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Building My Own Computer

Sigi Rindler

Well, the story started last October when two colleagues got themselves great Pentium 200 machines. My own 2 1/2 year old Gateway P5-90 started to make me feel naked among these powerhouse users... The only obstacle was that my company's new business year was still 2 months ahead, so I waited patiently. After that I had to think of a number of excuses to explain to my wife why I was in such a desperate NEED to get such a powerful machine for work that could also be achieved on a 286 PC found on a garbage dump...<g>

Anyway, one of the guys bought himself a Toshiba Brezza ("Infinity" in the USA). The great design and its functions (incl. 17" monitor, TV, answering machine, etc.) is really appealing. However, when I counted the bays for future extensions I discarded my idea of purchasing this model right away. The 5" bay contains the CD-ROM drive, and the only other one shows the 3.5" floppy drive. Of course, If you get the kick out of multiple external SCSI devices with finger-thick cables that clutter up your desk, it's still a very good computer.

Then I thought of upgrading my 90MHz Pentium machine. Unfortunately, the motherboard wasn't designed to accommodate more than 100MHz, which can be achieved by changing the dip switches. Exchanging the motherboard and CPU entirely was one option, but then I decided to keep this good and reliable computer as a backup machine since I would have to buy a couple of other gadgets that are designed for nowadays's computers.

I decided to build my first computer from scratch, relying on my unshakable optimism and some good soul to help out when things should get astray...<g> What I wanted was a 200MHz Pentium, a case that have plenty of free bays for additional floppy, CD-ROM, PD, MO drives, and so on. Besides I want two removable HDs in it. In the meantime I managed to persuade my wife to fork over some cash to start my shopping spree. However, before that I bought myself the newest Japanese Computer Shopper and the DOS/V Magazine to check out the parts needed and to compare prices.

One shop which had plenty of choices and good prices was TWO TOP, so I decided to buy most components there. According to Roland Hechtenberg, a fellow TPC member and a serious challenge to my title as "Mr. Akihabara," TWO TOP causes no problems when it comes to returning parts that don't work. After all, this shop has become a major player in the Akihabara computer scene. Since the new 200MHz MMX CPUs are out, I decided to get one of these, and an ATX case...

Akihabara on a Saturday morning: TWO TOP Motherboard (Giga Byte): GA-586DX (for ATX case). Here I found out that this Dual CPU motherboard does not support the MMX architecture! Anyway, the motherboard has an Ultra Wide Adaptec SCSI on board which costs about 28,000 by itself. The price for the whole motherboard was around 36,000. Besides, I have gotten reviews on this board from the Internet, and they were very good. Since I was going to return the following Sunday, I didn't buy it yet. However, I bought the following items at TWO TOP: TEAC Combo (5" and 3.5" floppy drive in one unit) for 9800. Matrox Mystique 3D video card (4MB) for 20,000. SoundBlaster AWE64 for 18,500. TEAC 6 CD-ROM changer (8x, IDE) for 21,500. 2 x 32MB EDO RAM (60ns) for 28,800.

At "Za Graceful" I bought my 200MHz CPU for 61,500 since most shops didn't have any, especially those who advertised them between 57,000 and 58,000. I also bought a CPU fan at this shop (2000). There I met club member Yasuaki Kudo who was on a shopping trip with his younger brother. Since he is a computer science student (I believe), he provided good advice during this day's "Mini Akihabara Tour". I would have bought the Sanyo CPU cooler for the 200MHz Pro... if Yasu hadn't warned me! Again, it shows how nice it is to know people who can save others from wasting money or saving them the hassle of returning wrongly purchased items. The annual 10,000 fee is one of the best investments for any computer enthusiast indeed! Ooops... I forgot. At Za Graceful I also got this internal sound card (SupraExpress 288i Sp) for 14,000. I'm not sure whether this was the best deal since I saw cheaper Supras in other shops also. My model is full duplex, can handle Internet Phone, and is "Video Phone ready".

