I built a computer for the first time in the 1990s. In those days you had to be a serious geek to attempt it, because nothing came pre-configured and you had to puzzle over manuals with tiny drawings and instructions that assumed you knew far more about the process than you really did. You had to set a lot of tiny jumpers to get your motherboard to work, and hope the components you bought were compatible. If there were books available that gave clear, step by step instructions in those days, I didn't know about them. Since then it has gotten a lot easier to build a computer, but that doesn't mean there is no need for a comprehensive guide. This is why I had high hopes for Building the Perfect PC, Third Edition. Building your own computer is not difficult (or only for geeks) these days, and with a good guidebook by your side, it should be something nearly everyone can do. Was this book what I was looking for?
Begin at the beginning
The authors start out with an introduction that shows they have a lot of confidence not only in their own skill as writers but also in the people who read the book. There are little comments in the sidebars throughout the book that make the text more entertaining to read (and give the reader a feel for how the authors think). While I'm really not crazy about the fact that one of my least favorite big-box stores gets a lot of page space, I have to acknowledge that it's a store that most readers in the USA are likely to be able to find without much trouble.
The book's stated goal is to teach the readers, even inexperienced readers, how to make good choices and build the right computer for their needs. But beyond that, the goal is to teach the reader the process behind the choices. It's not just a list of things to buy and an assembly guide. I like this kind of explanation, because once you understand the process, you gain confidence in doing things for yourself.
The first two chapters set the scene. The authors explain why building your own computer is a good idea and provide a thorough listing of tools and software that you should have on hand before you start. They explain the kinds of things that might go wrong and what the reader can do to keep those things from happening. I think this part would be especially useful for someone who's never built a computer before. I always like to know what I'm up against before I begin.
Then there's a list of components that will be needed, with specific recommendations and excellent instructions on how to shop, how to buy, and what to look out for. The section on buying a processor was especially good. I liked their comment:
"Most people spend too much time dithering about which processor to install. The only really important decision is how much to spend. After you make that decision, it really comes down to the minor details."
The main problem with making such specific hardware recommendations is that technology changes so rapidly that those recommendations are out of date almost by the time the book hits the shelves. Building The Perfect PC, Third Edition is copyright 2011, which means that all the components they wrote about are now last year's technology, and the reader is left to figure out what the modern equivalents would be. If ever a book cried out for a web site with ongoing updates, this would be it, but unfortunately there is no mention of anything like that.
Building the systems
Since people have widely varying needs and amounts of money available to spend, the authors describe what's needed to build several different kinds of systems: Budget, Mainstream, Extreme, Media Center, and Appliance/Nettop. Each system's chapter includes the following: Determining Functional Requirements, Hardware Design Criteria and Component Consideration. After that, each chapter has a lavishly illustrated guide to building each kind of system, with excellent, clear photographs of each step in the construction process. Regardless of which kind of system they're describing, every step is described and illustrated so the builder can see exactly what needs to be done.
Again, though, the selections they make are very specific, and those things get dated fast. It might very well be that someone who buys the book today would not be able to find exactly the same components. I think most people will be able to extrapolate and adapt the photographs to the components they have on hand, with the exception of the Mainstream system, which is based on a very specific computer case for a very specific office location at one author's house. That's overly limited, in my opinion. In a book designed for the general public, a Mainstream system should be far more, well, mainstream.
The Extreme system is not, surprisingly, aimed at hardcore gamers. The authors' opinion is that most gamers will be using dedicated game consoles rather than beefed-up computers. This surprised me, since the gamers I know still use computers even though they also have game consoles. The Extreme system in Building the Perfect PC, Third Edition is designed for use by video editors and "scientific number-crunchers." The authors wanted speed and reliability and chose top of the line components, and that system obviously ended up with a serious price tag ($3500 excluding peripherals). I am not sure what the market is for this kind of system, or for its price tag, but it's worth reading the chapter just to see what kinds of choices are out there for people who really want power to spare.
I'm not sure what the target audience is for their Media Center system, either. (OK, fine, I'm still watching an old CRT, so I'm not a good judge of these things.) 🙂 The authors started this chapter by saying that the "media" PC they built for the first edition of the book didn't get used much and was eventually taken apart to build other computers. To me this did not inspire confidence in the rest of the chapter. They're also not very enthusiastic about using a PC to record TV shows (understandable, given how well DVRs work these days). Their aim was to build something for centralized media storage and superior display and sound, and they explain why the commercially available "media center" systems are overpriced for what they deliver. To get the best bang for the buck, they are certain that building your own system is the way to go. I wish they'd been a little more upbeat about these systems from the get-go.
The Appliance/Nettop system is a budget system designed for low noise, small size and reliability, for use in very specific applications such as a home server, a network-attached storage system or a home automation controller. It's probably not high on many people's lists of systems to build, but the information in the chapter is valuable for people looking for this kind of small and unobtrusive addition to their regular setup. The Home Server is, as you might expect, a system designed with reliability and massive storage capability in mind.
Is this the ideal reference for builders?
To be honest, I had a hard time deciding on a verdict for this book, even though overall I liked it very much. Here's what I took into consideration:
- Clear and easy-to-understand writing by authors who definitely know what they're doing
- Any tech book that's in its third edition has obviously proved valuable to the readers
- Excellent comparison charts and descriptions of components
- Clear color photographs of every step in every build
- Extensive instructions for computers to suit almost anyone's needs and budget
- Written with both novices and experienced builders in mind, doesn't talk down or use technobabble
- Specific equipment lists means the book will go out of date quickly
- Systems built to suit the authors' needs and not necessarily those of a general audience
- No web site for updates and new recommendations
- Software recommendations only for the Media Center, and then only Ubuntu Linux (a great choice, but not necessarily what everyone wants to use)
Building the Perfect PC, Third Edition can be a valuable reference and it does an outstanding job of teaching the reader how to build a computer. Having it on hand could be a great confidence booster for a novice. But whether it's suitable for everyone is impossible to tell. If you consider yourself the knowledgeable type, the best way to decide whether this book is for you is to check it out from the library first (or possibly get it from a bookstore with a reasonable return policy) and read it for yourself. I personally found it well-written, interesting and informative.
If you have read this book I would love to hear your opinion. Please leave a comment and tell me what you thought of it.