Immense Computing Power – At Your Fingertips for a Tiny Price

I have a secret to share with you…

Near-unlimited power is not something available only to Governments, dystopian Megacorps & the Dark Lord of the Sith; it can be yours too, and at a fraction of the price.

Welcome to the ICT Direct Server Special!

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Disposable Heroes

Enterprise-grade server hardware is some of the most powerful, reliable, over-engineered and expensive equipment on the planet.
Ordinary people use it every single day without even thinking about what they’re doing. Our whole society is currently powered by bank upon bank, rack upon rack of servers in hundreds of datacentres around the globe.

In an information-driven society, effective storage, manipulation and rapid transfer of data are big business and the top manufactures are always looking to produce more efficient machines to enable this. Intel release an iterative evolution of their successful CPU architecture year on year whilst AMD have made amazing leaps forward recently with their Ryzen CPUs offering immense performance at a fraction of the market price. Big names such as HP, Dell & IBM churn out ever more capable systems. Forcing obsolescence on thousands upon thousands of machines that have barely had chance to properly cut their teeth.

This practise of constant rolling upgrades makes our day to day lives ever-more convenient. Ordering that book from Amazon (remember when they only sold books?) gets half a second quicker. Transferring eBay auction profits from PayPal to your bank becomes a near instantaneous event and ordering a celebratory Starbucks so that it is waiting for you on arrival takes just a few taps of an app.

But at what price all this convenience?

The cost of this throwaway attitude to server infrastructure is literal shipping containers full of unwanted server hardware, destined for landfill if it can’t be saved.

Enter 1st Technologies…

We have been the nation’s top server refurbisher for many many years now. Our Bargain Hardware store built its reputation on a foundation of providing mind-blowing hardware for a brand-defining bargain price. ICT Direct have also built a reputation for producing low-priced server builds with such amazing specification that our customers often hadn’t even dreamed they could fulfil their infrastructure needs AND have money left over for the annual Christmas party!

But how does it work? The enterprise hardware market is a brutal system. Often whole datacentres are upgraded in one fell swoop. Day-to-day operations are offloaded to other sites on the network using redundant capacity that service providers have built into their systems. Next, the local sysadmin will run data-erasure across the whole of the network due to be replaced. When complete, hundreds of servers will power down, their usefulness at an end.

Next a disposals company will be on hand to remove each server, only they don’t remove one server at a time. Oh no! Server PDUs are disconnected from the mains and in-cabinet switches have their uplink cables disconnected, but each server will remain wired to the cabinet power distribution unit and network switch. Teams will wheel dozens and dozens of 42U rack cabinets out to the waiting wagons who will then ship these now-defunct servers to a warehouse where an inventory can be taken. With hundreds and hundreds of similarly specced machines now sat with no further purpose, this is where we come in.

Periodically, 1st Technologies will be sent huge spreadsheets from various disposal companies. Each spreadsheet will contain the intimate details of hundreds of decommissioned servers. At this point we’re invited to place a bid for the contents of the spreadsheet. We have experts in our trade purchasing team who assess the market and assign a cost value to each component before making a formal bid. Working this way allows us to better understand the true value of the hardware we’re trying to purchase which, in turn, allows us to bid smartly, giving us a better chance of securing the deal.

We can bid for thousands of servers in the confidence that our main sales channels will sell them on quickly.

When we win a bid and a shipping container full of top-level servers arrives at our processing warehouse, they are treated in much the same way as laptops and desktops but with the addition of some seriously smart in-house hard disc testing routines – designed and implemented by our most skilled technicians. We also strip our servers right down to just a bare chassis and motherboard, only essential cables remain connected. This is where the magic really happens, and our ability to package your ultimate server with an affordable price tag begins.

Custom-Configured Kings

Our server hardware offering is fully CTO (configure to Order). Three years ago, we shifted our warehousing software to Microsoft Dynamics with the aim of creating the world’s finest component-level stock database. We took months getting it just right and now you can take full advantage. We can help you build your prospective server from the ground upwards, picking from millions of potential hardware configurations as you go.

Fancy 12 cores in your CPU AND decent clock-speed? The Xeon E5-2697 V2 is for you? Need something basic to handle domain controller duties, here’s an E5-2609 V3. How about RAM? You can fill every slot in your prospective machine with the choice of dozens of different memory modules? Need more RAM than the combined processing power of a small country? 24 x 64GB DDR4 modules are the order of play. Think that might be a little over the top (but think of the possibilities…)? Well how about a more reserved 12 x 8GB instead?

We can do this for every-single-component in a server. Raid controllers, hard drives / solid state drives, network interface cards, remote access licenses, PCIe expansion cards, rack rails; you can even choose the perfect wattage and efficiency rating of your power supplies!

Steadfast Servants

It isn’t just the ability to build your dream server using our enormous component stockpile, however. Oh no!

When you buy a top-tier refurbished server you know two things. Firstly these machines have lived a good life to date. They’ve done a couple of years in a datacenter. Air conditioned and dust-free, with perfectly regulated voltages, sharing the workload with dozens of identical siblings. There’s no better environment for ideal operation, rack servers like this simply thrive in these surroundings. Secondly, you know you’re getting something reliable. So reliable in fact that we happily give them a three year warranty as standard. Server hardware is not only built to last, it is built to endure, to survive and work for as long as possible. We include a warranty for your peace of mind, but honestly, we don’t expect you to need it.

With our inbound & outbound testing regimes, plus world-class quality control, you can be sure that your reassuringly-affordable behemoth of a server will contentedly power through everything you throw at it for years to come.

Another benefit, one which goes hand-in hand with such great affordability and also speaks to an in-place solution that provides seamless reliability is redundancy. Where once you might have struggled to afford a single server, now you can afford two, likely with spare change in your pocket. The ultimate peace of mind comes from having a replicated system idling away ready to step up should the worst happen to your prime machine.

We have assisted numerous customers set up such configurations, ensuring they’re covered by both warranty, failover hardware and our knowledgeable support team.

Tomorrow’s Future, Today

Before they hit the mainstream consumer markets, new technologies are often incorporated into enterprise hardware (at considerable expense). Better network connectivity, faster storage media, innovative remote access systems, advanced diagnostic facilities, intelligent protection. These are all features that come as standard.

