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Computer revolution

Building magnificent machines

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With their passion for tinkering and testing new technologies, computer enthusiasts are keeping alive the DIY spirit of the generation that kick-started the computer revolution.

Madhusudan Banik was 18 when he assembled his first computer in 1998. Intrigued by the circuit boards and silicon chips, he decided to assemble the machine instead of buying it. And it wouldn't hurt to save a few pennies too. But once he had tasted the freedom that DIY allows and experienced the rush of putting together a high-tech machine that was better than most computers sold in the market, he realised it was not about the money. "DIY is about getting the maximum out of your money, not saving it, " says Banik, adding that his first computer cost Rs 55, 000. "It is about choosing the best components, putting them together, and seeing the machine take shape in your hands. The joy of creating something is incredible, " says the database administrator, who works for an IT firm in Gurgaon.

Banik has spent several lakhs on hardware in the pursuit of the fastest and latest computer components. There are millions like Banik, part of a global community that technology firms such as Intel and AMD term 'enthusiasts'. Enthusiasts hate the artificial restrictions created by technology companies and decide to do it their own way. They take pride in tinkering with complex parts, often ignoring manuals, and squeezing out the extra bit of performance. They are passionate about new technologies, and, just like the generation that kick-started the computer revolution, believe in pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

In the early days, all personal computers were DIY machines. Unlike other machines that were invented by big corporations or quickly commoditised by them, the personal computer was created by hobbyists. In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson describes how Steve Wozniak, who would later team up with Jobs, tinkered with Digital Equipment PDP-8, an early commercial mini-computer, in the late 1960s and started building computers when he was in his teens. With more hobbyists like Wozniak in Silicon Valley taking an interest in computers, microcomputer Altair 8800 was launched in 1975. Widely recognised as the machine that sparked the personal computer revolution, Altair 8800 was sold as a kit that hobbyists could assemble at home. In 1976, Woz and Jobs introduced Apple I, a computer they had put together themselves.

"The Jobs house in Los Altos became the assembly point for the 50 Apple I boards that had to be delivered to the Byte Shop... All available hands were enlisted : Jobs and Wozniak, plus Daniel Kottke, his exgirlfriend Elizabeth Holmes, and Jobs's pregnant sister, Patty, " Isaacson writes. The unique way in which personal computers were invented created a separate culture. "Computing went from being a tool of bureaucratic control to a symbol of individual expression and liberation, " John Markoff, a journalist who covered Silicon Valley for years, wrote in What The Dormouse Said, a book about the counterculture of the 1960s and computers.

Patrick Moorhead, a US-based computer industry veteran who recently left AMD, a company that makes microprocessors, to start Moor Insights & Strategy, says the early culture of DIY lived on even after the computer industry matured. Companies created cross-compatible parts before they built machines. This allowed enthusiasts to keep the original hobbyist culture alive.

As technology grew more complex, the hobbyists transformed from inventors to passionate users. But the ethos of individual expression and liberation that fired the early computing revolution still defines the community of modern enthusiasts. "Today's enthusiasts assemble their own PCs because they want the ultimate in customisation, gaming hardware, overclocking, and bragging rights. Enthusiasts know what they want and, like a car or house, select the best components to make it their own, " says Moorhead, who has put together more than 100 computers since he assembled his first in 1996.

"Most people who assemble their own computers know exactly what part they want, " says Saini Dharam Singh, who works for SMC International, a firm that caters to most of Delhi's computing enthusiasts. "Even if some parts are not available in India, my customers won't take no for an answer. They ask us to import them from Singapore and Taiwan. "

Most enthusiasts don't find anything worth buying in the market and build their own machines. Rishi Alwani, a gaming enthusiast in Mumbai, assembled his first system in 2002. "I got into assembling computers because I was gifted a Deus Ex and the game wouldn't run on any computer available in India at that time. So, I decided to take the DIY route and assemble a machine that could play Deus Ex, " he says. Banik explains that even if enthusiasts are assembling the system with easy-to-use parts, they do things in their own way. "We customise wherever we can. For example, I may buy a computer chassis but change the fans because most chassis makers bundle mediocre cooling fans. I change the thermal paste, CPU cooler, cables or modify the way I place components to make sure that the machine works the way I want it to, " says Banik.

The computer industry respects the enthusiasts' passion, even if only for business reasons. On websites such as Xtremesystem and Hardforums, where enthusiasts gather and fuss over the tiniest details, representatives from Intel, Nvidia and Corsair abound. "Companies like AMD, Intel and Nvidia like enthusiasts because they are the first to test and extend the limits of new technology. They stress it in ways that no lab can, and companies learn from this, " says Moorhead. "Enthusiasts are also an amplifier to the general public. If you do have the best part, they will tell other, non-enthusiasts about it. Finally, enthusiasts typically buy much higher (priced) components, " he says.
For the enthusiasts though, it is pure love. Banik says, "For me, a computer is not just another machine. I obsess over it the way a Samurai warrior would over his sword or a Jedi master worked to perfect his light saber. "

GOING SOFT OVER HARDWARE


The benefits of taking the DIY route to assembling a computer

You can pick good quality parts that fit your needs and customise your machine If you want a powerful gaming computer or an ultra-silent media centre machine, you have to go DIY as such machines are not available in India Most computer parts have a three-year warranty. Pre-built machines come with one-year warranty The return on the investment on DIY machines is better because the final product will be to your liking and requirements It is fun to assemble a computer, and empowering to have control over your machine.

BREAK DOWN POINTS


Pitfalls of a DIY machine

There is no tech support for a DIY computer. You have to figure out which component is faulty and ask the company that made it to fix it You have to install all software yourself If you are using a powerful computer, you have to be careful about cooling and power supply. This requires a fair amount of background work before assembling a system.

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