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The world’s fastest budget PC

So, a relative’s PC was getting a bit aged, and runs Windows XP, barely, so I talked them into an upgrade. I noticed that Micro Center had HP/Compaq DC5700s for $99. They were standard issue office PCs a few years ago, and there are a lot of them in the refurb channel. We went and got one over the weekend.

“What are you going to do with that?” the sales rep asked. “We only use them as cash registers.”

“Word processing,” I said.

“You sure you want to run Windows 7 on an 8-year-old PC?”

“I wrote the book on running Windows on older PCs. Literally. It’ll be fine.”

I hate calling rank like that, but sometimes it’s what you have to do.

And really, for $99, it’s awfully good. Web browsing is plenty fast, Libre Office runs fine on it, and think about it. Windows 7 retails for $100-$109. So it’s like getting the hardware for free. Or Windows for free, however you want to look at it.

You might consider buying something with a Core 2 chip of some sort in it, which will outrun a Pentium D. But there’s nothing wrong with a 2.8 GHz Pentium D if you’re used to a Pentium 4 and need to escape XP. In this case, she’s been running XP on a 2.4 GHz Pentium 4 for several years, so this machine is a nice step up from that.

Now, a caveat: I cheated a little. I went ahead and got a birthday present out of the way early and bought a $52 64 GB Sandisk SSD to put in it. Although not huge, 64 GB is enough to hold Windows 7, Libre Office, some security tools, and the three major web browsers. With a middle-of-the-previous-decade hard drive (the drive in there looked original), the performance might have left something to be desired, but with an SSD, the system runs nicely.

After factoring in the cost of the SSD, it’s a $151 computer. It’s a six-year-old machine (not eight like the salesman said–the date of manufacture inside the box said October 2007), but with the SSD, it feels faster than the year-old computer on my desk at work.

Aaaaand, I’ll concede that Office 2010 or 2012 probably wouldn’t run all that well on this machine, because recent versions of MS Office are slow even on new hardware. I’ve never tried either on an SSD and probably won’t in the foreseeable future, so I can’t comment on that. But Libre Office runs fine on it, and the price is right.

So if you have relatives with aged computers, check out what your local computer store has in the way of off-lease refurbs. I’ve found, as a general rule, that if a PC has two CPU cores and two gigabytes of RAM, it can run Windows 7 happily, so look for something like that as a starting point. (I’ve seen Pentium 4s for less than $90, but you don’t want one of those.) If you have more than $100 to spend, budget this way: Get an SSD, then find a refurbished machine that fits the rest of the budget, as long as whatever you buy has two CPU cores. Newer CPUs outperform older CPUs, but the biggest bottleneck in any PC is its disk subsystem. A $52 SSD will help overall system performance a lot more than $52 worth of newer CPU will.

And if you’re like me and always struggle to come up with birthday or Christmas presents, this gives you an opportunity. Get them to buy the PC, then an SSD and extra RAM (increasing the memory to 3-4 GB won’t hurt) will make good gifts for the next year or two.

And here’s another idea: Most business-class machines have nice Broadcom or Intel gigabit Ethernet on the motherboard. So if you happen to find one with two PCIe slots, you can make yourself a very nice Pfsense router/firewall out of one by adding an Intel-based PCIe gigabit NIC and a PCIe wifi card. Many of them won’t have both, though, so if that’s the case, you’ll have to make a choice. If you’re running 802.11n or slower, get a PCI wireless NIC and a PCIe wired NIC. If you’re going all the way to 802.11ac, get a PCIe wireless NIC, a PCI wired NIC, and use the PCI wired NIC on your upstream connection.

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