From there we went straight to the building where A-Master and Bless have their showrooms. At Bless I bought 2 mobile racks (HD drawers with frames for IDE connection.) These cost close to 5000 a piece, but are superior to the all-plastic ones sold anywhere else for around 3000 to 4000. They still consist of 95% plastic material, except for the bottom part which is made of iron or aluminum with air vents in it. At the back of the drawer frame is a fan, and the drawers have a lock. These locks have the advantage that you don't need to completely switch off your computer when changing the hard disks.

It's worth the additional money if you ask me... There were two ZOOM 28,800 external modems for 3,800 each!!! But then I saw an external HuCom modem (33,600bd) for 7000 somewhere else.

I don't know whether the following incident is a good or a bad omen. As soon as I stepped out of the building, I got a full load of pigeon shit on my head and shoulder! Good to collect all these tissue paper samples... Yasu and his brother helped me getting civilized again, but I had the gut feeling that their facial expressions weren't compatible with the appreciated Japanese seriousness that one can expect in such tragic events. What a dirty Japanese grin they have put on!!! Brrrrr...<g>

Here we split up since I wasn't in a very jolly mood anymore, and because I had to search for a full ATX tower. The TWO TOP Pro Shop (close by) had some, but they didn't have the bays I wanted. Finally I walked down to Robin (a bit further down from the Washington Hotel, but on the other side of the road). They had this tower (incl. a 250W power supply) with six 5" and two 3.5" bays. Later I found out that there were only five 5" bays... but mathematics was never my strength anyway!<g> The shop also carried my desired motherboard with the SCSI chip on it. It was only 32,800, so I bought it also. I couldn't find the internal ZIP drive (SCSI), but this shop sells the 100MB floppies for 1350 each when purchasing a 10 pack box. Nobody beats this price in Akihabara right now.

Packed like a donkey and probably looking like one I carried the whole stuff to the station and all the way home. The following day I got so busy with my work that I took me 14 days to start assembling the machine.

My first assembly of a computer from scratch: The ATX full tower seems to be the way to go when it comes to intelligent computer casing design. It can be fully disassembled, which is particularly handy when it comes to i nstalling a motherboard without hassle. When I opened the box with the motherboard, I noticed that the bag didn't have the usual yellow seal on it. Instead it was sealed with a common transparent adhesive tape. You'd better open each box and check on these things. I just hope that everything is OK with this motherboard... The CPU falls into its socket After a couple of hours I was ready to start my new creation. Everything was plugged in, I flipped the switch on the power supply and NOTHING happened. No noise, no smell, nor fan running... virtually nothing happened! After disconnecting and reconnecting all gadgets I finally gave up. The following day a friend dropped in by accident and had a look. Building computers is his side business, so he knows best about this stuff. He connected the power supply to a hard drive, then to a floppy drive and came to the conclusion that no power is supplied to the peripherals since no single light comes on, and because the fan does not turn when activating the switch...

Well, the bird dropping was a BAD omen as far I am concerned. My SCSI ZIP drive from Flex USA hadn't arrived yet either.

When I visited Robin again with my dead power supply, I was told that this effect was a safety feature. It won't run if there is no device connected. Another guru told me that it won't do anything when certain wrong connections are made on the motherboard. Oh boy, you should see the English manual of the Giga Byte manual which Chinese has translated (made in Taiwan). Plug & Play went on strike before even being challenged...

Two weeks later: I was too busy to proceed with my "computer bricklaying work" and seem to have problems with my USA*Flex mail order company for the very first time. The shipment of the SCSI ZIP drive should have arrived over a week ago. For a couple of days their customer support was not available at around 3:00 p.m. local time. Then I found out that the phone number has changed to 1-630-893-0345.

