Teaching and Bonding with the "Big Project"

Last summer, I blogged about an Alienware gaming PC purchase experience. These machines are indeed cool. In fact, so cool that the boys have been saving up for another Alienware for months, but progress has been very slow for them given the lofty price tag. This got me to thinking about the comment/challenge left by my buddy Paul on the original post:

"Bill, you gotta check out newegg.com. What better project than to build your own kick butt gaming computer for half what you'd pay dell/alienware for."

As I mulled over the challenge, fond memories of my college days with Chris in the digital electronics lab swirled in my head. Yeah, this could be fun! On the other hand, I can just imagine sparks and plumes of smoke streaming out of a poorly assembled home-built rig upon plugging it in for the first time. I can vividly picture the dejected looks on the kids' faces and my wife shaking her head in the background as I initiate the humiliating call to the Geek Squad to bail us out. Yeah, this could get really ugly if things go awry...

But... building a killer gaming PC with my computer enthusiast son could be a great bonding and learning experience. It's an opportunity to learn some basic project skills: planning, problem solving, "disaster recovery" and collaboration. It's a tangible way to learn the importance of patience and perseverance. It's a unique opportunity to experience the pride and satisfaction that comes with building something with your own hands to your own specifications. It's a chance to learn that the journey can be as gratifying as the result. Yes, the potential upside is huge.

Well, several weekends ago (with my wife safely out of town I might add ;-) my son and I decided to go for it. The week beforehand, my son carefully culled together a list of components from the NewEgg catalog to match his gaming requirements while abiding by our budget constraints. Those who are interested can see the bill of materials in the spreadsheet at the bottom of this post. Armed with my son's list, we made the purchase swiftly online thereby enjoying another benefit of this approach: no annoying in-store Fry's experience (don't get me started!).

Paul was right: we were able to assemble a set of components at about half the cost of a comparably equipped pre-made machine. In fact, (assuming it actually works) our machine would be more powerful. It would also be outfitted with just the capabilities we wanted and valued. This goes for hardware and software. No more annoying pre-loaded promo software from the manufacturer cluttering up a substantial portion of your hard drive - nice!

Our excitement mounted with each new box that arrived throughout the week. By the time the weekend rolled around, we were ready to rock.

To guide our efforts, we Googled on "build your own PC" and used a collection of articles like this one to provide the high level recipe. This experience reaffirmed what an amazing resource the Web is. Every time we were confused or stymied, a set of well considered Google queries always (ultimately) led us to an answer - no matter how seemingly obscure the issue.

Almost 48 elapsed hours later (we were being super cautious and working in sporadic blocks of time - aka, "family mode"), we were ready for the moment of truth. As I reached for the power button, my son looked so anxious I thought he was going to toss his cookies. He wanted to wait out in the hall while I flipped the switch, but I convinced him that, being lab partners, we needed to witness the moment together...

It's working! Huzzah! Our machine whirred to life. We clapped each other on the back and grinned. We worked through the relatively straightforward task of installing the operating system (Vista). No problems. After lots of self-congratulation, we moved on to the next big acid test: installing and running the graphics intensive game Battlefield 2.

Somewhere in that process, our DVD drive suddenly "disappeared" - the operating system just no longer recognized it and, as a result, we could not perform any more installs. After poking around on some manufacturer web sites and browsing online manuals with decent sized pictures, we determined that we (ok, "I") had attached the cables incorrectly to the DVD drive. After a little dissassembly and minor surgery, we were back in business. The drive reappeared. We were able to proceed with the install and get to the Battlefield test. More self-congratulation.

That's where we ran into roadblock number 2: the game would start to come up and then crash. Doh! More googling and some diagnostics later, we determined that our graphics card was not Vista compatible. By this time, we were anxious to be done, so it was off to Fry's (sigh) to get a Vista compatible Graphics Card. (Note: we were able to return the original card to NewEgg without hassle.)

A little more disassembly and minor surgery later, we were back to the gaming test. This time: success! Battlefield worked like a dream: better performance and sweeter graphics. High fives all around!

The victory was short lived. Moments later after installing some unrelated piece of software, it happened again: the DVD drive mysteriously disappeared. Roadblock #1 was back again. Bummer! The cycles of euphoria and disappointment were starting to wear thin. Back to Google. Ultimately, we found the culprit and the obscure solution here. A little lesson in Windows Registry hacking and we were ready to reboot and try again. Success! Our DVD drive was back and working. Low fives this time (our twice-burned irrational exuberance was giving way to cautious optimism).

Well, it has now been over a month of smooth, satisfying operation, so we think it is safe to declare victory and launch this post. The project was everything I hoped it would be: a great bonding and learning experience for both of us. If you are a parent, I urge you to find a meaty project within your sphere of comfort (building PCs is not for everyone!) and go for it with your child. You'll both be glad you did.


Here is the final parts list:


Anonymous aka The Blog Post Author

sweet! you do realize that there's no such thing as a "finished" self-built gaming pc. getting it to run the game is just the start. you still have motherboard overclocking, graphics card overclocking, water cooling among other things. ;-)

congratulations! that machine looks nice! btw, did you have any problems setting up the bios? that can be hairy sometimes.


Epicurist aka The Blog Post Author

Excellent post, Bill. Michel had stumbled across it and forwarded it along. I'm thinking of doing something similar with my 10 yr old over the holidays, for his video editing. Maybe set up a NAS box, too.


Bill Dwight aka The Blog Post Author

By the way, now you can use FamZoo's new budget feature to build up your parts price list. It's a good way to educate your kids about what things cost and how to shop around for best prices.



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