Revisiting the Dell Optiplex GX110 PC

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 24 December 2012 |

One of the joys of keeping old technology magazines is reading the general fanfare with which hardware and software products were announced, squinting in disbelief at the launch prices, and then considering how close to completely useless those products have become in less than a decade and a half.

But actually, the Dell Optiplex GX110 was one computer system which really didn’t represent too bad a deal when it first appeared in August 1999. In fact, my early example not only still works with all its original internal parts, but it will (and does) run Windows XP Pro, and is just about able to surf the modern Web, as well as performing lots of other useful tasks. Not all at the same time, obviously, and I’m not gonna pretend the machine is anything other than very, very sluggish performing current tasks, but how many 1990s PCs will do anything useful at all as we head into 2013?

Dell Optiplex GX110 PC (1999)
My Dell Optiplex GX110 system. The entire base unit and the monitor are original, but the keyboard and mouse are replacements. The once familiar Windows 98 is in use here, just as in the old days.

For just under a thousand dollars (or approximately £600 here in the UK), the Dell Optiplex GX110 initially offered a 450MHz processor, 64MB of RAM, a 6.4Gig hard disk and a small CRT monitor. That was pretty much the base-line spec of the day, but the machine was reassuringly well made, and its price was attractive given its capabilities. For the more affluent purchaser, there was an option with a 600 MHz processor, double the RAM, double the hard disk space, and a large (17 inch) CRT monitor - at double the price. My own GX110 has a 500 MHz processor but otherwise the base unit spec of the 1999 ‘entry level’ model, and the monitor is a large 17 inch CRT. I’ve divided up the hard drive so that I can run Windows XP Pro on one partition, and the original Windows 98SE on the other.

As I say, loaded with Windows XP and using a fast Opera browser to access the Web, the system is very slow. It’s over thirteen years behind today’s Internet and software. But using the Windows 98 partition with old programs and applications you get a good sense of how impressive the GX110 was in its day. Classic old software packages like Cubasis VST (1999), Photoshop 5LE (1998) and Microsoft Office 2000 perform very well on this computer – you can still describe the user experience as a pleasure, and the jobs get done just as straightforwardly as they would on a brand new PC. Advanced functions familiar to users of current software packages are lacking in these old versions, but the ancient programs are not as restrictive as some might imagine.

The badges on the Dell Optiplex GX110 show that the machine houses an Intel Pentium III processor, was made in Europe, and was designed to run either Windows NT or Windows 98.

To remind myself of what the Dell Optiplex GX110 can do I used it to record a piece of original music, and I’m really happy with the result. There wasn’t anything like enough power to properly orchestrate the track with virtual instruments, so I reverted back to the old system of using MIDI hardware – 1990s synthesizers and a drum machine, all connected via a MIDI interface. Recording MIDI data places very little demand on a Pentium III PC’s resources, and even mixing the audio input from the various MIDI instruments down to a stereo .WAV file in Cubasis VST didn’t place any undue demands on the system. Adding a high quality digital reverb to the final mix did stretch the PC’s processor to its limit, but there were no disasters or significant hiccups. Here’s how it sounds…

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What struck me about using this old system again was how much power in a modern PC goes to waste on bloated operating system, program and Web demands. It seems users never really gain great leeway with resources as time goes on, because as soon as a hardware manufacturer ups the spec, software and Internet companies immediately guzzle it all up. The RAM gets flooded with masses of crap that really doesn’t need to be there, and the programming becomes more ‘lazy’, with few makers taking the time to streamline processing tasks in the way they once did.

So when you go back to a system which is getting on for a decade and a half old, you find that, provided you use software roughly contemporary with the PC’s release, the setup doesn’t seem unacceptably slow. Once you try to update an old PC with modern software, of course, it quickly grinds to a halt. And since at the very least the Internet constantly evolves, dropping support for old software in the process, it could be said that the computer industry has us all over a barrel. To continue using the Internet in comfort over the long term, we have very little choice but to keep buying new computers or devices – even if our old ones still function exactly as they did the day they were bought.

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