Take Solid State drives. NVMe (PCIe) SSDs are commonplace nowadays, giving huge performance boosts to budget laptops and serious gaming systems alike. But if you think they’re quick you should see what throughput 4 x 1.6TB U.2 NVMe Enterprise SSD drives can offer when they’re working together in a logical drive array… Its astounding!

This technology is particularly effective when combined with Microsoft’s ever-improving Storage Spaces Direct (S2D). Combining unbelievably quick NVMe drives with classic spinning SAS drives across multiple machines in a hyper-converged cluster of servers is a tremendous way of utilising every last scrap of power, speed & storage available to you. However these configurations when new will set you back tens of thousands of pounds. We’ve seen some companies quoting in excess of £25k for a 3-server setup!

The price of our equivalent 3-server setup utilising both the speed of NVMe and the hyper-converged benefits of S2D? Less than £12,000! That’s an enormous 50% saving for a system that brings you right up to date.

With a Cherry on Top

I could go on…. Maybe talk about 40Gb network connectivity, Tesla compute and Grid VDI GPUs from nVidia or storage arrays that can stack up to 70 SSDs in a RAID 10 mega array for blistering read/write speeds.

But that’s for another time. For now, why not browse our website. I’ve custom-configured some servers just for YOU! Remember, if you want to change even the tiniest thing, drop us a line.

There’s a reason we’re the best in the business, especially when it comes to server hardware. Let us show you just how good we are!

Oh… Stay tuned for Part 2.

Testing our order process and why ‘Trying Before You Buy’ is a really good idea.

Like most office-based workers in the UK, I’ve been working from home for several weeks now.  There are undoubtedly benefits to this new situation.  I see my kids more since they’re also home.  I am their substitute teacher, so the jury is still out on whether the extra time is endearing me to them more or not.  My new commute is brilliant!  About 25 yards from bed to desk, 35 if I stop for coffee on the way.  I’m even getting more sleep each night.  Not having to set off early so I miss the traffic really makes a difference!  Finally, for the first time in years I’m also home in time for tea.

Modern technology has made it so that I can work from home and have access to the same network shares, software, phone system and ERP system that I do when sat at my Ribchester desk.

In short, providing you’re okay with being locked up at home with just your family for company, then working remotely is a largely positive experience and productivity doesn’t suffer.

Yet there are some things that are far easier to do when you work in the same warehouse that stores, processes and builds your products.  When a new model of a desktop PC or laptop arrives, it’s easy to pop on your safety boots and high-vis jacket before taking a trip over to see the processing team who would be hard at work cleaning and prepping our shiny new addition.  Five minutes later you would be back at your desk clutching a new device, ready to find out each and every little secret hidden inside.

Being able to get hands-on with our new stock allows us to develop an understanding of each and every device in a more practical and technical way than we would were we simply selling new products in sealed boxes.  It allows us to support each of our customers in the best way possible by using the knowledge garnered by spending time with each and every device we sell.

But how to do this when you’re working from home and also being a part-time teacher?

My solution was simple…

I would place an order for one of our newest laptops and have it delivered to my house.  In doing so I would get valuable hands-on time with a new product, and would also get to experience this as one of our customers would.  I decided to go through the process of arranging for a test laptop to be shipped out to my home via DPD, our courier partners.  I would make a video, unboxing the laptop, spend some time with it and then arrange for it to be collected using our returns process.

And so this is what I did. I raised an order as I would normally do, and released it to the production team who did their usual, excellent job of picking the components, building the laptop, testing it and giving the chassis a final, sanitising clean before loading it into our custom packaging ready for shipping.

One of the benefits of using DPD as shipping partners in these isolated times has been their willingness to make sure contactless deliveries are possible. The following day the laptop was safely delivered to my door, the driver safely keeping their distance and not coming within a few metres. While leaving parcels on the doorstep can be of concern, with the tracking information provided by our system, we have full control of the delivery process.
You receive an initial email letting you know the parcel is on the way. The following day you get a further email (and text message if you’ve provided us with your mobile number) letting you know the 1-hour window during which your delivery will take place. Not going to be in? You can rearrange delivery for another day, specify a safe place for the parcel to be left, or arrange for it to be left with a neighbour. You can also track your driver on a map so you can be confident of being home at the right time if you have to pop out.

So getting the parcel is easy, convenient even, despite the need for us all to remain apart for a while longer.

Now, about the laptop itself. It arrived well-packaged, using our custom laptop box & sealed-air combination which protects the device superbly during transit.

The packaging is light, durable and entirely recyclable. You can be confident when you buy our laptops that we’re not wasting materials with non-reusable substances.

So I’d taken delivery of a nicely packaged laptop. But what about this device? How did it look? Would it live up to expectations?

I’d ordered one of our A-Grade Dell Latitude E7270 business notebooks and it was lovely! Boasting a 6th Generation Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB fast DDR4 Memory and a speedy 128GB NVMe PCIe Solid State Drive this laptop will shrug off the most demanding of tasks and just keep on working for you.

I should take a moment to go over the grading system ICT Direct and the wider 1st Technologies family use. After nearly 25 years of working in the used business-class computer hardware market we’ve become used to one person’s description of a ‘Grade A Device’ being completely different to another’s. Opinions can differ so widely that some years ago we decided to set in stone what we expect of a given grade. We stick rigidly to these guidelines in order to guarantee consistency for our customers. We’re always happy to share the criteria for our grades, in fact our purchasers often send over our grading guidelines to potential new suppliers in order that they might understand our expectations and in the hope of establishing a standard for the industry.

Our grading system has five tiers: X, A, B, C, and I. I’ll go through these using laptops as an example.

Grade X
Excellent Condition and in perfect working order. The possibility of only the slightest cosmetic scuffs or marks due to normal use but these will be barely noticeable and this will be a great example for a laptop of its age.

 

  • There will be NO dents.
  • There will be NO deep or noticeable scratches.
  • There will be NO cracked plastics or missing cosmetic items.
  • The Keyboard and trackpad will have NO shine.
  • There MAY be touch up paint used but this will not be noticeable once cleaned.
  • There will be NO dead pixels, dark patches or pressure marks on the screen.

As you can see, we expect a lot of our Grade X devices. They should be remarkable devices straight out of the box and appear to be nearly new! We don’t see many of our devices make this grade as it is so strict, but when we do, you can be sure they sell out quickly!

