Building the Perfect Beast (Part One)

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Thread: Building the Perfect Beast (Part One)

  1. #1

    Building the Perfect Beast (Part One)

    WHY? Why on Earth would anyone want to build their own computer?

    If you’re the kind of person that gets real uncomfortable with the idea of fixing a leaky toilet, I understand your reluctance. If you handle the problems in your life with a call to a “professional”, I get why you think building a computer may be hard. It’s easy to step back, and let someone else do the tedious, detailed stuff. Your time is valuable.

    We live in a society where folks practically do nothing for themselves any longer. We don’t drive ourselves, barely feed ourselves, and daily challenges are drudgery. We hire people to walk our dogs, take care of our kids and care for our parents. An entire cottage industry has sprouted to cater to the “I’m too busy to do that” generation.

    Let me propose this: People today have given-up too much of their power. Knowledge is power, and the average person today doesn’t really know how anything works. I think it’s good to step out of your “comfort zone”, and learn something new. Maybe something that you are totally unfamiliar with. I did that over a quarter century ago. It wasn’t rocket science. It really wasn’t even computer science. It was exploration. And it was not an exploration of silicon and circuits. It was an exploration of myself.

    So, why would you build your own computer?
    The question is, “Why wouldn’t you?”

    In my high school days, only the nerdiest of the geeks played with computers. The closest thing I’ve had to formal computer training was a survey computer science class in junior college. At the time, I had just left the Marine Corps and my skillset was heavy in the intricacies of digging holes and shooting guns. So let’s just throw this out there; if I can learn this stuff, anyone can. And for added measure, we didn’t even have YouTube or modern internet. Hell, AOL and Compuserve were the big thing back then. Text driven communication. Imagine that.

    At that time, my roommate had an x286 IBM desktop. I avoided the thing for the most part, opting to write my college papers on a word processor. I goofed around with the PC a bit, mainly to play the state of the art 16 color games we had back in the day. To run some of them, I had to learn basic DOS commands. That was a necessary evil that exposed me to how those things operated.

    A couple of years later, I married the love of my life, and it was time to feather the nest. In the early 90’s, all the “yuppies” were buying computers. My wife didn't want to look backward, and I wanted to keep playing my cheesy war games. We went to Costco and spent just under $1300 on an IBM brand x386. I still remember it being such a large purchase, the manager called in to clear our check (if you don’t know what a check is, ask someone over 50).

    Well, here’s our first step into computer cliché / trope territory. After a year or two of use, our $1300 PC couldn’t run a game that I wanted to play. Well, technically it could, but I had to tweak some settings. I learned to manipulate the autoexec.bat and config.sys files to free up available system memory. I don’t remember how hard it was, but the mind does have firewalls as well. I do remember doing some research on Compuserve, using my dial-up modem. There was some cursing. In the end, it worked.

    In retrospect, that was a turning point. I could have paid someone to do that for me, but I didn’t. We could have saved-up to buy a new model, but we were not rich folk. Some people really enjoy that satisfaction of fixing their own problems. Others want people to care for them. No shame in either predilection. But everyone should at least know that they are capable. You should know what kind of problem solver you are. If you don’t try, you don’t know.

    There was only so much memory I could squeeze out for my games via file editing. My next game hurdle involved the need to install a game card (what today we call a video card). I had no idea what I was doing. There was no “plug and play” back then. After I installed the card, I had to ‘tell’ the computer what it was, and how to use it. I figured it out.

    Later, I remember buying an upgraded processor from a company named Cyrix. Now, this was some scary stuff: I was going to replace the ‘brains’ of my computer. I think at this point it was just vanity. I wanted a faster computer. I read up, and noted all the horror stories how you could fry your system with one errant static discharge. I was careful, took my time, and it really wasn’t a problem.
    A few years later, we upgraded to a Pentium II system rocking a massive 233 MHz (not gigahertz, megahertz). They had this new slot-mounting system for their processors. After a couple of years with that, I upgraded to a Pentium III 300MHz. Because I could.

