tooling around: the what and where of computers

When we last reached into the Never a Plain Jane Designs toolbox we pulled out a tiny, shiny, brand new computer.  One we (read: my husband) built ourselves.  I told you how we went about getting my pretty new tool, but left you hanging regarding a lot of the nitty gritty. Fear not!  I have more to share.

Where to get info

Remember how I mentioned my complete ignorance regarding all things tech? Well, in contrast, there is a world of people who know everything about computers. Following are a few website categories that allow you to dip into their bottomless well of expertise.

Online “how-to” guide: Make sure you understand the basics. A Google search for “how to build a computer” will turn up several. Most any one will do, but try to make sure it’s fairly current.

Professional computer reviewers: To generate hype about their newest product, manufacturers send samples to reputable reviewers for testing and evaluation.  The gurus evaluate the samples, comparing them to similar products from other manufacturers, and report the results.  Does this chip work with this brand of processor? Is it compatible with that motherboard?  If I push these eight keys at the same time will this keyboard catch on fire? These experts make their money off the ads on their respective websites and from the publications that run their articles, not from the companies that make the products. As disinterested parties, their opinions are supposed to be objective. Among others, you can find professional reviews at  Johnnyguru, Anandtech, and Tom’s Hardware.

Websites that sell computer components: Examples include NewEgg, TigerDirect, and Amazon. When people buy a product from these websites they are encouraged to rate and review their purchase.  Generally shoppers have no commercial stake in the products, so you (usually) get impartial reviews. Of course, brand loyalty, bad experiences with certain products, and plain consumer ignorance sometimes color their opinions.  My advice is to read more than three reviews on each product in which you are interested.

Forums: Enthusiast websites, including the professional review sites mentioned above, often host forums where users congregate (virtually) to compare notes, ask questions, and discuss their experiences with individual parts, accessories, and combinations thereof. These people enjoy talking about computers and if you ask for help, they are very likely to help you. But there are a few things you need to know:

  • A forum is a social situation and there are social protocols to be observed. You need to be respectful – no name calling, no bashing – and review the rules of that forum before you post.
  • If you’ve got a question, search the forum first – it’s likely someone else has had the same issue and a previous post will answer your question.
  • Know what you want your computer to do.  No matter how much someone wants to help you, she will be seriously hindered if you can’t give her a jumping off point. You can start with something as basic as, “I need a computer that will let me make a slide show of my parents’ anniversary.” Or you can have a little more detail. Remember my list from last month?
  • Most forums allow anyone to search and read previous posts, but you may have to register if you want to join the discussion.  Anybody can register and post. Anybody. That means any advice you get may not be impartial because the knowledgeable, the ignorant, product developers, and product sellers may all be contributing. Take any advice you get and weigh it against professional reviews and product ratings as mentioned above.
  • Some people are poop heads. We all know this.  There is that girl at the organic farmer’s market who thinks you are silly for not knowing what is in commercial fertilizer and there is that guy on the computer forum who thinks you are dumb because you cannot tell a motherboard from a memory chip.  As long as you remain respectful (see point a.) there will be plenty of people who will respond in a respectful and helpful fashion.

Some things I now know that I did not know before

QVL or Qualified Vendor List:  When a component manufacturer puts a product on the market they will also publish a list of other parts that have been certified for compatibility with a given product. For example, when a brand releases a new motherboard (MB) it will note that it has confirmed its product’s compatibility with certain memory (RAM) made by other companies.  This doesn’t mean the MB won’t work with others, but if you want some level of guarantee, stick with what’s on the QVL.

Most computers have a life expectancy of three to five years. After roughly three to five years your computer will still work, it just might have to work harder to do the same stuff it has always done. As a result it might put off more heat, run more slowly, and/or make more noise.

The CPU, Central Processing Unit, or Processor is not the black box with all the “stuff” inside (otherwise known as the tower). It is a 1.5-inch square that is typically shiny and smooth on one side, and covered in rows of little gold dots (circuit connectors) on the opposite side.  It goes inside the computer case (black box) and hooks up to a whole mess of other stuff.

Computers do not know how to “run.” Certain basic operations are programmed into the hardware, letting it work together, but you also need operating system (OS) software to run all your other parts and programs. Think of the OS as the whip-cracking boss that coordinates the actions of all other personnel. Everyone is trained to do their job, but without some direction, they may not exactly work well together.  Pre-made systems come with the OS already loaded (see my reference to “stuff” last month). Microsoft makes Windows, which most of us are familiar with. Alternates include Desktop Linux and Ubuntu, which are less user-friendly.

My computer

We purchased the following from NewEgg, but, as mentioned above, TigerDirect and Amazon are other good options.  I’d shy away from E-bay and Craigslist if you are a first-time buyer/builder.

  1. Power supply (Diablotek 380 Watt Micro-ATX)
  2. Motherboard with integrated graphics (ASUS P8H61-M/LE)
  3. RAM (2x 2GB Crucial?)
  4. Case (Sentey Slim 2420)
  5. CPU (Intel Core i3-2100)
  6. External hard drive (Western Digital Passport 500GB)
  7. Windows 7 Home Premium (OEM version)

Grand total: $416.00

We had a few other important parts leftover from previous computer systems, but you might find you also need to purchase:

  1. Keyboard
  2. Mouse
  3. Monitor
  4. Internal hard drive
  5. Optical (CD/DVD) Drive
  6. Multi-media card reader
  7. Speakers
  8. Graphics card (if your MB/CPU do not support onboard graphics)
  9. Other software – including word processor, office applications, etc.

Those additional items will, obviously, increase your total.

My experience:

Oh the quiet! Oh the smallness! Did I mention that my computer is new? As in, not 10 years old. Overall, my computing life is good!

But, on the flip side:

We struggled with the power supply. The case we purchased came with a power supply, which, unfortunately, burnt up after about a day, and had to be returned to the manufacturer (not NewEgg!) for replacement. The replacement failed as well. Burnt power supply smells about as good as it sounds, just in case you were wondering. The third time around (always the charm), we decided to buy from another manufacturer, although we were able to keep the original case.

My case is small so it can only hold so much “stuff.”  It works fine for me, but be sure you do not trade functionality for size (or “cuteness”).

I have a stainless steel desk which, apparently, causes interference with my wireless mouse. It was easy peasy for me to switch to a corded mouse, but you may find yourself with a tougher situation.  When you pick out your computer parts be sure to ask if there are any known issues with other items in your office such as metal desks, electronic equipment, antennas, etc. This probably goes without saying, but if you have a medical condition that requires a pacemaker or the like it would be a good idea to check up on that relationship as well.

Did I miss anything?  What, where, and how do you compute?

3 thoughts on “tooling around: the what and where of computers

    1. Thanks, Gwyn! I can’t speak for my husband, but I definitely think it is awesome that we found a way to give cold, hard electronics a human aspect. I’m not sure people think of technology as something that can be handmade. And yet, here we are!
      Computers are totally foreign to me but knowing someone spent the time making something just for me makes me feel like my computer belongs in my soft, fabric and stitches world. Ya know?

  1. Kinda makes me want to build my own computer. I actually don’t even have a desktop computer (just a laptop) but this post has me thinking it might be fun to build one. Thanks!

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