Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RAVES!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 21/11/12

7 Up...And Running

As mentioned here, I've bought a new PC.

I had originally intended, when the time came for me to get a new one, that I would have a go at building my own. I've known and worked with people who have done it, and felt that - given the time to do things properly - I would make a fair go of the job.

What changed is all the faffing around I had to do at the end of July after the Power Supply Unit (PSU) failed on my XP Pro machine (see here et seq. for that sorry tale). Whilst I was trying to diagnose the problem, I noticed that one of the capacitors on the motherboard was bulging alarmingly, suggesting that the bastard could go off 'pop!' at any time, probably taking the rest of the system with it.

I held off for a week or three just in order to try to catch up with stuff I'd fallen behind on during the period when the XP rig was out of commission, but there was a constant 'cliff-edge' feeling to things, as I expected the Big Bang at any time.

So, time was now of the essence. One thing was clear enough; that I would only need the actual ATX tower unit, because I could carry on using all the peripherals (keyboard, mouse, printer, router, monitor) that I already had since they were all still in good nick.

When I finally decided to go for it, I needed to get some idea of what it was I actually wanted. I knew that XP was now old hat (as opposed to Red Hat), so it was going to have to be...Windows 8? No. I was pretty clear on that. From what I have read, 8 pitches up somewhere between Windows Me and Vista in terms of its reliability and its usability. So, Windows 7 it would have to be, and it would have to be the Pro version to give me the same level of features as I already had on XP.

What about hardware, then? Well, this is what caused me to realise that building my own to a short timescale was not on; trying to figure out what motherboard would be compatible with which processor, and what would and would not support what I wanted, was a fair old thicket to thrash through, and I was sufficiently intimidated to realise that I couldn't go that way at the moment.

Anyway, I worked out what I was looking for in fairly general terms, and e-mailed the supplier of my XP box to see what they could come up with. Partly, I think, as a result of a miscommunication on my part - which led my contact there to think that I had the on-screen graphics contract for Sky Sports or something - the four quotes which I had back seemed to be a lot higher than I would have expected, all being somewhere around what I had paid for a complete system just five years previously. After further clarification I got two more quotes, but again these seemed to be a bit on the steep side - the cheapest of them being a touch over 700.

One of the problems concerned which motherboard to have - I have a 5.1 surround sound speaker system which was given to me by my colleague Mike a couple of years ago. This would entail having a motherboard with six audio jack connectors; the trouble being that most mobos now tend either to have only three jack ports (line-in, mic, headphones) or five, where the sixth port on the panel has been given over to the S/PDIF digital sound output for home cinemas and the like. This would be no use to me, and would mean having to re-assign the line-out jack for one of the speaker sets (which would mean I would lose the use of that jack for anything else).

Another point of contention was the issue of a floppy drive. Now, for as long as I've had PCs (since 2001), I've had one of those. It was essential on my first Windows 98 machine because that was often the only way you could load various things onto it (CD drives notwithstanding), and I kept one for the XP rig because at the time I could still see a clear use for it. However, my contact told me that it's virtually impossible to get them for internal fitting nowadays, any such need being met by using an external drive via one of the USB ports.

I must emphasise at this point that - having checked out prices for the individual components - none of the quotes was by any means wildly out of whack. But that was obviously dependent on the components being used.

Nonetheless, I started to think that perhaps I was going to have to build one myself, if only to eliminate the labour costs.

Then I thought of something. There's another computer supplier in our area - a small, local firm which has always had a very good reputation from people who have dealt with them (this includes work colleagues and members of my own family). So I looked up his website and gave him a call to discuss things.

Paul Stephens of Derwen Computers is generally known to computer buyers and users round our way simply as "that bloke down The Plassey" and - as I said - I'd never heard anything other than the best about him. This proved to be the case when I phoned him. There was a sharp intake of breath when I mentioned the audio jacks, but I was able to give him the make and model of the motherboard quoted me by my first port-of-call, and he looked it up and agreed that it would meet requirements.

I asked if I could have two optical drives on it - one to read and one to burn, as had still been standard practice in 2007. "You can have as many as you like!", he announced cheerfully, but pointed out that read-only drives are no longer prevalent. So, after further discussions, this is what he came up with:

Final price with testing, etc.: 600.00.

He e-mailed the quote through a few minutes later, and I promised to get back to him in a day or so.

So that was on the Tuesday afternoon. I'm not sure why I dithered at all, really, except that I was brought up only to make large outlays of cash after the most careful consideration; a trait which has stood me in very good stead down the years.

Anyway, on the Wednesday, I realised that it would be stupid to have two optical drives if they were both going only to be capable of doing the same thing, so on the Thursday afternoon I e-mailed Paul to drop the second one, but instead have an optical drive which could read Blu-ray disks (I don't need to write Blu-ray, only to read them). He came straight back to say that that was fine, but it would bump up the final price to 635, which was reasonable enough.

On the Friday afternoon I phoned him again to give him the go-ahead. He said that, given that he would have to order the parts in, it would be ready by the following Wednesday.

When I got home from work on the Tuesday, there was e-mail from Paul to tell me that the tower was ready to pick up. Quick work! So on Wednesday, I got my brother to take me down to Derwen Computers after work to fetch it, as the Plassey Leisure Park lies a few miles south of Wrexham and is a bit out-of-the-way, and all but impossible to get to without wheels.

After a convivial chat with Paul it was back home with the prize, with the intention of making the changeover on the following weekend.

That was, of course, before my health gave way and led me to spend the whole time from mid-Thursday afternoon to Sunday lunchtime in bed, and also led to my being substantially below my customary speed and agility for a day or two after that.

