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.
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.