Favorite homebrew computers: 1997-2010

Some people enjoy building hot rods, or building model airplanes. I enjoy building computers.

The first PC I built was in 1997, I was a sophomore in HS. I can still remember researching all the parts, using a computer in the HS science classroom (I didn’t have internet at home at that time). Tom’s Hardware and Anandtech were my primary sources of motherboard and CPU reviews.  Those two sites helped me immensely in choosing the best components for my “first build”.

Since that time I’ve built around 35-40 computers. Some for friends, some for family, a lot for clients and a lot for myself (for business use and personal use). Some of the machines are rather forgettable, but there are others I’ll always remember :-).

So, here are some of my favorites spanning from 1997 to 2010:

My first build: Pentium II 233MHz (1997)

Pentium II Slot 1 CPU

Pentium II Slot 1 CPU

A Pentium II 233MHz CPU, Tyan motherboard and SCSI hard drive.  The SCSI HD really made the system purr.  Eventually I upgraded this bad boy with a 3dfx Voodoo video card.  The system lasted a long time and played a lot of games. Quake 3 is the last game I can remember playing on this machine.

I had hoped to have some component prices to post on here, but my email archives only go back to 2000. Likewise, my Quicken records only go back to 1999 (at one time I had 1997-99 but those were lost a long time ago).

Favorite feature: the “Slot One” CPU style, there was just something cool about having the CPU in a nice sleek black package like that.

Current status: the machine has been recycled (I believe I fixed it up and gave it away to a friend)

Jesse’s girl (referring to his computer, not his lovely wife) from 2005

Jesse built an awesome barn burner of a machine while we were in law school. It uses an Intel P4 which is one of the highest GHz, highest power draw systems out there, but it’s been doing it’s duty for YEARS.

This machine has: played plenty of  Battlefield 2, kids games (for his boy), and surfed the web with the best of them. It does seem to have issues with posting blog entries (j/k) because Jesse has been very lax on that ;-)… This is one of my fav systems because I  think it was one of Jesse’s first builds and he did a great job on it (as well as all the subsequent upgrades and repairs).

2010-01-31 16.55.18

Update! Jesse sent me the following additional info:

Snapped a pic as requested.  The cover isn’t off to show how cool I am, rather to compensate for the heat issues on the early dual cores . . . Same reason it sits on top of a TORTS book, to increase airflow via the underneath vent.

I believe its a dual 2.8ghz, now with 3.5 gigs of ram, 3 internal and 1 external hard drives for 2.25 tb, a stellar 256mg graphics card to push my awesometastic analogue tube monitor (which predates the machine), 2 dvd rw, and an external floppy drive.  Oh yeah.

It has been rebuilt 3 times in various capacities.  Hardware updates, crashes, and replacements.  Wiped clean and started over more than that.  And it is still doing everything I need it to.  Current name: thesnowman.  Reason: unkown.  Previous names: jesses computer, vahagn.

:)

Favorite feature: a super good deal that packed a punch, and Jesse has maintained/upgraded/fixed it to make it last.

Eventual fate: still faithfully serving Jesse to this day.

IRAMBO: Fastest SSD around – booted Windows in TWO seconds (2008)

This was an extremely impractical, but also extremely cool, system. For a boot drive it had 12GB of DDR RAM composed of 3 separate cards with 4GB each, all in RAID 0. It could literally install Windows XP in about 30 seconds and boot it in 2 seconds. Here’s a video of an I-RAM booting Windows in about 4 seconds:

Keep in mind that IRAMBO used THREE I-RAM’s in RAID 0 so it was 2-3 times faster than this video

It had 400-500MB/s+ transfer rate. It was an extreme pain to configure, keep running, and keep error free. However, it was the (and still is) fastest computer I’ve ever used. You could literally open 30-40 blank Internet Explorer or FireFox instances in 1-2 seconds (I’m talking full instances of the program, not just tabs).

Favorite feature: insanely fast in everyday use.

Eventual fate: sold on eBay

The Hoss: 19.2GHz of computing power (2007)

Built for and with: John Odom

Dual 4 core Xeon’s, giving 8 physical cores for a total of 19.2GHz. This was for John Odom (he does a lot of rendering). We used ES (engineering sample) CPUs Intel from overseas it was months before they could be commercially purchased.  When Apple finally released a system with these CPUs, it cost $12K+ but we did it for a fraction of that.

Current status: still John’s main workhouse, still very loud when the CPU fans kick on!

Build difficulty: HARD one of the most difficult machines to source parts for, plus the CPUs were SO new that many motherboards didn’t support them. Cooling fans were difficult to find for the sockets. Overall worth it though b/c John was able to almost double the previous rendering speed records.

