Verizon Foundation Grant for Back to Work 2010

On August 10, 2010, we were advised that we had received a grant for $6,000 from the Verizon Foundation to help with technology for teaching in our computer lab. The lab has multiple uses including American Seniors over age 55 and Burmese refugee youth still in elementary or high school. The lab can also be used during visits of the Consulate de Mexico the first week of August, and for community meetings with prior arrangement.

The accounting is as follows, as of today, Saturday, September 25, 2010. For copies of Invoices click on the desired item in the gallery below.

Activity Date
Description/Payee Amount
08/12/10
Verizon Foundation Grant $6,000.00




08/24/10
NewEgg.Com – Instructor’s computer parts -$403.87
08/27/10
BesyBuy.com – 2 ea 55” monitors and mounting hardware -$4,084.66
08/29/10
Sweetwater Sound, Inc. – rack cabinet and drawer -$288.00
08/30/10
NewEgg.Com – 3 ea 10′ HDMI Cables -$26.45
08/31/10
Amazon.com – HDMI Splitter Box -$30.94
09/01/10
Office Depot – Wireless Keyboard and mouse -$63.45
09/02/10
Harmon Electronics – Crown 200W Amp, mixer, power switch box, and JBL Speakers -$485.00
09/23/10
Best Buy – 1500VA UPS -$199.99
09/23/10
Best Buy – 1500VA UPS – sales tax they demanded we pay -$5.95
09/24/10
Electrician – update computer power wiring to code -$250.00






estimated costs of drywall work to mount monitors -$50.00


estimated cost of commemorative signage -$100.00




09/24/10
Remaining Balance $11.69

Gallery of Invoices

Monitors Sound System Instructor PC HDMI Cables
Rack Panel HDMI cable Splitter UPS Battery Backup UPS P/U Receipt
Wireless Keyboard and Mouse Electrician

Executive Summary

On-line bids, local advertising in the Fort Wayne newspapers, and in-store visits were used to identify the best monitors to buy. Cheaper Plasma and LCD technology was rejected as it would likely involve higher TCO during maintenance phase than the current LED LCD technology that we purchased. We initially looked for 60″ screens, which ran around $2700 each, but gave up five inches of screen size to accept 55″ screens for $1780 each. The savings was used to buy 4-year warranties on the screens, wall mounting brackets for the screens, the instructor’s computer, a power protection / battery backup UPS large enough to protect all of the equipment, a rack panel in which to mount everything except the screens, a sound system, and necessary cabling to complete the teaching setup, and for a minor upgrade to the room to provide electrical power to the equipment. A small amount was reserved for signage to commemorate the grant on the equipment and at the donor’s office.

Detailed Narrative

We completed the Verizon Foundation on-line grant application process March 26, we were advised of the grant from the Verizon Foundation on August 10, and received and banked the funds on August 12. A separate account was opened for this purpose at the Three Rivers Federal Credit Union. These funds are designated for upgrading the instructional platform — the instructors computer and monitors, and related materials.

The first order of business was to identify specifically what monitors would be purchased and then to identify and negotiate with the vendors. Jordan Nash and others provided technical comments, a suggested equipment list and other helpful information. The important take-aways were to avoid plasma as it is obsolete and to be sure that the device has 1080p resolution. Reviews of YouTube videos on setting up home theater systems provided similar opinions.

Monitors

Pricing was reviewed in newspaper advertisements published by the Fort Wayne Newspapers for H H Gregg, Sears, Best Buy, and ABC Warehouse. The purpose in reviewing newspaper ads first was to learn what technology is in commodity status as well as to get a feel for current pricing: there is usually a jump in price from commodity items to state-of-the-art new product, and a price drop to obsolete product being purged from warehouses. We want to avoid the wild points and stay in the current commodity class.

Web research told us that plasma monitors would have higher quality, better black level, contrast, and speed than LCD monitors, but that they were physically thicker, heavier, and were at the end of their cash cow (production) phase and would soon be obsoleted. LCD technology was still very acceptable and a newer version used LED back lighting to improve the contrast /black level performance. Since the LED LCD technology is just now entering mass production it will likely continue to be available for a few years while the LCD technology that it is replacing will also go out of production. This will be important to us if we ever need to have a unit repaired. I expect that in two years the LED LCD technology will begin to be replaced by organic LCD technology, with an expected life of perhaps five (5) years. So to get maximum usable life from the new monitors I decided to use LED LCD technology.

Examining the consumer market offerings using published advertising we looked for five foot (60″ diagonal) screens and found several choices. At H H Gregg the 60″ Sharp Aquos screen was $2999.99 on sale for $2249.97. Sears advertised a Sharp LED HDTV for $2249.99. ABC Warehouse advertised a LCD (not LED LCD) 60″ Sony screen for $2249 and a 63″ Samsung plasma screen for $2499. Best Buy advertised a 55″ (not 60″) LG LED LCD screen for $1999.99 and a Sumsung 55″ LED HDTV screen for $2699.99. Plasma screens were significantly less money, sometimes under $1,000 for a 50″ or 60″ screen.

