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August 2019

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The SX280 Comes Out of Depreciation

SX280onHC317Deck500Wide.jpg

I've changed my mind again; take note, and remember that it's good practice. I recommended the Dell SX270 here over the SX280 last fall. Having had some time to spend with a couple of SX280s, I'm thinking that the SX270's day may be past.

I've been configuring and using Dell's SX270 Ultra Small Form Factor (USFF) machines for several years now, and mostly I love them. They're rugged, tiny, quiet, reliable, and come with a BIOS-locked version of XP Professional that does not need activation. (The disc can't be installed on anything but a Dell SX270, and because every last SX270 out the door had a paid-for Windows instance on it, Microsoft figures they won't lose anything by giving over WPA, and they're right.) The SX270s were made and sold between 2003 and 2005, and given that they were almost entirely corporate fleet machines, five years later they've mostly been written off by their corporate owners and dumped on the resale market. That's why they're so cheap; a quick check of completed auctions on eBay right now shows dozens of units selling for between $60 and $100, and a few full systems (including flat panel monitor, keyboard, mouse, and the combo system unit/monitor stand) for between $100 and $150.

There are a nonetheless few downsides to the SX270:

  • They're limited to 2 GB RAM. This can be an issue, depending on what you're doing with them.
  • They use 2.5" laptop IDE hard drives, which are more expensive (and less capacious) than the conventional 3.5" drives most larger PCs contain.
  • Their integrated graphics systems are not meant for animated video games, and the slower machines (slower than 3 GHz) do not render video very well.

In 2005, Dell replaced the SX270 with the SX280 USFF, which is about 15% larger but still mighty small. The SX280 is a better machine in a number of ways:

  • It can take up to 4 GB RAM, though you have to be careful what you put in it. (More on this in a moment.)
  • It uses ordinary 3.5" SATA drives, which means you can pack 1.5 TB into the little box for about $120.
  • The integrated graphics chipset is faster and more versatile--if still not quite versatile enough.
  • It opens up and field-strips a lot more easily than the SX270.

Until very recently, SX280s were fairly scarce and went for $250-$350 used. But a few months ago I noticed that SX280 prices were imploding, and they're now as cheap (and in many cases cheaper) than the SX270, sometimes as cheap as $50. In fact, a week or so ago, a full 2.8 GHz system like the one shown above (which I will be installing in our parish office shortly) sold for $103, including the Dell HC317 17" monitor on stand, mouse, and keyboard.

The SX280 is a little fussy about the sort of DDR2 DIMMs you put in it. Crucial has a nice lookup service for Dell (and many other) computers, and I ordered 2 2GB DIMMs from them. Go here and look for the Crucial Memory Advisor. If you buy the ones specified for your model, they're guaranteed to work, and mine did.

Seeing SX280s cheaper than 270s is a little odd. It may be that the supply of workable SX270s is drying up; after all, they went out of production five years ago. Doesn't matter; the SX280 is a better machine, and if you mount it on an HC317 stand behind the 17" monitor, it's no larger than the similar 17" piggyback system incorporating an SX270. The HC317 stand is VESA compatible, so if you have a larger VESA monitor it'll bolt right on.

The big downside, as I've alluded to before, is that neither the SX270 nor SX280 will display a native 16 X 9 raster under Windows. I've tried to coerce the Intel chipset to do 16 X 9 to no avail--which is infuriating, since Ubuntu detects my widescreen monitor and somehow drives the Intel GMA 900 controller at 1600 X 900 automatically, with no input from me.

Anyway. If you're looking for a small and quiet officework machine for cheap, the SX280 just got cheap. Highly recommended.

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Comments

(Anonymous)

An interesting alternative for some situations would be one of the small systems made with Atom processors. Prices start around $200, and whatever other shortcomings they might have, not working with a wide-aspect monitor won't be one of them.
There are newer Dell models in the same physical case as the SX280, and as they come off lease they'll become available on eBay. I'm guessing that at some point they will begin supporting widescreen modes, but until they become $50 machines too I'm reluctant to just buy one to find out.

