Category Archives: Hardware

Presentation Mode

Presentation Mode


by Richard White

It’s Computer Science Education Week, and for the fourth year in a row I’ve conducted presentations at our Lower and Middle Schools for an Hour of Code with 5th and 7th graders.

I’ve got a bit more on my plate than usual this year, so I tried to minimize time spent emailing/calling/coordinating with various administrators, tech coordinators, and teachers. I work with a great group of people who helped make some of that happen—our Middle School Tech Coordinator was instrumental in navigating some of that, and my Upper School director committed early to giving me time off from my classes to go conduct those sessions. Also, our Lower School Technology Integration Specialist took on some of the heavy lifting for the first time this year, identifying activities that might be well-suited for the 5th graders.

I’d been a little smart about things too: the Hour of Code webpages that I’d set up previously were still live, and a handy reference for those who wishe it. The presentation materials that I’ve developed over the years were pretty much ready to go as well, with some minor modification and editing. I’ve been switching from PowerPoint to LibreOffice, and my software on the laptop was good to go.

Now, how about that hardware?

Every presenter has their list of hardware that they need to be sure to bring along to a presentation, particularly if you’re going to be away from your home base for the day/week. What to bring with?

  • Laptop
  • Camera/cellphone for documenting event
  • Charger and charger adapter
  • Logitech wireless presenter (R400)
  • Lightning port-to-HDMI cable (spare)
  • Lightning port-to-VGA dongle (backup)
  • USB key with presentation materials (backup)

I’d been to one of the rooms I would be presenting in, and knew that it was probably already stocked with the various power supplies and cables that I’d need, but you never know. Most of the items on that list there are simply backups or replacements for items that I expect will already be there.


I got to the room, got things set up, checked out the projector to make sure it was working, double-checked the video that I’d be running in the presentation for sound… I was good to go!

I went to grab a marker to write my name on the whiteboard… no markers? Oh, there’s one. An old low-odor marker for which someone has left the cap off. I tried to write my name, and it left a half-visible mark on the board. I went to erase it and… no eraser.

Who has whiteboards with no working pens or erasers?

I scrambled around a bit and managed to scare some up just in time for the presentation.

It just goes to show you…

Looks like I have a couple of additional items for my hardware list. :)

Losing the Functional High Ground

Losing the Functional High Ground

by Richard White


The title of this post is a direct reference to Marco Arment’s excellent online essay from January 4, 2015, Apple has lost the functional high ground. If you haven’t read that post, in which Marco points out that Apple’s software quality has fallen off in the past few years, you should check it out.

Since that post was written, Apple’s success as a computer company has suffered other slings and arrows at the hands of former admirers, and most recently, on the hardware front. For a variety of reasons, Apple’s once formidable line of “best in class” computers has been reduced to a rag-tag selection of pretty, well-made, computers that run pretty nicely considering you’ve just paid top dollar for a new machine built from four-year-old hardware.

In 2013, Apple’s Phil Schiller unveiled the sleek, new, Mac Pro at the World Wide Developer’s Conference, with a defiant “Can’t innovate any more my ass!” for the benefit of observers who felt even then that Apple might have started to lose its way. Now, over three years later, that Mac Pro hasn’t seen a single upgrade, and Schiller’s sneer has become a sadly ironic comment on the ongoing state of affairs.

MacRumors, a fan-site so faithful they’ve got “Mac” in their name, maintains a Buying Guide for its readers, with listings on the current state of Apple’s hardware, and recommendation on whether now might be a good time to buy or not. Here are their recommendations as of a few weeks ago.


For anyone who has been a fan of Apple over the years, it’s painful to watch this decline. There may be some comfort in knowing that they’ve got the best selling mobile phone on the planet, and a good thing, too: that single product line, the iPhone, accounts for almost two-thirds of Apple’s revenue.

There’s a reason they removed the word “Computer” from their company name, “Apple Computer, Inc.” back in 2007.

