Sunday, January 14, 2007

Building your own PC?

In the last 18 years, I have owned numerous computers and interestingly, of all the machines I have used, only one is factory built (the first PC I own). I still remember the excitement I had the first time I got a PC – that was a IBM-compatible XT (running the Intel 8088 chip), 640KB of memory with two disk drives – one 5.25” and the other 3.5”. Hard disk at that time was a luxury and I just could not afford one. And so I happily programmed on it and even partitioned part of the 640KB as a virtual drive to speed up the performance of the PC. After saving enough money two years later, I finally upgraded the PC to an AT (Advanced Technology) running the Intel 80286 chip. I brought the PC to an upgrade shop and changed the motherboard to an 80286 and added a 40MB (yes, you read it right!) Western Digital hard disk.

At that time, you can “low-level” format, as well as “high-level” format a hard disk. I am not sure what happened then, but after formatting the hard disk, it started making funny noises and stopped working. And so I had to lug the PC down to the repair shop again to change a new one. Fortunately, I managed to change a new one or else I had to folk out another USD$300 for a new hard disk. But that incident made me determined to learn more about the inner workings of my PC and I started to read more about the parts that goes into a PC. Along the way, I bought second-hand parts like casings, hard disks and motherboards and try to assemble them together. I learnt things the hard way – sometimes the parts don’t work together, or are of the wrong dimensions to fit into my casing. But learning through mistakes is the best way to learn. And eventually I was good enough to assemble PCs for friends and made some money to buy more computer books ;-)

Recalling my past experiences, if you want to learn more about the PC hardware you are using, I have the following suggestions:

* Pop into a local hardware shop and immerse in the tech-talk. Get yourself acquainted with the different jargons – ATX, S-ATA, Core 2 Duo, RAID, DDR2, ECC, etc. You may not understand everything the first time you encounter these terms, but trust me – after walking a few more shops you will have a good idea of what each term means.

* When in doubt, ask. Always ask the difference between variations of a product. For example, you can always ask the difference between a P-ATA and an S-ATA hard disk. The shop who is willing to do business with you will be delighted to share more information with you.

* Get a good book. After seeing and touching the hardware, it is always good to find a moment to recap what you have learnt and understand the theory behind it. In the early days, I was always very fascinated with hard disks and I thoroughly enjoyed the “The Hard Disk Survival Guide” by Mark Minasi. Today, I keep the “Building the Perfect PC” (1st and 2nd editions; written by Robert Thompson, Barbara Fritchman Thompson) by my side so that I can always refer to it whenever I need to. Robert and Barbara have done a good job sharing with you their experiences in building the perfect PC for different kinds of tasks. I highly recommend this book as it gives you various advices in choosing the best part for your PC so that you can avoid making the costly mistake yourself. I just wished the book was around when I first started computing.

And the final suggestion is, of course, get your hands dirty!

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