Der Frankenputer: A Last Hurrah at System Building

Der Frankenputer: A Last Hurrah at System Building

Summary: Like a modern day Victor von Frankenstein, who digs up bodies in graveyards in order to bring his creature to life, I was going to scour the Internet for component parts to put this monster together: Der Frankenputer.


Several months ago I put up a blog post called "Extreme PCs and Homebrewing: Rest In Peace", which needless to say attracted a great deal of responses on both side of the fence, those that agreed that due to the economy and the factors surrounding the business of homebrewing and component sales, system building is probably in its last days, and others who vehemently oppose the notion that the practice of home-brewing your own computer is going away.

In the article I explained that I am now more of a consumer of PC technology than a tinkerer, at least when it comes to desktop systems. I buy a lot of my computers from big box stores like COSTCO because I can get a very inexpensive -- or shall I say disposable -- computer in the $500-$600 range that addresses pretty much all of my home computing needs for at least a year or two.

I'm not a gamer so a lot of the tweaked-out features of most "extreme" rigs would be pretty wasted on me. However, a situation came up recently that caused me to build for what I think is probably my very last powerful desktop/workstation-class homebrew box.

After upgrading the RAM and processors on two of my servers, I found myself with two spare Opteron Quad-Core model 2384 "Shanghai" CPUs, 8GB of DDR2 667Mhz ECC RAM and a bunch of 500GB SATA hard disks.  Any way you price that, it's about $1500.00-$2000.00 in leftover parts depending on who you source it from.

What to do, what to do.

Naturally, I thought, they would be best utilized in another system.  It occurred to me that I'm probably going to be doing a lot more testing of OSes and various resource-intensive enterprise software products this year and it would be nice to be able to run them on my desk using a quieter system, instead of running them on various loud and power-hungry servers on my makeshift IKEA server rack-cum-home datacenter that sits behind me in my basement.

They're great to have around when I need to test something, but leaving them on all day generates an awful lot of racket and they eat a considerable amount of power.

I gave it some more thought. I can give my current Dell desktop $500.00 COSTCO Special to my wife, use her current system elsewhere, perhaps as a Multimedia PC for the den, and use this thing as my primary desktop.

The problem is that you can't exactly call Dell or HP and ask them to send you a Opteron-class workstation with no RAM and no CPUs. And while I am aware there are custom system builders out there that do that sort of thing, with the level of effort required, I might as well piece together this thing myself.

It's been a while since I have had to piece together a system from components, probably a good two or three years. So I started researching parts. Originally, I tried to see if I could get it all from one vendor. I thought, who I've bought a number things from this last year would have everything I needed, but it turned out they didn't.

Bill of materials from TigerDirect. Click to enlarge.

Case, check. Thermal paste? Check. OEM DVD burner? Check. Mainboard? Well, it turns out that most sane people don't choose to use twin $600.00 server/HPC virtualization processors as desktop chips, so their Socket-F/1207 selection was pretty limited, as it was from an number of other vendors I investigated. I really wanted to narrow down the number of vendors that I had to deal with, so I went with the Tyan Thunder N3600B.

Okay, so what about the cooling fans for the CPUs? Well, it turns out Tiger doesn't have them in stock. Apparently, there's not much call for Opteron cooling fans over there. I'll have to go somewhere else. Power Supply? I made a back of the envelope calculation that between the mainboard, CPUs, graphics card and hard disk and other peripherals I'd need a 500 Watt power supply, so I rounded that up another 100 watts just to be safe.

Tiger only has one power supply in the 600-watt range, everything else is super pumped up for the gamer crowd, in the 750-850 watt range or higher and they start at around $120.00, plus shipping costs. I didn't feel like spending more than $100.00 for the power supply, I thought anything above 600 watts was sheer overkill for what I was going to be doing with the box.

