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Tom's Back To School Guide: Gear for Work

More Small Form Factor Parts

By: Chris Angelini

Graphics: Sapphire Radeon HD 3450 256MB DDR2

We’re already using the 780G’s integrated core, which offers two independent display outputs. However, AMD’s popular mainstream chipset also supports a feature called Hybrid Graphics, where an add-in card can work in tandem with the built-in core for enhanced 3D performance. Alternatively, you can also use the discrete card’s outputs to connect another couple of displays.

Ideally, you’d match the 780G’s Radeon HD 3200-series core up to a comparable solution for the best balance between price and performance. The Radeon HD 3450 is perhaps the most closely configured board in AMD’s discrete lineup, so it’s the card we chose to drop into Gigabyte’s motherboard. Armed with 40 stream processors, a 64-bit memory path, built-in video decoding hardware and HDMI output, it’s quite the package at under $40.

Sapphire’s take on the Radeon HD 3450 is particularly attractive: the PCI Express x16 board is passively cooled, doesn’t require auxiliary power, and features one DVI and one VGA output. You won’t see stunning performance numbers from the Hybrid Graphics solution, but after all, this is a work machine: it’s quiet, inexpensive and surprisingly feature-laden. While you could certainly drop the add-in card altogether and run off the integrated core, we think the extra investment is well worth it — especially when you consider the cost of a quad-output card like NVIDIA’s Quadro NVS 440 needed to enable similar functionality.

Storage: Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 ST3500630AS 500 GB HDD

Again, we’re using restraint here to keep the cost of this back-to-school workstation in line with a student’s budget. Nothing would bring us more joy than a RAID 5 array of Seagate’s new 1.5 TB SATA drives. However, 500 GB of capacity is still impressive, as is the $85 price tag on the company’s Barracuda 7200.11 model.

Based on second-generation perpendicular magnetic recording technology, Seagate’s Barracuda is a great little two-platter drive armed with 32 MB of cache and a standard 7,200 RPM spindle. It idles at a relatively quiet 25 dB and averages around 11 W of operating power consumption. Seagate guarantees the drive for five years and assigns it a 750,000 hour MTBF. Optimizations in areal density, performance, and power consumption make this a solid value proposition.

Rounding Out the Edges

Our itty-bitty workstation is just about finished. It needs some memory, an optical drive (which the In Win chassis accommodates) and perhaps a bit of wireless networking support.

For a low-cost, diminutive workstation, we weren’t as concerned about memory with overclocking headroom so much as we wanted a DDR2-1066 kit with aggressive timings; capacity was an issue as well. A 4 GB kit would beg to be paired to a 64-bit operating system, while a 2 GB solution might not be enough for your typical four-year bachelor’s degree — and definitely not sufficient for this writer’s six-year “extended stay” program. So, we erred on the side of longevity and selected OCZ’s DDR2 PC2-8500 Platinum 4GB dual-channel package, ducking in at under $100 after an available mail-in rebate.

As for optical storage, we were torn between the entertainment value of a Blu-ray player and utility of a DVD burner. In the end, we went with the more business-minded writer, and looked in Plextor’s direction for a suitable solution — after all, the company used to manufacture some of our favorites. But once we realized that the newest PX-820SA is a re-badged Optiarc AD-7200S, we went straight to the source, and in so doing, cut the price in half. The Sony/NEC Optiarc is a 20x DVD+/-R writer also able to handle RW media, dual-layer, and DVD-RAM discs. It’ll do everything you need from a burner, save Blu-ray, at just above $25.

Wireless networking is situational, of course. The Gigabyte MA78GM-S2H includes a Gigabit Ethernet controller, which would be our first choice for maximizing the performance of data transfers — especially if you’re backing up to a networked storage device. But the draft spec of 802.11n provides for theoretical performance as high as 300 Mb/s today and that’s darned quick. Dorm room computers aren’t always in easy range of a Gigabit port, so we picked Linksys’ WMP300N PCI Adapter for making longer-range connections.

Total cost for the box? Just under $650. Granted, you’ll want to add at least one display and I/O. But the platform itself is solid, powerful, and relatively inexpensive.