Beta Readers Needed for Build Your Own PC on a Budget

There is a certain excitement about building your own system. You decide what hardware should go into the box and you decide how everything should be put together. A lot of people would like to have more control over how their system is configured, which is why I decided to write Build Your Own PC on a Budget. This book is intended for anyone who wants to build their own system. You don’t have to have prior hardware experience; although, the ability to use basic tools will most definitely help.

Of course, you might wonder what the purpose would be of building your own system. After all, you can go to just about any store or shop online and get a decent computer for almost nothing today. The systems you get in the store are built using the least expensive components available for the most part, unless you go to a “boutique store” such as Alienware, where you’ll pay through the nose for the system you really wanted. Building your own system means that you can pick and choose which components to emphasize for your particular needs. In fact, you can add non-standard parts to your system so that it can do more than most off-the-shelf computers can do. The point is that you can make this system however you want it to look without anyone placing any limits on what you can do.

The point of this book is to help you create a system that meets your needs, allows for future expansion, and still won’t break the bank. That’s a tall order, but this book will help you make the sorts of decisions you need to make in order to create such a system. You’ll find these topics discussed in the book.

  • Part I: Developing a PC Plan
    • Chapter 1: Defining What You Want
    • Chapter 2: Introducing the Major Parts
    • Chapter 3: Considering the Vendors
    • Chapter 4: Getting What You Need
  • Part II: Building the Hardware
    • Chapter 5: Installing the Motherboard
    • Chapter 6: Adding RAM and Processor
    • Chapter 7: Providing Video
    • Chapter 8: Mounting Permanent Storage
    • Chapter 9: Attaching Auxiliary Devices
  • Part III: Considering Networks
    • Chapter 10: Installing a LAN
    • Chapter 11: Connecting to the Internet
    • Chapter 12: Accessing Wireless Devices
  • Part IV: Installing the Software
    • Chapter 13: Installing the Operating System
    • Chapter 14: Accessing the Devices
    • Chapter 15: Choosing Applications
  • Part V: Performing Maintenance
    • Chapter 16: Maintaining the Hardware
    • Chapter 17: Managing the Software
    • Chapter 18: Preparing for Updates

As always, I want your input to help avoid making any errors in the book. If you have any desire whatsoever to build your own system from scratch, please contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com. In consideration of your time and effort, your name will appear in the Acknowledgements (unless you specifically request that we not provide it). You also get to read the book free of charge. Being a beta reader is both fun and educational.

 

Considering the Future of Processing Power

The vast majority of processors made today perform tasks as procedures. The processor looks at an instruction, performs the task specified by that instruction, and then moves onto the next instruction. It sounds like a simple way of doing things, and it is. Because a processor can perform the instructions incredibly fast—far faster than any human can even imagine—it could appear that the computer is thinking. What you’re seeing is a processor performing one instruction at a time, incredibly fast, and really clever programming. You truly aren’t seeing any sort of thought in the conventional (human) sense of the term. Even when using Artificial Intelligence (AI), the process is still a procedure that only simulates thought.

Most chips today have multiple cores. Some systems have multiple processors. The addition of cores and processors means that the system as a whole can perform more than one task at once—one task for each core or processor. However, the effect is still procedural in nature. An application can divide itself into parts and assign each core or processor a task, which allows the application to reach specific objectives faster, but the result is still a procedure.

The reason the previous two paragraphs are necessary is that even developers have started buying into their own clever programming and feel that application programming environments somehow work like magic. There is no magic involved, just incredibly fast processors guided by even more amazing programming. In order to gain a leap in the ability of processors to perform tasks, the world needs a new kind of processor, which is the topic of this post (finally). The kind of processor that holds the most promise right now is the neural processor. Interestingly enough, science fiction has already beat science fact to the punch by featuring neural processing in shows such as Star Trek and movies such as the Terminator.

Companies such as IBM are working to turn science fiction in to science fact. The first story I read on this topic was several years ago (see IBM creates learning, brain-like, synaptic CPU). This particular story points out three special features of neural processors. The first is that a neural processor relies on massive parallelism. Instead of having just four or eight or even sixteen tasks being performed at once, even a really simple neural processor has in excess of 256 tasks being done. The second is that the electronic equivalent of neurons in such a processor work cooperatively to perform tasks, so that the processing power of the chips is magnified. The third is that the chip actually remembers what it did last and forms patterns based on that memory. This third element is what really sets neural processing apart and makes it the kind of technology that is needed to advance to the next stage of computer technology.

