Daily Archives: August 27, 2007

On Buying and Building Hardware: Break a Leg with Newegg

Ever heard the phrase, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg?” It means you shouldn’t be afraid to try something new. If you need some
new hardware components, or want to become a do-it-yourselfer and build your own computer, I advise that “You can’t make a computer without visiting newegg.”

I’ve been a customer of Newegg.com since early 2004. I had moved to a much smaller office with a smaller desk that barely had room for a large CRT display, so I decided to buy my own LCD display just to get some desk space. I learned of Newegg while browsing the web, and eventually bought a ViewSonic VG910B Black 19″ 25ms DVI LCD Monitor – Retail for $659. (Here and elsewhere I’ll use the product descriptions and URL’s as given in my invoice or as currently available on the web site.)

Six hundred and fifty-nine dollars for for a 19″ LCD display! Well, that was back in 2004. One of pleasures in using Newegg is that they keep all your invoices online and reviewing them is yet another demonstration of the onward march of technology. For example, I bought Hanns·G JC-199DPB Black 19″ 8ms DVI LCD Monitor – Retail, for $185 last December, for less than one-third the price. As I write this I’m using another LCD display, SAMSUNG 204B-BK Black 20.1″ 5ms DVI LCD Monitor, that cost me $346 in November 2006, and see Newegg currently has a special on essentially the same display today. Listed for $280 but with with a rebate and additional discount, it can be had for $215; see SAMSUNG 204BW Black 20″ 6ms DVI Widescreen LCD Monitor with Height Adjustments 300 cd/m2 700:1 – Retail. This is but one example of the frequent specials available. If you are looking for a particular component and are in no rush you can track the site for a while to get a sense of about how much you should pay and then look
for interesting deals.

I have placed over 50 orders to newegg since early 2004, both for computer hardware and consumer items. I’ve never had a problem except in one case where UPS left a package containing a scanner face-down in front of my garage door. I destroyed it when I drove over it; I couldn’t see it because our driveway is on a hill. UPS and Newegg worked it out and we got another one at no additional cost.

Newegg offers a number of services to help you decide. For example, look at motherboards, then see if you can limit the displayed items to
AMD with AM2 sockets.

You can use the “Advanced Search” to learn about the profile of available hardware. For example, under AMD motherboards, “Advanced Search” on “CPU Socket Type” shows the most, 144, for “Socket AM2,” and only 3 for “Socket A.” I built a machine using Socket A back in May 2004. That technology is now out-of-date and AM2 is currently the leader.

Each product has its own page, with tabbed subsections: “Overview,” “Customer Reviews,” “Specifications” and “Product Tour.” Usually in the “Specifications” and/or “Product Tour” you’ll see an entry “Manufacturer Contact Info.” It often has a link to the manufacturer’s web site for the prouduct. “Product Tour” and “Overview” often contain photos of the product that can prove helpful, especially in seeing what cables and other miscellaneous parts come with the product.

For the real nitty gritty you want to read the “Customer Reviews” section. It has the reports by folks who bought the product and then took the time to report on their experiences with it. Reviews consist of a numeric rating, some overall impressions, as well as the good part — the “Pros” — and the bad part — the “Cons.”

The “Customer Reviews” are the key source of useful information.

Each reviewer assigns a numeric rating, ranging from from 5 (best) to 1 (worst). These are also described as “Excellent,” 5; “Good,” 4; “Average,” 3; “Poor,” 2; and “Very Poor,” 1.

Newegg lets you determine the order in which products are listed. Look for a box labeled “Search Within” followed by a pull-down list of options: “Best Rating,” “Lowest Price,” “Highest Price,” “Most Reviews” and “Best Match.” “Best Rating” is a rough guide. I focus on “Lowest Price” and “Most Reviews.” I seek the lowest-priced choice for which there are enough reviews to make a reasonable judgment. I dismiss products with only a handful of reviews if there are comparable products with many reviews.

