To build a new PC, or not to build

I’ve been looking into building a new PC lately. I’m fascinated with the mini-ITX form factor – extremely small motherboards and cases (nano-ITX is even smaller), along with low noise, low power consumption and sometimes fanless design – but less fascinated with the prices and performance of such systems.

Today’s “conventional” motherboards are mini-ATX size, which is about 9 by 9 inches. I figured This Old PC’s case couldn’t handle the new motherboards. Well, I popped the hood, and it turns out that This Old PC’s motherboard is ATX-sized. It’s a thin ATX, measuring 7.5 by 12 inches, but it’s ATX nonetheless.

And according to the info stamped in the case, it will accommodate mini-ATX motherboards. So I could pull the Pentium II MMX 333 MHz board, slap in some 3 GHz processor-equipped motherboard for about $60, drop in a half- ($50) or full gigabyte of RAM ($80-90) and a SATA drive ($50) and be off to the literal races. I could keep the current case, power supply, CD drive, keyboard, mouse and monitor, minimizing the environmental impact. I’d hold onto the old motherboard, just in case.

So it’s a minimum of $160. But I’ve already found a new PC, case included, for $139. At 800 MHz, 256 MB RAM and 13.6 GB HD, it’s way underpowered compared to what I listed above, but it’s damn cheap (link here). I suppose I could spec my own “new” system this low and get it for less, say a motherboard for $30 (if I could even find one that low-spec’d). RAM for $20 and HD for $30. That would be about $80 total … so it would be a savings. But it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to put in a new board if I wasn’t going for the 3 GHz speed cushion that’s available for so little today.

And as I’ve learned, XP runs great with 512 MB on a 3 GHz box. I have no complaints about not having a full GB of RAM.

Still, I’m not comfortable about losing This Old PC as a test bed for what an older PC can do. I might just wait and go the mini-ITX route after all. Who wouldn’t love a small PC that’s not a laptop but which makes little or no noise and consumes between 8 and 15 watts of power? Not that people don’t do it all the time with conventional PCs, but this kind of box I’d be comfortable leaving on all the time, given its power-sipping characteristics.