Geek Week Special: Twenty Years On A Computer, Part 3

As I continued to attend the monthly computer fairs and watch some of the vendors build machines from parts, I was gaining confidence that I could actually do this myself. All I needed to know was what went where and why. Asking a lot of questions of computer savvy people, reading everything I could about PC’s and doing some searching of the forums on Compuserve helped.

Somewhere in that process I actually reconnected with a couple of people I hadn’t spoken to since high school. I learned that since I moved away and pretty much dropped off the face of the earth as far as my classmates were concerned, some people thought I might have died. We exchanged emails for a while and brought one another up to date about life events. Obviously I hadn’t attended any class reunions and that continued into the future as between a father of three, living far enough away that it would require taking time off from work and working for retailer who refused to give me more than one week off at a time combined to making the idea nearly impossible. But I was using the computer in different ways and finding that it was useful.

Also my kids, especially my son, were beginning to take a more active interest in it. So I began to consider upgrading to a new computer and letting my son and daughters have the existing computer. My wife and I discussed it a few times. She suggested saving the money to buy a new one at the store but I was adamantly set on building my own because I believed I could save money and have a much better machine.

For one thing, I wanted to get a bigger monitor. In order to drive that to full color at a high resolution I would need a graphics accelerator with its own memory. I knew what kind of sound card I wanted as well as the processor and amount of RAM. I was looking at the future, running the new operating system everyone at the computer fairs was talking about, so I needed to build a machine that would be designed to run Windows 95.

In April of 1995 my son and I flew down to Florida to visit my parents. While there we spent some time at the amusement parks and went to the beach. It was a father son trip intended to be a bonding experience as my son was approaching nine years old.

When I returned to work I felt as if I were coming down with the flu. The symptoms were so severe that I actually called out sick – which was something I never did before. I had a extremely high fever and couldn’t get out of bed all weekend.

Since I had a heart murmur that was diagnosed when I was in the military my primary care physician was a cardiologist. I knew of the dangers of bacterial infections and always pre-medicated prior to dentist visits. I was very careful. However, while I had been in Florida, I had cut my foot on a sharp rock while at the beach. Through that wound, whether it was while I was in the ocean or in the shower after coming back from the beach, bacteria entered my bloodstream and began attacking my heart valve. After suffering through a weekend, with my elevated fever, at times approaching 104 F, my wife insisted I go to the doctor. They ran some blood tests and immediately sent me to the hospital where I would be treated for a month and eventually have open-heart surgery to replace my defective heart valve. Scary times.

While I was in the hospital there was little else to do than sleep, watch the O.J. Simpson trail on TV or read. Everyone brought magazines and books on computers to the hospital. Quite possibly I learned more about PC’s in that month than at any other period of my life.

When I was finally released I was recovering for a couple of months and had even more time to learn about computers. Once I was allowed to drive again, I attended a computer fair with every intention of buying the components to build my dream computer except when I had someone price that out for me it seemed it was going to cost a lot more than just having someone build a computer for me with the same specifications. I opted for the latter.

When I returned home with the new computer and a 15” monitor I was excited but my wife was less than enthusiastic. She thought it was stupid to have bought a computer the way I had. I should have waited and bought a ‘real’ one, meaning a name brand machine, certainly not a no name clone. Still I was happy for a while. The machine was much faster, sporting a Pentium 100 MHz and 16MB of 66MHz memory and graphic card with 1MB of RAM onboard. It was running Windows 3.11, which was designed for workgroups, something to do with networking which I didn’t intend to do but otherwise the operating system worked the same way.

That machine became my playground for learning everything about repairing, upgrading and replacing components. Systematically I changed out everything on that computer over the next year, except for the motherboard and processor. Always wanting a faster machine, I added memory, switched graphics cards, upgraded the sound card and eventually ordered a 17 inch monitor online that was delivered to my door a few days before Christmas. The kids’ computer received the 15” monitor.

I didn’t upgrade to Windows 95 right away, although I did stand in line outside at CompUSA the night it was released to get my upgrade copy. I had heard it was always wise of wait until the bugs were identified and fixes made. So, I waited a couple of months and read everything I could about the upgrade process and the experiences, good and bad, that people were having with it. Finally, when I felt comfortable that everything would work fine, and that I had the necessary drivers for everything on my computer, I inserted the install disc in my CD-ROM drive and began the process.

At first it went smoothly. After an hour or so my computer was running Windows 95. But not every program I used with Windows 3.11 was functioning properly. Some of the programs that ran in DOS didn’t like the new version of DOS that supported Windows 95. Other programs needed to be upgraded. So it took a few weekends to address the problems. At times I needed to call Microsoft tech support. I took notes. Some of the problems I was experiencing baffled the first level support people so I talked to second level techs at times. Some of the problems were so unique that they called me back when they figured out a work around or a solution.

Microsoft tech support walked me through editing the system registry, exiting out into DOS to use the text editor to rewrite certain system files and even showed me a couple of back doors that I wasn’t supposed to remember – but of course did. Problem-by-problem I received a crash course in computer software troubleshooting and an education directly from Microsoft experts. Eventually, from having so much experience reinstalling everything from a clean format of my hard drive I became something of a Windows 95 guru.

On the hardware side of everything, the only way to make my computer any faster was to upgrade the level two cache memory on the motherboard. It was a minor tweak to the speed but, in addition to upgrading to a 120MHz process – which was the fastest my motherboard would support, I wanted to maximize the performance. So I ordered the computer memory chips for my board along with a tool to extract the old memory chips and install the new ones to take my system from 256 kB to 512 kB.

That upgrade worked well for about an hour before I experienced a system failure from which my computer never recovered. Obviously I had performed the work properly, otherwise the computer would have never rebooted after installing the new cache memory. But something failed. Perhaps the motherboard was never intended to run the things I had installed. Maybe it was just overworked or I caused a hairline stress crack in one of the silicon layers in the process of removing the old cache and installing the new. At any rate, it was pretty clear that I needed to replace my motherboard. So I went to a computer shop with my tower and had them verify that the motherboard was fried. They recommended a new motherboard that would support everything I had already installed but also it would support up to a 200 MHz processor – one that did not yet exist using something called MMX technology.

Although I considered having a go at installing the board myself, I opted to allow professionals do it. It took them less than a hour.

I couldn’t believe how much faster my computer was after changing the motherboard. The memory and processor were the same as was all the component cards. Still it booted up faster and the execution of everything seemed crisper. I used that computer, upgrading the graphics card and sound card again and upgraded the hard drive. But of course when the new MMX enabled processors came out up to speeds of 200MHz, I had to have one of those. And it sort of worked in my motherboard except that the system kept crashing. A phone call to the motherboard manufacturer’s tech support confirmed that although the design supports a 200 MHz processor, it was made prior to Intel actually finalizing the processor design. I was now the proud owner of a processor that didn’t work with my motherboard.

#computers #upgrades #processors #motherboards #technology

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