The State Department is just one of many examples of IT gone rogue

Much has been made of Hillary Clinton’s use of her own mail server, running out of her home. It didn’t change my opinion of her, and I don’t think it changed anyone else’s either–it just reinforces what everyone has thought of her since the early 1990s. Then, Ars Technica came forward with the bizarre case of Scott Gration, an ambassador who ran his own shadow IT shop out of a bathroom stall in Nairobi.

The money quote from Ars: “In other words, Gration was the end user from hell for an understaffed IT team.” And it concluded with, “[A]s with Clinton, Gration was the boss—and the boss got what the boss wanted.”

Indeed. And it doesn’t just happen in the government.

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Snickering at the Emachine

For several years, I administered a command and control system for the U.S. Air Force. I sat in a datacenter, surrounded by racks jam-packed full of servers, and they kept the building at 64 degrees year round. I quickly learned to keep a jacket handy. I did several things, but mostly patch management.

Our system consisted of a diverse collection of Dell 1U and 5U servers, HP blades, and a couple of Sun SPARC boxes. It was a professional-looking setup, and except for the times we were doing massive system upgrades, the system generally worked as well as it looked.

Then we got a neighbor.

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Happy 30th birthday, Commodore 64

The C-64 sort of turns 30 this week. It was introduced 30 years ago this week, though it wasn’t until August or so that you could actually buy one. It took that long for memory prices to come down to reach the target price, and if memory serves, the machine they displayed at CES in January wasn’t quite production-ready anyway.

I remember the machine well. It was my first computer. It seems like just yesterday the thing turned 25. And not all that long ago that I still used one on a regular basis.

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Windows for Morons

Microsoft is considering a numeric ratings system for PCs for the upcoming version of Windows–The Operating System Formerly Known As Longhorn, that is. I believe it’s going to be called Windows LH.

I smell marketing.Basically the idea is that a PC will be assigned an arbitrary numeric rating between 1 and 5, based on how much CPU power, memory, and potentially how powerful the video card is. Then a piece of hardware will have a number on it, and software will have the same number. If a piece of software has a "5" on it, don’t expect it to run well on a $399 Emachine with a rating of "1".

The problem with this idea is that capabilities change. This year’s "5" PC is 2006’s "1" PC. Granted, PC capabilities aren’t growing by leaps and bounds the way they have for the past few years, and maybe this is an admission that CPU power has leveled off, but memory requirements aren’t going to level off, and hard disk speeds are doing anything but standing still. So this is still a system with built-in obsolesence. And it doesn’t even take into consideration the speed of the disk drives, which to me is still the most underrated component of system performance. If you’re not a gamer, you’re much better off with the cheapest PC you can buy, hot-rodded with the fastest hard drive you can find and some extra memory, than you are with a system with a fire-breathing CPU and the hottest new video card. Or just put the same drive and memory into your old one and keep it for another three years.

Old-fashioned system requirements are still the way to go, I believe.

But I suppose if this rating system goes through–which really should be conducted by an objective third party and not by the collusion of Microsoft and Intel–it’ll give me a chance to write a new book. So I guess I should be happy, eh?

The Microsoft Killer

Yet another story about what’s going to kill Microsoft popped up on Slashdot today. This time it’s cheap solid-state computers running open-source software. I didn’t bother reading it.

Here’s what I think the Microsoft killer will be: Windows.

Say what?Yeah, Windows.

Computers are cheap enough now that the majority of people who want one have one. Even those who can’t afford to buy new can turn to the used market–used 1 GHz systems are now selling in the $100-$150 range without an operating system.

The biggest problem with a computer these days is keeping it running. People throw away VCRs and DVD players because it’s cheaper to buy a new one than to have one repaired. And had I charged fair market value for the last computer repair I did, it probably would have exceeded the cost of a $399 Emachine.

