Category Archives: Dell

The Solid State PC

A silent PC is one that makes absolutely no noise, and by necessity has no moving parts (including fans). Such systems usually use very low-end hardware limited to trivial tasks such as running a cash register. The system introduced today, a Solid-State PC (SSPC) is a powerful quad-core i5 PC which runs most software faster than the majority of modern PCs, yet uses less than 25W idle.

Continue reading The Solid State PC

OEMs beat white box on low end, but not the high end

A while back (summer of 2003), I spent my days off working at a small computer shop in the middle of nowhere. We were deep in rural South Carolina. As in, “can’t get cell phone reception” and “literally a one stop light town.” The shop itself was so small that it occupied a spare bedroom and the living room of the owner’s house, and I was the only employee. Before I started working there, I had always assumed that the “big companies” like Dell, Compaq, and so on were rip-offs. I had always assumed (and I may note, it had always been true until sometime early this decade) that building your own PC was cheaper than buying a true OEM machine. Well, by the end of that summer (believe me, our customers were not “high end” or even “mid-range”), I realized that the white box market was dead for the most part on the low end. The OEMs were selling a full machine (including a copy of Windows and shipping/handling) for less money than the parts would cost us. Ever since then, when someone has asked me if they should custom build a PC or buy an OEM PC, I tell them to go with the OEM model unless they have very specific needs that can’t be met.

Well, I have always considered my own needs very specific, so I never looked at OEM stuff before. For example, when I built my current PC almost three years ago, very few people ran dual monitors and that was a “must have” for me. In addition, I knew I wanted two RAID 1’s, and most OEMs were using motherboards without built-in RAID support. So I did it myself. Now, I am getting ready to replace this machine (technically, I will be turning the current machine into a server, and building a new desktop PC). After all was said and done, my parts list came in at just under $1,500. I could trim the price a bit, by dropping the thumb drive for ReadyBoost (I personally like ReadyBoost, I think it is an excellent idea), getting rid of the extra drive for backup purposes (not a good idea to drop it), halfing the RAM to 6 GB (do I really need 12?), reusing an existing case/PSU (instead of getting the Lian-Li/Seasonic combo I wanted), and so on. But I really don’t want to do that. I spec’ed it a certain way for a reason.

Remembering my PC shop experiences, I decided to see if the “big boys” could spank white box on the high end and well as the low end. I was stunned with what I saw. I looked at the “workstation” class PCs, since that is what I am building. First of all, what the OEMs had to offer was a lot of last year’s tech. On top of that, things that I thought would be common, were either not possible or extremely expensive (like RAIDs). And upgrades were unbelievably pricey. Basically, there is no way that the OEMs can beat a self-built system on this score.

Now, I do understand part of it. IT departments value consistency in the supply chain more than the best value; being able to swap a user’s drive into a replacement box and troubleshoot the hardware later will get a high-salaried engineer back to work a lot quicker than trying to solve the problem on their live box. Ditto for being able to just blast an image onto a machine. At the same time, I am baffled as to how the OEMs can think that they can charge what they charge for, say, a RAM increase, when every customer has a CDW or Newegg account. And of course, they may be willing to concede a lot of the market with the belief that most people looking on the high end are enthusiasts who always want a cutting edge, custom system that no OEM could profitably make. All the same, I was quite shocked to see just how bad the prices were on their high end kit.


Dell Mini 12 drops to $399, comes with Linux

Wow, the Dell Mini 12 has dropped to $399(black)!  If you want Red, White, or Pink, it’s an extra $30.

I discussed the pros and cons of this product here, but I think this price makes this the best NetBook deal on the market.  The Mini 12 has a more energy efficient Poulsbo graphics chipset which also has much better video processing capability than the Intel 945GSE you get on most NetBooks.  For this price, I was almost tempted to buy one even though I don’t even need it.

Granted, this price only comes with a 3-cell battery but at least it isn’t the bulky 6-cell.  Xavier from explained to me that the 6-cell battery is bulky because slim batteries are much more expensive.  Still, the battery life should be alright with a Poulsbo chipset and probably just north of 3 hours at best.

When Dell sells something they don’t properly support, lawsuits result

By now, there has been a ton of stories all over the Internet about the woman who claimed that Linux made her drop out of college, and is suing Dell as a result. Let’s leave whether or not her lawsuit makes sense out of the equation for a moment. Let’s ignore the stuff that everyone else is railing about. Let’s pretend that people aren’t going to be trolling both sides of the open source debate. Let’s look at the underlying problem here, which is how when a vendor tries too hard to make something “easy to use” it actually becomes impossible to use for many people.

If you haven’t heard about it already, the basic gist of the story, is that this lady (Abbie Schubert) bought a Dell PC. Despite the information on the Dell Web site about “is Linux for you?”, she ordered it with Linux. She was told that it was compatable with everything she needed to do. She had a CD from her ISP to connect her to the Internet, which would not work on Linux. As a result, she never got her PC working on the Internet, which she needed for school. Additionally, her teacher for school told her that her work needed to be done in Word, which does not run on Linux. As a result, she says that she was unable to do what she needed to do for her classes, and had to drop out.