Octo: 8 cores on a budget

This is the backbone of Weblogs.us An 8 core system, built on a budget. It has done a wonderful job and cost amazingly little to build. It’s not as fast as John’s hoss, but it is loaded with lots and lots of memory.

Build difficulty: Medium. Nothing really went wrong here, but with higher dollar hardware I always want to be extra careful!

Current status: faithfully running VMs for Weblogs.us and other clients in an underground Tulsa datacenter.

BeBox (2000-2001)

I didn’t build this system, but I did upgrade it and it is one of my favorite computers. It had dual 133MHz PowerPC 603 CPUs and awesome LED activity lights. It also ran BeOS which made it all the sweeter. BeOS seemed to fly on this machine.

Plenty of  photos here and here.

Favorite features: an amazing # of ports, and of course the blinkenlights.

Status: I purchased it used on eBay and later resold for a nice profit (when it was even more of a collector’s item).

The Twins: Lord Vader and his brother (2007)

Fast Q6600 beast of a machine!One of my best friends and I built matching systems (well, matching components with different cases). These were quad core machines using Q6600 Intel chips.  Those CPUs are some of my favorite chips ever, bringing four cores down to a reasonable price point. To me they were the pinnacle of Intel’s comeback after AMD’s success with the Opterons and similar chips.

The machines were built for considerably less than $1K but they do an amazing job with games, Photoshop and almost anything else you can throw at them. Kevin has since upgraded his video card and power supply.

Invoice from Sep 2007 when we built the machines:

Computer case: MicroATX
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811154071&Tpk=APEX%2bTX-%2b381
-or-
ATX
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811154070

Price: $44.99 (includes power supply)

Motherboard:
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813128063
$119.99
w/Integrated graphics (which can be disabled)

CPU: Intel Quad Core 2.66GHz (Q6600)
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16819115017
$279.99

Memory: 4x1GB DDR2 800
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231136
$164.99

Hard Drive 500GB SATA 7200RPM drive w/16MB cach
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16822152052
$119.99

Video Card GeForce 8600GT
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814127293
$108.99

Total for Quad Core, 4GB system w/discrete graphics: $838.94

Current status: Kevin has his setup for dual boot (work and play) at home and I migrated mine to Tulsa to be a server.

Other nice builds:

My dad built a couple really nice machines, Joe R. and John R. also have quite a few cool systems under their belt. I think Blake retired his long lived and oft upgraded Gateway for a new beast. Ronnie W. also has some good comp building experience. It’s a lot of fun to hear from friends when they build a sweet new setup. Feel free to share any of your own favorite computers in the comments!

The future:

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing a few of these computers. They were a lot of fun to build and most of them got a lot of use. I plan on continuing to build/upgrade/trade computers for the foreseeable future as it’s a fun hobby that is usually pretty economical and sometimes quite profitable. Here’s my next project: Quad Core for < $200

That’s it for now…

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9 comments

  • kev

    Great blog! Wish i could get my computer to boot in two seconds like IRAMBO!

  • J.D.

    Thanks Kev!

    Jesse: it’s good to see you’re getting some use out of that torts book ;-).

  • Pingback: One’s Boxes: 1997-2010 | Mtekk's Crib

  • Ronnie W.

    I remember the BeBox. The 1st computer I built was back in 1999 but thats so far back I dont remember the spec’s. I remember walking to some store north of Drury though and buying an ancient monitor..

    Im about due for a new desktop and I think this go I will build it from scratch.

  • J.D.

    Ahh, those were the good ol’ days huh Ronnie? I think I remember that computer shop you mentioned. Was it close to the railroad tracks?

    That sounds awesome about your new desktop. Keep us posted when you build it!

    PS remember the massive games of StarCraft, and/or Quake 2 that we’d have in the dorm?

  • Ronnie W.

    I do believe that store was by the railroad tracks. I somewhat remember you, myself and possibly Matt Thornton (?) walking up there.

    I do remember the StarCraft games. I need to reinstall it and get back into it but with work, grad school, etc time is at a premium.

    Remember Destructors.org and the dorm cam/blog? The Fire Alarms? Blakes Truck getting moved to the soccer field in front of the dorms? Us playing intramural basketball… But on the International Students Team :)

  • J.D.

    I certainly do remember Destructors.org :-) and the dorm cam. John sent me some vintage screenshots from the dormcam, it’s pretty funny.

    Man, those darn fire alarms were going off all the time. I don’t know how many times we had to go outside in the middle of the night and wait for the “all clear”.

    Yes, you and I made quite the International Students ;-).

  • Thomas

    aw – my first build was a dual P2 300mhz on a Tyan board – you brought back a lot of memories!

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