Friday, September 30, 2011

Volume 6, Number 13: Another Do-It-Yourself Win

For well over a decade, I have hated certain things about brand-name computers that you and I find at our favorite electronics and office supply stores.
  • They come with software loaded on it that I don't need.  Four years ago, I bought a Dell computer that had Microsoft Money and Microsoft Works loaded on it. Works is fine if you just need basic word processing or spreadsheet software, but for an experienced Word and Excel user like me, Works is like trying to eat dinner with a Swiss Army knife.  Microsoft Money is a finance software program that I just never had a use for.  I keep tabs on my budget with an Excel spreadsheet.  That's all I need.
  • They also come with hardware that you don't need.  Every new computer, it seems, absolutely has to come with a matching keyboard and mouse, when chances are, the keyboard and mouse on your current computer are working just fine.
  • Finally, there's the brand name.  In most cases, the brand can say a lot about the quality of the product and the company that made it that product, and it makes perfect sense for someone who doesn't take apart, fix or maintain anything to "go with a brand you trust."  But if you were to take apart a PC, you would find that the components inside it come from various companies.  The hard drive could be from Seagate or Western Digital.  The optical disc drive may be from Sony, Samsung or LG.  The motherboard may have been made by MSI, ASUS or Gigabyte.  And that's on top of the fact that the CPU chip--the brain of the computer--is from Intel or AMD.  The point is, when you buy a branded PC like HP or Compaq or Acer, you're buying a lie.  They didn't make most of the key components; all they did was put them together in a factory and slap their name on a stylish case.
I always wanted get a PC that had just what I needed (a better CPU, more memory, a bigger hard drive, etc.) without having to pay the extra costs listed above.

In 2007, I went to a local custom builder and asked him about building me a PC that re-used several components from the old PC I had been using (more details in this blog entry).  This project proved impossible due in part to the time factor--it would have taken that custom builder extra time to put one together a PC that matched my specs--and because computer industry standards had changed significantly enough that the components I wanted to re-use were obsolete anyway.  That's when he sold me that Dell I mentioned earlier.

Last Friday, I finally got my wish.  I ordered a "build-it-yourself" kit from Tiger Direct that met most of the specs I had in mind (most notably, an Intel Core i5 processor and 8 GB of memory) and successfully put it together, and it cost me much less than what I would have paid at Best Buy for any computer that had that processor and that much memory in it (around $350).  I didn't have to pay for any unneeded software or extra hardware.  And most importantly, I was able to put the kit (case, motherboard, CPU, memory, drives) together successfully on the first try.

What were the differences between last Friday and what happened in 2007 that led me to finally ditch the "Custom Building Blues"?

  1. I know computers a lot better.  Back in 1998, I dropped $700 on a computer that crashed a lot and became obsolete in fairly short order.  All I knew how to do with computers back then was things like put in modems or replace disk drives.  A year later, much better computers were on the market for lower prices.  In the past 13 or so years, a number of previous computer upgrade experiences helped prepare me for last week's project (a few successful memory upgrades, a successful CPU upgrade in 2009, a failed motherboard replacement attempt in 1999, a failed CPU upgrade attempt in 2001).
  2. PCs are much easier to build today.  Older computers were hard to build and easy to screw up; for example, it was easy for someone who didn't know what he was doing to get a critical cable on backwards (like the cord from the power supply to the motherboard).  Older motherboards had dipswitches and jumpers on them that were easy to mess up, too.  Today's computers have a lot of things that are "fool-proof," like SATA cables (which can't be put on backwards).  CPUs are easier to insert and remove (not to mention that they have notches and things built into them to make it easier for people to put them in correctly and prevent them from putting them in wrong).  (Note: Putting together a PC, like repairing a car, is not for everybody and is not something to be taken lightly.  You still have to read the manuals that come with each component, especially the manual for the motherboard, to make sure you're doing everything right.)
  3. Labor savings.  When you're buying a "ready-made," "off-the-shelf" PC at a store like Best Buy or OfficeMax, part of the price you pay goes towards the time and effort spent at the factory to put the computer together.  It works the same way with asking a "custom builder" to put one together--it takes time for him to put it together and he'll want to be paid for that time. Putting it together myself allowed me to keep those labor costs in my pocket.
I'm happy for another reason: Now that I have experience in successfully building a computer out of a "build-it-yourself" kit, it is very likely that when I get my next computer in 4 years or so, it, too, will be one I build myself.

So there you have it.  Past personal experiences with computers, coupled with the willingness of the computer industry to make PCs easier to build, have led me to build a very good computer for less than half of what I spent in 1998.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Volume 6, Number 12: Stepping Into Google TV

When Google TV came out just under a year ago, Logitech came out with a Google TV set-top box called the Revue, which caried a hefty $299 price tag. I did not even consider buying one at that price. But in late July, Logitech chopped the price down to $99, and last week, TigerDirect sold a limited quantity on eBay for $9 less than that.

Long story short, I went and took the Google TV plunge (thanks to the TigerDirect/eBay $90 offer). Why?

  • Google TV has a few advantages over its competitors (Roku, Boxee and Apple TV), such as integration with my existing cable service and the fact that it has the Google Chrome web browser as one of its built-in apps. (Chrome supports Flash, so I could watch YouTube videos, and if I so desired, play Facebook games like Madden NFL Superstars on this device as well.)
  • As I let slip in the previous bullet point, the Revue's got apps built into it. It's got about a dozen right now, including the Logitech Media Player (more on that later) and the Pandora Internet music service as well as Google Chrome. Now, down the road, I wouldn't be satisfied with just a dozen apps; however, an upcoming operating system upgrade is supposed to change all that--the new Google TV OS would have tons of new apps available that aren't compatible with the current OS. And anyway, TVs with wireless Internet connectivity and built-in apps are becoming more common nowadays, and my HDTV (a 32" Toshiba set I bought two years ago) wouldn't have those features otherwise. Buying a new TV with those features would have been much more expensive.
  • No going back and forth between the living room and the office anytime I want to do something on the computer that's related to something I'm watching on TV. A fine example was last year's Harrison High School state football championship game, when I went between watching the game in my living room and giving Facebook and Twitter status updates in the office. (For those of you who say I could have done that with a smartphone, yes, I could have if I wanted to pay out the nose for one, and I have no plans to do so.) Or if I'm watching a TV show and seeing an actor or actress that I couldn't quite place where I've seen him or her, I can just switch to Google TV and run the Chrome web browser (I should mention that the Revue Google TV box has a picture-in-picture feature so I can continue to see the TV show while searching IMDB for the actor). And of course, I could check e-mail or surf the Web to kill time during commercial breaks.
  • The ability to play, on the TV in my living room, content from the PC in my office using the Logitech Media Player app--this functionality wasn't the easiest thing in the world to set up, but once I figured it out, wow, was I happy. Basically, the Revue has Wi-Fi, so not only can it access the Internet through my wireless router, but as long as my PC is on, it can also access and play content from the PC. It rocks being able to play videos on a 32" HDTV while laying on my couch instead of on a 20" monitor while sitting in my office chair.
Bottom line, I'm happy with the Revue already. I'm really looking forward to the aforementioned OS upgrade. There are two categories of apps that might interest me: Apps to improve my TV viewing experience (either in the form of cable TV content I wouldn't enjoy otherwise, or an app that lets me search the next two weeks' worth of TV listings by keyword instead of just by category), and certain kinds of games (I'd love to see a Google TV pinball game, for example, as it it might be more fun to play one of those on a 32" TV instead of a 20" monitor).