The client

MPC's $734 ClientPro 125 has a 2-GHz Celeron processor, 128M of RAM and a 20G hard drive.

Neoware System's Eon Preferred 3000 Thin Client has a 300-MHz Geode GX1 processor, runs Microsoft Windows CE .Net terminal and is priced at $469.

IBM's NetVista M Sealed Desktop comes with 256M of RAM, a 40G hard drive and six USB ports. It's priced, without a monitor, at $939 for a 2-GHz Pentium 4 and $959 for a 2.4-GHz Pentium 4.

Inexpensive PCs could be just the thing for your network

For decades users received their network services via dedicated terminals. Now, nearly every desktop PC comes with a network port, and network clients often are standard desktop PCs that replaced the ASCII terminals.

There are several categories of client hardware in use today'although there is actually no such thing as client hardware; there's just hardware; the client is the software.

Network PCs are often powerful and come with hard drives but don't have floppy drives. This is a security measure. At one time a floppy disk brought from home was the most common cause of virus infections. With no removable media, it's difficult to steal files or bring in an infection from outside. A CD-ROM also can be used to infect the network.

Windows-based terminals (WBT) are like the old ASCII terminals except they run Microsoft Windows and can request services from a Windows server. That would be ideal, but most WBTs are bloated with fast processors and memory far beyond what they need, making them relatively expensive. That eliminates most of their attractiveness as an alternative to simply buying another PC.

In effect, the cheapest WBT today is an inexpensive client PC: a low-end personal computer, perhaps with some components removed.

Low-end is a relative term. A $400 eMachine comes with 128M of RAM, a 40G hard drive, a 2.2-GHz Celeron processor, a 48X CD-ROM drive, and a 10/100 Ethernet port, not to mention audio, a modem, Windows XP Home, and six Universal Serial Bus ports.

You should upgrade to XP Pro to connect to a network easier, but that's not much additional cost.

Even Wal-Mart is selling a 1.1 GHz system loaded with Mandrake Linux, 128M of RAM, a 20G hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, an Ethernet port, and a 56-Kbps modem for only $299.

The eMachines and the Wal-Mart computers are fairly powerful PCs, but at those prices you can use them as you would terminals.
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Given the choice of buying in bulk on an existing desktop contract or simply going to Wal-Mart, the cheaper way to populate a network with clients is to buy standard PCs then disable the floppy and CD-ROM drives. Disabling removable media drives goes a long way toward securing the systems and makes it easier to control the configuration.

Besides initial savings, choosing PCs as clients may have significant benefits down the road. Standard PCs are highly flexible and could have a long usable lifetime if the network is upgraded.
Also, they can be pulled from the network and used elsewhere, an option that does not apply to terminals.

For the sake of future flexibility it's better to pull the cables, both power and data bus, rather than physically remove the floppy and CD-ROM drives.

Certainly the cost of physically removing the drives and closing up the holes left in the case is more than used drives are worth if you try to resell them.

Although adding hardware to a system often causes trouble, simply disconnecting unwanted drives is seldom a problem.
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A new type of thin client is the wireless terminal such as the WebDT line sold by DT Research Inc. of Milpitas, Calif., 408-934-6155, www.dtresearch.com. The company sells wired and wireless network connections and USB ports that can run Java or connect to the Internet. These are essentially Tablet PCs minus the hard drives and with a small amount of memory'typically 64M for the DT370.

These clients come with handwriting recognition, speakers, support for multimedia, and even include an Adobe Portable Document Format viewer.

The downside is cost. Wireless clients cost more than $1,100 each, bringing them close to the same cost as low-end Tablet PCs. And Tablet PCs will soon drop in price.

There are many potential uses for the WebDT terminals, such as providing mobility or avoiding the high cost of cabling, but they are not a low-cost alternative to a cheap client PC.

One inexpensive option is to go to an online builder such as Computer Systems 2 Go.
The company sells only via the Web, which cuts its costs, and builds systems to order, so it's easy to customize them any way you like.

A CS2G bare-bones system can be ordered with a Pentium 4 processor, 128M of RAM, 10G hard drive, case, power supply, USB, Ethernet connection, video, audio and virtually nothing else. You don't need to order an operating system, floppy drive, mouse, keyboard, CD-ROM or much of anything else.

This gives you a relatively fast PC with nothing you don't want for about $400.

And there are other inexpensive options. For example, Neoware Systems Inc., in addition to selling client PCs, offers $99 ThinPC software that you can add to almost any old PC you have lying around.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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