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Not all cases have the same verdict PDF Print
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Written by Linda Dailey Paulson   
Thursday, 31 December 1998 19:00
Sometimes cases can be found only at surplus supply dealers. 1/99 ComputerUser Hardware Head: Not all cases have the same verdict Deck: Sometimes cases can be found only at surplus supply dealers. By Linda Dailey Paulson

"I love cases!" exclaims Charles. I have just confided in him my choice of a column topic. He is, after all, my new computer tech--second only to my stylist in carrying on confidence-leaking conversation. "The materials … The screws … I'm making my own soon."

"You mean you're fabricating your own case?"

"Yes! And I'm building a rack mount case," he adds.

Charles's bubbly infatuation with computer housing has an understandable origin. He once worked as a technician for a computer company with a contract to build some 800 systems. Over the course of the contract completion, Charles says he developed a new appreciation for the materials housing computer components. Some are made from thin pieces of metal that wobble where others are sturdily made. After a series of computer problems, I too have come to appreciate this most overlooked of hardware components.

Once you get past the uniform beige color and blocky construction, all computer cases are not equal. Sure, there are mini-towers, mid-towers and such, but the interior is where the defining differences can be seen. The interior construction varies and dictates the motherboard that can be used in the system.

Form factor is the term used to indicate the general layout. The case has to have proper connectors to accommodate the motherboard. The form factor of both case and motherboard should match. If they don't, the motherboard cannot properly attach to the case.

Form factors include AT, Baby AT, ATX, microATX, LPX and NLX. The predominant form factors are the AT and ATX. The micro sizes are often touted by manufacturers as space savers but in reality offer little expansion capability. (The height on those slimline cases is reduced by putting the system bus on a riser card that plugs into the motherboard. Expansion cards plug into the riser card as well.)

To digress briefly, most motherboards on the market are ATX. This form factor is popular with Pentium II boards. Socket 7 boards can be found in Baby AT and ATX form factor. Again, the motherboard and case form factors must match.

Case size has little to do with form factor. Some sizes include tower, mini-tower and desktop. Cases also come with varying numbers of drive bays and expansion slots, not to mention differing power supplies. Especially if using parts from another computer, these varying components will need to be compatible. There also needs to be enough room to house the cards and devices.

The very small LNX cases? "I don't recommend them. The case has room for three cards. It runs hot," says Steve Ross, consulting editor of Architectural Record. "The ATX towers run cool, but most importantly, there's tons of room inside to shove things in." Also, he adds, ATX is a prevailing standard.

"Right now is one of those hinge points in history," says Ross. "[If you have an AT case], you probably need a new machine. All the new cases are ATX layout, whereas your old machine was probably Baby AT." Other considerations when considering a transition to another form factor case/motherboard include keyboard compatibility and issues such as capability for housing a larger hard drive. On the plus side, computer users get a new BIOS with a new system-a BIOS that will be Year 2000 compliant.

Cases aren't exactly stock in trade at the local computer store. Often these are replacement or surplus parts. Dealers commonly sell them to reduce inventory either solo or in bare-bones kits. They are relatively inexpensive, however, as hardware components go. Should you start looking online for one, case manufacturers variously refer to them as chassis or enclosures as well as cases. Because these companies generally sell in quantity, consult a local computer retailer first.

There are certain times you shouldn't open the computer housing to tinker around with the system and components. The foremost of these is when a warranty exists. Opening the housing may void that warranty. And as when working with any electronic device, there are certain protocols and precautions. You may wish to consult a good all-around manual about maximizing your PC before proceeding with such an undertaking.

Like Charles, your interest in cases may blossom after working with them. You may soon find yourself hoarding components and spending free time roughing sketches of your own case.

Anybody know if there's a good way to powdercoat that beige housing?

Bare-bones kits

There's a point at which it becomes painfully obvious that an upgrade or serious system overhaul is in order, especially when the motherboard fails to power up or some other catastrophic failure surprises you. Hardware never got so hard. The decision may seem obvious: Buy a system now--or else.

That decision need not be hard, however. Plenty of options exist.

Most retailers and sales folks at the chain stores probably won't want you to read any further. Go ahead. Bare bones kits offer do-it-yourself geeks relatively cheap upgrade or refurbishing options. These kits are little more than a case, motherboard and power supply. That's spare. The cost may spare your pocketbook as well.

"The biggest trade-off is that these kits don't come with the operating system," says Steve Ross, consulting editor, Architectural Record. "Second, there's a whole bunch of annoying little extras that don't cost manufacturers much, but that can cost you much." These include cards, keyboard, monitor and the like.

Of course, you can do what any intrepid PC forager will do. Cannibalize!

"I found a 128 MB RAM tower case that meets my needs for about $700," says Ross. "Because I have an 8 GB hard drive, a CD-R drive and speaker from an old machine-and the bare-bones kit includes an 8 MB graphics card-for about $700 or so, I've got a 333 MHz machine with 28 MB of RAM. That machine would have been $1,200 or $1,500 otherwise. If I had to buy the pieces-think about it."

Certainly, those items add up. An operating system is about $100 (unless you go for Linux); keyboards run about $20 to $80 depending on ergonomics specs; sound cards go for around $50; and speakers about $50. These are all bare-bones items. Expect huge markups for top-of-the-line accessories.

Do the math. Is trying to cobble together a system difficult? "It's awfully easy," says Ross. "The biggest problems are things like fixing jumpers. Sometimes you don't have those things around. Windows 98--for all its screwiness--has good damage control on IRQ problems and things like that."

Naysayers have said that's the biggest challenge: knowing what components you need and how to put them together. True, if you don't know exactly what you're doing, you could ring up a huge bill. And, like the weekend mechanic who so longs to piece together the bits of Harley boxed in his garage into his dream ride, the novice with good intentions may be taking a box of components to the local computer store for assembly.

No upgrade is problem-free, even for experts. "I just had trouble on an office machine running Windows 98," says Ross. "I added an extra LTP printer port to stick a zip drive on and the interrupts were not a problem, but the memory conflict wiped out the regular CD-ROM drive." The fix, he says, "was not a trivial undertaking. It's a pain in the neck."

Another frequent criticism is that these lower-priced systems often contain Intel processors. This can present some problems if the BIOS doesn't know the chip. In addition to compatibility issues, you might weigh whether it needs a warranty.

And there are other issues to consider. "With Cyrix and AMD, the biggest problem is on the [advanced graphics] side," Ross says. The choice, he adds, cuts between purchasing one of these kits now and not having a lot of headroom or to "give it up and give it up all the way. On the other hand, in two years [Intel's] Merced processor will be out anyway." The jump from 32-bit to 64-bit instructions jump is such that obsolescence will be a real issue.

Ross advises to go cheap if you can later add more memory. In looking for a bare-bones kit, searching online and through mail-order catalogues can be helpful. Comparison shoppers leafing through ComputerUser will find lots of options there, too.

"There is a wide range of kits available," says Ross. "Some give you advanced graphics or a network card; there also are some kits that make you give up memory. You have to make some decisions."

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