In the three years since the original story was written, IBM (and other companies, such as Intel) have made some great forward progress. When you read IBM Develops a New Chip That Functions Like a Brain, you see that that the technology has indeed moved forward. The latest chip is actually able to react to external stimuli. It can understand, to an extremely limited extent, the changing patterns of light (for example) it receives. An action is no longer just a jumbo of pixels, but is recognized as being initiated by someone or something. The thing that amazes me about this chip is that the power consumption is so low. Most of the efforts so far seem to focus on mobile devices, which makes sense because these processors will eventually end up in devices such as robots.

The eventual goal of all this effort is a learning computer—one that can increase its knowledge based on the inputs it receives. This technology would change the role of a programmer from creating specific instructions to one of providing basic instructions and then providing the input needed for the computer to learn what it needs to know to perform specific tasks. In other words, every computer would have a completely customized set of learning experiences based on specific requirements for that computer. It’s an interesting idea and an amazing technology. Let me know your thoughts about neural processing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Bletchley Park Reborn and a Social Issue Revisited

You may not have ever heard about Bletchley Park. In fact, the place was one of the best kept secrets of World War II (WWII) until just recently. Of course, like many secret places, this one fell into disuse after the war and nearly ended up in the scrap heap, but a restoration effort has been under way for quite some time now. As a computer scientist, the entire Bletchley Park project interests me because it was the first time that many computer principles were put into play. The project relied on cutting edge technology to reduce the length of the war and saved thousands of lives. A lot of other people must feel as I do because the park recently had its 100,000 visitor.

This particular historical place is receiving a lot of notice as of late. For example, there is a PBS television show called The Bletchley Circle that talks about what happened to some of the ladies who worked there after the war. The show makes good viewing and the feelings and situations presented are realistic to a point. I doubt very much that any of the people who actually worked there ended up as amateur sleuths, but it’s fun to think about anyway. The show does have the full cooperation of the restoration group and is even filmed there.

The computer systems used at Bletchley Park were immense and even the lowliest smartphone today probably has more processing power. However, WWII was the first war where computer systems played a major role and reading about their history gives insight into the directions that the technology may take in the future. The most important factor for me has been that the group working at Bletchley Park was made up of the finest minds available, regardless of gender, sex orientation, religion, age, or any other factor you can imagine. The only thing that mattered was whether you had a good mind. It’s how things should be today, could be today, but aren’t. It’s not hard to imagine the impact on the problem of global warming if we had such a group now.

All good things must apparently come to an end. At the end of the war, the group that performed so many amazing tasks was broken up, rather than being retained to work on other problems, such as reconstruction. The sheer waste of not keeping these minds working together on other problems staggers me, but it has happened more than a few times throughout history, and all over the world. No country in the world is exempt from such terrible waste. The women in the group ended up going home to be housewives and pretend that nothing ever happened. It’s the reason that The Bletchley Circle strikes such a chord with me. The show presents a kind of “what if” scenario.

If the world is to survive, it’s important that we think about the incredible waste of not using all the resources at hand for solving problems (and there are more than a few problems to solve). If this group serves as nothing else, it’s a reminder of how a few extremely talented people were able to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem. They should serve as an example today for all those who think the world’s problems can’t be solved—they resonate as a beacon of hope. Let me know your thoughts about Bletchley Park and The Bletchley Circle at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The Science Fiction Effect

I love reading science fiction. In fact, one of my favorite authors of all times is Isaac Asimov, but I’m hardly unique in that perspective. For many people, science fiction represents just another kind of entertainment. In fact, I’d be lying if I said that entertainment wasn’t a major contributor toward my love of science fiction. However, for me, science fiction goes well beyond mere entertainment. For me, it’s a motivator—a source of ideas and inspiration. So I recently read A Warp Speed Analysis on the Influence of Science Fiction with a great deal of interest. It seems that I’m not alone in my view that science fiction authors are often a source of creativity for real world scientists who see something that could be and make it into something that really is.

The science fiction effect has inspired me in both my consulting and writing over the years. For example, I’ve seen how science fiction authors treat those with special needs as if they don’t really have any special need at all—science has provided solutions that level the playing field for them. It’s the reason that I wrote Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements and continue to write on accessibility topics. The whole idea that science could one day make it possible for everyone to live lives free of any physical encumbrance excites me more than just about anything else.

