Buying a new PC: build your own, get a off the shelf clone or a brand name PC?

As someone who worked for a large scale clone PC manufacturer, built and upgraded clone PCs and also fixed, upgraded and supported brand name PCs (Dell, HP, etc) I thought I would share my experiences and dispell any myths that surround different types of PCs.

For a while now, if you are or were a gamer or PC enthusiast it was thought if your own PC wasn’t built yourself you didn’t have any hairs on your chest. The challenge of piecing together a PC from its standardised parts of motherboard, processor, memory, hard disk, optical drive etc, can be rewarding and you can get everything set up exactly the way you want it, and its cheaper! Or is it?

Clone PCs

When I worked for Novatech, customers would buy all the parts but some people would frequently buy the wrong parts or not have all the knowhow to make their PC work often blaming the retailer.

My experience has found clone PC parts like the case and power supply often come in two varieties, cheap and nasty or good and expensive. Many PC cases I have seen are utterly awful, the steel case is made of very thin bendy steel, with brittle plastic trim, and why is it you have to have a transparent window on the side? Also cheap power supplies can fail, either by one of the individual voltage rails might say, read 4.5v instead of 5v causing the PC to reboot or bluescreen inexplicably. On the other side of the market is products from companies like Coolermaster or Zalman, these are specialist PC part makers and these are often usually very expensive. There often isnt much to choose from in the middle of the market. Really there should be a better range of MicroATX cases, as most motherboards come in this format (ie: smaller having only 3 or so slots) The average clone PC case is far too big having far more space and expansion than anyone would ever need. Does anyone need more than two 5 ¼ drive bays now?

Frequent problems PC builders can get into are, cant install Windows as wont recognise hard disk, solution: have floppy disk handy (yes you still need a floppy drive for this aspect of installing your operating system which seems crazy when they havent been used in such a long time) with the Serial ATA drivers on, if your PC has a hard disk with those narrow style cables, and no, you cant get the drivers on a CD or USB stick. A PC not POSTing (that means Power On Self Test, ie: getting a picture on the monitor, counting its memory and ready to boot off a storage device) can often be 12v cable not plugged into motherboard (this is needed for PCs of Pentium 4 or Athlon 64 or later) a brass spacer or screw stuck behind the motherboard in the wrong place causing a short, or bad memory.

If the PC thats newly build happens to be defective, the retailer will expect the customer to do the troubleshooting and bring back the correct part. This can be a real headache if the user cannot work out which piece is the cause of the malfunction, and this can be why building PCs can be a painful experience for some.

The home built PC gaming crowd generates a lot of money for computer retailers as people upgrade so frequently as people want a certain amount of oneupmanship on gaming forums, and specialist parts like watercooling kits are often sold, all this adds up to a very expensive way of keeping and maintaining a computer though.

Ready-clone PCs, these are often can be a bad choice for a business customer, why? The parts change regulary, so large companies cant make a mass copy of the same Ghost image onto hundreds of PCs.

Brand name PCs like HP and Dell.

Some people might not like HP and Dell as their PCs have non standard parts. The chassis on these brand systems often is different, often coming in about 3 or difference sized cases often with the same motherboard. This is often a good thing, someone like the NHS has its PCs in small form factor, this is useful as the PC can be carried by the staff under one arm, and if you are installing 6 machines in one day, being able to fit them all in your car and carry each of them up steps and through security doors etc is different a good thing to factor in.

Now, most large businesses only have a small number of different model PCs, as Dell or HP normally keep the specification the same of the PC the same for a whole year. Most IT departments of big businesses need to keep installation of new system up or re-setting up after a repair or a operating system crash as quick as possible. In a business setting, PCs are rolled out using Ghost images,

Fitting a card to a brand name PC:-

Open lid, often PC can be opened with out tools using some kind of lever or button on outside of PC, remove lever covering slots on backplane of PC, slide out metal bracket, fit card. Reassemble.

Install required software.

Fitting a card to clone PC:-

Use philips screwdriver to remove screws from left hand side panel, struggle to make panel slide backwards, which will need good fingernails or flat screwdriver. Find metal plate covering slot you want to use, stab these piece hard with your screwdriver, give nasty sharp piece of metal a twist to break it off. Cut finger. Bleed a bit and swear. Fit card in slot, look through boxes of screws for a screws to find one that fits to hold the card in. Put PC together, put the side panel on a bit wonky. Install required software.

Replacing CD drive on a brand name PC:-

Open lid, often PC can be opened with out tools using some kind of lever or button on outside of PC. Disconnect ribbon cables and power cable on CD drive, squeeze drive rails to make CD drive slide out. Remove rails with screwdriver and transfer them onto new CD drive and set jumpers on the unit and refit into PC and reattach cables. Close case and start up PCs.

Replacing CD drive on clone PC:-

Use philips screwdriver to remove screws from left hand side panel, struggle to make panel slide backwards, which will need good fingernails or flat screwdriver. Then realise you need the other side of the PC off to access before sets of screws. Disconnect ribbon cables and power cable on CD drive, remove two screws off each side. Slide in replacement drive and fit screws to and set jumpers accordingly on back drive. Put both side panels back on the wrong way round, then put them on correctly.