John Gruber disagrees with Arment’s characterization of Apple: “…if they’ve ‘lost the functional high ground’, who did they lose it to? I say no one.”

It appears to me and to other observers that they’ve lost it to themselves. Their development of computer hardware and OS X software has effectively been abandoned in favor of their cash cow, the iPhone.

This is written on the eve of a much-awaited product release from Apple. I have every hope that the new products they announce tomorrow will restore our faith in the company.

And I have every fear that we will be disappointed.


I think I have my answer.

P.A.C.E. yourself

P.A.C.E. yourself

by Richard White


Spend any time on survival or disaster blogs—for the record, I don’t—and you’ll stumble upon the PACE acronym, which describes strategies or plans that you might develop for particularly mission-critical plans.

“PACE” stands for your
* Primary Plan
* Alternate Plan (to be implemented when the Primary fails)
* Contingency Plan (to be implemented if Alternate Plan fails)
* Emergency Plan (for serious uh-oh situations)

I used to work at a school that asked teachers to submit an “Emergency Lesson” plan that presumably could be taught by a substitute teacher called in at the last minute to replace you, in the event that one had an unplanned absence. That’s the right idea, and probably sufficient for the purpose.

Let’s look a a technology example though, familiar to anyone who’s ever had to teach in a room with a flaky Internet connection. You’ve a visiting teacher at a school and you’ve got that perfect YouTube video inserted in a presentation, and it’s go time. You head to the site, and… nothing. YouTube has been blocked at the school.

Not to worry. You’re ready, with multiple strategies for showing that video.

1. Primary Plan – Visit YouTube to show video

2. Alternate Plan – Show local copy of video that you downloaded using

But that file appears to be corrupted… or maybe you can’t find it, or… well, no matter. You go to

3. Contingency Plan – Use a VNC client to connect to your home computer…

… but it turns out the wireless is down, or perhaps the whole school network! You turn to the last option, which in all likelihood is going to be more trouble than its worth, but dammit, this video is critical!

4. Emergency Plan – You pop out your Verizon iPhone and set up tethering on your machine, connecting to YouTube’s servers via a cell connection.

Now what are the odds that you’re going to have that many failures? Pretty low, and let’s face it, any teacher worth his or her stuff really shouldn’t be relying on YouTube *that* heavily for their lesson. But you get the idea. Really important stuff deserves not just a backup plan, but several layers of backup plans.

Another example. Aaron and I were heading to Monterey to give a talk at a conference, and we’d spent a fair amount of time working on our presentation deck. We wanted to leave nothing to chance, so we headed up with:
1. The presentation on one of our laptops.
2. A backup copy of the presentation on the other’s laptop.
3. A USB drive with a copy of the presentation there.
4. A copy of the presentation on each of our servers where we could pull it down if needed.
5. A PDF copy of the slides on another USB drive that we could scroll through on even a borrowed Linux machine in the unlikely event that everything else went down.

We didn’t need any of those backups, thank goodness, but the fact that we knew we had them gave us a certain peace of mind during our travels.

PACE yourself. Because I’m not really interested in your backup plan.

I want to know what happens when your backup plan *fails*. :)

Opening the Gates

Opening the Gates


by Richard White

It’s a new school year! I don’t see my students for another few days, but many of the teachers are already back at work, greeting colleagues, cleaning classrooms, prepping calendars and websites, and a hundred and one other things that go into starting things up again.

It’s a special year for the science teachers and math teachers at my school. After a hard year’s worth of new construction, our brand new Math/Science/Library building is ready to go. The number of science classrooms has increased, our facilities have improved drastically, and we now have 10 ThinkPads installed in each of our two physics classrooms, with everything from Vernier’s Logger Pro to Microsoft’s Office to the University of Colorado’s excellent PhET Simulations installed. Having a set of computers installed in the 9th and 12th grade physics classrooms is going to revolutionize the way we teach physics at our school. I can’t wait to tell you about it.