Now, tech savvy users will pick up on a few problems here right off the bat. First, we all know what that CD from the ISP does, and we all know that we don’t need it. It simply configures the network settings, because making a CD that does this with an autorun results in less tech support calls than a page of instructions showing someone how to plug the cable in and set the network connection properties. Unless the ISP was doing something unusual (like a static IP on a consumer line, or PPOE), the really funny thing is that her Linux machine (or any OS, for that matter) was already properly configured! All she had to do was plug the NIC in, and let DHCP do the rest. The next issue is the Word problem. We all know that you do not need to use Word to generate a Word document. And there is plenty of software on Linux which creates a Word document.

So what happened? I’ll tell you what went wrong… a combination of inflexible vendor policies colliding with technically ignorant users (not just the lady who bought the PC, either)!

I am sure that when she called up Dell, they told her, “not our problem, our site warns you about the shortcomings of Linux, and it is on us to get you generating Word documents or setting up network connections.” And dollars to donuts, when she called her ISP (Verizon, in this case), they refused to touch her OS, “it’s not supported”, and told her that if their CD wouldn’t run in her PC, then she should have read their Web site better. And on top of that were her ignorant professors, who assumed that the only way to create a Word document was with Word. That’s why they said she must have Word! They also were too unknowledgable to realize that many other document formats would have been fine, and some of them would even open in their copy of Word, such as RTF and PDF.

All that needed to happen here, was for one person to break their company’s policy, and help this lady out. It would have been best if it was someone at Dell, since they had the “whole story”(I am sure that she didn’t walk about the Word situation with Verizon). All they needed to do was say, “OK, hang on, let me go to the Verizon Web site to get the settings needed, and walk you through that.” Likewise, someone at Verizon could have done the same. When I worked tech support, I violated our policies all of the time, to make sure that customers got the support they needed. At the end of the day, my desk was piled high with “Employee of the Month” certificates, the company paying my employer to provide support consistently mentioned me by name as a standout, and users wrote glowing thank you notes to my boss. But I was also taking a monster career risk, knowing that all it took was for me to provide support for something that wasn’t in the policy to go wrong and the user to complain, and I would be in serious trouble.

Likewise, if Dell had simply told her, “hey, you can use OpenOffice to create Word documents!” that’s it, the problem would have been resolved. Instead, they kept saying, “you can’t install Word on Linux.”

Indeed, the ending to the story is exactly this. She ended up suing Dell. The college told her that they would be willing to take her work in any format that Word can open. Verizon is sending a tech out to help her get connected to the Internet. She’s happy, and the vendors look like heroes (except for Dell).

None of this should have happened. But vendors are stuck walking a fine line. Either they support this stuff which results in a lot more training for them (and how many knowledgable Linux folks are happy to work consumer level tech support for crying out loud?). Or they risk these kinds of situations. No matter how they approach it, they lose.


My next sub-notebook will likely be a Dell E Slim+

Dell will be launching a new family of Intel Atom “Netbooks” called the Dell “E”.  It’s another entry in to the cheap tiny laptop market joining companies like Asus, MSI, and Acer.  But Dell’s latest entry is actually going outside of the traditional Netbook market with a 12.1″ display which has traditionally – as if the market is that old – used 10″ or smaller displays.

I realize that some of you might think I may have made a typo in my headline to call it a sub-notebook but it was deliberate.  For me, once the display size gets in to the 10+ inch arena, it’s a sub-notebook replacement.  I realize that this probably scares the hell out of Intel and other computer makers to hear this because it cannibalizes the high-margin sub-notebook market but I’m just being honest about it. I think a lot of people who don’t have money burning a hole through their pockets probably feel the same way as I do.

For a simple office productivity computer, it’s just not going to kill me to have a 1.6 GHz Atom processor versus a high-end sub-notebook with a dual-core 1.3 GHz Core 2 Duo processor.  I realize the latter processor is probably 50 to 80 percent faster in processing power but it’s not enough of a difference to make me want to spend over $2000 on a sub-notebook when these new Netbooks cost a quarter of the money.

This had Intel so concerned that CEO Paul Otellini said that the Atom isn’t something most of us will use.  Sony executives were equally concerned when they said that this was a “race to the bottom” (of margins) and I think they were right to be concerned.  There will always be people willing to pay for the premium products because they have the money or their business has the money to spend, but I suspect a lot more people will be looking at these Netbooks as an alternative to pricy sub-notebooks.

Here are some specs on the Dell E slim and a more detailed comparison between all the Dell E models including the 8.9″ LCD versions.  Note that Dell has only stated that the entry level model will be priced at $299 so it’s anyone’s guess how much more the other models will be.  I’m hoping Dell will be aggressive and sell the highest end model in the $500 range.  Barring any horrific reviews of some serious flaw in the product, this will likely be my new “sub-notebook”.

Here are the specifications for the highest end 12.1″ Dell E Slim+ model.

  • 12.1″ WXGA (probably means 1366×768 resolution)
  • 1.6 GHz Intel Silverthorne Atom processor
  • 2 GB DDR2 RAM
  • 60 GB 1.8″ Hard Drive
  • 802.11g and Bluetooth
  • Camera
  • Linux (trimmed down fast booting)
  • BYO (Bring Your Own) Windows XP
  • Not sure if Vista Drivers are available

I’m not sure if the 12.1″ model has an SDHC flash card reader yet but it’s not a show stopper for me.