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...

Think again!

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

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.

The Video

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...

The Networking

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 Modem

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.

Standard Peripherals

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 treasure..."

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 largely unused.

The Accessories

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 well.

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 problems.

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 nervous.

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


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