John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · 26 May 2004
Homebuilt PCs Still No Cakewalk
When I was a kid I was an accomplished chessplayer that could compete with adults; nevertheless the kid-to-kid competition was not necesssarily easy. When I told an adult friend I would be playing in an upcoming scholastic tournament he said, "That should be a cakewalk, huh", assuming that the challenge would be lesser than an adult tournament. Naturally during the tournament I kept thinking, cakewalk, cakewalk, it's supposed to be a cakewalk. Predictably the tournament was a disaster and I lost most my games.

Building your own PC is a lot easier than it used to be, but it's still no cakewalk. After agonizing through the process I can verify that it is possible for a power user to do, but be prepared for some pain and maybe some phone calls. Definitely save your receipts.

Parts standardization has removed most of the critical bugaboos that haunted whiteboxes in the old days. For example, power supplies are standardized and case form factors are exact with correctly located punchouts. Drilling holes and making your standoffs is no longer necessary. Cables, cords and power headers are all standardized and motherboards come with "I/O shields" that interface their sockets to the back of the case. With the internet you have instant access to virtually any driver you might need. No more waiting around for a week while some guy in Wichita snail mails you a floppy disk.

So much for the easy part. It starts to get harder when you realize that case and motherboard instructions tend to be a little vague and even contradictory. For example, my Intel motherboard instructions listed two different, contradictory pinouts for the LED headers. If you don't even know what an LED header is, then there you go.

Once you have screwed everything together the tough part comes: making it work. For example, if you just turn the machine on the screen might just be black. Great the screen is black. Now what? After considerable research I figured out what it was: on the motherboard is an undocumented jumper that controls whether the board is in "normal", "configure" or "upgrade" mode. I had bought the board second-hand and whoever possessed it before me had removed that jumper, putting the board into "upgrade" mode, where it does nothing but try to load a BIOS upgrade from the floppy drive. Finding out about the jumper required combing through voluminous technical documentation on Intel's website.

If you think that was tough one, next you need to figure out how to start the machine. After all the harddrive is blank. If you just turn the machine on the message is "NO LOADABLE OS" or something to that effect and then blackness. You have to use the harddrive's CD on a different, working machine to make a special bootable floppy to partition the drive. Now you can install the operating system using the CD ROM assuming your motherboard's BIOS can operate the CD ROM drive. If it can't you are in for some pain.

Now comes the toughest part of all. You've installed your operating system but nothing works. The built-in ethernet does not work, the video adapter does not work, the sound card does not work. Why? Because virtually no motherboard will work out of the box--there must be drivers installed for both the BIOS and the chipset. You must locate these drivers from out of vast array of confusingly similar named drivers and install them to your new OS. The only thing is these drivers are megabytes in size and your ethernet connection does not work. How do get them on the box? I eventually solved this problem by finding and installing a zip drive driver on machine and using a zip drive to transfer the necessary files. Even this was not simple. Iomega wants you to use a 10-megabyte download to operate zip drives now. Without a f***ing ethernet connection there is no easy way to get this file onto the machine. Maybe they expect me to span it across 10 floppy disks. No thanks.

Now you have figured out the drivers you need and got them to the machine. The installation instructions are in 30 pages of densely-worded text offering five different modes of installation and what to do for each one. Instructions for the different modes are mixed together and include commands like "neuinst_inf.exe -A -A". That's two As, not one, got it? If you think you got it right you can find out only by checking a registry entry (!) in which the string "success" appears if it worked.

Of course I only got to this stage by talking to somebody. When I first tried to install the software for my video card I got a cryptic error for which an internet search turned up worthless suggestions that did not work and wasted a lot of time. Lucky for me the card was "pre-owned" and the putz named Jason who brought it back to the store had gone through the onerous registration process and then recorded both his name and customer number in the instruction booklet. Ooooooh, its my lucky day. I call them up. The conversation goes like this:

Them: "What is your customer number?"

Me: "123blahblah" [you don't pass Go and don't collect $200 unless you know this number]

Them: "What is your name?" [crafty, they want to verify I have the number legitimately]

Me: "Jason"

Them: "Are you still having that black screen?" [I guess we know why Jason returned the card]

Me: "Uh, no, I got past that. The driver installation is giving cryptic error blah, blah"

Them: "I'm going to bump you up to level 2 support, please hold"

[I now repeat everthing for Mr. Level2]

Them2: "Try this... blah blah" [something obvious I already tried, but I do it again anyway]

Me: "It didn't work"

[This now continues for 15 minutes while I execute additional worthless suggestions most of which I already tried unsuccessfully already.]

Them2: "You probably need to upgrade your chipset driver... blah blah [explanation of what this is]"

Me: "Thank you very much, I'm glad it only took me three hours to find that out."

And now you are ready to move onto the driver step mentioned above. Finally you can finish installing all the drivers for everything, CD-ROM, video, sound card, hard drive, onboard ethernet, onboard audio, AGP, etc. Exhausted yet? Now imagine trying to install all these drivers and none of them work because your chipset driver or BIOS driver is wrong. Are you ready to buy a Gateway yet?

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