Welcome back to the Vault.
Which actually makes no sense, it’s not even a vault.
It’s my basement.
My name is Matt Mutch.
I am a computer enthusiast.
I’d like to tell you a story.
Over my time as a hobbyist computer builder, I have taught a couple people how to build computers. As I’m rifling through the basement, I stumbled upon a few pieces that, while not the systems themselves, reminded me of one apt student of mine from back in college, the memory of which I’ve just now reclaimed from the clutches of time.
His name was Tim.
Tim was just about as positive a person as I’d ever met. I assume he still is.
Back in my third year of college, not to be confused with one’s Junior year since my timeline got jumbled in a transfer, I met and became friends with Tim and not too long into our time being friends he expressed an interest in learning how to build computers. I informed him I could absolutely help and would do so in the very near future.
Since I didn’t live terribly far from school, but far enough to justify living on campus, the next time I went home for the old laundry and home-cooked-meal deal, I plucked an old PC out of the hallowed stereotype of my Parent’s Basement (the proto vault), and brought it back to school with me, making sure I had a Philips head screwdriver and spare thermal compound as well. I used a spare desk (I was finally rewarded after years of bad roommates and one good one with a giant room, which is a bit of an odd story), and completely disassembled the system down to a bare metal case and cleaned the CPU die. I called Tim over and he was very interested in what I’d set out.
I explained what we had in front of us: case, power supply, mainboard, CPU, heatsink/fan unit, ram, cd-rw drive, 3.5 inch floppy drive, and a 3.5 inch hard drive. There was most likely an AGP graphics card although I might have just been using onboard graphics, and possibly a 56K v.90 modem. I feel fairly certain I would have wanted to bring him something with at least one expansion card for educational purposes.
Tim thought it was very cool that I had this and was willing to bring it all the way back to school to show him. I told him it was no problem.
Then I told him to put it together.
He looked at me, rather incredulous, but always with that very Tim twinkle in his eye. He was game.
I told him one of the things about computers is that after a while you realize everything has its own place and way it goes, and then things aren’t so difficult (usually) after that. I assured him that I’d watch him and help if he went awry, and that in the event he destroyed something, this particular system was too old to really be worried about. I do believe Tim was very excited to do this.
While my memory is very good for most aspects of this teachable moment, I do not remember the exact order things went in, sorry. What I can tell you is that Tim was fairly easily able to identify the fact that each component did in fact go in its rightful place, and just needed a touch of guidance to fit in properly. At the time this was a standard ATX mainboard with a Socket 370 CPU, a revised Pentium 3 (codename: Coppermine).
It is reasonably obvious that the small square chip can only go one place—in the socket—and examining the keying of the pins and the indicator markings, it’s not too tricky to pair them up. While setting in the heatsink/fan unit isn’t too hard either, the same rule applied as with the CPU: just don’t bend the pins. The power lead was obvious in its dangling about, and there were only a couple spots to plug it in. The only tricky part of the CPU was applying the right amount of thermal compound, which is, to most people, a deceptively small amount.
Truthfully, the rule of thumb still remains today. Everything goes in its place. There were three RAM slots on the board, and the RAM could go anywhere, although I think the best placement at the time was closest to the CPU first. The whole board gets mounted in the case and screwed down (always on standoffs!) and the most difficult part of that is plugging in the mainboard headers, which remains a nuisance to this day. (Seriously. Standardize the case pin out already.)
The power supply is a little fiddly, but pretty simple if you’re not horrendously anal about cable routing.
Floppy and hard drive connectors look similar but turn out to be different, and were luckily keyed for proper insertion. The most baffling thing about the old ribbon cable connections would have been if we had multiple devices on the channel, but this system did not. Old PCI add in cards could go in any slot, but the AGP graphics would only have fit one place.
There really isn’t much too it. I assume we took an hour or less to do the job. I do believe the system booted on the first or second try, which always feels good, no matter which era we’re building in.
Tim successfully built his first computer that day, and I received word later on that he had done it again himself, with a modern system no less. It felt good to have successfully guided someone through learning something he can go on and potentially use throughout his life.
Things are different now, of course. Different CPUs, different cooling, different slots. But probably nothing so daunting that a solid basis and a little careful consideration can’t see one through. I think the confidence built along with that old computer that day probably did a lot of good.
Hell, who am I kidding? Everyone’s probably got laptops nowadays.
Nothing to tinker with inside those anymore.
Got an old computer or a new computer you like or hate or are indifferent to and want to talk about it? Want to send us your old junk and have us wax nostalgic about it?
I’m @geekadematt on Twitter and this has been “Into the Vault: Tim”.
Tim successfully reassembled a system based on the Intel Pentium 3 733 MHz CPU on the Socket 370. The CPU inserts one way into the provided Intel d815eea mainboard running on the Intel i815 chipset, which supports its enhanced 133 MHz Front Side Bus interface. Three RAM slots accommodate up to 384 MB of PC100 or PC133 RAM (most likely 256 MB at the time) and the expansion cards had their pick of the six PCI slots and single AGP slot. The board also includes a CNR riser but no one ever cared. Two IDE channels connected up to four total IDE devices and in this case some form of 3.5 inch rotational hard drive under 120 GB and a CD-RW drive. A floppy disk connector controlled a single 3.5 inch floppy disk drive. The board also featured integrated Fast Ethernet, two channel audio, and VGA graphics output, along with two RS-232 serial ports and a parallel port with a joystick port complimenting the audio jacks. Two USB 1.1 ports and two PS/2 ports round out the back panel. The system was in an utterly benign white case and was powered by a brandless power supply of around 250 watts which I prayed would not spontaneously ignite as the cheap ones tended to do in the day. If the system were still around today, it would be named Tim.