My point is, after playing with different style of PCs, clone type systems are useful from the fact they are design to be easily adapted but quality is not always great, and PCs for businesses are different purely as they are made and produced with businesses in mind and are easier to replace bits with a minimum of tools.

Software as tools part 2 – Microsoft’s Office 2007 and Sun’s Open Office 3

Sometime ago I wrote a serialised article about Microsoft Office (2003) and some of its shortcomings, I thought I would talk about Office 2007 and its free open source rival Open Office.

Office 2007


The main selling point is the ribbon interface which will implemented into all of Microsoft’s future applications. One of the good things about Microsoft Office was the fact the user interface and icon toolbars were consistent after each version had come out Office 97, Office 2000 and Office XP (also called Office 2002) then Office 2003, but with Office 2007 Microsoft decided to make a big stride forward and change a lot with an overhaul of how the menu features work.

Initial signs look good, the icons look pretty and neat. However, the icons rearrange themselves in a fashion after analysing which functions you use most frequently. This seems like a good idea in theory, but actually my thinking is users will hate it. The reason why is icon should stay in the same place and not move, the buttons in your car don’t change around, everything should be consistent so during training whether from a book or from a teacher, people are not confused. Some icons were absent when I was using Word, a simple item like ‘find and replace’ was not there, easy enough for an IT person like me to use Control F, but not for a typical office worker, I think this whole ribbon concept a total waste of time.

Apart from the ribbon, the other worthwhile note is the button in the top left hand corner, works like a Windows Start button in reverse, pressing this gives a list of menu functions for saving, printing etc, instead of along the top, this is somewhat confusing to office workers and IT professionals alike, also takes some getting used to.


Word 2007 and Excel 2007 look radically different with the ribbon interface but strangely Outlook 2007, looks more or less like Outlook 2003 with the small exception of a new search button easily finding key words in your mail. Normally before you had to right click on inbox and search from there. As its something you use often it makes sense to move it to somewhere prominent, good effort there MS.

My many critical point of previous versions of Outlook was its poor way of storing mail in archives, I have not had a chance to really see how this differs in Outlook 207 though.

Overall there’s not a lot of other bits that have changed. Really as the last few versions of Office have had graphics, colour text, spell and grammar checking etc, its hard to think of anything extra that could be useful for the average business.


Some aspects of the .DOC file format has changed with introduction of Office 2007. Not sure what differences these are, but one of my previous workplaces rolled out the Office 2007 compatibility add on for Office 2003 (they have 2007 on a trial but had no plans to actually go live) which lets you open the newer files transparently in 2003.


Office 2007 is available very cheaply (I think about £17) to NHS workers for the last few years, the NHS, being Microsoft’s biggest client in the UK gets a unique ‘all you can eat’ licence deal agreement for Windows and Office on as many PCs as they want, so to keep a very firm stranglehold on keeping MS Office in our health systems right through to the 201x’s. Also there are generous discounts to students and teachers with Educational editions of Office 2007 as was offered in its previous incarnation, obviously a making sure our children and students only grow up using one set of tools to do their course work.

The full version for businesses in both retail (in those funny new curved cereal type boxes) or as a volume licence edition for businesses is still pretty high as before.

Open Office 3

This free alternative is strikingly similar to Office 2003 in terms of the application’s layout which is no bad thing. Loading / saving files, editing, tables, printing is all very very similar to Office 2003.

The thing I like about it is that its easy to pick up and start using it straight away, as its consistent in use.

Open Office doesnt have a mail client in use, but if you want a different free alternative you can instead use Firefox’s creator Mozilla’s Thunderbird.


Open Office using its own .ODF or Open office Document File format, which makes a lot of sense in having a new generic format thats not tied to one vendor but intended to be established standard for all office applications everyone in true ethos that is part of free software by having the inner workings of the product available for people to dissect in detail should they want to.

The sad fact is the .DOC and .XLS format for Word and Excel respectively have been around for so long, its exremely hard to imagine anything changing that, especially when businesses exchange files with each other. “its Open what standard?” or “We cannot open your CV, did you send the right file?” is situations I can see happening.

Some government organisation in France and Germany have adopted Linux and Open Source software and made it work for them as well as save a huge amount of money, so it would be interesting to see how they made it through this scenarios.


Just because a piece of software is free it by no means its amateurish or cuts corners on quality, the team of volunteers that put together seem to do a great job and updates and patches are available as an when needed like any other software application. Like Firefox, Open Office now has a plug in system to load on bolt on extras onto your application suite to any extra customisation where needed, also is support for numerous different languages both with the menus and help systems and support for non-European alphabets as well.

Overall, using Open Office for my own requirements at home works extremely well and I am very pleased with it.

IT managers looking to consider Office 2007 should really trial this well as I think a lot of retraining would need to be done for end users as its likely confusion will result with its usability.