But there’s a problem. When a VCR or DVD player dies, you unplug the old one, plug in the new one, and get on with life. You’re looking at three or four cable connections. It takes most people less than 10 minutes, usually much less. When you go to swap out a computer, you have to worry about all your data and the programs you installed.

Most people don’t know that 99% of their data is in one place, and even fewer people know where that is and how to get to it. These same people are the ones who are most likely to inadvertently end up with their data in weird places.

The result is the cost to replace a computer is much higher, and it’s not necessarily something the majority of people want to undertake themselves.

The result is lost revenue. And an opportunity.

Google, if you’re the one who wants to unseat Microsoft, find a way to help users move their data from one computer to another. Someone else, if you want to beat Google to the punch, find a way to help users move their data and their programs. I know such a program won’t be foolproof, but if it works even 75% of the time, it’ll sell like crazy.

Of course if someone does it and it proves successful, Microsoft will just clone it and assimilate the market.

But if no one does, maybe Steve Jobs will sell a lot more Macs, because this is one task that’s always been easier on a Macintosh.

Hard drive upgrade tips for older PCs

A hard drive upgrade is one of the best ways to extend the usable lifespan of a computer.

A lot of people come to this site looking for hard drive upgrade advice, but I realized that it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about that. Since there are some gotchas, I need to address them.Most PCs, whether it’s a Compaq, Dell, Emachine, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard/HP, IBM, or a no-name clone, use IDE or ATA hard drives. The two terms mean basically the same thing, and the drives are interchangeable. IDE is dirt, dirt cheap, so it’s what virtually everyone uses. But its limitations can cause headaches, especially on older systems.

A growing concern is the question about serial ATA versus parallel ATA drives. Older systems used parallel drives exclusively. The highest-capacity drives are serial ATA, however. Serial allows longer cable lengths and thin, flexible cables that don’t interfere with airflow and look better when put inside computer cases with transparent sides. While the majority of people couldn’t care less what the inside of the computer looks like, cable length and airflow have been serious issues for many years–the first computer I ever repaired, back in 1993, overheated because someone had blocked the fan vents with an IDE hard drive cable. Today, with new computer running so hot that some computer enthusiasts use them to heat their homes in the winter, it’s an even bigger concern.

If your older computer doesn’t have serial ATA connectors, and you want to buy a 400-gigabyte serial ATA hard drive, then you just have to remember to buy a serial ATA controller card. As of this writing, a cheap no-name SATA controller costs a little over $20 while the big names like Promise, Sonnet, and Adaptec cost closer to $60-$80. What do you get for the extra money? Usually you get better performance and you’ll always get better technical support if you run into problems.

If you’re the kind of person who’s been building your own computers since before building your own computers was cool, you might consider taking your chances on the cheapies. If your only experience as a computer technician is adding a new memory stick, it’s much safer to buy a Promise or Adaptec card.

The good news with Serial ATA is that everything else you need to know is either on the poster that comes with the hard drive or in the thin manual that comes with the card. You can quit reading now.

With parallel ATA, there are still some gotchas. Some older systems can’t handle drives larger than 137 gigabytes or 34 gigabytes, and some really old systems can’t handle drives bigger than 8.4 gigs, 3.2 gigs, 2.1 gigs, or (gulp) half a gig.

If your computer dates from 1997, it might have the 8.4 gig limit. Anything newer than that is more likely to have the 34 or 137 gigabyte limit.

Hard drive manufacturers recommend one of three solutions: Use an included software overlay, buy or download a BIOS upgrade, or buy a new IDE controller.

The biggest problem with the software overlay method is that it doesn’t always work. If the computer goes into a permanent coma when you plug a 200-gigabyte hard drive into it, the software overlay won’t help. The other problem is that it’s way too easy to corrupt the software overlay and render the drive inaccessible. Reinstalling the overlay might or might not get your data back. And besides that, the new hard drive is probably capable of saturating your old IDE bus. In plain English, the drive might be able to run faster than your computer can take the data, which means buying a new controller card will make it faster. So I really have problems recommending the software overlay method.