But there is nothing more revolutionary than this simple fact:

Our school is opening up access to the Internet.

Teachers at our school have had mostly unfiltered access to the Internet for at least ten years, but students, until recently, have only had highly filtered access, and then only on school computers. This was presumably out of fear for their online safety, although students have access to literally anything they want on the Internet via their cell phones.

That all changed over the course of the summer, however, thanks in part to ongoing discussion in our Educational Technology Committee. Our IT Director, however, was almost certainly the one who did a little last-minute verbal judo to help encourage the decision. Regardless of how it came about, my school has now joined an increasing number of high school campuses that provide students with effectively free access to the World Wide Web.

Although my school is occasionally guilty of moving a little slowly on some of these things—I’m occasionally the one issuing this charge!—here, we’ve made the right move.

A friend forwarded an article to me earlier this evening, however. It contains a long series of Internet Safety Talking Points, and is a telling reminder that some schools still suffer from a “culture of fear.” I know all too well how hard it can be to be patient in the face of what appear unyielding barriers to the kind of technology-based policies and progress that are vital for educating our young people.

But the right conversation, at the right time, can make all the difference.

Keep the faith.

Celebrity Smackdown: iPad vs. Laptop

Celebrity Smackdown: iPad vs. Laptop


by Richard White

It’s a simple question, really. You’re a forward-thinking guy or gal, and you’re thinking about updating the hardware at your school, or perhaps even getting into a 1-to-1 program, or a Bring Your Down Device agreement with your student body.

What do you do: go with iPads, or laptops?

Before we break this down, let me give you my qualifications, in case you were worried. I have a tendency to favor Apple-based solutions for many situations, both for the high-build quality of their hardware and the relative stability, reliability, and ease-of-use of their software. I have a MacBook Pro that I run OS X on, although I’ve also run Windows 7 on that machine as well. I have a PC desktop at home running Ubuntu, and a Lenovo netbook (x100e, no CD/DVD drive) that I run Windows 7 and Ubuntu on. My cellphone is an iPhone 4, and I waited in line for the original iPad, and purchased the “iPad 3” when it came out.

Another point of reference: I work at a school that officially supports both Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X machines. That same school currently uses classroom carts of machines–PCs, Macs, and iPads–to give students access to computers on an as-needed basis.

I’ve been accused of being an Apple fan-boy, and am somewhat guilty as charged. But what about this iPad vs. laptops showdown? If you only had one device to buy, which would it be?

  iPad laptop/netbook
Time to wake from sleep ~ 1 second 3-10 seconds
Battery life ~ 10 hours 1 – 4 hours
Availability of applications Many, most modified to run on the iPad. Available only through iTunes. Many, with availability of certain titles dependent on operating system
Interface usability Touch interface, not suitable for extended typing. External keyboards available. Keyboard and trackpad, with usability dependent on keyboard size, manufacturer.
File management No access to file system. Apps may have some ability to share files, but third-party solutions (Dropbox, Air Sharing, etc.) necessary to move files around. Organizing and moving files done with operating system.
Cost Base model: $499 Varies depending on manufacturer, model. (Lenovo G570, 15.6″ screen, i5 processor, 8G RAM, 750G HDD, Windows 7 Home Premium = $569 sale price)
Security Applications heavily policed by Apple, Inc and sandboxed. No user access to filesystem. OS X relatively safe, Windows typically requires running anti-virus software.
Strengths Near instantaneous wake from sleep and outstanding battery life. Listening to music, surfing the Internet, reading PDFs, are all dead easy straight out of the box. Does everything, conforms to current paradigm of computing. Easily customizable. Runs Flash and Java applications.
Weaknesses No “real” keyboard. Programs limited in availability (Microsoft Office suite not currently available) or function (Photoshop Touch doesn’t have full feature set). Doesn’t allow access to file system. Can’t display Flash files or run Java applications. Relatively limited battery life. Use requires knowing how to navigate the operating system, manage files.

