Defining the Need for Desktop Systems

I’ve been working on Build Your Own PC on a Budget for a while now and I’m nearing the end. A number of people have asked me precisely what market my book is for, especially now that smartphones and tablets are becoming the instruments of choice for consumer computing. In fact, someone recently sent me a ComputerWorld article entitled, Is your business ready for ‘stick’ PCs?. It’s important to understand that I really haven’t been living in a cave somewhere chanting a desktop PC mantra. The fact is that Build Your Own PC on a Budget is designed with the enthusiast in mind. This is the same person who would build a hot rod from scratch, even though they could probably get a nicer, more reliable, more fuel efficient car right off the lot.

The fact is that there are times when you want the flexibility that a desktop system can provide. If you want a system whose sole purpose is to check e-mail, do a little word processing, and possibly update your Facebook page, then you really don’t want a desktop system for the most part. The exception might be if you need a really large screen to see what you’re doing and many people simply plug their computers into the TV now in order to get the larger screen they need. For many people, a notebook, tablet, or smartphone really is all they need. When these stick PCs become popular, you can bet that a large number of people will use them for all their computing needs without any problem at all.

My book is designed around the needs of someone who needs a lot more than a simple computer. Of course, the gamer is the first person that comes to mind. When you read magazines like PC Gamer, you quickly find out that power says it all. These folks are constantly tweaking their systems to get out a little more power. Overclocking is something that these people talk about as casually as what they had for dinner last night.

However, I recently finished a book on data science and must admit that a tablet would never do the job. My desktop has power to spare and even it slowed down on some calculations (as in, I had time to get a cup of coffee while waiting for the processing to complete). A laptop would have a really hard time keeping up with even the minimal needs of the data scientist. In fact, many professional scientists and engineers really do need a super reliable, high power system. They can’t afford down time and they really don’t want to wait days for the results of a calculation. So, this is the second group for my book. They really aren’t looking for a stick PC.

The third group is experimenters. People who are interested in playing just to see what’s possible will love my book because I have all kinds of ideas in it for doing something interesting. Experimenters are those people who somehow manage to have these flashes of insight that result in major innovations. Many of the luxuries you enjoy now were the result of a mistake made by an experimenter. The mistake was turned into a profitable product only after someone looked at it from another angle.

A custom PC is also beneficial for specialized needs such as industrial automation or even for alarm systems. Special use PCs often require more ports than are available on something like a notebook, tablet, or smartphone. Just imagine trying to put enough cameras into the single USB port supplied with many smaller systems. So, I see a number of people who create special use systems buying this book as well.

Is the day of the desktop system as a commodity coming to an end? Yes, I definitely see consumers moving toward laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart watches, and even sticks in the future. If you don’t need the power a desktop can provide, there really isn’t a good reason to pay the price. Let me know your thoughts on the future of the desktop system at


The Pain of Current Hardware Updates

It’s no longer possible for the average person to install hardware on a system with any assurance of success and a few of us old hands are encountering problems as well! That’s my experience with a recent hardware update for my system. Yes, I got the job done, but it required more work than necessary and included several trips to the store. In one case, the store sold me the wrong part (not the part I requested) and I ended up having to go back to exchange it. One of the few significant advantages in owning a desktop system, the ability to update as needed, is being eroded by a serious deficiency in the quality of upgrade components.

When I first started building my own systems many years ago, the devices that went into the box came with beautifully rendered manuals, all the required software, and any required hardware. Of course, you could get cheaper products that didn’t quite include everything, but even in this case, the device included a getting started book and the required software. However, many people opted for the nicer vendor packages to ensure they wouldn’t have to continuously run to the store for yet another part. It was overkill in a way. For example, few people actually bothered to read the manuals end-to-end and simply used the getting started guide to get the hardware installed as quickly as possible. They’d then use the manual as a quick reference when problems occurred.

A few years ago I noted that even high end products no longer shipped with a paper manual. You received the getting started guide in paper form and could then use the manual that accompanied the DVD once you restarted the system. The devices still shipped with all the required hardware and software. Some storage devices had the software installed right on the device itself, but still, you received the required software. Even so, the new packaging technique achieved a nice balance between protecting the planet and still allowing just about anyone to perform a hardware upgrade.

You might have noted that the Monday post was missing. Well, that’s because I was offline wrestling with a hardware update that should have been quite easy. The replacement of my hard drive and display adapter should have taken only a few minutes, but ended up taking an entire day (starting Sunday afternoon) due to the lack of documentation, incomplete (but required) installation hardware, and lacking software. Today my system is running, mostly configured, and the new parts work beautifully, but the price of getting them installed was way too high.