In-store visits were then executed to see the choices first hand and to try to make a good decision as to manufacturer and screen size: we were expecting to buy 60″ screens, but wanted to be sure they were not too far from the commodity pricing. We also wished to talk to the sale representatives to see which if any would be willing to provide more value for our money. Visits were made to H H Gregg, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and a few other local retailers to observe different brands of monitors in operation and make value judgments as to the appropriateness and quality of each brand.

We visited HH Gregg first. They offered a 60″ Sharp LED LCD screen for $2100 plus $100 for wall mounts, $60 for two 12′ cables, $499 to install, and $500 for a 5-year extended warranty. We provided our business card so they could contact us with a formal bid if they so desired. While looking at various brands of screen in operation, we noted that the LG brand seemed to us to have a very usable picture, while we were surprised to see that some other major brands we had expected to look good seemed to have a more muddy, blurred appearance inappropriate for displaying computer screen images.

We visited Best Buy next. They offered a 60″ Sharp LED LCD screen for $2100, $70 for the mounting bracket, and $349 for installation. A 4-year extended warranty would be $320. We also noted a 55″ LG LCD (not LED LCD) screen would be $1399.99. We provided our business card so they could contact us with a formal bid if they so desired.

As I recall, the pricing at Wal-Mart was comparable, and so we assumed any further in-store visits would produce similar pricing and we went to the 5-Guys restaurant in NorthCrest Shopping Center for a late night snack. They didn’t care about our contact information, but they provided a lunch bag literally filled with french fries and some hot sauce.

The following day, I checked for pricing on-line at newegg.com. We also checked the on-line versions of the companies that we visited in-store, and a few other on-line merchants: http://www.directron.com/, http://www.zipzoomfly.com, and http://www.tigerdirect.com/. NewEgg had the lower prices, so we pieced together an order and were prepared to press the SUBMIT ORDER button when we got a telephone call from Patrick Brown of Best Buy for Business. He asked concerning our purchase of two LED LCD monitors, and if we had received his quote. I looked in email and we did indeed have a quote from him, but it was a lot higher than NewEgg. I appologized but explained that I would have to purchase from NewEgg.com because the quote from Best Buy for Business was substantially higher. He immediately reduced his price for the monitors to match the price on NewEgg. I saved the shopping cart on NewEgg for later.

The new quote from Best Buy did price match NewEgg. However, they were charging for delivery. When Patrick called again I explained I would have to buy from NewEgg because even though his price did now match their price for the screens, he was charging me a few hundred dollars for delivery, which NewEgg would deliver for free. I think I heard a groan in the background before Patrick cheerfully offered to deliver the units for free, as would NewEgg. Thus it proceeded until he basically removed every reason I had to buy from someone else.

I placed the order for two 55″ LG brand LED LCD monitors with Patrick from Best Buy for Business at ~$1700 each. Not too bad: better than $2700 each. And that gave me some wiggle room to pay for the sound and computer systems.

Sound System

This left the computer and audio systems, and cabling. A local expert, Richard Harmon, reviewed the suggestions that we had received for audio equipment, and provided a list as follows:

Mixer – 6 channel Peavy PV-6, $54.00
Crown XLS 402 Amp, $195.00
JBL Speakers, $220.00
Furman Power conditioner, $16.00
Total $485

This expert is known to me and has strong favorable recommendations locally, so I cut him a check and let him procure the equipment without supervision. Everything except a few audio cables has been installed as of today.

Rack Panel

I did an on-line search for the recommended rack panel fixture, of the Raxxess  ERK-20M 20U rack ($199) and a MA-RD-3LK ($89) lockable drawer. The sound system and computer were installed into this fixture, which has a maple veneer finish and wheels to allow the computer and sound system to be shared with other organizations throughout several buildings on the campus in which we are located.

Sweetwater has a really great reputation, but this was not at all the level of quality I expected for $288: it was of the same kind of quick connect construction one would experience buying a $30 book shelf at Wal-Mart — metal posts threaded into one piece of fiber board held to the next piece by a circular locking dealie dropped into a matching hole. This box will not handle much abuse at all before it splits apart at the joints — rolling it from building to building will likely result in its destruction. The box also lacked rails at the back.

Instructor’s Computer

In our estimate when requesting the grant, we had not considered including a sound system or computer for the instructor. We had garnered about $1,000 for this purpose by carefully choosing our monitors. This meant that we had to stretch those funds to cover both, initially aiming at about $500 for each. The sound system came in at $485, so we were $15 under, but the Raxxess came in at $288, so we were over. All in all we ended up spending $403 on the computer proper.

Our first order was to be sure we could install the computer in the Raxxess rack panel, so we chose the box first, keeping in mind that we wanted a commodity system that would have a minimum TCO at least for the next five years. A similar system (which was not rack mount) had been described in an article by ExtremeTech for $507 total. Ours was $403 total, but we did not include the nicer wireless keyboard and the TV Card that ExtremeTech used.

