December 01, 2004

Chasing the Dragon

by peterb

It was just last week that my friend told me he was going to build his own computer. I asked him to understand in advance that in the weeks to come, after he put it together and it either didn't work or suffered from a string of ongoing stability issues, I would mock him cruelly. But I would be doing so out of love.

Last night he IM'd me: "OK, you can start laughing now."

I really do feel his pain, because the same thing happened to me. For whatever reason, a few years ago, I convinced myself that putting together a PC at home from assorted parts would be "fun." And it was, up to a point. I researched carefully, and religiously followed the recommendations of the best of the hardware sites -- you know the one, let's call it "Tom's AnandTechnica Extreme." The parts came in, the pieces went together, the power went on, and I had a fully operational computer, all set to play the latest games of the day. And it was a little cheaper than a Dell!

Of course, it locked up about once an hour. So I spent several weeks de-tuning it until it was slow enough to stop locking up. I knew to do this because of the support forum, filled with thousands of other people who followed Tom's AnandTechnica Extreme's recommendation, who were suffering from the exact same problems, who eventually figured out through the process of elimination that the soundcard needed to be in slot 2, and you should only use these certain USB ports, and yadda yadda yadda.

This isn't unusual. It's par for the course. Just ask Tilt. Marvel at his plummet from the peak of wide-eyed optimism into the pit of despair.

The whole concept of "building a computer" is iffy. You're not building anything. You're assembling some parts where all of the interesting engineering has already been done for you. There is nothing technically challenging -- or even interesting -- about doing so. Anyone with a grammar school education, enough dexterity to handle a Phillips-head screwdriver, and a grounding strap can do it. "I put together my own computer" (if what we're talking about is a mainstream Windows or Linux PC) is as impressive a technical achievement as "I installed some software from a CD-ROM."

The reasons people (including my past self) give for building a computer fall into three categories:

  • It's fun putting something together with your hands.
  • It's cheaper than buying the equivalent performing hardware from some manufacturer.
  • I can squeeze more performance out of the machine if I do it myself

The first argument is the one I have the most sympathy for. It's the one that actually makes the most sense; if you're going to spend a lot of money to create something that is inferior to what you can buy ready-made, it had better be fun to put together. But this argument never stands alone; it's not like people want to build computers and then go on to the next project; they want to build them and then use them for stuff, and there's the rub. If "fun putting something together" is one of your motivations, you would be better served by doing the following:

(1) Buy a Mac (or a Dell)

(2) Buy some Legos.

(3) When you want to put something together, build stuff with your Legos. When you want to use your computer, start up your Mac or Dell.

The "cheaper" argument only turns out to be true if you are willing to discount all risk of hardware failure any time within the warranty period that would cover a ready-made box. And if you're willing to discount the shipping costs and hassle of dealing with separate vendors. And if you're willing to assume that your time is worth nothing. Lots of people are, in fact, willing to do these things. There's a kind of blame the victim mentality among the home-tuner crowd. The assumption is that if your homebuilt machine crashes, you must be doing something wrong. That's sort of right: what you did was buy a bunch of parts that were never QAd by any serious vendor to work together for any substantial period of time, believing that it was a smart thing to do. Hardware is tricky. Just because some system survives long enough to run a graphics benchmark for Bladehunt: Deathspank 2: The Revenge does not mean it's stable enough for use day in, day out, for years.

The performance argument is similarly an argument of false economy. Yes, you might indeed squeeze out a few extra frames per second than the roughly price-equivalent machine from Dell. Or, you could just wait about 30 days, and the next revision of the same Dell will outperform what you would have built yourself. The rate of change of performance in hardware you can obtain by just waiting a little while dwarfs the gains you'll see by assuming greater risk in assembling your own. If you buy a preassembled PC, maybe Big Computer Company will sell you a lemon. If that happens, you send the whole thing back to them, at their expense, and wait for the working replacement. If your home-built hotrod has a problem, good luck sending individual components back (restocking fees, anyone?)

People like to analogize computer assembly hobbyists to guys who tinker on cars. In my experience, there's a stark difference (in addition to the people who work on cars, generally, being more knowledgeable in their domain than people who assemble computers). Every guy I know who is serious about cars is completely clear-headed about whether or not a given car he is working on is actually drivable. You never see one of these guys saying "oh, yeah, the rear axle breaks if I drive it over 55, sometimes, but on the whole it's reliable transportation!"