I also wanted a quiet unit because this machine was going to be sitting on my desk. I ended up going with the PC Power and Cooling Silencer 610, which although Tigerdirect didn't have (they stock the beefier 750W version) it turns out Amazon did have it, and with my Prime discount and free shipping came to $95.00, right where I wanted to spend. So at the very least I was now committed to sourcing at least one part from Amazon.

Amazon had a bunch of other parts I needed as well. Guess what? They had the Opteron fans!

Amazon bill of materials. Click to enlarge.

Amazon also had the exact graphics card I wanted. I didn't need a super-crazy dual SLI gamer card, but I wanted something that had native HDMI output so I could use the 1080p capabilities of my 25" widescreen and would have no problem rendering HDTV video. Amazon had a GeForce 9800 1GB DDR3 from Sparkle that fit the bill nicely.

As it turns out, I could have ordered all of my components from Amazon, because Tigerdirect has a store presence there and I could have itemized them all on one bill. They still would have charged me shipping on those items though, and Tiger would have still fulfilled that part of the order, so it didn't make much of a difference in the end.

In the last few days, parts have started to arrive -- First, Tigerdirect's. All the parts came within two days except for the mainboard, which as of today I'm still waiting for, even though it was received by their warehouse on the 7th of August.

As it turns out, Tiger doesn't actually keep the higher-end mainboard products from Tyan in stock, they are drop-shipped direct from the manufacturer to Tiger's Naperville, Illinois receiving center and then re-shipped to the customer.

This drop shipping thing appears to be standard practice from a lot of online PC parts vendors, who due to the slowing economy and razor-thin margins have slimmed down their operations considerably and keep their inventory light. 

I got my case, which after examining it I noticed it didn't include the 120mm ventilation fan. So I jumped back on the web and spent another $15.00 on a Thermaltake ball bearing unit.  Amazon's parts all arrived shortly thereafter.

So to make $2000 worth of extra parts fit into a PC, I spent $722.00. Sure, when I'm done, it's going to be a $3000.00+ system and I'm sure it will run very well -- at least as far as I can tell. And however much I will enjoy actually putting the pieces together when my mainboard finally does arrive, I do have to say that I'm not a big fan of sourcing parts piecemeal over the Internet.

No, homebrewing seems to be even less of a joy than it was only a few years ago, when you could just drive around one afternoon collecting pieces from various local retailers and discount whitebox builders. It's certainly not something you want to do if you need a system in short order.

Most importantly, you really need to do a lot of upfront research to make sure that everything will work right together and that you can get the exact parts you need, and that you don't miss out on anything essential -- like my $15.00 case fan.

While my Opteron situation complicated matters more than your average PC enthusiast might face, I can still see a bunch of situations where customers may end up dealing with multiple drop-shipping scenarios and end up waiting for parts to arrive over the course of over a week or two, or even more with stocking delays.

Building a PC from sourced parts may be fun when you get them all in one big pile, but it's sure a pain in the ass having to do all the up front research and waiting around for deliveries.

Have you had any similar frustrating experiences recently when homebrewing a PC? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Amazon, Hardware, Processors


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Well, Jason ...

    ... for twenty-five years I have toyed with the idea of building my own system and every time I came close, I always ended up concluding that I could get more bang-for-the-buck by purchasing a pre-built system. I am now on my seventh computer. The first was purchased in 1983, the latest in 2008.

    A few weeks back, a colleague at ZDnet wrote a blog about this very topic. (I wish I could recall who - Maybe Adrian or Ed.) He put together a very nice Intel Core i7 system from parts and spent about $2500 doing so. (You have done something very similar here and spent $3000.)

    Well, after reading that very article, I went to the Dell site and put together a nearly identical system for about $1200. I then found third-party RAM and a second HDD to bring it up to (or over) the blogger's specifications and still came out under $1500.

    In the end, there is very little reason for anyone to go DIY just to get a high-end desktop system.

    For fun? Maybe.

    To address very specific needs? Maybe.

    To save money? HELL NO!

    It's been a very long time since it has been cost-effective to build your own desktop computer in order to save a few bucks.

