Category Archives: Computers

Build Your Own Computer

This is the first part of a series on how to build your own computer. If you can handle a screwdriver and follow directions, almost the same as Ikea, you should be able to cobble together your own computer in a relatively short period of time. The computer I am writing this on is about four months old and was painstakingly assembled in a few hours. Things don’t always go smoothly, however. Asus ran into a problem with the USB ports on the original motherboard, forcing me to disassemble then reassemble it when the new motherboard came in. Sure, it was a pain but I learned to develop some speed in the assembly the second time around!

These days, you really only need to buy a few parts. Most of the new motherboards already have just about everything built into the board itself. In this post I will tell you what you need, using this computer as an example.

1. Motherboard/CPU combination – I chose Asus as a manufacturer based on my past experience with another Asus board. For the CPU, I chose Intel  simply because they have a brand new set of processors with four cores and they also have a good reputation. For my use, four cores are overkill, most of the time anyway, but the price was right. The Asus motherboard came with just about everything that I needed already on it. There were three video outs which would support two monitors, a sound card built-in plus networking and a slew of USB connectors. I also use Firewire for video captures and there is a connector for that. Sure, the video isn’t for gamers but I was able to use the computer for a couple of months just as it was. I installed a video card recently but only because I wanted to play Far Cry.

2. Case/Power Supply combination – I like a tower case, as opposed to a small form factor case where you have to squeeze everything in. For the Power Supply (PSU), I chose a Corsair 600W model. Corsair has a great name and a good warranty. The case is an Antek unit, based on price and ease of construction. It looks pretty mean, all black with a nice grill on the front. Make sure you have a PSU that supports your power requirements. 600W is pretty medium now, some factory built units come with much smaller PSUs that crap out way before you want them to. Consider 750W or 1000W if you are a hardcore gamer and want to use the latest, greatest video cards and hard drives.

3. RAM – I chose Mushkin based on price and reviews. For my rig I figured 8 gigabytes of RAM (memory) was fine. I use Windows 7 Ultimate and I never notice a slowdown, no matter how many programs I have open. Consider 8 a minimum.

4. Optical Drive (DVD/CD writer) – A basic (non-Blu Ray) unit, a Samsung Writemaster fills the bill nicely. I may go for a Blu Ray later on but this is fine for now.

5. Hard Drive – For this, I chose a Western Digital ‘green’ 2 TB drive. WD has a good reputation and a good warranty. In the past, I’ve used Hitachi and Samsung but lately I’ve been using WD. Since I have lots of room in the case, I am using several hard drives. The WD 2TB, a WD 1.5 TB, a Kingston SSD that was an experiment, and a 1 TB WD 7200 RPM ‘black’ drive. At some point in the near future, I will re-install Windows and use the 1 TB black drive as a boot drive.

6. Keyboard/Mouse combination – I have keyboards in abundance and didn’t have to buy one. Same thing for a mouse. Depending on your needs, get a combination that suits your lifestyle. Wireless is nice but not necessary for me. There are also some pretty fancy mice out there, check them out if you’re a gamer.

7. Monitors – I had two nice Dell monitors so I didn’t need to buy them. My working model is a 22″ LCD, nothing fancy and my other one is a 20″ Dell. I use the 20″ for my TV watching, using a Hauppauge 1600 HD tuner card.

8. Cooling unit – The Intel CPU came with a cooler already but I chose to change it up with a Coolermaster Hyper 212 unit. It installed much faster than the Intel factory unit which proved to be cheap and really wonky to figure out. $19 was cheap for a much better unit from Coolermaster.

That’s it. Next time I’ll tell you how to put it all together.

TIP: All the bits and pieces came from NCIX, the best of the best. NCIX is a one-stop, no worry place to buy computer parts and electronics online. They have bricks and mortar stores, too. Full of helpful tips and tricks, these guys are the best. Did I already say that? (Choose your country: U.S. or Canada.)

Thanks for reading. Follow me on Twitter : @_BrianMahoney

Secret Files – well, just system files but Windows wants to keep them a secret.

System files, hidden by default in Windows, can be useful sometimes. Not that you want to change or delete them but sometimes a virus mimics a system file. In order to get rid of the virus, you have to be able to see the file in the first place. Sure, we all use anti-virus programs but sometimes they need a bit of help. Here’s how you can change your file system to reveal Windows secret files. As a bonus, you can also change the setting to let you know what kind of files you have on your computer. If you don’t know an .ini from an .exe, this won’t matter much but it’s a good idea in spite of that.