What I find most interesting is that the ability to turn science fiction into science fact receives real world emphasis by colleges and universities. For example, there is a course at MIT entitled, MAS S65: Science Fiction to Science Fabrication. Many articles, such as Why Today’s Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction, even encourage scientists to read science fiction as a means of determining how their inventions might affect mankind as a whole. The point is that the creativity of science fiction authors has real world implications.

Now, before I get a huge pile of e-mail decrying my omission of other genres of writing—I must admit that I do read other sorts of books. Currently I’m enjoying the robust historical fiction of Patrick O’Brian. I’ll eventually provide a review of the series, but it will take me a while to complete it. Still, other books focus on what was in the past, what is today, or what possibly might be—science fiction propels us into the future. The science fiction effect is real and I’m happy to say it has influenced me in a number of ways. How has science fiction affected you? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Future Directions in Computer Science

There are many people in the computer industry today claiming that the PC is dead. Even Intel is bidding a fond adieu to the making of motherboards—certainly that sounds the death knell for the technology! Before we all succumb to PC is dead mania, it’s time to do a little thinking. The problems with this perspective are many:

  • The PC has a huge installed base and no one in their right mind is simply going to throw all those machines away.
  • The PC currently provides the best method for speedy data input and many other mundane tasks.
  • Many current applications don’t scale well to smaller footprint devices.
  • Using a desktop system provides management with ways of monitoring employee activity that management won’t want to give up anytime soon.
  • From a cost perspective, the PC is an extreme deal because it has turned into a commodity, so people will continue to buy them.

What has happened to the PC is that it’s a victim of its own success. New systems provide faster processors, more memory, and larger hard drives. The displays get ever more impressive and there are subtle, though small, changes that are attractive, but nothing to cause people to throw out their old machine. The fact is that the modern PC is so fast and well equipped that it has greatly outpaced the requirements of the software running on it. There is no reason to replace a PC anymore until the system simply dies from old age. In short, sales are down because people only buy a new PC when they need to replace their old one.

However, people will continue to use their desktop systems or a laptop equivalent because they need the functionality that the PC provides. It simply isn’t possible to run a business by typing everything on a smartphone screen (not unless you’re into repetitive stress injuries). From a computer scientist’s perspective, the PC still makes a great platform for writing applications. It is the basic machine that everyone uses, despite the fact that everyone seems to think it’s dead.

There are many assumed dead things in the world of computers. For example, everyone assumes that COBOL is dead, but it isn’t. We’ve been reading about the death of COBOL as a language for years and it isn’t even taught in colleges anymore, yet if you used an ATM anytime recently, you probably relied on a COBOL application to make the transaction. PCs are coming to the same transitional phase. Everyone will continue to use PCs in some fashion, but the growth phase of the PC is over, so the PC will appear less glamorous in the years to come—it will become yet another tool. In some respects, the PC will become like a car. They’re both complex devices that people take for granted because they’re commodities. In addition, both require specialized skills to work on and yet have devoted legions of non-professional adherents.

The direction computer science is taking today is the browser-based application. The reason is relatively simple. People now use multiple devices to perform tasks, but the common element for all of these devices is a browser that can host applications. Having the same application to perform common tasks on each device is a necessity if the person is to accomplish anything useful. In addition, tastes in devices vary between people. These devices have differing capabilities and flexibility. An application today must run equally well in every environment. Even in a controlled environment, people are working with more types of devices from a variety of vendors—the focus is less on compatibility and more on what appeals to the person in the way of features.

This change in focus in the reason I’ve started to focus my efforts more on technologies you can use to create applications that work anywhere on any device. It’s the reason I chose to write books such as HTML5 Programming with JavaScript For Dummies and Java eLearning Kit for Dummies (which is completed, but currently on hold). Yes, I’ll continue to write about Microsoft technologies because I truly believe the PC has a future, albeit a less exciting one than in the past. However, look for me to embrace this new future in upcoming posts and books with greater fervor. I’d love to hear your input on the future of computer science. Where do you think applications are headed? Let me know your ideas at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Interesting Money Issues for Computer Users

I was reading an article by John Dvorak entitled, “The Secret Printer Companies Are Keeping From You” recently that caused me to think about all of the ways in which I look for ways to reduce the costs of my computing experience without reducing quality. In this article, John discusses the use of less expensive replacements for inkjet printers. I found the arguments for the use of less expensive inks compelling. Then again, I’m always looking for the less expensive route to computing.

