Sunday, May 17, 2009

Why I Custom Build My Computers

For the last fifteen years I've built all of my own computers. The recipe has been straightforward:
  • Intel CPU at the "elbow" of the curve for price/performance.
  • ASUS motherboard with good fan control.
  • Hard drive recommended by on their Leader Board.
  • Zalman CPU fan.
  • RAM with good reviews on NewEgg.
  • Namebrand power supply. For the last five years it's been a SeaSonic.
  • A fanless video card, usually an XFX nVidia card. (Nothing against ATI, I just know the nVidia quirks inside and out.)
The most important features to me are reliability, fan control and BIOS control. Reliability because I make my living based on these systems and BIOS control so that I can set the system up without compromise. I don't overclock, but BIOS control can be the critical difference when faced with non-Windows operating environments (which are often used by disaster recovery tools.)

Fan control is a biggy. I really, really hate fan noise. Only in the last few years of manufacturers started to work on this as computers have become home theater accessories. Fans have been made quieter and have been put under the control of the motherboard to slow them down as the cooling requirements drop.

I've ordered the last couple of new systems from They follow my "recipe" for everything except the hard drive. They also assemble it, test it, route and tie all of the cables, and add additional sound damping devices as requested. The systems I've bought from them have been the best I've ever owned. (I have no financial interest in this company, I'm just a happy customer.)

Last week I bought a used computer system for our test lab. Most of the lab computers are cast-offs from developers, so most of the lab systems follow my recipe. However, we needed a modern system for 64-bit testing, so I bought a used Gateway FX7026, a mid-range consumer system.

My expectations were appropriate for this system. I expected comparatively louder fan noise, poor documentation and shovelware installed with the operating system. I'm pleased to say that I was right on all of these. Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. I was reminded in no uncertain terms why I don't buy systems from vendors like Dell, HP and Gateway.

The first problem is figuring out what's in the computer. The documention doesn't really discuss it. As an example of someone who does this right, if you type a system's serial number into the IBM/Lenovo site, you'll be given all of the relevant build information for that particular system. Gateway doesn't give you any of that, so you have to find the components by searching the web or by tearing the system apart and trying to read part numbers.

The second problem is updating drivers. My definition of "simple reinstall" also comes from the IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad. Boot the "Restore CD." Walk away for 90 minutes. Come back, install the IBM System Update utility, let it install the latest required drivers. Install updates for Windows. Done.

Gateway used to have such a utility. They still recommend using it on all driver download pages. But the utility is no longer supported and does not work with any system built since 2004. So you have to manually go through the Downloads page, download each update, extract it, install it, reboot, and move on to the next update. Elapsed time - several hours. And you'd better have a second computer to help you with this because the drivers for the network chip are not built into XP.

I avoided most of these problems by installing Windows 7 RC, which has a remarkable inventory of drivers built into. There were only two red X's in the Device Manager after installation.

After Windows 7 booted, I was surprised to look in Task Manager and see that the network card maxed out at 100Mbps. This was a surprise because I had researched the G33 motherboard before purchasing the system and all models of the G33 include gigabit networking. I'd find out the cause shortly.

Next I tried to install the Windows 7 update that enabled Virtual PC and Windows XP. Except that the update refused to install, complaining that Virtualization extensions weren't supported. I knew that the processor supported them. This was a critical issue and I had read Intel's spec sheets before buying the computer.

I learned that Virtualization extensions required BIOS support. No problem, I'd get the latest BIOS from Intel. I had specifically bought this computer because it had a standard Intel motherboard. Gateway refers to the motherboard model as "Shroedoer Town" but doesn't list the exact model. I eventually found out from a handy article that it's a DG33SXG2. Shrewd readers will note that there is no such motherboard on Intel's site.

And here's the final insult. Gateway took Intel's bottom-of-the-line G33 motherboard - and detuned it with cheaper hardware! Gateway removed the GigE ethernet. They removed the ability to use standard Intel BIOS upgrades. They removed the support for virtualization extensions. And Gateway had the temerity to call it a "mid-level" system. I call it cheap.

So Gateway has now made sure that they will never, ever get more business from me. Poor documentation, poor hardware, poor driver updating - there really isn't a lot more to get wrong.

For me, this is a sad thing to see. The first computer I bought after I graduated college was a Gateway 486. I used the famous cow box as a coffee table in my apartment. The monitor was the very first 15" monitor on the market that was "affordable." There was a lot of innovation in that system and it lasted me for years.

P.S. I never did get the fan controls on the FX7026 to work. That's a standard feature of the G33 motherboard, so I can't tell if Gateway broke that too or if there were other factors at play. I also couldn't find any third party software, including SpeedFan, that supported the G33 fan and temperature controllers. Even Intel's software didn't work because I was running a 64-bit operating system.