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Building an inexpensive PC

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.

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5 thoughts on “Building an inexpensive PC”

  1. Hi Dave:

    I built a systems specifically for audio recording and it works great and is VERY low end in this day and age.

    I use it to record LPs and some tapes thorugh a Kenwoord receiver connected to the sound card line in. These are then recorded on CDs as well as convereted to MP3s.

    I also use it to rip CDs and make "car copies" of my favorite CDs.

    What is this PC:

    FIC VA503+ Motherboard
    AMD K6-2 550 MHz CPU with Thermaltake cooler
    258 Mb PNY 133 DIMM
    QPS 24X CD-R
    Old ATI PCI All-in-Wonder 4Mb video board
    Old Soundblaster AWE64 Value ISA Sound Card
    Two Seagate 40 GB 5400 new hardrives.

    Software used includes Win98SE updated, Nero 5, MusicMatch, CDEx V 4.3, Adaptec Easy CD Creator V4 and the bundled CD label maker (which is the only part of that bundle I routinely use).

    The LP turntable is a Harmon Kardon T60C with a Shure V15 Type V-MR cartridge (very expensive in the mid 80s) that still prodices excellent sound with LPs.

    The resulting CDs, to my fairly well trained ear sound EXACTLY like the LPs.

    Not bad for cheap equipment. The motherboard was bought about three months ago bundled with the CPU for $106, the memory was about $35 and everyhting works great.

    I think this MB / CPU combo is excellent, there are many settngs you an tweak. This PC is FASTER than my Dell PIII 800 Latitude notebook also running Win98SE with 256 Mb Ram.

    Very stable, no blue screens, etc. What more could you ask for?



  2. Sounds like it will easily cut the mustard to me. I don’t know what your friend was complaining about wrt the Duron.

    What sound card did you go with in the end?

  3. No sound card other than the one built into the motherboard. He’s going to use a dedicated editing card that comes with the software package he wants to run. I probably would have used whatever Guillemot or Turtle Beach card would have fit the budget.

  4. If he’s serious aboot building a DAW and doing some hard core audio recording, and wants to get a great entry level sound card, try the Echo MIA 24/96.

    True 24 Bit recording (unlike SB Audigy) 4 1/4" inputs on the card, comes with Cubasis software (fairly nice multi-track recording app) for around $200. Of course that’s retail price.. and who the hell ever pays that.. 🙂 Get it for aboat 150 on eBay.

    P.S. If the Echo is too much, then the Midiman Audiophile is another great choice. Also 24/96 for $150 Retail, comes with cakewalk (but I’d use N-track instead… best audio app for the money, hands down.. only 40 bucks to register it and it does everything cakewalk or cool edit does.)

    P.S.S. I sent an email with my latest puter build specs.. but I just found this comments section, so here it is again…

    AMD Athlon XP 1900+ CPU
    Soyo Dragon Plus Mobo DDR
    Volcano 6cu HS+Fan
    GeForce3 Ti 200 Video Card
    Maxtor D740 7200RPM 40GB
    256MB PC2100 RAM (Apacer, Cas Latency 2)
    Alps 3.5" Floppy
    Pioneer 16X/40X DVD (slotload… man those are cool)
    AOpen 24X10X40X CD-RW
    FuturePower JADA Case 400W

    All new parts… $850

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