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Caveat emptor. Dan Bowman wrote in asking about a barebones Duron system he found. $399, just add an HD. He was nervous about it but wanted confirmation. It sounded OK until I found the word “Amptron.” You should translate the word “Amptron” as “No,” or, “Don’t buy it.”

Amptron is part of the PC Chips group, and the running joke about PC Chips was that PC Chips made parts so bad that even Packard Bell wouldn’t touch them. Typically a PC Chips board will sell for $65 or less and have integrated everything, so you can build a really cheap system in it. Mom-and-Pop stores will use systems built around a PC Chips board to undercut the consumer electronics chains, because, let’s face it, an integrated motherboard selling in the mid two figures will allow you to undercut even the entry-level $399 eMachine.

My personal experience with PC Chips boards has been horrendous. Defects abounded. I had one system that worked fine until you tried to access the floppy drive. Then the PC would bluescreen. Every single time. I had two other PC Chips boards that didn’t work at all. That was when I swore the company off for good. Some of my coworkers have bought cheap PCs at Mom-and-Pop shops, had problems, and brought them in to work for me to look at. Wouldn’t you know it? PC Chips. In both cases the problem turned out to be really, really dumb statements in config.sys and autoexec.bat so the motherboards weren’t at fault, that time. Honestly, I was surprised.

So… Friends don’t let friends buy Amptron, or any of the other members of the PC Chips group. Eurone and Bondwell are the only others I can think of off the top of my head.

I’m not sure why anyone buys these boards anyway, seeing as you can always get an FIC board for $10 more, and FIC generally makes good stuff. But anyway…

If you’re looking for a cheap Duron upgrade, look for a Gigabyte GA-7IXE4. It sells for about $85, and it’s a bare board. No video, no audio, no nothing. If you’ve got an existing PC, it’s perfect. Pair it up with a Duron-750 at $60, and salvage all your other components from the old machine, and you’ve just hot-rodded your aging PC for $145.

Soyo’s not my favorite motherboard company, but they’re miles ahead of PC Chips, and if you need an integrated solution they’ve got one for a good price. The K7VLM-B uses a VIA KL133 chipset and includes audio and video. Its 2D performance isn’t great, but its gaming performance is outstanding for an integrated chipset. The K7VLM-B sells for about $95, so you can build a low-end Duron gaming rig very inexpensively.

The other problem with barebones systems is the difficulty of knowing what you get. No one cares about anything but the motherboard maker. But what about the case? Will you sever a finger trying to open it? What about the power supply? Will it struggle to light the IDE activity LED? It’s impossible to know. Yeah, it’s a little hassle to spec out a case and power supply, and it’s a little hassle to mount the board instead of having it all done for you, but in the long run it’s more than worth it.

This particular barebones PC also included 256 MB of RAM. That really scared me, especially considering everything else. No one puts an Amptron board in a system and then puts Kingston memory on it. People buy PC Chips boards because they’re cheapest, so they’ll buy whatever commodity RAM is cheapest. A cheap motherboard plus cheap RAM is a recipe for disaster.

You can at least take comfort that they aren’t charging you any extra for the problems. They’re included, free.

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