Does that clear things up? At my school, for some teachers the iPads have literally transformed the way they conduct their classes, with students reading course handouts on them, writing papers on them, uploading them to the instructor via Dropbox, and the instructor annotating their work and returning it to them via email.

For other teachers, the iPad is a non-starter. The Physics classes are unable to run Java-based animations, and the programming class is unable to launch a Terminal or write Python programs.

My recommendation for teachers is that use cases be examined very carefully. For all the talk of a “post-PC world” with “cloud-based storage,” we’re not there yet. As an educator who, in addition to teaching subject-area content is also helping students master the technological tools that they’ll use in college and in business, I strongly feel that there’s so much more to technology than pointing and tapping. Students who are unable to right-click, or “Save As…”, or create a new folder for organizing their files, haven’t been well served.

iPads satisfy some needs for some teachers, it’s clear, and may be part of the educational technology equation for some schools. For an institution with limited resources, however, money will be better spent on laptops. And for schools considering a “one device to one child” program, committing to the iPad–the device du jour–is, in my opinion, short-sighted.

My Go Bag

My Go Bag
by Richard White

A “Go Bag” is that bag you keep by the door, and grab on the way out in case of emergency, disaster, etc. Spies might keep weapons and a passport for a new identity in their Go Bag, a pregnant woman might keep a change of clothes and a flashlight in her Go Bag… you get the idea. Some urban “warriors” (commuters, really), looking to pump up their street cred, have adopted the Go Bag term for their own use, and use it to refer to any daypack or shoulder bag that contains essential items for a day in the wild: in the car, on the bus, at work.

So what’s in your Go Bag? What do you find essential for your day in the classroom, as a teacher, as a technologist?

People tend to fall into two camps in this matter: some adopt a “everything but the kitchen sink” attitude with an eye towards hauling around everything from multiple power supplies, screwdriver sets, and water purification tablets—because you never know when you might need to purify some water, right?—and others go for the fast-and-light approach, carrying a minimum of gear and hoping that any unplanned for emergencies will be resolved by relying on the kindness of strangers.

Me, I tend to go fast-and-light.

I think it started when I was preparing to move to France for an extended period of time. I would only be carrying a single bag for the trip, so space was at a premium, and I made some difficult decisions about what to carry. Since then, I’ve embraced carrying a minimum of gear in my travels, including my commute to and from work.

So without further ado, here’s my list, with comments. Trust me, this is going to take long.

  1. Daypack
    My personal favorite right now is a Mountain Tools Stealth pack, 21.3 Liters worth of black ballistic cloth badness. It’s a simple, one-compartment, zip-open number, and so slim it’ll make you wonder how you’re going to fit all your stuff into it. Surprise answer: you can’t. You’ll have to pare down your essentials a bit, eh?
  2. Wallet bag
    I have a very thin wallet—just driver’s license, credit card, ATM card, and health care info—but even so I don’t ordinarily carry it in my jeans. I keep the wallet in a zippered pouch that also holds a ballpoint pen, and contacts solution. The pouch just keeps these other items from rattling around too much in the pack.
  3. Sunglasses
  4. Laptop
    Of course. The 15″ MacBook Pro that I use for just about everything slips into a snug Waterfield Designs Laptop Sleeve Case (, which itself slips nicely into the pack.
  5. Cellphone
    It’s often in my pocket, but sometimes it’ll be in here.
  6. Keys
    Clipped to a carabiner attached to the top of the pack.
  7. Papers
    The day’s paperwork is nicely contained and protected by a thin plastic folder.

That’s it.


What more do you need?

Okay, okay, the bag’s not full yet, and maybe the weather’s looking a little shaky for the next couple of days. You can add:

  1. Umbrella
    … and/or a light sweater or jacket
  2. Power brick
    for laptop
  3. USB cable
    to charge the phone with the laptop.
  4. PowerBar?
  5. Swiss army knife?
  6. Bottle of water?