The BIOS upgrade method is better, in that it’s usually free, and doesn’t have the disadvantages of the software overlay. The downside is that sometimes the manufacturers don’t offer a suitable upgrade. Don’t expect to be able to get a BIOS upgrade to allow a Pentium II-333 from 1998 to use a 200-gig drive, for instance. What about the places that claim to sell BIOS upgrades to allow new drives? I’ve only dealt with those companies twice, but in each case, they didn’t seem to have anything newer than the original manufacturer.

I’ve seen some hacked BIOS upgrades, where some enthusiast took the most recently available BIOS and modified it for new drives, but the legality of these BIOSes is very questionable, and I’m a little bit uncomfortable with using a hacked BIOS.

Then there’s that issue of bandwidth. If an older computer only has a 33 megabyte-per-second controller, and the new drive is intended for 133, suffice it to say it’s not going to perform at its peak. A new controller is the better option

The upside to old-fashioned parallel IDE controllers is the price. A Promise ATA133 controller card costs $35-$40. I’ve seen no-names for as little as $17. So the price won’t break the bank, and they give good performance.

And let’s talk performance. Unless you’re into 3D gaming, the two most important factors in computer performance are the hard drive and having adequate memory. A lot of people today take the attitude that a Pentium II is worthless. While it’s true that you can’t play Doom 3 on one, there are a lot of people out there who couldn’t care less about Doom 3 and they just want Word to load fast. For people like that, the best thing to do is max out the computer’s memory (but check prices–RAM for older computers can be very expensive), and buy a new hard drive controller and a big, honking wicked-fast hard drive.

Oh, and make sure your PC doesn’t have any spyware.

Beware the “flat screen” scam

I was just pricing out some parts for the pending Compaq Presario upgrade when I remembered the latest scam–well, it’s not technically a scam, but it’s definitely deceptive advertising. Many stores offer a bundle with a low-end PC and a 17-inch “flat screen” for an unbelievable deal, like $499. Chances are, if you read this site, some relative of yours is going to be asking about that, if they haven’t started asking already. And I’m pretty sure you know that right now $399 is a pretty good deal for a 17-inch LCD flat panel alone.
Needless to say, that 17-inch “flat screen” isn’t an LCD. It’s a CRT. Sometimes they even use camera tricks in the picture to try to make the CRT look like an LCD.

In all truthfulness, that 17-inch monitor being advertised as a bargain flat screen probably does have a flatter screen than whatever your relative is using right now. And CRTs continue to improve steadily. But it’s still a CRT, and it’s probably not what your relative is looking for.

Tell your relatives to read the fine print and look for an LCD. And tell them to keep in mind nobody’s giving away LCDs right now, because LCDs are one of the very few things in the computer field that have held steady demand for the past couple of years. At least one consumer electronics chain used a 14-inch Mag Innovision LCD as a Black Friday special, pricing it at $99 after rebates the day after Thanksgiving. I expect that deal will reappear once or twice in the coming year, but a 14-inch LCD gives the same screen real estate as a 15-inch CRT. It’d be great for a second computer–I’ll eventually buy one to keep in my study, where a small and quiet computer is ideal–but it’s probably not what LCD bargain hunters are looking for either.

Oh, and speaking of the Presario, if you’re looking for a replacement power supply for it on the cheap either for a motherboard upgrade or because one has failed, the product you want is the Foxconn Allied ATX200SFX, priced at $19 at Newegg.com. It’ll also fit an eMachine and the small-form Gateway and HP PCs. The trick to recognizing an SFX power supply is to look at how it’s bolted into the chasis. If it’s held in by three screws, with two on one side and a third on the other side towards the middle, it’s probably an SFX form factor. A lot of smaller ATX power supplies use four screws. So ask your vendor lots of questions, and buy as much wattage as you can get in whatever size you’re stuck with.

