net.wars: Home improvement

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 18 May 2007

I built a PC this week.

Wendy M Grossman

Or, more correctly, I assembled a PC. These days, unless you're someone labouring in the bowels of a hardware manufacturer's research department somewhere – say, IBM, or HP – what people mean when they say they've built a computer requires about as much creative intelligence as a script kiddie needs to colour-by-numbers a velvet painting.

About the only degree of difficulty is in the fact that it doesn't come with a full set of instructions.

That being the case, you really have to wonder why Ikea hasn't started selling flat-packed computer kits; those graphical instruction sheets they do for furniture would be perfect for this. (You do get a manual with the motherboard at least, and there are plenty of sets of instructions around the Web; plus you can successfully search for answers to almost any problem you might encounter for specific components.)

You would think that because PCs are now such commodity items no one could possibly need to build one; it must be one of those middle-aged crises that comes upon people, like turning 50 and trying to pretend they're 22 again, or suddenly desperately wanting to be a grandparent. In fact, the reason to build one is precisely that PCs have become commodity items. They're so standardized that it's almost impossible to find one that you actually want.

Five years ago, when I bought my last main desktop machine (a Celeron 1.7GHz, 1Gb of RAM, 60Gb of hard drive space, a DVD-ROM drive, and a dual-head graphics card that came in at about £700, if I remember correctly) I bought from a small supplier who built the machine to order.

The dual-head graphics card was the one rather weird feature; standard now, it was a bit exotic then. I didn't actually get the second monitor right away, but I knew I wanted the capacity and planned accordingly. For the time, the processor was some steps back from the leading edge. That was deliberate: extra memory and hard drive space are worth much more to me.

Three years ago, that supplier, like many others, concluded that the margins in selling computers were now so thin you just couldn't make a living trying to compete with Dell. So they quit. You still can, if you try hard or frequent the right electronic conference systems, find people who will build computers to order. Typically, though, they seem to do it as one of a range of add-ons (such as supplying ADSL) that they offer because their consultancy clients. They tend not to show up in Web searches.

What do show up are custom PC builders for the one class of people who are generally willing to spend real money on their computers and care about every detail of how they are constructed: hard-core gamers. Logical. But these machines emphasize the wrong attributes. I don't need to wring every last bit of speed, graphic ability, and high-end bravura out of my machines. I do want my main desktop (eventually) to drive two 24inch widescreens, not keep me waiting when I have 95 Firefox windows open, and write a DVD without tying up the whole machine for an hour.

I had been thinking it was time for a new machine anyway – five years! The old machine was certainly fast enough to type on, and although it balked a bit it didn't really mind having 95 Firefox windows and one of those peer-to-peer Chinese TV players open (along with 16 other things).

It was my brief assignment in Second Life that really killed it. I couldn't understand how so many people could enjoy hanging around in a world so badly designed that when you pressed on a cursor key your point of view barely moved. It seemed to take forever to turn around. Then I tried it on my Core 2 Duo laptop…


So the new machine is a Core 2 Duo, 2Gb of RAM, 500 Gb of hard drive space, a dual-layer DVD writer, and a much better dual-head graphics card. "Why couldn't you just get a new graphics card?" someone asked me, apparently suspecting that I was Just Making Excuses.

Well, because in five years a whole lot of things have changed, and one of them is the way graphics cards plug into motherboards. So I'd need a new motherboard. And because all those faster processors need better cooling than older cases were designed for, I'd need a new case. And anyway, as my friends tell me, a lot of the improvements in speed in recent years haven't really just been processors or faster memory but all kinds of tweaks that individually aren't much but together add up to a whole lot.

In the end, I bought most of the components I wanted from a single small supplier from CIX (of course), who was happy to help with support and advice. It was, in fact, really only one self-assembly step removed from the small supplier of five years ago.

Several people told me that they found having built their own machines a source of great satisfaction. I can't say that (though it is nice, and fast, and, especially, quiet).

But it's a great source of new worries. Is 60 degrees C too hot for a CPU?

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).