Today, I'm taking a break from marketing topics to blog about a fun project my kids, aged 13 and 10, and I have been engaged with this summer. They decided not to go to summer camp, so I suggested they do something else educational: build their own computers.
Now, I know this may sound like heresy. As most regular readers know, both our business and home are entirely Apple-based. But one of the factors that pushed me over the edge was seeing some of the very cool results and applications available nowadays with Ubuntu Linux. It's no Mac OS X, but it does have a ton of great applications. And for kids who have lots of time to spare, being able to customize, tweak, modify, and create new uses for their computers is a huge draw.
I said this was educational, so I imposed some constraints on the project. Each boy was given a budget of $300 to buy all the parts, including LCD displays, but not including hard disks (turns out I had a couple that were about to be surplused, so I supplied those at no cost to them). They got to allocate how much money they spent on each part, but I supplied reasonable estimates for what they should expect to pay for the parts. Here's the breakdown I gave them:
Item Cost LCD Monitor $100 Motherboard and processor $80 Case $25 Keyboard and Mouse $15 Memory $50 Optical drive $30
It took a lot of online shopping via Pricewatch.com to stay within this budget. But despite the plethora of vendors represented at Pricewatch, we ended getting nearly everything from just two vendors: NewEgg.com, and SuperGoodDeal.com. Both were helpful, provided great service, answered questions, and were generally a huge help. Further, consolidating our order with just a couple vendors reduced shipping costs as well. The product reviews on NewEgg.com I found particularly helpful in trying to figure which parts to buy and which ones to avoid. We actually blew the motherboard and processor budget at NewEgg.com, because they offered an AMD Athlon 64 and motherboard bundle for $99. But that provided so much bang for the buck, we couldn't resist, and we made it up by simply borrowing some keyboards and mice for a while until we can get a couple at flea markets.
Finding 17" LCD monitors for $100 turned out to be the toughest challenge. We turned to two other vendors for these who had particularly good deals. Those were at PC Connection (since expired) and eCost.com, both of which required rebates to keep the price down, a discounting technique I really don't like. But after a couple missteps (one of which was that we got OEM processors that didn't have bundled cooling fans, which I promptly purchased to avoid destroying the processors), all the parts arrived on Monday, and the boys set to work building under my supervision.
Can 10- and 13-year-old boys build their own computers from parts? I'm proud to say, the answer today is absolutely yes, provided they have some step-by-step guidance from an adult. One of the machines booted up flawlessly the first time, despite having had to mount and unmount the motherboard no fewer than five times to get it aligned perfectly on its standoffs. The other refused to do anything when we pushed the power switch. We promptly went and read some troubleshooting guides which recommended we retrace our steps remove the motherboard from the case, and try running it outside the case. When we did so, it powered on, showing that it had been shorting against the case. So with a little bit of debugging the second computer came up this morning.
One of the nice bits about Ubuntu Linux is that it comes as a "live" CD. That is, you can boot from the CD, test your hardware, and run the operating system all without actually touching your hard drive. So both computers did that, and then the boys used the one-click install to load it onto their hard drives. So fifteen minutes later, both boys had working systems with OS, browsers, email, office software, and a host of brand new games to play with. They are thrilled, and will probably be entertained by those systems for the rest of the summer (and year).
This wasn't a project for the faint of heart or someone who expects warranty repair for everything. Documentation was sparse at best. This was particularly a problem at the very beginning, when we had to open the cases. We spent a full hour just trying to figure out how to open one of them. At nearly every step, there was some bit of lore that required researching to make sure we didn't mess up the systems. These ranged from issues like the heat sinks and fans mentioned above to jumper settings on disk drives to how and where to connect the front panel switches of the case. But with every challenge, a bit of research on the Web usually yielded a reasonable answer. And that and some trial and error made it all work.
This project took about three weeks from conception and parts ordering to working computers. But I think the feeling of accomplishment and technical confidence the project has given my kids will last for years. The computer -- which as much as anything today is a symbol of our society -- has changed from a black box into something they could learn about, understand, and master. And best of all, when they go back to school and their teachers ask them what they did with their summer vacations, they'll answer, "Oh, I built my own Athlon 64 computer!" And best of all, they won't have to borrow my machine to write the essay either.