The very successful format remains for the fifth edition of this easy to read guide to building a computer. The fast moving nature of the information technology industry makes regular revisions of this work essential but the basics remain unchanged.
The authors start by asking the obvious question of, “Why build a computer yourself?”
NAME: Build your own Computer, Fifth Edition
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: Kyle MacRae & Gary Marshall
PUBLISHER: Haynes Publishing
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non fiction
SUBJECT: Computers, Personal Computers, Intel, AMD, Microsoft windows, Linux, Ubuntu, displays, printers, scanners, computer cases, midi tower, full tower, descktop, memory, hard drive, cables
DESCRIPTION: The very successful format remains for the fifth edition of this easy to read guide to building a computer. The fast moving nature of the information technology industry makes regular revisions of this work essential but the basics remain unchanged.
The authors start by asking the obvious question of, “Why build a computer yourself?”
The answers are provided and the guide gets underway with planning a perfect computer, moving into the selection of hardware, the construction and the finishing touches. The book then provides some valuable appendices.
Most computer users settle for an off-the-peg computer from the local PC shop and, in the process, acquire a compromise that may do much of what they want but may not do it very well. Designing components for a computer is a costly and complex process that requires great skill and specialist expertise. Deciding which components to buy and then assembling them is remarkably straightforward. This books demonstrates just how easy it is and how much benefit the user can derive. The first surprise is how few tools are required. Much of the work is a matter of pressing connections together and slotting cards and other components into mounting slots. The advanced work may be no more than using a screwdriver.
Following the well-proven Haynes approach to DIY Manuals: clear text; logical layout, and; lavish illustration, combine to demystify what many initially see as a terrifyingly complex subject. What most users do not appreciate is that the typical computer in the PC shop has been built in exactly the same way even if the “manufacturer” is a very large corporation. It is possible to buy three apparently identical models from the same shop and find that, once the cases are removed, the components in each machine are different, sometimes very different. This is because the largest manufacturers are essentially planning a machine and then sourcing the components on the open market, buying from several different suppliers. The large computer companies often manufacture high-end servers and mainframes in their own factories but expand their range to personal computers and computer workstations by assembling bought-in components. Sometimes the manufacturer will design a case but often the individual element is the badge.
The commodity machines, most likely to be found in the local computer shop, have been through “value engineering” since the first machine was assembled. To reduce costs significantly, to improve profit, or reduce price, the “manufacturer” invites bids from the companies that design and manufacture the components. This means that a glossy new machine may contain many components that are end-of-production products, sold at disposal prices.
As the authors so ably describe, any computer user can and should plan the computer that will best meet their needs. Instead of buying a compromise machine ready assembled, the user can decide which capabilities are most needed. It may be that the computer will be used for advanced gaming and require very fast processor performance that can be useful in other roles but is not really required in those roles. To achieve maximum processor performance an over-clocked chip may be desirable and that produces considerable heat, requiring a water-cooled processor and a case that can accommodate a number of extra cooling fans. If the computer is to be used by a photographer, it will need the ability to house a number of very large hard drives to store the photographs and/or video clips. The list of optimum performance options is almost endless because every user has different specific requirements. The authors have set out the criteria for planning and advised on the sources for components. In the process considerable savings can be made in addition to creating the ideal computer for each user.
It is very difficult to find points to criticize. The advice on choosing components and assembling them into a casing is very clear and easy to follow. There are only two areas where perhaps improvement could be made but that is bounded by the inevitable constraints of printing a paper book. The publishers have produced a very affordable printed-paper book that is produced to a high standard with excellent photographs that are printed in full colour through the book. Expanding the authors brief could result in significant cost implications and there is also the matter of subject perspective.
To the reviewer, a computer system is the complete system available to the user and not just the basic package of a boxed processor. That means that the computer system comprises memory and storage, where some storage may be outside the computer box, an operating system and a range of peripherals. The authors have covered the alternatives for processors and not just settled for Intel processors. As a result they have included the excellent Phenon II x 6 processor from AMD which offers great performance and can be run over-clocked in gaming computers to produce blistering performance. They have also covered the key components that go into a typical computer casing and show alternative casings that are optimised for particular computer use. The fastest processors may appeal primarily to the computer gamer, but machines will be used at home for processor intensive operations by some users and speed is also important for that class of user.
The first area that might have been altered relates to Operating Systems and applications software. The authors have included, to the back of the book, information on free software, but they have spent a chapter covering the installation of Microsoft Windows Operating Systems. It might have been better to cover operating systems and software in more detail at the planning stage because the software can completely change the functionality of any assembly of physical hardware. The Operating System may be proprietary, such as Microsoft Windows, or Open Software, as with Linux in its many flavours.
