Saturday, May 29, 2004

My new computer

Over the last six months, I have on two occasions hit problems due to the fact that my laptop computer has died. The first time the machine was a complete writeoff, and I had to simply buy a new one. The second time my new laptop had problems with its screen, and I was without it for several weeks while it was being repaired by Dell. For me, being without a computer is disastrous, as most of the things I do in my life require one to really function. I decided I needed a second computer to act as a backup in such situations. I had never built a computer out of a motherboard and other parts before, and I decided that it would be fun to try. And as it happens, a great many computer people have old computer parts lying around, and by asking nicely you can get most of the parts for a new computer for free.

In particular, I discovered that the best kinds of friends to have are hard core gamers - people who must have the latest and greatest computer at all times, and who are likely to throw out or give away computer hardware that seems perfectly good and reasonably up to date to the rest of us.

In the end, I managed to get people to give me almost an entire computer. As far as hardware is concerned, I only ended up paying for a new toolkit (which doesn't really count and which I needed anyway and which in any event only cost me £7.49), a set of screws, a new keyboard, and a new hard drive. (My mother gave me a keyboard when I was in Australia, but I left it out as I was carrying a bit too much luggage. I could undoubtedly have scrounged one off someone else, but when I saw that Maplin Electonics were selling brand new keyboards for £4.68, it simply didn't seem worth bothering). As far as hard drives are concerned, I discovered that second hand ones are harder to come by than most other components (as hard drives fail more often than virtually any other component, and there is thus more demand for them than for anything else) and also because hard drives are the part of the computer that is more subject to Moore's law than any other. Three or four year old hard drives only tend to be 5-10 gigabytes, and this isn't really enough for people with large music collections. (Mine is presently 14GB, which is medium sized but too much for a 10GB hard drive). On top of that, I might well do something like install a TV card and turn this computer into a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) at some point, in which case lots of hard drive space will be useful.

So although it might have been possible to scrounge a small second hand hard drive from someone (or I could have got an adaptor and used the 5Gb hard drive from my old laptop) I didn't think it was worth it. And once you have made the decision to buy a new hard drive, it turns out that 160GB costs less than double the cost of 40GB. So, the new computer has a 160GB hard drive. (I am told that the drive has a capacity of 164,686,520,320 bytes out of which I am presently using 3,781,287,936, so I have mere 160,905,232,384 bytes of space remaining).

Everything else was given to me by people who weren't using it. And I have been able to convert this

into this


In any event I now have a computer with an AMD Athlon 1GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM, a 160GB 7200rpm hard drive, a 128Mb NVIDIA GeoForce4 Ti 4200 Graphics card (although this is being slowed down a little by the fact that the motherboard only has a 4X AGP slot, and the graphics card supports 8X), 10/100 Ethernet, on board sound, and a CD-ROM drive. There's no modem and no floppy, not because I would have had any trouble getting them but because I don't need them right now. (On the other hand if someone wants to give me a modem for free, I might take it, because it is useful to have one on board in case the DSL fails. That said, I do have one in the laptop, so to be in a bad way I would have to lose both the DSL and the laptop would have to have a separate problem, which isn't that likely).

And the computer is in an enormous case. Gamers like those I believe. I might install some front USB ports in one of the bays at some point, and an internal card reader might be nice, too.

Just using it now, to me the new box feels like a nice computer. The least state of the art thing about it is probably the CPU. I think the 1.0GHz Athlon precedes AMD's use of the "Athlon 1700+" notation, but I according to benchmarks a 1.0GHz Athlon is likely to run at about 2/3 of the speed of the 1.4GHz Pentium M in my laptop, and about 10% slower than a 1.3GHz Pentium 4. So the CPU is not state of the art, but is more than acceptable for most uses. And with 512MB of RAM, it isn't going to have to do much swapping. The one thing that is lacking is a DVD drive of any kind or a CD writer. I don't expect I am going to want to watch DVDs on this computer anyway (I have a standalone DVD player on the other side of the room) whereas a DVD player on a laptop is really useful for watching DVDs in places where one doesn't otherwise have a player) but it somehow feels incomplete. Perhaps I should have bought another of those $A25 DVD-ROM drives in Australia when I had the chance.

In actual fact I will add a DVD+/-RW drive when I have a little more money. At that point I will have a really nice computer, I think, and it really has cost not much at all.

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