Do It Yourself Computers

28th August 2001

I've been waiting for some time to upgrade my computer. I don't believe in buying a ready-made computer. That's too easy, and in many ways it's too difficult. For example, I recently bought Anne a Compaq Presario. Nice machine. It started with 64 meg RAM, which is clearly inadequate. It was easy enough to add 256 more meg to give her 320 meg. I bought a DVD drive on eBay and wanted to add that to her computer. I couldn't remove the cdrom drive. I still haven't figured out how to remove her cdrom drive. Store-bought computers are nice, but they have hidden traps. Me, I like home made items, built from left-over bits and pieces.

I started this year with a jerry-rigged computer, running a 200 Mhz AMD chip, 64 meg RAM, an old 2 gig drive for Windows and a very old 6 gig drive for Linux. By the middle of the year, this had grown to a 233 Mhz chip, 192 meg RAM, 20 gig hard disk for Windows and 20 gig hard disk for Linux, 52 speed cdrom drive and a nice cdrom burner. It gave very good service. Fast enough for all things except some of the games I play. More than adequate for everything else.

And then the computer suffered a death. I was checking my email early one morning and noticed a burning smell. "Oh dear", I thought, "I'd better turn the computer off." By the time my fingers got near the off button, it had turned itself off, never to turn on again. Bugger.

I did some surgery and used a partial box I had lying round, and cobbled together another Frankenstein's monster of a computer. I was back with the 200Mhz processor. That slight drop in speed from 230 Mhz to 200 Mhz was noticeable. Time for an upgrade.

I wanted a new box. I was tired of using old 486 tower cases. They have tons of room, but the power supplies are a little underpowered. I wanted a new case, a giant tower case with a big power supply to drive all my gear. I wanted heaps of room inside to keep the drives away from each other and help dissipate the heat. I wanted a new motherboard. No ISA or EISA slots at all. I only want PCI slots. I stopped using ISA cards last year when it was more trouble than it was worth. I only use PCI cards now, and having a motherboard with 3 EISA slots and 3 PCI slots is a waste. I wanted 6 PCI slots. I didn't want anything on board. I don't want video on board. I don't want sound on board. I don't want a NIC on board. I don't want SCSI on board. I have good cards for all that stuff already. I hate all-in-one stereos, all-in-one printer-fax-phones, all-in-one everything. They suck. I prefer the individual components, so I can upgrade them steadily with better components. And I wanted a faster chip. I would have been very happy with a 500 Mhz chip. Anne's running a 750 Mhz AMD Duron and that's very nice. She gets great speed out of it, especially with the 320 meg RAM. I don't really need that much speed, but something close would have been nice.

I explored a few options, checked out shops, checked out custom built machines, mail order machines, and nothing clicked. Then I discovered that there re regular computer fairs at Norfolk Scope. I went to one to check it out and check out the prices. I got a very good feel for the prices, and I saved my money for the next computer fair.

So early August, I went to the fair looking for parts. I had the cash ready, and I was looking for a case, a motherboard, a CPU and some memory. I went round the booths a few times, comparing prices, trying for deals, looking to find a reliable looking place that sold the parts I wanted.

While I was going round, I stocked up on cables. I got 2 extra long IDE cables, $4 each. I always end up with cables that are too short, especially in the big tower cases. Then 1 more 4 port internal SCSI cable $10, and 2 x 2 port internal SCSI cables at $5 each. That gives me the flexibility I want for the plans I have. Even if I don't use them now, I will have them for later.

Then it was time for the big purchase.

I was looking for an ASUS motherboard with NO onboard video, sound or NIC. I like the ASUS motherboards. I've owned a few and had no problems with them. In the entire place, only one stall was selling what I wanted. An ASUS CUSL2-c motherboard. $112. Three stalls had the giant tower case I wanted, and the stall with the motherboard had them for $2 dearer than the cheapest place. $55. So I stayed at this stall and started asking questions and checking prices. I added an Intel Pentium 933 Mhz chip for $149. I was originally going for the 800 Mhz chip, but the guy pointed out that I could get the 933 Mhz for $4 more. So I went for that. CPU fan cost $15. I could get the PC133 memory cheaper elsewhere. It was going for $25 per 256 meg module at one other stall, but at this stall is was going for $33 a module. I opted to pay the extra money and buy it here. So I added 512 meg of PC133 RAM for $66. That's right - half a gig of RAM. I didn't realise memory was so cheap.

So the whole thing, case, MB and CPU and fan and RAM cost me $407 including the tax. I was happy with that.

I paid the cash and they mounted the CPU on the board, attached the fan and mounted the memory while I watched closely. They must do a lot of this stuff. They were slow and careful and neat. I was quite happy with what they did while I was watching.

