On building your own PC

It all started when I read an article in a digital photography magazine that explained that installing a second disk drive in a PC and using that as the cache drive improved the performance of Photoshop Elements. It made me think that, in addition to buying the new digital SLR, I OBVIOUSLY and ABSOLUTELY NEEDED to upgrade the machine I used to edit the images that it produced.

I spoke to colleagues at work, one a fan of Apples and the other an proponent of home building PCs. I heard that virtually everyone who was interested in image manipulation used an Apple - something to do with being arty and therefore different - and instantly felt the need to be different from the people who wanted to be different. PCs were cheaper and, if you built your own, you wouldn't get things you didn't want, like a room full of speakers or a free camera. I also heard about Shuttle's SFF bare bones systems (i.e. a small box without all the bits) with interest, I've always been keen on miniturisation, and with the right components it sounded as if it would be ideal, if it could be built.

At this point a rare and dangerous streak of optimism in my make-up revealed itself. Despite having spent 16 years in IT without learning my SATA from my IDE, I decided to go for it, after all, how difficult could it be? A little voice in my head said a few salient things at the time but I ignored it.

I spent a week-end surfing the net for information and decided on a set of parts that would clearly work and, following the nod from my PC expert, I ordered it on the web. It arrived the next day and with some excitement I unpacked it all that evening. The little voice inside my head was forced to quieten when I found that all the bits were there as ordered but it laughed openly when I discovered that, whilst the motherboard supported RAID (two disk drives) there was only space for one if the built-in card reader (one of the features that irrationally attracted me to the SN85G4 in the first place) was to remain in place. When it realised that I had ordered the Athlon 64 3200+ as a retail item complete with a fan that couldn't be used, because of Shuttle's cooling system, the insane cackling really started to annoy me.

Still, no matter, it could still be built into a fast new system and the fan and disk would be useful if I decided to use a different case in future so it wasn't a problem, was it?

That was Thursday, but I had to go out and so couldn't start on it in anger (that came later!). It was Friday when I faced the prospect of starting the build. I thought about it and decided to wait until Saturday when I was fresh, so I opened a bottle of wine and relaxed in front of the TV. Of course, after a couple of glasses, I changed my mind and so, by about midnight, I had the system assembled. It all went quite well, much to the voice's irritation, although it took a while to convince myself that smearing grease on the top of the 200 processor was a good idea (it improves cooling, apparently). Emboldened by the rate of progress, I attempted to install Windows XP and this proved to be not such a good idea. It appeared not to recognise the hard drive and I gave up after taking the case off and wiggling the leads, tomorrow, it seemed would be another day.

Battle recommenced at about six on Saturday morning, having re-grouped over night. Within an hour or so I had created a bootable CD, using a combination of my laptop and my old desktop machine and, having successfully started the machine from this, I formatted the drive as described in the instructions for the motherboard and re-tried the installation... which failed.

I upgraded the BIOS (not that difficult, it turns out), which, surprise, surprise, made no difference.

At this point I made my first(?) mistake. I used my working PC to search the net for possible causes and found that the Microsoft site had some 'valuable' information, explaining that it was a memory problem.

I tried each of the two memory cards in each of the two slots, replacing the case each time. Superstition had set in by this point and I was convinced that it wouldn't start up without it. The length of time it took for the install program to reach the point of failure on each occasion is probably best glossed over, as is my visit to PC World to buy more memory and a new monitor, the latter simply to avoid having to repeatedly swap my other monitor from one machine to another - it gets rather tedious after the fiftieth time.

The new memory was, naturally, no better than the first and at this point the little voice went off, clutching its ribs, to find a quiet place to howl in peace while I assessed the situation.

I should mention that, in a weak moment, I had suggested to my father that a self-assembled PC might suit his requirements, so I phoned him to say that if anyone was ever stupid enough to suggest such a thing that he should ignore it. I had I said, "probably the fastest DOS based PC in the western world", but no means of running anything like a photo editor (I dimly recalled that this was the motivation for the project).

Having reached desperation point, I remembered something I had read about loading disk drivers from a 3.5" diskette (in fact on the basis of this I had ordered a diskette drive... but no cable of course) and, pausing only for the half-hour or so it took to get the laptop to connect to the net in case of emergencies, I cannibalised my working machine for parts. With a suitably equipped drive hanging out of the side of my shiny new machine and what I hoped were the correct files on disk, it only took a couple of goes to get the windows install working (you press F6 when it starts up, of course). Having removed the diskette drive, I had to use a pair of plastic chop-sticks to re-attach the USB port connector that I had also dislodged, but by this time I was pretty much dulled by the whole thing and it only took a few minutes of swearing.

Since then I've merely had to contend with the appearance of a virus that periodically shut the machine down and the in-built assumption by Windows that I am, despite my assertions to the contrary, really an American (and right-handed, apparently). It even looks as if the wireless network with my laptop is working for more than 50% of the time. So all in all, I have a very quick and stylish PC which is easily capable of handling Photoshop elements and the images from my camera. It only has one disk drive though, err...