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Building a Computer


One weekend after a RadioNet program, instead of joining the crew down at the yacht harbor for Lunch, I made a trip to a computer store to purchase the parts I needed to build a new computer. The goal here was simple: build a half-way decent system for as cheap as I could. I already had a Pentium CPU chip and a monitor left over from previous upgrades, so I made the mental list of what I needed and started my shopping spree.

The first thing I picked up was the motherboard. The kind of motherboard you pick will often determine which other interface cards you have to purchase. The motherboard is what you plug all of your interface cards, RAM, and CPU into. With the help of BIOS, which stands for Basic Input Output System, the various components talk to each other and work in tandem. Motherboards differ quite a bit in price because of the types of processors they support, whether or not the motherboard includes common I/O functions for hard drives, floppies, modems, and printers, and whether or not they have RAM for the instruction cache for the CPU. The instruction cache stores frequently accessed instructions in seperate RAM so that it can do what it does a little faster.

After picking out the various components that I needed and paid my dough, I took all this stuff home and, with some of the RAM from my other computer, I tried to put it all together. It took me the better part of two hours to figure out how to put the motherboard in the case properly and another hour or so making sure that I configured and installed the very basic components so that I could boot the system up. After much frustration and many cuts on my hands, I finally get it to boot.

After formatting the hard drive and putting a very basic operating system on there, I turned off the computer and put in the sound card in. Guess what? The hard drive stopped working. Figuring there might be some sort of hardware conflict, I took the sound card out of my main computer and put that in the new computer. With this sound card, the floppy drive would refuse to work properly. So being the resourceful geek that I am, I look up the company that made this I/O card on the web. Apparently, this I/O card has problems with just about everything. So I had to take this card back. This time I bought a brand name I/O board that was slightly more expensive and bought some components I forgot last time around. The sound card still ended up conflicting with the floppy drive and then the video card just up and died on me. Another trip to the computer store and I finally got all the right parts together and working.

I could have summed up the last two paragraphs by saying I spent a lot of time, effort, and money putting this computer together. But when the thing finally got all together and worked, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment because it was my blood, sweat, and tears that made it happen. Literally.

There is a lesson or two to be learned from this tale. First, cheap isn't the way to pick computer components. The components that I picked for more than just price reasons worked flawlessly. It was the componets that I tried to get the cheapest thing on where I started running into problems.

The second is raw cost. If you factor in the cost of my time, I could have bought a comparable system for about the same cost from a local dealer. The thing about buying a computer from a local computer dealer is that they've been building systems for a long time and know which combinations of components will work and which ones won't. You pay the little extra money for that experience and for not having to deal with the headaches and hassles of building it yourself.

But then again, I wouldn't have had this experience to write this article about. ;-)

Last Update: 26 July 1997
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PhoneBoy Rants About: The $80 Router (or PhoneBoy Builds Another Computer)

Long time RadioNet listeners will remember that I shared my first attempt at building a computer from scratch. Ignoring my past lessons of it taking too much time and costing too much, I decided to build another computer. Instead of being a general purpose computer as my last one was, it would be my gateway to the Internet. The computer would not need to "do" much apart from dialing out to the Internet and making sure I can talk to the Internet from any computer in my LAN and allow all machines on the LAN to access my DeskJet printer. Given I have your average 33.6k access to the Internet and I print very little, this should not be a difficult task.

Unfortunately, most of the off-the-shelf solutions to the problem are beyond what I need and way too expensive. So given that various friends had old hardware they were willing to donate to the cause, I decided to attempt to build another computer. Because this computer was to have a very specific purpose and didn't need to be particularly powerful, I could get away with skimping on a lot of things. But even with the parts my friends donated, I still needed to buy some stuff. The grand total I spent on this computer was about $80 and I had the system together in no time.

The computer is a 386 DX 40 with 8 megs of RAM, monochrone video, and a 400 meg hard drive. No color graphics. No sound card. No mouse. I added a network board and serial ports so that I could connect it to my local area network and to a modem to dial up the Internet. For those of you who have no clue what any of that stuff is, it's basically a computer powered by mostly 7-year-old technology. Windows 95 or Windows NT, more "modern" operating systems, will run on old systems like this, but Windows 95 and NT are very ill-suited to the task I built this computer for. Aside from the overhead these operating systems incur, I would need to purchase additional software to do what I expect of it and it would not give me nearly the same functionality that I got by choosing a different operating system.

There is one operating system out there that does what I want, runs at acceptable speeds, even on an old 386, does everything I need, and doesn't cost me a cent -- Linux. Linux is a "free" Unix-type opearting system originally written for Intel 386 CPUs or later. Sure, it supports most modern hardware, but a lot of older hardware is supported as well. It runs in a text-mode screen and does not require graphics of any sort. It also includes just about everything I need to make this computer do what I want. What is not included can easily be obtained free-of-charge.

The big thing that Linux has going for it, aside from the fact it's free, is support for a feature called "IP Masquerading." What this allows me to do is access the Internet from any computer on my LAN as if it were directly connected to the Internet. A request from my LAN is sent thru the machine on my LAN that is actually connected to the Internet. Those requests are then changed "mid stream" to look like they are coming from that machine so that when the requests are answered, they are directed back to that machine. The machine knows those requests originally came from a machine on the LAN, and they are passed back to that machine.

Another program, called Samba, basically makes my Linux computer look as if it were a Windows machine to my other Windows clients. I can set up my printer in such a way that I can use my existing Windows 95 software to access my printer and data on my Linux machine. This software is free and works very nicely.

Despite what the computer and software strores will tell you, just because your computer is "old" doesn't mean it's usefulness has run out. Obviously, my approach to solving my particular dilemma is not for everyone, and not all old hardware can be used in the way that I've used it. I am a demi-geek. I understand what a lot of computer hardware and software can and can not do. $80 has bought me a Windows-compatible file sever and print server. Not to mention a nice little router that lets all my machines access the Internet. And it runs on minimally upgraded 7-year-old technology. Not a bad deal, I say.

The Official Linux Homepage:
http://www.linux.org/

IP Masquerading Homepage (for Linux users):
http://ipmasq.home.ml.org/

Samba Homepage
http://samba.canberra.edu.au/pub/samba/samba.html

Last Update: 1 September 1997

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