Watch for the SX620, the GX620 USFF, the 745 USFF, the 755 USFF, and the 760 USFF. I don't know much about them yet other than that they exist, and in the same case as the SX280.
There's no reason to pay $200 for a new Atom when you can get a used Dell 745 USFF Core 2 Duo for the same price or just a hair more, and that's today. If the whining on my Antec Core 2 Duo tower here ever starts to get to me I may pick up a 745 even before they get cheap.
How good is it under Ubuntu? Have you tried any other distributions on it?
I tried installing Fedora Core 12, and the installer simply crashed, with no clear indication of why. Kubuntu installed without much trouble, but it's minimally different from Ubuntu. The Mint LiveCD worked, but I didn't try to install to the hard drive. Have not tried OpenSuSE, though I have the ISO and it's on my list.
Whoops. Forgot the main answer: Ubuntu works great; it autodetects my Samsung 16:9 monitor and puts the video into that mode automatically. I've had Ubuntu working on an SX270 since Intrepid, and I've tried the liveCD on an SX280, same deal. Ubuntu seems to have the hardware probing thing nailed, which is one reason I've stuck with it.

(Anonymous)

Getting XP to run at 1600 x 900

I would suggest reading THIS article. With your background, you should be able to solve your Windows screen resolution problem using the instructions and tool links therein.

<http://software.intel.com/en-us/articles/custom-resolutions-on-intel-graphics/>

You may need to force install an Intel driver rather than the Dell driver if the Dell driver does not support 'custom' resolutions in its igxp32.inf file. Find the file on your machine and search for this line -

HKR,, TotalDTDCount, %REG_DWORD%, 0

If it's there, the custom resolution table will be just below it.
If not, force install and Intel driver following this instruction:

. Download the .zip version of the driver (CNET's a good place):

<http://download.cnet.com/win2k-xp142550-zip/3000-2108_4-139621.html>

. open readme.txt

. section MANUAL "HAVE_DISK" INSTALLATION INSTRUCTIONS

. subsection Microsoft Windows XP Installation Instructions for Intel(R) Express Chipset Graphics Driver

. perform step 1. - 12. exactly as described with no deviation and shortcut

. will install despite the fact that you have a Dell

Good luck.

Chris Meredith (friend of Bill & Gretchen)

Re: Getting XP to run at 1600 x 900

Thanks for the great post--this is probably what I'm looking for. Now to make it work.

That CNET link is broken, and although the file is nominally available from Intel, the download doesn't work. So I don't have the win2k-xp142550.zip file yet. I didn't find it on majorgeeks, so if you know of another trustworthy download location, please pass it along. In the meantime, I'm chewing through that (scary) Web article, which is nothing if not detailed, and I've already learned a lot from it. Again, thanks.

I'll post an entry once I locate that file and give it a shot on one of my SX270s.

Re: Getting XP to run at 1600 x 900

I have the file now; Intel must have been having a bad day when I tried before lunch. Anyway, next step is to install the driver on one of my SX270s and see what happens. May get to that later today; I certainly would like to.

Re: Getting XP to run at 1600 x 900

Well, I gave it a good shot, but I don't think it's going to work, and I'm not sure how much time I can throw at it. I did learn a lot, though, and it helped that I can do hex in my head and am used to futzing with low-level stuff like this.

I forced install of the driver just as described in the README. I ran MonInfo to get the DTD binary data on the 1600X900 monitor. I checked the binary data to be sure I had the right DTD, and I did. (I decoded the horizontal and vertical resolution values as described, and it checked out.) I swapped in the 18 bytes for the first DTD in igxp32.inf, put the end flags on them, changed the TotalDTDCount value from 0 to 1, saved it, and updated the driver. No luck. I checked the DTD_1 key in the Registry with RegEdit, and it came in byte for byte as I entered it, ditto the TotalDTDCount key. Cycled power, but the new resolution defined by the DTD was not made available. I don't know if my BIOS is blocking the resolution and I'm not sure how to find out...but Ubuntu has no trouble putting it in 1600X900 mode, so I don't think it's the BIOS.

At this point I'm going to set the box aside for now. It's going to the church office shortly, and while it would have been cool to have it drive the widescreen, I have a used 1280X1024 4:3 that will do the job.

