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.