Something for a geek weekend

Author: By Chris Gulker

It’s Sunday, there’s a rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee in the air. My wife is out of town.

The hardwood floor in the family room holds a pile of large and small boxes freshly carted from Fry’s, the geek superstore. There’s a box containing a generic PC chassis with bare motherboard and power supply, Sapphire in colour, a boxed AMD K6-II 500 MHz processor, a 128 MB RAM stick, a 54x generic CD-Rom, a generic SCSI card, a boxed copy of Be OS 5.0 and a boxed Red Hat Linux 6.2 distribution. Some older stuff – a CD burner, a copy of Windows NT 4 and a box of 10/100 NIC cards – lay nearby. My tool drawer is open. This is gonna be fun.

Life has been full lately. I’m up to my ears in startups, and the gritty grind of making a little company work has been consuming my every waking hour. Not that startups aren’t the greatest job a guy can have, it’s just that they are so relentless. Free time and personal fun tends to get pushed way, way down the priority list.

So I’d planned this event for the occasion of my wife’s business trip. I “needed” a new PC to try all the interesting operating systems such as Be and Linux and even Windows 2000. Fry’s always has a weekend special on cheapo components, and I was going to spend a whole day blissfully free of needy co-workers, impatient investors and the never-ending need to try to grow something out of nothing by sheer force of will.

I really needed a break, and needing a break inevitably drives me to building some highly improbable technological “masterpiece”. Thus it is that Gulker World Headquarters (aka has come to contain a Class C TCP/IP network and subnet, a wireless LAN, a Linux MP3 server, a supercomputer, no fewer than 15 CPUs, and all the attendant stuff. It’s like a hardware diary of my need to get away from it all.

The bare bones, BYO (Build Your Own) PC was typical – price competition and production overruns in Singapore and China mean you can build a nearly functional PC for little more than the cost of the case. Just add processor, RAM and hard drive, and you have a real cheap computer.

This particular gem, so generic that there wasn’t actually a manufacturer’s name anywhere in or on the box and documentation, had cost £99 (Weekend Manager’s Special, marked down from £126).

I began trying and discarding NIC cards, SCSI cards, loading OSes, configuring BIOS and IRQs, getting cards to fit the not-quite-aligned chassis cutouts. I reconfigured and rebooted it for what seemed like a hundred times.

And so it went. By 4pm, after four trips to Fry’s and the local burger palace and the supermarket for asix-pack, my nicked and bleeding hands finally bolted down the cover. A new machine, christened “The Box”, took its place in the pantheon.

But it was only 4 o’clock. Pride demanded that there be no beer before six, even if the wife was out of town. So, just for fun, we cruised the Mac store down the block. They know me by sight at this particular emporium. The manager, spying me, often comes out personally, rubbing his hands. I own a lot of Macs.

The clerk wasted few words. “We have a Cube in stock,” he said. I gasped. Like all Mac aficionados, the audacious design and tiny size of the newest Mac had struck me.

Time for a command decision. With wife away, I reached for a credit card – the one that usually was declined when I tried to buy large items. Let the gods decide! The sale cleared. Knowing that fate was on my side, Cassie and I carted the new Mac home.

The Cube is a marvel: a RISC workstation-class machine that fits in a space a bit less than 8in on a side. A pop-up handle lets you remove the core in an easy motion. The core is like a Swiss watch, with every piece precisely fitted and not a cubic centimetre gone to waste. The machine is so well engineered it doesn’t require a fan (unlike The Box, where two fans continually stave off thermal overload).

Also unlike the Box, the Cube took about 10 minutes to set up. Its Airport network card found the Wireless LAN and configured itself. I was surfing the Web in minutes – no IRQ, no BIOS hacks, no return trips – and it still wasn’t 6pm.

True, the Cube had cost more – 10 times the price of the bare Box, and three times the finished cost. The Cube was vastly more user friendly, and its design and manufacture were in a whole different league.

But, there is a place for cheap, cheesy computers. A lot of innovation has taken place on things like The Box. GNU and Linux, for example. There’s a whole class of hacker who wouldn’t be caught dead with the Cube or any other easy-to-use machine.

As for me, I think I’ll have that beer now.

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