Well, let me give you a proven advice if you have never laid your hand on computer hardware or if time is real money for you (inserting new memory or changing a floppy drive doesn't earn you credits)! If you are a lawyer, a dentist, a very busy translator, etc., do the job you can do best and pay an expert to do the computer hardware stuff. This is very likely more economical, and you won't lose your last Mohicans on your skull either... Anyway, at the end of the fiscal year I wasn't that busy, therefore time or lost money wasn't an issue. Besides I had to prove myself that I can do more than just purchasing the parts, where I committed my first mistakes. It's all a learning experience I'd say. However, I was lucky that the losses were minute and that the my "personal guru" (TPC member Roland Hechtenberg) didn't charge me an arm and a leg...<g> Since he has most of the hardware components that I have, I could ask him for advice when I hit a one-way street. It didn't happen often, but I needed help when my only SCSI device (internal ZIP drive) was uninstallable.

However, remember that the last status of my computer was its tombstone-like performance since the power supply was performing like a brick. I was already assuming the worst according to my collection of "facts" by would-be hardware gurus who told me so much about these so-called safety features that prevented the power supply to come on. I was worry that my motherboard was bad since its packing was opened before I bought it... Finally I decided to get another ATX power supply (10,000) since I would need one for the next computer that I'm going to build for my boys anyway. This one I purchased locally since the price was almost the same as in Akihabara. Hey, this thing kicked in right away, which was a great boost to my psychological depression when seeing or thinking about computers.

Now I could finally start to put in the internal SCSI ZIP drive, load a couple of drivers and other software and finally push the power switch on the tower case for the very first time. My blood pressure jumped considerably when all the components were loaded one by one... Well, it didn't do that automatically since there are a couple of changes that have to be done in the CMOS first. The 2 removable hard drives worked, the TEAC CD-ROM changer was OK, the TEAC dual floppy drive was running, my Adaptec adapter was recognized, the ZIP drive didn't light up, but it had done so a couple of seconds after switching on the machine. Windows 95 loaded, I went in "My Computer"... which I instantly changed to the cool name of "Power Tower". After I opened Power Tower, it didn't feel that cool anymore. The icon for the ZIP drive wasn't there! For the next 3 to 4 hours I tried to install the drive over and over. The procedure would always end with "No Iomega device found". I was again close to kicking the machine, but then decided to go to bed at 2 am.

OK, now let's talk in detail about the nightmares I had to go through after I received my internal SCSI ZIP drive from USA*Flex after 3 weeks (very unusual since their shipment arrives normally after 4 to 5 days). First of all I must say that this is the first SCSI device I had to deal with. The ZIP drive truly sticks out among all the other gadgets in my new machine. It's Iomega's dark blue against the whitish-beige of the entire case. Couldn't Iomega have chosen a more suitable color for an internal ZIP drive that looks color-compatible to 99% of all existing computer cases, or was it meant to be aggressive Iomega advertising? I also have an external ZIP drive made by Epson. This one would fit in nicely... Anyway, maybe it helps when I tell myself often enough that it really looks "cool" on the box under the table!

Well, there was also this "Installation and Reference Guide" in 4 languages where it is assumed that the purchaser is a certified SCSI guru... There was this so called "Zip zoom board" to be connected to the supplied data cable and to be plugged into any vacant 16-bit ISA expansion slot. Connecting everything is real peanuts, but trying to get the drive recognized has brought me to the verge of leaping out of the basement window! Since Iomega's terminology concerning the "Zip zoom" stuff was all Greek to me, I tried to figure out what the translation of some other languages said. Oh boy... what a manual! This particular chapter was not even translated. However, the same English description was inserted in every foreign language manual. Any French, Spanish, or Portuguese newcomer to SCSI devices is in a worse position than I, if this person can't read English.