Windows 98 CD-ROM drive not working? Try this.

Windows 98 CD-ROM drive not working? Try this.

Occasionally, a PC’s CD or DVD-ROM drive will stop responding for no known good reason. Sometimes the problem is hardware–a CD-ROM drive, being a mechanical component, can fail–but as often as not, it seems, the problem is software rather than hardware. Here’s what to do with a Windows 95 or Windows 98 CD-ROM drive not working when the same drive works just fine in another OS.

If Windows has both 16- and 32-bit CD-ROM drivers, it can get confused and disable the drive to protect itself. The solution is to remove the 16-bit driver, then delete the obscure NoIDE registry key to re-enable the 32-bit driver.

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Straight talk on cheap laptops

I’ve been getting lots of traffic ever since we started talking about the Sotec 3120x laptop here last week. It looks like an era of inexpensive laptops is about to arrive, because the Sotec isn’t your only choice.
Sam’s Club sells a variant of the 3120x for about the same price as Wal-Mart, but it comes with a 30GB drive in place of the 20.

Steve DeLassus tells me a number of places have been hawking Toshiba Satellite 1115-S103 laptops in the sub-$1000 price range after coupons and rebates and other marketing gyrations. Suggested retail price on it is $1099. Street price should be $1049 or lower, as that’s Toshiba’s price if you buy direct. Toshiba’s offering a $200 mail-in rebate. So at the very worst, you can get a Satellite 1115-S103 for $849 if you buy it direct from Toshiba.

And then I did some checking on a hunch. Dell’s offering its Inspiron 2650C for $899 ($849 through 12/11). HP is offering its Compaq Presario 905us notebook with an Athlon XP 1400, 256 MB RAM, DVD, 14.1″ LCD for $999 with a $100 rebate. The HP Pavilion ze4101 has a faster processor but less memory, for the same price. There are some variants on the HPs and Compaqs out there–you might not find in stores exactly what HP’s selling direct, but you’ll find something awfully close.

The Toshiba and Dell offer a bigger screen (14.1 inches), DVD drives, 256 MB RAM (the Dell has 128), and the other expected gizmos like modem and networking, along with a seemingly faster 1.5 GHz Celeron processor.

Which brings up a point.

The 1.5 GHz Celeron is based on the P4 architecture. Remember, at 1.5 GHz, the P4 is a dog. The Celeron is a castrated P4. The P4-based Celeron doesn’t start to give decent speeds until it hits 2 GHz. Even though the Celeron 1.5 has a 300 MHz advantage over the older P3-based Celeron 1.2, the “slower” Celeron will actually be faster. And less expensive.

The HP/Compaq models offer truly faster AMD Athlon XP CPUs and ATI Radeon mobility video chipsets.

I know people are going to ask me which one to buy. So let’s agonize together.

Durability: Toshiba, Dell, HP and Compaq all had decent service records in the past and there are lots of places that will work on them. Sotec is more of an unknown in the United States at this point.

Dell has traditionally had the best reputation, but their laptops didn’t fare well this year in PC World’s service and reliability roundup. HP and Toshiba were the best of this bunch. Now that HP and Compaq are the same company, the Compaq should fare well too.

Frankly, I’d buy an extended warranty with any of them, and count on it breaking at least once. That’s par for the course with a laptop, especially if you use it for what it’s intended, which is carrying it around a lot.

Performance: The 1.5 GHz Celeron in the Toshiba and Dell models is a notoriously bad performer. The 1.2 GHz Celeron in the Sotec is a good performer but the integrated video will hurt. The HPQ models use AMD Athlon XP CPUs and ATI Radeon Mobility video chipsets. Performance on the latest 3D games will disappoint (but LCD screens in general are bad for 3D gaming). But for light gaming and everything else someone might want to do, the HP and Compaq models will be great.