Still, thanks for taking the trouble to describe the process and especially for the pointer to that technical article. I knew in broad terms how that mechanism worked, but had never gone in at the byte level.

(Anonymous)

Re: Getting XP to run at 1600 x 900


LINUX does it by patching the video BIOS after it's copied to RAM during boot but before the GUI is brought up. This neatly dodges any BIOS lockout of specific resolutions.

If the BIOS actually is blocking the 1600x900@60hz resolution (and this is definitely a possibility, the key is to create a DTD setting for something like 1599x899 ... you won't perceive it on-screen and it neatly sidesteps the BIOS lockout.

I'd give it one more go if you haven't tried this approach. The only thing you need to do is generate the new variant DTD for 1599x899, edit the igxp32.inf that you've already installed and reboot. If the 'new' resolution now shows up, Bob's your uncle.

Have fun and good luck

Chris
I made a mention of this last time I saw you bring it up, but it'll do 16:9 natively. You just need the right driver. I used to run an SX280 on my 42" LCD TV using a DVI-to-HDMI cable. It worked in both 720p and 1080p, but we left it at 720p for readability comfort.

There's an experimental Intel GPU driver that enabled it in Windows that I had to hunt down.

(Anonymous)

on the other hand...

A few months ago, I put together a new machine for my wife. Bought box, PS, mobo, dual-core Athlon X2, 4GB, a 500GB drive, and added in an old DVD burner I had already. I spent a little over $300. And I had a legal MSDN install left for XP.

Lately, I am looking at a new machine for me. I'm planning to go a similar direction, but with at least 8GB (I now use virtual machines a lot -- it changes your point of view). I can still do it for <$500, and not scrimp on any of the elements.

I like Gigabyte for the motherboards. Great choices at about $75-90.

Not to say the SX280 isn't worth a look, but historically, when I have owned a branded machine, they usually bit me with one or more "features."

YMMV,

Bill Meyer

Re: on the other hand...

Not many people can do what you and I can do, so knowing about good solid used machines is good, as most of the people I help with this stuff are not technical and certainly not performance computing people.

It's interesting that the machine I've liked the least across the last fifteen years was the Intel PERL box I put together out of loose components back in 2005. It's given me a fair amount of trouble in several areas, and the Antec people would not sell me a replacement front-panel circuit board, even though the one that came with the case had bad solder joints in it.

It's downstairs now with the side panel off, waiting for me to scavenge it. Doesn't always kick off and I'm not sure why. (I.e., it doesn't always get into POST but just sits there with the fans running.)

By contrast, I've had a lot of Dell machines, and they've always worked extremely well for me. I have a $900 custom box on my desk now, though I didn't put it together. Core 2 Quad, 4GB RAM, 2 TB disk total. I might have assembled it myself for a little less money, but for the time being I have a place to take it to if it acts up.

(Anonymous)

Re: on the other hand...

Well, after all the pain I have suffered breathing life into PCs over the years, I'm not about to start buying ready-mades and let all that hard earned ability go to waste!

And don't even get me started on letting the C: drive consume an entire drive. I learned years ago that my life was less painful if I reserved a reasonable space for the OS and such apps as stupidly refuse to work elsewhere, and put my data and other apps on other partitions. That way, WHEN, not if, the partition has to be rebuilt, or the OS re-installed, my suffering is less than it might have been.

For a number of years, I have also set up for multiple OS boot, although with the virtual machines being what they are now, the need seems a good deal less. Still, setting up C: and D: as bootable OS partitions, and putting apps on E:, it is practical to install (for example) Delphi on E: from each OS, so the actual installed space is consumed only once. Of course, back when you could do a registry-only install, it was much quicker!

Anyway, these days, I want my next machine to be running Win7 64bit, with 8-16GB, and I will use VirtualBox to run virtual machines in that space. Not heaven, but close to it.

Oh, and I have found that at the office, MS Word 2007 in a virtual box with 512MB runs at least twice as fast as Word 2003 on the host machine. And with fewer bugs ;)

Bill Meyer