Building Your Own (Or How Not to Do It)

By Liz Green

After using an Amiga 1200 for a few years, upgrading to a PC was a bewildering and confusing exercise. There are so many permutations available, and what goes with what can be confusing and expensive!

I was lucky to find someone trying to find new homes for his old PCs. He had two to dispose of - both Dell compacts, complete with monitors, keyboards and mice. I had a quick play on both and decided that the price was really right on one, while the other was a little more expensive, but either would be suitable for what I required. In the end, I bought both. We settled on a deal for the pair, which ended up very close to the asking price for the dearest one, which was fine by me, and they were duly set up around the house. Dell found residence on the kitchen table, and the other (named Nellie) occupied the living room floor until a suitable desk could be sourced.

Over the next few months, Crypt articles were done on one or the other, and Nellie held games, etc. These Dells were fine, each suiting their purpose well. Nellie was also becoming my machine of choice, sporting a DVD drive, thus allowing viewing of films, etc, as well as being able to read DVD software, the only one in the household to do so.

As we were growing in our use of PCs, we demanded a higher specification than we had. It was really beginning to show, and we decided an upgrade all round would be nice. Baz got his first – a nice Fujitsu of which you have heard before. David received his eldest brother’s components when he upgraded, and I, in turn, would be having his components. All I needed was a case to put them in.

With the Dells being compacts, and also being either fully or nearly fully upgraded as far as they would go, I started looking around for a nice case. The only preference I had was that it would be further upgradeable in the future, and look nice, be large enough for several drives and with sufficient cooling space if I decided to use components which ran hot. I found a nice case on eBay fitting the theme of the room it would be set up in. The main room is blue, Baz’s machine has blue lights, and so I decided on a blue and black case. I won it, sent the cash and waited.

I thought long and hard about what I wanted it to do, and then on the components I would need to allow it to do so. A PC can be as simple or as complicated as you require. At minimum you will need a case, a PSU, motherboard, CPU, heat sink/fan, LAN card and/or modem, CD/DVD drive, hard drive and memory. A floppy drive is not really a necessity these days, neither are graphics/sound cards as these can be on board (integrated in the motherboard). Case fans may not be a necessity in the beginning, but may be depending on the hardware you install. Get the case as large as you think you might need in the future, even if it looks a little big to begin with.

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While I waited for the case to arrive, I ventured out and bought a large hard drive – a 120G Seagate and a DVD-RW. I already had a small (6.4G) drive which had come from David’s which would be fine for Windows system files, which is all he had ever used it for. I was using his old boards, LAN card and CPU anyway and all the drivers were on it. The DVD-RW was my main wish. Although Nellie had a DVD rom, it could only read disks and I wanted to be able to write to disks too. As Nellie was a Pentium II, that could not support a DVD-RW. David’s old components were Pentium III, and were a working system looking for a home. Certainly an upgrade to Nellie, with the other hardware, I would be happy for sometime.

Once David saw my DVD-RW, however, he wanted one. As it was cheap, I donated it to his system, and bought myself another. Easy to install, and use, he could now clear some room from his hard drive by storing files on disks too. He also spotted a case on eBay and pestered me to buy it. As his birthday was due, I made a bid, and won it. We picked it up as it was local, and I spent an afternoon transferring all his components over to the new case. It worked first time, and boosted my confidence levels.

Eventually, my case arrived. I arrived home from work one evening and it awaited me. I opened the box to discover……………….. wrong case! The seller had three different cases and had sent me the wrong one. After hurriedly contacting him, it transpired he ordered these cases from someone else and sold them on. The supplier had read the order wrong and I ended up with the silver case instead. I decided that it was much less hassle to just keep it, although I was somewhat disappointed. I had waited over two weeks for it, and sending it back and waiting again would just push back my upgrade further. Although I was in no great hurry, the components sat open to dust, and the possibility of damage, as they were unprotected in an open box. It was bright and shiny, with lots of chrome and blue and red LEDs, so I christened it Excalibur. (It also has another name, given by my eldest lad. He decided it was too flashy and ugly for his taste and so has called it Munter. For those who don’t know, a munter means ugly or useless, usually females who wear too much make-up or try to dress too young.)

