So it's going to be a barebone system, almost certainly from Shuttle. But do I buy a complete system or a box full of bits? Clearly a box full of bits would be cheaper, but I've never put a PC together before (I've only ever had just the one laptop), so this could be a challenge with perhaps expensive mistakes. And problem diagnosis is more difficult if I've put it together, if I buy the whole thing from a shop and it doesn't work then it's pretty obvious that it's their fault.
But I got a lot of advice from the online forums (thanks to tux99 from linuxtech.net!) and from the local shops (Arlt and the Computer Upgrade Store in Germany), so I felt I had a reasonable idea what was involved and it seemed like a realistic project. Firstly let's look at the components involved:
This is going to be a fairly low-budget barebone system, with nothing too special or fantastic. We start off with the barebone itself, and given that Shuttle appear to make the most popular and most attractive-looking barebones, that seemed like an obvious choice. On the budget end that gives the K45 as the very cheapest option, followed by the K45se and the K48. The disadvantage of the K45 is that it has no place for a CD drive, it's just a blank front cover. It's described as an "entry level" platform for "simple tasks" but perhaps would be better as a second, simple system rather than my main system. And without a CD drive it's a no-go. Next up is the K45se, which is a slight upgrade to the K45 and adds space for a slimline optical drive at the top. Interestingly it also has USB and audio sockets on the front panel, which makes access much easier. But it still doesn't have a DVI output and given that I want to drive a nice, big, high-resolution screen with this thing then I'd really like to have a digital monitor signal to get the best out of it.
So that leads us to the K48, the next model up, which is slightly larger (but still only has the footprint of an A4 piece of paper and a height of 18.5 cm) but now has space for a normal optical drive and importantly a DVI output. Unfortunately it lacks the access to the USB and audio sockets on the front, but that's ok.
The barebone system comes with a mainboard, with integrated graphics and sound, but it doesn't have a CPU. So you can choose which CPU to use, for example a Celeron, or a Pentium, or a Core2Duo or whatever - with different price points and quite different performance. If you search around for performance comparisons you can see that the Core2Duos have much higher performance but use more power (which means they generate more heat) and cost significantly more. But anything goes as long as it has the right socket (in this case an Intel 775 socket) and is supported by the barebone (see the official list of supported CPUs).
You can also choose how much RAM to include, but for these systems it doesn't make any sense to include less than the maximum supported memory (2 GB). Again, check what the barebone supports.
How much hard drive space do you need? My old laptop only had 60 GB and that was fine at the time, but of course all the digital data grows, especially photos, so it's good to get plenty of space in reserve. The hard drive can be any standard 3.5 inch drive, but you get the choice between IDE and SATA connections. Because the K48 comes with one IDE cable and one SATA cable, it makes sense to choose a SATA hard drive and an IDE optical drive, just to avoid having to buy extra cables.
Do you need an optical drive? Do you want to read/write CDs? DVDs? Bluray? With the price of DVD writers being so low, and the ability to write DVDs being so useful, it makes sense to include one. Personally I don't need the expense of a bluray drive.
The barebone obviously comes with a network socket for a normal ethernet connection, but doesn't include wireless by default. If you want to add it, you need a separate module and a little antenna on the back. Might be useful for some, but for this system it's always going to be near the modem so there's no point in adding wireless.
There is quite a variety of keyboards and mice available, from amazingly cheap to amazingly expensive. The main options are whether they're wired or wireless, and whether they're PS/2 or USB. You can also choose fancy multimedia options or stylish cases if you like. Unfortunately what you can't choose is a normal, full-size, standard keyboard without a number pad on the right. The only ones without a number pad are extra compact mini keyboards. So for those of us who want a proper keyboard but don't want to have to stretch for the mouse, it's tough luck. Who uses a number keypad anyway?
Oh, and yes the keyboard will probably be with German layout, although that's not so important. And the trackball I already have from the old laptop.
Thankfully most barebone systems come with the option of no operating system. This is in stark comparison to buying a regular desktop or regular laptop where the choice of operating system is forced on you and you have to jump through hoops to avoid paying Microsoft money for something you don't want. With a barebone you can just get a blank system and install whatever you want.
The choice of monitor is also vast. From tiny 15 inch screens to monster 24 inch screens and beyond, with resolutions from miniscule to huge. What you don't seem to be able to buy any more, however, is normal, fullscreen (non-wide) screens. Of course, if you want to watch movies, then a widescreen monitor makes perfect sense, but what about all those people who want to do other things on their computer, like browse the web, write emails, show photos, write documents, do programming, graphics editing, and so on and so on - for these tasks, normal 4:3 format is clearly better, and more comfortable. You used to get the choice, but not any more.
I wanted a resolution at least as good as my old laptop (1400x1050) which in the widescreen world means you're forced to 1680x1050. So for the same screen diagonal, your screen has smaller area and smaller height than a normal screen of the same nominal size. My hunt for a regular 1400x1050 screen came up fruitless, but eventually I found a nice Fujitsu-Siemens 20-inch, 1600x1200 monitor with DVI in and built-in speakers.
I still didn't know yet if I was going to get a whole system or a box of bits, but the system was looking so far like this:
Barebone: Shuttle K48
Processor: Intel Pentium dual core 2.x GHz (boxed so it includes the fan)
Screen: Fullscreen 20" at 1600x1200
Memory: 2 GB RAM (2 times 1 GB)
Hard disk: 500 GB or so, quiet, SATA interface
CD/DVD drive: CD read/write, DVD read/write, IDE interface
Graphics: Integrated Intel graphics, already onboard
Ports: Serial, 4 x USB 2.0, VGA out, DVI out, ethernet, headphone socket, microphone socket
Keyboard: Wired, PS/2 (already have USB trackball)
So it doesn't have firewire, or infrared, or wireless, or PCMCIA as the laptop did, but I never used those much anyway. Sadly it also doesn't have a built-in card reader, but I can use a little USB card reader instead. It's a shame that the USB ports and audio ports are at the back but I can use a USB hub to bring the ports closer to the screen/keyboard.