Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Board Silly

So here's the deal.

If you know how to build a PC and do it well, do so.

And here's how I've learned that painful lesson! Stick around, you might learn something.

My wife's twin sister's husband (ie: my brother-in-law) knows somewhere between very little and nothing about computers. Fortunately, most of the family aren't exasperatingly tech-stupid, including him, and their questions are usually in the realm of "Is is possible to make my computer (do x task) with (x program)?

"Yeah," I generally get to say, "but you're not willing to spend enough to make that happen. Here's a better solution." And that's kind of fun to say.

But back to our brother-in-law, we'll call him...uhhhhh... Dennis, after the constitutional peasant of Python fame. I had to think about that for far too long.

So Dennis tells me that it's time for a new computer. I already knew of his laptop, in all its 266Mhz glory, and confirmed that fact. "And", he says, "I'm gonna have you build it for me!"


So where we go wrong is where A....uh, Dennis sets a target price for the new PC at $1200, gets a quote and system spec sheet from me and then changes his figure to $1000.

Now, maybe the folks at ExtremeTech can build a system they'll feel good about for under $800, but maybe that's just why I haven't moved to California yet to write for ExtremeTech.

In short, I take pride in my work. All of my hardware purchases are well-researched, purchased from reputable wholesalers, and strictly high quality. I'm not saying I throw the newest vid card into every system I build, but I am saying that if I buy an ATI card, it sure as hell is a real ATI card, and not an ATI chip on someone else's board.

So I'm picky about what goes into my systems. Even so, I generally beat Dell by around $250 on similarly specced boxen. And I make a little money. And the extra, extra, extra attention I put into every system really shows through and my customers love it. Good for everyone.

Except our dear Dennis. No, he thinks he knows better than I what the appropriate chip would be for his system. I said P4, he said Athlon. I said "yes, but you want it quiet, and an Athlon runs 60 degrees hotter than a P4, and more fans will make the system louder."

But no. Dennis wants an Athlon. Fine. I've built hundreds of Athlon boxes before, and they're not worse than P4s, they're just different. And a little cheaper.

Oh, and he wants all parts; monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, case, optical drives...everything black, and cheaper than in the first parts list.

Well, I did exactly the right thing, and then exactly the wrong thing. I FREAKED! And then I caved in. Oh, good Lord, how I caved in.

I caved in and gave up and ordered a white box from CybertronPC. For the two other people reading this, a white box is an unbranded PC that you order pre-made from a factory and then sell to someone with your own brand on it.

See that previous paragraph up there? Get out your brand-new red sharpie and circle it on your monitor. THAT'S where I screwed up, my friends. That is exactly where my problems begin. Your problem is the red indelible marker on your screen.

The system came. On the outside, it looked pretty ok. Not terriffic, but good enough. Then I opened it up. The inside was a complete nightmare.

Cables were absolutely everywhere, and some genius had zip-tied them in place to make the disorder permanent. The audio cable from the motherboard to the DVD drive was OVER all the other cables, and resting right on top of the CPU fan. Nice. What really worried me was that the system had a Biostar motherboard in it. BIOSTAR? Oh, come on, Cybertron, could you have thrown a cheaper board in there?

I went to work cleaning up the cable mess, and discovered the dumbest thing I've ever seen a PC builder do: All of the components were hot glued into place. Hard drive, RAM, modem, and even the damned CPU were smeared with hot glue where they met the board or cables. I gazed in shock for a good long while. "Huh", I thought. "Hot glue. Wow."

I was discouraged. But in for a penny, in for a pound, and whatever happened now, I had to make work. I finished cleaning up the cables so that, you know, air could flow?, and then I got to work on loading the OS and (my) OEM software.

The thing is, just after I got everything loaded, the power supply fried and took the motherboard with it. I'm all for colorful language, but these days I'm making an honest effort to make it less blue, and this didn't help a bit.

Remember the hot glue? I sure as hell do. First I opened the power supply to make sure it wasn't just a stupid fuse. Nope, it was really dead, and I had voided the warranty by opening it up. Great. Please, I thought, let the motherboard still be ok.

As I said above, the board fried also. So I had to buy a nice, new Asus board and a better power supply.

What we haven't discussed yet is the hell that is trying to remove a CPU that has been hot glued to the heat sink, the CPU socket, and the CPU retainer clip. Oh yeah, and don't break it while you're at it.

This took some time, a good knife, a seriously mangled retainer clip, and lots of close calls.

So Dennis got his computer. He loves it. He has no appreciation for the hell he put me through because I did it his way.

And I had a brand-spanking new ruined power supply and motherboard. Now, I opened the power supply, and I know the rules. It's not fair, but dealing in computers can be crappy that way. No warranty for the power supply.

But the cheap-ass motherboard? Oh, you can bet that went back to Cybertron. They promised a replacement in a few days. I wasn't too excited to be getting a brand-new Biostar board, but I was pretty confdent I could find a use for it.

Two weeks go by. No motherboard. I called Cybertron.

Me: "Yeah, did you ship that board?"
Them: "Uh, nope, but we should have."
Me: "Why didn't you ship it?"
Them: "We don't know."
Me: "Fine, then, can you ship a P4 Intel board instead?"
Them: "Yeah, but we'll have to charge you $75 extra for it."
Me: (Long silence)..."Will that board cook meals and wash my dishes?"
Them: "No, but it's the very greatest MSI board ever!"
Me. "I asked for an Intel board."
Them: "Yeah, but we thought you'd like this better."

I'm far too nice to these people. Much haggling ensues. We manage to settle on the model number of an Intel board I want.

So the guy says he can sell me the board and that the price difference is $35...finally, a logical number...but he can't finalize it, a sales manager with a Middle-Eastern name has to, and he's not in today. Would I like him to call me tomorrow? YES.

Tomorrow comes. No call. I call them. "Oh, yeah!", says the first guy. "I was just about to call you!" Sure you were, bub. "Middle-Eastern guy is here today, but he has to do some research on the board, and he'll call you tomorrow." Grrrrr...

Tomorrow comes again. Once again, no call. Determined to get the deal done this time, I spend thirty minutes on the phone with Middle-Eastern guy. Finally, he says the magic words: "That'll be delivered to you on Wednesday, one week from today."

We'll see.

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