Grade A
Good Condition and in perfect working order, the laptop may have fine scratches and scuffs which you would expect with wear and tear. Slightly larger scratches will be touched up or the laptop may have a vinyl skin.

 

  • There will be NO dents.
  • There will be NO deep or noticeable scratches.
  • There will be NO cracked plastics or missing cosmetic items.
  • The Keyboard and trackpad will have NO shine.
  • There MAY be touch up paint used but this will not be noticeable once cleaned.
  • There will be NO dead pixels, dark patches or pressure marks on the screen.

We allow for our Grade A devices to have one or two more defects. But the parameters are terribly strict and whilst it is possible for a laptop to have every defect mentioned above, even these laptops would appear to be in excellent used condition. Typically, an otherwise X-Grade laptop will be classed as Grade A because if fails one of the tests above. This give us confidence in the quality of the devices we’re selling to our customers and it also provides our customers with a level of certainty when it comes to purchasing.

As I previously mentioned, the Dell that was delivered to my house was a Grade A. It looks great as you can see with an impeccable keyboard, trackpad and display.The majority of our Grade A Devices are of a similar quality to this. It’s what helps us stand out from our competitors.

Our remaining Grades – B, C & I – don’t usually affect ICT Direct customers. We would not typically sell these to a school. B Grade devices are typically sold through our trade pathways or online stores such as eBay, where we’re careful to describe the condition of the for sale device clearly. To summarise…

Grade B
These Laptops will be in fully functional condition but are likely to have cosmetic defects which are noticeable, including dints, scratches, chips, etc.

 

Grade C
These Laptops are either cosmetically unsaleable and will be repaired or broken for spares or there has been a fault detected during the Test + Audit stage. There will be one or some of the following issues.
  • There MAY be dents but NO bigger than 1cm in diameter.
  • There MAY be deeper and noticeable scratches, which haven’t or can’t be touched up.
  • There May be cracked plastics or missing cosmetic items which don’t affect the functionality of the machine.
  • This unit MAY have a single pressure mark and up to 10 dead pixels on the screen.
  • There MAY be missing badges or logos, slight damage to the bezel.
  • The latch MAY be broken or missing.
  • There MAY be shiny keys or trackpad.
  • Large scratches, dents or gouges which cannot be covered.
  • Badly cracked plastics or missing cosmetic items.
  • Missing or broken keyboard, badly worn keyboard.
  • Missing badges or logos and considerable damage to the bezel.
  • Smashed or badly marked or scratched screen.
  • Broken hinges on the laptop.
  • Large dents or damage to chassis which is irreparable.
  • Damage to ports rendering them unusable.

Our Grade C devices are the very worst of all the hardware that comes into our warehouse and more often than not they’re broken down for spares, the rest of the chassis recycled.

Finally, Grade I, is simply a device that is currently incomplete. It is stocked as incomplete until we can acquire the components to finish it, at which point it will be re-graded as one of the above four grades.

We believe our grading system is the most comprehensive in the business and give both our suppliers and customers the confidence to work with us.

So, I’ve received my lovely Grade A Laptop and it’s great! It looks fantastic, boots up in a heartbeat, is super-powerful and perfect for day-to-day computing whether at home or on the move.

I spend an age (with many interruptions from my darling children) filming and recording content for a product video, cut the content together, render and upload the finished product. Everything goes perfectly and I am delighted with the whole process.

However, I’ve now got myself an extra laptop that realistically I’m going to have to either pay for or send back. Much as the first appeals to me, I’m told that hoarding computers is a bad habit and this one should be returned. Admittedly this is what I’d planned from the start, but it really was a nice laptop and I didn’t want to give it up!

My Wife is right, however – as she so often is – hoarding more computers that you can realistically use isn’t productive and so I arranged myself an RMA.
Our returns process is simple, especially in the case of a test device like this. There’s no troubleshooting or warranty support to go through so we can simply ask for an RMA number and arrange a DPD collection.
DPD returns are just as efficient as their deliveries. We can book a collection from any UK address, let DPD know what time they’re open until and provide a contact number and email. They then do the rest. As with deliveries, customers get a message from the courier letting them know the 1-hour window for collection. Collections are also contactless. The driver will knock on your door then stand back allowing you to open up and leave the boxed-up device on the step.
Our drivers print their own barcode labels, so you don’t need to do anything except present them with the device to be returned. They’ll label, collect and return the package to our Ribchester premises.

Mission accomplished! I’d got to have a play with a nice new laptop (now available for just £350 from our website), I’d learned about our order and returns processes and used the device for a little bit of marketing along the way.

Who says you can’t work remotely, keep yourself safe AND still be the best Refurbished Hardware company in all the land? Not I…

Adapting to Challenging Times

Change can be hard for businesses. A successful company needs stability. It needs reliable employees, a coherent structure where processes drive towards a single goal, vendors that are dependable, supply chains that are consistent and above all a market into which it can trade.

As I sit typing at my desk, the birds singing in the garden, sun streaming through the dining room window where at the table the kids are doing schoolwork, it’s fair to say that stability is rather lacking.

Times are hard for everyone right now, each day brings new challenges, the future is uncertain in ways very few people have experienced before.

However, the whole 1st Technologies family has come together to ensure we can continue to serve our customers. We may not be the first or even second line of defence in this crisis, but we can do our part by providing Schools, organisations and local government with the tools to carry on working remotely.

IMG_0725We haven’t been able to carry on as normal though. Oh no!
With each government briefing there have been new measures we’ve had to take. On Monday the 16th March, the Government informed the nation that anyone who can work from home should work from home. As the majority of staff left for the day, our Directors met to formulate a plan for the coming weeks. The 1st Technologies family is made up of just over 50 employees, split into roughly six departments. There are the office-based sales and support teams for ICT Direct, 1st Tech Trade and Bargain Hardware and the warehouse-based inbound, outbound and inventory control teams.

Reducing possible infection points meant sending all office staff home who did not need a presence in our warehouse. Mitigating further infections points for those who still remained required implementation of physical distancing, new sanitisation procedures and the release of a policy covering sick leave for those required to self-isolate should the need arise.

