This is the PC that Dorothy built
Miracle of miracles, writing appears on the screen. It works!
Monday 17 April 1995
"Build your own multimedia PC - and save £200." The advertisement in the computer magazine was short and to the point. Could it be that simple?
For someone who doesn't even own a screwdriver, it seemed an impossible dream. But James Sharp, of VBS Computers, who sells the instruction video, the manual and the components, told me: "No problem. Lots of normal people do it. It means they can put something personal into their computer."
But is it possible, as his advertisement says, to do it "in less than one hour"? I put that to the test. The box of components was unpacked at 11:00, the video and the stopwatch started running ...
11.00: survey the 31 techno-bits on the desk - all to be joined together inside the case, which looks impossibly small. Everything has been laid out with care. Rule number one is to earth yourself frequently by touching metal, or you could blow the sensitive chips with static electricity. The computer case looks daunting, with lots of multicoloured electronic spaghetti hanging out.
11.01: start on the easy bit. Take the motherboard (a kind of Victoria station - everything travels to everything else through it) and join it to the side of the case. You need to fit plastic spacer plugs so that the two don't touch. This is just like building self-assembly furniture. The next 50 desperate minutes are spent wrestling with the plugs, pushing them in and pulling them out of various holes and slots. I cut my hands on the sharp edges of the case. The video doesn't talk about the effects of blood on electronic circuits, but I reckon it's not good for them. Worst of all, my nail varnish is chipped.
11.51: take a first-aid break.
12.00: having spent the first hour fiddling with something stupid, I now brace myself for the rest. Attach other boards to the motherboard so that it can talk to the disk drives, screen, speakers and mouse. The boards look so complex that I had always thought this was a job for experts. Not so - the video shows exactly what goes where, and this is much easier than the plug episode.
12.15: fit the disk drives - you just screw them into bays inside the case. The benefit of the video is being able to see things in action; the alternative is to use a collection of incomprehensible instruction manuals, often half-translated from the original Japanese.
12.30: time to connect the tangle of cables and power leads to the drives. The video is explicit, but the trick is working in the confined space of the case. VBS recommends doing a "desk build" (joining the bits together outside the case) as a familiarisation exercise. With everything criss- crossing, things are starting to look like macram, but it is not at all complicated, and I have seen it all being done. My spirits are lifting. Surely, it can't be this simple?
12.55: all the innards are in. Attach the monitor screen, keyboard, speakers and mouse. VBS pre-loads the Windows operating system and other installation software for you, so now there is nothing for it but to plug in the machine and see ...
13.00: moment of reckoning. Press power switch and stand back. Hear the machine's cooling fan working, and the lights come on. Then, miracle of miracles, writing appears on the screen. It works! I even get a fanfare through the speakers when I bring up Windows. My shout of triumph can be heard throughout the office (total time: two hours exactly). Wipe a tear from my eye.
Had I practised with screws and plugs beforehand, I believe I would have been close to doing it in the hour. Although I had never dared to venture inside a computer before, it wasn't the technology I got stuck on - it was the simple DIY.
The video is right: you don't have to be an expert. You can identify and assemble the components without having to know how each one works in detail. All you need is care and enough patience to watch the video several times and make your own crib sheet to work from. I was doing it against the clock, but you don't have to. VBS operates a helpline, and it tests the components beforehand.
But the great benefit is the feeling of confidence and achievement. Friends who classify me as a technology bimbo can't believe it. I now have no fears about what's inside my machine, and I feel I could upgrade it when the time comes.
Dorothy Walker's PC is a high-specification 486DX2/66 multimedia machine, which cost £1,150 in component form. The video can be bought separately for £24. The kit is available from VBS Computers, 126 Street Lane, Gildersome, Leeds LS27 7JB. Tel: 0113 238 3639. All components are guaranteed for a year. An equivalent machine, ready-built, from a high-street supplier costs around £1,400.
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