I don't really expect to influence anyone with these observations. I still get the latent object sickness from time to time. Fortunately, my friends keep trying to assemble their own computers and encounter the obstacles I've described. This helps remind me that I shouldn't do it again. So if you want to go ahead and roll your own, go ahead. When you are in the depths of your depression, trying to figure out why everything works fine until you try to play an MPEG movie, and then the machine reboots itself (Hi, ewm!) I will be by your side, mocking you.

Mocking you with love.

Posted by peterb at December 1, 2004 09:34 PM | Bookmark This

The other interesting thing I learned in my descent into hell is that CPU speed actually matters much more than GPU brassiness. My "old" GeForce 4Ti pretty much runs at the same frame rates as my shiny Radeon 9800 Pro. More VRAM is obviously nicer, but a 128MB of VRAM seems like a reasonable sweet spot for current games.

I think the only game the looked qualitatively better on the shinier card was Doom 3; even Half Life 2 wasn't noticeably nicer on the 9800 (in terms of visual quality).

Happily, World of Warcraft runs great on my PowerBook, even on trips :).

Posted by Eric Tilton at December 2, 2004 02:05 AM

One other reason to assemble it yourself: driver compatibility under Linux. We don't get vendor drivers quite the same way as everyone else, so we're stuck being very particular about hardware.

That said, my latest PC is a Dell Inspiron 300m, which runs Linux passingly, and I couldn't be much happier =)

Posted by Josh Myer at December 2, 2004 02:20 AM

My friend Jeremy watched The Big Lebowski, and it changed his life. I was not so ... fortunate? But one day I was listening to someone who normally raggedon me for how much more expensive a Mac is (my iBook cost at least $-200 more than his almost equivalent laptop, but at least he couldn't watch DVDs on his, and wasn't at risk of it weighing any less than 3 poinds more than mine), and this person was going on about how much time he spent dealing with the latest WinWorm and attempting to get his video card to run .0625% faster without setting fire to all of the Ukraine, and it came to me:

"Your 'revolution' is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost! My advice is, do what your parents did! Get a Mac, sir! The bums will always lose-- do you hear me, Lebowski?"

Now I'm going to replace the failed hard drive in my wife's PowerBook. When I escape, in 2 days, I'll be happy to tell you how much happier I'd have been the last few days if I'd had a Dell laptop, with drives mounted in the side of the case rather than buried behind the processor, 6 linear feet of concrete, a tesseract, and 4 armed guards who are annoyed at being trapped in a 5 lb laptop.

With any luck I'll have the Legos unpacked by Christmas.

Posted by Faisal N. Jawdat at December 2, 2004 06:37 PM

I think there's a fourth reason not covered in your original list, and it's the one that motivates me. Warren Ellis, in the persona of Spider Jerusalem, summed up my feelings regarding hardware vendors perfectly: "I don't trust any of you dogfuckers."

Every mass-produced PC I've ever seen exudes an air of pervasive cheapness. Every component was carefully hand-selected to do the bare minimum required so it would cost less. Sure, you can't blame the vendors -- with Dell and HP locked in a death struggle to see which one can out-bleed the other, every fraction of a penny counts -- but that doesn't mean that you have to like the result. (Most recent example: the Dell box I use at work came with an 800 MHz FSB CPU, but 333 MHz RAM, meaning that the CPU and RAM were perpetually out of sync. Replacing the cheap RAM with good stuff bumped up the memory throughput by 50%, which is not small potatoes in my book.)

To buy a machine that I could actually feel *good* about, I'd have to go to an outfit like Alienware, and I *can* cobble together my own equivalently-performing box for less than they charge.

I've had fairly decent luck with boxen I've built myself, but then I try to stick to known-good chipsets, and never, ever overclock. (I love to mock overclockers. And not with love. They're the cargo-culters of computing, and I enjoy their self-inflicted suffering the way some people enjoy fine wine.)

Posted by Dan Martinez at December 2, 2004 10:16 PM


I didn't overclock. I bought good parts. I got the supplier (who's well reputed in-town in the DIY community) to assemble CPU/memory/motherboard and stress test, which is a service they provide. And I've had nothing but crazy. The side of the case is still off the machine, since managing heat flow turns out to be a black art with these current joule-burners.