The Home Workers

PeterI (1)A major design feature of our offices at 1st Tech is flexibility. For several years now office teams have worked using Lenovo Thinkpads – taken from stock, we’re proud enough of our kit to use it day to day – on docking stations. This left us in the excellent position of having everything to hand in order to work from home. We have a VPN set up already as some of us have to work remotely from conferences or when visiting company partners. So remote workers have access to the internal network with the shared files and ERP system that we all need to do our jobs effectively. Adding capacity to this was simple enough and left us ready for the eventuality of having most staff out of the office.

JohnnieGWith the VPN connection comes access to our phone system and when you throw Skype into the mix we’re able to pretty much work as normal. Meetings are held in group Skype calls, whilst any conversations between colleagues happen over the phone.

The only thing a lot of us were missing was a home-office setup, so we’ve borrowed bits from our offices in Ribchester and requisitioned additional items from stock to fill that need.

I’ve taken an additional screen, my favourite keyboard and, crucially, my nice, comfortable, office chair! Other team members who don’t have a home work area have stripped bare their workspace in Ribchester, taking home everything they normally use to do their job.

So far things are running relatively smoothly. Despite our teams nowJanK being spread as far South as Cheshire, as far North as Lancaster, on the coast in Blackpool and on the wrong side of the border near Skipton – that is a quite staggering 1,500 sq. mile area – we remain in contact almost as efficiently as if we were sharing an office.

Group calls first thing in the morning set the scene for the day. ICT Direct, being responsible for education and public sector organisations have had to move quickly as each day tends to bring new measures aimed at slowing the virus and reducing infection.

Schools in particular are now only open with a skeleton crew of staff.JackW Working out how best to supply customers the devices they require has led to some creative solutions requiring input from all team members.

Similarly, the global move to home working has seen Bargain Hardware help supply laptops and remote access servers to major companies across the UK and Europe, helping to keep companies working despite these most difficult of circumstances. Whilst the Bargain Hardware teams operate with a degree of autonomy, being able to liaise between direct sales, customer support and web teams is essential.

1st Tech Trade, who handle our purchasing have been working flat-out to procure enough devices to meet the requirements of the company. Often in challenging market conditions where prices rise sharply against everyday items when there is great demand. Each Trade Team specialist will field multiple calls from colleagues who need certain components, or specific models of devices purchasing on an ‘As soon as Possible!’ timescale.

These three departments work cohesively to keep the business ticking along, making sure that goods are coming into the warehouse to replenish those that other teams have sold. That they are able to do this without being on the premises is a testament to the quality and determination of our colleagues, but without the underlying technology enabling the interaction between the teams, none of it would be possible.

The Warehouse

ipadThe three warehouse divisions are the beating-heart of 1st Tech. They’ve been asked to come into work in circumstances that are uncertain, challenging and more than a little scary and it is to their credit that they continue to work with good humour, professionalism and to the very high standards that their team leaders expect.

IsopropylThings have changed at our Ribchester base since the outbreak. We’re taking every precaution possible to ensure a safe working environment for our colleagues. This is extended to our customers also as we try to disinfect every piece of stock that comes into and goes out of the building.

We now clean devices coming into stock with Isopropyl in addition to our standard surface cleansers and a solvent for removal of any sticker residue. This should remove any lingering pathogen from devices that are coming into 1st Tech. Not only that but our quality control team are cleaning devices with Isopropyl immediately before they’re boxed up to be shipped out to customers.

This should reduce the risk of transmission to our customers with devices being thoroughly sanitised twice as they journey through the company and head out to their new users. Each step is designed to limit exposure for customers and colleagues alike, everyone’s safety is of paramount importance, and lots of little steps taken to minimise risk can have a massive effect down the line.

shopfloorNew rules about keeping a safe distance in our workplace have been implemented, with colleagues now to remain 2 metres away from each other at all times. Team members who require access to certain areas of the business where space is more restricted must now only enter these spaces when they are not currently occupied.

To further these directives, changes have been made to breaks with each department now taking breaks
separately and lunch being split into four sittings rather than two. As I mentioned earlier, small steps add up to far fewer potential infection points.

A Rush for Laptops

JorgeIn the last month we’ve understandably seen a huge surge in demand for mobile computing and home worker solutions. The sheer volume of orders going out has not once phased our outbound team, nor have our inbound team missed a single beat whilst working flat out to ensure supply meets demand.

Speaking on the phone with some of my warehouse colleagues I’ve encountered the same good-natured banter and easy-going attitude as I always did in less-severe times. It’s been uplifting to see our team carry on so well. These times can take their toll however, and our team of mental health first aiders are there to help should anybody feel like they’re struggling.

Our inventory team have had to work like never before. With new stock being processed as fast as possible and sales orders being released constantly, the inventory team are having to get creative with how they put away stock and get components picked for pending orders. Their hard work links inbound and outbound and makes sure customers receive their orders on time.

carpet cleanerAnd yet, despite the challenge, despite being asked to come in to work when half of their colleagues have been told to stay away, despite the seriousness of the times we now live in, despite all of this, our warehouse team have shown just what can be achieved when everyone takes a challenge head on, works toward the same goal and faces adversity with good humour.

What is important here and the one thing we can take away from an unprecedented situation like this is that modern technology and an open mind when it comes to adapting a workplace to challenging situations really can bring the best out in people and the business can continue to flourish as a result.

1st Technologies Ltd continues to supply the UK and Europe with the finest quality refurbished computer hardware ensuring our Education, Public Sector, Corporate & Retail customers have access to business grade hardware that helps to keep people connected, helps ensure business continuity, and helps ensure that the flow of information is uninterrupted even as our daily lives are more and more restrained.

Remember. Keep safe and stay indoors where possible.

Music Technology PCs – Getting the best bang for your buck – Version 2.0

Music IT Classes hardwareOver the last decade, computers have become an ever more essential component of a music departments teaching arsenal.  Whether these are basic PCs to run software such as Sibelius in the classroom; through machines of better specification, designed to cope with the rigours of post-production and editing.  At the top of the pile you see mighty machines sat in the recording studio itself, needing immense processing power to handle dozens to real time effects and virtual instruments.

Obviously computers of this ilk aren’t cheap.  You’ll find various well-known online retailers selling Pro-Audio Workstations with a starting price of more than £800.  You’ll also get die-hard Apple fans and Music Tech teachers claiming that Apple machines – with their lovely design & inflated price tag – are the industry standard.  These same people will then push on with the use of GarageBand to the exclusion of all else.

