Wanna Roll Yer Own PC??
You'd think that having been in the PC business
since 1982, that I'd be able to build a relatively trouble-free PC compatible for myself.
I've personally had IBM PC's, XT's, AT's, PS/2's, a Compaq Deskpro 286, NEC 486's
and Pentiums. And in the course of my work I've touched more brands and types of
hardware than I can possible recount. Each platform has had its own peculiarities
but rarely anything insurmountable. You might think that would be enough
background not to get in trouble...
In October of 1998 I spent weeks carefully
spec'ing out what I wanted in The System. The case had to be a well-built tower with
plenty of capacity and a facility for an infrared device. I'd want lots of
fast-access storage, access to many CD's, good sound, fast 3D video for Flight Simulator,
networking, and I wanted as little stuff as possible to be external. I also wanted
efficient but cheap video capture. Lastly I wanted a total picture that wouldn't be
obsolete for at least ONE year. Is that really too much to ask?
Here's what I ended up with...
The case I chose was a Jinco 801ATX mid-size tower,
which cost me $168 shipped with one extra tachometer fan and a 300W ATX 2.01 power supply
ugprade. I really like this case. It's very sturdy, has swiveling feet, lots
space for two extra fans and a filter, lots of internal and externally accessible drive
bays, a nifty infrared window, and gives you a handy slide-out motherboard tray and mostly
tool-free design. It comes with plenty of hardware and lots of cables, but as usual
with offshore goods, very little information about how to use much of it. The cables
are well- marked however, so life isn't that bad. The fan I asked for was intended
for the front of the case (where the filter is), but had to be installed in the back due
to a too-short cable. Jinco does offer the same fan with a longer cable. The
space behind the ruby plastic for the IrDA transceiver does not seem to lend itself (in
terms of physical dimension and mounting) to use with the few existing circuits I could
come up with.
The Motherboard, CPU and Memory
When it comes to motherboards and related items
I shy away from off-brand goods. The motherboard was an OEM-boxed Intel
SE440BX2, which came with all the goodies - Intel software CD, temperature
monitoring hardware built in, etc. No surprises, and that's a good thing. It
features a USB ports, a Yamaha sound system with great-sounding multivoice wave table MIDI
and a mixer with a huge variety of input sources, and IrDA and MIDI -compatible game port
connections. Purchased from a friendly integrator, this ran me $155. The
software CD includes Intel's LanDesk Client Manager, which is a bloated, flaky package
that Intel steadfastly refuses to support. The sound driver installation is
interesting. You don't install the drivers from the CD - you run a program that
copies the drivers and software from the CD to the hard drive and then you
install the drivers from the hard drive. Nice to know Intel has a sense of humour.
The CPU is an retail-boxed Intel
Pentium-II, 400Mhz. After hearing horror stories about failing off-brand
fans, the retail box seemed to be the way to go. The fastest Pentium at the time was
450MHz, at a cost difference of about $150-$200. The 400 cost me $370 after a little
shopping around. Meanwhile, one year later a 550MHz Pentium-III sells for the same
$370, with the new 600MHz chip selling for $100-$150 more.
A 128Mb Samsung PC100 SDRAM
chip cost me $170 from the same Internet reseller in West Virginia that sold me the
CPU. It's been perfectly reliable, and should soon be augmented by another 128Mb
chip. Surprisingly, even a year later that price is still about the best you can do
for non-ECC 128Mb PC100 chips.
The SCSI Controller
UltraDMA IDE interfaces and drives are getting
pretty fast, but a high- performance system has to be SCSI based. An OEM-packaged Adaptec
2940UW cost me a meager $182 including cables and software. At the time I
thought "why would I want Ultra2?, for another $100". Silly me. Just
one year later, you can't even find large SCSI HD's (18Gb and up) without
LVD/U2. Luckily most of those drives offer a single-ended mode via a jumper.
The Hard Drives
The IBM Ultrastar 9ZX seemed to
be the smartest buy for a high-perfomance SCSI HD, but it's 10,000 RPM platters make it a
huge heat source. It's also a bit larger than 1/2-height, which impacts the total
internal system capacity. On the other hand that helps guarantee this coffee- warmer
some breathing room. A bargain at $550 from a Chinese integrator and mail-order
house in California. One year later the same money can buy you an 18Gb SCSI drive,
and I'm contemplating the purchase of a 36ZX (10K, LVD UW SCSI, 2Mb buffer, 5.4ms access
time, half-height) for $1050. If I can manage to get a FireWire (IEEE1394) adapter
to behave in this system, I'll be all set for video editing!
I chose a Nakamichi 16x 5-CD changer
(internal SCSI) to start with. When it came to installing Windows98 from the
bootable CD (I had misplaced the diskette), this turned out to be a finicky venture.
