Despite the success of Apple Computer’s cuddly new iMac and its recent "Think different" ad campaign, today’s envelope-pushing computer radicals are quietly breaking the rules with hand-built, home-brewed Windows PCs.
That’s right, Windows PCs.
Long derided by Apple Macintosh loyalists as uncreative and corporate, the Windows PC is making an unexpectedly subversive showing as the ultimate DIY (do-it-yourself) computing machine.
This is happening partly because building a Windows PC is not terribly difficult. Ever since IBM introduced its first home computer in 1981, the PC has used standardized component parts.
Unlike Apple, IBM decided early on to allow other manufacturers to produce their own versions of these parts. It was a wise move. Today, a huge industry of PC component companies exists. And the parts they sell — hard disks, motherboards, CD drives, etc. —are sold finished and ready-to-plug-together. All you really need is a screwdriver.
But why take the time to build your own computer when the local megastore is happy to sell you a finished model for one easy low price? The answer is simple: Video games.
Hidden in the more out-of-the-way — and less commercialized — corners of the Web, there’s an entire subculture of people obsessed with building and tweaking their own Windows computers.
Most of these hardware fanatics are also big-time computer game fans. Since playing the latest sci-fi action game requires a very powerful machine, knowing exactly what’s inside your box is crucial. And constant upgrading becomes an issue almost immediately — with game companies attempting to outdo each other every month, the newly released titles are even more hardware hungry.
The video game industry’s tendency toward built-in obsolescence has provided DIY computer buffs with quite a challenge. How do you maintain a state-of-the-art computer system without going broke? Like the competition for the highest score, overcoming this obstacle has become like a game. The goal: Build the fastest computer possible for the least amount of money.
When it comes to digital bang for the buck, insider information abounds on the Internet. Video game Web sites are beginning to devote as much space to hardware reviews as they are to cyber-vixen Lara Croft. And these reviews go far beyond rating the relative flexibility of Microsoft’s latest joystick. For example, Thresh’s FiringSquad reviews motherboards and memory with a level of detail that would make the staff of Consumer Reports hide their heads in shame.
Perhaps the hottest topic being discussed on these sites is "overclocking." As Tom’s Hardware Guide explains, overclocking means, essentially, forcing your computer’s CPU — the main central processing chip and "brain" of a computer — to run faster than its manufacturer intended. Since the chief enemy of computer chips is heat, crafty overclockers attach tiny inexpensive fans to their CPUs before cranking up the chip’s speed. It’s not a foolproof process, but it often works —sometimes with exceptional results.
More importantly, a successfully overclocked chip can save a DIY computer builder lots of money. For example, silicon manufacturing giant Intel makes an entry-level CPU called the Celeron A. This budget chip can be purchased for less than $100. Persistent overclockers have discovered that with proper cooling, many widely available Celerons can be made to run as fast as Intel’s premium CPUs (which cost several hundred dollars more).
Complete details on how to accomplish this feat are available at Sharky Extreme, which includes a step-by-step guide for overclock newbies. Sharky Extreme’s Craig Campanaro begins the guide by saying this about his beloved Celeron: "Never has so much power, and so much POTENTIAL power, been packed in a CPU that costs so little."
Overclocking success stories are shared online and displayed like hi-tech badges of courage.
"I got mine to boot past 500 last night!" announces Dataman in the discussion section of the Anandtech Web site.
Anandtech is one of the most popular online destinations among the Web’s overclocking elite. It’s run with refreshing maturity by 16-year-old Anand Shimpi, a high school junior from Raleigh, North Carolina. Shimpi’s site is a wonderful resource for the budding PC hardware iconoclast — it even includes a downloadable video talk show hosted by Anand himself.
Of course, amid the many overclocking success stories posted to the Web, there are also the inevitable failures.
Some chips overclock better than others, and even the legendary Celeron doesn’t always live up to its reputation. And yes, sometimes a hotrodded chip will simply burn out, unable to take the strain.
Worse still, the comprehensive news page on the popular BXBoards site is currently ripe with rumors that Intel has been tipped off about the overclocking community, and has figured out a way to lock the speed on their future chips.
But the DIY computer community, like Robin Hood and his merry gang, is a determined bunch. For instance, when a recent posting on Anandtech alerted readers to an unusually good price on hard drives at a national office supply chain, the store sold out across the country in two days. The item had apparently been incorrectly priced.