Gatermann just sent me a link to a $33 Dell P3-500 at Surplus Computers. It got both of us feeling old, because the day when that was a hot machine doesn’t seem long ago at all to either of us.

My initial reaction: That’s a lot of computer for 33 bucks. You get a 500 MHz CPU, 128 megs of RAM, and a 6 gig hard drive.

And then I got to thinking about it some more. I can think of people who could get by with that machine, but there’s a good reason why the P3-500’s star has fallen and you can get one for $33 without feeling like you’re at a Who concert.I guess first and foremost, you don’t get an operating system. That’s fine; OEM copies of XP home are cheap enough. Older versions of Windows are even cheaper because nobody wants them.

But even if you’re running 2000, you really want a minimum of 256 megs of RAM. For XP you want more than that; my mother-in-law’s PC, which is a Compaq with some flavor of Athlon in it, really drags these days because it only has 256 megs.

So I bopped on over to Crucial to see what I’d need to make that old Dell Optiplex GX1 rev its engine. And the price of a 256-meg DIMM was (sit down): $77.

So to max out the memory on this $33 machine, you’d need to spend another $231.

Gatermann just bought a gig of PC3200 DDR memory for $98.

So rather than spend $231 on 768 megs of PC133 SDRAM, you’d literally be better off buying the PC3200 and getting a $50 motherboard and a $60 CPU to put on it.

Trouble is, this is a Dell. You can’t swap off-the-shelf motherboards into a Dell. Some Dell cases will take a standard board, but you’ll have to replace the power supply. But the GX1 doesn’t use an ATX board.

That’s why this system costs 33 bucks. It’s pretty much at a dead end, and the memory it uses is no longer a mass-market item, so its price is inflated. It’s the same thing that happened to the 72-pin EDO SIMMs we used to put in our original Pentiums–you know, the ones that topped out at 233 MHz.

It’s a great machine for a tinkerer who happens to have a lot of PC100 or PC133 memory around, or for the Ebay addict. Obsolescent memory always sells more cheaply on Ebay.

I’ve always been in favor of upgrading a computer until it no longer makes economic sense to do so. If you’ve ever wondered when that is, this is a classic example.