Thursday, June 21, 2018
Publication Date: 02/1/2012
Archive >  February 2012 Issue >  Tech Watch > 

A Tale of Two Computers

My old less-than-faithful H-P tower desktop computer has been non-operational for many months. It has been acting as a rather large doorstop, until I finally took the bit in my teeth and started to work on it. Over the years (original purchase had been in 2004) it had blown out several hard disk drives, and most recently, the motherboard had stopped functioning. I decided it was time for a complete rebuilding process, something that I take rather seriously.

I evaluated the remains: the case looked okay, although rather worn and shoddy. I had one SATA DVD burner, and a SATA 500GB HDD. The power supply was fairly new, having been replaced just 3 years ago under extended warranty. But the motherboard was toast.

So one clear Saturday morning, we drove the 90 miles from Chico to Roseville (next to Sacramento) so I could go to Fry's Electronics to shop. For those of you who have never experienced Fry's, imagine if you will a Radio Shack store the size of Home Depot. It is a man's super toy store of incredible proportions — much more so than Home Depot or Lowes. Imagine a retail store with a stock of every imaginable electronic product and component; computer parts galore with huge numbers of choices; every kind of computer book, home appliances, huge numbers of DVDs and CDs, and there's even a restaurant in the center island area of the store. There's an incredible cell phone section, along with peripherals of all types. Then imagine pretty darned good prices — comparable to the best available prices from online sources. And you don?t have to wait for the brown truck to deliver the product.

Wall of Motherboards
I went to the far end of the Fry's store where one entire wall was covered with displays of motherboards and other computer circuit components. A helpful salesman asked me my budget constraints, and then served up an ASUS motherboard for $90 and a companion Intel Pentium processor and heatsink/cooling fan for another $90. A 4GB RAM module was $29, and some extra USB ports on a PCI card cost $25. I was in business for very little cash, or so I thought.

I got it all home where the old computer waited patiently until I finished work on the December issue. I finally got started, and disassembled the H-P tower. Some aged case parts showed little likelihood of ever being returned to service, and front-panel USB connectors were totally shot from much over-use.

I removed all the components one by one. The old motherboard came out without too much of a struggle, except for a soft rivet that I thought was a screw and it just wouldn't turn. The new mother went in, but I immediately knew I was in trouble. The power supply connector had 4 too few terminals, and the supply was rated at only 300 watts. According to the manual that came with the ASUS board, it wanted at least 350 watts.

It required another 180-mile round trip to Fry's, resulting in the purchase of a new tower case ($45) a 500-watt power supply ($50), 4GB more RAM ($29), a new DVD/CD burner ($25) and some SATA cables. I also bought some neat Christmas stocking stuffers and some music CDs.

By this time I was getting nervous about my ability to get all the cables in the right places on the motherboard. I had already planned to take it to a service shop to get my licensed copy of Windows XP re-installed, since my old recovery discs were totally shot. So I reluctantly turned the assembly job over to the tech at a small PC service shop in Chico.

New HDD Needed
The next day, he called to inform me that the 500GB hard disk drive was shot — not something I wanted to hear, especially considering the Thailand Monsoon flood-induced shortage of HDDs. I really thought that the HDD had survived the motherboard crash. So I ended up scoring a Western Digital 1TB HDD at Chico's Best Buy for $129. Add in the $30 for a WiFi plug-in, and the $200 service shop fee, plus tax, and $60 for gas, and we have a total bill of $854 for what amounts to a built-to-order computer with Windows XP — a total platform that would probably be excellent for hi-speed gaming if that's where I wanted to go. The speed is something I really cherish after suffering for so long using a Netbook as my main computer for U.S. Tech as well as my other computer needs. The poor, little, slow Netbook really needs a rest. With this last purchase, the only component remaining in use from my original computer is the second DVD/CD burner.

No matter how great the new tower is, my attempt at a rebuild has turned out to be a monster money hole. Yes, I would have been far better off simply buying a new tower online, but hindsight is always 20/20.

How did all this happen? I wanted Windows XP so I could continue to use my beloved antique WordStar, and my initial costs didn't look too bad, given that first trip to Fry's, and that's what sucked me in. It happened by taking baby steps. I wanted to rebuild with a new motherboard and CPU ($180), add some memory and be done with it. Once I had these components, it became painfully clear that I'd have to spend even more money, and it kept building and building.

The tech showed me how nice and roomy the new case is; very easy to work on, with simple latches for slide-in components. There's enough room to put in one or two more HDDs (when the price comes down). The bios on the new motherboard is highly interactive — much easier than anything I had ever seen before. ASUS really did a nice job putting this budget motherboard together.

While the newly built computer is not blindingly fast, it's several orders of magnitude faster than the poor, overworked Netbook that had been my main computer for so many months. The Netbook is getting a much-needed rest, and probably won't see the light of day again until I make that long train trip to San Diego for APEX. Yes, there still are passenger trains, and I am looking forward to the unpressured atmosphere of a restful, 19-hour train ride from Chico with someone else doing all the driving.

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