Yeah, sure you can bring all those things. Just don’t start getting carried away, right? Fast-and-light is the way to go.

“What do you have in your backpack?”
– Ryan Bingham in “Up in the Air”

The End is Nigh

The End is Nigh


by Richard White

“The End is Nigh!” For your optical drive, that is.

CDs and DVDs are still here for the moment, but not for long. Depending on how much you love your archives and content, it may be time to start thinking about a migration process that will allow you to convert your CDs and DVDs to a hard drive.

It’s an easy, if tedious, process. I did it with my documents and data last year: buy a couple of 1-terabyte external hard drives, plug one of them into your computer, plug in the nearly endless succession of CDs and DVDs that you’ve been burning data on all these years, and click-drag over to the terabyte archive.

Once you’ve spent a day or two doing that, plug in both terabyte drives and click-drag all the contents from one drive to the other, which will act as a backup of the archive.

At that point you’ll have at least three copies of your data: the original CD or DVD (which you might want to tuck away, should something catastrophic happen to both hard drives), and two copies of your data on the Archive and Backup external drives.

There are fancier ways to do this that you may already have built. rsync works magic in a shell script, and you can spend hours and days developing a system there that you can use to manage it all.

In the absence of anything fancy, though, at least get your data off those optical drives. In another three years or so, many computers—and certainly the most popular ones, including iPads and Macbook Airs—won’t have an optical drive, and you’ll have easy way to access that data. Let’s face it, the data storage on CDs and DVDs is time-sensitive anyway. Like that old slide film that your father shot just thirty years ago, that medium decays with age. If you think that Apple is wrong about that, you don’t have to look too far back to find another decision they made regarding media that was very controversial at the time. The 1998 iMac G3 came without a floppy disk slot in anticipation of what would happen throughout the industry in the years to come. By 2003, Dell was no longer including floppy disk drives as standard on their machines, and by 2007, only 2% of computers sold included floppy drives.

So, yeah. I’m not saying you need to run out right now and take care of this. But you might want to put it on your ToDo.txt list. I mean, come on. When’s the last time you bought a music CD?

Yup. That’s what I thought.

Do yourself a favor and get a couple of 1-terabyte archive drives. You’ll be glad you did.

Upgrading to Lion

Upgrading to Lion

by Richard White


Are you working on an Apple machine that’s running Snow Leopard? That’s OS X version 10.6—click on the Apple in the upper left corner of the screen and select “About this Mac…” to see what version of the operating system you’re currently using. If you’re currently using OS X 10.6, you have the option of upgrading to OS X 10.7, code named “Lion.”

How you go about upgrading to Lion is relatively easy to do. From you Dock or the Applications folder, launch the “App” and do a search for “OS X Lion.” Downloading the app will cost you thiry bucks—a bargain for updating this particular operating system—and following the crystal clear instructions will take a couple of hours, depending on how fast your download connection is.

Should you upgrade your system? Yes, of course… at some point. You’ll absolutely want to upgrade to the most current version of your operating system at some point, for lots of different reasons. A new OS is typically safer, more secure, faster, and in some cases required to run recent software. For most people, though, I’d recommend that you update your machine later rather than sooner.

There are three reasons why you don’t necessarily want to jump into early-adopter “update now” mode.

1. If you’re running a “production machine” which has software installed on it that won’t be able to run under Lion, you obviously shouldn’t upgrade. A silly example: I have a friend who still uses the AppleWorks word processing program that Apple stopped distributing over ten years ago. AppleWorks won’t run under Lion, so my friend is going to need to convert AppleWorks files to a different format before upgrading, or resign himself to working with an obsolete program for the rest of his life.

2. If you’re running a machine that can’t upgrade to Lion. In addition to running Snow Leopard, you need a computer that has these minimum hardware requirements. If your machine doesn’t meet those requirements, you can just chill with your old machine running Snow Leopard until you’re ready to buy some new hardware.

