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The School Box system spec

Outfitting today's student with traditional TR power and utility
— 1:18 AM on September 4, 2001

Manufacturer Various
Model School Box
Availability Now

I've seen far too many retail and even direct-order machines with processors over 1GHz that are crippled by TNT M64 graphics cards and 15" monitors with more curve than Jennifer Lopez's most obvious assets. These machines get snapped up by the truckload, despite their horrible specs and obvious pandering to nice, big numbers that Joe Sixpack can understand.

Here at The Tech Report, we know better. Unfortunately, we don't have much of a retail presence. Luckily, most of you should be quite comfortable building up your own computers, so we've gone ahead and put together some specs for a reasonable dorm room computer. It's not the cheapest machine on the block, nor is it the fastest. But it does give you everything that you'll need—not only to get your work done, but also to keep you entertained while living in a room the size of a closet.

I've lived in university residence for 5 years; I know the pain, and what eases it. The Tech Report's School Box is not only something you can work with, it's also something you can live with—and play with.

A note on pricing
I compiled the prices listed here from PriceWatch. I based my price range estimates on the lowest price listed and on what I felt was the average price for each item. Because of the shipping costs associated with ordering from multiple vendors, I generally don't suggest ordering everything straight out of the PriceWatch listings. In my experience, it's good to develop a relationship with a single dealer or handful of dealers, ordering from a place you know will give you good service and prompt delivery. Even local mom & pop shops are an option. At least around my place, it's often cheaper making a trip to one of the computer shops than it is to order even the lowest priced item (plus shipping) on PriceWatch.

And now, without further ado, let's get started.

The core

Processor: AMD Athlon 1.4GHz ($125-140)

Even the most stubborn Intel fanboys have to admit that AMD is where it's at for performance and value. At the same MHz rating, and even when the clock speed is stacked against it, the Athlon continues to surpass Intel's performance. Only against Intel's latest, 2GHz Pentium 4 does AMD's 1.4GHz offering lose the performance crown. However, factoring in the Athlon's price, there's really no better processor out there for both value and performance.

We're recommending the retail boxed version of the Athlon here. You can get an OEM version cheaper, but the retail boxed units come with a three-year manufacturer's warranty and a heat sink/fan combo cooler. All told, the retail verison is definitely worth the extra money.

Is the Athlon 1.4GHz overkill? Yes, most certainly. Our review of AMD's fastest shows it posting some incredibly impressive numbers, likely much more than you really need. At these prices, though, why not for for the extra couple hundred megahertz for a few extra dollars? If you're really a miser, you could drop down the speed of the processor a bit here and save enough to buy yourself a case of beer or two. Personally, I'd rather have the faster processor.

Motherboard: Shuttle AK31 Rev. 2 ($85-100)

Damage liked the AK31 so much he decided to slap one into his main box. That says a lot about both this board's performance and its stability. For a machine that's going to be used for work, stabilility is of prime importance. You don't want your system flaking out on you while you're in the midst of a 20-page term paper that's due in the next morning.

The AK31 also gives us a DDR platform. With DDR prices hanging close to PC133 SDRAM prices, there really isn't any reason to tether ourselves to a dated memory technology. DDR may not have a monumental impact on overall performance, but it's certainly worth the incremental cost, especially with a board like the AK31 selling for under $100.

RAM: 512MB Crucial PC2100 DDR SDRAM (2 256MB DIMMs) ($72)

Crucial currently prices its DDR memory right down there with its PC133 SDRAM. At prices like that, it's pretty hard to resist. The Crucial is only rated for CAS 2.5, but the gains we'd see going to CAS 2 in this case would be meager compared to the huge price hike (to near Rambus levels) with CAS 2 DDR. Considering Crucial's free second-day air shipping and current prices, this one's a no brainer; you'd probably pay more for generic DDR due to shipping costs.

With prices as cheap as they are, we'll splurge on two 256MB sticks here. If you're heavy into multitasking or wary of Windows 2000's memory footprint, 512MB is a good bet. 256MB will do just fine in the vast majority of cases, but as with many things, more is simply better. I have to believe we've hit the bottom with RAM prices, or at least that we're very close. Now is probably a good time to pick up a little extra unless you're really strapped for cash.