It finally worked but not without some sweating, scratching and cursing. It's
incredibly handy having 5 CD's available - you certainly never use them all simultaneously
anyway. The down-side is that every time you start the PC, Windows spends over 20
annoying seconds checking each CD slot in the changer to get volume labels or
whatever. The "16x" speed designation is dubious as well, as I will
discuss in the next paragraph...
I later augmented the Nakamichi with a Yamaha
CRW6416SZ (internal SCSI, 2mb buffer), when it dropped under the $200 mark
(retail box with software and cables!) in September 1999. This is a 6x write, 4x
rewritable, 16x read drive drive, and comes with Adaptec's Easy CD Creator 3.5c software
(the cut down version without the nice audio CD goodies), DirectCD, Adobe PhotoDeluxe and
PageMill. I at first thought the drive was defective. Every time I tried to
read either of the two CD's that it came with, all the devices on the SCSI chain would
reset and become unusable. Both CD's turned out to be defective. It took two
phone calls to Yamaha before they sent me replacements via overnight mail. The
latest version of CD Creator software tries to be very smart about copying CD's, and
benchmarks your drives before a copy so that you don't choose write speeds that may cause
buffer under-runs (where the source drive can't keep up with the target drive). CD
Creator deemed the "16x" Nakamichi unable to deliver data fast enough for the
Yamaha's "6x" write speed.
I used a monitor that I had from a previous
system - the Mag Innovision DX1795. In early 1998 this 17"
display was truly a steal at $550 plus shipping. A steal, providing you don't mind a
relative lack of brightness and some pincushion and trapezoidal distortions that could not
be totally compensated for. This is also one of those inexpensive digital monitors
that requires manual adjustments when switching video modes. You get what you pay
for! But it's really OK as long as you don't find annoying the 8 or ten relay clicks
before the monitor figures out how to wake up.
An 8Mb PCI Hercules Thriller-3D
was pulled from its previous home in a NEC Pentium P90, where it made the CPU-bound
Microsoft Flight Simulator barely tolerable. It was buggy in the P90 with its .85
version (sound like pre-release, no?) drivers, and it was not much better in the PII-400.
Hercules never did release a driver update after that, and support for the
Rendition V2200 chipset has been poor from day one. I bought the card because I
wanted the built-in video capture and I thought the 3D glasses connector would be cool.
The frame rates weren't bad actually. But support for the glasses never came
around - hardware or software - and the DDC support for Plug 'n Play monitors
wasn't implemented fully. The cost of this venture (aside of the $150 for the card)
was partially missing textures in Flight Simulator, missing parts of windows in other
software, poor synchronization among display modes, and very poor interoperability with...
...the $99 Hauppauge WinTV-PCI.
I was never sure whether to blame the WinTV or the 3D, but total system lockups
when the screen saver kicked in or while bringing up a DOS command prompt while WinTV was
running was enough to compel me to throw both these cards back to the parts pile.
The WinTV also didn't play nicely with Windows' WebTV or Wavetop, and didn't support
overlay mode with the Hercules card.
I finally replaced the Thriller-3D and the WinTV
with a 3Dfx VooDoo3 TV3500 when it was on the shelves all of about two
weeks. This board offers a TV/FM tuner, composite video (NTSC or PAL), S-Video and
stereo audio outputs and inputs, and even brags of 30pfs capture rates at
320x200! My haste cost me $240 and about six hours worth of troubleshooting before
deeming the tuner and capture portion of the card "DOA". In the midst of
the pointless troubleshooting I was told by 3Dfx that this card cannot share interrupts
successfully. Beware, as you will likely have to change jumpers or BIOS settings or
even relocate other cards. In my case, after studying the cryptic IRQ map in the
Intel motherboard documentation, I discovered that the Adaptec 2940UW had to be moved from
PCI slot 1 to slot 2 so as not to share interrupts with the AGP slot. Then on the
next boot Windows98 wanted to re-install all the drivers for the SCSI card AND all the
connected devices (scanner, tape, etc.). Brilliant. After exchanging the
TV3500 at CompUSA, the new card worked perfectly fine. Sort of. I get mystery
beeps (from the video card, not the PC) on reboots, and the huge dongle already broke one
of the screws that holds the connector to the video card. 3Dfx's support has been
great though, and after a quick e-mail they just mailed me two new screws via overnight
mail. Now I wonder what'll happen if I move the Adaptec back...
For networking I chose a 3Com 3C905B-TX,
which is a PCI PnP 10/100 twisted-pair Ethernet card. 3Com stuff has always been
trustworthy and reliable, and the driver support is usually top-notch. This $59
OEM-boxed purchase (complete with a diskette with a cheesy looking label containing the
necessary drivers) has not let me down either. It's works fine with my $50 Dlink
809tc eight-port Ethernet hub, and it's Microsoft's fault, not 3Com, that Dial-Up
Networking appears every time I want to print a file to my JetDirect -equipped printer.