So it wasn't until Monday afternoon before I got this fine beast out of its cage:

Photo of a black ATX tower unit

There was work to be done before I'd even got to this stage, though. The first bit I'd done during the previous week, namely the final decommissioning of my 2001-vintage Windows 98 machine. I've mentioned before that I tend to get sentimental over things more than people, but I was quite relieved to see the back of this one, given that it is now about as much use as a chocolate fire-guard (as I had discovered when thrown back upon its meagre resources when the XP unit's PSU went).

This was quite an undertaking in itself, because I wanted to take a copy of the hard drive before taking it out of service. I'd pondered this one a number of times over the last couple of years and looked at a variety of options, all of which seemed to need a) Linux, and/or b) money. More than once I'd come to the conclusion my mother used to reach when confronted with a difficult situation, namely, "Oh, arseholes to it!". But now I felt that I had to do something, so I thought that I might as well try simply copying the contents of the drive over to the XP rig and then burning it off onto DVD-R.

I spent some time getting unwanted data and program files off and ended up with a total of just under 3Gb, which I then copied across...

Or, at least, I tried to copy across. Two problem arose. Firstly, there was a corrupted Seamonkey bookmark file, and then it wouldn't - reasonably enough - copy the Windows swap file. In both cases, this entailed trying to find out the last thing it had actually copied and then picking it up from there. This meant that the whole process took over an hour, even given the fact that it was copying directly between the machines courtesy of a Cat5 cable. Just as an army marches at the speed of its slowest soldier, so a data transfer goes at the speed of the obsolete piece of tech at one end.

I was faced with a slightly different dilemma when looking at what needed to be brought over from the XP machine. I certainly wasn't going to bring everything across: for one thing, I run backups of data at the end of every month both as a security measure and to stop the hard drive from getting cluttered; for another, the programs weren't coming over - I would be starting with a fresh installation of each one.

Once the decisions had been made, I burned a final as-if-it-were-the-end-of-the-month backup to CD-R, copied it to my external hard drive and then copied all the stuff which was going to be migrated to the Buffalo external hard drive as well.

Come mid-Monday afternoon, then, I was ready for The Big Move. The XP box was shut down, disconnected and then reconnected in the spot in the opposite corner of the living room where the 98 rig had been, using its monitor, mouse, keyboard and speakers. Then the Windows 7 machine was manoeuvred into place and connected up (a pig of a job, this, as I can't connect everything in before putting it under the desk because some of the cables aren't quite long enough).

Then came the moment to power up the new unit. As Paul had said, there are four fans on it, but they're quiet. What there also are - as you can just about make out from the above photograph - are a lot of case lights. The power button - along with the headphone and microphone connectors, two USB ports and the card reader - are all on the top. Knowing me, I can see an accident waiting to happen, at least regards the power button. The card reader is protected by a sort of rubber bung, presumably to render it dust-, crumb- and dandruff-proof.

Once I got to the desktop, my first move was to remove the eye-candy from it - the 'gadgets' (or, as I would style them, 'gimmicks') which clog up the view. After that, it was largely a question of tweaking the appearance to get it more or less as suited.

The rest of Monday evening was spent installing some essentials, such as the drivers for my Epson printer and Evoluent mouse - both of which needed upgraded drivers from the ones I'd had on my 32-bit XP unit - and Firefox and Thunderbird so that, in the absence of anything else, I could still browse and catch up on my e-mails. This is where my next obstacle course began; I had a hell of a job getting my copied-over profiles to work, and this took about an hour or so to fix.

Then came another general faff-about as I tried to get the 7 machine and the XP one to communicate with each other in a network. If I'd been connecting two 7 machines it would have been easy, but this needed a lot more work. One useful thing I learned, however, was that the printer hadn't actually installed correctly on the 7 machine, even though I thought it had.

That all sorted out, I more or less left it there for Monday, as I was more than ready for bed. On shutting down the new box, however, I was confronted with a message saying something like, "Do not switch off your machine. Installing update 1 of 97." So I had to sit there for about half an hour for it to finish doing that before I could crawl upstairs.

On Tuesday lunchtime, when I booted up it tried to complete the installation, only to find an error, roll back nearly all of the ninety seven and then reboot itself. I had to spend about half an hour researching the problem before downloading a tool from Microsoft which corrected my Windows Update database and then reapplying the updates successfully. That said, there are still two it wants me to install which I don't think I actually need. More research due there.

Much of Tuesday evening was spent installing the remaining programs (although there were two old friends - Dastar's EZTimeSync and Anders Petersson's Offline CD Browser - to which I had to bid farewell, as they won't work on 7), and then moving my documents and what-'ave-yew from the external drive to the new rig.

I'd found that - simply in order to get the surround sound working at all - I had had to plug the front speakers into the line-out port after all, but I think I've sorted that now, albeit by having to set the audio control panel to 7.1 rather than 5.1. I'm still having to make further tweaks to the sound because it still doesn't quite sound right; or, rather, it doesn't sound quite as I had got used to it sounding.

So, day three and how's it going? Well, pretty damn good now I've got used to the changed interface and things not being where I've been used to them being. Some more customisation is inevitable as time goes on (if RSA is reading this, yes now I understand about the font size!), but this is a nifty bit of kit (damn fast, too - it'll load a LibreOffice spreadsheet in about ten seconds, compared to about forty amidst much grinding of gears) and I'm more than pleased with it. So let's hear it for Paul Stephens at Derwen Computers!

Logo of Derwen Computers, Wrexham