    It was around Y2K that I decided to build my first system from the ground-up. I had been watching this upstart Intel competitor named AMD, and their K6 series of processors. You never forget your first. I chose the K6 III chip clocked at 450 MHz. I did my research… and forgot one little thing: Adequate case cooling. Yep, I overheated the CPU. The case that I chose just didn’t have proper ventilation. After my error, I broke-out my handy Makita drill and made more ventilation. Installed an additional fan. Bought a new processor. Good to go.

    I think it’s a little like being a motorcycle rider and dropping your bike: You push the limits, and everyone’s gonna crash at least once. You get up, fix the damage,and keep riding. And you learn and get better.

    The internet was more of a real thing by then, with Internet Explorer browser making GUI (graphic user interface) navigation much easier. Windows 98 eliminated the need for most command line editing. From that point on, I did all my research and purchasing of new computer components on-line. Https is your friend.

    Next was an Athlon-based system, again by AMD. I was sold on them, and still am. AMD always seems to provide the price point with the best performance per dollar vs. Intel. I started learning the importance of a top-quality graphics card, and spending extra for them. I was still able to build my systems for a lower cost than most retailers could for the same performance. This may seem frivolous to some. But it is a source of pride to own above-average performing equipment that costs less than a brand-name generic box.

    Speaking of generic boxes, in the early 00’s, I tried my hand at custom cases. My hardware configurations were works of art, so I figured why not make a pretty frame for it? I built a case out of MDF wood, and adorned it to look like a Star Trek Borg cube. Then I repurposed a toaster oven (that was my dual Opteron rig, good times). Another was an avant garde cage-like case that was open on all sides, with window screen wrapping around. Yes, all of them worked, and worked well. Especially that Opteron PC. I set records with that one.

    To know how well your system works, there are on-line companies that offer “benchmarking” utilities that measure the performance of your configuration. I started testing, tweaking and overclocking. Not to make my games run better like a decade earlier. But just to make my computer faster. Because I could.

    My wife (and now young children) had their own generic computer. Eventually, it got tired and needed some upgrading. I did what I could, and by the time I was done, I bought them a couple of extra years of usable service. But in this exercise is a lesson on why you don’t buy pre-packaged systems.
    Cheap doesn’t always mean low quality, but it usually means limited upgradability. Mass production and economy means marrying parts that probably don’t belong together. Sure, they work, but this shotgun wedding is hardly happy or efficient. And there’s often no slack when replacing a component, especially if that part is an upgrade. It may fit, and work with the other parts, but the inexpensive PC power supply can’t give the new part enough juice to function properly.

    Of course, having kids (and a family budget) meant I had constrictions on my computer hobby. I developed a system where I usually bought-in at a level where my parts were good quality, good performance and upgradable. I was never chasing the top benchmarking score. I just wanted to achieve comparable performance at half the price. Later, when the top-tier prices fell, I mounted those parts, knowing my system could handle them.
    I'm re-using and extending the life of many of my parts instead of buying entirely new systems. It turns out my little hobby is "Earth friendly".

    Windows moved from XP, to Vista to Win 7. Processor speeds climbed from one, to two to over three gigahertz. New connections like serial ATA sped up internal data transfers. Technologies like SLI and Crossfire made fast video cards faster. Wireless internet was now the standard and often integrated. Now, we have solid state drives that access data in a fraction of the time it would take a disk drive. Optical drives like a CD ROM are now legacy devices. How time marches on.

    Where does it end? Not now, and not with me. I contemplated buying a pre-built sysytem this time, but I couldn't stomach the idea. When my last rig was sputtering up to the finish line, I knew what I had to do.
    It wasn't going to be pretty. It never is. But I always make it work.

    "Wubba Lubba Dub Dub!"

  2. #2
    I don't know how I missed this. I really like this "bring the viewer" along for the journey in this exceptionally well written non-fiction piece that you have here, Winston. As well as providing interesting details, that fit with the overall picture, you managed to capture and hold my interest for the duration of this entire part. I really liked this. Well done!

  3. #3
    The piece was mechanically sound, and flowed well. No derailments, no fouls, no glaring errors.
    But I found myself a little bored by it.
    Having lived thru all that stuff may have made me jaded to reading about it.
    Well executed, but meh?


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