Friday, December 16, 2011

Diary of a first time PC System Builder: #1 Ghosts of PCs Past

Regular readers of this site will know that I am a pretty big Star Wars geek.  But I am also a long time computer enthusiast.  I hardly would consider myself an expert in computer hardware and certainly not in computer programming, but I am a very experienced novice user. 

A bit of history.  I am a child of the 1980’s.  My family owned their own pharmacy, I still remember when my Mom brought home an old used PC from the business that became the first computer in our house.  It rocked the old 5.25” floppy disks and I played the heck out of that thing.  “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” and “Math Blaster” where on heavy rotation in that thing.  Of course I also remember using a program at the pharmacy to print out information for a 1st grade report. 

I also remember being at a friend’s house the first time I really saw the Internet in operation, they had Prodigy and it was stunning to see live  updates from the Olympics appear on their computer.  The younger generation has no idea what it was like connecting to the Internet back in the day.  It is stunning to see how far the technology has come just in my life time. 

Of course we also were rocking the Apple IIE, as early as 6th grade I remember having a computer lab class. Let’s be frank, we were still rocking the Apple IIEs among other obsolete PCs at my High School, so when we got a new PC at home it was pretty exciting. 

Mom brought home a new Gateway 2000.  That bad boy clocked in at a stunning Pentium powered 100 MHZ.   I lugged that Gateway off to college, where I met the dreaded blue screen of death for the first time.  After a fitting period of mourning, the decision was made to purchase a new computer.  I was at college so you can understand the direction I went with my next PC.  Or should I say, not a PC at all.  I bought into the idea of the more stable, less vulnerable to virus and hipper computer, I went with an Apple.  We get the first model iBook G3 after they switched from the Clamshell to the more traditional laptop design. 
The iBook served me pretty well in college, aside for some document format issues different professors using different programs and the PC/Apple compatibility issues that I ran into as a new Apple user.  This little computer began what later began a pattern of love and hate that I have with laptops.  You see I am not the most gentle or careful person when it comes to my laptops. 

Shoved in my back pack with lots of big books, dropped from my bed during late night last minute paper typing sessions, and typing about as gently as a inebriated gorilla resulted in some heavy wear and tear on the iBook.  The first thing to go were some of the keys.  Ultimately after about 3 years and countless drops, the power socket and power cord got bent.  One fateful day there were some sparks.  Lets just say things didn’t end well for my poor Apple. 

 After the iBook was interred, I made the decision to be boring and rejoin the hordes of PC owners.  My next computer was an HP laptop.  You will forgive my lack of memory as to the  model, but to make a long story short.  Too much typing on the couch and dropping of the computer led to another power port issue and eventually the computer would no longer get power when plugged in.  That is two laptops down due to my clumsiness so far. 

That brings us just about to now.  Currently we have two PCs in the house.  The one I acquired first was my HP Pavillion dv6000 with its AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-58 (Tyler processor) and its NVIDA GeForce 7150M/nForce630 graffics card.  I upgraded the RAM from the factory 2 x 1GB DDR2 to 2 x 2GB  DDR2 Patriot Memory.  The dv6000 is running Windows Vista, which I don’t really like. Without turning all the fancy Vista graphics off, the PC runs like a snail.   I may be a slow learner but I did learn from my previous laptop issues and was much more careful with my care for the HP.  But sure enough once I was out of the warranty period things started to go wrong.  The first thing to go was the DVD-RW drive.  After that it was the sound card that went.  On top of that I had to send the battery back to HP as part of their battery recall.  So armed with a headset with built in sound card and an exterior optical drive I have a serviceable but aging laptop that has some performance issues.  It tends to freeze up when I have too much going on and gives off an extreme amount of heat even with a laptop cooler fan underneath it. 

The second PC that we own was part of the dowry that my darling wife brought into our marital home.  To make a long story short, there were these two shall we say different characters that worked with my wife.  These two guys were roommates and they both built their own PC’s.  Well these guys decided to move from San Diego and they needed some traveling cash so they sold their PCs to my wife an another co-worker.  The PC my wife’s co-worker purchased died not long after it was purchased.  On my wife’s computer the power supply blew up and lots of lovely smoke billowed out of the computer.  Before we were married my wife dealt with this PC herself and took it to Fry’s (an electronics retailer and repair store) to look at it, assess and effect repairs.  Well the Fry’s guy sold her a new power supply for it, got it running, but the thing still didn’t work right. 

This is when I step in with my limited computer hardware experience.  I tear into this thing.  The some of cable from the motherboard to the front of the case are fried and basically reduced to ash.  The on board sound is gone.  I clean out the burned wires, got it up and running with a new sound card and for about a year the PC was working pretty good.  Then it starts crashing.  Now I have seen the blue screen of death, but an entirely different blue screen started appearing and the PC began getting stuck in a boot cycle where windows wouldn’t load.  Multiple BIOS updates and re-installations of Windows later, we have a fairly stable computer that I don’t trust to last too much longer. 

This is where my love of gadgets and technology starts to give me the itch to get a new computer.  It wasn’t until I started doing my comparison shopping that the idea of building a PC started to interest me.  I originally was looking at laptops.  I am not a heavy PC gamer, so my desires  in looking for a laptop where pretty simple. Fast processor, lots of memory, a Blu-ray drive, HDMI output, high definition screen resolution, and preferably USB 3.0.  I wanted a laptop that I wouldn’t have to think about wanting to upgrade for a few years.  The desire for the Blu-ray drive limited my options.  I wanted to have a PC where I could watch movies on if I was traveling and as a back-up in case or Blu-ray player stopped working or if we were visiting someone without a Blu-ray player we could play our movies on their TVs. 

I wasn’t too impressed with the cost of models/configurations that had the features that I was looking for.  Then the more I thought about it the more I began to think about how rough I was with my laptops and how it may be better for me to go with a desktop.  I do most of my website work and typing at the desktop now, and my old laptop is serviceable enough in a pinch that I really warmed up to the idea of a desktop. To me the advantage of of desktop over a laptop is the ability to get higher performance for comparable price and the ability to modify and upgrade the desktop more easily.  So the more I thought about it, the more the idea of a desktop held some real appeal. 

Now I am a person of varied interest, believe it or not Star Wars isn’t my only interest and Star Wars fandom isn’t my only hobby.  As long as I can remember I was fascinated by technology.  I don’t think my Mom has yet forgiven me for the time I took apart my Casio keyboard because I wanted to see how it worked on the inside.  Let’s just say that the keyboard didn’t go back together very well and it never played music again.  But even though I was fascinated by technology, I never really got into studying it, or focused on engineering like some of my friends.  Even though I never got too deep into the nuts and bolts of technology, the idea of building a computer was something that I remember thinking about way back in High School, but not something that I considered because I thought it was well beyond my knowledge and abilities at the time.  I read some PC magazines and went through a phase were I was watching lots of Tech TV, I have always loved tech but usually more on the consumer level then on the more nuts and bolts level. 

Fast forward to present day and I find myself wanting a fun project and a new computer and this convergence results in my desire for the first time in my life to wade from the kiddy side of the geek pool into slightly deeper water.  Check back soon for the next installment where I describe what kind of PC I want to build and how I went about initial component selection.

1 comment:

  1. One tip for building a machine, and this is one I've learned the hard way, don't go cheap on the power supply. A cheap, poorly constructed power supply is liable to fry every component in your machine.