So how do you provide your school with a top-class setup without breaking the bank?
Way back in 2014 I wrote an article comparing a standard iMac of the time (Gen 3 Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB HDD) with one of our Professional HP Workstations.

I showed that for the price of the Mac alone, you could purchase a superior PC, two displays, dedicated Audio Interface, a Midi interface Keyboard & pair of decent headphones.  The complete setup!

So now in 2019 and with five years passed it’s time to see what has changed since I last looked into this.
To make things more interesting, this time I’m going to look at two of the different tiers of machine as mentioned above.

  • A basic music classroom PC with a slightly upgraded teacher setup.
  • A workstation setup ideal for sequencing projects fresh out of the recording studio.

As before we’ll look at a brand new comparison and find ways to spend the difference on additional tools to make the setup more complete.

The Music Classroom PC

iMacThere’s a lot going on in a music classroom so looking at an All in One (AIO) PC for day-to-day use makes sense as this will free up desk space for when the students need to get out instruments.  As our brand new unit for comparison we’re going to bring back our old friend from my first blog on this subject.  The Apple iMac.

The Apple range has diversified somewhat from the halcyon days of 2014.  Apple tend now to release regular updates to their models whilst keeping alive an older model which is used as an entry-point to the range.  This iMac is such a model.

The Mid-2017 21.5” iMac will set you back in the region of £710 (Excluding VAT) brand new and features a 7th Generation dual core i5 Intel mobile processor, 8GB RAM and strangely, the same 5400 rpm 1TB Spinning Hard Disc Drive found in the Late-2013 iMac from my previous blog.  Four years on I am surprised that, in this modern age of DDR4 RAM and Solid State Drives, Apple has persisted with a storage drive boasting what were already dated specifications back in 2013.  Another consideration with an iMac is the peripherals.  iMacs come with the wireless Apple Keyboard & Magic mouse.  Most schools I’ve spoken to prefer to get these swapped out for the more traditional wired accessories.  However, Apple quietly discontinued their longstanding wired keyboard and mouse back in 2017.  For schools looking for a more secure keyboard, the Macally keyboard and mouse combo is a must-buy (available from Amazon for £20).  These niggles aside, the iMac is a nice machine and it comes with GarageBand thrown in for free.  If we ignore the issues involved with getting it to play nicely on a Microsoft based network, it’s a perfectly serviceable machine.

The Alternative

800 g1 aioSo what is out there that is cheaper and perhaps more suited to a networked environment than our entry-level Apple machine?
Keeping with the AIO theme I believe a refurbished HP EliteOne 800 G1 is perfect for the job.  A business-class AIO desktop PC built to HP’s very high standards the 800 G1 boasts a full HD 23” screen, a powerful 4th Generation Intel quad core i5 processor, 8GB RAM and Brand New 120GB Solid State Drive.

The 4th Generation processor, whilst a little older than the one in the iMac is more powerful by almost 20% (see chart)

7360-4590s

Priced at £320 Excluding VAT it is less than half the price of the Apple alternative.

These are machines that are built to last.  Originally shipping with a 3-year warranty from HP.  The refurbished machines have a base 2-year Advance Replace warranty upgradable for a fee to 3 or even 5 years if required.  Shipping with a Professional Windows License, you’ll be able to get them on your network just like any other machine.  The 800 G1 has more than enough power to run software such as Sibelius or Audacity.

These make great classroom PCs, and with the option of a 10-point capacitive touch screen version for as little as £60 extra; they make great collaborative machines, allowing students to work together easily.

For a teacher’s machine I would consider upping the internal SSD storage to 240GB (+£15).  I would also invest in both an audio interface such as the Focusrite Scarlett Solo (2nd Gen) USB Audio Interface (Available from Amazon for around £70 Ex VAT) and a Midi Keyboard such as the Nektar Impact LX88+ (Available from Amazon for £180 Ex VAT).  This turns the standard machine into a capable music workstation allowing the teacher access to a speaker-connected 88-key piano interface whilst also giving them the option of connecting up another instrument such as a guitar if they required it.  When connected to the classroom speakers this gives the students a musical focal point.

Adding up the costs then, we have the following:

Apple iMac 2017 – £730 (including keyboard & mouse)

  • 5” 1920 x 1080 built-in display
  • 3GHz Intel Dual Core i5 7360U Mobile Processor
  • 8GB Memory
  • 1TB 5400 rpm Hard Disc
  • 1 Year Apple Carry-in Warranty

HP EliteOne 800 G1 – £320

  • 23” 1920 x 1080 built-in display
  • 2.9GHz Intel Quad Core i5 4590S desktop Processor
  • 8GB Memory
  • 120GB Brand New Solid State Drive
  • Windows Professional License
  • 2 Years Advance Replace Warranty

So, £730 – £320 is a saving of £410!

If we then look at adding the features to upgrade the teacher PC…

Audio Interface – £70

Midi Keyboard – £180

SSD Upgrade – £15

The final figure for a fully-kitted out teacher machine is £390 + £70 + £180 + £15 or £585!

That is still £145 less than an entry level iMac!

But what if you need more power?

Whilst those All in One PCs are great for your everyday music classes.  Music Technology focuses more on aspects of music production.  So you’ve laid down tracks in the studio, you’ve got a raw mix but it needs fine tuning.  A mixing lab will typically have several machines available all with similar software to that of the recording studio PC that students laid down the tracks on.  They need to be powerful enough to handle playback whilst running several virtual instruments.  All whilst allowing users a seamless interface that doesn’t freeze whilst they’re adjusting levels or making crucial cuts.

mac-mini-2019An look at the options available from Apple would suggest the 2018 Mac Mini as being suited to this role.  Looking at brand new options for a Windows-based system, we can also consider the 3XS CZ390 – Audio Project PC from Scan Computers who sell this as their entry-level music tech solution.

So let us consider the spec on both of these machines:
The Apple Mac Mini 2018 model (MRTT2B/A) packs a decent amount of power into a small chassis.  Despite having a laptop-class CPU, the 8th Generation Intel Core i5 8500b boasts six processor cores at a respectable 3.0GHz.  Coupled with 8GB DDR4 memory and a 256GB PCIe based SSD, these are very capable boxes.  Even the Mini Mac isn’t cheap however, and this model will set schools back something in the region of £750 Ex VAT!  To keep prices and packaging small, these Macs ship without Keyboard or Mouse which you’ll need to buy in at around £20 for the compatible mac wired keyboard & mouse set mentioned previously.  A decent 23” widescreen TFT will set you back around £100 such as this ACER SA230 from Ebuyer (https://www.ebuyer.com/811134).  That puts the total cost for this system in the region of £870.