3. It’s often a good idea to just wait a bit until the “first release” kinks get worked out. Each new verson of an operating system—10.7.0 in this case—is typically a first draft, and despite efforts to test the system under a lot of different conditions, there is always the potential for unexpected surprises, and the release of Lion is no exception. If you’re not willing to put up with some of the inconveniences that occasionally accompany early adoption, you should probably wait for another month or two until 10.7.1 is released. That will potentially give you a much more stable experience.

There. Have I convinced you not to upgrade? Good for you. You can stop reading.

Still here? Okay, if you insist on going through with the upgrade process, here are some tips for you.

1. Do a full backup of your system.
If you don’t use Time Machine, or SuperDuper!, or Carbon Copy Cloner, then you’ve got bigger problems than installing a new operating system. Do a full backup, and come back when you’re done.

2. Set aside a couple of hours for the download/installation process.
There shouldn’t be any problems—the installation process has been extremely well tested—so just follow the instructions and you should be up and running again in a couple of hours.

3. Bask in the wonders of the new system.
You may have heard about some of these. Full-screen mode for interruption-free work. Automatic document and window saves. Automatic version control. New user interfaces and styling for Apple-branded apps like and New support for multiple workspaces (“Mission Control”). Apple’s attention to detail in the user experience, as always, shines in this new release.

4. Configure your new system.
Lion works a little differently from Snow Leopard, obviously. Other changes, in addition to those listed above: Two-finger swipes on a trackpad work the opposite of how they used to. Lion tries to auto-correct practically everything one types, it seems. There are some new apps in the Dock, including LaunchPad and FaceTime. If you have any experience with an iPhone or an iPad, some of the changes in Lion are designed to bring your experience on the computer closer to what you do on a touch screen.

Of course, not everyone always appreciates the changes brought about by a new operating system. From tweaks to the user interface to new controls and key combinations, you may find that some behaviors that you really like have changed under Lion. Fortunately, many of those changes can be reconfigured to match your needs.

Here are some of the modifications I made to my own machine after upgrading to Lion, along with a brief description of why I made those changes.

  • Remove LaunchPad, App Store, and FaceTime from the Dock
    I tend to use the Dock only for apps that I very frequently use, and these are just cluttering it up.
  • Select Apple Menu > System Preferences > General > Show scroll bars: Always (instead of Automatically based on input device)
    In an attempt to clean up the screen, Apple removed scrollbars from Windows, apparently not realizing how important scrollbars are for identifying whether or not a window contains additional information, and how much information there is.
  • Select Apple Menu > System Preferences > Trackpad > Scroll & Zoom: uncheck “Scroll direction: natural”
    The default setting on Apple machines now is for a trackpad to mimic the behavior of a touchpad, and this doesn’t work for me. On my iPhone, while I’m perfectly comfortable swiping a document UP to look further down that document, that’s because that’s how I would actually interact with a real piece of paper under my finger. For Macs and PCs, for the last 25 years, that’s not how mouses and trackpads have worked, and I continue to use PCs with trackpads that don’t follow Apple’s new convention. They knew this was going to be controversial when they introduced it, and that’s why they wisely provided the option to change this behavior via that checkbox. I’ve unchecked it!
  • In Mail, select Mail > Preferences > Viewing: check “Use Classic Layout
    Some people are really happy about Apple’s new 3-vertical-pane layout. I prefer the old one, thank you.

    If you ARE going to use the 3-vertical panes, consider changing this preference: Mail > Preferences > Viewing: List Preview: “1 Line”. This will allow you to see more of your messages at one time.

