Over the last few decades, we have become accustomed to something rather unfortunate: we buy significant pieces of technology that we then discard as essentially useless after only a short time. I decided to set out to revive a nearly ten-year-old computer and see if this (relatively speaking) prehistoric computer could be brought up to a state of usefulness in the modern era.
It all started as a wild idea. My office technology budget is presently $0, so I have found myself stuck on a low-end AMD-powered tower from the early 2000's when at my desk. It can take this Windows XP touting system so long to launch a web browser that one almost forgets he launched it to begin with. While I could use my personal laptop instead, I like the idea of having a computer at my disposal even when I may not have my laptop with me.
When I scavenged a 19” widescreen LCD and discovered the anemic integrated graphics in my tired PC could only drive the screen at a much-to-low (and inappropriately stretched) resolution, it was clear something needed to happen. I surveyed my old technology to think of something that might better serve me.
A couple of PowerPC G4 Mac minis seemed out of the question, since most newer programs (including recent versions of Mac OS X itself) have abandoned support for the old PowerPC platform. Then it hit me: I had an old Shuttle SB62G2 barebones system I had built for a long ago Open for Business review. It had never been used much and it probably hadn't even been turned on in years.
Initially my goal was to try to figure out how to make the system capable of running a modern Linux distribution. When I had first reviewed it, it had been notable as a system that came bundled with a copy of a then-current Linux distribution (Mandrake Linux 9.2 Discovery Edition) and I thought a nice installation of Ubuntu 12.04 would be a perfect upgrade.
To get the system up-to-speed for Ubuntu, I needed to boost the RAM from 512 mb to 2 GB and toss off the glacial integrated Intel Extreme Graphics 2 for something better. The RAM was easy: these days a seller on Amazon named KomputerBay offers seemingly good quality RAM for very little. Though my computer's older PC3200 RAM actually costs more than newer variants, I was still able to nab two 1GB modules for just $30.
The video card was a bit more of a challenge. Like the RAM, the video card bus for the computer is a long replaced technology (AGP 8x), so the newest mass produced cards simply won't work with it. I discovered that those few manufacturers who still produce new AGP cards seem to sell them for a premium. Paying too much simply wouldn't do — my goal, after all, was to rehab this system in a way that made financial sense in comparison to a new system — so I went to eBay and was soon able to “win” an unused nVidia GeForce FX 5200 with 256 megs of video RAM for just $20.
Still, I had one last secret weapon to take the system from completely outdated to relatively useful. While I had my hands tied firmly behind my back as far as my RAM and video adapter upgrade options went, Shuttle had been forward enough thinking when designing it that the designers had included a SATA controller for storage in addition to the older PATA-type that was still common at the time.
Technical acronyms aside, the payoff here was significant: I could locate one of the increasingly common solid state drive deals and significantly boost the speed at which the system could pull information out of storage. With no moving heads that have to “seek” one's files, solid state drives (SSD's) can dramatically improve the performance of any system. Even an old one that is SATA capable (yes, there are PATA solid state drives, but as with AGP and the older RAM mentioned above, those legacy drives rarely get the sale pricing of their mass produced SATA rivals).
A bit of searching turned up a OCZ 128 GB SSD that was available for just $40 on Amazon at the time.
The payoff of this little project has been quite remarkable. In an era of almost disposable computing, my decade old, small Shuttle XPC sprang to life as a system faster than many more recent low end systems in perceived (if not actual) performance. Almost all of the boost comes thanks to that final upgrade; the SSD may not increase how fast the computer processes information, but storage has been computing's most obvious bottleneck for so long that an old processor paired with a modern SSD frequently feels faster than a newer processor with a slow hard disk.
All in all, I spent just around $100 to bring my system into the modern age. In the end, my GNU/Linux plans fell through due to incompatibility with a calendar server project I am working on, but an extra copy of Windows 7 I had available went onto the system smoothly and has proven remarkably pleasant to use on a computer that came out back when Windows XP was still in its prime.
In fact it worked so well that I couldn't resist one more upgrade. My little system could support a faster processor than the hyperthreaded Intel Pentium 4 2.6 GHz that I had originally placed in it, so I returned to eBay and found good condition Pentium 4 3.4 GHz for $11. A few more minutes in the case to install it yielded one more pleasant improvement: though still an old processor, the faster Pentium 4 is approximately 30% faster than the chip it replaced.
No one will look at my little frankencomputer and think it to be a modern speed demon, but in the end I have a very usable system that as of next Tuesday will replace the underpowered Windows XP system in my office with something much more enjoyable to use.
Not bad for $110.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business.