I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately: Everyone who built his own PC knows everything. Just ask him.
Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s admirable to build your own PC rather than just buying Dell’s special of the week (although some people would be better off just doing exactly that), and it does require at least skill with handling a screwdriver. But it’s not what it used to be. Today, building a PC makes you know something. It no longer makes you an expert.
The first PC I built was in the early 1990s. It was a 386. I did it as a personal favor; an organization I worked with had a 286 that blew its power supply, and I couldn’t locate a compatible replacement because of the machine’s semi-proprietary nature (it was almost a standard AT but not quite). So we bought a used AT case and a 386 motherboard, I disassembled the 286, and I started building.
Back then, a motherboard was a motherboard. It had a CPU, it had slots, and that was all that was guaranteed. Some motherboards didn’t even have their memory slots onboard. This one did, but that was only true about half the time. Plug and Play didn’t exist yet, unless you were working on an Amiga or a Macintosh. You had 15 IRQs to work with, several of which were taken up by the system, and no sharing was allowed.
The store mounted the motherboard in the case for me. It wasn’t a terribly difficult job, but since they didn’t charge me for it, why not let them save me some work? Besides, they didn’t want me connecting the power supply leads incorrectly and blowing up the motherboard, then returning the whole mess as “defective.” Yes, in those days if you got your power leads plugged in wrong–they weren’t keyed to prevent you–you would blow the board.
When I got the loot back home, I started off with the easy stuff. After I plugged in the memory, I pulled the serial/parallel board out of the 286 and transplanted it to the 386. Now I could hook up a mouse and a printer. Next was the video card. That, too, was easy. Those boards all had lots of jumpers and DIP switches, but they’d already been configured for me.
The disk controller was trickier. The 286’s controller was on the motherboard, which was very unusual for the time, and was what kept the 286’s motherboard from simply fitting into a new case–it was an odd size and shape, even though its keyboard port was in the right place and its slots were in the right place. So I had to set IRQs. I did that, then put the card in place, then transplanted the floppy drives over.
I fired the system up and inserted a DOS floppy. It did its memory test. Then I went into CMOS setup and told it the types of floppy drives it had. I exited and let the system boot. It booted. Excellent. I had a working computer, and I was just a step away from having a computer complete with a hard drive.
To that end, I plugged in an IDE controller. I jumpered it properly–or so I thought–and then transplanted the IDE drive over from the 286. It choked. No memory test. No nothing. I couldn’t even get into CMOS setup.
Backwards IDE cable, right? Nope. I checked that. I even tried a couple of different cables.
I struggled with the hard drive for hours and didn’t get anywhere. Finally I called the computer store. They couldn’t suggest anything I hadn’t told them I already tried, so I drove in and dropped off the mess. They struggled with it for a couple of days. Eventually they found the drive was one of the few 8-bit IDE drives made, and it was compatible with a limited number of controllers, and those controllers only worked in some 286s. They took the drive as a trade-in, and they backed up the data to tape, then restored the tape to the replacement drive for me. I took the drive home, plugged it in, and fired up the machine.
This time, it did the memory test. Excellent. I went into CMOS setup, and fed it the parameters for the drive–no IDE autodetect here, boys. I exited, and the system restarted, and booted off the drive.
It was definitely a rite of passage. I started on a Thursday afternoon, expecting to have the system running by Thursday evening. By the end, it was Tuesday evening when it was running. I did everything right, but an unanticipated problem–one that even stumped the experts–hung me up.
It humbled me. At the end I knew a lot. I knew I knew a lot. But I also knew there was a world of not-so-obvious problems and tricky solutions out there, and that I didn’t know everything. There certainly were people out there who knew a whole lot more than me.
It was a while before I tried building a PC again. But for a year or so in the late ’90s, it was how I made my living. I know I built more than 100 in 1997-98. And I saw some weird stuff then too, but never anything as weird as my first. A lot changed in those few years, and a lot more has changed in the five years since.
Today, you can buy an ATX motherboard with everything–not just the serial and parallel ports and disk controllers, but even sound, video, and Ethernet–integrated onto one board. Sometimes “building a computer” is literally nothing more than mounting a motherboard, hard drive and CD/DVD drive in a case, then running power to the motherboard and a power cable to each drive, then an IDE cable to each drive, slapping in a stick of memory, and closing the case up. Even if you go for discrete cards for video and sound, it adds less than five minutes to the process. The hard part is busting out the back cover from the card’s slot and finding the right screw to hold it in place. Any flunkie can plug the card in and expect it to work.
The people who soldered together computers from kits in the 1970s would say that what I did in the early ’90s wasn’t building a computer. What they did took a lot more time and patience and skill to accomplish. When they finished, they had a lot more understanding of what went into the computer and how it worked than I did. Who am I to disagree? Working with completed ISA boards that only need a couple of DIP switches flipped separated me a lot from the heart of the machine. But the computers of today move you yet another order of magnitude away from the internals of the machine. Just as it’s possible today to pump gas into your car without knowing anything about how a car works or how to fix it if something breaks, it’s possible today to build a PC without knowing anything about how a computer works or how to fix it if something breaks.
You just throw it away and buy a new one, right?