If the user starts with a strong paranoia, which some will see as intelligent concern for risk management, the starting point could be with an embedded trusted Linux Operating System, processor and motherboard package. That would provide a very robust and attack resistant platform onto which all the other components are then assembled. If high assurance and integrity are desired, the embedded operating system and motherboard may restrict the choice of other components.
For many, Linux, and particularly the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, provides a very attractive alternative to Microsoft Windows. This product is a package of Operating System and a wide range of applications that can be installed very easily. It can also be loaded into the same machine that has the MS Windows Operating System, where a separate partition is created, allowing the user to decide which Operating system to select each time the computer is started. It is also possible to load Linux and run MS Windows in emulation. The reason for having two different Operating Systems available is that the high performance and security of Ubuntu can be fully enjoyed, but MS Windows is available to run applications which have already been purchased and may offer some benefits over equivalent Free Software applications. Once loaded, the Ubuntu package is easy to keep up-to-date and there is a huge selection of other applications that can be downloaded from the Internet. For many, the most attractive factor is that all of this is free to download. For other users the attraction is that Open Source software can be obtained either in the runtime version or as source code. If the source code versions are available, a skilled user can adapt the software and build new modules to produce unique functionality taking “Building Your Own Computer” to the next logical level to produce the perfect system.
However, Linux offers another very interesting set of options for the DIY computer builder. When Microsoft produce a new version of their Windows products it soon becomes almost impossible to avoid using the new product at extra cost to replace a functioning earlier version. The new version may not work well with the hardware it is loaded onto and either a new computer is also required, or extensive work may be required to modify the current machine. Once that is done, most of the proprietary applications will not run reliably on the new platform, forcing the user to pay out more money to buy licenses for current versions of the applications. In the Linux environment, the user only updates when he or she wants to and the updates are usually completely free of charge. That can be a huge advantage financially and operationally, but it means the choice starts at the beginning. Anyone building a computer, and intending to use Linux and Free Software, can use hardware components that are lower cost and unsuitable for the current versions of Microsoft products, opening up the opportunity to use second hand components at extremely low cost. If the components and software meet the user’s needs there is no imperative to buy the latest components and it may be possible to make minor modifications to an old machine rather than scrapping it and starting again.
For the more skilled user, there is also the option to create an enormously powerful computer for very little money by using the Linux Beowulf cluster to link a number of computers together. This method of building a very powerful computer cluster at little cost has the unfortunate consequence of enabling hackers to build super brain capability at amazingly low cost for breaking passwords and encryption. Perhaps it is not so much a case of the reviewer suggesting some changes for the sixth edition of this excellent book, as suggesting there may be a case for a new book to take those, who used the well-proven manual to start building their own computers, to the next level, opening a completely new computing world to them.
The second area where the manual could be expanded, or a new related book produced, is in covering the peripherals. In its current form, the manual describes the building of a home or personal computer or workstation. Today, most users will also acquire a large number of important peripherals that are integrated into the machine. Commonly these products are purchased ready to plug into the computer. However, the design of a computer can be radically impacted by the range of peripherals that it is expected to work with and this includes the network. There will also be situations, even at home, where it is better to assemble computer equipment into a rack and access it from a very simple touch screen computer that is probably linked by WiFi. In part this is influenced jointly by the increasing number of people who work from home through a computer and the increasing number of services provided for the home that are intended to link to each other and to the Internet. In this fifth edition, the authors have included coverage briefly of some peripherals and looked at a simplified computer that may be used for home entertainment or to control other domestic equipment.
We are currently at a key development stage in home computing. In the 1980s, home computers were very experimental and learning tools. In the 1990s, the business Personal Computer began to reduce rapidly in price and Internet access became more widely available and affordable, allowing the PC and communications access to arrive in the home. From 2000, PC gaming and social networking began to change the way that home computing affected lives. The use of computers to handle images also increased significantly as digital cameras began to replace film cameras, requiring a method of displaying images and video at home, and creating a desire to enhance images on a computer. In 2012 the home computer is becoming part of audio-visual entertainment and it is becoming more common to access television programs from a broadband connection than from a broadcast receiver and aerial or dish antenna. The greater changes though are the steps to link in-home CCTV cameras, heating and ventilation controls and domestic appliances together in a home network that can be accessed remotely from a smart phone. In due course, manufacturers are likely to design domestic equipment that has a common interface that may be a WiFi unit. In the meantime there is scope for the home computer builder to move on from planning and assembling a home computer for general use or gaming, to planning a network that may employ a rack to neatly locate all the main components in one part of the home, using WiFi access from smart phones and compact portable computers and offering remote access via the Internet. The caution to these opportunities is that they also greatly increase risk and particularly open the home to cyber attack, as was demonstrated when Google decided to combine its street view photography with copying private digital information and passwords from home WiFi systems.