As I procrastinated by bouncing between projects, I put together a low-budget PC for a friend of a friend. It’s very much a retro PC, but I think it’s useful, especially considering the budget I had to work with.
I started with a stripped Pentium-200. I installed a 5.1-gig Quantum hard drive that served me well (but it’s too small to be very useful to me anymore) and a combination sound card/modem. Bad news, I know, but that’s the only modem I have left anymore. And I had $200 to work with. It’ll do.
I picked up a used Mitsubishi 15″ monitor at the local used computer store. It was the only monitor there that you didn’t have to crank the brightness and contrast all the way to get a usable display. The store clerk told me all monitors are like that. Well, all the monitors they have might be like that, but that’s a sign of short life expectancy. The monitor is old, but Mitsubishi makes stuff that lasts, and the price was right.
While I was there I picked up a keyboard. Used, of course. I grabbed an old Keytronic board that had a decent feel to it. It’s cheaper than buying new, and better quality.
The system runs Windows 95. The reason is twofold: I had an extra Win95 license I could give them, and on low-memory machines like this one, Win98 runs slower and isn’t as stable. Linux was never in the running; they want cheap Internet access, and Linux isn’t going to connect to any of the $10/month services.
I picked up an HP DeskJet 3820v at Wal-Mart. It cost a hundred bucks. At $100, it’s considered a midrange printer now, but I had to step into that range to get a parallel port so it would work with Win95. Plus, the cartridges cost less than the carts for a $50 Lexmark. And, more importantly, the Wal-Mart close to where they live sells remanufactured HP cartridges, which will save them $10-$12 per cartridge. They didn’t offer remanufactured Lexmark carts. Equivalent Lexmark carts may or may not become available, but the HP will save them money in the short term, and unless the industry breaks the pattern it’s been stuck in for the past 10 years, that’ll continue. I wish I could have found them an inexpensive used laser printer, but they’ll want color. They haven’t said it yet, but I know it. Everyone wants color.
They were disappointed the PC has Win95 on it, but that’s mostly proof that Microsoft’s marketing is working. Yeah, with a memory upgrade WinXP would run on it, but it’d run like garbage. And besides, given the choice between a monitor and a printer or an operating system you don’t need… Well, that’s pretty obvious. The machine’s in a standard ATX case so a motherboard swap is an option down the road, if XP’s allure becomes too much to resist.
I also installed OpenOffice. This was the first time I’d seen it. It takes forever to load on this machine–admittedly, it’s on the very low end of its system requirements–but it’s capable. I could use it to do everything I need. It’s far more capable than Microsoft Works, and approaches the capabilities of Microsoft Office. Plus it includes a vector-drawing program, which MS Office doesn’t. And you can’t beat the price.