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The case for building my own computer

Hard drive brackets by Matthew Rogers Creative Commons via Flickr

Men’s hobbies tend to fall into one of two broad categories. There are extroverted leisure time pursuits, often related to sports, gaming, grilling meat or drinking; and more introverted activities, often related to material things, such as woodworking, model building, photography, stereos and the like. Some men develop very detailed relationships with their things, even if their hobbyist pursuit remains relegated to a closet due to other, more important life priorities once they get beyond the ‘young man’ stage.

My dad was a lifelong pursuer of such ‘hobbies of the mind.’ He was a technically reasonably accomplished photographer, at least judging from early candid black and white family pictures, many of which exhibit an excellent understanding of composition and framing and the associated darkroom skills. He continued to own camera and darkroom equipment throughout his life, but life’s priorities and pressures meant that those things languished for long stretches of time, tucked away in his bedroom closet. His hobby would ‘flare up’ once in a while, and he would buy himself a new, state-of-the-art camera (the darkroom stuff was no longer of any interest as his photographic medium increasingly became diapositive slides of his travels with which he enthusiastically, knowledgeably and endlessly tortured entertained us at family reunions). There were other equipment-related hobbies too, usually related to some greater interest of his, such as the outdoors. He collected a significant amount of quality camping equipment in his lifetime.

Closely related to men’s intimate connections with their hobby equipment is the development of extensive knowledge about the field. While men often lament that their connections to other men aren’t as immediate or effortless as women’s appear to be (myself included), it is a great joy to meet another man who has a hobbyist interest in the same field. Connections between men tend to revolve around common interests, and if it’s not work or team sports, it’s usually a shared hobby. Real connections are still few and far between though, usually because men’s egos tend to get in the way (who hasn’t witnessed two stereo nerds comparing equipment notes at a party).

I think men live out a built-in desire to master their world in their hobbies. This is not necessarily a repressive mechanism or an escape, although I think that can be the case, too. Instead, I think most people have the capacity to deeply engage with — and become proficient in — multiple fields, some professionally and some as accomplished amateurs.

The initial love of a desirable object — car, boat, computer, house, stereo — quickly translates into a need to understand how it works. Tinkering inevitably ensues (and for those who are about to object to the idea that someone making ‘home improvements’ is a tinkerer, I think you know in your heart of hearts that I’m right — which is not to say that your drywalling isn’t also saving you money). Messing with things (‘fixing’ them) is the best way to learn about how they work and develop one’s own expertise. (Complemented today by the seemingly limitless amount of hobbyist information on the internet which has blogs and forums on any conceivable and inconceivable topic.) By definition, the objects of a hobbyist’s affection are never only a means to an end. If they were, the engagement with them would by necessity be finite. For example, most people view their car as a means to an end — something that gets you from A to B, hopefully in safety and comfort. Car enthusiasts, however, are passionately interested in its internal workings, hackability, available aftermarket parts, enthusiast culture etc. At the far end of the spectrum, a car is only good enough if you have built/rebuilt it yourself.

That said, the most rewarding hobbies tend to involve complex things that are also a means to an end. Complexity is important in order to sustain the hobby. Actually being useful gives it a greater, more socially oriented purpose — anchors the hobby in the real world, in a way. My father’s photography equipment let him capture his family and travel experiences; his camping equipment let him enjoy his camping trips, sometimes with travel companions. Better equipment, or that is the assumption, will enable better experiences — and it may lend a special cachet if some or all of the equipment improvements come as a result of applying one’s own domain knowledge, either practically by building it oneself, or curatorially by selecting just the right thing for the purpose.

My own pursuits, some of which I’ve written about before on this blog, include affordable high-quality audio equipment, and computers. (I’m enthusiastic about smartphones and gadgets, too, but they have the drawback that they’re not terribly rewarding from a tinkerer’s perspective; you can’t really ‘hack’ your smartphone’s hardware — or software, if you’re partial to iOS in its un-jailbroken state.)

In comparison to most people for whom computers are purely a means to an end, I have always taken a deeper interest in them. Increasingly, in the last 5 years or so, I have built my own from carefully selected parts. Of course, building your own desktop computer isn’t the same kind of engineering exercise as rebuilding a car or building your own speaker cabinets, but most people still wouldn’t attempt it.

I do it for several reasons: computer quality; fit for the specific purpose I use my computer for; because I think it’s somehow a point of ethics to make a decent effort to understand the internal workings of something that occupies such a central place in my activities (I can’t even estimate the number of hours per week I spend in front of a computer); and aesthetics — I enjoy assembling things well and neatly, neither of which tend to be the case in off-the-rack PCs.

