Dude! I’m getting a… Packard Bell!

Oh wait. No, I’m thinking of Steve. Although he and I did just get identical Dell Optiplex GX1 P2-450 workstations to use as Web servers. We learned a little bit about them too.

First off, the Optiplexes — at least this particular model and vintage, a GX1 450MTbr+ — use NLX motherboards with riser cards. Not that we’ll use the expansion slots for much — ATI Rage Pro video and a 3Com 3C905 NIC are built into the motherboard. There aren’t many options for upgrading it, but that drove the price down. For $194, I got a P2-450, 128 megs of RAM, an Adaptec 2940UW SCSI host adapter, a 9.1 GB Quantum Viking II 7200-rpm SCSI hard drive, decent video (not that I care about video in a server), Toshiba 32X ATAPI CD-ROM, and a first-rate 3Com NIC. I’d have been hard pressed to upgrade my current Web server to those specs for much less than that, and this way I get a spare PC, complete, to mess around with.
Steve’s Optiplex was DOA–it would power up, but there was no video signal. I vaguely remembered running into this on an Optiplex years ago, and I solved it by re-seating the NLX riser card. So I did that on Steve’s, and it came to life. When troubleshooting an Optiplex, that should always be the first thing you do. The whole cage comes out, so you can do it without touching any of the cards.

The BIOS on this machine is funky. If you exit CMOS Setup by hitting ESC, it’ll save the changes and boot, but the changes won’t take effect. You have to hit Alt-B, which saves your changes and does a warm reboot, so the changes stick.

I also remember that every expensive mistake I’ve made on a PC in the past decade has been on a Dell. Routine upgrades that take me five minutes on a Micron or IBM or Compaq or–gasp–Packard Bell box usually take me forever on Dells, partially due to peculiarities like the CMOS setup. I remember a hard drive upgrade once taking me several hours, after I’d done the same upgrade on a Compaq days before and it taking 30 minutes. One of my previous employers bought mostly IBMs and a few Dells; I used to hate getting the Dells because something always went wrong during the setup, while IBMs were a breeze.

I’ve blown up two motherboards in Dells; the only other motherboard I’ve ever blown was a PC/XT board back in 1990 or 1991. I look like a wizard when working on most other machines, but most Dells reduce me to a bumbling idiot.

Now I own one. And Steve wants to know why I didn’t tell him all this before he spent $194. But hey, the price was right. And don’t let this deter you–if you spot a high-end P2 with a nice hard drive in it that’s just off a corporate replacement cycle for a good price, go ahead and get it. Just be aware that it’ll be more finicky than the computer you built yourself. It’ll also have a funky power supply that you’ll have to replace if you ever want a standard motherboard, and you’ve got about a 50% chance of being able to find a motherboard that’ll fit, but I didn’t buy a $200 computer with the intention of upgrading it, short of maybe throwing in a little more memory or another SCSI drive. By the time this machine is obsolete as a Web server, I’ll be able to buy a 2 GHz machine for $200.

On the upside, you’re less likely to get any serious injuries working on a Dell case than a lot of brands, and the machines are reliable. The machines aren’t known for their overclockability, but they generally perform pretty well. Especially when they’re former high-end workstations with nice SCSI subsystems. And if you’re wanting to break into IT, an awful lot of corporations use Dells, and if you know some of the pitfalls, you have a leg up on the people like me who started their careers installing upgrades in IBM and Compaq and HP PCs.

But would I buy a Dell new? Not on your life. There are three people I trust to build a PC new: me, Steve DeLassus, and Tom Gatermann. I trust Tom and Steve because they build ’em the same way I do, and use ’em the same way I do.

It came OS-less. Well, it had command.com from Windows 98 on it. I blew it away and put Linux on it. No, I didn’t put just any Linux on it, and I didn’t do a standard install. Yes, it was Debian-derived because I want stability. But I did a few tricks. I’ll share those tomorrow. Then I’ll tackle the obnoxious theological question over the weekend.

In fact, you’re using my Dell right now. It’s my new web server. If the site’s ever-so-slightly faster now, that’s why.

If you found this post informative or helpful, please share it!

6 thoughts on “Dude! I’m getting a… Packard Bell!