    So I have to agree with your conclusion that DIY is dying a slow death and doing it yourself is just not worth it for any but the most strudent "hobbyist". I don't even know any gamers who build their own systems these days.
    M Wagner
    • Not to dispute what you say

      but I have never been able to get what I want at a better price. It has only been in about the last 5 years that I have not been able to save on a build versus a buy.

      But then, I tend to rail at cheap crappy, flimsy cases with power supplies that are not built like tanks. I have always been rewarded with much better performance by using top quality (PC Power or some other Seasonic built) power supplies - no strange lockups or other weird behavior.
    • For the same quality components...

      I can beat Dell anytime. In case you haven't looked inside your Dell lately, they use some of the cheapest components available until you get to their high end machines. Outpricing Dell is easy when you look at quality for quality.
      • And dont forget

        They use way under powered Ps
        • and...

          And cheap fans inside the power supply, you'll probably be replacing the fan or supply in two or three years.
          Capt. Midnight
    • I'm just gonna come out and say it ...

      ... a good, well-thoughtout hand-built system will outpace, outperform, outoverclock and outlast anything you get from an OEM. There are very few outlets that don't just sell systems made up of the cheapest parts they can get away with. If price is your driving factor, then yes, home brew is going to seem expensive, but if it's getting exactly what you want that matters, home brew wins hands down.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • Re: I'm just gonna come out and say it ...

        I'm one who has always built my systems to configure them exactly the way I want to, putting exactly the OS and software on it that I want. My goal has always been to get the best bang for the buck in my systems. You're right that most of the OEM systems out there are very cheaply put together. I also agree with you that a well planned out hand-built system will outpace and outlast any OEM system out there. I've also always aimed towards mid-range systems, as I don't consider it realistic, budget-wise, to keep up with the top end of computer technology. That and I don't need the top of the line on my home systems.
      • Not only for the reasons you state

        I still have a very good reason to build my own home PCs, and it's only partially for the reasons you state. Yes, they last longer, they overclock better and are, on the whole, quite a bit more reliable. I can't remember the last time I had any sort of major computer failure at home, the closes I've come is an intermittent issue with a hard drive in my wife's computer. But I spent $60 and replaced the drive and the problem went away.

        The biggest reason I do it is because my wife isn't going to let me drop $2000+ on a PC that fits my needs every few years. However spending $200 on a new video card here, some memory there, a new power supply another time and so on and so forth allows me to almost always stay current in regards to hardware without dropping large sums of money. Yes, every 2-3 years I need to pony up and replace MB/CPU/Memory all at once, but that's usually as big as my spending will get at one time. This also allows me to keep both mine and my wife's PCs up to date and running optimally.

        The slowest PC in my house now is an E6600 with 4GB of memory and a 7800GTX graphics card. I personally prefer this approach over OEM purchases. However for my clients and even friends/family, I tend to recommend they go OEM. When there is a problem they have one vendor to call, they don't have to spend the time to isolate the issue to one piece of equipment then try to negotiate RMA on that equipment. But at home I have no desire to get away from the way I've done things for years. I love my case, I love the way my PC looks. My PCs and the comm rack they sit on are decorated and look more like art that is part of the desk than connectivity equipment and computers.

        Homebrew won't go away, and it's never really been about saving money. It's about getting what you want when you want.
        • Incremental upgrade :-)

          I have been building my own PCs since 1996. They always lasted as long as I needed them and when I wanted to upgrade I did it in small parts. I generally get mobo+cpu+RAM to be usable with the current software and technology for 4 years.
        • ditto for DIY

          What LiquidLearner said. Staying current with your technology is a lot cheaper if you know how to reuse what you've already got and get new only what you need to get the job done. My upgrades amount to about $300 per iteration and that's to get modern, reliable components.
      • Thanks for jumping in, Adiran!


        But then it is not about price, is it? Nor is it necessarily about quality:

        I've been buying computers for myself since 1983. I expect to replace a computer ever 3 to 5 years. The longest I have ever owned one was a little over six years. The only non-DOA failure I have ever had has been a fan, which failed after five years (and cost me $10 to replace) so I don't see that I ever ran into a quality problem.