We chose the iStarUSA D-300-PFS Black Steel 3U Rackmount Server Case for $94.99 as it was tall enough to allow us to later install separate video cards for each monitor, and reviews on NewEgg were positive. The only complaint in the reviews was that the instructions were obscure or missing. The case did not come with a power supply, so we selected the COOLER MASTER Elite 460 RS-460-PSAR-J3 460W ATX12V V2.31 Power Supply for $29.99. We normally pay about $45 for a case and power supply together, but we needed rack mount for this installation.

Choice in CPU was next in line. The Intel i7 line was acknowledged to be superior, but the cost was significantly higher both for the chip and also for the RAM needed to support it. We settled on a middle-of-the-road design with an AMD Athlon II X4 620 Propus 2.6GHz Socket AM3 95W Quad-Core Processor for $89.00. This was slightly faster than the CPU in my own desktop, which had proven to be a solid performer and was significantly lower than the $279 up to $1,039 cost of an Intel i7 chip.

A main board then needed to be chosen to work with the CPU chip, and we went with the GIGABYTE GA-MA785GM-US2H AM3/AM2+/AM2 AMD 785G HDMI Micro ATX AMD Motherboard for $64.99. During assembly I swapped it with a new ASUS M4A78-EM AM3/AM2+/AM2 AMD 780G HDMI Micro ATX AMD Motherboard because the Gigabyte board wouldn’t load our OS. For memory we bought the G.SKILL 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 1066 (PC2 8500) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory. We wanted 8 Gigabytes to give more room for our virtual machines, but financial realities constrained us. Four gigabytes is still quite workable.

We needed some form of CD/DVD player and had intended to use a Blue Ray unit, but available money was again a factor. We decided upon a LITE-ON CD/DVD Burner – Bulk Black SATA Model iHAS124-04 – OEM for $17.99. This completed the purchase of computer components.

A wireless keyboard and mouse were later purchased at Office Depot, an APC uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) was purchased at Best Buy, HDMI cables were purchased from New Egg, and a splitter for the HDMI video cables was purchased through Amazon.com.

Equipment Assembly

Some photos are provided in the gallery below.

The rack assembled like a Wal-Mart bookshelf — I put a metal post into each hole in the side pieces, then slid holes in the top and bottom pieces over the posts. A round metal disk was placed into each hole in the top and bottom first, then turned to hold the metal post. One rack bar screwed to the front edge of each side, total two.

The sound system, computer, power strip and drawer all hang from the screws in the front of this unit — there are no bars in the back to which we can attach a rail. They seem to be clinging there but I don’t feel it is secure.

The computer was the most complex piece, and it wasn’t bad. The worst part was learning where the power supply was supposed to fit in the 3U rack mount case. It is shown in the picture gallery above. All the computer pieces installed normally — the main board went onto the bottom of the case with screws, hard disks from my salvage bin fit into a metal bracket by the main board. The RAM slid into its sockets as expected, and we have room for two more DDR2 chip strips when we get the money to round it out to 8GB. The CPU chip and cooler dropped into the zip socket without incident. I couldn’t find my tube of Arctic Silver thermal paste, and the small tub of my mil spec thermal paste had disappeared from my repair room, so I just used the stock paste supplied on the cooler heat sink. The DVD burner slid into its drive bay easily.

The computer fired up without incident but I couldn’t get it to take Ubuntu. It just wouldn’t load. Some kind of BIOS or Driver issue. This is the same model board I have in my desktop without issue. I really didn’t want to fight with it, so I took it all apart again and removed my new ASUS main board from my new video machine and swapped boards, then put the rest of the parts back with their intended systems. It loaded up fine.

The doors to the computer lock as does the storage drawer, so I had keys made at FCL Lock on State Street. The computer key seems to be a cheap punched out type key, and I need to go have it copied again as the first copies didn’t work right.

When the HDMI cables and splitter arrived, I positioned the monitors as shown in the gallery pics, ran the cables to the splitter, and the splitter to the HDMI output on the computer. The keyboard and mouse are a wireless set that connects to the computer through a RF USB dongle, so I plugged that into the bottom USB jack and fired up the system.

A computer with two five foot monitors is rather impressive: you really can’t complain about not enough space on your desktop. I added VMWare player with virtual machines for Windows XP and Windows 7 from our Microsoft volume license pool, added Oracle Open Office 3.2, and for demonstration purposes with the Burmese youth, the Ubuntu personal shooter game Sauerbrauten.

Remaining Work

The front panel of the rack needs to be finished with grills to fill in the blank space, and I need to call Sweetwater to see if they would like to give us a better rack for our money. The cables for the audio setup are pending and will be added when they come in. The speakers and monitors need to be mounted to the walls. I will need help to achieve that — we may need different speaker mounts due to where they need to be mounted.

Most of the work remaining is audio work and has not prevented the use of the equipment for classes. It is helping as people can see in Windows 7, XP, and Ubuntu all side by side as they work in class. They can follow the instructor better and also they can see all three common desktop arrangements, which is helping. The wireless mouse sensitivity takes some getting used to, but the CPU and RAM performance is very good, even when running two virtual machines or playing the game — games are a good test of computer performance because they are quite demanding as far as CPU and video capacity goes.