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Building Your Own Computer: Adventures of a First Time Computer Builder

Building your own computer can be an exciting and scary process. After all, you are investing a lot of money in parts that you could easily ruin. So, it isn't a process to be taken lightly if you are inexperienced. For me, it was an adventure because I could ill afford to make a costly mistake. On the other hand, I was fortunate that I had a good computer that was running and kept me in touch and doing my work while I took my time with my new computer.

My path to computer building was painful. I had been using computers for only about five years starting with a 386 SX with DOS, then a 486 SX with Windows 3.11, a Pentium 75 MHz also with Windows 3.11 and the last one before building this one, a locally upgraded 166 AMD K5. Considering the 2 and 3 plus GHz computers that are being sold today, these old units were really slow. Any computer you build now will be infinitely faster than these old units.

My learning started when my 486 began to act up. I called one of those mobile companies to correct my problem. After two hours, at $79 an hour, he was nowhere and I was out $158 plus tax. After he left I spent several hours reading the Windows 3.11 handbook and concluded that the problem was that the registration database was corrupted. I followed the instructions and corrected the problem in a few minutes. I was furious and called the company to complain. After a lengthy discussion, the owner agreed to give me a credit for one hour of on site support. I was excited with that, I really needed an hour of time from an incompetent technician.

I had learned a great deal about using all kinds of software and do all my business accounting and tax returns. I also do a lot of word processing, greeting cards, stationery and the like. My knowledge was limited to software and I knew nearly nothing about operating systems and computer components.

My Pentium 75 MHz gave me a few problems and finally refused to load Windows and I couldn’t figure out what to do. I called another company this time. The technician spent an hour in my home and then took the computer for two days. When he returned my computer was functioning but every application was in one program group. My computer was a mess and it cost me $200. I called the owner to complain. He came to my home and spent a couple of hours helping me to get things straighten out.

I then decided to upgrade my computer and found a company willing to upgrade me to a 166 MHz unit for $399. Can you imagine this when you consider that a complete new computer can be purchased now for this amount.

This upgrade included a new case, motherboard, some additional memory, the CPU and a few other things. They would reuse my modem, soundcard, hard drive, floppy and CD ROM. This is when I learned about proprietary equipment. My Pentium 75 manufacturer had combined the modem and sound card and only their proprietary software would make it work. So, I had to purchase a new sound card and modem.

Since I was going that far, I decided to also purchase a larger hard drive and use my old small drive as a backup drive. The company set up my new system and had a little difficulty in transferring my files to the new drive. To avoid this problem, they set up the computer so the old, slower drive was the main drive and the new drive was the slave. This became a problem when I decided to upgrade to Windows 95 because the hard drive was too small.

I realized that I had to learn how to take care of my own computer. I began taking courses at ZD University on the Web. I took a computer troubleshooting course, a computer maintenance course and a computer building course just for openers. During these courses I compiled a great deal of information. So I took my upgraded computer apart and reassembled it with the large hard drive as the master. I added more memory and then I partitioned and formatted the hard drive, wiping out everything and starting from scratch. This computer served me well for many years.

When I decided to get a faster computer, I knew that I would have to build it myself so I would know exactly what was in it and how everything worked. My wife had been using the old 486, so I gave her my 166 and jumped into building a 333 MHz AMD K6 3D. That sounds really slow now but it was pretty fast back when I built it.

Since this was my first building experience, I decided to buy my components at a local computer store that I knew to be reputable. This turned out to be a wise decision because the motherboard I purchased was defective and would not hold the time. They replaced it for me promptly.

The most difficult part of the building job was installing the motherboard. The instructions are so inadequate that I think it would be fair to say they are almost nonexistent. The connections were explained poorly and I had to spend a lot of time determining exactly where each wire was connected. There is sufficient detail for an experienced person, but then an experienced person wouldn't need it. For the inexperienced it was a difficult job.
I managed to get everything connected correctly. One thing that is not covered at all is attaching the motherboard to the case. I got conflicting instructions from technicians. Some say that the board should not be grounded to the case so you must use plastic washers to avoid metal to metal contact. Others say that the motherboard should be grounded to the case. The instructions say nothing so you are left in a quandary. Since I had taken the computer building course and it said to avoid grounding, that is what I did and it worked, so I guess that’s OK.

After the motherboard, the rest of the assembly was pretty straightforward and the components brought sufficient instructions to help you set jumpers correctly and get all the connections properly done.

I installed an internal Zip drive in my computer because I used Zip disks for all my backups at the time and the internal models are IDE and ran faster than the old Parallel connection. I learned then that Iomega is a consumer-oriented company. Their internal Zip drive not only brings a highly comprehensive instruction manual but also an excellent video. I have never purchased a component that included better instructions. Using this information, the Zip could be installed by someone who had never seen the inside of a computer.
My computer was up and running and loaded with Windows 98 and my software. I liked the computer and valued the experience. Plus, I created a file for information on all the components and building notes so I would know what's inside and what to do when a problem arises.

The one thing I would do differently next time is to use a better case. I purchased the case that the dealer had which was quite inexpensive. A good case can make a difference and I later purchased a new case for it. Then I installed everything in the new case and saved the old case for the next computer I would build.

If you really like working with computers, I highly recommend the experience of building your own. Just don't build it with the intention of saving money.  By the time you purchase all the parts, it will cost you as much if not more than a new unit and you still need an operating system and the software.  It is a great learning experience and satisfying.

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Lottie's Adventure