Spend your computer money on your monitor, not some hopped-up CPU

I read an editorial at Tom’s Hardware this morning that struck me as a bit unusual. Not only did it not mention Quake once (or Doom or whatever the FPS flavor of the week is today), it didn’t mention overclocking, and it wasn’t especially excited about AMD and Intel’s new CPU releases today.
In fact, it argued that by rushing out and buying those CPUs, all you’re doing is giving AMD and Intel an interest-free loan. You buy the chips now. The apps that need them will come later. And that, he said, is just plain wrong.

And I thought to myself: How is this any different from history? Yes, I’ll concede that every chip from the 486 up to, say, the chips of the gigahertz race was overdue. But let’s face it. When Gatermann’s dad needed a computer, we tracked down a used Dell P2-450. When a mutual friend’s sister went off to college, we tracked down another off-lease Dell, added a CD burner, and sent her on her way. If you know how to set a computer up right, it’s entirely possible to be plenty productive on a P2.

And the majority of people are mainly interested in using a computer to surf the Web, read e-mail, do some word processing, listen to MP3s and burn music CDs. For tasks like that, a P2 is, frankly, overkill.

When the first 386 PCs appeared in 1986, they were overkill. People were content with their 4.77 MHz XTs. Some of them had just gotten 6 or 8 MHz ATs, which were themselves overkill. Everyone seems to think the x86 series debuted in 1981. It didn’t. Intel released the 8088 in 1977. It was four years before the chip got mainstream use! (The 8086, after which the family is named, waited even longer.)

This industry has always been built with the bucks from the early adopters and enthusiasts. Always. And if you don’t want to play, nobody’s making you. I haven’t ordered my Athlon 64 yet.

It’s never made sense for me to be the first one on my block with the hottest new CPU. The same is true for most people I know. A lot of people would do well with a $150 used computer from one of these guys–click one of the links and scroll to the bottom and find a link that says “systems” or “desktop PCs”–and a really good keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Or if you want new, buy the cheapest PC available from a first-tier vendor you trust, then spend the money you would have spent on a 3 GHz Pentium 4 Extreme Edition CPU on something that’s actually useful, like that thing you spend all that time staring at. Get a flat-panel LCD monitor that runs at a comfortable resolution. Ditch the $3 keyboard and mouse that comes with the system and buy nice(r) ones. (The best keyboards on the market bring sticker shock–I have trouble justifying a $150 computer keyboard too, I know.)

Chances are you’ll have money left over. Good. In two years the budget CPU will be faster than that P4 Extreme Edition that Intel is touting today. Start saving for 2005’s budget PC now. The monitor, keyboard, and mouse you just shelled out the big bucks for will still work with it, and you’ll be a lot happier.

5 thoughts on “Spend your computer money on your monitor, not some hopped-up CPU

  • September 24, 2003 at 2:29 am
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    I am writing this on a 400 MHz Pentium II with 384 MB PC-100 RAM on an Intel 440BX-based motherboard. The only thing this computer does *not* do well is anything requiring 3D or a decent framebuffer. An 8 MB Riva 128ZX will do that to you.

    This machine does have three things that are new: keyboard, mouse, and monitor. I have a new AOC Spectrum 9Glr (decent 19″ monitor), a new Microsoft Intellimouse Explorer Wireless USB, and a new Microsoft NaturalKeyboard Elite USB (which I’m not too fond of, but my fiancee loves it).

    So I totally agree with what you say.

    Hey, by the way, 98lite.net now has XPlite. 😉

  • September 24, 2003 at 9:31 am
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    I agree with you, Dave. I’ve got a 1.2 GHz Athlon system at home, a sub-$500 Gateway refurb from TiggerDuhrect. My web server is a P3-500 MHz Gateway upgraded with a $140 Tualatin Celeron 1.4 GHz from PowerLeap. When the 3+ GHz systems cost less than $700, then I’ll start considering them as a possible purchase. Bleeding edge is *definitely not* necessary for most home users’ needs. Isn’t it great how you can pick up a 64 or 128 MB GeForce MX board for so little these days?

  • September 28, 2003 at 10:23 pm
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    But the average user needs all these FLOPS so that they can type their emails faster… LOL…

  • October 1, 2003 at 4:09 am
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    The only reason I have a 2100+ Athlon XP is because a lot of the newer games I am playing need them, and I wanted a top of the line system that should last me a fair while. I am not likely to be among those who will be doing the thrice yearly upgrade cycle, but I do plan to keep up the schedule of gaming.

  • October 3, 2003 at 2:52 am
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    Dave, heard about surpluscomputers/softwareandstuff being bad retailers. There was even a link to their BBB rating: http://www.bbbsilicon.org/commonreport.html?compid=212384

    I don’t bring this up to be all negative, but was curious to hear your thoughts on this as you are recommending them.

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