I’ve often tried the less expensive solution in other areas. For example, are the white box labels any different than the high end Avery alternatives? I found to my chagrin that this is one time when you want to buy the more expensive label. The less expensive labels often come by their price advantage in the form of less reliable adhesives or thinner paper. This isn’t always the case, but generally it is. When it comes to labels, you often get what you pay for. I tried similar experiments with paper and found that the less expensive paper was a bit less bright or possibly not quite as nicely finished, but otherwise worked just fine. It’s important to look carefully at the cheaper brands when you make a decision to buy them and determine whether there are any actual quality differences and whether you can live with those differences when present.

John is right about more expensive labeled products being passed off as less expensive off brand products. In some cases, I’ve found all sort of items that didn’t quite meet a vendors strict requirements for a labeled product sold as a less expensive off brand product. Sometimes you’d have to look very closely to see any difference at all. I also know that some white box vendors have name brand vendors product equipment with less stringent requirements or possibly not quite as many bells and whistles. The point is, that you can find new products that works almost as well as the name brand for substantially less money if you try.

However, let’s say you’re not willing to take a chance on a white box option. There is also a strong market now in rebuilt and refurbished equipment. Often, this is last year’s model that someone turned back in for the latest product. After a required check of the hardware and possibly a refit of a few items, a company will try to sell it to a new customer at a significantly reduced price. These refurbished items usually work as well as the new products. Because they’re already burned in, there is also less of a chance that you’ll encounter problems with them. Even Apple has gotten into the refurbished product game—I’m planning to buy a refurbished third generation iPad in the near future.

Getting systems designed for expandability is another good way to extend your purchasing power. You might not be able to afford absolutely everything you want today. Get what you can afford and then add onto the system later. This is the route I take quite often. I’ll get a motherboard and other system components that offer room for expansion and then I add what I need until the unit is maxed out. I can then get the next generation setup, move the parts that are still viable, and use the parts that are outdated for some other purpose. Often I’ll take pieces and put them together for a test system or for a unit that I’ll use to run an older operating system.

Some people have asked why I go through all this trouble when you can get a truly inexpensive system from a place like TigerDirect for under $500.00. I’ve looked at this systems closely enough to figure out that they usually won’t work for my needs right out of the box—I always end up adding enough to bring the price near to $1,000.00 and usually more. Once the system is delivered, I find there is little documentation and that the box is too small to accommodate any upgrades. I would have saved money in the long run by getting a better system that has expandability built in. Here is where the trap occurs. There is a point where you have cut costs so much that the PC ends up being a throwaway that proves frustrating. It’s false economy for a power user (the systems often work just fine for students or users who don’t run anything more complex than a word processor).

Getting the most out of your computer purchasing power takes thought and research. What has your best purchasing decision been? How about the worst mistake you’ve made? Let me know your thoughts about computer hardware purchases at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Equipment Failures and Local Backups

I had originally thought to provide a post today on the TimeCheck application. Friday is normally series day on the blog. Unfortunately, my computer had other ideas. Yesterday morning it decided not to work any longer. I heard a pop and then the screen went black—no helpful error message, no blue screen of death—nothing at all. Replacing the power supply with my ready backup brought no joy. I’m sure I’ll find the cause of my woes eventually, but for now, I need to get up and running so I can meet my deadlines (and write this blog).

Fortunately, I had already decided to upgrade my computer and have all of the parts on hand to build my new dream machine (at least, what I can afford of that dream machine). In addition, I had made a local backup of my system the day before, so I’ll lose one day’s worth of work at most. What all this means is that I’ll be back online soon with a newer system that will provide me with everything needed to complete my work for the next while.

Using my emergency online e-mail will help keep me in contact with the few people who absolutely must contact me. Others are relying on the phone to contact me. If you’ve sent me e-mail about a book issue, I apologize in advance for not addressing your question in a timely manner. I hope that you’ll understand that it wasn’t my idea to have a  system failure (it’s never my idea—the computer apparently has a mind of its own).

The one thought that has come to mind during this current crisis is that I’m extremely happy that I don’t rely on an online backup service. In order to get some things working on my new system, I needed the backup files, but I didn’t have access to the Internet. If I had relied on an online backup service, things would have gotten extremely interesting. Fortunately, my local backup is easily accessed despite the lack of connectivity, so everything is fine. I mention this in passing because I know that online backups have become quite popular. They have their place, but don’t neglect local backups because you never know when you’ll run into a situation like mine where online access is impossible.

As far as the TimeCheck application is concerned, we’ll restart the series as soon as is possible on Fridays. I appreciate your patience while I get things sorted out. In the meantime, let me hear about your dream machine at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.