  • July 25, 2002 at 8:18 am

    Dave, I read your comments every day and am always
    impressed by the thought that goes into them. Thanks,
    they make me think too. Anyway, about your not buying
    a new Dell nowadays… I can understand your thinking,
    but Dell is always running great deals on excellent
    prebuilt systems. I regularly visit http://www.fatwallet.com‘s
    and http://www.anandtech.com‘s forums, plus the deals at
    http://www.techbargains.com, and you might be surprised at
    how Dell can blow stuff out the door for the same or
    less than you can build it for yourself. I was always
    in the same mode of thinking as you, namely, I can
    build one better than I can buy one, but when you
    regulary see Dell P4 PC’s going for $450-500 (using
    the latest DDR or RAMBUS mobo’s, with decent video
    cards, HD’s and DVD/CDRW) it’s hard not to think
    twice about rolling your own. I bought a P4 1.6
    system from them in March for $500 and try as I might
    could not build the same system with the same components
    for the same money. Some times it’s Dell price mistakes
    but mostly they just get rid of inventory, I think.

  • July 25, 2002 at 8:58 am

    Thanks so much for changing your page so that I don’t have to “click here for more” anymore 🙂 All we need, again, is the page down key – ahhhhh, blessed relief ….

  • July 25, 2002 at 9:42 am

    David, thanks for your comments (and the compliments).

    I guess buying a bargain Dell vs. building your own comes down to how much you mess around with your system. If you’re content to mostly use it in its factory configuration, sure, a blowout-priced Dell P4 would do nicely. (Of course, I’ve been seeing low-end P4s selling in the $500 range from Gateway and Compaq and HP, among others, as well lately, and given a choice, I’d probably go with one of those.)

    There are some pundits who recommend never buying a Dell, ever, which is an extreme I won’t go to. But if I have a choice between a comparably-specced Dell and a machine from someone else, I’ll probably grab the machine from someone else.

    As you say, if you can buy an acceptable machine for less than you can build it, it makes sense to at least consider it. But also keep in mind that the components that Gateway and Dell and HP, etc., use aren’t always the same as the retail components. OEM sound cards very frequently have lower-quality audio inputs than the retail components (important if you do voice recognition or audio editing), and OEM video cards often have slower memory, lower refresh rates, etc. to cut down on costs.

    Since this is a Web server, of course, I don’t care about those things. For a computer you actually sit down and use, those things might or might not matter.

  • July 25, 2002 at 10:52 am

    Points of order:

    1) Dude, you gave me Packard Bell entrails! Dave is referring to a SIX CENT FLOPPY DRIVE CABLE he foisted on me, not a full system. I’ve never owned a Packaged Hell system, since you had to calculate its age by taking the average of its used parts. It made me feel dirty just to accept the floppy cable.

    2) The machine has a great configuration out of the box. It’s nice to not have to install any cards. Pointing this system out to me almost makes up for that Shockwave link. Almost.

    3) “…most Dells reduce me to a bumbling idiot.” Hmm, Dave’s down on the floor with his Dell, patting and scratching the wrong end of my dog, mumbling something about “good kitty”, and threatening to install a new hard drive. Fatigue or the Dell Effect? 🙂

  • September 13, 2002 at 12:00 pm

    Hello Dave,

    I found your web page after looking for help with my OptiPlex GX1 350+. I bought it for $110.00 at Boeing Surplus and I thought I had a deal. I fussed with it a little bit once I got it home. Now I have booted it up but it hangs right at the beginning. It just shows the “DELL” logo and the little bar that fills in is only 1/5 filled in.

    How can I bring my Otiplex back to life??????

    Joseph Collas

  • September 14, 2002 at 9:16 am

    I’m much more familiar with other brands’ quirks than with Dells, but I’d try the standard troubleshooting procedures: First, pop the case and re-seat all cards and cables. Don’t just press down on them, remove them completely and reinstall them.

    If that fails, try clearing CMOS. The procedure varies from machine to machine. The info is probably inside the case, or on Dell’s Web site.

    Try swapping in another stick of memory that you know works right.

    And finally, try starting up with the hard drive unplugged. A trashed MBR can lead to all sorts of weird problems. If that clears it up, see if you can put the drive in another machine as a slave drive, run fdisk /mbr and then reinstall.

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