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Cutting Edge

Ultra-low-cost PCs
By Dave Shapton

Shuttle specialise in systems that allow you to choose preferred components to create a complete PC.Shuttle specialise in systems that allow you to choose preferred components to create a complete PC.

Ultra low-cost PC setups are all very well, but can we be sure they'll run everything we need them to? Cutting Edge finds out from personal experience.

The time has finally come to replace my desktop computer. Over the last couple of years I've spent an inordinate amount of cash on laptop computers, and because I travel a lot that still makes complete sense. But — somewhat to my surprise — I find that I still spend a lot of time sitting at my desk using my old desktop machine, whose specification is more a matter of nostalgia than cutting edge.

Since I make a living using and writing about computers and digital media, I could easily justify buying a top-end PC. But what I've actually decided to do is buy something that is more representative of what most people might actually be using over the next year or so. I especially want to see how the latest audio and video software performs on platforms that are, shall we say, more dramatic in their pricing than their performance. (Having said that, it's difficult to buy a computer these days that you could consider to be slow. The more expensive models tend to be so because they include a lot of peripherals like big LCD screens, DVD writers, powerful graphics cards and eight-channel speaker systems!)

It's Official: Plug & Play Works

When I started writing Cutting Edge, around four years ago, there were some fairly new digital interfaces around, different from the audio interfaces that we were already familiar with (such as S/PDIF and AES-EBU) and by no means dedicated to digital audio at all. In fact one of them, USB, was primarily designed to replace the serial port on a PC or Mac, and Firewire/I-Link/IEEE 1394 started its commercial life almost exclusively as a port on the new digital camcorders.

Cutting EdgeNow, virtually all computers have not only USB 1 but USB 2 as well, and many have Firewire on the motherboard, especially notebook computers. It was this fact that enabled me to set up, almost without thinking, the ultimate music jukebox, for use at a recent party.

I'd been asked if I could make my collection of CDs available on a computer, such that guests could select tracks from a list and have them play almost immediately. None of this was a problem, except that the music files were all on my desktop computer, and nowhere near where they needed to be for the party.

Cutting EdgeNow, I just happen to have a Maxtor external drive that has both USB (1 and 2) interfaces and Firewire. My desktop computer doesn't have USB 2 but it spoke to the drive using USB 1, and after several hours, I'd transferred about 12GB of music (all of it legally obtained, I should add!). Then I took my diminutive Sony Viao laptop and plugged it into my surround-sound decoder. The Surround decoder doesn't have a USB port, any more than the Vaio has an optical digital output, but I do have an Edirol USB audio interface that is happy to convert audio on a USB connection to S/PDIF on optical. Then I plugged the Maxtor into the Firewire port on the notebook, and used Windows Media player to display and play the tracks. All the computer had to do was display the track names and play the WAV and MP3 files. None of this seems remarkable — but it is. Because nowhere during this fairly complex procedure did I have to install any drivers at all. Not for the Maxtor drive, nor the Edirol UA20. At last, ladies and gentlemen, Plug & Play really works.

Cheap & Cheerful?

Actually, I started the process back in January, when I saw a fax from Dell, who were selling a decently specified computer at what looked like a very wholesome price. A Pentium 4 2.4GHz, with 256MB of RAM, a CDR and a 40MB hard disk, and including a 17-inch CRT monitor, looked like a great deal to me for under £500 (excluding VAT). By the time I'd upgraded the memory to a Gig, and substituted Windows XP Pro for XP Home, it added another £150, but that seemed like a lot of computer for the money, and from a reputable name.

When it arrived (minus the monitor, which I left out of the package, saving a surprisingly small £50!), it looked nice, and certainly seemed fast enough. In fact, I used it for some time just for Internet browsing and word processing and could find absolutely nothing wrong with it.

But when I finally got around to installing some serious media software, I found there were problems. A package that is very important to me is Avid Xpress DV 3.5, a well-respected DV editing application from Avid. I use audio applications a lot, but these days mostly in conjunction with video, and Xpress is a favourite of mine.

It didn't work. There was no video overlay window. (A video overlay window is where you can see moving video as you're capturing from a tape or playing from a timeline. If you can't see this, you're effectively working blind.)

This was not a good start, but it's a common enough problem. The solution is simply to fit an alternative graphics card, preferably one tested and recommended by the software manufacturer. So I found a suitable card, took the side off the computer — an easy job with the Dell — and searched in vain for an AGP slot.

You see, one of the reasons why you can buy PCs so cheaply now is that the motherboard has practically everything on it. Including, in this case, a graphics card that didn't work with my software. The only sensible solution to this kind of problem is to give up. That's what I did with the Dell, which is now doing other, less critical jobs elsewhere in the Shapton household. I later spoke to Dell about the problem and they said that there was no possibility of exchanging it for another computer that did have an AGP port. This was annoying, but not at all surprising, because the problem wasn't in any sense Dell's fault, and I'm sure that the lack of a physical AGP slot wouldn't be a problem for the vast majority of customers.

The Plot Thickens

I struggled on with my old desktop computer, whose original specification I have forgotten long ago, but which diagnostic programs report to be a 600MHz Pentium 3 with 256MB RAM. Actually, it's not too bad a machine, and, apart from lacking raw power, its main issues are to do with Windows 98 and being badly in need of a re-install. Then about six weeks ago I saw an advert for a Shuttle XPC, a new form-factor PC with just about everything on a very small motherboard and fitted into a case that is about the same shape and size as a shoe box. Apart from the look of them and the diminutive size, I was attracted by the price — especially for Athlon-based systems.

