Thursday, April 13, 2006

"You Get What You Pay For"

I was given a custom-built computer that is... about three or four years old I think.  It has an AMD 700MHz CPU and came with a five-inch floppy drive and a mediocre video board.  I put in an ATI Radeon 9600 video board (with 256MB DDR) that had been sleeping in a closet for a couple of years, and replaced the five-inch floppy drive with a CD-RW drive (it already had one, but it wasn't reading some of my disks).  All seemed well and it was working fine with SuSE 10.0, but then I took a more detailed look at the motherboard and discovered that the large capacitors are ballooning....

Muttering "Tada-hodo takai mono wa nai" ("Nothing is so expensive as that which is free"), I marched off to Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku (I should have gone to Akihabara, but didn't have time) and placed myself upon the mercy of one of the guys working in the basement of Minami-kan (I think - the one that is internally connected to the main store).  I had removed the board with the disintegrating capacitors and brought it with me, so I showed it to him and - after confirming that the CPU and memory in the old board would not be usable in a new board - asked what they had in the way of replacement motherboards that used AMD and are cheap.  The shopkeeper looked at my old board, thought for about three seconds, and then went into a back room, soon returning with a spiffy-looking green box with AMD written all over it.

Thinking "How much are the three separate components (motherboard, CPU, & memory) I'm about to buy going to cost?", I was surprised to hear that the spiffy-looking box contained a set of all three of those for Y9,800.  "Well... that's cool!" I stupidly thought, envisioning only the off-new specifications (not a problem) and forgetting there was the not-so-minor issue of mechanical design to deal with, not to mention my own personal theory (and experience) that a spiffy box wrapped around a cheap product generally is indicative of garbage inside.  Looking at the box now, I note that "AMD" is proudly written large in 24 places all over the box, and the board name "DFI" just twice in small letters on the back (once as "DFI K8M800-MLVF").  One could be forgiven for suspecting (in hindsight alas!) that they are trying to hide a bad name with a good one.

But back to Yodobashi Camera and before the storm - I stepped out into the rain and proudly carried the box home and set about installing it in the custom box.  (Incidentally, what do you call a custom box with no name that you are given?  Do you give it a name like a pet, or just call it a "box" forevermore?  Suddenly I understand why custom computer owners call their machines boxes - I sometimes call my OptiPlex GX-1 a box, but generally think of it as "OptiPlex-2".)  First step was to plug in the CPU, its heat sink & fan, and the PC3200 memory boards (the kit 256MB & a separately bought 512MB, both in "CFD Sales Inc." boxes - "Memory Module for EXPERTS" it says - He-he!)  And then....

"What's this?  The board isn't sliding under the overhanging wiring the way it should be - what's getting in the way..?" I mutter, and then discover that - rotten design - the power connector for the board is at the top corner by the CD-ROM drives and the cable connector and other parts prevent it from being installed without taking the side screws out of the CD-ROM drives and sliding them halfway out of the machine.  "Well, that sucks!  But I guess I can still use it even with the CD-ROM drives hanging halfway out and in harm's way..." think I as I push on.  Next thing is the rectangular panel that should snap into place and then match up with the external connectors of the motherboard.  It's so flaky and uncooperative that I decide to skip using it - it doesn't provide any mechanical support for the connectors anyway and I know what they are without the labeling - "What's a little extra space around the plugs in the back... maybe it will provide better ventilation..." I think as I begin sinking into an unhappy and stormy cloud.

I was pretty disgusted with the project by the time I got the new motherboard bolted down, so the discovery of the flaky and nearly impossible to decipher pins and their bad labeling didn't come as a shock, but just another wave washing into an already sinking boat (the old board, by way of contrast, was infinitely more intelligently designed).  I made my best guess with the wiring, plugged in the power, and the machine seemed to come to life, but the only effect on the monitor was strange flashing of the setting lights, so with visions of the bloody thing not only not working but damaging innocent external equipment as well, I cut the power, removed the now hated board and put the old one back in.  It works fine again, but those ballooning capacitors will not last long.

I thought of taking it back and exchanging it for a more expensive and better board ("You get what you pay for"), but as I looked at the pile of packaging around me and the new board with the CPU in place, I realized it wouldn't be ready to just put back on the shelf, so I put the board back in the static-free bag, tore up and threw away most of the internal packing and put the board aside with a feeling of disgust as I noted the time - 4:00 a.m.  "Another night's sleep stolen by computers - the greatest sleep deprivation device known to mankind!" muttered ten-year veteran of the Equipment War Used-Machines-Lyle.  Methinks I'm about to become "New-Machines-Lyle" as I dream of an all-new custom box with parts beginning life under my command.  What I'm wondering now is what to do with the CPU - is it one I should put to work for me or should I shelf it and go for something newer?  It's a... I'm not sure what - there's the name "Sempron"; the box says "2600+ Socket 754"; and on the chip it has "AMD 2001"(!), so does that mean it's five years old?  It can't be that old... can it?

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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