I have found the ratio (“Excellent+”Good”)/(“Poor”+”Very Poor”) useful. Call it the “good/bad,” or G/B ratio. You want it to be high, indicating there are many more above-average than below-average ratings. For example, as I write this, the Customer Reviews for SAMSUNG 204B-BK Black 20.1″ 5ms DVI LCD Monitor 300 cd/m2 800:1 – Retail show Excellent, 379; Good, 93; Average, 29, Poor, 24; Very Poor, 15; giving a G/B ratio of (379+93) / (24+15), about (470 / 40), or around 12. A rating of twelve is good in my book.

At the other extreme, look at PC CHIPS M848A (V5.0) Socket A (Socket 462) SiS 746FX ATX AMD Motherboard – Retail. This has 196 reviews, rated from best to worst as 65, 50, 18, 18, and 45. This results in a G/B ratio of (65+50)/(18+45), or (115/63), which is just about two. This is bad, so much so that I would immediately dismiss the product from further consideration.

The cost of shipping can matter so you need to understand how Newegg handles it. Each product has a price and a shipping cost. If you can hold the product in your hand then the shipping cost is about $5. The shipping cost for heavier items such as displays and cases is about $15. Since many components such as disk drives, cables, fans, and motherboards cost $50 or less, the shipping cost can represent about ten percent of the total cost to you.

Newegg associates a shipping cost with each thing you buy. So if you buy three keyboards each costing $15, you will pay $5 in shipping for each, for a total of $60. You don’t get a break if they all fit in the same box. Buying three at once costs as much as buying each separately.

As an example of importance of shipping costs, when I built my first computer back in 2004 I ordered the processor and the motherboard separately. Each cost about $50, so I paid $10 to ship them both. When I went to assemble the computer I realized I had forgotten to order a fan. So I had to order a fan for about $20, with an additional $5 for shipping. Then I learned I needed some thermal compound to mount the processor on the motherboard. That only cost about $5, but there was an additional $5 to ship it to me.

Even worse, I recently needed a few drops of thermal compound to re-mount a processor after I replaced a failed motherboard. Unable to find the thermal compound I had previously purchased I was then forced to buy some more. So I had to pay $10 to get a few drops of the needed compound.

There is a way to reduce the shipping costs. Each description lists the shipping cost and some items are provided with free shipping. Also, when you search for items, Newegg provides options in “Useful Links” that show the best sellers, the items with a discount, those with a rebat, and those with free shipping. I recently built a computer just from components that were currently offered with free shipping, in effect saving ten percent of the net cost to me. I think of it as my “free shipping” box and I’ll be writing more about it in a future post.

Newegg also offers “combo deals” in which you get a discount if you buy two or more related components at the same time. For example, when picking out the part for the “free shipping” computer” it happened there was a “combo deal” on the motherboard and processor that saved me an additional $10.

Most product descriptions end with the word “Retail.” This usually doesn’t matter, but it does in some cases you should know about.

When I built my first computer I noted some processors were “Retail” while others were “OEM.” I noted that “OEM” processors were cheaper, and so ordered one of them, not fully understanding what was meant by “Retail.” After, wasn’t a chip a chip?

When I went to assemble the computer I learned the difference the hard way. For processor, “OEM” means just the processor chip, while “Retail” means the chip, the fan to cool it, and the thermal compound to mount the fan on the chip after you have mounted the chip on the motherboard. So, as noted in the notes about shipping costs above, I had to order a fan and thermal compound separately, paying $5 to ship each.

The “OEM” and “Retail” distinction also matters for disk drives. With “OEM” you just get the drive. With “Retail” you also get a cable.

By the way, if you ever have to replace a fan, buy a cable, or get some new thermal compound, I recently learned that my local Radio Shack stocks some of these items. This came about when I bought a SATA disk drive as “OEM” without realizing I also needed a cable.

Though it hasn’t mattered to me since I’m only interested in running Linux these days, the OEM/Retail distinction matters if you want to buy a copy of one of Microsoft’s operating sytems. “OEM” means you have to buy some hardware when you buy the software and the operating system can only be installed on one computer. With “Retail” you have more flexibility.

The most valuable information is to be found in the “Customer Reviews” section. To access it you select the “Customer Reviews” tab and then the link “Read all … Reviews.” Above the first review you will see a pull-down list with the options “Sort by lowest rating,” “Sort by date posted,” “Sort by helpfulness” and “Sort by highest rating.”

