Wednesday, 17 December 2014

How to Build Your Own Conflict-Free PC

by Bunmi Hazzan

All electronic devices need minerals to function. Unfortunately, many of those minerals are derived from war zones where villages are destroyed by local militia groups, children kidnapped and forced into labour, women raped and whole host of other terrible acts. Some companies fund and support the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), which is responsible for the continued oppression and bombardment of the Palestinian people.

If you don’t want to feel like you're supporting these atrocities, there are options. Rather than buying another pre-built computer that may be complicit, you can choose to build your own as a way of being able to keep up with advancing technologies and avoid contributing to human rights abuses happening on our planet.

This might sound daunting at first, you might even be thinking ‘WTF? I can’t even put together a self-assemble shelf from Ikea!’

But you can do it. Building your own computer is actually a pretty straightforward affair. With jumper settings being a thing of the past now, it’s more like putting together a Lego set. That's an exaggeration, but I maintain, if you can read (which I’m going to assume you can), you can follow instructions, you can build a computer.

Here’s what you’ll need to do:

First Blood: How/Where to Begin

This may be the hardest part. Assessing your requirements, determining the specific part you’ll need, sourcing them, and making sure they’re compatible with each other are crucial to building your machine.

Building your own computer is actually a pretty straightforward affair, and with jumper settings being a think of the past now, it’s more like putting together a Lego set. That's an exaggeration, but I maintain, if you can read (which I’m going to go ahead and assume you can), you can follow instructions, you can build a computer

Your requirements determine the specific parts you'll need , but at the very least you'll need to buy a Motherboard (AKA aka a Mainboard), processor (CPU), memory stick(s) (RAM), hard drive, optical drive (CD or DVD drive), power supply unit (PSU), case (sometimes called a tower), cooling fans, mouse, keyboard, monitor and an operating system.

By now, most, if not all motherboards have in- built USB ports, network adaptor, graphics accelerator, and sound. If you require something more powerful, or with specific features, you can buy these as expansion cards.

The general rule here is to figure out your minimum storage and processing needs, and buy parts that are at least twice as fast/powerful/big or the best that you can afford.

Figuring out what you need can be a little tricky.  If you're completely new to computers. I'd recommend starting with lower to mid-range parts; one advantage of a self-built PC shows up here; you can always upgrade by replacing individual parts.

If you already own a PC, check your current specifications, by looking at the ‘My Computer’ information in Windows. Note your current hard drive size, then check the system information in the Control Panel and make note of the processor and memory specifications. If you’re a Mac user, you can go into the Apple icon and look at the “About This Mac” information, then clicking the “more info” button.

These specifications are your starting point for what to buy. If what you currently have more than fulfils your needs, go for similar, if it only just fulfils your needs, it’s time for more powerful parts. If your current set-up is actually the only thing slower than Sonic the Hedgehog, double or triple those numbers.

It’s important to pay attention to sizes and formats at this stage. Buying parts that are not compatible with each other will cause problems down the line. Cases, PSUs and motherboards come in ATX, miniATX, and microATX formats.  There are other formats, but these are the main ones. The difference between them is mainly the size and shape, ATX being the largest, means more space for expansion cards, or memory sticks. The case needs to be large enough for not only the motherboard, but everything it could potentially hold, and the PSU would need to be able to fit in the case and supply enough power to everything, so, whichever you buy, make sure they match:

  • The motherboard description would tell you what type of processor and memory stick is required.
  • The hard drive and optical drive would use a Serial ATA connector, either SATA, SATA2 or SATA3. Doesn't matter too much, they all work with each other, the only difference is the speed, SATA3 being the fastest, but none of them are slow.
  • The case description would let you know which size fans would fit, the processor would come with its own fan, you can buy aftermarket CPU fans, though not really necessary unless you’re planning long hours of consistent high-end use.
  • The processor description would let you know the minimum wattage for the PSU (also if you're buying a high-end graphics card, they would have a minimum wattage too). And if you do need to buy expansion cards, they come in PCIe x16, PCIe and PCI. PCIe x16 is pretty much only for high end graphics cards, in any case the motherboard description would let you know which one, or ones would fit.

Buy More: Buying Parts

There are many places you can buy PC parts. I'd recommend buying from a local business to support community growth. If there isn't a nearby shop that sells parts, try searching “computer parts” in your preferred search engine, if you don’t mind second-hand, try eBay, and if you're still struggle to find parts, Amazon sells everything.

(NB: If you are buying from a local store and are planning on buying all parts in one go, you're going to need help carrying it all home.)

Real Steel: Building Your Machine

All parts come with installation instructions -- these are your first line of defense. There are plenty of free online guides that show how to assemble a computer, and although there’s no award winning customer service, there are a lot of self-help sites and knowledge bases to help fix most problems.

