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Feature Article
Buy or Build. What to do for my new computer?

March 1, 1999
By Scott Lewis

I have been given the green light to get a new computer. I have been toying with the idea of building one instead of buying one. My budget is $2,000, not including shipping or sales tax. My requirements are for a good (eventually, great) gaming machine.

I spent the last two months pouring over web sites trying to find a configuration that I could live with. At $2,000 I would have to sacrifice something. But what did I need vs. what did I want?

Here were my requirements when I only thought about buying a computer:

  • Pentium II 400MHz
  • 128 MB RAM
  • 12+ GB 7200 RPM Ultra ATA Hard Drive
  • nVidia RIVA TNT 2D/3D AGP Graphics Card
  • 17" monitor

Nice to have additions would be:

  • SCSI Hard Drive and/or CD-ROM Drive
  • DVD-ROM Drive with decoder card
  • CD-R or CD-RW Drive
  • 17" Trinitron monitor, or 19" Monitor

I decided to get a 400 MHz system instead of 450, because the price to performance ratio would be better with the 400, and I an expecting to replace the CPU with a Pentium III when they become cheap.

As I priced things I realized I could have everything I required, but not everything I wanted. I finalized on this configuration from Dell:

Dimension XPS R MiniTower
400 MHz Pentium II
128 MB 100MHz SDRAM
16MB STB nVidia TNT 3D AGP Graphics Card
17" Trinitron 1000HS Monitor
14.4 GB Ultra ATA Drive 7200 RPM
40X CD-ROM Drive
Turtle Beach Montego A3D 64V Sound Card
Harman/Kardon HK-195 Speakers
3Com USRobotics V.90 Telephony Modem
QuietKey Keyboard
MS Intellimouse
Microsoft Works Suite 99 with Money 99 Basic; McAfee VirusScan

This system was priced at $2020 (This price was accurate on February 18, 1999, as was all prices in this article).

Now it was time to see what I could build. I have always been weary of building a computer. Not because I didn’t think I could do it, but because I didn’t think I could restrain myself. And this effected me while pricing components.

I kept thinking I could build a SCSI based system. A 10,000 RPM SCSI drive would be faster than a 7200 RPM EIDE, and a SCSI CD-ROM drive would be faster than an equivalent IDE drive. Also, my past experience with CD-Rs is that SCSI drives make better source drives for extracting songs from music CDs and better for disc-at-once copying.

But SCSI is expensive. What I needed was a base line system that could be compared to the Dell. Then I would play around with drive configurations to see where my money could be put to best use. Here’s my initial configuration with prices from OnSale.com (I did not get my parts from them, but that is later in this story.)

ASUS AT/ATX FT 7Bay 7Slot 235W PS                 $ 66.10
128MB SDRAM DIMM                                  $230.00
Creative Labs - Graphics Blaster RIVA TNT AGP     $106.97
Logitech – Cordless Desktop KYBD/Wheel Mouse      $ 75.96
Teac - 1.44MB Int Floppy Drv 3 Mode PS/2          $ 17.14
Creative Labs - Sound Blaster Live! Value 256     $ 80.67
ViewSonic E771 17IN .27mm 12X10 NI 16.0V          $237.37
                                      Sub-Total   $814.21

ASUS P2B Motherboard                              $121.02
Intel Pentium II 400MHz w/ 512K                   $365.62
Creative Labs - Blaster CD 48X Int CD-ROM IDE     $ 65.85
IBM Deskstar 14GXP 14.4GB UDMA 7200RPM HD         $321.08
                                         Total   $1687.78

* The memory was priced locally.

Can you build a system for less than Dell? Yes and No. This build-in-myself configuration is slightly different. The ViewSonic monitor is good, but not a trinitron, there is a cordless Logitec keyboard and mouse, and I didn’t price speakers or a modem. I have an extra set of speakers that I can use, and I will be getting a cable modem soon. But clearly I beat the Dell price by a good $300.

Now I starting playing around with different drive configurations. The last four items in the list were all that was necessary to change from one configuration to another. Here is the SCSI system I came up with:

                               Baseline Sub-Total $814.21
Asus P2B-S Motherboard (SCSI built into board)    $292.30
Intel Pentium II 400MHz w/ 512K                   $365.62
IBM Ultrastar 9LZX 9.1GB HD Ultra2 SCSI 10K RPM   $590.38
Toshiba 40X Max CD-ROM 85MS CAV SCSI INT          $ 81.36
                                         Total   $2143.87

Oops, over budget. But if I substitute a Celeron 400MHz processor for the Pentium II 400MHz I could save a couple hundred dollars. Here’s that configuration:

                              Baseline Sub-Total  $814.21
Asus P2B-S Motherboard (SCSI built into board)    $292.30
Intel Celeron 400MHz w/ 128K                      $150.18
IBM Ultrastar 9LZX 9.1GB HD Ultra2 SCSI 10K RPM   $590.38
Toshiba 40X Max CD-ROM 85MS CAV SCSI INT          $ 81.36
                                        Total    $1928.43

Bonus! I can build a killer SCSI system for under $2000. What about the Celeron processor? The main difference between the Celeron 400 and PII 400 is the cache, and the bus speed. The PII has 512K of cache running at half the processor’s speed. The Celeron has 128K of running at the same speed as the processor. 512K @ 200MHZ vs. 128K @ 400MHz. This is close. The PII 400 uses a 100MHz bus speed, and the Celeron uses a 66MHz bus speed. The Celeron can be overclocked, PIIs cannot. So I could run the Celeron faster than 400MHz.