The benefits and the drawbacks with this particular model can essentially be boiled down to one word…  Upgrades.  Whilst soldered RAM and SSDs are now standard in Apple’s laptop range and changing a drive in an iMac is a marathon task, it is still possible to do your own upgrades in the Mac Mini.  It’s not easy however, requiring a near total teardown in order to swap out components.

3XS CZ390.fwOur second comparison product is a custom-build PC from Scan Computers’ 3XS system builder.  The imaginatively named CZ390 Audio Project PC is billed as an entry-level machine, ideal for multi-tracking and basic editing duties.  The specs would certainly seem to back this up with a 9th Generation Intel Core i5 9600K hexa core CPU, 8GB DDR4 RAM, a 120GB SSD plus plenty of magnetic storage with a 1TB HDD.

The CZ390 is priced better than the Mac Mini too.  It comes in at £690 Ex VAT which is great for a system with a better spec.  There’s no Keyboard, Mouse or Monitor however so we’ll assume £20 and £100 respectively bringing it’s total cost to £810.

Both of these machines are credible units, if expensive.  Lets look at a refurbished alternative that should outperform both and leave some cash left to spend on Audio Interfaces and other essential tools.  In the computer music world, CPU clockspeed is less of an essential component.  When mixing multiple tracks with effects and post-processing going on in real time CPU core and thread count make a huge difference.  There’s really only one place to look in order to get this.  The beautifully designed HP Z-series workstations, specifically the the Z440, the third generation of the Z4xx range.
Z440 with monitors
A mid-tier professional workstation, the units are found in studios, design and animation houses the world over.  There is good reason for this as these unassuming machines can be stuffed full of server-grade components!
Our example machine is no exception.  Boasting an Intel Xeon E5-2660 V3 with 10 (Yes Ten!) cores and 20 threads; 32GB of fast DDR4 ECC RAM for guaranteed performance; plus a brand new 240GB SSD, 1GB dedicated graphics card and new keyboard & mouse.  All of that come in at a respectable £595 Ex VAT!  There’s no monitor obviously so we’d have to add the superb HP Z24i full-HD IPS display for an additional £80 Ex VAT bringing the total cost for this machine to £675 Ex VAT.  But what you have there is an incredible machine that’ll do everything asked of it without missing a beat.  Despite having a slightly older CPU than our comparison machines, the server CPU inside the Z440 smashes the opposition aside, as can be seen from this table.  The Xeon CPU scores significantly higher than either of the newer processors.  The multiple cores and threads will translate into a far smoother experience for users, with the PC able to do much more without the user having to freeze tracks to save on CPU resources.
There are other areas this machine will excel.  32GB of DDR4 memory will allow the system to keep larger projects in direct memory.  The dedicated graphics card will free up system resources that would otherwise have been diverted away from the main purpose of the machine.

8500-9600-2660

Costs & Side-by-Side Comparison

Model Apple Mac Mini 2018 Scan 3XS – CZ390 HP Z440 (refurbished)
CPU i5 8500B 6 Core  3.0GHz i5 9600K 6 Core 3.7GHz Xeon E5-2660 v310 Core 2.6GHz
Hyper Threading No No Yes
RAM 8GB DDR4 8GB DDR4 32GB DDR4 ECC
Storage 256GB PCIe SSD 120GB SSD
1TB HDD
240GB SSD
Graphics Integrated Integrated Dedicated
Easy to upgrade components? 3/10 Sealed Case 9/10 ATX Case 8/10HP Custom Case
Peripherals £20 £20 Included
Display £100 23” 1920 x 1080 £100 23” 1920 x 1080 £80 24” 1920 x 1200
Total Price £870 £810 £675
Warranty 1 Year Carry-in 3 Years 1st Year onsite 2 Years Advance Replace

NB: spec comparison winner denoted by bold text.

The Refurbished Z440 wins easily in all but three categories (though it is possible to fit PCIe SSD storage if needed and the warranty can be upgraded to 3 or even 5 years for a fee).  The price differences are clear to see with a saving of £195 vs the Mac Mini and £135 vs the CZ390.

Essential Hardware

Stations in a mixing and editing suite need a few essential components in order to make things possible for the user.  These include a dedicated Audio Interface for each PC, a Midi controller keyboard so users can be creative & a decent pair of studio headphones.  Other desirables include USB mixing consoles to allow for a greater degree of precision, though keyboard & mouse functionality is adequate.

The Audio Interface

A decent Audio Interface will make a significant difference when running software such as Ableton Live, Cubase, etc. The specialist drivers in these interfaces go a long way to ensuring top-quality sampling with low-latency.
The Behringer UMC22 is a 2 in 2 out USB interface compatible with all the major recording software releases.  It is ideal for this situation and available from MusicMatter – (www.musicmatter.co.uk/behringer-u-phoria-umc22) for around £32 Ex VAT.

The Midi Controller Keyboard

A good Midi controller keyboard will allow users great control over the edit and mixing process.  There are many on the market and you can spend hundreds of pounds quite easily.  However, all you really need are good plugins and a well-built controller to drive them.  The Alesis V Mini is a 25-key portable USB-Midi controller that is compact enough to fit in the cramped space available in most classrooms.  It is USB-powered so no need for any additional plug.
The controller is well priced too, coming in at £35 Ex VAT on Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk/Alesis-Mini-Portable-Controller-Sensitive/dp/B01BDMKK1W)

Headphones

In a packed classroom, using studio-grade monitor speakers is not possible, so students must mix using headphones.  These need to be robust, and offer a neutral signature with accurate sound reproduction.  This means that everyday headphones will not cut it.  These usually have pre-boosted bass and other enhancements which will give an inaccurate representation of a final mix.
AKG have been making superb headphones for years now and the closed-back AKG K72 Studio Headphones are superb value for money.  Widely available online, they’re on Bax Music (https://www.bax-shop.co.uk/studio-headphones/akg-k72-closed-studio-headphones) for around £25 Ex VAT.

