That time again: Buying a new computer in 2008

Every couple years, my wife's computer starts creaking under the increasing load of new Windows service packs, new versions of applications, and her steadily growing Thunderbird mailbox... and then the fan or power supply starts making horrible noises, and we know it's time for a new system.

Being a computer person from way back, I prefer to pick the components first, then find a place that will sell a system (or parts) to me. I tend to use to gauge the street price; usually the cheapest price there is unobtainable, but the 10th cheapest price is readily available. (Vendors gotta eat, too.)

Old system

Athon XP 2400+ (specint 2000: 808, passmark: 345)
Ancient 3d Rage Pro PCI graphics card
400GB disk (290 GB used)
pl913s 19" LCD monitor (some snow, burnin)
Dual boot Windows XP + Ubuntu


Here's my impression of the sweet spot in components as of May 2008 for somebody who does a lot of Word 97, Firefox 3, Thunderbird, and Dreamweaver MX 2004. (Prices listed are ranked #1 and #10 by price at


Intel Core 2 Duo e7200 (2.53GHz, 3MB L2 cache, 1066MHz FSB)
According to, it benchmarks slightly better than the e6550 (the previous sweet spot) for most tasks, and does very well at video encoding because it has the new sse4 instructions. No specint 2000 results available, but the e6600 scored about 2500, or about 3x the old system, and the e7200 shouldn't be any slower.
pricewatch: $138-$153


Things have changed since I put together my last system -- motherboards now come with an IDE connector only because CD-ROMs with SATA are uncommon. The only special requirements I have are Firewire (for our video camera), which is called ieee1394 on spec sheets, and 1033MHz or faster FSB (for compatibility with the e7200). Pricewatch pulls up lots of candidates:
pricewatch: socket 775 ieee1394: $79-$218

The cheapest listed only has single channel memory further taxed by onboard graphics (good thing I won't be doing any gaming), but it has both VGA and DVI outputs, and the picture at Tiger verifies that it has two rear firewire ports:
eVGA 112-CK-NF75-K1
Tiger: $80 (- optional $20 rebate)
newegg: $75 (- optional $20 rebate)
According to this post, the onboard Marvell network card doesn't netboot and doesn't work with Ubuntu Hardy (see ubuntu bug 138611, kernel bug 8962), but I have enough PCI ethernet cards laying around that I could cope.

Hard drive

I've seen Linux get confused when mixing IDE and SATA hard drives, so time to bite the bullet and just get a big SATA drive, no reusing old IDE drives. The sweet spot of 750 GB SATA should do nicely; my wife's only using 200GB at the moment.
pricewatch: $99-$128
750 GB SATA: $120-$130


The fastest memory those motherboards can handle is PC6400, which is good, because anything faster's quite expensive. Single 2GB modules seem to be the sweet spot these days.
pricewatch: $24-$41
2GB PC 6400: $35-$60


I had originally just wanted to reuse the monitor, but lately she's been noticing some burnin on her old 19" el cheapo pl913s monitor, and she'd like to go one step up anyway, to a 22" monitor. Only somebody warned us that 22" widescreen isn't really much of a step up from 19", so on to 24".

Pricewatch: $196 - $246 (22")
Pricewatch: $359 - $648 (24")
newegg: $220 - $250 (22")
newegg: $358 - $416 (24")


Um, mid-tower atx / micro-atx compatible. No power supply, the free ones are usually crap.

Pricewatch: $30 - $45
Newegg: $36-$42

Power Supply

350-400 watts should do, especially since the CPU and disk I chose are lowish-power. High-efficiency would be nice; "80%" or "80 plus" is how they describe this. 8 pin cpu power would be nice, but they all come with 4 pins. Oh, well.

