THERE is no way that building a personal computer from scratch—rather than buying a ready-made one off the shelf from an online or big-box store—can be justified financially these days. Doing so in the past certainly saved money. Today, not only can a factory-built PC of similar performance be bought for less, but it will also come with a year’s warranty, a licensed copy of the latest version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, all the necessary software drivers for the components installed, plus a mouse and a keyboard—and sometimes even a display.
All that can be said in favour of building a computer at home is that it allows the assembler to choose the best possible components for the price. There is also the satisfaction of knowing how all the parts fit and work together—which is useful when it comes to diagnosing faults, or tweaking the machine for improved performance. And no annoying “craplets” installed by a manufacturer for its benefit, not yours. Plus the whole exercise can be huge fun. Occasionally, savings can be made by reusing serviceable components while upgrading an existing machine.
Babbage is in the process of doing just that. His workhorse computer (known to his network as “Homebrew”) is nearing the end of its useful life. He built the machine more than five years ago for around $250, originally as a Linux-based home server. Having to sit beneath his desk and run continuously, the main requirement was that it should be as quiet, and give off as little heat, as possible (see “Green computing”, February 8th 2008).
Over the years, Homebrew has been upgraded with a dual processor and an additional hard-drive, and its Linux operating system replaced with Windows XP Professional—in order to run some proprietary PC software and Babbage’s preferred writing tools.
Despite operating day in and day out since 2008, Homebrew has never missed a beat. It has, of course, been kept up-to-date with every patch and bug-fix issued, and no eye candy has been allowed to hobble its performance. All detritus from old software has been ruthlessly purged from its hard-drive and registry. No question, Homebrew could go on delivering rock-solid performance for years to come, save for one unavoidable fact: Windows XP is about to be pensioned off, as Microsoft finally ceases to support it.
It is not as though users have not been warned. Microsoft originally intended ending its support for Windows XP back in 2012, but agreed to extend it by a further two years because of the operating system’s enormous following. But come what may, after April 8th 2014, Microsoft will stop providing security patches to fix vulnerabilities in XP. For years to come, bugs will continue to be found in XP, even though (as far as Microsoft is concerned) the venerable operating system will be dead and buried.
Why so? Microsoft will not, of course, be looking for bugs in XP per se. But the three subsequent iterations of Microsoft’s operating system—Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8—are all built on XP’s foundations. And every time these later versions receive patches and updates, hackers bent on nefarious deeds will instantly check to see whether XP shares the same vulnerabilities. If it does, they will promptly reverse-engineer the software patch and sell it as crimeware for subverting unprotected XP machines, turning them into zombies for perpetrating scams and other online crimes.
In future, then, XP will be an even bigger target than it is today. Firewalls and anti-virus software will be no defence. Such protection works only for known threats. If some new “zero-day” (ie, previously unknown and therefore unprepared for) flaw in the operating system is exploited, no amount of anti-virus software will save an XP computer from being compromised (see “Experience counts”, April 15th 2013).
Despite Microsoft’s constant reminders about the pending end of customer support, one in three computers used around the world today still relies on XP. In other words, six-and-a-half years after it was officially replaced by Windows Vista, there are still some 500m computers running XP. Even if there is mass-migration to later, more secure operating systems over the coming months, tens of millions (possibly even hundreds of millions) of machines could remain unprotected—sitting ducks with targets on their backs.
Babbage has no intention of allowing Homebrew to become one of them. For XP holdouts like himself, the best course is to leapfrog the dreaded Windows Vista and upgrade direct to the more modern and secure Windows 7 or even “touch-centric” Windows 8. A more user-friendly Windows 8.1, which addresses many of the complaints made by early users of Windows 8, is due to be released in October. Babbage is still not convinced, though, that the improvements go far enough, and has chosen to go with Windows 7 instead. Microsoft is committed to providing security updates for Windows 7 until 2020.
So, for those needing to upgrade their XP computers, the first thing to do is download and run a copy of Microsoft’s free Windows 7 or Windows 8 Upgrade Advisor. The utility will check the computer in question to see whether its meets the necessary requirements and will then list any attached devices (printer, webcam, sound card, network adapter, etc) that will not work with the new Windows version. It will also say which of the user’s applications are incompatible, or will at least need to be updated.
Even then, moving from XP to Windows 7 or Windows 8 is not the easiest of migrations. For a start, the process involves a “clean” installation. That means all existing applications, data files and settings used with XP will be wiped out while upgrading to the new operating system, and will have to be re-installed by hand afterwards. So, be ready to dig out all those original installation discs or downloads for the programs, along with their licence numbers.
Also, all personal files will first need to be saved to another hard-drive—whether inside the computer, on a network or plugged into one of the computer’s ports—so they can be transferred back to the computer after the upgrade. Even with a copy of Windows Easy Transfer instructions to hand, this is still a long-winded and tedious chore.
Mercifully, Laplink has solved this problem with a nifty program called PCmover. Though primarily designed (as its name implies) for moving a user’s software, files and settings from an old PC to a new one, it can also perform the useful trick of upgrading an existing XP computer to Windows 7 or Windows 8—without wiping out the user’s applications, data and settings in the process. And it does all this without needing to backup all the user’s personal stuff first to an external hard-drive. Babbage bought a copy recently when it was on offer for $28.
While Homebrew’s hardware satisfies Windows 7’s requirements, its skimpy amount of random-access memory would leave little room for the new operating system to flex its muscles properly. Back in 2008, two gigabytes of memory—the maximum allowed by the motherboard selected at the time for Homebrew—seemed more than enough for a modest little server. A more modern motherboard, able to accept up to eight gigabytes of memory, was called for. And because this would burn more juice, Homebrew’s puny power-supply needed to be replaced by a beefier unit.
All told, the parts bill has come to $150. Add the cost of PCMover and an OEM licence for Windows 7 Professional ($67 online), and the total cost of the upgrade is $245. The only parts salvaged from Homebrew are the dual-core processor, a pair of hard-drives, an optical drive, various cooling fans and the case itself—around $270 in value today.
Is the exercise worth it? Were it not possible to recycle half the parts, Homebrew II would cost well over $500 to build from scratch. A comparable computer from a reputable manufacturer (say, a Hewlett-Packard 110-010xt) can be had for $450 or less.
But financial savings, real or imaginary, are not the issue. For one thing, Babbage has always hated throwing old pieces of equipment away, and gets a kick out of breathing fresh life into them. For another, buying a new computer was never an option. Apart from half a dozen laptops on his home network, there are already two big Windows boxes humming away near his feet. There is no room for a third.
More to the point, Babbage knows full well that dark looks would be cast his way if yet another desktop computer entered the household. But a few replacement parts delivered unobtrusively by mail are a different matter. Then, there can be smiles all round when something that seemed destined for the scrap heap is taken apart and made to run better than before. It is rather like fixing the dish-washer…
Powered by Facebook Comments