Total Cost of Extras

So we have three essential components to finish our mixing lab.  The interface at £32, the Keyboard at £35 and the headphones for just £25.  That’s a grand total of £92 Ex VAT for everything you need to get set up.
Even when you add this to the price of our Z440 it still comes in at £43 cheaper than the 3XS System & a massive £103 cheaper that the Mac Mini!

Conclusions

So there you have it.  Several comparisons later.  I think it’s fair to say that even in this new world of multi-core computing, it still pays to shop around for the best deal.  Despite the massive boost in processing power of the last couple of CPU generations, refurbished hardware more than holds its own in both the price and performance category.  This isn’t just for day to day use either.  Any old PC can perform well with a spreadsheet or a copy of word open.  Music Tech is a demanding environment, often taxing hardware to the limit.  In that environment, it’s reassuring to know there’s always a cheaper option that absolutely doesn’t compromise on the quality you offer to your users.

Loxit Lapbank TL – The new trolley on the block.

The Loxit Lapbank TL Laptop Trolley

Let us introduce you to the Lapbank TL. A highly engineered, extremely strong and durable, yet lightweight laptop charging trolley.

Loxit Lapbank TL

The New Loxit Lapbank TL – the toploading easy to use laptop trolley

The high strength all steel construction that Loxit have developed over 20 years of designing and manufacturing laptop charging trolleys makes it extremely durable and robust, perfect for the school environment.

This top loading trolley, ensures that there is no bending down  when returning laptops to the trolley, and cables are more easily managed with the top down view.

It provides excellent maneuverability with a small footprint and is designed to be perfect for users of all heights and the solid grab handles ensure the trolley is very easy to move.

It includes natural ventilation meaning no heat build-up and no energy hungry cooling fans.

Its available in 3 sizes – 10 bay, 16 bay and 20 bay. The laptops are stored vertically within foam cushioned compartments for device protection.

The Loxit  LapBank TL is priced very competitively and is one of the cheapest all steel trolleys on the market.

Check out the LapBank TL trolley deals on our website

 

What IT equipment is proving popular in schools?

 We’ve been looking at trends of the most popular ICT equipment being bought by schools. There are some real winners that we’ve identified out there. Take a look at some of our top picks:

 HP 800 G1 All In One PCAll-in-One Computers

An extremely popular choice this year, the all-in-one PCs allow for a desktop computer and a separate monitor to become one unit. These high powered machines provide a full solution within one piece of equipment and save schools a great deal of space. This is especially true in buildings that were built before computer suites were ever dreamt of!

HP EliteDesk 800 G1 SFF refurbishedSmall Desktop PCs

These small but fast desktop computers are excellent workhorses for curriculum based work. Ranging from Core i3 systems through to more powerful Core i7 machines. Coupled with a new Solid State Drive, they really fly.  Our refurbished business PCs all come with a minimum warranty of 2 years.

Workstations

These workstations are extremely fast machines that feature Quad, Hex and Octa Core Intel Xeon E5 Processors and support huge amounts of RAM. These are ideal for CAD design, audio, graphic design and video editing applications. These are a more powerful and cost effective solution to the Apple alternatives.

Dell Latitude E5440 laptopCore i5 Laptops

Our refurbished Core i5 laptops are cost effective and mobile, with the ability to run Windows 10. They provide much more processing power than the tablet alternatives. All our laptops are Grade ‘A’ and a brand new Solid State Drive that really give them a turbo boost.

These are all highly reliable and very cost-effective choices on the part of schools. Better still, ICT Direct already deliver all the above solutions to schools throughout the UK, so why not contact us to see how we can help you?

 

Building the best PC for your Art/Graphics Departments without breaking the bank

Background

So here at ICT Direct we occasionally get offered kit that bucks the usual trends that we see throughout the year.  Every now and again we’ll be offered a container full of machines of a newer generation and a higher specification than anything we have had access to before.  Not only that but it usually comes in at such a low price that we have to re-evaluate our overall pricing structure.

Now the container in question here is full of HP Z Series workstations, specifically the lovely Z210.  This got me thinking about what role this machine could have in schools and colleges.

Marketed as an entry point into the professional design and 3D modelling world, the Z210 is considerably more powerful than its predecessor the Z200.
Whilst the Z200 shipped with a lowly Core i3 540 3.06GHz CPU, the Z210 comes with the powerful Xeon E3-1240 ‘Sandy-Bridge’ 3.3GHz CPU.

The arrival of this exceptional machine gave me the idea of putting together a bundle specifically for those departments which require a step up in performance.

 

Requirements

Expandability

Whilst modern computing can pack a lot of computing power into even the tiniest form factors these days, sometimes you just need a larger chassis.  Being able to add multiple storage drives, a dedicated graphics card, a card reader and possibly some PCE-e Flash storage goes a long way towards extending the lifetime of a PC.

Price

It goes without saying that refurbished hardware shouldn’t cost the same as new hardware.  To that end we need a control unit with a price and spec to compare our Z210 against.

My choice for this is the powerful HP EliteDesk 800 G1 SFF.  This is a top of the line HP desktop common throughout schools and businesses.  It is available online with 3 year warranty and 20” HP display for around £750

hp 800 g1
Comparison Unit Specification :

  •   Intel Core i5 4590 3.3GHz CPU
  •   4GB DDR3 RAM
  •   500GB HDD
  •   DVDRW
  •   Windows 7 Professional (through downgrade rights from 8.1 professional)
  • 3 years warranty

Graphics Workstation Wish list

In an ideal world your setup should something like this:

  • Powerful Desktop PC
  • Dedicated Professional Graphics Card
  • Large Monitor (22” plus)
  • High Precision Mouse
  • Specialist interface (3D Mouse/Tablet)
  • Software

 

Getting the best solution whilst spending as little as possible

In my previous blog post about building a recording PC on a lower budget than a brand new iMac I began with the guts of the system, the PC itself.  I’ll do the same here as it’s a logical beginning.