Quality

If you want to use a computer with high-quality components today, your options are relatively limited.

Apple’s higher-end design principles extend somewhat to the internals of its computers, but some of the resulting compromises unfortunately result in proprietary or nonstandard approaches, such as the custom-designed chip-based SSD drives in its MacBook Airs — making them non-upgradable and expensive to fix if they break. Its modular desktop — the Mac Pro — is an elegantly designed machine that accommodates third-party internal add-ons (in theory, at least) but is so absurdly expensive that it wouldn’t be affordable at anything approximating the kind of specification I’d be looking for.

If you look to the world of generic PCs — whether ‘brand name’ or assembled by your local computer shop — you soon realize that this portion of the market is stuck in a constant race to the bottom, as many highly competitive and immature markets without clear leaders tend to be.

In the laptop rubric, there are generally two ‘classes’ of PC: a consumer machine where price is the single most important factor; and a ‘business class’ laptop whose outer shell is typically a little more rugged and whose keyboard may be slightly better. Internally, though, both are essentially the same, filled with highly cost-effective components (I hesitate to say “dirt cheap” although that’s the truth) that have all manner of drawbacks, such as running hot or causing short battery life. (It should also be noted that despite Apple’s market dominance with its beautifully designed and manufactured laptops, no-one from the PC camp has produced anything comparable. The media may suggest otherwise — Samsung and ASUS have created thin ultra-portable MacBook lookalikes — but I’ve owned/tried most contenders and their keyboards and track pads simply don’t compare to Apple’s.)

When it comes to generic desktop PCs, brand names play even less of a role. Since there’s no genuine economic advantage to offering a ‘beautiful’ desktop PC (it’s a box that sits underneath people’s desks), most local system builders (and brand-name manufacturers such as Dell or ASUS) concentrate on price and raw performance alone. Desktop buyers want to spend as little money as possible and get as much raw computing power and storage (disk space) as possible. That’s the entire equation. If you pop open a typical $400 desktop box made by a local system builder, the components inside are the cheapest available on the market, assembled using every cost-cutting measure known to the industry. For example, disk drives are mounted without mounting brackets, which causes the PC to be quite loud (there’s no acoustic insulation between the ‘clacking’ of read/write heads on the magnetic platter, the computer case and your ears). Another frequent cost-saving technique is to use the cheapest possible power supply unit. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous practice (I myself have seen at least three of these actually burn out in the last ten years — they catch fire and singe your wall, and that’s the best-case scenario).

Power supply unit by Justin Ruckmann Creative Commons via Flickr

So if you want to own and use a computer with high quality components, you need to assemble it yourself (or order it from a system builder who will obtain and assemble custom parts, although this gets expensive). Importantly, of course, choosing this approach implies that you are able to determine what constitutes a high-quality component and how such components might work together; and this is where the hobbyist differentiates him/herself from the majority of users. Computer enthusiasts can figure out what parts will work well (and work together) using ambient information analysis techniques. A combination of review sites, forum discussions, Amazon pricing and other factors will (for me, at least) congeal into a coherent picture of what’s good, what makes sense, and how well it’ll work in my target context. Usually, the analysis portion of the project takes a few weeks. To remember what I’ve decided, I save things to an Amazon shopping cart while I do my research, even if I eventually end up buying some of them elsewhere for price or convenience reasons.

The other two important factors in choosing to build your own desktop computer are skill and courage. These are closely related. The technical skills required are actually quite limited. Assembling one’s own PC doesn’t require using a soldering iron or anything like that. The only tools you’ll need are basically a set of differently-sized screwdrivers. The various components have become increasingly plug & play in the true sense; instructions for inserting a CPU into its socket can easily be found on Youtube, as can every other technique. Courage is what most people lack in this regard. The fear of breaking something expensive when you don’t quite know what you’re doing may seem legitimate at first — but in truth you’re constantly assembling things in the modern world, from lamps to kitchen appliances to Ikea furniture, and you don’t lack the courage to try your hand at those. Assembling a PC today requires approximately the same level of skill you need to make a complicated Ikea chest of drawers. You will encounter some moments that make you go, “Now what happened?” But those are just waymarkers along the path to successful project completion. The intermittent confusions give way to eventual success and somehow sweeten the triumph when it all works.