Baz installed the motherboard and PSU while I returned to work to solve a problem there. After a team effort, we installed the rest of the hardware and switched on. Everything illuminated (there were a lot of blue lights!) and then ……….a loud pop.
We checked the fuse, and switched it back on…………nothing.

We swapped the PSU and nothing. We took out the board and re-installed piece by piece. Eventually it worked, but reported there was no hard-drives attached, and no operating system. It found the DVD-RW, and the floppy drive, so we called the shop where we got the large drive. They checked it out and it was fine. They suggested that maybe the IDE cables were an incorrect type for the board, so I bought a different type.

We took stock………..we had lost the new PSU, most of the blue LEDs and the small hard-drive. We unplugged the small drive and the lights, installed the new cables and large drive. No joy. On consultation, it was decided that somehow the board had shorted out somewhere and the part of the board that controlled hard drives was dead.

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A new board looked certain. David’s machine was working fine, and it had an AMD Athlon CPU. I fancied one of these, and we looked around for a board and CPU. The eldest lad found a suitable board with onboard graphics, LAN and sound and a second hand AMD Athlon 1600. Again we wait. The board arrived before the CPU but as the CPU will be delivered to the same address, it made sense to wait until both arrived to pick them up together.

Three weeks later, both have arrived and a heatsink and fan is donated to go with them. This heatsink and fan have come from another upgrade and we were warned it was loud. On the other hand it’s free. Especially as I’d have to buy new memory sticks. This board required DDR ram. I chose some slightly more expensive matched pair sticks totalling 512M in all.

The new machine will now have these components:-
Gaming case of unknown make – its attractive and large enough for most things
ASUS A7N8X-VW/400 with onboard graphics/sound and LAN
AMD Athlon XP 1600 with ThermalTake heatsink and fan
512M A-Data matched pair memory
120G Seagate hard drive – thoroughly recommend Seagate drives
Writemaster DVD-RW 52x40x4
120cm intake Akasa Ultra fan
80cm Akasa exhaust fan
80cm side case fan with blue LEDs
Floppy drive

Again we installed everything into the case, but this time it all worked fine. Huge sighs of relief were heard everywhere in our neighbourhood, but not for long.

Windows 2000 was installed on the large drive and the desktop customised to my taste. Files needed from Nellie were transferred over our LAN and software installed. All settings, etc. were either entered by hand or transferred where possible and things were looking good, until I tried playing my collection of photos and videos from my camera. Photos looked good, but no videos would play. I would get 23 seconds worth of them, and they would cause the computer to reset. I figured out how to set the computer to show why it had stopped and give an error code. Using Google, I could find out what each error code meant to try to trace the problem.

They would show on the other machines, including Nellie, which was disheartening. After all, this new machine would be replacing Nellie, but it didn’t seem as capable. During free time at our work’s conference, I approached the IT team and asked their opinion. Apart from the obvious – “You built it? There’s the problem!” and “You should be using XP, it’s far better”, they were no use.

I threw some questions at the eldest lad – who assured me everything should work, and he was puzzled. He thought it may be software related, and we tried other viewers, which made no difference. It was always the same, and I got fed up with Blue Screens of Death (BSOD). I asked on the forums from where the board was purchased. No joy there either. I did try installing XP …… that only made things worse!!!! It’s not easy to remove either, but we finally managed to persuade it to go.
Re-install Windows 2000, again.

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I tried swapping David’s ram with mine, which were the same type and make. No joy, but his was working fine and was evidently more capable than mine. Boohoo!

I telephoned the place where we had purchased the rest of the hardware and spoke to the engineer again. He had already tested the hard drive so that was eliminated. I asked about the memory, and told it was fine too. I checked that the CPU was compatible – yep. We’re drawing blanks here and it’s driving me crazy.