        The people who care very much about controlling every component, or overclocking to get every last cycle out of their system, are few and far between - and most of those will never use all that horsepower.

        And, I'll bet that very few of them keep their extreme systems more than five years either.

        The underlying message I get from Jason's piece is that commoditization eventually drives the cost of customization so high that it simply becomes too costly.

        Add to that the value of your time and the effort necessary to find those premium-priced components and one really has to ask if it is worth it?

        More and more of us are saying NO!
        M Wagner
        • Point well taken, but--

          I really enjoy building my own. I love the time I spend with my son. I guess that seems strange to someone that goes OEM, but I like it when someone says "you must have spent a bundle on this machine." I get to say, "yea, almost $400."

          If I didn't understand how the components worked, it would probably be more work than I would want. Then again, I'm an old hot-rodder. I couldn't stand driving a stock car.

          I enjoy building and will probably always do that, I'm 63 now, I don't change real quick.
          • knowledge gained for free

            If you have built a computer then you will have a much better understanding of how it works and more importantly, how to fix it. Building something, anything, not just a computer with someone else is tons of fun and a great way to spend time.
            User 13
          • Building computers and rebuilding Chevy's

            I always wondered if there was a correlation between people who liked to work on cars and those who liked to build PC's. I was working on an RCA Cosmac kit computer in high school and by the mid 80's I had built an IBM XT from scratch. My room-mate in university was also into designing and building computer hardware and we used to work on his '71 Chevelle as well. At times our apartment looked like a set from Bladerunner with car parts intermingled with computer and electronic components.

            I still build my own systems from scratch and I am teaching my teenage daughters about building PC's (geeks beget geeks). I find that my home-built systems generally out-perform and out-last the cheaper Futureshop or Best Buy systems that my friends end up buying.
        • Us? who the hell is us?

          Who is this us you speak of? it's certainly not me, nor any of the many techs I work with. In fact I'm pretty sure "us" is just "you". Yes you can buy cheap OEM's but I think Value is more important than upfront cost. A homebrew PC built by someone who knows what they are doing will provide much much more value than some mass produced cludge from Dell at not much more cost. I don't know where you shop for parts but I save money everytime unless you get down to the Vostro line (side-note: Vostro is Latin for crap). Remember, every computer you buy and then throw away a year or two later ends up in a landfill poisoning the earth so I personally prefer to use quality components that will last longer even if the cost is slightly higher.
          User 13
        • And where are all the dead computers going?

          Apparently you believe in a throwaway society. I run a small computer business, mostly repair so I worked out all those name brands. And a select few homebrew systems as you're calling them. Obviously my own and a few customers that actually understand the difference. As the one gentleman said most name brands under power their PCs. And a few I could name under cool them so they break down faster. What you think causes all lock ups, when components get hot systems freeze and lock up. When I have to do repairs on name brands, and have to download drivers. It's a shame to see that the name brands don't even know for sure what parts came in a particular model. That tells you they're throwing in whatever cheap crap they have picked up for a song. Each model should have its own list of components. I will build systems till my fingers are too arthritic and my eyes can no longer focus. Because I won't use anything but a custom box.
        • Where are you looking at parts?

          I don't get all the talk about custom builds being costly. I have several custom build shops I go to and they can always supply me with parts that once assembled will whip a similarly priced Dell's behind.

          I think peoples problem with pricing out a custom PC is that they always want that little more expensive of a part here and there and next thing they are getting up and over the price range of a prebuilt they have been looking at. What they don't realize that in almost every case the more expensive parts they end up selecting are usually quite a bite better then the components in the pre built PC. OEM's are always looking to cut costs in every way imaginable and with a little investigation it shows.
      • actually...

        if you do it right you can get a cheap system that still does all those things. 300-400 (CDN) will go pretty far.
      • Well stated and ditto! (nt)

      • come out & say it . . .