DOING IT YOURSELF For a real hands-on experience, try building your own personal computer


SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Back in the mid-1970s, there was only one way to get a personal computer: You had to build it yourself.

Since then, personal computers have become ubiquitous, and hundreds of models are sold by everybody from mom-and-pop garage operations to warehouse "superstores."

But for those who long for the days of the Altair computer kit, there's no reason to despair. You can still build a machine, one that's as good as any clone on the market, for about the same price.

It's not as difficult as it might seem. Armed with a little knowledge, an instructional book or videotape and the right components, almost anyone can build an IBM PC clone, from an old XT-style machine to the latest models based on the Intel 486 chip.

For those who need a bit more hand-holding, at least three companies -- Octave Systems of Campbell, Calif., the Domino Computer Self-Service Center chain and Libre Service Computer in Fremont, Calif. -- provide both the components and technicians who can show the neophyte where the boards, cables and screws all belong.

At Octave, more than 1,000 people have built their own systems in the past three years, says President Roy Worthington. They range from six deaf students from a San Jose high school to an 80-year-old man. Domino President Joseph Chan says he figures "thousands" of area residents and businesses have built computers at his company's San Francisco Bay-area centers.

"Some of the people who come in have no knowledge at all. We even have to teach them DOS," Mr. Chan says.

What's required of the builder is really just the assembly of eight or 10 components.

Octave's classes, usually offered through community education programs, take roughly four hours, including a lecture on the basics of computers, memory, disk drives and the like. Octave provides all the components. About half the students buy their finished machines, while the remainder are kept by the company, which says it thoroughly tests them before selling them.

Domino has a more free-form approach, allowing users to spend as much as a day at a workbench assembling the components the company sells, with a technician handy to answer questions. Libre, which sells kits that customers can build at home, also lets them build the computer at its store with a technician nearby.

The most complex part of the system, the motherboard that contains the microprocessor and related circuitry of the computer, comes with all its chips installed. At worst, builders might have to plug in memory modules, a fairly simple task.

Disk drives slide into metal cages inside the computer's case, which in many instances already has a power supply attached. Attaching the various wires from the case and power supply to the motherboard and disk drives generally only requires care that connectors are aligned properly. Add a few other items including, perhaps, a mouse, plug everything in, and the job is done.

Like do-it-yourself jobs around the house, it will probably take you more time to build your own machine than it would for a professional, and the quality of the finished product depends on the quality of the components you buy and the time you take to build it.

And even the sellers of build-it-yourself systems and components say users shouldn't expect to save much money -- if any. It takes a trained assembler only 10 or 20 minutes to put one together, so the cost to the seller is almost nothing compared to the cost of the parts.

So why build your own machine?

Partly for the pride of accomplishment, Mr. Chan says. "After you've successfully built one, you feel satisfied."

In addition, the familiarity gained putting the machine together will help users when something goes wrong, says Pete King of San Jose, who has built several computers himself since 1983.

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