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November 11, 2002 8:37 AM CST

Getting Technical - Looking 'Inside the Box'


Handy with tools? Like to see what makes a machine tick? Then maybe you are ready for an easy challenge: building your next office computer.

Computers are no longer as scary as they were a decade or two ago. In fact, it is very rare to find anyone who doesn't do some work — or play — on a computer today. It is right up there with the telephone and television set when someone thinks "ubiquitous technology."

But one thing hasn't changed: computers are still complicated. Open that box and the array of electronic chips and components is impressive, even to those weaned on using these electronic marvels. The best approach, then, is to view them not as chips but as modules. After all, no one expects you to get into the design of the internal connections of that microprocessor or start soldering components onto the printed circuit board. But assembling modules? Piece of cake.

Having said that, for those of you old enough to have assembled a HeathKit radio or Radio Shack stereo back in the '50s or '60s, building a computer today is a snap. In fact, if you can assemble a ten-speed bike on Christmas morning, you can build your own computer system and save some significant money in the process.

What's in the box?
The basic desktop computer system is composed of several modules that are readily available. If you want to eliminate the initial assembly of the processor to the motherboard (main printed circuit board) and it to the power supply and case, purchase a "basic" system from one of the many computer retailers on the Internet. For $300 or less, you get the case, power supply and motherboard with processor already connected and tested. These systems usually have a reasonable amount of RAM (random access memory, the first level of data storage), and a floppy drive installed, as well.

What else is needed? Input/output devices and one or more methods of data storage — such as a hard drive and CD-RW (Compact Disk Read/Write drive) — complete the basic system.

The term input/output (I/O) refers to the human interface components — keyboard and mouse to tell the system what you want it to do, and monitor and printer for it to tell you what it did. At another level, I/O can also refer to networking capability or additional peripherals used to connect digital cameras, scanners, and other gadgets to the system.

Connections inside and out
Networking several computers together adds to the capacity of the overall system and, when done right, gives each user access to "more than the sum of the parts" involved. Moving data from one computer to another via networking adds functionality and improves productivity at very little added cost.

The hard drive is the mass storage device. In the early days of the desktop personal computer (PC), storage was on a magnetic tape — literally a cassette from a music system — or magnetic sheet, formed into a disk and encased in a paper envelope. This floppy disk, and they were truly floppy in those days, was inserted into a drive that caused the disk to spin and the data to be written magnetically on the sheet.

Over the past two decades, "floppy" disks have become encased in hard plastic, have shrunk in size and increased in capacity. In many systems, they have also become obsolete, replaced by the CD drive. Very little software is distributed on floppy disks, but floppy drives can come in handy for system boot disks and virus definitions should your computer ever crash. These units can still serve a useful function day-to-day as a portable data storage device, allowing you to carry 1.44 up to 2.88 Mb (megabytes) of data in a shirt pocket.

Because they are enclosed in plastic — which will warp and even melt if left in the direct sun, fair warning — the floppy disk protects the data rather well. But high capacity is what everyone wants these days, partially because everything we do on a computer requires significantly more data than 20 years ago.

Filling the box
Applications, the programs that we use to make computers worthwhile, have gained so much in capability, at the expense of increased data needs, that the CD, with a storage capacity of 650 Mb or more, has replaced the floppy in most situations. Luckily, without much fanfare, the cost of not only a CD drive — for "playing" the data in the computer — but of a CD burner has dropped to well under $100. By incorporating the ability to read and write, or even write repeatedly, data to the CD format, a burner makes the system much more functional.

Back to the hard drive. My first computer with a hard drive, in 1985, cost more than $6,000 and the drive capacity was 5 Mb. Today, an 80 Gb drive — a gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes — costs under $100. Don't skimp on data storage, either in the hard drive or RAM. At today's prices, this is the easiest and cheapest way to a useful system.

The need for speed
So what do we have in the box now? The motherboard with processor — typically rated in MHz — and RAM, connected to a floppy drive, hard drive and CD. In all cases, the "need for speed" will determine the cost. Still, a good system can be had for less than $500 by careful selection.

Take the processor speed. Power users — especially those that play simulation games like Doom or Tomb Raider — want the fastest processor they can afford. Most office systems don't gain much in using the faster processors for the simple reason that users, and the applications commonly used in offices, don't require nearly the speed of data transfer fast processors offer. The term "overkill" comes to mind. It's like buying a new super stereo system and playing 20-year-old cassettes on it.

How fast is fast enough? Today's medium priced processors are rated about 1.0 GHz. Fast ones are...well, they change so rapidly, whatever figure I quote will be ancient news by the time you read this. And that is another reason to target the need of the user and his or her applications rather than seeking the fastest — today's fastest will be tomorrow's slug.

Does a desktop system really become obsolete when the newest fast processor comes out? Not right away, but the power curve does draw software vendors into a nasty habit of spiraling capability and, naturally, increasing power requirements. Sort of, "The speed and power is available, why not use it?"