In fact, you don't buy Shuttle PCs as complete computers; rather, you buy what's called a 'bare-bones' system that consists of the case, power supply, motherboard and connectors, and then you add a processor, RAM and disk drives. Amazingly, for such a small device, there is a spare PCI slot and an AGP port, should you choose not to use the onboard graphics.

I took delivery of an Athlon-based machine and fitted a 2.8GHz chip. The whole thing was incredibly cheap and seems even more so when you consider what's included: USB 2 ports, Firewire (IEEE 1492), on-board graphics with dual monitor outputs, onboard six-channel audio with optical digital I/O, and an S-Video TV output. When fitted with a Pioneer 106 DVD RW drive it's a pretty useful setup, taking up very little room on the desk. It's pretty fast and fairly quiet as well, probably because of the extraordinary 'Heat Pipe' mechanism designed to channel excess heat away from the CPU.

Fantastic. But it didn't work with another important application: Pinnacle Edition. Edition is in the same league as Avid Xpress. I use it a lot as well, and a computer that can't run it is really of no use to me. This time, not only was there no video overlay, but the program hung the machine every time I tried to load it.

Again, I thought it must be a conflict with the onboard graphics chip, and this time I was more confident of fixing it, because I knew there was an AGP slot. But despite fitting a graphics card recommended by Pinnacle, and re-installing the OS to iron out any snags caused by the initial installation, the problem didn't go away. Up to now I've always tended to use Intel-based machines and I really wanted this AMD system to work, but it didn't and I'm going to take some convincing before I buy another one. (Note that this is a purely personal prejudice! I know of lots of people doing video and audio work on Athlon-based machines. Rationally, there is very little reason not to buy AMD systems these days: but just make sure all your important applications run on them before you buy them.)

Anyway, I didn't have to commit the AMD-based shuttle to the Shapton Museum of Newly Purchased Computers, because someone else wanted to use it for an office machine, where it's now doing the job beautifully. Instead, I have bought another Shuttle XPC: one based around an Intel Pentium 4 3.06GHz with Hyperthreading. I'll certainly let you know how it performs. I'm optimistic about this one. I must say that the idea of such a small but powerful thing running all my video and music applications, if it works, is deeply satisfying.

Vision On

I've also made a decision to spend more on a monitor — or monitors, in fact. There was never any question that I was going to opt for LCD screens. Prices are plummeting and the power and space saving arguments are utterly convincing. If you've got an extremely limited budget, it still makes some sense to buy a CRT screen; they're unbelievably cheap now, and of course the quality is still pretty good. But for anyone else, get an LCD.

Some LCD monitors will let you see more clearly than others...Some LCD monitors will let you see more clearly than others...However, it's not quite as simple as that: now that everyone makes LCDs, we're completely spoiled for choice! Before you buy, it's worth making sure you understand LCD specifications and what they might mean to you...

Firstly, check to see whether your proposed purchase has a DVI connection. This is a digital connection that is very roughly analogous to S/PDIF or AES-EBU in the audio domain. An LCD without DVI has to take an analogue VGA signal from the host computer and convert it back into digits to display it on the screen. The D-A conversion in the computer and A-D conversion inside the screen inevitably leads to losses, and while this might be acceptable on a 15-inch LCD, anything bigger than that can look downright blurry! Note that you need to have a graphics card in your PC that can output DVI. They're not expensive.

Then there's the question of resolution. With CRT monitors, most screens are capable of most resolutions. That's because the screen itself isn't segmented into 'hard wired' pixels. LCDs are completely different in that they have an optimum 'native' resolution, because they consist of a grid of pixels, where each and every one can be turned on and off individually. This is mostly an advantage because it means that, for example, if the image calls for a straight line, one pixel wide, that's exactly what the screen will display (unless you were using a blurry analogue connector!). But this only works if your computer is set to talk to the screen in its native mode. What this means in practice is that if your graphics card is set to a resolution of 1024x768 pixels, and if this is the native resolution of your screen, the result will be very good. But if your screen's resolution is 1280x1024 pixels, feeding it an image at 1024x768 will give very poor results. It will look even worse if you feed the screen images that have a higher resolution than the LCD can deal with natively.

Typically, 15-inch LCDs have a resolution of 1024x768, and 17-inch sizes usually come with 1280x1024 pixels. If you're buying any of the bigger models you need to look very carefully at resolutions, because some 19-inch LCDs can handle a fantastic 1600x1200, but some only do 1280x1024. Remember that the higher the resolution, the more windows and program elements you can fit on the screen; so — as long as your eyesight is OK — I'd always be inclined to go for a higher resolution rather than a bigger screen with a lower resolution that will just give you bigger pixels!

In my case, although I was tempted by a 19-inch screen with 1600x1200 pixels, I decided in the end to buy two 17-inch DVI screens, each capable of 1200x1024. The two screens together cost less than the 19-inch model, and give a combined resolution of 2400x1200, which is ideal, say, for word processing on one screen and referring to a web page on the other. And it goes without saying that this setup will be fantastic for what really matters: running audio software!

Published November 2003