We went home and I left it all lying in a pile while we watched Waking Ned Devine. I try not to be too eager with this stuff in case I break something.

So after the film, I started. I took photos of each step of the way for the Web. It also helps me stop at strategic moments and think about what I am doing.

[The bits and pieces before
  unpacking]

I unpacked the case and discovered it came with wheels. Cool. I bolted on the wheels. Then had to remove two wheels and re-position them when I realised that two of them have brakes. So I put the two braked wheels at the front. This way I can wheel it into position, then lock it from the front. [The case is out and has wheels
  attached]

It took a few minutes to work out how to open the case. This one has side panels, which I find quite convenient. And then a few more minutes to work out how to get the motherboard flap down. [The case is open and the
  motherboard flap is down]

Then I had to work out how to attach the motherboard. Tricky. I had to go and look at the burnt out hulk upstairs and see how a modern motherboard is attached to the case. Okay, that looked alright so I did it. [The motherboard is bolted into
  place]

Okay, so far so good. I flipped the motherboard flap up and bolted it into place. Pulled it down again and popped some rear panel protectors to let the USB ports out. Bolted it in again. Connected the power to the motherboard, hooked up all the little connectors from the buttons and lights and speakers. Checked it all over. Looking good so far. [The motherboard is clipped into
  place and fully connected]

I added a floppy disk, connected the cables to it. Added a spare video card, attached a monitor and got it ready to turn on. Then I went and had a beer and waited a bit. I don't like to rush into it. If I leave it a bit before turning it on and blowing something up, I might remember what I forgot. This time, I couldn't remember anything forgotten. So I came back to it and checked it all over again. I turned it on.

[It's alive!!]

Well, it booted up and went straight into BIOS. I had to set the speed of the CPU and some other advanced stuff. Did that, and exited BIOS and it booted. This time it told me I had an Intel Pentium 933 Mhz processor and 512 meg RAM. So far so good. It tried to boot from floppy and found nothing. Looked good so far. I left it like that for about an hour to burn in.

While I let it burn in, I went to the other computer and created a DOS 6.2 boot disk, with Commander Keen 4 on it. After an hour, I took that back and booted up. Yup. DOS 6.2 works fine on it. I started Commander Keen and the demo game kicked in. I let the demo game play overnight. The game noise was irritating, but also reassuring. It meant the computer still worked. One thing bothered me. The game's graphics were really jerky. I assumed this was a combination of the old video card and the old graphics routines used by Commander Keen. I hoped the problem would disappear.

Next day, the computer was still running. So far, so good. Now it was time to transplant the hard disks and cdrom drives and the PCI cards. That didn't take long. Plenty of room inside the case for all the drives. I had the right length cables. Plenty of slots for all the cards. It went very smoothly.

Time to reboot and see what happens. I have a dual boot system. One 20 gig drive for Windows (games and scanning) and one 20 gig drive for Linux (everything else). I booted into Linux. It worked perfectly. Linux booted fine and I was up and running. It was pretty zippy after coming from a P200 processor. One thing that I disliked was that I had to finally to retire my ancient ABM keyboard. This made me very unhappy. The ABM keyboard has an old DIN plug, and the motherboard takes the new small plugs. Bugger. I got my ABM keyboard in 1990. Someone else had got it with their computer, didn't like the feel of it, liked the feel of my keyboard, and swapped me. I've kept it ever since. The keys are slightly further apart and the repeat rate is quite fast. It's a bit worn by now, after 11 years of pounding on it. The numeric keypad 4 has been missing for years, but that doesn't slow me down. So I retired it and plugged in another keyboard I had which has the required small plug. The replacement keyboard sucked. It was too soft and mooshy. I put up with it for a few hours, then started rummaging through my plastic bags of bits and pieces and found a keyboard adapter, Yippee. My old ABM keyboard is back in business. I reckon there's another 10 years left in that keyboard.

[My Favourite keyboard]

Linux booted without problems. I recompiled the kernel to see if that would improve things further, but no, I had to put up with more speed than I have ever had. X became exquisitely zippy. Even Gnome and KDE became usable. I rarely use them anyway, preferring fvwm2 which is fast on any sort of hardware. I fiddled with KDE some more, now that it ran quickly enough to be useful. It was kinda cute, but I'm an old guy, set in my ways, and I went back to my favourite fvwm2.

There were no graphics problems, like with Commander Keen, so I assumed that was just a very old game with a slightly older video card.

Okay, time to put the computer back into its usual position in the computer room, under my desk. Oops. It's too tall. It just won't fit. I tried a few things and failed, and then I sighed and resigned myself to removing the sexy wheels. With the wheels off, it's fits perfectly under the desk. Oh well. I might see about getting a taller desk later on and putting the wheels back on. [The case goes under the desk,
  minus the wheels]

I spent an evening working through Linux and revelling in the speed of everything. It was fun. Compilations were really quick. Image processing was much, much quicker. I do a lot of photo crunching. I scan the photos and for the Web page, then crunch them to get them small in size but still looking good. I use ImageMagick for this. Now it's really fast.

