Saturday, February 18, 2012

Recovering from Mac, Part 4

If you want to get away from Mac, one of the most powerful and outrageous ways to do it is to learn how to build a computer. Don't panic, I'm not a hardware gal either, believe me. When I heard about people building computers, I not only thought that it was mysterious and mostly impossible, I also thought it was uninteresting, unappealing waste of time.

I will grant you one thing, that it's uninteresting. I don't sit in front of Firefox all day window shopping for computer parts, and I don't even know what the current line of CPUs is and I don't really care.

I have a friend who's really into building computers. He does it on ebay, he makes money on it, he loves it. He also taught me how to do it, which I have to admit was empowering. And also it happened to be thrifty.  More on that in a moment.

Building computers for the average person is not the big deal it sounds like it is. You can be a casual computer user and still build your own desktop, I promise. It's not like building a car. It's more like a science kit. No, it's way simpler. OK, if you've ever played with Lego bricks, you can build a computer. I swear.

The hardest part is finding a build-it-yourself kit that suits you. If you have a friend, like I do, who builds PCs for fun and a living then just have them pick out all the parts for you! but if not, then you need to know that what you're buying will all work together. Otherwise, you'll build the computer and turn it on and find out way too late that you bought the wrong kind of RAM or forgot a hard drive cable. Not exactly the results you're looking for.

Building custom PCs is such a popular activity in certain circles that there are two websites that cater to just that passtime.  There's newegg and tigerdirect. They sell all the parts you would need to build a computer and they even sell kits. In a kit, someone else has figured out what parts go together, and they bundle it together and give you a discount and sell it to you. So all they don't do is actually put all the pieces together for you, but trust me, if you can use a screwdriver then you can build a computer.

I'm going to do a separate post on why a soon to be former Mac user would ever want to do that. For now, let's keep talking about this building process.

Non-Mac computers are a lot cheaper than Macs, but you need to be sure not to go too cheap.  If you're totally broke, then buying a $300 desktop kit is actually a great idea if you need  a computer. And it will run Linux just fine, but you'll probably have to configure stuff and you're not going to have a very physically sturdy system. I found this out the easy way, because someone had ordered parts for my friend to assemble and he showed me the difference between a $30 computer case and a $60 computer case. One was made of sheet metal that would bend if you held it too tightly.  The other was made of steel and hard plastic and felt like a tank.  Guess which is which.

So, don't go too cheap if you're expecting Mac quality hardware, but at the same time, remember that generic PC hardware is less expensive, so don't waste your money trying to build a computer as expensive as a Mac. If you do that, you are almost guaranteed to have a system more powerful than what you need, even if you are a filmmaker or photoshop guru.

The way I personally decided one what I needed, even though I don't know anything about this, is that I looked at and wrote down what the most expensive Mac Pro had inside of it. To get that information, you have to go through the steps of buying it, so click the buy button, and then just take a look at what they offer. Now go shopping on newegg or tiger direct for something with similar specs. As long as you're in the ballpark, you're probably fine. Believe me, despite the marketing that goes into it, there's really not that much difference between one modern CPU and another, or one modern kind of RAM and another. Now, if you are doing highly specialized work and really do need to know that you're getting the right parts for the job, then it might be time to take a PC gamer (trust me, they always know about this stuff) out to lunch and find out what the deal is on all this fancy computer part scene. Otherwise, shoot in the general direction of a Mac Pro and you'll come out on top, both financially and technically.

And then alls you have to do is install Linux.

Oh and put it all together.

The good kits, like the ones over $300 or so, come with really detailed quickstart manuals.  It shows you where to put in the motherboard. You line up the screws with the holes, and before you know it you've installed a motherboard. Then you put on the CPU, according to the instructions that came with the CPU. Then the fan. Then the RAM. Then the hard drive and DVD drive. And you're done.  It's literally that simple.

Again, I want to emphasize. Spend a little bit extra (in generic PC money, not Mac money) and you will get parts that have friendly manuals and are easy to assemble.  If you go ultra cheap, then you're going to get parts that expect you to know what to do.

My friend showed me an AMD CPU once. They're exactly like Intel chips (the Intels are the ones that Macs use) except a lot cheaper.  So I asked him why they were cheaper, and he takes out a plastic case with a big computer chip in it. That's an AMD.  Then he shows me the Intel chip that is the same chip, basically, but cost $80 more. It came in a nice box with a CPU fan included for "free", an instruction booklet on how to put the chip into your motherboard, how to attach the fan, and a little sticker that you could put on your computer to show everyone that you were running an Intel.  That's Intel.

And that's basically how eveything in building computers goes. Spend a little extra money and you get your hand held through the process.  Go cheap, and you figure it out yourself.

No matter what you do, though, you're getting a more powerful computer for less money than a Mac.  Don't believe me? well, my next post will prove it.

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