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May 9, 2003

My shiny new P4/2.4Ghz computer

It's been about two months since I built myself a new computer, so I figure it's time to brag a bit.

First off, I need to give credit where it's due. I wouldn't have this computer without the generosity and technical skills of my good friend Jonathan Young. Jonathan is a former colleague of mine from CNN. Jonathan is (relatively) young, single, and is well-paid. In other words, he has no check on his geek-toy buying impulses.

Jonathan was planning to build his own "media center" computer, and had bought an Antec tower case and a ASUS P4S533 motherboard to go inside it. After getting that case, he decided to buy a much cooler looking case that would fit in with his audio/video gear. So, he was left with the case and motherboard gathering dust.

While we were out at dinner one night, I must have said something especially pathetic, because he offered to give me the case and motherboard if I bought the parts to fill it out. And he offered to help put it together. Now, the case and the motherboard are not the most expensive parts of the computer, but I figured that Jonathan's offer was worth at least $150-200 or more.

Given that I'd still have to put in perhaps another $400-500, that alone wouldn't have got me off the dime. But over the previous weeks, I'd started to hear something ominous from my old Dell P3/550: several times a day, I'd hear a "click-whiiiirrrrr" followed by a clear pause in whatever I was doing. It was clearly a hard drive problem, but I'd ran a number of hard drive diagnostics and was unable to find any actual errors. None the less, when your hard drive starts making that kind of sound, you'd better start looking for a safe home for your data. If it's a matter of jump or be pushed, I'd rather jump, thank you.

I've heard good things about NewEgg, so I started investigating what it would take to make a usable system of of Jonathan's empty case. It didn't take long; $462 later, I had a the following pieces:

ATI OEM Radeon 9000 Pro with 64Mb video memory
Pentium 4 2.4GHz processor with 533MHz front side bus
Kingston Ram 512Mb PC-2700 RAM $59
Western Digital 80GB Special Edition WD800JB $102
LITE ON CD-ROM CDRW 52x24x52 model LTR52246S $50
Teac Floppy

I checked these prices again about two weeks ago, and was surprised to find that they hadn't dropped in the six weeks since I'd bought the parts. That surprised me. How did that joke go? "New computers, $1000. Day-old computers, half price."

I had to add a few more parts to make the transition from the old computer to the new one. I bought a Linksys 8 port 10/100 hub ($50) so I'd have enough ports to have my old box and my new box at the net at the same time, and I bought a Microsoft MN-510 USB Ethernet adapter (~$50). (I had an ISA card WiFi adapter in my old computer, but the ASUS motherboard doesn't support ISA.) The old box ran Windows 2000; for the new box, I decided to upgrade to Windows XP.

This setup is fast. I've been using a Dell P2.4/533 box at Georgia Tech for most of the year, but my new box is clearly faster than the 2.4 GHz Dell. I'd credit that to some combination of the disk, the video (this is the first non-integrated video card I've had), and perhaps the PC-2700 RAM.

I was considering buying a gig of RAM, but decided to see how 512Mb would work. So far, the system is plenty fast.

In this system, the 7200RPM Western Digital Caviar WD800JB is clearly the star of the show. Even with 512Mb of RAM, disk drive performance is critically important to a Windows system. The WD800JB is notable for having an 8Mbyte cache: most other drives have 2 mbytes. Most reviews I've read are in agreement that this is one of the fastest IDE drives on the market.

My old system - a Dell P3/550 Optiplex GX1 with 256m of memory - was pretty good for a Pentuim 3; the disk was reasonably fast, and in many ways, that system is still faster than the eMachines box we bought last year. But the new box blows the Dell away.

The only real complaint I have so far is with the Microsoft MN-510 USB WiFi adapter. I originally bought a a D-Link DWL-A520 802.11 PCI Card, but I was completely unable to get it work reliably with Windows XP, and I took it back. I bought the Microsoft USB product because I had an over-abundance of USB ports on this box, and figured that if anyone could get a USB WiFi adapter to work reliably with XP, it should be Microsoft. Well, the MS adapter did come up with no muss, but I from time to time, the MS adapter seems to completely lose contact with my Apple Airport base station. I know it's not the location of my computer; my signal strength is consistently strong, and I never had any loss of signal with my old Orinico PC card running on the ISA adapter.

I haven't been able to find any sign that anyone else has seen this problem. The disconnects typically last for perhaps 5-10 seconds; not long enough to drop most TCP connections, so I haven't yet pushed too hard on trying to debug it.

But so far I'm quite happy with this box. Fast is good.

And the old Dell with the failing hard drive? I reformatted the second hard drive with FreeBSD 4.8; after running next to the new box for a week, I convinced myself that it must have been the first hard drive that was failing. I ended up putting the Dell P3 in my closet to start taking over from the P1/133 running Debian Linux 3.0. But that's a story for another day.


My Microsoft mn-510 does this as well... it requires a reboot to find the access point again. My notebook with a different wireless setup never loses connection. Let me know if you find an answer.

My Mn-510 also has this problem ... I've tried swapping the USB port, adding a powered hub, and upgrading the firmware to no avail ... did anyone ever figure out a way aroudnt this? I have to reboot to get my connection back.