Now to configure the IDE system with the Celeron processor for comparison (and because I want to play around with overclocking):

                                      Sub-Total $814.21
Asus P2B Motherboard                            $121.02
Intel Celeron 400MHz w/ 128K                    $150.18
Creative Labs - BLASTER CD 48X INT CD-ROM IDE   $ 65.85
IBM DESKSTAR 14GXP 14.4GB UDMA 7.2K RPM         $321.08
                                     Total     $1472.34

Wow! I can build a decent gaming machine for under $1500. Why not add some bells and whistles to it. I can have a 22GB drive for $560. And since the monitor was a bargain compromise, I can get a true Sony monitor for $337. This brings the total to $1810.89. Still way under budget. Maybe I could add the non-value edition of the Sound Blaster Live card.

OK. I was getting carried away. When I showed the Dell configuration to my wife, she said just order it. I gave up the idea of building a system for the simplicity of buying one. But then my wife heard the final price with shipping and sales tax. I was over $325 (we were ordering a printer as well). I told the guy I would call him back. I explained to my wife I could beat the Dell price, and get even more stuff. She agreed to let me build the system.

But what do I do? Get the SCSI system with a less than optimal monitor. Or get the IDE system with tons of hard drive space and a really good monitor. I have a 4 GB drive now, and the main reason for a HUGE hard drive was for using it with a CD Recorder. I plan to make copes of my music collection on CDs for my car, my wife’s car, and my game room. This way I don’t have to buy duplicate CDs to here them anywhere I want.

So the SCSI system should be fine. But one of the reasons for the SCSI system was to eventually get a second drive and RAID them together. RAID is a way of using two or more drives for increased performance, backup protection, or both. I wanted the performance advantage (RAID 0) and use two drive as one. But that would mean getting a better SCSI controller than on the motherboard, and another expensive drive. I think I will have a very hard time convincing my wife to let me spend another $800-$1000 for an extra 9GB and the boost in performance.

What about a CD-R drive now? After checking the price of CD-Rs, it would go over budget. But I then I came across a Western Digital 18GB 7200 RPM drive. And it was only $390. That’s $21.66 per GB, compared to $25.45 per GB for the big 22 GB IBM. Let’s see how this adds up.

Asus AT/ATX FT 7BAY 7Slot 235W PS                   $ 66.10
128MB SDRAM DIMM                                    $230.00
Creative Labs - Graphics Blaster RIVA TNT AGP       $106.97
Logitec – Cordless Desktop KYBD/Wheel Mouse         $ 75.96
Teac - 1.44MB INT Floppy Drv 3 Mode PS/2            $ 17.14
Creative Labs - Sound Blaster Live! Value 256       $ 80.67
Sony - CPD-200ES 17IN 16VIS .25MM AG 12X10          $337.71
Asus P2B Motherboard                                $121.02
Intel Celeron 400MHz w/ 128K                        $150.18
HP CD-Writer Plus 8100i                             $316.79
Western Digital 18.0 GB UltraDMA ATA/66 7.2K RPM    $390.99
                                         Total     $1893.53

Cool! Still over a hundred dollars under budget. I decided to go with this configuration. Time to start ordering. With the first item, the ASUS case, OnSale.com charges Shipping, Transaction Fee, Sales Tax, and a Payment Processing Fee. This brought the total to $93. At this rate I would go bust in no time.

Time to rethink the situation. I found the case in stock at Insight. It was 81.99, and with shipping came to $89.49. OnSale.com did not have the motherboard or the processor in stock. I went to HardwareStreet.com. They had the motherboard in stock, but at $135.99. I looked around some more, but couldn’t find a better price. I was weary about using HardwareStreet.com for the rest of my order, because of the extra expense of the motherboard.

I decided to check and see if HardwareStreet at least had the items I wanted in stock. As luck would have it, they had almost everything. And their prices were within 3 or 4 dollars from OnSale’s prices on the rest of the items. I decided to go with them. Since I was getting so much from them anyway I decided to check them for name brand memory. I have heard horror stories about generic memory, especially in 100MHz bus systems, so I wanted name brand stuff, if I wasn’t going to go locally.

PNY memory was $287. Since it was still under budget I figured why not. Here is my final order for all parts and vendors:

Insight
ASUS AT/ATX FT 7BAY 7Slot 235W PS (T-10)         $ 81.99

Buy.com
Western Digital 18 GB EIDE Ultra-ATA/66 7200RPM  $390.95

OnSale.com (backordered)
400 MHz Celeron                                  $150.18

HardwareStreet.com
ASUS P2B Motherboard                             $135.99
PNY 128MB SDRAM ECC 100MHz 168 PIN 3.3 Volt      $287.99
Creative Labs – Graphics Blaster RIVA TNT AGP    $104.99
Logitec – Cordless Desktop KYBD/Wheel Mouse      $ 76.99
Teac - 1.44MB INT Floppy Drv 3 Mode PS/2         $ 18.99
Creative Labs - Sound Blaster Live! Value 256    $ 80.99
HP CD-Writer Plus 8100I                          $329.99
Sony - CPD-200ES 17IN 16VIS .25MM AG 12X10       $334.99
                                       Total    $1994.04

Still under budget. Bottom line… I got a bigger hard drive, name brand memory and monitor, a CD-RW, and a cordless keyboard and mouse. And I saved over $150 in sales tax.

As I write this UPS has everything except the backordered CPU. Next month I will tell you about putting it all together. I will try to do some benchmark testing, but the benchmark software I have is old, and might not be relevant. I will see about getting new benchmark software for current comparisons to Dell and others.

Stay tuned, the fun is just beginning.

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