Building an inexpensive PC. An old out-of-town friend I don’t hear from often called the other day. He wants to buy a computer and dabble in audio production. Some local guy quoted him $2,500 to build a system. He read me the specs, and all I can say is this guy had better be using Lian-Li cases and PC Power and Cooling power supplies (or I guess I’d settle for high-end Enermax), but I doubt it. I do know he’s using a top-end Athlon XP processor and an Abit motherboard, but he wasn’t pairing it with DDR, so he was totally killing the chip’s performance anyway. For two and a half grand, you’d better be getting DDR, and lots of it.
“You need a 32-meg video card because when the computer is drawing the waveforms, it has to be dead-on. You can’t afford for it to lag,” he said.

I got news for this idiot. When it comes to drawing simple line graphics like a waveform, the ancient ET4000 chipset in my 486 will have no problem keeping up with it. Even if you use a fill to make the waveform look pretty. And that video “card” (it was integrated into my motherboard) had 512K (K, as in kilobytes) of memory. Although anyone who wasn’t born yesterday knows that the amount of memory on a video card has nothing to do with its speed, outside of the realm of 3D gaming. Knowing kids these days, some of them may even know that at birth.

In other words, the guy’s a moron. Either he knows nothing about computers, or he knows how to skimp but he’s not a convincing salesman.

I know for a fact that audio editing doesn’t need a supercomputer. If I can do video editing on a 700 MHz Duron, I know a Duron CPU, paired with a decent supporting cast, is going to be adequate for multitrack audio recording and editing as well.

I asked him how much he could spend. He told me $800, not counting a monitor and the editing card/package. I squirmed. I spent way too much time shopping around. Here’s what I came up with (not counting the operating system):

1 GHz AMD Duron
FIC AZ11 motherboard (on closeout, so it was cheap)
ATI Xpert 2000 Pro AGP video card (with a blazing 32 megs–ahem)
Maxtor D740 20-gig 7200 RPM IDE hard drive
Maxtor D740 60-gig 7200 RPM IDE hard drive
512 MB Crucial PC133 SDRAM
Mitsumi 3.5″ floppy drive
Plextor Plexwriter 12/10/32A CD-RW
Enermax A1QX-6 mid-tower case with Enermax 300W power supply
US Robotics 2977 controller-based PCI modem
Closeout Dell-branded Logitech mouse and Dell-branded keyboard

I told him there are two brands of CD-RW I trust, especially for audio work: re-labeled Plextor, and Plextor. In all honesty, I would have much prefered to build an all-SCSI system, but for this kind of budget, that’s impossible. All-SCSI would have given much better disk performance, and it would have given access to the Plextor UltraPlex 40max CD-ROM, which is the only drive I trust for extracting digital audio. I imagine he’ll be doing a little of that. The Sony drive will do a decent job, but I’ve seen the Plextor work miracles. But the Plextor is $100, while the Sony cost around $25. I’ll definitely take a Sony over a Cyberdrive or Lite-On (which probably would have run $19).

I couldn’t get PC Power and Cooling on this budget. The price on the Enermax combo was good (less than a PCP&C 300W power supply alone) and the quality is respectable. The Japanese steel is a little lighter gauge than I prefer, but I didn’t cut myself on it. The fit is good, and it’s a good-looking case. Not show-off good like Lian-Li, but better-looking than most of the stuff in its price range. The cobalt blue trim compliments the lettering on the Plextor drive.

Finding a place to put the hard drives is a bit of a challenge. Modern 7200-rpm drives don’t run very hot, but I still don’t want them running directly above one another. I finally settled on putting a drive in the lowest 3.5″ bay and the other in the lowest 5.25″ bay.

The USR 2977 is the secret weapon here. A $20 no-name Winmodem would be a royal pain to set up, and chew up lots of CPU cycles. The 2977 was under $50 and won’t be a load on the system. That’s a speed trick I’m sure that local guy doesn’t know.

The 1 GHz Duron is still overkill, but that’s the slowest chip I could talk him into. I was starting to get annoyed with him. I don’t just know about computer speed, I literally wrote the book on computer speed, and my friend didn’t know what I was talking about when I said something about a boot floppy. And this year’s hot chip is next year’s budget chip, so if the budget chip is enough to get the job done this year, you can go buy more CPU next year. Besides, there was no way to cram any more CPU power into this tiny budget, other than sacrificing disk speed, which is more important unless he’s running Windows XP, which he won’t be. (I’ll drive 200 miles and take his computer away from him if he does.)

As for the two drives, any time you do multimedia work, you want to make sure your application and swap file are located on one drive, and the audio you’re working with is on a second drive. I probably could have gotten by with a 5400-rpm drive to hold the OS, but there isn’t much price difference between a 5400 RPM 20-gig drive and a 7200.

As for how the system runs, I’m sure it’ll smoke. The motherboard isn’t here yet. In all fairness, I ordered it Monday and it was shipped UPS Ground from California on Tuesday.

I ordered the motherboard from Just Deals and the memory came from Crucial. The rest of the stuff came from Directron and New Egg, who as always gave me great prices and fast delivery.