Well, I’ve got a new FIC AZ-11 board and Duron-750 CPU waiting for me to do something with it. The AZ-11 is $65 (up $5 from when I bought it) at www.gpscomputersvcs.com; the Duron-750 retail is $50 (down $5 from when I bit) but the OEM chip is 33 lousy bucks. I think the retail kit is a good deal, since you get a longer warranty and you know you have an AMD-approved fan. Shipping was $10.50. Nice deal.
Over at Directron.com, you get a good selection of cases and power supplies. And you can get a Diamond Stealth S540 video card for $28 (my forum readers already knew that–hint hint). So, let’s see. Figure $200 for a case, power supply, motherboard, CPU, fan, and video card. All you need is memory, hard drive, floppy drive, and incidentals like an OS, keyboard and mouse and maybe a NIC. So you can have a perfectly respectable system for around $400, but it’ll scale nicely too if you want more. I know my P2-350 at work tends to hover at around 60% CPU usage, so a Duron-750 is way more than necessary for much of what I do, but it’s nice to have some CPU power in reserve.

First impressions of the AZ-11: It’s obviously a modified microATX design. There’s a placeholder for onboard video, which the KT133 chipset lacks (but the KM133, usually used on microATX boards, has). The leftmost 1.5″ of the board is mostly unfinished. Chop that off and it looks like a standard microATX board. It’s not the ideal board, but at $65 you’re getting FIC respectability at a PC Chips price. What do you want for 65 bucks?

With the Gigabyte GA-7DX now selling in the $150 range and Crucial PC2100 memory selling at PC133 prices, DDR makes sense if you’re building an entirely new system. If you want to upgrade something old on the cheap, an AZ-11 and a low-end Duron is a mighty big step up for $125-$150. It wasn’t that long ago that a 4-meg stick of memory cost that much.

And on another note (the CPU): What they say about the fans is true. Be very careful clipping on the fan, and once you get it on, leave it alone. It’s a really tight fit, so I can see why the hardware sites warn against crushing the CPU core. Frankly I’d be afraid to take the fan off the chip.

I’m also a little concerned about the known VIA KT133 problems. There are reports of data corruption on high-speed IDE drives, and apparently use of an SB Live! card makes them worse. And of course I’m going to keep my SB Live! in my fastest system in case I want to do voice recognition.

I just read today that the newest VIA 4-in-1 driver fixes that problem. But I’m thinking seriously about avoiding the problem by putting a SCSI controller and drive on the system. I wonder how many of the infamous IBM 75GXP problems may not have been caused by this. I know the KT133, SB Live!, and IBM 75GXP were an extremely compelling and popular hardware combination because it gave you so much bang for the buck.

Even if I don’t use a SCSI drive and controller, I’ll probably put a Promise Ultra66 in there since it’s known to be a stable, mature, and robust solution and I’ll have plenty of PCI slots available for it.