I first look at the “Sort by lowest rating” list. If the G/B ratio is high there won’t be many of them. This will contain entries for components that were DOA, or “Dead on Arrival,” as well as reports on missing features that one tends to assume are available but weren’t for this particular product,
such as the absence of a particular connector.

When reading reviews you want to display as many on one page as you can. You can do this by looking to the right above the first review and selecting the largest value from “Per page,” usually it will be 100. This simplifies the use of the browser search function.

For example, I’m interested in buying hardware to run Linux in general, and Ubuntu in particular, so I search each page of the reviews for the strings “Linux” and “Ubuntu.” In some cases you will find that no entries match either string. This can be because it doesn’t really matter; for example, a keyboard works equally well under Windows or Linux. Or it can be a sign that Linux is still a small piece of the market. And, especially for Newegg, perhaps it is because most of Newegger’s want to run games, or are “overclockers” who seek maximum performance, or both. Since almost all the serious games are to be found on Windows you won’t find gamers reviewing how products run on Linux since it doesn’t matter to them.

The “overclockers,” many of whom are also gamers, seek maximum performance, mainly by tweaking the motherboard and BIOS to alter the default settings and run chips at higher speeds. While an interesting topic to many, it’s of no interest to me, and to those like me who just want to run a basic desktop or server — the default performance of today’s components is more than adequate for this task.

When reading reviews I attach more importance to Ubuntu in that it is currently my favorite Linux distribution (or “distro”). Thus a report of successful use on Ubuntu carries great weight with me. If a component works on Fedora then it may work on Ubuntu, or it may not.

I think it important to carefully read each review that mentions “Linux” or “Ubuntu,” especially to see if there are any inconsistencies. For example, if one reviewer reports the product worked on Linux while another reported that it didn’t.

However, this is easier said than done, as in the rush to find a component that will work it is tempting to say, “Well, if it worked on Linux for one reviewer then it will work for me.”

I recently purchased the following motherboard for the “free shipping” computer, ECS GeForce6100SM-M (1.0) Socket AM2 NVIDIA GeForce 6100S Micro ATX AMD Motherboard – Retail. It currently has 174 reviews. The following mention “Linux” or “Ubuntu.”

I like it. Pros: Good price and it didn’t take a lot of tweaking to get it to work properly with the DVD/SATA/IDE drives. Seems most on-board hardware is supported by Ubuntu 7.04 by default. Cons: Is not supported on SuSE Linux 10.2 out of the box. The kernel version is too old in SuSE, so you’ll have to install your own kernel and figure out how to config the hardware using it. I’ve so far only been able to get Ubuntu to support 1024x768x65k video mode without trying to find an nVidia driver. Other Thoughts: I bought this for software development and general tinkering. It will work fine for development on at least Ubuntu, so mission accomplished there. I would just rather have my 1280×1024 true color display to use. It seems pretty solid overall. It is a fairly small board, so the mid-tower case I got to put it in was a bit of overkill.

Works well with Linux. Pros: I paired this with an Athlon 64 X2 3600+ and 2 GB Transcend DDR2 800. Running with Linux kernel 2.6.20 and Kubuntu 7 for amd64. Everything works perfectly. A fine choice for a low-cost Linux workstation. Cons: * nVidia 405 chipset seems needlessly limited * minimal overclocking features.

Rockin’ Along. Pros: Running Ubuntu on this thing, with an X2 3600+ and a 1 gig stick of OCS Gold DDR2 800. Seems quick and solid. May add more memory to enable dual channel. Cons: No money hidden in the box? Other Thoughts: I was a little apprehensive. I’ve always used MSI MBs, but this ECS product seems solid for a basic board.

Impressive AM2 MB. Pros: I have two of these ECS motherboards and both of them are running a Linux Distro. The 64-bit version of SimplyMepis 6.05.02 installs out of the box with the exception of Realtek ALC660 on-board sound… Installing a e-cycled SoundBlaster was an rapid & easy fix. I am running a 65 watt Brisbane 3600 & 4400 in these motherboards… Cons: None – These have been reliable motherboard since December 2006… Other Thoughts: I am running the pre-beta Mepis 7 in the motherboard with a Brisbane 1.9 AMD x2 CPU installed. On-board sound is recognized in the test version, but the Realtek ALC660 does not have the fidelity of the e-cycled older SoundBlaster CT5803 I was using.

