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Test drive: Building your own PC

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In the old days the father's tasks as technology manager of the household were pretty undemanding: change the lightbulbs, tighten the faucets and assemble the Christmas bicycles.

The computer age has changed all that. Today the same dads who used to spend Christmas Day wrench in hand are seated instead before the computer screen, mouse in palm, trying to nudge their kids' software to life.

Last month I resolved to pursue the ultimate home tech adventure: to build a personal computer from scratch. Or, to be more accurate, to help my 12-year-old son, Andrew, build his own PC.

Unlike the rudimentary hobbyist computers of the early 1980s, building a PC today involves no messy soldering -- indeed, it requires no tools other than a slotted screwdriver, a Phillips-head and a pair of needle-nose pliers. From insertion of the first screw to the launch of Windows 98, the entire process took us an unhurried three hours and 15 minutes.

There are several good reasons to build rather than buy a home PC. One is the educational experience. My wife and I had agreed that as a middle-school student, Andrew deserved his own computer (better that than a TV, certainly). But since it would be the third desktop in our house, we figured there should be more to the acquisition than a hefty invoice from Gateway or Dell.

And what better way to demystify the modern world's indispensable device than to get your fingers inside the box, learning firsthand how the parts interconnect? We now expect Andrew, given his intimate relationship with the machine he built, to be fully confident about adding parts, swapping old for new and trouble-shooting the hardware.

A hand-built PC also is easier to customize than even the mix-and-match models available from mail-order retailers. Although computer makers give buyers some choice among standard components, it would be hard to replicate online our own particular combination of CPU, hard drive and sound and graphics capability.

Finally, there's the challenge. I won't say that people doubted our ability to bring off the project, but when I proposed writing this article at least one editor muttered: "Come to think of it, the story might be even better if it doesn't work."

Assembling a PC from off-the-shelf components turned out to be much easier than we expected. The project requires a working knowledge of the system's basic parts and connections. It's helpful to have access to the Web, where you can find several sites that provide convenient lists of components and walk you through the assembly.

On the other hand, we learned that building your own PC is not necessarily economical. Although we saved perhaps 20% on the basic hardware over the price of a retail PC, the gain was quickly eaten up by the cost of software, for which the retail price is many times what computer makers pay. A start-up version of Windows Millennium, which is installed free on new retail PCs, lists for about $170 when bought separately. Once you add programs such as word processing, you can kiss the overall savings goodbye.

We started our project by allowing Andrew to set down several key specifications. He asked for superior graphics to enhance his favorite games and run a 3-D graphics design program he owns, and enough power to run the computer camera he received for Christmas. My specifications were aimed at making the machine less demanding in terms of computing resources. I also wanted it to include word processing, calculation and reference programs to help him do his homework.

We skipped installing a modem or network connection because there's no phone or cable line in Andrew's room, and another of our home PCs runs a high-speed connection to the Web via cable modem.

Then we went shopping. A typical PC contains only a handful of major parts: a central processing unit (CPU); memory cards; floppy, CD-ROM and hard drives; sound, graphics and modem or networking cards; and a motherboard through which all the parts are interconnected.

We purchased the drives, cards and a keyboard and mouse at CompUSA, but for the more hard-core electronics such as the chip, motherboard and memory we turned to a hobbyist chain, PC Club, on the grounds that if something technical went awry its staff would be more knowledgeable.

PC Club also offered an inviting package deal including a case, motherboard and chip. We chose Advanced Micro Devices' Duron 750 MHz CPU.

The Duron is a low-cost alternative to Intel's better-known CPUs. That choice saved us about $40 over a roughly equivalent Intel Celeron and $140 over its premium-priced cousin, the Pentium. We probably could have saved a few dollars more on every component by purchasing by mail.

Having brought the haul home, it was time to build.

