NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, October 2003
The Beige Box is DOA
Or is it?
Robert tells us about his experience with a beige box…

by Robert Newcombe, PIBMUG

You heard it at recent user group meeting: beige computer boxes are “dead.” At a recent PIBMUG meeting, Rick Clayton of Via Technologies claimed that the clones we’ve all come to love are history because of the company’s EPIA Mini-ITX motherboards. It gets better. Clayton also said creative computer geeks (OK, he didn’t say “geeks”) are building computers that don’t look anything like the bland boxes PCs have looked like for the last 15 years. During his presentation, I couldn’t understand why anyone would waste time building a non-computer looking computer. (“Form follows function,” right?) But at the end of the evening, I had an opportunity to build my own because I won one of these motherboards in the raffle.

Pick a Box, Any Box
I had never built a computer from scratch before. On the Internet, I found crazy looking computers that others had built with these boards. A Lincoln Log cabin. A Millennium Falcon. A rubber doll. (I wouldn’t want to touch that keyboard.) Even a cardboard box. I gathered from all this silliness that people are simply “expressing themselves.” And nothing expresses myself better than “value”—my wife calls it “cheap”—so I decided to build this as, uh, cheaply as possible: under $200. The board comes with an amazing assortment of connections, negating the need for extra cards. All I needed were a power supply, hard drive, floppy drive, CD burner, CD drive, and RAM.

I looked at an old 486 (my wife has been bugging me to get rid of it) and tried to fit the board into it, but this required serious metal cutting. I considered the cardboard box idea, using the power supply from the 486, but I was afraid I’d hook it up wrong, start a fire, and burn down the house. (Yes, I think that way.) So I decided to spring for a new box, but pulled the floppy and CD drives from the 486. (See, honey, I’m still using it!)

At Fry’s, I found lots of computer boxes, including mini cubes designed specifically for these boards. Great looking, but way over my budget. Two teens were fawning over the see-through sides of tower-style boxes. While the kids salivated, I thought, a clear box with a light inside? Why would anyone want to be able look in on a computer? There’s nothing to see—no moving parts, except the fan, which you can’t see when it’s moving.” I picked the second cheapest: a mid-size tower with six fans.

One of Those, Two of These
I had seen an ad for a stick of RAM, a 512MB DDR, for $40, but the salesman said they were out. “We have one for $65—but it’s a good one.” “You mean the sale one wasn’t good?” I asked. “Do you want it or not?” he responded without answering my question. I bought it.

Next stop was Best Buy for a $32 (after rebate) Samsung 48X CD burner. Since my existing burner is only 8X, this seemed plenty fast. I had planned to buy a 40GB Western Digital hard drive for $45 (after rebate), but they had a WD 80GB for $70 (after rebate) so I splurged. My total cost for the computer, including taxes and rebates, was $255.02. Over budget, but with lots of RAM and hard drive space (and rebates).

The tower came with no instructions, and the motherboard’s glossy User’s Manual was obviously written for people who know more than me: “This setting determines whether DRAM timing is configured by reading contents of the SPD (Serial Presence Detect) EPROM on the DRAM module.” What the…?

It took me four frustrating tries (including a sliced finger and a trail of blood all over the box. Hey, beige is dead, right?), but I finally got the motherboard in place, with everything lined up properly. It was only then that I finally realized just how small these motherboards are: it looked like Mini-Me sitting next to Yao Ming in that commercial.

Inserting the RAM was easy, but it took almost two hours to get all the drives mounted and cables plugged in. There weren’t enough power thingamajigs for the six fans, and it took me way too long to figure out that I had to daisy chain them.

Ready, Fire, Aim…
Ready for the “smoke test,” I plugged the power cord, mouse, keyboard, and monitor in, and, with the WD boot floppy inserted, I nervously pressed the beige power button. To my amazement, it booted up and recognized all the drives! I covered the box and screwed everything in place. Installing an operating system could wait for another day, I thought as I uncorked a celebratory bottle of Charles Shaw wine.

Now for the rebate forms. (I always make sure everything works before I fill these out.) The CD burner form needed the serial number. I looked all over the box. Not there. I looked through every piece of documentation that came with it. No serial number. I looked at the rebate form again. The fine print said, “Write down serial number before installing.” I know companies do everything they can to make completing rebate transactions difficult, but this was the worst I’ve seen. And then it dawned on me. “That’s what the clear side and light is for. To read the serial numbers after you put the computer together!”

Copyright © 2003 by Robert Newcombe. Reproduced with permission. The very frugal Robert Newcombe is a member of the Pasadena IBM Users Group and a software trainer and analyst for a large law firm in Los Angeles. Reach him at robertnewcombe@juno.com. Article reproduction coordinated by Steve Bass, author of PC Annoyances: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things about Your Personal Computer, O’Reilly Press. http://snurl.com/annoyances