I think we've passed over some sort of tetchiness threshhold in the past year, with stuff like dual channel memory and high speed CPUs having a lot less tolerance for variation then the casual DIYer is going to achieve.

If you're building a nice disk server and don't care about crazy high CPU/GPU speeds, sure, build your own. But I'd also had "fairly decent luck" and figured this last time out would be no different, and then manged to short out my mobo and run up against all kinds of memory stick failures and heat distribution issues.

And next time I'm paying someone else to run up against that.

Posted by Eric Tilton at December 3, 2004 10:19 AM

Well I'm not sure if it the case any longer but often one of the problems with prebuilt machines is that you can't really upgrade them because they use customized motherboards. My current pc is actually still the same one I had 6 years ago, its just gone through lots and lots of minor upgrades over the years. I think I've replaced just about every part at least once since I first built it.

I also totally agree with the cheapness argument that Dan mentioned. While I'll recommend Dell's to anyone who wants a computer, I wouldn't want to touch one for my own personal machine. That said, whenever I do build a computer for me or help someone else build one some problem inevitably arises that requires a bit of troubleshooting.

In any case even if you buy a pc like a Dell you almost have to reformat and reinstall windows right away to get rid of all the extra junk they load on the system.

Posted by Gary at December 3, 2004 06:01 PM

I don't buy the upgrade argument. I mean, sure, you can put in some more RAM, maybe, or add a SCSI card or what have you. But you can do that with most premanufactured machines, too.

If you have a PC that is really 6 years old, here's what you can't do unless you replace the motherboard:

-you can't use PCI Express.
-you can't use 4x or 8x AGP, so whatever videocard you put in will be dog slow, comparatively speaking.
-you can't put in a newer CPU that is substantially faster than whatever was in it in the first place
-you can't use any of the newer, faster RAM.
-you (probably) can't do Serial ATA.

Now, that's all true of a Dell (or what have you) as well. For me to upgrade my home-built box (which is only 4 years old) to even approach the performance of what you can get today, I would need to replace just about every component, including the mainboard. So what's the point?

What upgrades did you do to your PC that you couldn't do on a standard Dell workstation?

Posted by peterb at December 3, 2004 07:14 PM

IMHO the last time building your own machine was fun and interesting was sometime back in the early 80s when you could build a little single board 6809 thing with a keypad and LED display and then write programs in machine code.

These days, "building" a PC is about as enjoyable as rewiring my stereo, but at least when I rewire the stereo I know that the TV will still work when I'm done, which isn't really the case with the PC.

I have no real sympathy for any of the alleged rationale behind building your own, and I especially don't really feel sorry for the linux people who say they only have limited hardware support. If I wanted Unix with limited hardware support, I'd buy a Mac.

Posted by psu at December 6, 2004 09:36 AM

"What upgrades did you do to your PC that you couldn't do on a standard Dell workstation?"

Well perhaps I shouldn't use the words minor upgrade when I did replace the motherboard several times. I did say I'd replaced just about every part though. I really meant minor in the sense that each upgrade only involved a few parts upgrades.

Being able to replace the motherboard though, I can upgrade 3 of the components (cpu, ram, and motherboard) at the same time while keeping the old stuff. Otherwise I'd have to replace everything else with a new pc (video card, hard drive, case, cd/dvd drives, etc).

I also wouldn't say that I do it because it's fun at all, because it's not.

I would say that their is a side benefit though. Whenever something goes wrong with the pc (ram, video card, etc) as any pc would after a certain amount of time I have the experience necessary to troubleshoot the problem instead of going through tech support hell or sending the pc in for repairs. In fact that experience helped get one of my first tech jobs.

Posted by Gary at December 6, 2004 12:59 PM

One of you gentlemen has been promising to "PWN" me for a while now and yet we have not been able to play online because your machine has been down pending a ram and/or video card upgrade for at least eight months now. Why is that? I don't play enough games for it to be because you're afraid of my mousing proficiency.

Really, the text deconstructs itself almost as fast as the jokes write themselves.

Posted by Faisal N. Jawdat at December 7, 2004 11:19 AM

Please help support Tea Leaves by visiting our sponsors.

November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January

December November October September August July June May April March February January