Works fine. Pros: Works fine. Had no issues with Linux drivers or other problems. Cons: Would like more SATA plugs and 1Gb ether, but oh well. Other Thoughts: For a grunt board, this one turned out fine.

Like it……Alot!!! Pros: Bought this as a combo with the 1.9GHz X2 Brisbane. Excellent price. No install problems at all. XP runs like a top. The onboard graphics are quite sufficient to run the gaming I do (CFS1, CFS2). This was my first build ans I’m very happy with this board and how easy it all went. Cons: Now I can’t fix a cup of coffee in the time it takes to boot up. Other Thoughts: Mine didn’t come with the 4 pin to sata power connector, but I didn’t need it anyways. Runs Slax linux also.

Good little board. Pros: Cheap, Works, SATA2 supports fast processors works in linux* onboard graphics are fine for most people even light gaming. Cons: PCI-E 8x but unless you are buying a super high end card not a big deal doesnot work with older linux kernels Other Thoughts: I would run at least 2.6.20 on this. Ubuntu Feisty runs linux kernel 2.6.20 which has correct drivers for this. Ubuntu Edgy runs kernel 2.6.17 which does not have drives for the NIC, sound, and the parallel port does not work properly. I have not noticed any other things that don’t work in 2.6.17. I don’t know how 2.6.18 or 2.6.19 work though.Works I bought this in a combo with an X2 3600+ and have not tried over clocking yet so can’t say on it’s over clocking ability’s.

Good “Value” Board. Pros: Great price for the features. Non-tech friendly. Very Linux friendly. Cons: BIOS is not very well provisioned on any ECS motherboard. If you need to change BIOS settings, get an ASUS MOBO. Like any electronics, documentation is limited to basics. Linux does not like the Intel Northbridge, so stick with AMD/nVidia if you use Linux Other Thoughts: ECS motherboards are known for being picky with RAM. I use Corsiar Ballistix and it works fine. I have bought about 15 ECS boards and have only had one bad one.

Perfect. Pros: Good layout, easy to setup with what I needed it for and a perfect price. Cons: The I/O shield is pretty flimsy but that’s expected Other Thoughts: I wanted a quality and inexpensive mobo to build my first computer. I’m glad I got this bundled with the Sempron 3000+. I have it running Ubuntu 7.04 with Beryl! I just needed to install the Nvidia drivers to get Beryl to run but so far everything has been stable, I’m extremely satisfied with what I got

Working great. Pros: Have been running Ubuntu 7.04 on this board for several months now without any problems. Integrated graphics works surprisingly well. Cons: Aux fan connector (which I needed for a case fan) not stuffed. Other Thoughts: SATA-II did not work reliably with a Maxtor 500GB drive. Had to jumper the drive for SATA-I to get reliable transfers.

Note the many mentions of Ubuntu and lack of mentions of problems. I bought this board, and it worked like a charm when I first booted up the machine.

On the other hand, I had many problems with another motherboard. I recently had a hardware failure on the computer I built in 2004. Seeking to upgrade, I bought a BIOSTAR TFORCE 550 Socket AM2 NVIDIA nForce 550 MCP ATX AMD Motherboard – Retail. This has almost 250 reviews. There’s a wealth of information in the reviews that mention “Ubuntu” or “Linux.” I bought this board, and then ran into problems, doing many installs of Suse and Ubuntu before I realized I had missed a key suggestion in one of the posts. I noticed it when I reread the reviews, and when I took the appropriate action the board worked like a champ. I plan to write of this in a future post. In the interim, can you discover what I missed?

Though that experience was frustrating, it was educational. Yet another reminder that working with open-source — even when you’re just trying to put together hardware to run it — can be an experience that is rewarding, fun, and educational to boot.

So if you want to buy some hardware or build a machine, you won’t go wrong with Newegg. I’ve had good luck with them and I’m sure you will too.

Try Newegg

Break a leg!

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