There are a few new lessons that I’ve learned as part of this experience. The most important is to check the box to ensure you have absolutely everything before you get started. Yes, this has always been good advice, but the products of the past generally included everything needed to get the job done. Given the trend I’m seeing now, you’ll likely need screws, possibly a piece of installation hardware, cabling, and other items that are listed as optional in the documentation (even though the device won’t work without them). Check the installation hardware before you leave to the store to make sure they’re actually selling you the right part. For example, make sure the cable you buy is actually rated to handle the load you’re placing on it (a cable rated for 3 Gb/s may not work well for a device that is designed to transfer data at 6 Gb/s).

It pays to put any DVD that comes with the device into the drive on your working system and explore it before you take your system down to upgrade it. Make sure you print out any information you need for installation before you take your system offline. For example, you should print out any jumper information and cabling instructions. Once you have your system offline for the installation, it’s too late to print that information out. If you don’t have a second system to view the documentation at that point, you’ll find that installation is next to impossible.

Some devices no longer come with an installation DVD. In this case, you must go to the vendor site, download the required manual and software, and ensure you’re familiar with it before you take your system offline. Make sure the software and manual are put on removable media because you may need them before the installation process is complete.

Make sure you perform the upgrade in a manner that allows you to revert back to the pre-upgrade state when necessary. Actually, this has always been good advice, but it’s even more important now that the possibility of success is less. You may find that you have to reverse the upgrade to get a working system so that you can determine why the upgrade didn’t work.

Desktop systems have the advantage of allowing updates, but performing the update has become significantly more difficult because vendors no longer take the care in packaging products that they once did. What sorts of problems have you encountered? Let me know at


Considering the Inefficiency of a Global Economy

A lot of people have said a lot about the global economy—how it exists and is pretty much unstoppable. However, a recent article in ComputerWorld, amongst others, have highlighted problems with the global economy. In this case, flooding in Thailand has impacted the availability of hard drivesdriving up the price that everyone pays. If manufacturing were decentralized, flooding in a single country wouldn’t have much of an effect. In short, the emphasis on cost of individual products instead of emphasizing the reliability of multiple sources of hard drives at an increased cost has proven a shortsighted strategy that inevitably hurt the world supply.

Some countries are using the global economy as a source of blackmail. According to the New York Times, China has consolidated its grip on rare earth metals used for everything from compact fluorescent lights to displays used in smartphones. The blackmail started after a disagreement with Japan. As a consequence, the price of any item that requires rare earths has gone up and will continue to increase. It’s another instance where price advantages offered by a global economy have come back to haunt us. In fact, this problem is so significant that the United States government is doing everything it can to create alternative sources, no matter the cost. Unfortunately, it will require nearly 15 years to fully develop those alternatives.

These two stories, and many more, only hint at the potential problems of a global economy. The problems are actually far more severe than you might initially think. When someone ships a hard drive all the way from Thailand to your home, the carbon footprint of that drive is quite large. It takes a lot of gas to move that hard drive. What the global economy does is it trades fossil fuel for price. The cost of the oil, plus the cost of the object (whatever it might be), is less than the cost of producing the object locally. The short term monetary gain takes priority over the cost to the environment and its eventual cleanup. In the long term, that hard drive will cost everyone a great deal more than if it had been purchased locally.

This blog has contained more than a few self-sufficiency posts (60 as of this post). You’ve seen discussions of how to grow your own food and reasonably recycle products instead of dumping them in a landfill. I even told you how to obtain CFLs for free (see CFLs for Free). All of these posts are practicalI’ve worked hard to write posts that demonstrate techniques that improve the condition of your wallet, decrease your health problems, and still help everyone around you by producing a greener environment. Even with these measures, I’m well aware that my carbon footprint is huge because a global economy forces me to buy articles from overseas. These items aren’t available locally and I can’t make them myself.

In the long run, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to sustain a global economy unless the equation changes dramatically. Fossil fuels aren’t unlimitedwe’ll eventually run out, so from a practical perspective, transportation of items from overseas must change or we won’t be able to transport them. However, long before that happens, the damage to our environment will take a dramatic toll on everyone. The question is why anyone would wait around to see it all happen? Is the world determined to wait until everyone is so sick and so without resources that we have no choice but to toe the line? Does no one think about the effect they’re having until it’s too late?

I ask these questions because the global economy is simply a bad idea. Producing goods locally is far more efficient, even when the initial price for the good is higher. Eating and using what you can produce locally is far better for everyone. You do have a choice. Even with the global economy in full swing, you can buy local goodsin fact, insist on them. Tell local stores that you’re willing to pay more for local goods that are good for the environment. Your money matters. When stores find that they can’t sell those overseas items at any price, they’ll buy locally. “Give the customer what they want” is a cliche, but it’s also a fact. Vote with your cash to bring down a global economy that is ill conceived and killing us all. Let me know your thoughts about the global economy at