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Is the $100 PC possible?

The only time I've ever seen anything that can claim the $100 PC title is one of those day-after-Thanksgiving sales where people camp out all night long in front of my local computer superstore and people almost trample each other clawing their way to the deal of the year.

With last week's non-event announcement of the Sun-Google alliance, there was a lot of talk about the end of the PC and the emergence of a new cheap $100 computer.  Last month, Nicholas Negroponte announced his plan to mass market a cheap $100 laptop for students and the third world.  This week, our own Michael Kanellos wrote this article about the "return of the $100 PC".  The only problem is that Negroponte's $100 laptop doesn't exist yet and the CompUSA $99 PC that Kanellos mentioned requires you to sign away your first-born child.  Ok I'm exaggerating about the first-born child, but it's almost as bad since they want you to sign up for a year of AOL (not to be mistaken for America Online) at a whopping $23.90 a month.

So if we completely ignore the CompUSA deal, which isn't really $99, we have Negroponte's $100 laptop.  While it has some interesting features such as a hand crank generator and a rubber seal that prevents water from leaking in the sides, it doesn't particularly strike me as something that I would want to do computing on.  For one thing, it has a display that's about as big as a luggable laptop of the early 90s that is more appropriate for a cheap portable DVD player than a computer, and it's designed to be dependent on a non-existent internet/server infrastructure.  I'm not sure if it's going to be worth anything more than a dumb VT100 terminal.  At best, it might be usable as a Citrix terminal and you can forget about Java since even the fastest Desktop PCs with boatloads of RAM run like slugs when forced to do JVM applets.

The truth of the matter is, even a Citrix terminal needs to have processor that can handle the XGA video display graphics, the Wi-Fi WEP/TKIP encryption, and the Citrix ICA protocol encryption on top of all that.  Wyse Technology Corporation focuses on these thin clients using Linux, AMD Geode 266 MHz CPUs, and Windows CE and you would be hard pressed to find anything that comes remotely close to $100.  Just the components alone exceed $100 even if we leave out the expensive LCD display.  The Cisco Wi-Fi adapter alone costs about $100.

The only time I've ever seen anything that can claim the $100 PC title is one of those day-after-Thanksgiving sales where people camp out all night long in front of my local computer superstore only to trample each other in the morning while clawing their way to the deal of the year.  Technically, it does really count since the monitor/keyboard/mouse is not included but I'm sure some starving college kid can find a used 15" CRT somewhere for $40 and a cheap keyboard/mouse for $10.  The good news is that the computer is surprisingly fast and usable with a 1300 MHz AMD Duron processor, 128 MBs of RAM, a video card, CD ROM, and a 40 GB hard drive.  When running a native C or C++ application, this system would flat out run circles around any Web or Java application on the fastest PC on the planet.  For application load times, the local hard drive would spit data out at a blazing 320 mbps which might even make Google's Internet uplink envious and never mind the 2 GB limit because we're packing 40 GBs locally.

Having built some PCs with similar specifications for some friends who wanted a really cheap PC, I can honestly say that this cheap PC runs faster than most 3-year old corporate PCs even if they are tuned properly.  If I were a starving college student or lived in China, I would go out of my way to scrounge enough money for one of these self-reliant PCs that can do everything its more expensive cousins can do, and I'd probably save up for a decent 19" CRT display that can be found on sale for just over $100.  I wouldn't be caught dead in a glorified dumb terminal with a peanut-size display.  There are already plenty of dumb terminals collecting dust in the computer lab and they're there for a reason.

For those who want a real portable computer, I found this deal from Dell where a Celeron M 1.4 GHz laptop with a 14" LCD XGA display is running as low as $399 after the $50 rebate and $100 coupon (code: FKP?5K580L7$4T) but you better hurry before the coupon expires.  The Celeron M CPU is based on the Pentium M CPU and is slightly crippled on the cache size but still puts out some respectable benchmark numbers that is in line with the 2+ GHz Intel Pentium 4 desktop processors while using a minimal amount of power to conserve battery life.  It even has 256 MBs of RAM and a DVD/CD Burner to boot.  While this isn't exactly a $100 notebook, this is the real thing with just about everything you need.

I really doubt that Dell makes any money off a deal like this but it would make a pretty good notebook for anyone.  The only other tip that I can give you that might make Dell a little upset is that I would stay away from any of the expensive accessories and leave the Wi-Fi card out.  You can actually find a better dual-band Intel 2915 Wi-Fi adapter that is used in premium "Centrino" branded notebooks for under $29.  Now that's my idea of nirvana if I were still a college student.