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Monday, January 19, 2004

2. Sputtering About Electronics.

I spent most of Saturday assembling the new computer, and had a ball doing it. I highly recommend it to anyone with an inclination toward tinkering and a casual enthusiast's knowledge of how PCs work -- but not to anyone that just expects things to "work." I was able to get it all together and working quite effortlessly.

Okay, you're thinking I'm lying, and I am. 90% of it was effortless. I learned a lot from the experience, and would have an 100% effortless time the next time. Here are some insights:

1. Keep your eyes on the original goal. My goal was to build a system with a high price-performance ratio, not a particularly "fast" computer. I was inspired by an article on Tom's Hardware that talked about how there were amazing deals to be had with the Athlon XP chips, and another article that explained why dual-channel memory is not necessarily the greatest thing since sliced bread on the XP chip. Thus, I was able to find a motherboard and Athlon XP 2600+ (Barton) for a low price, and it was more than enough computer for what I needed. Ironically, I found an article online dated December 2002, in which such a system was described as "cutting edge" and "very expensive." The whole thing was spurred by a Dell online sale, when I talked to a Dell representative and realized that their cheap computers were crap and their good computers sure weren't cheap. If you build your own, you know where you're cutting corners.

2. You don't need "cooling solutions." Most DIY-ers are speed freak gamers, who overclock their machines to get top performance (at the risk of losing system stability). Thus, many DIY instructions are heavy on "cooling solutions" and "is your power supply strong enough" and so on. In fact, there is a cottage industry now to cater to tech geeks who trick out their computers with clear side panels and fluorescent lights and dragon-shaped fan grills and so on, until it looks like some El Camino nightmare from the South Side. I'm waiting for someone to build a device that makes the computer buck up and down, like when the cholos get together and see whose car can bounce the highest.

If you build a "normal" computer, you don't need extra cooling. Or neon lights, for that matter. But -- and this is a big difference -- every penny you put into quiet components is money well-spent. A fully-tricked-out PC can sound like a 747 at takeoff if you're not careful. I was worried about getting enough "cooling" in the system, and it turned out to be a total non-issue. I even disconnected the extra case fan that I had bought, because it was too loud.

Side note: there is something particularly weird about installing a heatsink. You get the CPU, and it's this wafer-thin piece of pressboard with a little tiny black nub on the top that is the actual processor. You marvel at how this tiny little black nub can carry such amazing computing power. And then you have to tightly clamp a MASSIVE, HEAVY BLOCK of copper onto it -- without "exerting pressure," mind you -- and the heatsink has its own dedicated fan blowing straight down onto the copper, because that little black nub draws 70 watts and puts out enough heat to warm your house. It adds to the mystique of the black nub, but really undermines the whole "great power in a small space" theme. We've shrunk computers to infinitessimal sizes, but soon we're going to need 10 ton air conditioners just to run them.

3. If you want no hassle, don't go for the new stuff. This was the biggest discovery. There's a new technology called "Serial ATA," which offers faster transfer rates to your disk drives. But, it's new, and motherboard makers are just starting to roll out support for it. I had a choice between two great discounted hard drives online: one was the regular ATA, and the other was Serial ATA. I chose Serial ATA because it would be more "forward-compatible;" there is no real-world speed difference between the two.

But that was the seed of my error. The rest of the computer was based on the insight that I could get a great deal by focusing on last year's technology, which had fallen to a very affordable price. This new idea didn't "match." And I paid for my hubris.

See, the computer didn't want this new-technology hard drive to be its only hard drive, because Windows always yearns for the past and goes running back to 1986 when anything goes wrong. Windows Setup wouldn't recognize the Serial ATA drive because it was "new," and Setup had to have separate installation files for something that is "new." And those files had to be on a floppy disk, which meant they had to be copied onto a floppy from the CD that came with the motherboard. So, I went across the street to the neighbor's house to copy the files, because I don't have a floppy drive on the Powerbook. (Apple renounced them, if you recall, and rightly so.)

Then, I discovered that installing those drivers was the first thing that Windows Setup wanted to do -- that is, before it loaded its own support for USB keyboards. So my USB keyboard (a holdover from the Powerbook) wouldn't work, even long enough to just press "S" to tell it to load the drivers on the floppy. Quick trip to Best Buy (just down the street) and I have a $10 old-school keyboard that will get me past this hurdle. (My neighbor had a wireless keyboard, and I wasn't sure that I could get that to work either. Too "new.")

But -- whoops! I finally figure out that there is a known problem with this motherboard not wanting to use a Serial ATA drive as the only hard drive. (It's kind of hard to tell, because the support on the website is translated from Taiwanese Chinese into Portugese, then into Russian, then into Swahili, then into the clicking dialect of the Kalahari Bushmen, then sung by a Tuvan throatsinger, and then translated into Engrish. The company -- which is one of the most reliable ones, believe it or not -- cheerfully fixed the problem with a BIOS update, which is easy to install -- if you already have Windows installed. And Windows wouldn't install without a hard drive. Impasse. Second trip to Best Buy, which has a huge sale on "old school" ATA hard drives, and I'm off to the races. I now have two hard drives, one "old school" drive, and the Serial ATA drive to hold the heavy data. Hey, you can never have too much storage.

4. The process of installing Windows is hilarious. You install it, and everything is smooth as silk. And then you use the smooth-as-silk "Windows Update" to install the 38 -- count 'em -- 38 "critical" or "important" security updates that have come out since your Windows CD was burned two months ago.

So, what's the result? A computer that is so much faster than the old Powerbook that my eyes water. The critical test was when I showed Shannon the program that pages through photos from our digital camera. The Powerbook took its sweet time to go from photo to photo, because it was taxing to the processor to redraw each photo. The new computer could flip through those bad boys like shuffling a deck of cards. And this is the cheap computer, remember. The "outdated" technology. The stuff that computer sites describe with vaguely condescending terms like "good price-to-performance ratio" and such. Damn straight. I'm all about price-performance ratio these days.

Other technical topics:

-- Big shout out to the folks at Creative, who made my Creative Nomad Jukebox MP3 player. They had a lower price and larger capacity than the iPod, which was why I chose it, though the interface was crap. Of course, on later models, they developed a much more user-friendly interface for the thing. Fortunately, they did the right thing, and figured out how to reverse-engineer the new interface to work on the old Jukeboxes. Big difference from, say, Apple. As you may recall from Friday, Apple quickly abandoned both the DVD player and the video chip on my Powerbook.

-- Big shout out to the folks at eBay, who made selling things a lot easier than I thought it would be. I cleaned out the garage, and instead of holding a garage sale, I tentatively put some stuff on eBay. The free market is a shocking thing, though. Once you give eBay their cut, and PayPal its cut, and realize how little the free market values your particular possession, there's just not much worth putting up for sale. But it's been a good experience thus far, despite the petulant questions from buyers.

 3:26 PM

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