  • Select Apple > System Preferences > Language & Text > Text: uncheck “Correct Spelling automatically”
    Damn you, Autocorrect! I love spell-checking when writing a formal document or pounding with my big thumbs on the iPhone’s tiny screen-based keyboard. In most other circumstances, my computer trying to second-guess me is just annoying, and actually gets in the way of what I’m trying to do. Try leaving Autocorrect on for a day or 3 and see what you prefer.
  • In Terminal, type chflags nohidden ~/Library
    Apple has chosen to hide the user’s Library folder to keep the average Joe from digging around in there and messing it up. It’s true that most people shouldn’t be dinking around in there, but I do from time to time, and it’s nice to be able to navigate to that folder directly.
  • Select Apple > System Preferences > Time Machine > Uncheck “Lock documents 2 weeks after last edit”< br />
    In another move designed to protect users from themselves, Apple think that if you haven’t worked on a document in a couple of weeks, you probably don’t really need to edit it any more, at least not without typing in your password to verify that you really do want to edit that document. I work on old files all the time, and don’t need Apple holding my hand during that process.
  • In Terminal, type defaults write DisableReplyAnimations -bool YES
    This turns off annoying Mail-related animations. To change it back: defaults write DisableReplyAnimations -bool NO
  • In Terminal, type defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSAutomaticWindowAnimationsEnabled -bool NO
    This turns off a subtle but potentially annoying zooming window effect that affects how new windows appear on the screen.

Building Your Own PC, part 3 – Assembling the Pieces

Building Your Own PC, part 3 – Assembling the Pieces

by Richard White


So, you’re building your own computer, and you’ve received shipments from Amazon and that contain the components that you’ve so carefully selected. Those boxes are piled up in some corner of the apartment, and you’ve managed to set aside a few hours in your schedule during which you can get to work assembling everything into a working computer.

Be aware that this process may take no more than an hour if you know what you’re doing. In my case it took several days of here-and-there work, and that’s not including the week I had to wait for my replacement CPU to come in.

Yeah. There was a replacement CPU that had to arrive.

As previously mentioned, there was a slight hiccup in my ordering: the motherboard I’d ordered, which is perfectly compatible with the Intel i3 CPU I ordered, isn’t compatible with the Intel i3 CPU I ordered.

Confused? I was, too.

The CPU pins are NOT aligned correctly with the socket on the motherboard. Big problem!

It turns out that there are slightly different builds of the i3, some designated 1155, and some designated 1156. These two versions of the i3 chip have different pin configurations, and are completely incompatible with each other. It turns out I’d ordered an 1156 motherboard, and an 1155 chip.

Someone doing a little more research than I’d done might have figured this out… or maybe not. I’d actually cleared my order with a couple of practiced “build your own PC” guys who do this on a regular basis for fun, and they hadn’t known about it either. So… yeah. When the chip wouldn’t fit on the board the way it was supposed to, I did some more digging around on the Internet and eventually figured out what had gone wrong.

These numbers should have been the same--who knew?!

This, boys and girls, is why you keep the old packaging, at least until your machine is up and running. I printed out a return label from the Amazon website and sent back the CPU, and ordered the correct one to replace it. A week later, I was again ready to start building.

The motherboard with the CPU installed, the heatsink/fan over the CPU, and the RAM inserted into the memory slots.

Follow the instructions on whatever website you’re using to guide you in this process. My workflow went like this:

  1. Unpack case and power supply, and install power supply in case, using instructions included with case.
  2. Unpack motherboard and CPU. The instructions included with your motherboard will be awesome! Use them! Find latex gloves (from an old first aid kit) to wear while handling the CPU, or be really, really careful to only hold it by the edges. Install CPU on motherboard.
  3. Install heatsink over CPU.
  4. Install RAM onto motherboard.
  5. Install motherboard into case.
  6. Install drives (CD-ROM, hard drives, etc) into case.
  7. Attach cables from power supply to motherboard and drives.
The motherboard in the case, with the power supply in the lower left, and the disk drives in the lower right.

Theoretically, the computer is ready to go at this point, but… something almost certainly went wrong. A cable attached incorrectly, or a switch on the motherboard that’s in the wrong position. Who knows? Don’t close up the case completely just yet…!