The Rockwell -based Motorola
Voice-Surfer 56K is reliable and at about $80, cheap, and gives me 50K
connections when others complain of barely getting over 33K. It's also VERY flexible
with its loose Plug 'n Play requirements and is happy to take just about any IRQ even
though it's an ISA card. I don't use the voice or CID features much but I've tested
them and they do work well. Sadly, Motorola has dropped the ball on its consumer
modems. I bought this when V.90 had not been ratified yet. They delivered the
promised V.90 upgrade, albeit a few months later than promised, and that's apparently the
last we'll ever hear from Motorola on modems.
The 1.44Mb Teac floppy drive and nameless
keyboard were scavenged from throwaway NEC systems. No problems with either item,
and the keyboard has survived the usual drink spills, etc. Speakers were also
dragged from the parts pile - little Altec Lansing things that sound
fantastic in spite of their diminuitive size, and don't bother the monitor at all.
It's amazing, the things people toss in the garbage these days. "One man's
A Microsoft IntelliMouse was
installed and also has also been trouble-free, but I find the scroll wheel difficult to
use without pressing it hard enough to register an unwanted click. The mouse has a
comfortable shape and texture and the ball is relatively trouble- free, but the wheel goes
Microsoft can be really stupid sometimes, and
the $150 Microsoft SideWinder Force Feedback Pro joystick is a glaring
example. Offer an excellent product, then cripple it by demanding that you have a
MIDI -compatible game port (such as on SoundBlaster, etc.). I admit that this
joystick's requirements were one of the driving forces behind my motherboard choice, which
has a compatible game port. Regardless, a year after introducing the SideWinder
Force Feedback Pro joystick, Microsoft introduced their Force Feedback Wheel and guess
what... STILL no USB support!!! Also, the FFPro includes a relatively noisy
fan to keep the force feedback motors cool. A popular modification became unplugging
the fan, in spite of warnings from Microsoft. Lo and behold, a few months later
Microsoft began OMITTING the fan from the joystick! The stupidity doesn't end there
either, but this story has an interesting conclusion. I bought my joystick just
before a one week vacation. I was looking forward to enjoying Flight Simulator a lot
on my week off. Unfortunately the FFPro came with unreadable CD's, and Microsoft
hadn't posted the drivers on their web site yet, AND their CD's were back-ordered for
weeks. And I could not exchange the joystick because the store had sold out.
After many phone calls to Microsoft, and after countless escalations, AND after their tech
support's stunningly idiotic refusal to E-mail or FTP the drivers to me, they said "go
to another store that has the same joystick, buy it, install the CD's that come with that
one, and send us a copy of the receipt and we'll reimburse you for the full cost
of the second joystick." So now my nephew has a Force Feedback Pro as
The Panasonic Color EggCam was
only about $100, and gives you NTSC output. No stupid slow parallel port adapters,
and no USB. So it works fine with any capture card offering NTSC input (or even
VCR's) and it's fast. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for. The low-light
performance is dismal, becoming more of a monochrome camera in ordinary home lighting.
I thought I was being slick, getting a case with
space for an IrDA (infrared) transceiver. Little did I know that it would take such
an enormous effort to find a transceiver! I scavenged one or two out of some old NEC
machines in the parts pile, before finally finding the ASUS IRM100N IrDA
transceiver. This is literally the ONLY discrete transceiver on the
consumer market. All others, orders of 1000 or more please, or you can buy
overpriced end-user gadgets that are designed to consume one of your drive bays or sit on
top of your PC or monitor. Anyway, neither the OEM bits or the ASUS part would fit
neatly in the space provided. But after a couple of hours with the Dremel Moto-Tool
and modifications to the case and the IrDA circuit board, it finally fits. The
supplied cables weren't long enough either, so I had to roll my own.
Dragon Naturally Speaking came with a nice
noise-cancelling Andrea NC-50 headset. Interestingly, the Dragon
software declared its clarity only "acceptable". I thought maybe a nice Plantronics
Mirage H41NC noise cancelling earset and MX10 amplifier/switcher
might help, but only made things worse. With the Plantronics I purchased a gadget
that promised to connect the headset to my PC and my telephone. The result was
people complaining that I sounded funny on the phone, and never loud enough. So
instead I purchased Andrea's equivalent product to the MX10, the Andrea PCTI-II.
It was on sale for $69 at CompUSA and included yet another NC-50 headset.
Now, voice recognition quality is back to where it was but I can't get callers to appear
loud enough to me. Maybe it's the Panasonic phone I'm using...