I started to poll information from the internet, asked a couple of guys who owned ZIP drives, but without avail. I must be the only one who uses an internal ZIP drive in Japan... until "guru Roland" cleared things up. He doesn't have the internal SCSI ZIP drive, but the external one, and he has put together various SCSI devices in the past. After 10 minutes consulting over the phone I fell finally in sync with him and started to comprehend the basics of SCSI. The "Zip zoom board" is used for the majority of motherboards that use an additional SCSI adapter. However, my GigaByte motherboard has the Adaptec SCSI adapter already built in. The correct connection is from the ZIP drive to the SCSI socket on the motherboard and further to the inner connection of the external SCSI connector, which can be found at the back of the computer. This is the small board with the typical metal angle to be screwed on the back of the case. The "Zip zoom board" had to be removed altogether. The installation of the ZIP drive with the supplied software was then as easy as preparing scrambled eggs. I swear that from now on I'm going to call my human manual before wasting time on reading useless booklets...<g>

Everything worked well, except the additional 3.5" floppy drive for which I had another free bay. In the CMOS I had already assigned the letter A to the TEAC dual drive as 3.5" drive and B to the 5.25" drive. Right now I'm checking whether my controller can handle more than 2 floppy drives. TEAC is going to send me the documentation.

As you might know, ATX motherboards don't require as many cable connections as the generations of motherboards before. Still, it looks almost as messy as in any older computer. I bet that one day we will have almost cableless machines if case and peripheral manufacturers agree on a certain standard. Any device that is inserted into the bays could interface with connectors in the inner frames of the bays. A newly designed (single) cable could lead to the motherboard, plus one from the power supply. This is probably easily to achieve, but it costs money to redesign all gadgets. The problem is that all the big computer manufacturers would lose a lot of business when it becomes too easy for the individual to build his own machine from scratch. Anyway, the cables will disappear by and by over the years...

Coming back to my "Power Tower": On the next morning I booted the computer and got the message that my floppy drives are gone! This must be a lose cable I thought. Some of them have loosened over night (without an earthquake occurring) it seemed. The cables are all new and shouldn't come off that easily methinks. Others are so tight that you might think you are going to "pull out the guts" of the connected devices also. In order to do it properly I pulled all connectors off and pushed them back as far as possible. After that I booted up again and got the report of a lost hard drive. In addition to that, the control lamp of my disabled 3.5" floppy drive was permanently on. The latter problem was easily solved since a continuously activated lamp indicates that the connector is being plugged in the wrong way.

After sweating and swearing in the worst Bavarian slang for over 2 hours I assumed that I had probably made a wrong connection again since it's really hard to see when cables are crossed and you barely manage to get your fingers to the connections behind the disturbing cables.

The next step was unplugging all cables on the peripherals, arranging longer cables with plastic wire ties, and reconnecting them again step by step. This time I got it right. All cables that showed a fine red line on one edge had to be connected so that the red line showed into the direction of the device's power plug (the white 4P plastic connector from the power supply). Tomorrow I'll buy some small bottles of various color paints and make marks on cables and devices. The next time a problem occurs I'd have to connect red to red, blue to blue, etc. I wonder if this idea has already been patented...<g>

This idea isn't necessarily new since I have done it on the back of various computers that I have owned before. I can figure out most ports in the back, but connectors have changed over the years. Keyboard and mouse connectors can look alike, etc. When the computer case isn't open, there is often no way of telling. I'd be worried to destroy something by making wrong connections. All my computers have colored seals over the connectors and on the corresponding cable plugs. These seals (small circles) can be purchased in any stationery shop. Since they come off easily on the internal flat cables, I prefer paint coding.

A word to labeling by manufacturers: Some computers have clearly marked stickers or embossings that say "mouse," "keyboard," "SCSI," etc., but most don't. Maybe it's a concession to the maintenance guys to make some easy pocket money... If there are rich housewives to call the electrician to change a fuse, there must me dense computer users who don't know how to connect the printer or the mouse! Anyway, this method comes really handy when the computer can't be moved without big preparations beforehand, and if you can hardly get your head to the box to get a glimpse on the connectors.

Today I suffered another "shock" when I tried to install my new cordless mouse from Taiwan. The gadget was about 3,000 at Spunky and looks nice... except the manual. The German translation must have been compiled by a machine translation program whereas the Chinese programmer used a mini dictionary! Since it didn't work I connected the old mouse again and switched the computer on. Instead of recognizing my ZIP drive, the message "LUN #50: Start unit failed" popped up. Even Roland, the wiz from Iruma, was at a loss. Another strange thing happens when I shut down Windows95. The ZIP floppy is ejected 2 to 3 seconds later... It doesn't do that with external ZIP drives. I have already approached the Iomega support and a relevant newsgroup via e-mail. The Internet is really essential if you swim in unknown waters and you realize that your personal guru isn't as fail-safe as he should be!!!

