I have been babysitting a desktop machine for the past few days. A friend knows that I am on the lookout for a high(er)-end machine to complement my array of antique laptops, and offered this one in hopes that I might adopt or perhaps even buy it.
It’s not an unlikable machine, that’s for sure: A Pentium 4HT clocked at 3.2Ghz, with 2Gb of memory and a 256Mb Nvidia 8600GT as a video card. A 620W power supply with a digital power draw readout on the back (Korean brand name; I’ve never seen anything like that before). An ASUS CDRW, an LG DVDRW and a pair of Seagate hard drives (160Gb and 60Gb) round it out … oh wait, it also has a floppy drive. We all know how important that is.
I was given free reign over the machine, and could install or tweak it as I liked. The owner already bought a new computer, and is looking to pass this on to someone. I stipulated that if I was going to look at it at all, I would want to install a different operating system, before deciding if I would keep it or not.
And I think this is a definite “not.” The machine has some underlying hardware problems that prevent me from accepting it. I don’t know its history, but I had a bad feeling about it when I carried up the stairs. It was grimy, banged up and caked with dust along the back rails. Turning it on sounded like a vacuum cleaner, and it had an odd, perfumed scent that was somehow unattractive.
Like I said, I don’t know its history, or if it was a gift or something someone made. I opened the case and realized at some point in the past, a power supply had burnt up inside — there was soot on the inside of the box and all over the fans. Dust was caked over the heat sink, and a nice layer of goo had dried in the corner. I suspect someone spilled something on the computer, which caused the power supply to short, although I have no witnesses to that effect.
The problems didn’t stop there. The machine has a tendency to sometimes not boot, sometimes work and sometimes turn off randomly. I don’t really have the equipment (or desire) to pin down the reasons. The larger of the two hard drives is error-ridden and probably will fail any day now. The smaller had its share of issues, but seemed to be working okay. The power-on life of both drives was around four or five years, maybe a little more.
I installed Ubuntu and Arch and even considered putting together a Crux system — it compiled a kernel in about 8 minutes — but its performance was flaky at best. Drive errors were annoying me and its tendency to turn off completely and at random did nothing for my overall opinion.
It’s only redeeming quality was the monitor: a Samsung SyncMaster 206bw, and a lovely screen at that. I hit 1680×1050 in Ubuntu and ran Neverwinter Nights at full detail and it was like glass. And then the computer turned itself off, mid-game.
It has been a while since I worked with a desktop, but I took the machine apart to learn a little more about it and maybe clear up the spotty performance. I got most of the dust off the processor heat sink (that’s where the vacuum cleaner sound was coming from — it was so thick it was blocking the vanes) and tried to clean out the case as best I could. But it did nothing to solve the problems. Whatever ails it is only worth pursuing if I’m also interested in rehabilitating it.
Which I’m not. Desktops don’t intrigue me; they’re bulky and inconvenient and obtuse. The machine is better off reduced to its components and parted out, and that was my advice for the owner today. It’s nothing stellar in this day and age, and P4HT machines are only in demand to people who dabble with antiques and need something that will compile in a snap.
Perhaps if it were a little more stable and a little less filthy, I might give it a home. I’ve worked with machines in worse condition, but I feel like I have the luxury of saying “no” these days. So I remain on the lookout for a laptop with similar specifications, and this one returns to its original owner with a polite “no, thank you.”