 HP Z210 workstation

Refurbished HP Z10 workstation: – £286 Ex VAT
http://www.ict-direct.co.uk/hp-z210-refurbished-workstation.html

  • Intel  Xeon E3-1240 Quad Core 3.30GHz Processor
  • 8GB DDR3 PC3-10600E ECC RAM
  • 120GB Solid State Drive – for OS and programs only
  • 1TB SATA HDD – for local storage of student projects
  • nVidia Quadro FX580 – Pro Graphics Graphics
  • DVD R/RW
  • Win 7 Professional
  • New Keyboard & Mouse
  • 3 Years Warranty

Built by HP this entry-level workstation class desktop sports an immense quad core Intel Xeon E3 processor and a respectable 8GB of RAM.  This is a class-leading system; despite being part of Intel’s Second Generation Architecture it still out performs many of the Intel 4th Generation CPUs (*).  Loading the operating system and all your programs onto the Solid State Drive will give another performance boost.

This setup will give you a machine that will be more than capable of running extensive tasks in the full range of Adobe Creative Suite software.  The large 8GB RAM, lightning-fast Solid State Drive, powerful Hyper-Threading Intel Xeon Processor and professional nVidia Graphics Card make for a PC ready to take on whatever you throw at it.

Next up, I looked for a screen.  Looking through the items I have in stock I’ve decided on the following screen.

Lenovo Thinkvision LT2252P 22” LED Monitor – £70
(http://www.ict-direct.co.uk/special-offers/lenovo-thinkvision-l2251p-brand-new-22-monitor-14003.html)

2251

Boasting a 22” widescreen panel with a 1680 x 1050 resolution you have plenty of real estate to work your artistic magic.This is a robust business-class monitor that is once again a class leader in its field. 

It also offers an impressive 16.7 million colours at an excellent 1000:1 contrast ratio.

spacepilot

One final piece of the puzzle is a nice 3d mouse or tablet & stylus.  For me, the 3DConnexion Space Pilot offers excellent value for money and superb control when being used as part of the creative process.

The 3Dconnexion SpacePilot connects you to the 3D design process like never before.

Its optical sensor technology and ergonomic design combine to deliver unprecedented control and fewer distractions.

So why buy new when you can have more for less? 

3DConnexion SpacePilot USB 3D mouse – £95 Ex VAT 

So what I the point of buying a brand new PC when you can get a better system, complete with monitor and special 3D mouse for far less than the cost of a single new unit?

Let’s do the Maths:

£750 - 286 - 70 95

= £299

Your total saving per system comes to £299!  You could get your school another desktop PC or a pair of laptops with the saving or you could divert the budget to another area that desperately needs funds.

* CPU Benchmark comparison 4590 vs E3-1240

CPU Bench mark

HP Z210 Workstation – ideal for schools

Z210Look what’s just landed in our  warehouse….

The HP Z210 Workstation.

They have an outstanding processor in the Intel Xeon E3-1240 – Quad Core 3.3Ghz. The E3 benchmarks at an amazing 8104 points – that  means it has i7 2600 performance with the value of a i5 2400:

Xeon E3 1240 benchmark


 

 

 

 

Coupled with a variety of options and HPs standard workstation reliability, its ideal for the rigours of school life.

Many of our workstation sales have been made to schools looking to improve their CAD, design and music suites. Massively undercutting the cost of Apple Mac solutions.

For £295 plus VAT, you get:

  • 1 x Xeon E3 1240
  • 8GB DDR3 ECC RAM
  • 120GB New SSD
  • Quaddro 3000 graphics card
  • Education: 2 year C&R warranty
  • New keyboard and Mouse

Find out more about the HP Z210

Introducing The Monarch TabCabby Trolleys and The Boost+

 Secure storage of ICT equipment is essential in any establishment, but is especially critical in schools.

 As the tablet and laptop market within schools continues to expand at a rapid rate,

Monarch, who are high quality specialist ICT storage manufacturers, have launched a brand new range of tablet storage products to fit in with the security requirements of schools.

These include redesigned trolleys, new desktop sync and charge storage and new portable mobile sync and charge units.

Features include:

  • Latest Cambrionix Sync & Charge units
  • Intelligent Charging – stops charging when tablets are fully charged
  • Future proof motherboard design for the Cambrionix
  • Compatibility with  iPad, Android and Microsoft tablets

The new product range includes:

TabCabby trolleys

They now have a much smaller footprint and are flexible enough to store iPads and tablets with or without cases. The new 32V also includes easy to use portable baskets. (link to more product info).

Monarch Deskcabby

New from Monarch the DeskCabby – Tablet storage

DeskCabby

A portable, stackable cabinet that stores, charges and syncs up to 12 tablets. Find out more…

 

 

Monarch Boost+

New from Monarch the Boost+ 16 port tablet Sync and Charge unit

Boost+

A portable unit that lets you plug in, charge and sync up to 16 tablets. Find out more…

 

 

 

TabCabby 32V Basket trolley

New from Monarch the TabCabby 32V Basket Trolley

TabCabby 32V Basket

Store & charge 32 tablets without cases or 20 tablets with cases. This also includes a Sync & Charge option with Boost+. Find out more…

 

 

TabCabby 16H

New from Monarch the smaller redesigned TabCabby 16H

TabCabby 16H Compact

Stores & charges 16 tablets with or without cases and has ergonomic design. Find out more…

 

 

TabCabby 32H Compact

New from Monarch the TabCabby 32H Compact Trolley

TabCabby 32H Compact

Stores & charges 32 tablets with or without cases. Find out more…

 

 

 

Monarch GoCabby

Monarch GoCabby

GoCabby

Stores, charges and synchronises16 tablets with or without cases and is ideal to transport to different sites. Find out more…
All of these come with a standard 2 year warranty and free delivery.

New Apple iPad Air 2 and Mini 3 – For Education

Apple have recently announced the arrival of the new Apple Air 2. Its thinner, 40% faster and has an  improved camera. It has three storage options: 16GB, 64GB, 128GB.

The launch of iPad Air 2 means that schools in the UK can benefit from cheaper pricing for the older but very capable iPad Air  (16GB  and 32GB Wifi models are available).

At the time of writing, we also have availability of the iPad 4 16GB Wifi .

 Also new to the range is the iPad Mini 3,  It is powered by an A7 chip and like its bigger brother is ships with iOS 8. The iPad Mini 3 has three storage options: 16GB, 64GB, 128GB.

We can supply schools with the iPad Mini 16GB and iPad Mini 2 (both 16GB and 32GB), with low educational pricing.

If you are a school looking for low priced iPads then call us on 01254 820980