1. Depending on your version of Windows (and you really should be using Windows 7), either click the folder on your task bar or right click the Start button and choose Explore.

2. On Windows 7, click on the ‘Organize’ button, then Folder and Search Options, just the way it looks in this pic:

Windows file menu
Click Folder and Search Options

3. The next menu is Folder Options. Click on the View tab to get to this menu:

menu for folder options
Two places to click here.

4. In this menu, make yours look just like mine. Check ‘Show hidden files, folders, and drives’ and uncheck ‘Hide extensions for known files types. Lastly, uncheck ‘Hide protected operating system files (Recommended)’. The last one is optional but I like to have complete control over my computer and, even if I can’t do anything with the protected files, it’s nice to be able to see them.

5. Click OK when Windows says ‘Are you sure’, and then click your way out of the menu.

This is a basic change to your folders that will help you get more involved with your own computer. Instead of seeing file names, you’ll be able to see what kind of file it is. Every file in Windows has an extension, something that tells the computer (and you) what kind of file it is and what it will do. A plain .jpg is a picture file while an .exe file is an ‘executable’, an action file that will open a program. You’ll get to know the file types over time, don’t worry. Once you remove the buzz words and geek-speak, computers aren’t that difficult to understand.

TIP: Don’t delete files unless you know what they are. The files you normally use are .jpg, .doc or .docx files. You don’t ever delete an .exe. file or a .dll file unless you know what you are doing. Delete programs you don’t use through the Control Panel. The purpose of this exercise was to help with your computer knowledge.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter: @_BrianMahoney 

Ram, Hard Drives and Confusion – computer ads explained

I think that most people just assume that everyone understands the difference between RAM and storage space, dual core and quad core, etc. If that was the case, why does everyone still call the desktop computer a CPU? Here’s a rundown of the terms that are used in a typical computer ad. It’s not difficult once you get past the buzzwords. Here is a typical ad:

Ad for Dell Vostro
It's specs like this that confuse the hell out of people.

This isn’t even the full list of specs. I’ll run through the important ones here. If there is something that still confuses you, ask me in a comment.

This is a notebook, or laptop. Most people these days seem to prefer laptops as opposed to desktops. Mobility is the key here. A huge section of people use mobile phones to connect to the Internet, too. The size you buy is up to you but a 14″ is great for moving around school or work, while a 15.6″ or 17″ can be used as a ‘desktop replacement’.

A netbook is much smaller, usually with a 10″ screen. These are great for taking everywhere you go. I’ll stick to more conventional computers here instead of confusing the issue more with the new pads. The terms are pretty much the same, regardless of the style you buy. Here are some of the terms explained:

1. AMD Quad Core A6-3400DM Processor – This is the brain of the computer, the part that gets really hot and looks huge in a desktop but is really only the size of a Triscuit, and about the same thickness. The two big names are AMD and Intel. You will recognize Intel, I think. Each company maintains a well documented site that will allow you to search out the age of the processor you are looking at. The price you pay for your computer is partially dictated by the price of the processor. This isn’t always the case, however, since Intel’s new processors are even cheaper than the older ones and much, much faster. For most people, the standard dual or quad core is fine. Two heads (dual core) is better than one and four heads (quad core) is even better.

2. 4GB Shared Dual Channel DDR3 at 1333MHZ, 2 DIMM  – This is called RAM (random access memory). It’s what the computer uses to keep track of things while it’s running. These days, 2 gigabytes is an absolute bare minimum, 4 to 8 gigabytes is much more common. The more RAM, the more things your computer will be able to think about. You can run two, three, four or more programs at the same time. Less RAM means your computer can only think of one thing…very slowly. Adding RAM to an old computer will do wonders for its speed. All you really need to know here is how many gigs of RAM you get with the computer and, potentially, how much more you can add. This is using 2 sticks (2 dimms). Most laptops only have two slots so you’d have to swap out the memory completely as opposed to adding another stick. 4 gigs is my minimum at this point. All RAM these days is Dual Channel, that’s just there to confuse you or to make it sound better.

3. 320 GB 7200RPM SATA Hard Drive – This is the storage NOT memory. The hard drive is where you store your files, music, videos, etc. The bigger the hard drive, the more you can store. This particular drive is an OK size and a GOOD speed. Most laptop drives are only 5400 RPM. This one is 7200 which means that it will be able to feed out stuff faster. However, it will also use up more power and create more heat, two things that will affect your battery life. I’m fine with 5400 RPM except for gaming or video capture. This is a plus, for sure, but 7200RPM isn’t necessary at all. 5400 is just fine and cheaper. SATA is superfluous. All drives now are SATA and it means nothing to you.