Time to put the logo on the computer. These generic cases come with a small indent on the front, about an inch by an inch, where you can put your company logo (Dodgy Brothers Computers). Richard had earlier given me some Linux logos, so I stuck one of them in place. [The Linux logo]

Finally, I decided to boot Windows and see how fast the games would run. Oh boy, Windows was a complete pain in arse. I run Win95. I'm not a big fan of Windows. I use it for games and that's all. I upgraded from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 in 2000. With Windows products, I like to stay way away from the bleeding edge of technology. I found Win 3.1 to be extremely stable. I found Win95 to be very stable. I had no problems with either of them in day to day running. They ran my games well, except I could never make Win95 run Warlords II Deluxe. I had to set that up on a laptop running Dos 6.2. The only time I have any problems with Windows is when I change my hardware. That usually precipitates a small rash of reboots. What I had just done was a major hardware upgrade. Even so, I didn't expect the nightmare of reboots and reloads and re-installs that I had to go through.

I booted Win95. It stopped and told me that the hardware had changed, and then it started to try and find new drivers. Then it hit the motherboard's bus and that was it. Win95 told me that the bus was doing something strange it couldn't cope with. So it was going to boot into safe mode. It did. It wouldn't recognise the bus, so it couldn't find the rest of the hardware. I had hard disks, but no cdrom drives (therefore no drivers on cdrom), no sound card, only generic video. I was stuck.

I read the motherboard manual and it says Win98 and up. Bugger. It looked as if finally, after all these years, I am once again forced to move over to a later version of Windows. I hunted through my piles of wrecked computer parts. I had bought a secondhand P90 late last year and it came with a Win98 cdrom and license. That would do.

Upgrading Windows is not a thing to be done lightly. I know what the install would do. It would wipe my dual boot, and possibly wipe my Linux partitions. So I spent some time backing up all my data on Linux and on Windows. And I made a floppy boot disk for Linux so I could recover later. It was time to move to Win98.

I went to BIOS and turned off my 20 gig Linux drive. No sense letting Windows near it. Then I booted from cdrom. It started up, started the install and found Win 95. Oh no. It's a new install cdrom, not an upgrade cdrom, so that buggered that. I rebooted, turned the Linux disk on in BIOS, rebooted and then erased all files from the Windows disk. Started again. So far so good. It got past that part and then checked the C: drive. That was fine. Then it checked the D: drive, and it didn't like the partitioning. I rebooted to Linux, and changed partition type. Booted from cdrom again, and got past that problem. It wanted the license number and I gave it the license number, and all was well. It installed Win 98. Then it wanted a reboot. After that reboot, it started recognising more hardware. It had a problem with the bus. I was in despair again. So I popped in the cdrom that came with the motherboard and it was fantastic. It installed dozens of drivers. Then another reboot. It found more hardware and installed a driver and wanted a reboot after each one. Finally, all the compulsory reboots were over. Time for the voluntary driver installs and reboots. Video, sound card, mouse, cdrom burner, scanner, printer, ad a bloody reboot after each one. By the time the system was functioning again properly, I had been through over 30 reboots. This is the one thing that pisses me off the most about Windows - the constant, senseless rebooting.

Note If you're wondering what's on the screen, it's a tiled background image that I scanned from a small packet of Lezzo brand apple tea that we bought in Turkey. I was so impressed by the colours and the name that I scanned it and have used it as my Windows background for several years. Click here for a description of the discovery.

[Windows boots]

Time to install the games. Oh my god. A reboot after almost every game installation. What the hell do they do this shit for? Why can't they load bloody drivers on the fly? What a pathetic design. Another 10 or 12 bloody reboots. The constant rebooting was driving me up the wall. Halfway through, Anne came in and asked why I was swearing so much and I said something foul about Windows and she went away quickly and turned the TV up.

After Win98 was running, I booted from the Linux floppy disk and reloaded lilo. Dual boot was on again.

The end result is great. Games play nice and quickly and I've got all my stuff back and installed and dual boot works fine again. Only one problem - I stupidly lost all my saved games. I thought I backed them up, but mustn't have. Oh dear. I'll just have to start again and work my way through Caesar III, and Pharaoh, and Zeus, and Warcraft. Such a shame.

Several weeks later, it's all still running fine. I have no hardware problems. I have no software problems. It all works well. It was well worth the effort. Doing it myself gives me a feeling of accomplishment. Also, I know what's in my machine and if anything did go wrong, I have a very good idea of where to look and what to look for.

[Linux]