Input: The Sotec offers a slightly reduced keyboard with an at-times quirky layout. The others offer full-sized keyboards. All use touchpads; they’ll be decent but you’ll probably want to pick up a USB mouse with any of them to use at least part of the time. Touch-typists will prefer anyone but Sotec. Hunt-and-peck types probably won’t care much one way or the other.

Portability: The Sotec weighs 4.4 pounds. The others weigh in at 6.5 or 6.9 pounds. None are hogs, but some people will really like the svelte Sotec. The Sotec has a longer battery life. Advantage: Sotec.

Expandability/extras: The Toshiba, HP and Compaq models offer TV-out, which isn’t something everybody needs, but when you want it, you want it. It allows you to use a big-screen TV for presentations in a pinch. You can connect up a TV to the laptop and do digital slideshows for a bigger audience than can crowd around a laptop screen, which is nice if you’re into that kind of thing. And when hooked up to a TV, it can serve as an emergency DVD player.

The Toshiba offers two PCMCIA slots. Everyone else offers one. HP and Compaq memory maxes out at 1024 MB, while memory on the Toshiba and Dell max out at 512 MB to the Sotec’s 384 MB. HP, Compaq, and Sotec are all using shared video memory, so they’ll steal a little system memory to give to the video chip. Toshiba and Dell aren’t doing this. All have built-in USB 1.1 and networking; none offer built-in Firewire.

HP offers the fastest CPU of the bunch, and CPU upgrades in laptops are always questionable.

Advantage: HP.

Serviceability: The Sotec’s DVD/CD-RW drive and hard drive are bolted in, rather than being plug-in modules. It’ll be a lot harder to fix yourself if need be. On most other companys’ models (I don’t know about any of these for certain), the drives slide out easily for replacement. Replacement CD/DVD drives are a pain to track down after the fact for any laptop more than a year or two old, but the big name brands will almost certainly be easier. If you buy an extended warranty, fixing it is someone else’s problem, at least for a couple of years. Advantage: Everyone but Sotec.

Overall winner: Hard to say. The Sotec is designed to be a subnotebook; the others are entry-level full notebooks. If portability and versatility are important to you, get the Sotec. It’s the only one of the bunch that’ll burn CDs for you at this price point. Keep in mind that the Sotec’s combo DVD/CD-RW drive will wear out quickly if you use it to watch a lot of movies, and that replacing it won’t be terribly easy, as it’s not a slide-in module like costlier notebooks use. If you intend to watch a lot of movies on the Sotec, make sure you buy an extended warranty on it.

The Sotec has a couple of question marks, but it also has an awful lot going for it.

The HP and Compaq models have the best combination of serviceability, expandability, speed, and reliability. I don’t think I’d mess with the Toshiba or Dell unless their prices dropped considerably. Between Compaq and HP, HP gives you the faster CPU, while Compaq gives you the bigger hard drive and more memory. It’s easier to add memory and replace the hard drive than it is to upgrade a laptop CPU; I’d get the HP and add memory to it pretty quickly and plan on replacing its hard drive with a large 5400 RPM model in a couple of years. With its best-of-class CPU and video and upgraded someday with a faster hard drive, the HP ought to be a good performer for many years. If the Sotec’s question marks scare you, the HP offers a compelling alternative.

Future outlook: When a system reaches a magical price point (notables were the $899 all-in-one Compaq Presarios in 1996, the $399 eMachine in 1998, the $199 Microtel Linux PCs from Wal-Mart this year, and this year’s sub-$900 laptops) it’s extremely tempting to run out and buy one. Especially the Sotec, which offers not only a great price, but almost every possible extra.

But remember what happened in the past. Compaq invaded Packard Bell’s territory in 1996 and released an underpowered but reliable and capable PC for $899, complete. Almost immediately, everybody was selling PCs for under $1,000. Then along came eMachines, deciding that even $499 wasn’t cheap enough and offering a unit, again underpowered, for $399. Few matched eMachines’ price point, but most companies were soon offering something for $499.