Fit for Purpose

Gamers and hobbyist enthusiasts (a much smaller group) are the only true core markets left for desktop cases and components. If your intention is to play PC games that demand high-end resources (raw computing and graphics speed, display size, ergonomics of input devices), you have no choice than to build your own PC. The beauty of selecting your own components and assembling them yourself is that you can build a computer that uniquely suits your specific purpose. My computing objectives revolve around quiet computing (my computer plays a key role in my other hobby, collecting and listening to music); very high quality audio output; lots of raw processing power (to enable me to listen to music while also encoding other music at the same time); and lots of storage space. Conversely — and in contrast to the prevailing wind in the market — I have no need for powerful fast graphics: I’ve recently acquired a high-resolution 27” IPS monitor that needs a graphics card capable of outputting a 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution, but I was still able to find several fanless (and therefore quiet), cheap video cards in the market that were up to the task.

When it comes to component choices, my approach tends to be conservative. As an enthusiast hobbyist, I’m more interested in what the computer will enable me to do after the build project is complete than in getting the absolute highest performance from it. This makes me different to most gamers, and many other enthusiasts. ‘Overclocking,’ like ‘tuning’ your car, is the order of the day for many who build their own computers: almost all modern motherboards have sophisticated (and usually relatively safe) features that allow savvy users to apply different voltage and clock speed parameters to different PC components (CPU, RAM, etc.) to get the machine to run faster.

My lack of interest in this particular inflection of system building is mostly due to the fact that each time I build a new computer I find myself marveling at the sheer speed of the stock configuration, so I cannot imagine that overclocking could possibly be that much of an improvement. In fact, I see it as somewhat akin to buying a car whose engine is slightly too small for your real highway-driving needs, and then driving it continually in the 5,000+ RPM range. Experience (and sound engineering principles) would suggest that your car won’t last as long under such circumstances, and so it is with PCs. There seems to be no hard data on this, but if you look carefully at the overclocking forums, it’s clear that nobody keeps their PC around long enough for the community to have developed any kind of sophisticated understanding of this, yet anecdotal evidence abounds. Motherboards, processors and memory break sooner if you overclock them.

Motherboard by Mike Babcock Creative Commons via Flickr

Ethics

I work in the IT industry. At the beginning of my career (in the mid 90s), I still met lots of more experienced coworkers whose grasp of computer hardware was — to me, anyway — staggeringly detailed and low-level. They had actually studied processor design and the associated machine language programming; understood the data transmission protocols used by serial ports and ethernet; and so on. Assembling PCs was a daily necessity for people who worked in IT, and a background in (or enthusiasm for) electronics was a helpful skill. Over time, personal computers have become more and more modular, and therefore easier to assemble. As a corollary, they have also become more and more of a pre-assembled industrial product. There’s nothing wrong with this per se — the tasks we perform using computers have moved up the evolutionary pyramid, and most of us have chosen not to remember what needed to be done to get us there.

It’s a subtle point of ethics for me — and one that I’m not entirely sure one can argue legitimately (after all, I don’t insist on building my own tv, toaster or fridge) — but I think it’s important that we continue to strive to understand what makes all this computing and internet magic work. I’m not fearful of the robots taking over nor particularly nostalgic for some golden age of computing, but I think that knowing the internals of our main work tools helps us moderate our expectations and demystify the machinery. For example, I’ve encountered managers who have no sense of how long it takes to swap out a hard drive and rebuild a server. This is, of course, helpful information if you want to be any good at managing people who perform this kind of work — and, perhaps more importantly, it’s also important to know when you need to manage another business person’s expectations.

For me, it’s a matter of wanting to better understand, and influence, the nature of my tools. I do almost all my work with the help of some kind of computing technology, so the hardware and software (as well as my knowledge of them) plays a direct role in how well I work. This is probably ‘old school’ in most people’s books. My father (he seems to come up a few times in this article) used to say that part of learning to drive was developing some knowledge about changing a tire, checking your engine oil level and so on. Apart from being able to help yourself out of a tight spot, this also had the effect that I developed some (however minor) ability to make good judgment calls when it comes to weird noises in a car — for example, is this safe to drive? Should I take it to a mechanic sooner rather than later?