The software footprint
Of course, not everyone has nor wants that newest, fastest, most powerful system — at least not until they find the newest, most powerful applications to improve the business only run on those speed demons. Jim Meidl, CEO of J. Meidl Systems and the maker of Tut Software, has been "playing with computers" since 1974. He told me, "When we first designed software, because disk space was so expensive, you had to key in the transactions, run an audit report, run the program and update. In the process, the detail was lost. Now, we can program the software to do everything automatically because the power is available. Even so, power isn't the answer to improving the business functions of the computer, careful planning and structuring of the applications is the key."

Indeed, the key to any technology is to know what you want to accomplish and finding the best way to do it. As Meidl says, "You've got to design a business solution. Remember, every business solution can be implemented by hand. There is nothing that the computer can do that you cannot do by hand if you had enough time. You can design solutions by hand, and then implement them with computers, taking advantage of the computer's speed."

So if you are going to be using your new system for word processing, accounting, scheduling and other normal office routines, let the needs of the software determine the speed of the computer. Overrate the system by 25 to 50 percent from where you are today to give it the headroom you'll need as your applications requirements change but don't waste money and effort on something that does more than you'll ever ask it to do for you.

One area to invest in, however, is RAM. The more you have, the faster the system will seem to operate. This is because the data transfer path starts with RAM and, if you don't have enough, it then has to find space in the hard drive, at a much slower access rate. The more capability you can load into RAM, the faster the system will work in normal operation.

Internet buying
So where are we? A moderately priced basic system from a typical Internet retailer will have a 1.5 GHz processor, 128 Mb RAM and a 133 MHz bus speed. Bus speed? That's the rate of data transfer between the components — to and from the drives and the RAM or processor depending on the application Again, speed is nice, but not necessary for every application or user.

Add a CD-RW (read, write and rewrite capable), an 80 Gb hard drive, video/monitor card, network interface card (NIC) and a modem — not necessary if you connect to the Internet via the network card using cable or DSL (digital subscriber line). Careful selection should be able to get you that system partially assembled and tested for less than $500. You'll have to install the drives and cards, none of which is heavy lifting. Typically, the drives, such as the CD-RW, will come with the necessary cables to connect them to the system. The instruction sheet, rarely more than one page long, will explain the settings for "master/slave" operation and which connector on the cable goes where. And, if you run into trouble, just ask the local computer whiz — your son or daughter or the teenager next door.

Open the Windows
Ah, the operating system. Since upwards of 80 percent of the office PCs today run an Intel or compatible processor and Microsoft Windows, the two are often considered interdependent. That's not absolutely true. AMD has competitively priced, high quality processors, and you can run several other operating systems, including versions of UNIX — one of the oldest small computer systems — and Linux. What you can't run is Apple's Macintosh operating system, currently Mac OS-X.

A decade ago, the trend was toward "open systems." UNIX was one, Windows wasn't. Not one to watch market share slip slide away, Microsoft developed their "New Technology" OS, Windows NT that combined many of the attributes of open systems — but did so in a still proprietary way. In a few years, Windows NT, and subsequently Windows 2000 and XP/Professional, had displaced UNIX in all but a few high-performance systems and environments. Most systems administrators complain about the "bugs" and the crashes, but Windows is the default OS on the desktop.

It can be said with confidence that whatever applications you need to run your business, they are available on Windows. Many are only available on Windows. So unless you feel the urge to spend months reprogramming an application that you need so it runs on an OS like Linux, bite the bullet and plan on installing a Windows variation.

Filling that box
If you have lots of money to spend on custom software, that can be an option. Meidl notes, "Some customers still have the custom software mentality. They pay us to make changes to our programs so they can use them in ways we didn't intend. They can justify spending $2000 for custom programming changes when somebody else is choking on $5000 to buy the whole program."

An application like Tut, designed for the mason contractor and how masonry businesses are operated, makes a good base for the specialized office functions such as accounting, payroll and scheduling. Add a suite product like Microsoft Office or Corel WordPerfect Office, and you'll have all the common applications in place.

As Meidl points out, simple isn't bad when you start out. "If you haven't had any computer, any generic program that lets you go from manual to computer will be pretty neat for awhile. It will allow you to do a fair amount of work. Then, as your business grows a bit more, you begin to realize there are a lot of things that you have to do that the basic system doesn't do. Once you know enough about computers to know what it could do it if it was programmed right, once that light flashes on, you go out in the market and look for programs that are more specifically tailored to your industry. That's when you look at programs that inherently operate closer to the way you operate."

That also can be said of the "box" in which these applications reside. Think of it as a tool — if you know how to use it right, it makes the job a lot easier. What's physically inside that box isn't as critical as what is run on it. We can all assembly a full functional computer in a matter of hours but it takes a lot longer to make it do what we want, run the business and help us make a profit.

About the Author

Tom Inglesby is a San Diego-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. He is the winner of the Construction Writers Association's 2002 Boger Award for Special Reports.


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