With one dead hard drive and dead LEDs on a new (wrong) case, the new computer was not looking such a good idea – more of a disaster area. Hair is getting thin for the pair of us, which is not good. Considering our age, nature’s doing an effective job, without a PC helping it out.

Baz felt sorry for me, struggling along with this “less than perfect” machine, and surprised me by buying another board – the same make and type, but this we were sure would cure the problem. The other must have been a faulty board.

Installed and switch on. Try a video. Nope – nothing new here. Same old BSOD. Same old problem. Now we know it’s not the board. Expensive way to find out, but……………. So now we have another upgrade to do.

Finally, we have had enough. To protect what’s left of our sanity and hair, we approach the dealer who has supplied our hardware. They have now supplied more than 80 percent of it, and it’s their turn to try to sort it out. They were delighted to try. I could see what they were thinking – “No problem. They’ve just assembled it wrongly. Should be an easy fix.” Promised to charge only an hours labour at £30 + VAT and we could pick it up in four hours.

Game on, gentlemen. We returned in four hours, only to find that they had still got it on test. They would leave it over night on test and call us in the morning to advise when we could pick it up. They didn’t call. This bothered me a little, as I have a password on my drive, and they didn’t know it. I forgot to tell them before I left, but I knew they would have to call when they got around to test the videos. Finally, we phoned them, to be told that the engineer hadn’t turned up for work that day. I completely forgot about the password again. The same tale the following day too.

Resigned, I read books, watched DVDs, in fact did everything I could to occupy my time without the computer. After a week, I re-instated Nellie on my desk, and used that instead. They finally phoned 8 days later for the password. They had established there was no hardware fault, and that the problem lay elsewhere. I told them the password and where to find the offending videos. “Which ones?” they asked. “Any of them, “ I answered, “Nothing works in that folder.”

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They rang again the following evening. They had it in bits, testing each individual part thoroughly. It had them stumped. We left them to it – it had us stumped too. Lots of people had offered ideas, from the simple to the weird through to the expensive. Simple and weird we tried, the expensive was no longer an option. We had spent enough on it, and we still had a bill coming in.

Finally, we paid them a visit. They had had it for nearly two weeks and we wanted answers. Although it was still in bits, and on test, they had solved the problem – incompatible memory (please see footnote -*). They had had to ask the board manufacturer for the solution in the end, and wait for their reply. Not easy when one party speak only English and the other speak only Taiwanese. The memory was replaced free of charge, albeit a slightly less expensive make. A different IDE cable is evident too. I haven’t asked whether they lost the initial one or if exchanging it made any difference.

I came home from work several nights later, and went through the usual routine – coat off, shoes off, into kitchen to switch on kettle for coffee, take David his magazine in his bedroom, downstairs to make coffee, switching on Nellie as I go, bring coffee into room, place on desk, enter password……………………..Oh! I stopped. There on the floor was Excalibur, back from surgery. Nellie, I don’t need you now, switch off. Remove cables from Nellie, place in Excalibur and off we go. First stop videos. They WORK! So does everything else. WOW!

They only charged one hours labour as they stated, but they also learned lots. Primarily, don’t assume the customer has assembled it wrongly. Also that memory can be incompatible and that more expensive may not be the best. I also understand that during the time spent on Excalibur, they learned a great deal of sign language, due to having to compete with the sound of the fan! All entering the service bay knew when mine was on without being told. This explains the private joke in the editorial.

May I take this opportunity to thank them for all their work and time spent on this machine. I am truly grateful as I was at my wits end. I know they will read this at some time, as they know we work on the Crypt and because of that, they gave Excalibur priority. Who are they? Stak Trading.

I recommend their service and products, as I have been buying products from them for some years, from Amiga upwards. Only, don’t ask them to fix an Amiga. I don’t think they remember how.

(*) It might be useful to note that some Asus motherboards have this issue with memory sticks under 1 Gig in capacity. If you are unsure, ask your supplier to check before buying!



© RIYAN Productions