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August 2019



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The SX280 Comes Out of Depreciation


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.



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.


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