Recently I ordered the book Upgrading and Repairing PCs by Scott Mueller, QME, which is supposed to be the "Bible" in this field (over 1400 pages). Stay tuned to hear my future comments about the bad English in the book if things don't work as described...<g>

I thought that this saga was going to become the "Computer Oshin", but fortunately it has come to an end (more or less). Most failures were due to my own ignorance or limitations, but that's the thing which every hardware guru has to go through in the beginning. I'm sure that even 1,400 pages of intelligent comments won't solve all problems. Therefore it's absolutely essential to become a member of the TPC in order to get help from somebody who knows better.

One more comment to purchasing hardware: Although I lost the money for the bad power supply, I was still lucky that all other parts were in perfect working order.

Make the following a MUST:

A) Buy the backbone of the computer (motherboard, CPU, video card) at one vendor only. Otherwise you might be out of luck when something goes wrong and you want to return an item. Paying a bit more isn't the issue. You may lose much more later on...

B) Never trust that the item you buy is new, unless you buy at Laox and pay premium prices! Open the box if it isn't already sealed or shrink-wrapped and check whether the original seal (usually yellow) is still on the outer bag of the motherboard, the video card, etc. Don't buy an opened or resealed item, unless the price is really good and the shop gives you a written statement that you can return it without hassle!

C) Make sure that all drivers are included. Ask many questions when the item is not in its original box, or the driver disks are copies with handwritten labels.

D) Don't think that you buy an item that has been produced for the US market since it says "Made in the USA/Canada" on the box. These gadgets are usually produced for the Japanese market, include Japanese manuals, certainly Japanese drivers, and only sometimes the desired English drivers. Never trust the salesman since most of them have either no idea or try to save face by assuming what you are looking for. After all they want to sell to anybody who can pay for it... If you "need" pure English hardware, don't go to Laox, Sofmap, DOS/V Paradise or TwoTop and don't expect to get the stuff at one of the various small outlets either. Your limited choice is T-Zone (old building [editor's note: T-Zone's old building has since changed to Mac-only; PC stuff has moved, evidently, to the new T-Zone/Minami Denki building. --Mike]) and the recently opened "Shecom" store in Akihabara.

E) Last hint to save you big bucks: If you are in the market for a new computer system, spend a couple of hours to check and compare prices in reliable shops, then make your decision and return to the particular shop that made the best impression on you. Messy showrooms and shops that sell pre-opened boxes as new merchandise aren't a good choice.

And if you want to buy all components individually, spend half a day to check several shops. The DOS/V magazine or the Japanese version of the Computer Shopper is a big help to achieve that. Although I have already recommended to buy the backbone of your system at one reliable shop only, there are many other small parts which are needed (various flat cables, cable splitters, connectors, screws, jumpers, tools, etc.).

The other day I went down to Akihabara since I needed these items. At a Proside outlet I found cable splitters for 100 a piece. They might not have been new ones, but cost me 1/4 than in other shops. Their flat cables to connect floppy or hard drives were not that cheap, but I bought them anyway since they were expensive anywhere else. Then I found this newly opened outlet beside of "The Graceful" and realized that I could have had the stuff for 60% less. Even the plastic box with screws, jumpers, risers, etc. was only 350. I had paid 800 thirty minutes before. See what I mean?

So guys, that's it... finally! And those who are not members of the TPC yet, should earnestly consider to join. 10,000 a year might sound a bit high for some of you (although it translates to slightly more than 800 per meeting; including a newsletter). However, those who want to do what I just did and follow my advice, will have saved much more than the club's annual membership fee...

I hope I can greet you as a new member of the Tokyo PC User's group soon. -- Sigi aka "Mr. Akihabara"_

© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

May, 1997

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN