Since last week I have a new computer, after my old Gateway GT4014j died after three years of constant use. It had greeted me with a Blue Screen of Death on a sad Monday morning. If I rebooted, the machine would always lock up again within minutes: Bad news!
I hooked up the main drive (a 250 GB SATA) to another machine via the NewerTechnology USB 2.0 Universal Drive Adapter, the Swiss army knife of drive adapters. During a disk scan the drive would hang too. A few days later I was able to copy off most of the data via the USB cable, so I didn’t really lose any important data, but reinstalling and reconfiguring everything cost me several days.
With the bad drive I could either go out and buy just a new drive for the old machine, or pick up a complete new machine. In the end I chose the latter: The old machine had been working very hard for three years and if I had to reinstall the operating system and other software anyway, I felt safer starting with fresh hardware and not an old motherboard or power supply that might burn out not too long after.
Welcome to my new box, an Acer Aspire M5201-A32, which cost me 44,800 yen (about US$400) at Nojima.
Since 1995 I’ve had 3 eMachines and then 2 Gateways (Gateway acquired eMachines). It’s pure coincidence that the new machine is an Acer, which acquired Gateway in 2007. I like reasonably well built machines that use standard components and are not too expensive. For software development and testing as well as typical internet-related tasks I don’t really need high end CPUs that are expensive, power-hungry and require big, noisy cooling fans.
I picked the Acer not only because it was inexpensive but also because it’s based on the AMD 780G chipset which has a good reputation for power efficiency and decent performance for an on-board video chip (I’m not a gamer, so I don’t need high end graphics performance). The on-board video is called a Radeon HD 3200 which is very similar to a Radeon 2400 discrete video card.
On the net I found virtually no information about what motherboard Acer uses in this model, but it appears to be the same Foxconn (Bengal) RS780 Motherboard used in several Gateway models, such as the DX4200, GT5694, GT6576 and GM5688E. Acer / Gateway doesn’t provide any drivers for operating systems other than Vista, but the 780G chipset is well supported and there are plenty of other suppliers of similar boards. Right now everything except the sound chip is recognized and working under Windows 2003, but I hope to fix that too.
The machine has both a 15 pin VGA and a HDMI connector, which can be used with dual monitors. I verified that with just one monitor but two cables, switching the monitor input between the two connectors and seeing the two logical screens of the desktop, but normally I only use the HDMI output hooked up to a single 24″ Dell monitor (2408WFP).
There are 6 SATA connectors on the motherboard and the case has room for 6 internal 3.5″ devices (one of which is used for the memory card slot) and two external 5.25″ devices, one of which is taken by the Lite-On DH-16A6S (DH16A6S) DVD-RAM drive. The 300W PSU has four SATA power connectors, two of which are still available.
The machine came with a workable 2 GB of PC2-6400 (DDR2-800, 2x1GB) RAM taking up 2 of the 4 memory slots. The maximum supported is 8 GB. I will probably just get another 2x1GB for about another $30.
UPDATE 2009-09-26: The “Audio Device on High Definition Audio Bus” that ends up in “Other devices” under the Device Manager looks like the audio output supported by the HDMI video interface. Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows 2003 do not include a driver for it. It can be downloaded from Microsoft as a hotfix. Since my monitor doesn’t have speakers, I won’t really be needing that driver.