4. 6-cell Lithium Ion Battery (not shown) – The more cells in a battery, the longer it lasts. This one is average, 8 is much better. Battery life is dependent upon the processor and how much power it uses (faster uses more), the hard drive (7200 RPM uses more than 5400 ROM) and the type of display the laptop uses.

5. 15.6 inch HD LED Display (1366×768) with anti-glare (not shown) – This is a decent display. LED means that the laptop uses much less power than a normal LCD screen. (That is offset by the 7200 RPM hard drive for some strange reason). HD is meaningless, pretty much. Everything retail now is HD. 1366/768 is the screen resolution. Images and text will look clear and crisp on this screen. Anti-glare is extremely important. You will probably be using this laptop outside sometimes. With anti-glare, you’ll be able to see everything without the blinding glare.

6. 8X DVD+-/-RW with double layer DVD+/-R write capability – Put simply, you can write DVDs or CDs with this laptop. You can watch DVDs, listen to CDs but you CAN’T watch or write Blu Ray disks.

TIP: Netbooks, the really small laptops, don’t come with an ‘optical’ (DVD or CD) drive. There are small external drives available for less than $40, often less than $30.

TIP: Don’t spend extra money on software, whether it is Microsoft, Norton, Symantec or McAfee. There are many free alternatives to anything that you can buy. Read my past posts about free software. There is always something free out there. (By free I mean free, not pirated.)

That’s a very long post but I hope you’ll find it helpful. There are many other things to think about when you’re looking for a new computer but this covers most of your important choices.

Thanks for reading! Comments are welcome. Follow me on Twitter: @_BrianMahoney

Video Screen Capture Using CamStudio – it’s free!

There are times when we’d like to capture a video that is on our computer screen, whether it is from a webcam or a streaming video site such as Netlflix. Until I found CamStudio , I was stuck with doing individual screen captures with Irfanview. Here’s a short course on how to use CamStudio.

1. Download and install CamStudio. It’s free and available here:

2. Head over to your Start button and find CamStudio. When you find it, the menu looks like this:

The CamStudio Start menu choices
For recording, choose Camstudio-Recorder

3. Choose Camstudio-Recorder. The program will start in a few seconds and you’ll be faced with this menu:

Camstudio main menu
The red button records, the blue button stops the recording.

4. The main menu gives you all the controls you need to use CamStudio. Red for record, blue for stop and so on. Under Region you’ll see this:

CamStudio Region menu
I use Region and then drag out my choice in the video window.

5. Choose what area you want to record. If you choose ‘Region’ and click the red record button, you will have to click on the video window of your choice and then drag a rectangle/square shape of what you want to save. This is great for webcam windows but not for Netflix. For Netflix you would choose Select Screen. If you always use CamStudio for a certain size window, set it up in Fixed Region. If you have two monitors and want to record both, choose All Screens.

6. When you click the red button the recording box will flash, showing you that CamStudio is working. When you’re done, click the blue button. Depending on what you’ve chosen in your Options, CamStudio will then render your video and save it.

7. You have a pretty complete set of options in CamStudio. I’m not going to get into all of them here but I’ll give you some tips.

Tip 1: I save all of my captures as ‘avi’ files. The SWF format didn’t work. These saved avi files can be saved to your desktop or a folder in CamStudio. I STRONGLY recommend that you set up a folder on your desktop. The CamStudio folder is very hard to find. I’m an expert computer user and I had a hard time finding the actual files. CamStudio uses a shortcut system and keeps the actual avi files in a separate folder.

Tip 2: If you use dual monitors, play around with the settings. CamStudio works fine with dual monitors but I found that I had to play with the video options as well as which monitor recorded from in order to make it work. It seemed that CamStudio worked best on my main screen (number 1 in Windows screen selection menu). Give it a shot and see what you can sort out. Write it down so you’ll remember what you did.

Tip 3: Choose the option for having CamStudio name the saved file for you and don’t choose to let CamStudio play the video as soon as it has saved it. If you are in the middle of recording something, you don’t want to be bothered with naming or watching the file. Just record what you want now and watch the video later.

That’s it for now. CamStudio is free and works extremely well. There are ample options to choose from so play with them and work out what’s best for you. For free software, it’s a pretty sweet setup.

Thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter: @_BrianMahoney