A small fast disk 40GB is enough for normal business use and a good 7,200rpm IDE drive of that capacity now costs £30 or less, and will produce an immense speed hike for any older PC that’s still in business.
Discrete, branded onboard peripherals A terse expression that covers a quite tricky technical point. Every so often, system designers will come up with a wacky way to reduce materials cost by aggregating the jobs that each component does, or else they discover some smart-ass hardware company that has a bright idea for emulating some component on the cheap. It was such approaches that brought us classic examples like those bottom-end Compaq servers that combined Ethernet, display and SCSI controllers onto a single PCI card (which meant all three ran at speeds more suited to a mobile phone than a file server). There are examples in the workstation market too – Dell ultra-compact desktops that contain laptop disk drives spring to mind, or some middle-aged Dell PCs that tell you they have a 3Com Ethernet card, but it isn’t supported by any drivers on the 3Com site (try finding a 3C920!). The right kind of desktop PC is small, because you won’t be adding cards to it, contains a quality chipset and BIOS (and the two are distinct) and lets you add up to 1GB of RAM plus the disk of your choice. HP manages to do far better with the same parts, speed-for-speed, than almost any other vendor I’ve tested, which is why my basement at home sports half-a-dozen old HP e-vectras.
Sensible heat management It’s astonishing that this should still be an issue, but it’s worth bringing up. Very small cases that have howling fans aren’t popular, but neither are big cases with silent cooling that fill up with fluff or cease to operate without triggering any alarm.
Bundled software It’s astonishing how many corporates have been buying workstations with 128MB of RAM and the full Symantec/Norton security suite, which will barely fit into 384MB and still leave you any room to work. Yet vendors are happy to recommend such a spec, which leaves a Pentium D gasping and panting along no faster than the sat-nav in your car. Could it be that they have an interest in frustrating end users with these underpowered devices? Why would that be?
Refurb is your friend
Some of you may be surprised to read the bits that concern refurbishing existing machines as opposed to buying new. I know that many purchasing managers, and indeed vendors, hiss sharply through their teeth when this topic comes up, because the very idea is a threat to both sides of their particular relationship. Budgets must be kept at the same level year-on-year and commissions ditto, so neither party is going to benefit from a bulk buy of 40 hard disks, 20GB of RAM in 512MB sticks and a couple of battery powered screwdrivers. Yet the simple fact remains that most businesses are now throwing out 1-1.5GHz workstations, which commonly have a 20GB drive, 128-256MB of RAM and run Windows 2000.
If you’re in this situation and about to go shopping, first do some maths: £25 for a modern drive and another £30 for some memory (in bulk) to take it comfortably over our 512MB baseline, plus an XP Professional licence, which you may already have. Now take that machine and build it completely cleanly, then go to the vendor site and collect the most up-to-date releases of BIOS and drivers (not forgetting the Intel Chipset updates and the Application Accelerator from www.intel.com if it’s a real Intel product). Now sit down and try it out. Is it unacceptably slow for regular office work? Wouldn’t you rather give 70% of your workforce this much computing power and save the budget for some really fast boxes for those people who actually need them?
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