The last three days of hard work have brought home to me that in August 2006, using the most modern of bits that East Asian technology has to offer, I find it odd that one still has to build a machine using components by plugging a bewildering array of cables together in a particular fashion, screwing things together with real screwdrivers, competing for space in a case that almost seems not to have been designed for the purpose despite its $90 price tag, and then once one manages to get it to boot, trying to get it working using software that almost seems not to have been designed for the purpose (namely, Windows XP) despite its $200 price tag.
With bits going out of vogue at different speeds, and needing to keep up to date in order to handle increasingly poorly written and clunky software (remember the days when Windows came on 3 floppy disks and Office on 4?), one has two choices – go to the computer shop and pay them labour and parts to get the new bits installed – risking substituted components or incorrectly installed operating systems – or do it oneself – which is not an option for the faint-hearted and can result in the loss of an expensive machine without due care or knowledge.
The information available in either case is woefully incomprehensible to the average person, or even to someone like myself with an IT degree and a history in Internet and applications support – it is almost impossible to compare two products (eg motherboards) and “try before you buy” simply does not exist. Even the vendors themselves often don’t know much about the products they sell and recommend, and sometimes you feel like you’re getting a sales pitch and they don’t see any financial incentive in providing you with reliable information. Information on the Internet is often highly subjective and technical in nature, written with needs in mind very different to the average consumer.
The instructions available for the self-installer are inadequate to the task and often you find they’re describing one situation when you find yourself in entirely another – on several occasions I’ve found the instructions to just be plain wrong.
My recent history with computers has not been a pleasant one. In early 2004, after coming into some money from a job, I bought a new motherboard (Gigabyte), CPU (AMD 64-3000) and graphics card to work with my previous setup which was by that point woefully out of date. I’d accepted the recommendations of an employee of the Nameless-To-Protect-The-Guilty Computer Company (hereafter NPG) as to what bits to buy. I noticed some odd problems but put this down to software, and on three occasions reinstalled my OS (itself not an easy task, especially the bit about salvaging data from the previous installation). After 9 months the motherboard completely failed. I had had a negative experience previously, so I took it to a Much Better Company (MBC) I’d had good dealings with and paid them $40 for a report on it. They said it was dead as a doornail and beyond redemption in not so many words.
I took it back to NPG and after several months, numerous lies (including that it had been sent east to the manufacturer), rumours and the odd war, was told I was getting a replacement motherboard – only to find on taking it out of the shop that it was the same one – thankfully I’d written down the old serial number on a PostIt note. What followed was escalating complaints, threats of legal action – and in the end losing both the defunct motherboard and my money. They insist the motherboard is not faulty. I would call an electronic item that fails to even register its own existence a few words that may not be in the English dictionary but which roughly correlate to “faulty”. This marked the end of an 11 year relationship between this company and my family (although we’d bought many goods from other providers in that time).
After this experience, I decided to go back to Epox brand, and got a new Epox motherboard – all other components the same (including the graphics card and CPU that NPG sold me). I built the entire computer myself – it took me around 2 days to get it all working. Sadly, my sound card of many years standing, no matter what I did, just wouldn’t respond to anything on this motherboard. Everything else worked perfectly. This was my machine until May.
In May, I went to MBC and asked them to make a machine for me. We went in detail through the list of components it would have, and I even got it faxed to me and approved it. I specifically stated that one primary function of this machine was sound – being the music lover I am and ultimately wanting to move towards home recording, this was quite important to me. Having some doubts about my own workmanship after not getting the Audigy to work, I got them to build it for a $50 fee.
I got a phone call 8 days later to indicate that the new sound card (Audigy 2) had not been installed as they too had failed to get it to work. This was something of a disappointment, but it being such a superior machine to my old one, I thought this wouldn’t matter.
Got the machine home and the Windows installation, clearly from Ghost for probably quite a different machine, had all sorts of problems. Not least of which was not being able to add or remove programs or Windows components, and occasionally crashing randomly. Worse still, my lovely MP3s and even DVDs were having odd sound problems with the stereo failing on occasion and loud random clicks. I clean-reinstalled the operating system myself (luckily having quite good IT software skills so not being their usual demographic) and got it working just about right – sans clicks, stereo problems and OS oddities.
Then I discovered they’d substituted the motherboard I wanted for an inferior one. I don’t quite know exactly in what way it was inferior, but there was a 4 line writeup about the one I wanted (and was printed on my receipt) and a 2 line about the one I actually got. I also found out after recovering from illness that the sound recording was AWFUL. My acoustic guitar and singing had been transformed into a 70s acid trip complete with phasing. Sadly, I wasn’t on a mission to recreate Pink Floyd and I actually wanted bass, so this was no good.
This weekend, I decided to move my old Epox motherboard into my new case. Two problems – the case was not designed to handle the large heatsink and I had to remove and reinstall my CPU. This was not easy without instructions! When I did finally get it working, Windows was behaving very unpredictably and even a reinstall didn’t fix it, so I had to go for a clean-reinstall. It’s still limping along a bit but I’m hoping it will gradually improve as time goes on.
Oh, and I still don’t have proper sound. And I’ve concluded that I’m probably not going to have it any time soon. The computer shop can’t do it. I can’t do it. What I want to do should be fairly simple – put a commonly available and fairly standard sound card onto a computer, and have a machine that works. If I can’t do it what hope does the average consumer have? So much for the information economy, the technological age and the competitive globalised market.