  1. Attach monitor, keyboard, mouse, and power cable to the back of the computer.
  2. Power monitor on, then computer
  3. Play with BIOS as required for your system, following the instructions included with your motherboard.
  4. Install operating system of your choice, typically by booting from a CD, DVD, or USB install disk.

In my case, I ended up installing Ubuntu 10.04 LTS on my computer; this took another hour or so to run through the install process. Followed by an additional hour or so installing updates. If you’re installing Windows, make sure that you also install anti-virus software (AVG is probably the best of the free ones, although you’ll have to search around a bit on the site to get the free version, and not the “free trial”).

And over the course of the next few weeks or so, as I used the machine, I ended up installing additional software on there, as well as copies of all the files on my laptop. That was the original intent of this machine for me, after all: to backup my current computer, and archive other files that I want to hang on to.

Something I’d strongly recommend that you do immediately: create a small text-file on your computer that you use to keep track of software installs, modifications to the machine, etc. Every time I install a new piece of software, I write down the date, the software, and the license key if there is one. Having a list of all the software and modifications to your machine will be invaluable in case of trouble, and can be used as a resource when you end up moving to a new machine at some point in the future.

Building Your Own PC, part 2 – Design and Ordering

Building Your Own PC, part 2
Design and Ordering

by Richard White


There are two reasons you might have for wanting to build your own PC:

  • You have a need for a new computer, or
  • It’s just so frickin’ cool, building a computer.

Ideally, both of these reasons would apply.

In my case, I needed a new machine to replace an old PC that had finally completely failed; the hard drive in the old hand-me-down PC wouldn’t even boot anymore, so I figured it was time to create my own “dream machine.”

If you’ve read the Ars System Guide—highly recommended before embarking on this journey, and to be consulted along the way—you know that their Dream Machine refers to high-end powerhouse computer complete with solid-state disk RAM and a screaming fast graphics card, usually for running processor intensive games under Windows.

My dream machine, however, is a little more utilitarian. For my purposes, I simply needed a machine that I would use for backups of my other machines, and to store and potentially serve media at my house. I don’t need fast booting on this machine, nor even a dedicated graphics card—in my research, I selected a motherboard that had onboard graphics that would be just fine for my purposes.

The money I saved in using a lower-end processor was instead spent on hard drives that would be used for my backups and media. Because these are backups, and even backups need a backup, I eventually ended up with 4 one-terabyte drives: one for the system and media, one for the backups, and the other two mirrors of these first two. (For the more technically inclined, I did not configure these drives as a RAID. I’m simply rsyncing the drives on a periodic basis.)

So that’s my machine. You’ll obviously need to figure out what kind of machine you’re looking to build.

Once you’ve got that sort of figured out, then you can start really looking through the guides to see what kinds of recommendations they might have for you. And for a first-timer, it really does make a whole lot of sense to get some advice from the experts. There are so many different technical considerations that govern whether or not the different components will work together, your chances of designing your own computer—case, power supply, motherboard, processor, memory, hard drives, and graphics card—successfully but without guidance are virtually nil.

Even following someone else’s guidelines, you’re going to face some challenges.

Ordering the various components of your machine consists, then, of poking around on sites that sell these things. Just about everyone I spoke with in the course of building my own machine orders from and, who both have a good selection, multiple shipping options, and user reviews that provide yet another data point in your decision on whether to order this hard drive or that hard drive. I ended up ordering my hard drives from rather than Amazon for example, because several people complained on the Amazon site about how the drives had been shipped to them. I got my case and power supply and as well, because there was a discount for buying them together there.

It took me an evening to finally get my order put together, and the next day I finished up with my order. Here’s what I ended up order from each one.

In preparation for next time… can you see the mistake in one of my orders below? Can you determine which part I ended up having to send back??!

Summary of order from

Order from