 20+ windows open, plus any number of tasks running in the background.
When doing this the system responds very sluggishly at times, sometimes you can almost see how the system refreshes the entire desktop area behind a closed or minimized windows one line at a time. The system was swapping a lot and it seemed to have a hard time doing this, which tends to confirm that either the HDD subsystem is slow for some reason or the entire PCI subsystem is slow.
In any case a RAM upgrade is highly recommnded for this type of use.
For some Ä90 (79 USD) you can get yourself a decent stick of 256MB of PC-133 and double this system's RAM. This is exactly what I did and this massively improved the responsiveness.
Using the system: Gaming
I must say I was pleasantly surprised by this systems gaming power. The GeForceII makes almost all 3D games I have kying around the office playable to a greater or lesser degree. At 1024x768x32bit UnrealTournament was quite playable, although some levels cause the frame-rate to drop below 25fps for sustained periods. Typically the frame-rate was around 40 - 50fps.
All older games played flawlessly at good frame-rates and with no jerk-o-vision or lockups.
Diablo II also playes smoothly, although there is some slight lagging on some levels.
When playing Age of Empires II the system struggles when allowing larger populations (~500 in total) and this manifests itself frequent slow-downs.
The only drawback of this system is that the sluggish behaviour of the HDD and slow memory speed in certai situation causes some games to take a long time to load or to lag when attempting to dynamically load areas of the game during play.
The Bottom Line:
This system is a fair all-rounder. It can handle anything you care to throw at it for general Home/Office use but while it's capable of giving a great deal of pleasure to an amateur gamer, I would not recommend this system to someone who is looking for a PC to play games on as this system exhibited performance-problems with almost all of the newer games.
Not everyone wants to overclock and I wonít delve into the reasons of why you should or shouldn't. I like to overclock and usually do if I am sure it won't compromise stability. As its an Intel i815 chipset, using more than one DIMM forces you to set the speed for the RAM-subsystem to 100MHz, so the PC133 performance for the RAM is a no-go. Add to that the asychronous FSB and RAM cycles.
Overclocking the system
As its an 866MHz CPU, I estimate that 950MHz should be easily attainable. The CPU will probably make over 1GHz, however that would require an FSB speed I would not be comfortable with.
As the main object was to gain performance I tried to find a way to make the RAM stable at 133MHz with more than one DIMM. After repeated attempts I could not make this dream come true, so I am forced to resort to upping FSB as much as possible and leave the RAM running at the lower speed.
Overclocking the CPU via FSB
I managed to overclock the CPU-bus to 145MHz without any stability issues, even after exhaustive overnight testing. This gives me 943MHz, yielding me the performance of a P3-950, give or take. Its not much of a gain in performance, but its better than nothing. The next speed up would be 975MHz and I could not make that stable. I think this is a voltage issue as the CPU temperature was under 50C, however there is no way to supply a different voltage via the BIOS as this option was greyed out for some reason.
The motherboard was also missing the jumper blocks used to select between manual settings and JumperFree(tm) mode. This makes me think that this is actually a version of the ASUS board made for one of the large OEMs. I have in fact seen versions ASUS motherboards in a few Compaqs, so this may be something similar.
Overclocking the GeForce2 MX graphics card
The GeForce2 MX is a capable, but not a significantly powerful video card by todayís standards. It still packs a punch though and considering its retail price itís a pretty terrific performer. This particular GeForce2 MX easily clocks to 200MHz Memory/200MHz GPU, which basically makes this GeForceII MX something along the lines of a GeForce2 GTS with SDR instead of DDR. You can't argue with that.
Where would we be without our benchmarks? My preload image contains SiSoft Sandra, which I updated to the latest version and let it run some of the benchmarks. The performance isnít half bad.
I took each of these benchmarks 3 times to make sure the values I got were in the same range. If they were, and they always were, I simply took a screen-shot of the last result
CPU Arithmetic Benchmark
866/133MHz (ALU/FPU): 2313 MIPS/1170 MFLOPS
943/145MHz (ALU/FPU): 2511 MIPS/1270 MFLOPS
CPU Multimedia Benchmark
866/133MHz (iSSE / Floating Point iSSE): 4712 / 5777 (it/s)
943/145MHz (iSSE / Floating Point iSSE): 5126 / 6272 (it/s)
866/133MHz (Int, buffered / Float, buffered): 689 / 660 MB/s
943/145MHz (Int, buffered / Float, buffered): 726 / 703 MB/s
Hard Disk Benchmark
866/133MHz: 19365 index points
943/145MHz: 18671 index points
866/133MHz: 2243 index points
943/145MHz: 2534 index points
866/133MHz: 10668 kB/s
943/145MHz: 10668 kB/s
Here are the screen-shots of the various benchmarks, grouped by benchmark type.
Benchmark - CPU at 866 MHz
Benchmark - CPU at 943MHz
Benchmark - RAM at 866 MHz
Benchmark - RAM at 943 MHz
First off, this is no powerhouse. This machine is unspectacular in every way, but it's very reliable.
- The performance is acceptable.
- The systemís expandability is moderate to good.
- The systemís flexibility is more than adequate.
- Not a single crash or blue screen anywhere.
It is perhaps a shame that this system doesnít have a DVD-drive, or a CD-RW. But a 256MB P3-866 system with some good components in it for Ä529 (463 USD) is also a very good deal Ė and its not like you cannot upgrade this basic system into something significantly more powerful, by getting a better CPU, e.g. 1.2GHz PIII-s, more RAM or by adding a DVD or CD-RW.
Don't forget to factor in the extra cost of keyboard, mouse, speakers and a monitor. If you dont have cable then a modem will also have to be bought.
- Very low price for a collection of decent, reliable and proven components
- Good degree of flexibility, games, office, workstation apps
- Unproblematic upgrades supported across the board: CPU, RAM, HDD, CD-ROM, VGAÖEasy and cheap to get second-hand add-ons as technology is > 18 months old
- Intel i815 chipset does have a relatively poor RAM/PCI performance
- IBM DTLA HDDs are known to have high rates of failure
- CPU upgrades not likely to bring a noticeable performance increase
- Low perceived HDD performance somewhat disconcerting at times
- Limited BIOS options
Things to watch out for
- Slipshod Cooling subsystem
Not many retailers know anything about cooling; bolt on a heatsink and Bob's your uncle. If you feel confident then open up the case, remove the heat sink from the CPU and replace the thermal compound with a thin layer of good stuff, and re-attach the heat sink. All it takes is 10 minutes.
Buying an extra 80x80mm chassis-fan is not something to shy away from. An ultra-quiet, lower power one will do if noise is an issue and will help with ventilation.
- Haphazard adding of peripherals
Most AGP cards produce a fair amount of heat these days. Its best to make sure there is as little as possible obstructing the heat sink on the AGP card.
- Incorrect jumpering / cabling
The CD-audio cable was incorrectly plugged in. I suspect this is a one-off mistake, so anyone who knows anything about PCs should always open up such a machine and make sure everything is in order by following all the cables, checking jumpers and the like. You never know. In reality, whether you want to do this or not depends on how capable you think the assembler is and how problematic it would be take the PC back for examination if a problem occurs.