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Dell and Gateway upgrade caveats

I sent this message to Mike Magee of The Inquirer this morning:
Hi Mike,

I’m a freelance author, with one book published by O’Reilly to my credit and a few appearances in Computer Shopper UK.

I visited the Scott Mueller link you referenced at, and just to alert you, I’m not certain that Scott Mueller’s dates on the Dell systems are correct. In late 1998, I attempted to upgrade a Dell P133-based system with an AOpen AX59Pro motherboard, in order to get around the nasty memory limitations in Intel’s 430VX chipset. I knew the motherboard worked because I pulled it out of another working system. The board didn’t work in the Dell. Then, when I reinstalled it in the system I pulled it from, it didn’t work there either.

Fortunately I didn’t kill the power supply so I was able to get the system up and running again by replacing the factory board.

This leads me to believe that Dell has engaged in the practice of nonstandard wiring since 1996.

My recommendation to my readers has always been to replace the power supply when replacing a motherboard in a Dell, since standard ATX power supplies easily bolt into the Dell cases. Any brand-name power supply purchased at retail (Sparkle, Antec, Enermax, etc.) is likely to be of higher quality than the stock Dell power supply anyway, but that’s an additional upgrade expense people may not consider.

I suspect the reason this hasn’t been more widely known is that Dell mostly sells to corporations and has only recently gone after the consumer market in aggressive fashion, and corporations rarely replace motherboards. The labor involved in making the swap, then reinstalling the operating system and applications, costs too much. There’s less labor involved in replacing the system, and then you have a system covered under warranty.

Incidentally, while Gateway does use the standard ATX pinout, many Gateway cases use an odd-shaped power supply. So while an aftermarket power supply will function electrically, it’ll take some cutting and drilling on the case to allow you to bolt it in. Most people will prefer to just buy a new case if the power supply in their Gateway dies–and the power supply is usually the first component to go in a Gateway, in my experience.

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6 thoughts on “Dell and Gateway upgrade caveats”

  1. I suppose there are multiple issues here and I haven’t seen anybody address them with authority. For sure I won’t either. My own impression was that Dell mobos were frankly proprietary for a long time while Gateway shipped what amounted to degraded Intel reference systems. My impression was that once upon a time Dell was striving to catch up to Compaq and stay ahead of IBM as offering features and performance early in the cycle, as e.g. VESA bus Mobos for better than run of the white box performance. At some point I thought Dell went to a General Motors model, like the days when full size Chevies had cheap brakes, (FMSI 227/228 shoes for those who remember) and to get better brakes you had to buy a fancier car, no upgrades on the model. Dell would sell you desktop boxes at any price point but volume was enough that they were each built to the price point.

    The real concern currently is what dates and models and perhaps service codes might be mistakenly taken for standard parts and without any warning labels or other indications.

    Sounds to me as though the answer is that most any Dell you run across is going to be odd-ball no matter how it eye-balls?

  2. Highly likely. But the thing to remember about any pundit is the small sample size. I got burned in late 1998 (I remember it was before Christmas), and that system was at least two years old then. But we only had three Dell desktop systems at work, all identical, and aside from a couple of laptops, that was all that company ever bought from Dell. It was mostly a Micron shop.

    But based on that, it’s entirely possible that Dell has never shipped a standard ATX system. Remember, the ATX standard isn’t much older than the Pentium-133 chip itself.

    I suspect Scott Mueller arrived at the Sept. 1998 date because he knew that was when his Dell was manufactured.

    I’ve worked on a number of Dell systems over the past 9 years, but the incident in 1998 was the only time I ever attempted to change an ATX-like motherboard. I’ve never personally bought a Dell, and I’ve very rarely worked for anyone who had any inclination to swap a motherboard.

    I can’t prove that Dell never shipped a standard ATX system, but I sure have more indication that they didn’t than I have indication that they did. It’s certainly safest to assume that they never have.

    One piece of potentially useful advice: If the system owner still has the manual, check it. I know Dell system manuals used to give you pinouts of just about everything imaginable.

  3. Mike Magee’s response:

    Very interesting Dave. In fact, I had an email from ex Gateway employee which I’ll run today and which backs up what you say below. [Er, above. No link to that yet. –DF]


  4. i put my old emachine 600 in a new tower and am having trouble with the wiring and getting it to start back up. Any advice at all would be super helpful. thanks

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