Laptops aren’t going to bottom out at $849. There’s no point in putting a smaller screen or hard drive in that Sotec. But if Wal-Mart decides it wants a bottom-feeder laptop, it could have Sotec substitute a VIA C3 chip for the Celeron (the Celeron’s being phased out anyway, and Wal-Mart already sells C3-based machines and their sales have proven you don’t have to have Intel Inside in order for people to buy them), and replace the combo DVD/CD-RW drive for a straight DVD drive or even a straight CD-ROM drive. A Sotec 3120x variant with an 800 MHz C3 and a plain old CD-ROM drive could probably sell for $749 or even $699. If Wal-Mart decides to thumb its nose at Microsoft and offer a Linux-based variant, it could chop another $100 off the price. (The big question there is whether it’s possible to support the Sotec’s modem under Linux.)

How soon will it happen? Hard to say. But think about it. Wal-Mart undercut everybody. Everybody reacted quickly. Dell wants to own the laptop market, because it’s part of the PC market. Wal-Mart wants to own every market. They’ll both strike back. HP and Toshiba won’t throw in the towel right away either, because they’re both big in retail laptops.

Right now the Sotecs are selling like crazy. Wal-Mart and Office Depot can’t keep them in stock. They won’t lower prices any further unless Dell and HPQ and Toshiba react again and seriously cut into sales. That’ll depend on whether they’re satisfied with their current sales figures. With 14 shopping days until Christmas (and realistically, the clock running out on shipping something to arrive before Christmas), I don’t expect pricing or inventory conditions to change much in the next two weeks.

But remember, this is Christmas boom time. People always cut prices after Christmas to spur sales. Chipmakers cut their prices too, meaning these laptops will be cheaper to make a month from now.

So if you’ve been wanting a laptop for a while and the sudden appearance of $849 laptops got you thinking but you’re willing to wait a while longer, this is a good time to wait.

Upgrading an eMachine

One of the most common search engine hits on this site involves the words “emachine” and “upgrade” or “upgrades.”
There are a number of things to keep in mind. Some of this advice also holds for low-end units from Compaq and Gateway and the like as well.

First things first: eMachines don’t have the best reputation. The majority of their problems are due to the power supply though. Aftermarket replacements are readily available, and I recommend them. Don’t buy a factory replacement; it’ll just fail again like the original. A quality replacement from Sparkle or PC Power & Cooling will run you less than $50. I’ve seen 180-watt Sparkles go for $35. The stock 145-watt unit isn’t very adequate and isn’t of the utmost quality. If I bought an eMachine, I’d buy an aftermarket power supply and install it as soon as I could. I wouldn’t wait for the factory unit to fail.

If I had an eMachine I wanted to upgrade, I’d track down a PCI video card. The problem with integrated video on a lot of motherboards is that the CPU and video chip have to share memory bandwidth. What’s that mean? Part of the time, your nice 64-bit memory bus is reduced to 32 bits, that’s what. Steve DeLassus told me a couple of years ago about putting a cheap PCI ATI video card in his wife’s Compaq, which had integrated video, and everything about the system sped up, dramatically. I made fun of him. But it wasn’t his imagination. I was wrong, and the explanation is simple: After he disabled the onboard video, he finally got the computing power they paid for.

Besides that, any add-on card is going to be faster than the integrated video in anything but an nVidia chipset anyway. Last I checked, eMachines weren’t using nVidia nForce chipsets for anything. If you’re into 3D gaming, you shouldn’t have bought an eMachine in the first place, but look for a PCI card with an nVidia chipset. If you’re just into word processing and e-mail, something like an ATI Xpert98 will do nicely. Yeah, it’s an old card, but it’s still more than adequate for 2D applications, and it’s cheap.

