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The tipping point of obsolesence

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.

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8 thoughts on “The tipping point of obsolesence”

  1. We just paid a recycler to take about 30 P-IIs that we couldn’t give away to anyone. We didn’t want to play that "I bought it from you, so you need to support it at home" game, but no one would take the darned things anyway. At least the back room has some space for more junk now.

    On another note – What’s wrong with The Who?

    M-m-m-my generation!

    1. Nothing at all wrong with the Who; the problem is $33 P3-500s. They just don’t invoke the same kind of excitement in crowds as the Who did, in, say, 1979 in Cincy…

  2. My Gateway P3-500 was a heckuva machine for it’s time. When I purchased a new desktop, the P3-500 became my first webserver. It eventually received an upgrade to a 1.2 GHZ Celeron chip and finally became my fileserver until being retired this spring.

    So why is DDR2 memory so outrageously inexpensive, anyway?

    1. Do you mean PC133, Keith? DDR is cheap because it’s what every new machine is coming with, so it’s being made in huge quantities. Older types of memory that aren’t used in much (PC66/100/133 SDRAM, EDO, Rambus) aren’t made in significant quantities anymore, so you lose economies of scale–and the 256-meg PC133 stick that cost $35 in 2001 ends up costing $77 now.

      1. Oh, I understand why PC100 and PC133 SDRAM is expensive. There’s not much market for it, so there’s very little volume. The manufacturing costs and distribution markups are spread over less inventory, so the prices are necessarily higher.

        I was wondering why the latest, greatest DDR2 RAM is so ridiculously INexpensive, compared to PC3200 DDR RAM.

        (Or am I just totally confused?)

  3. Odd.

    I just installed Windows 2003 Standard Server on a Pentium 3 550 last night. Not the run of the mill – a dual Pentium 3 550 with a SCSI subsystem (RAID 5, about 40Gb in storage) and 512MB of RAM. It’s fast – faster than most of the 2.4Ghz and 3.0 Ghz boxes I’ve seen running around.

    The box cost my company about $20k in 1999. I got it as junk. Not because it wouldn’t do it’s job, but because support for it was officially terminated by Dell. I plan on deploying it in my Mom’s office.

    Too much emphasis is placed on processor speed. The components of a machine can make or break it. Running four processors @ 500 Mhz in parallel are going to give you better performance on a heavy loaded machine than one process @ 2 Ghz. (Assuming your operating system has the appropriate MP support.)

    Those P2 boxes would be great for a Beowulf cluster, obtainable by the layman using any number of Linux distributions. The P3s Dave mentions could be chained together for many research projects. Windows 98 is still a viable desktop platform despite Microsoft’s attempt to kill it. If you have a retail copy available for installation it would run beautiful on those boxes…

    I don’t know. I’m getting old. I no longer think speed is everything. Realiability, responsiveness..


    1. Two or three years ago I bought a P2 (either a 266 or a 333 MHz) from Rich and I put OS/2 4.0 on it. It was a nice, fast, responsive machine. I just didn’t have room in the house for it, so it’s been in a closet for the past year. If I can find a modem, I’m going to put a modem in it, install whatever version of Windows came with the machine, and give it to a friend whose mother needs something to replace her old P-166. It’ll be a step up for her and it’ll handle the web browsing/e-mail/word processing duties she needs.

      But I wouldn’t pay anything for the machine if I didn’t have it already. There are too many machines out there just like it (or better) that are free for the asking.

      1. Modem modem? Old school, makes an annoying high pitched whistle when it connects?

        I *know* I have a US Robotics Sportster 56K around here. I’ll see if I can find it and test it. I think the hardest problem might be finding a serial cable for it. (It’s external.)

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