Friday, January 23, 2015

More Junk Found at the Dump

But I should be reading. I was gonna read, I have a pile of interesting novels stacked up beside my desk. But every time I think I am gonna read, some quaint young philosopher of a geek pops up to claim my attention. I get an optimistic feeling when I listen to them. They don't care about the big picture. They just want to get the problem they are staring at fixed. Instead of reading a novel—novels have occupied my spare hours all my life, and no reason to stop now—I decided to try to build a computer from some junk parts I have collected. I had a good day at the dump.

Last week I got a quad core for my desktop, and it is noticeably faster that the AMD dual core I have in it now. I got it and a half dozen other useful parts in a Gateway box, circa 2010, that somebody left at the town dump. Our town has a small dump. People throw away perfectly good electronics. I drool wondering what it would be like to raid the dumps of some of the bigger towns nearby. Other objects like lawn mowers and kitchen utensils are thoroughly washed up by the time they get to the dump. Electronics, not necessarily so. Perhaps because they outdate themselves so fast. The flashier model is a month away. After four years perfectly serviceable computer parts have become almost worthless. It's not even worth while to sell them on Ebay!

The disk in the Gateway was a Western Digital Blue manufactured 2009, a sturdy 3.5in 7200rpm disk. I like them. You can depend on them. The board was a green Foxconn/Gateway mATX, an efficient, well designed board with six(!) SATA ports and integrated video, both HDMI and Dsub. But the best was yet to come. I removed the fan/heat sink—the fan was a 92mm 4 pin, thick and quiet—and found an AMD Phenom quad! That is an efficient, cool running CPU. I have wanted a quad core for my desktop for a long time. Also, four gigs of RAM. Not a bad deal considering the price was zero. I am gonna get four more G RAM on Ebay. Happy days! A quad core works good with Emacs. Emacs is not by any means a RAM eater, but it can build up a load with ten or twenty files open, EWW, twitter mode and Gnus running too. I think the computer got ditched because the dust jammed the heat sink, so the CPU got hot, quit and wouldn't start till it had cooled off, which happens in these junkers all the time.

I decided not to install the Foxconn/Gateway board in the junker I am building. It is an mATX, and it looks to be of high quality. No fancy digital readouts, but all fundamentals covered. It is a green board, thick like a server board built to last, not sickeningly designer oriented with quaint color patterns. Less chance for the wiring patterns to elongate or thin out through compression or accidental mishandling in such a way that it bleeds current. Gateway built them even after the Acer takeover in 2007. The quality of their hardware was always exceptional, similar to IBM, and the features and design of their desktop boxes were advanced. I have friends with Gateway desktops from the late nineties that they have had to do nothing to, except service with a good dusting once a year. The hardware went past, but it never died. This Foxconn board supports SATA RAID 0, 1, 5, 1+0. The DIMM slots support up to 8G RAM. A quad core, a SATA2 SSD and eight G RAM will work surprisingly well for writing, for instance, for two or three or more years, especially if you stick to the less RAM needy OSes in Linux. Or even longer.

Most OSes work the RAM hard. RAM is cheap so board manufacturers don't worry about it. Right now my Mac, with one browser and Aquamacs and about ten files open is using almost 2 gigs of RAM! Sounds like my machine must be sick, doesn't it? But it checks out okay. Even Linux is RAM hungry. My desktop running Xubuntu (XFCE desktop) with a simple, solid work load on consistently runs 1100 megabytes of RAM. Openbox, in Trisquel, for instance, or any of the other boxes, Fluxbox or Blackbox, run along at 200 or 400 megabytes of RAM with a load on. Ratpoison on BSD used to tickle me because in Htop I'd read 32 to 50 megabytes of RAM usage consistently. The difference is that the automated functions of the more expansive desktops like KDE, OS X, Gnome or XFCE use up a lot of RAM. If you want the convenience of GUI and functions such as auto mount or Dropbox, you'll eventually want to get up to eight G of RAM. I am running four G in all my machines, and if opening photos and playing videos, activities can start slowing down fast. Many Linux distros are no easier on RAM than the commercial distros.

That's why I decided to use a 2009 ECS board for Junker. It is an old standby, inexpensive but also built on a solid PCB, because it has more upside in terms of RAM. But any time something happens I can install the Foxconn board because it works perfectly, and it probably has a higher bus speed, though I was unable to find that out for sure. I understand that CPUs do eventually get burned out, what with all the dust in the heat sink, but after thoroughly testing it, this one seems to be okay. I have a SATA 2 Kingston SSD to install the OS on. There is hardly any difference in the real world between a SATA2 and SATA3 SSD. The Kingston SATA2 with Debian on it runs if anything a little quicker than the OWC extreme SATA3 in my Macbook. I don't care what the numbers may or may not show. There is only so much difference in write and read speed that a person can detect. You can pay the extra hundreds of dollars, overclock and all that, but in the end except for some special purpose, if for instance you need ten-thousand computations per second, unless you are a hyper personality, hot rodding computers ends up making little difference for normal work purposes.

The best way to upgrade a machine that seems to be lagging, if there is only one thing you can afford to do, is to buy an SSD for it. I haven't felt the need to upgrade the RAM in my desktop or my laptop because they both have SSDs. The problem with SSDs is that once they die, they are dead, and anything inside is inside, so far as I know, forever. It is lost, vanished. Platter disks, not so. That means, if you use SSDs, you have to keep up on backups.

So I had all the ingredients to build a writing machine. After removing the battery, the Foxconn board went into hot soapy water with the ECS board. Both came out looking pretty and new as they ever looked. I do the initial drying with a hair dryer, leave overnight, twelve hours or so, and dry them again in the morning.

You can use a trashcan for a case or scrounge one at the dump, or build one. One of the most enjoyable activities in computing is imagining what your perfect computer case would look like, and figuring out some way to build it. Once you do the testing and find a good box to screw things down and hang fans, the actually assembly can go fast. I always slow the assembly down in order to have more time to enjoy it. I like to see the board safely installed and attached to the power supply, so I can put the juice to it and watch for the fans and listen for the boot signal, then I set up the disk drive or whatever I have for peripherals.

Of course, these enjoyable home built recipes leave OS X in the dust. One of the most enjoyable websites to cast around in is here. But security updates or any updates at all are unlikely. Still you can give it a shot, at least to see if you can make those expensive apps you have bought for OS X work. Your Mac has died after five solid years. The wife says no more. Windows will work in your homebuilt. But your best bet is one of the Linux distros. Freedom is what you want. I am starting to play around with GNU/Linux, Trisquel in particular. GNU claims to have a package manager that works, Guix (pronounced "geeks"). No matter what hardware I end up with, I'll be able to find a Linux distro that will work on it.

My name for this computer I have built is Junker. I have no idea what I am going to use it for. I guess I'll keep it for a backup. Now that the job is done, tonight for absolutely no reason I'll scour the Internet for an old IBM box for fifty bucks or so, or a supposedly dead Mac Pro, the "cheese grater" model. These boxes are a little loud, parts overpriced, but they have all the bells and whistles of a high class workstation. Surprising what anyone might run up against if they start looking and get lucky. Someday, I'll get over this strange enthusiasm and start reading novels again.

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