But What If I'm Economizing?

If you are economizing, here's a simple rule:

In July 2001, if you look at a typical clone-maker's advertisement for personal machines, you'll see that they range from Celeron in the 900MHz ranges up through Pentium IIIs at around 1000MHz to Pentium IVs at above 1000MHz. The rule of thumb tells us to skip the Pentium IVs, consider the Celerons, and look seriously at the Pentium IIIs.

Why? Because of the way manufacturers' price-performance curves are shaped. The top-of-line system is generally boob bait for corporate executives and other people with more money than sense. Chances are the system design is new and untried -- if you're at the wrong point in the technology cycle, the chip may even be a pre-production sample, or an early production stepping with undiscovered bugs like the infamous FDIV problem in early Pentiums. You don't need such troubles. Better to go with a chip/motherboard combination that's been out for a while and is known good. It's not like you really need the extra speed, after all.

Besides, if you buy one of these gold-plated systems, you're only going to kick yourself three months later when the price plunges by 30%. Further down the product line there's been more real competition and the manufacturer's margins are already squeezed. There's less room for prices to fall, so you won't watch your new toy lose street value so fast. Its price will still drop, but it won't plummet sickeningly.

Again, bear in mind that the cheapest processor you can buy new today is plenty fast enough for Linux. So if dropping back a speed level or two brings you in under budget, you can do it with no regrets.

Another easy economy measure is looking for repaired or reconditioned parts with a warranty. These are often as good as new, and much cheaper. (This is an especially good tactic for monitors and hard drives.)

Your monitor is one of the areas where pinching pennies is not a good idea. You're going to be looking at that monitor for hours on end. You are going to be using the screen real estate constantly. Buy the best quality, largest screen you possibly can -- it will be worth it. I personally shelled out $2000 for a 21-inch monitor back in January 1996. Though I had no regular income and this represented a significant fraction of my bank balance at the time, I never regretted doing so even once.

There is a fair amount of price variance among equivalent video cards, so shop aggressively here. We won't do this, but if you're on a budget, one easy thing to trade away is bit depth. Manufacturers like to include 24- and 32-bit "photographic" color as sizzle in their advertisements, but unless you're doing something like specialty photocomposition work or medical graphics you'll probably never use more than 65535 colors. So you can settle for 16-bit color (used to be you could settle for 8-bit, before websites started routinely stepping outside the 216-color "web-safe" palette).

Your backup device is another place where spending extra money pays. Cheap tape drives are unreliable, noisy and have agonizingly slow transfer speeds. It's no fun to listen to what sounds like a blender dicing celery for hours on end while your disk is backed up, so with the cheap drives you'll quickly find you're backing up less often than you really should.

On the other hand, you probably don't need the latest and greatest CD-ROM device. High-speed CD-ROMS are really designed for people playing CD-ROM games or other applications involving image and sound archives. If you're doing the Linux thing, chances are you'll primarily use CD-ROMs that are code archives. Your average transfer size will be small and an apparent speed of 6x or even 4x quite satisfactory. So, if you need to, here's a place to cut costs by buying well behind the leading edge.