If you’re wondering if your system’s integrated video is holding you back, the best tell-tale sign to look for is called “shared memory.” Enter your PC’s setup program and look for an adjustable amount of shared memory. If you find that setting, you’ll almost certainly benefit from disabling it and plugging in a video card.

The next thing I’d look to do is replace the hard drive. Hard drive speed is significant, and sub-$500 PCs don’t come with blazing drives. Pick up a 7200-rpm drive of adequate capacity. They’re not expensive–you can be in business for under a hundred bucks. The performance difference is dramatic. Most retail-boxed drives even come with all the software you need to move all your data to the new drive. CompUSA frequently has something on sale. I prefer Maxtor drives over Western Digital because they’re faster and more reliable; CompUSA’s house-brand drives are just repackaged Maxtors, so those are fine as long as you can find a 7200-rpm model.

The modems that came in eMachines are worthless. If you don’t have broadband yet, replace it with a USRobotics 2977 modem immediately. That factory modem is costing you 35% of your CPU power. The USR will give that back, give you better throughput on top of it, and costs $40 at newegg.com. Good deal. But don’t settle for anything less than that–any modem that costs less than $40 is going to have the same problems as the factory modem.

Most eMachines can take more memory, but a lot of eMachines already shipped with adequate memory. There’s rarely any reason to put more than 256 MB in a PC. If your machine doesn’t have 256 megs, you can pick up a 256-meg stick pretty cheaply.

Most eMachines can take a faster processor, but I rarely bother. Unless you can increase your clock speed by 50%, you’re not likely to really notice the difference. Doubling is better. You’ll get better results from adding a video card and a faster hard drive.

Likewise, a high-end sound card from the likes of Creative or Turtle Beach can reduce the amount of work your CPU has to do and give you much better-sounding audio than what your eMachine has on the motherboard, but is it worth putting a $100 sound card in a computer you paid $399 for?

It’s easy to see you can very quickly spend $300 on upgrades for a computer that originally cost $399. That makes it hard to justify, when you could just get a new $399 computer. So should you do it? It depends. Don’t spend more than half the price of a new computer to upgrade an old one. But also keep in mind that a new computer won’t come with first-rate components, and the aftermarket parts you’re buying are first rate, or very close to it. If that PC you’re looking to upgrade has a 600 MHz processor or faster, it’s likely that when it’s upgraded, it’ll hold its own with a new computer. In that case, you should think about it.

But if you’ve got a four-year-old eMachine with a 300 MHz processor in it, you’re better off buying something new. When you can buy a 900-MHz PC without an operating system from walmart.com for $299, it’s just not worth wasting your time. Load your eMachine’s copy of Windows on the new computer and stick the eMachine in a closet somewhere as a spare. Or pony up a couple hundred bucks more to pick up a brand-name PC with Windows and a monitor, then get a couple of network cards and network your computers together. Your family will appreciate being able to share a printer and an Internet connection. If you pay a little extra to get wireless cards, the computers don’t even have to be close to each other.

One last thing: A lot of people sniff at eMachines. Yes, they are cheaply made. But they’re not all that bad of a machine, aside from the skimpy power supply. Replace it, and you’ve got a lot of computer for the money. Packard Bell did a lot to ruin the reputation of cheap computers in the 1990s, but the problems they had were mostly due to skimpy power supplies that were odd sizes so there weren’t many aftermarket replacements, and due to junky integrated modems and/or combo modem/sound cards that did both jobs poorly, killing system performance and causing software incompatibilities. Today’s highly integrated motherboards have eliminated that combo sound/modem problem. I know I malign the company all the time, but in all honesty, once you put real modems and sound cards into Packard Bells, they did OK as long as the power supply held up. I’ve got an old Packard Bell P120 with Debian Linux loaded on it. I ripped out the sound card/modem combo. I left the power supply alone because it looked decent. The machine’s run several years for me without any problems. Of course I covered up the Packard Bell logos on it.

Today, the same holds true of an eMachine–it’s just the power supply and video card you have to worry about now.

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