For your own safety, do not open the monitor, processor, or power supply unit. If you suspect any of them to be faulty, and you're for any reason unable to return for a refund, replace the part.

When building a computer, there are some protocols one needs to observe. You'll be handling motherboards, processors, RAM sticks -- all with exposed connectors -- so handle with care, make sure you are grounded (rubber soles on your shoes), and don’t turn it on before you've finished putting everything in securely. Mishandling parts could potentially cause a static discharge damaging the components. A static discharge isn't big enough to be noticed in any real way by humans, so you won’t know it's happened until you realise that the part isn't working. Although not strictly essential, it is recommended to use a static wrist strap. In case you’re wondering, no, you don’t need a full hazmat suit, but if you happen to have one lying around…

The order in which you install parts doesn’t matter too much. I’d recommend installing the PSU first. Plug it in, but do not switch it on. This is for the purpose of being grounded, and reducing potential for a static discharge. Other than that, the order of installation is mainly determined by the design of the case. Generally though, it goes:

  • Prepare case, remove the side and/or top panel(s) 
  • Install PSU
  • Install case fans
  • Install motherboard, don't forget the mount screws and the connector plate cover
  • Install CPU
  • Install CPU fan
  • Install memory stick(s)
  • Install optical drive and hard drive
  • Install expansion cards
  • Make sure everything is plugged in to the motherboard or PSU or both, as required. (Check instruction manual for specifics.)
  • Make sure everything is secure, screwed in if necessary 
  • Use cable ties, keeps it neat and helps airflow
  • Close and fasten the case
  • Plug in mouse, keyboard and monitor
  • Turn it on
  • No explosion? You're doing well. Put the operating system disk in and follow the on screen prompts to boot (load from the disk). Note: some boot automatically.
  • Add any and all required settings, check it’s all working as it should be
  • The final and most important step: take your right hand, then take your left hand, then put two hands on your head and skank, show me, how you get down.

That’s it – easy! But if after all that, you're still apprehensive, some computer stores offer a service that lets you choose parts and then they'll build it for you. You can also find workshops or tutors that can show you how to build. Or if you happen to be in the London area, or don't mind covering my travel and stay to your private, exotic island ;), holler.

Blood Diamond

It is not always easy to find out how deep a company’s involvement with human rights abuses go; third-party reports tend to only focus on larger companies. For the best and latest information, I would encourage reading the company’s CSR page along with any other resources you can find ; it could be that I might name a brand that is ok now, but by the time you read this it turns out they were conducting secret laboratory tests on Kryptonians.

An example of a good, well-informed CSR, at time of writing,  is Microsoft.  I couldn't find anything recent that suggests Microsoft is involved or in any way supports any form of oppression. Apple also currently has a well-informed CSR page, there was also a recent trip to the Foxconn factory by Apple CEO Tim Cook which, although not the purpose, shows how conditions have improved. But when we consider that Foxconn’s own CEO Terry Gau isn't taking responsibility for the suicides, one questions have they really improved, and if so, how long for? Also, Apple took a lot of flak when the Foxconn suicide news broke, but they weren't and are not the only client of Foxconn. Intel are also a good example of well-informed CSR, they even affirmed their commitment to conflict free products at the CES 2014. But since mass genocide of Palestinians isn’t considered a human rights abuse, remember to always check for what they’re not telling you. Intel CPUs are used in most of the computers sold today, avoiding them drastically reducing your buying options. AMD also make high quality processors, and as far as I can tell have no ethical issues.

I’ve only touched on a few atrocities, there are many, many more, and not only among computer manufactures. It’s the clothes we wear, the food we eat. Just about everything we have in this society is in some way connected with a human rights abuse. The more you research the deeper you realise it goes, and certainly it is an inconvenience trying figure out which ones to avoid. The Dodd-Frank Act, means that at least there is legal accountability, however, it only applies to companies registered in the United States (not all companies that do business in the United States, are registered in the United States) and it only includes conflict minerals, no mention of oppressing Palestinians, or over worked factory employees, or any other rights violation. It’s a good move, it helps, but it’s not a panacea, there’s still work to be done, and until we can create a world where oppression doesn’t exist, what we can do for now, is understand that there is always another choice, even if that choice is to do it yourself.

BH the Uncivilised, some call me Bunmi Hazzan, but a time traveller has many names. I've existed for over 10,000 years and lived over 9000 lives. Travelling through time, space and multiple dimensions and writing about my experiences and observations. Or, in other words, I analyse art, and create art. The driving license I hold in this realm claims I have residence in London, England. The truth is I spend most of my time in upper regions of my cerebral cortex. I am, that poet.

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