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Thinking Outside of the PC Box

Or: A Technophobe Builds a PC

by Jim Bray

Part One: Building a Better MouseTrap

How do you get the exact performance you want from a PC, the abundance of which are sold "out of the box?"

One way is to not buy "out of the box," but to purchase separate pieces and assemble them yourself.

Now, I imagine many lives are now flashing before eyes at the thought, but bear with me. Assembling a PC can, indeed, be a pain in the neck - but it's also a way to tailor your computer's performance exactly to your needs; it's also a great way to learn about how your computer's various parts interact with each other.

It means doing some preparatory homework, however, and carefully reviewing the stack of owner's manuals that come with the equipment. It also means keeping your wits about you and not being afraid to ask a knowledgeable friend for help if you run into trouble.

And, if my experience is any indication, you may also want to bone up on your curse words…

The "Worst Case Scenario"

I'm well known to friends and family as having a little black cloud that follows me around concerning things technological. Even my recently-repaired laserdisc player just packed it in again, apparently in protest against my loving embrace of the DVD format. So if I can put together a PC, most people can.

This series will outline my experiences at assembling a Windows-based PC tailored to what I do and what I need in a computer. I'll also include links to the various manufacturers involved, whenever possible, so you can take a closer look at the components in this system. Those links will open in a new window.

I'll confess right off the bat: it wasn't as easy as I expected and there were times when I was grateful to have a computer scientist son living with me. His hand-holding (and cajoling) got me through things when I was tempted to throw all the stuff into my microwave oven and watch the fireworks.

However, we got it done and the system works - really, really well. In almost every way...

Why bother?

One advantage of starting from scratch is that you can choose the exact components you want, to tailor the system's performance to your needs and maximize your chances of a long and happy life with your new PC.

Well, as long as any PC lasts these days! Already, some of the components I assembled have been replaced with newer, faster models - but such is computing life.

Due Diligence…

Sony Multiscan 400PSThe first thing we did was decide what I needed the computer to do (everything!) and how best to accomplish it (beg manufacturers for equipment!).

I do many different things in my work, from writing and web development to graphic design and, er, game playing, so I need a fast PC with lots of hard drive space, excellent video and multimedia performance, and a big, beautiful monitor. Since I only use a modem for faxing (I have a cable Internet connection), my modem needs are minimal - so I'm not even going to bother upgrading my year old USRobotics model. Likewise, I'm sticking with my beloved Microsoft IntelliMouse Pro and year old HP scanner - both of which are far from ready for the junk heap and serve me extremely well.

And wild horses couldn't get me to part with my Sony monitor. I've had a soft spot for Sony for many years, and a few months ago I reviewed Sony's 19 inch Multiscan 400PS. Unfortunately (well, fortunately), I liked it so much I begged my wife to let my buy it. And she did. So I'll be keeping this beautiful screen, thank you.

I'm also keeping my Gigastar case and power supply, which I originally bought with future expansion in mind. It's a full tower ATX case with enough space in it to house a family of trolls.

Or gremlins, which may explain that little black cloud I mentioned earlier…

Another reason I like the Gigastar is that you can take off its sides easily without having to remove the whole cover. This makes it easy to swap components, which is something I do often in my line of work.

Wish List…

That leaves a shopping list that consists of a new motherboard, CPU, video card, SCSI (for speed and flexibility), hard drive, DVD drive, CD "burner" (hey, why not?), sound system, and a keyboard.

All-in-Wonder 128 3DAfter searching the Internet, local dealers, and other sources to see what's available, I chose the following as my "dream components":

  • CPU: AMD K6-III 400 MHz. AMD offers great bang for the buck, and I wanted to see how Intel's competition stacks up.
  • Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-5AX. Not the highest end available, but excellent quality and very easy to configure. The latter point was what really sold me, especially after having had a frustrating time earlier with a different board…
  • Video Card: ATI's All-in-Wonder Pro 128. I've been very happy with the service I've received from ATI in general and the All-in-Wonder and All-in-Wonder Pro specifically. The new AGP card ups the ante from my current "AIW" Pro. It also offers on-the-board DVD playback, which should compliment the DVD ROM drive well.
  • SCSI: Adaptec's 2940U2W Ultra 2. Its promise was Adaptec's reputation for quality and this interface's reputation for being FAST! I wasn't disappointed.
  • Hard Drive: Quantum's 18.2 gig Atlas IV Ultra 2 (LVD) wide SCSI drive. Why? Big, good, and FAST! A lovely product.
  • DVD ROM - Pioneer's 6X 303 SCSI drive. Fast, and I've been impressed with many of Pioneer's audio/video products in the past - so wanted to see how their data products stack up. Unfortunately, a clerical error led Pioneer to send an IDE drive, the 103, so that's the one I installed.
  • CD-R: ACS Compro's 7503 SCSI burner. Made by Panasonic, ACS Compro is a smaller "try harder" company with whom I've dealt before with such products as "Ezfone." I like giving smaller companies a chance because I'm a small businessman myself and know what they're up against.
  • Audio: Microsoft's Digital Sound System 80. An excellent performer with a USB interface that lets me do without a sound card, thereby freeing up an expansion slot. And, since I'm always testing new peripherals, I can never have too many expansion slots.
  • Keyboard: Key Source International's Wombat Freeboard. A high end wireless keyboard that comes complete with a built in trackball and mouse ports mounted for lefties and righties. You also get a mouse, though I preferred to keep using my IntelliMouse.

As the components trickled in (making the anticipation almost unbearable), I carefully unpacked them and looked over their manuals and software to get a head start. Then, screwing up my courage and throwing caution to the wind, I shut down my system, spilled its guts onto our workbench (okay, it was my desk), and started turning it into a beautiful PC phoenix.

Next: A Mother of a Board/The Chips are Down


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January 31, 2006