Recently the SanDisk ImageMate-USB
CompactFlash reader has joined the monstrosity. Until then I had never used the USB
ports at all, and suddenly I discovered that the interrupt sharing between the USB ports
and one of the other cards in the system wasn't working out so well, either. For all
this bragging about how PCI architecture was supposed to solve the limited interrupt
architecture problem, I haven't seen any big benefit. The only difference is that
you find out about the problems later instead of immediately, and they're harder to track
down. SanDisk's first iteration of device drivers didn't work out so well, either.
Poor performance and occasional hangs while accessing the reader were the norm.
SanDisk brought out new drivers in late July 1999 that completely changed the
access method (Shuttle Technology, written in India) and seems to have fixed all the
My Hewlett-Packard ScanJet 4c
flatbed scanner was fine in Windows 95. And most of the time, new drivers either get
incorporated into the operating system or the manufacturer is kind enough to make them
available on their web site. BUT NOT HP! I had to fork over $20 plus S&H
to get a Win98 -compatible version of DeskScan-II, and it had no real improvements over
the Win95 version. I'm betting I'll get gouged again when Windows 2000 comes around.
Meanwhile, DeskScan-II has issues too. When I moved my Adaptec into a
different slot, I "lost" the scanner. I had to de-install and re-install
DeskScan, and then it thought my 4c was a 6100c. In a following re-installation I
accidentally told it to use the HP SCSI card driver (Symbios) and it put a line in
AUTOEXEC.BAT that crashed the Adaptec VXD, and removing DeskScan did not remove the
troublesome line. That took a while to figure out. I'm on the fourth
re-install and things still aren't right. To add insult to injury, H-P will only
support you if you fork over $2.50 per minute or a $25 flat-rate fee. I'm
seriously re-thinking that "nobody ever got fired for buying H-P" thing.
After several years a Maynard 2000 SCSI
DAT is still my trusty tape backup device, trundling along at about 10 or 12 Mb
per minute. Luckily, support is not much of an issue. If it was I'd be in
trouble since Maynard changed to Conner, and then Conner was absorbed by Seagate.
Meanwhile, older versions of Windows didn't know SCSI tapes from anything and you had to
buy third-party software to use them. Windows 98 recognises the Maynard just
fine. It almost makes up for putting up with the DeskScan crap.
Finally, The Software
Microsoft Windows 98 seemed to
be a requisite. Much of the hardware demanded it, such as the USB ports and the PIIX
IDE controller (which I don't even use), and the digital game port devices. This
hasn't been too much of a problem, in spite of the startling frequency of updates becoming
available for security related issues. If I had DSL or a cable modem, I'd be very
Dragon Systems Naturally Speaking
Preferred promised great voice recognition. I envisioned regular, daily
use. I knew that it would take some training, but I may not have realized how
much training it needed. Nor did I realize how incredibly poor and inconsistent
my diction was. The truth is, Naturally Speaking is a fine product rendered nearly
useless by poor speech patterns, casual mispronunciations. etc. Dragon Systems
should market the product as a tool for curing terrible speech impediments.
Also helping slow down my system is Norton
Anti-Virus 5.x, the 3Com Palm Desktop, Microsoft
Personal Web Server, Microsoft Bookshelf 98, and more annoying
little things that plant themselves in the System Tray like the Sidewinder Game
Device Profiler, and Windows' Program Scheduler (which keeps coming back in spite
of me telling it not to). I believe that WebTV is what brings back
Scheduler, so that it can schedule the Program Guide updates that don't work because my
cable system doesn't seem to transmit the VBI data. Unfortunately, the 3Dfx card has
to have Windows' WebTV installed. Luckily you don't really have to USE WebTV - the
card just requires the interface software.
So on one hand, building my own system allowed
me to get exactly what I wanted. On the other hand, was this all what I really
wanted? It has been a major pain in the ass from day one and even today I still
don't have a system that I consider 100% stable. PWS doesn't automatically start
about 90% of the time, I had to configure the network printing with IPX to work around
Windows Dial-Up Networking stupidity, the IrDA was far from a turnkey solution, the idea
of sharing a headset between my PC and my telephone successfully is still a pipe dream, a
6x CD writer will only copy at 4x, the new video card isn't any faster (but at least it's
more stable), the USB reader has to sit on top of my case because nobody has though of
making one that fits into a floppy bay a la ZIP, I've given up on talking to my PC, and I
have to unplug the Sidewinder to use MIDI equipment or if I want to try a wheel or pedals.
The video card beeps at me on reboots and I have no clue why, and DeskScan II
thinks my HP4c scanner is a 6100c since I changed video cards. All this and I don't
know if you were adding up the numbers but it was FAR from being a bargain.
Maybe I was just expecting too much.
- Brad Berson