The Leviathan Takes Form

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Still Life With Celeron, by the author

To build a good system cheaply, you need the help of a friend: Sheer damn luck. You’re going to have to find bargains.

But this is the sort of luck that only happens when you’re ready for it. You can’t get good deals until you know exactly what you’re looking for, so the magical serendipity comes only after the painstaking research.

This article aims to save you some of that. To start with the basics then, the minimum you’ll need for a PC is:

Video card is in brackets because many motherboards and processors have video built in. You have the option of adding one (or more) for demanding tasks like gaming.

Similarly, audio and wired networking usually come integrated these days. (Be aware though that Wi-Fi isn’t so common.) You may notice I’ve left out speakers, on the basis that they’re not strictly necessary – and of course there’s a good chance you’ll have passable speakers or at least headphones lying around somewhere. Can we cut the bill down still further? Well, you may be able to do without the monitor. If your motherboard or video card has an HDMI output you can probably plug it straight into your new flat panel digital TV. And if you happen to have a portable USB DVD drive, that should do the job fine. (And arguably is a better investment than a built-in one, which these days is going to spend most of its time idle.) If you want you can add these pieces, and much more besides, as and when you have the money. This expandability is the nicest aspect of the PC architecture, and it’s worth exploiting while it’s still here to be enjoyed.

It is essential therefore to begin by planning for the future. You’re building a good-but-inexpensive system now with a view to transforming it into an amazing-but-still-not-too-expensive system over time, so you need to start out on the right track. There’s no point in saving money on say a cheap motherboard if the memory it takes won’t be made any more. A component is no bargain if it’s only compatible with others that are expensive, and to an extent every component of a PC is dependent on, and so must be compatible with, every single other.

Which brings us to the obvious question: Where the hell do you begin?

Take Me To Your Media

Braun HF 1 television receiver, Germany, 1958
This is what my Media Centre PC doesn't resemble most

I’m still hiding in a happy kernel of geekery, away from a cruel and now markedly more expensive world. Much of last night was spent setting up the new old PC as what I expansively call a “Media Centre”. That is of course just fancy talk for a computer attached to a TV, worthwhile though since we got a wide-screen one. (Well, wide-ish.) My mother will appreciate this when she gets the hang of it, but things may be a bit confusing for the transition. I’d barely got her to stop calling the computer monitor “the TV”, now I seem to have arbitrarily reversed my position.

But I’m sitting here writing this on my knees. With a wireless keyboard on my knees, I mean. I’m not on my knees. And to clarify my clarification, I didn’t think that you thought I was writing this column on my knees, with a pen. I have the keyboard on my knees, but the words are appearing on the TV. Which is the sort of thing people liked to do in science fiction films. Cool. And simultaneously – as it is a fairly wide screens – I’m also catching up with episodes of QI on YouTube. (The one with Nina Conti the ventriloquist.)

Ideally the screen would have about four times the area, but this is actually pretty nice. If nothing else, it improves my work posture – from hunched over on the couch to sitting back on the couch. I feel slightly better-off already.