Pricewatch: $16 - $38 (not selecting for efficiency)
Pricewatch: $78 - $121 (rated "80 plus")
Newegg: $54-$70 (all 80 plus, mixed wattage)

Buying a system with these components

(without case and ps): Pricewatch total: $144 + $99 + $24 + $75 + $196 = $540 at min price, $184 + $128 + $41 + $145 + $246= $736 at rank 10 seems like a fine place to show, so:

Total: $809 + $67 tax + $38 3 day shipping = $913


Dell has a $300 off any-system-over-$1000 deal which makes the Inspiron 530 seem like a contender... they charge a lot for any hard drive over 250GB, though. Their integrated graphics are worse (intel), and they only offer a 128MB nvidia card for $60. With the latter, and tax and shipping, a comparable Dell (but with a Q6600 quad CPU and only a 250GB HD) is $916 (including the $300 off). But I don't really want a small hard drive, and a Q6600 burns more power and is slower, so I decided to go the component route.


I ordered on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, and everything arrived by Friday, which was pretty good considering I didn't pay for rush delivery on anything.

Assembly and Installation

The hardware went together slickly. I've never actually had a case's front panel cables all fit the motherboard perfectly before (including sound and USB), perhaps that's more common than it used to be. The only snags were:
  1. the power supply's 4 pin CPU power plug fits into four pins of the motherboard's 8 bit CPU power socket, all right, but they're not the center 4 pins, they're on the edge. That means the retaining clip misses, so you're left with just friction holding it in. Bleah.
  2. the power supply comes with a somewhat mysterious mounting bracket that doesn't seem to be needed
  3. the CPU comes with a special heatsink/fan that attaches to the motherboard with four quick-connect plastic fasteners (see picture) that took me half an hour to figure out. Still, it's an improvement over the old days, when one needed a screwdriver to get the heat sink on.
I did a quick memory check by disabling fast boot in the BIOS... and discovered that the BIOS's memory check crashes when it gets to 2 gigabytes. I guess nobody uses that feature. memtest86 (on any Linux boot cd-rom) verified that the memory was in good shape.

I installed a dual-boot Windows XP Home + Ubuntu Hardy Linux combination. I seem to recall that Windows XP Home refuses to install if you have another OS installed, so I did that one first.

The Windows XP SP2 install disc was an Upgrade version, so I had to insert a Win98 (or '95 or NT) cdrom at some point to satisfy the upgrade check.

The install went smoothly but for one hitch. Graphics worked well enough to drive the big screen right from the start; I guess the motherboard's SVGA emulation is pretty good. The network didn't work until I installed the motherboard drivers. The one hitch was that the graphics drivers that came with the motherboard were crap, and caused the screen to go black. I had to go into safe mode, uninstall them, and download a fresh set from; then all was well. The nvidia drivers said they came with a free Steam copy of Portal, so I installed Steam... the only free game that seemed to download properly was some Popcap title, and its graphics were all messed up. I'm not a gamer, so I didn't investigate this further, but no gamer would use the motherboard graphics anyway, even if they're from Nvidia. Updating to XP SP3 online went smoothly.

I then installed Ubuntu Hardy. That went slicker than snot. The motherboard ethernet seems to work fine in both Hardy and XP, in spite of what I'd heard; perhaps I haven't stressed it out yet.

I haven't tried the firewire yet. USB and sound seem to work fine.

I plan to share Thunderbird between Linux and windows as described by Bill Moss and in Haven't tried it yet, though.


memtest86 reports: L1 cache 64K 41530MB/s, Memory 1982M 16557MB/s

I prepared for building Wine by running and grabbing the Wine-1.0-rc3 source via git. I always disable tracker/trackerd, since it seems to hog performance, and I don't know or care what it's for. During the benchmark, I ran Firefox (on gmail and several other tabs) and several terminals. Having 2GB RAM is a wonderous thing.

On the e7200:


I'm happy as a clam with the e7200 so far. The 24" monitor seems to have been worth the extra $100, though we probably would have been happy with 22" as well.


Here are some links I found useful while researching CPUs:

See also: More New Systems in 2008, the next two computers...