Our experience taught us a handful of essential rules:

• Read the manuals. Motherboards come in flavors as diverse as snowflakes, and other components often have their own setup peculiarities. Knowing where the various plugs go on the board and how to set the tiny switches found on most disk drives is essential.

• Your screwdrivers should be magnetized. We regretted ignoring this commonplace advice, especially when trying to manipulate a tiny screw into a hard-to-reach place in the case, or retrieving the part after it dropped into a rat's nest of wires and cables.

• Don't wait. CompUSA and other retailers have stringent return and exchange policies that make it tough to get a refund more than 14 days after purchase.

I would add one more rule specifically for parents: Get out of the way. The impatient words "Dad, I can do this" were heard more than once during the construction.

The first step in building a PC is to prepare the motherboard and install the CPU. The brains of the computer, this is typically a flat ceramic block a couple of inches on the side with a rectangle of silicon on top and a bed of gold pins on the underside, which fit into a white plastic socket on the board. One simply lifts a lever on the socket and drops the chip onto a matrix of tiny holes.

Our AMD chip fell with a gratifying clink, after which Andrew lowered the lever to lock it in place and placed over it a combination fan and aluminum heat sink -- a part that keeps the heat-producing chip cool.

This fixture was secured by a metal bracket holding it to the CPU socket. Next, the memory, a rectangular circuit board, was inserted into a slot on the motherboard; it fits in only one way, making mistakes impossible.

After mounting the motherboard in the case with six screws, we moved on to the three data drives. Each needs to be screwed into a bracket inside the case and connected to the motherboard via a flat cable resembling a tapeworm. The motherboard manual indicated where to plug in the free end of each cable, depending on whether the drive was the main (the hard drive) or secondary (CD-ROM and floppy drive) one. Each drive also has a socket to accept a power plug from the case.

Next, we installed the graphics and sound cards, which fit into easily identifiable slots on the board and are arranged so their output ports are accessible through the computer's rear panel. The sound card has an audio cable that connects it to a slot on the rear of the CD drive so audio discs can be played over the computer's speakers.

The final step was to plug power cables from the case to the motherboard and the drives. These were all shaped to ensure they went in the right way. The motherboard also accommodates four tiny, black plugs connected to the on-off and reset switches at the front of the case, as well as a power light and one indicating hard-disk activity.

Finally, the moment of truth. We double-checked that the monitor, keyboard and mouse were plugged into their respective ports and that the machine was plugged into the wall. Andrew pressed the on-off switch and we held our breaths.

There was a pause, then a whir as the system's two fans started spinning. A few lines of gray type appeared on the monitor. This was the BIOS, or basic input-output system, speaking. It is a bare-bones program that runs off a chip in the motherboard. It's enough to tell the CPU what other components are present, but not much more.

Bewitched by our own achievement, we moved on to the final, and most perilous, stage of our project -- installing Windows 98. It's an axiom of the computer business that most of the problems that bedevil users are born in software, not hardware.

Loading this Windows operating system on a newborn computer requires first loading a suite of utility programs from a floppy disk and using them to complete the installation from a CD-ROM.

After we booted up the computer with the start-up disk in the floppy drive, we ran a program called fdisk as the necessary first step in installing Windows. Fdisk allocates space on the disk in a way that enables the computer to find it on command.

That done, we rebooted with the start-up disk and the Windows CD-ROM in their respective drives. The computer rebooted, and then froze. An incomprehensible error message appeared on the screen and I began to curse Bill Gates.

We repeated the process fruitlessly two or three times more until I discovered the missing step: After running fdisk, we had forgotten to format the hard drive too. This 15-minute process, launched by typing the command into the computer, records a file system on the disk that allows it to accept and retrieve data.

The formatting done, we rebooted, and minutes later the Windows screen image came up and we were home free. Half an hour later Andrew was installing his favorite programs in his new PC.

The machine is running flawlessly. Would we undertake the same project again? Yes, the next time we need a new computer. Since Andrew's brother is now 9, that day can't be far off.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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