The point of ethics is perhaps also about one’s willingness, rather than necessarily actually scratching around in your computer’s innards at every opportunity. For example, can you swap out your laptop’s hard drive when it breaks or you need more space? Can you install your operating system from scratch? Many computer novices (mostly the middle aged and older now) say that fear is holding them back from fully embracing personal computing. What if they break something? The less fearful you are of the physical thing itself, the less you will be worried about breaking its software. Somehow, these things are related. A tool that has a hidden side or worse, an un-knowable side, is a bad, untrustworthy tool. It should be your objective, and a point of pride, to pop open your computer’s case and look inside.

Aesthetics

Gamers seem to have developed a love for flashy (kitschy), often transparent cases with internal LEDs to really show off what’s inside. There’s a whole emerging computer modding culture that’s as rich as the automotive modding community, with an endless supply of gaudy Chinese-manufactured parts to customize optics and functionality. Aesthetically, I’m horrified by most of these developments (they just don’t appeal to my more minimalist expectations). Thankfully, all kinds of more aesthetically pleasing cases and parts are still available in the market. I have chosen a piano black Antec Sonata II silent case, a particularly well-engineered enclosure that keeps things as quiet as possible.

Motherboard by Tim Simpson Creative Commons via Flickr

Every new computer demands some acclimatization time; you need to figure out what the design engineers were thinking. Usually, there’s a logical following order of assembly (which may or may not mean that you place the motherboard into the case first). Safety considerations and a sense of aesthetics also suggest that it’s worth thinking a bit about where to run the various cables; depending on how many internal devices you need to connect (disk drives, USB ports, etc.), there can be a rather large number of these. You don’t want any cables to come into contact with any fans or parts that get hot (such as heat sinks, RAM chips, and the like).

Assembling or re-assembling my computers feels like a cleaning or tidying job: it’s satisfying when it’s well done and you know that everything is in its optimal place.

When I recently replaced the motherboard to accommodate a better processor and faster memory, one of the surprising things for me was the sheer number of so-called “USB headers” on the new board. I suppose market research must have told the manufacturer (ASUS) that people can never have enough USB ports, so they added a fairly large number. (A USB header, for the uninitiated, is a socked on the motherboard that supports a set of USB sockets that would have to be located on the computer case so that you can plug devices into them.) My case didn’t have the right number of external USB ports. I could have simply left some of the USB headers disconnected and nobody would have been any the wiser. However, I would have known. So, like a good hobbyist, I embarked on a tedious journey of finding and ordering several USB brackets that I installed into my case (both at the back and front) to ‘enable’ all the USB ports. Slightly obsessive perhaps, yes. But somehow, this became an important piece to complete — more a point of aesthetics than anything else: I wanted to at least theoretically have the ability to use all possible USB ports this computer supports.

*  *  *

It almost goes without saying that using my new computer is a joy. Because I have always invested in high-quality peripherals (believing, as many do, that the quality of interacting with a computer is only as good as the keyboard, mouse, monitor, camera and audio system used to do so), I had enjoyed using my previous computer right to the end of its useful lifespan, but this upgrade has — not unexpectedly — removed the performance barriers I was encountering previously. It is a lovely piece of equipment to use, and I can take a little pride in knowing that I’ve assembled it myself. And learned a thing or two in the process.

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One Response to The case for building my own computer

  1. Carsten Knoch June 10, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    Here’s the full list of parts/equipment:

    Motherboard: ASUS P8Z77-V LX
    CPU: Intel Core i5 i5-3570 3.40 GHz
    Memory: 16GB Patriot Viper 3 Series Venom Red DDR3 1600MHz PC3 12800 Memory Kit (PV316G160C0KRD)
    CPU cooler: Noctua NH-C14 dual fan heatsink (used with a single fan)
    Case: Antec Sonata III (piano black)
    Case fan: 12″ Noctua
    Video card: Gigabyte GV-N610SL-1GI (fanless)
    PSU: Antec EarthWatts EA 500D Green
    HDD1 (System): Western Digital Black WD1002FAEX 1TB
    HDD2: Western Digital Green WD20EZRX 2TB
    HDD3: Western Digital Green WD10EAVS 1TB
    Optical drive: Sony Optiarc AD-7260S DVD RW
    Audio: Beresford High Resolution DAC TC-7520
    Speakers: Audioengine 2
    Monitor: ASUS PB278Q 27” WQHD LED
    Keyboard: “Das Keyboard” Professional (Clicky)
    Mouse: Microsoft Comfort Optical Mouse 3000
    USB 3 Front Panel: Anker USB 3.0 front panel (2.5” drive bay size)
    USB 2 Real Panel: Ultra ULT40299 4-port USB PCI Bracket

    Windows 7 Professional

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