Local bird invents new kind of computer!

Local bird invents new kind of computer!

Sep 04, 2023

Okay, so not exactly, but it's still an interesting project and a story I want to share because I think it is a good example of how I make my funding go as far as possible, and who knows? You too might want to follow in my footsteps and create a somewhat decent PC on a shoestring budget.

This article might have a lot of interest to you if you enjoy building PC's; if you also want to build a decent PC on the cheap and want to see where I went wrong, or maybe even just if you've been wondering why I've been so quiet recently.

First off...

Why?

Well, have you seen my most recent video? I put months of work into it, research, learning to draw, creating the animation, filming shots for it and all of that was let down by my computer. When it came time to render it the render failed, repeatedly.

My problem was hardware. I was using an Acer Aspire E5-573.
Specs:

  • Intel i5-4210U Dual core CPU running at 1.7GHz

  • 8gb of RAM

  • NVIDIA GeForce 940M with 4gb dedicated VRAM

  • 1tb Hard Disk


I tried different formats, different bitrates, different resolutions.... nothing worked! Every time I tried to render it the process would crash and the software need restarting. Eventually I had to render the video in 30 second chunks, then render those 30 second chunks into chunks of several minutes, before finally being able to render it as one final project. Each time I had to do this, the colours got compressed badly, and the final result is... not nice, it looks like a bad acid trip.


It was clear to me that something had to change.

Unfortunately I'm on a tight budget due to being the sole breadwinner of a working class family.
(P.S have you thought about supporting my project via membership? 😅)

Luckily, fortune smiled upon me.

The Starting Point

Working a desk job has a lot of downsides; it's disastrous for your health both mentally and physically, but, If you have a decent employer there can be a number of upsides; one of my personal favourites where I am right now is having a staggering 5 weeks of paternity leave, which is very helpful with a third little one on the way. Though it was another benefit that allowed me to begin this project.

When we were all 'locked down' for two years in a practice run for the rapidly approaching nightmare dystopia my company along with many others wanted employees to continue working from home, and they invested significantly in laptops for this purpose. After a lengthy period to demonstrate that 'hybrid working', and these laptops, will be how we proceed from now on they have decided to dispose of the old desktop towers they used to use.

Meet the HP Z230 workstation:


You couldn't call it pretty, or cutting edge. But as a complete system with:

  • An Intel i7-4770 Quad core CPU running at 3.40GHz

  • 16gb of DDR3 RAM (1x8gb, 2x4gb sticks)

  • Asus Direct CU II Radeon HD 7790 with 1gb Dedicated VRAM

  • A 250gb SSD

  • And a 1tb Hard disk

It's got a moderate amount of power behind it, certainly, more than I started with in all regards other than the GPU. I was getting this entirely for free as well. I knew that here was an opportunity to build this up a little bit and create something that will give me a lot more freedom in terms of video editing for a minimal cost.

The Rebuild

The first order of business for me was to open the case and see what I was working with... the answer, evidently, was more human DNA than an Israeli-based ancestry company.

It seems while the hard drives in these workstations were wiped clean for security reasons, the same cold not be said about the machine in general, after 30 minutes with some compressed air however I managed to get it back to something reasonable to work on.

The first upgrade I wanted to make was the RAM, given my relative lack of experience with building computers this seemed an easy and cheap place to start.

  • RAM

I could see the motherboard had 4 RAM slots of which 3 were occupied; one with a 8gb Kingston stick, and two others with 4gb sticks, all DDR3. Not wanting to risk making silly mistakes early on I decided that the best thing to do would be to buy 3 more sticks of the exact same 8gb Kingston memory.


These came to around £8-10 each on eBay, but went in without any issues at all. This cheap and early win, doubling my available RAM, encouraged me to go further.

  • Graphics Card

Early tests using the compute were promising, already it was performing far better than what I was used to, except when it came to video editing.

Video editing as it turns out requires a large amount of Graphics card memory, which is perhaps even more important than RAM or CPU speed, and the card I was using had less than 25% of the power I was used to with the old laptop. Clearly, this needed addressing.

After research into compatibility, availability, and 'bang for buck' I finally settled on one of these:

The AMD Radeon RX 480.

It packs quite the punch with 8gb of GDDR5 dedicated graphics memory and is efficient with a power draw of only 150w. Even back at release in 2016 it was reviewed thus by PCMag:

"The RX 480 is a huge leap over previous cards near its price, trading blows with Nvidia's much costlier GTX 980 in newer games. It delivers future-looking performance where it counts."

Perhaps most importantly of all, I was able to pick one up from CEX for only £70.

  • The Power supply

This could have been the end of my journey, the low power draw of the card I chose might have just squeaked me within the load capacity of the tiny 400w power supply on the Z230. I decided though after using online calculators that it was too close a thing, I'd be putting these parts under significant load video editing and streaming, and I might even want to expand to animation and effects at some point, the last thing I wanted was the system being damaged because it drew slightly too much power for the supply to handle.

Unfortunately, this decision set off a chain of events that got progressively more infuriating.

I managed to find a good deal for a power supply on Gumtree.

The Cooler Master Master Watt 650W, Semi-Modular Power Supply, rated 80+ bronze.

For £30 and in mint condition, I was pretty happy with this one.

That was... Until it wouldn't fit in the case.

Yes it turns out that the fan in the Z230 is entirely proprietary and not a standard size, meaning there was no way to attach the new supply to the old case. This would be bad enough in a regular case where the supply might be loose on the base of the machine, but here the power supply is mounted at the top of the case like so:

Meaning that even if you just shove it in and hope for the best, giving it a knock will sent it hurtling towards the CPU, motherboard, and especially, that upgraded graphics card.

At this point I was wondering if I'd made a terrible mistake, but after taking 24 hours to let the frustration fade so higher brain functions could resume, I went back to the exact same seller who sold me the power supply, who was also selling a nice Silverstone case for only £25.

...But the problems weren't over yet.

  • Further issues

I went to fit it all into the new case only to find:

  • The Power supply wouldn't connect to the motherboard, as the motherboard uses a proprietary 18pin power cable.

  • The CPU heat sink and fan couldn't be attached as there was no bracket, previously it used the wall of the old case, and it's a non standard size so you can't buy one elsewhere.

  • There was no I/O shield because the previous case had one integrated, and none can be bought aftermarket as the motherboard is proprietary.

  • And of course, the old thermal paste needed replacing.


I managed to deal with these problems in reverse order of severity. Thermal paste? Amazon, £5. An I/O shield? Well actually 3D printing has an answer here:

You can buy these plastic shields cheap off eBay for about £3 each, then using a Dremel or other cutting tool just cut them to suit.

Next issue was the power cable, luckily, adapters do exist. You can pick one up for about £10 on amazon, but the reviews have some horror stories about it frying the mother board. So instead I spent £16 and waited a week and a half to get one from MODDIY who came very well recommended by the inhabitants of obscure internet PC building forums. I'm pleased to say it did the job, my motherboard powers on and (so far) hasn't been fried.

The last issue is the CPU fan and heat sink. I couldn't just buy a replacement as the mounting holes in the mother board are... again... proprietary. My solution? Bodge it!

I figured out the threads on the mounting screws were M3.5's, sadly, this is an electrical size and not carried by most hardware stores. So again I had to turn to the internet. I managed to pick up a set of nuts and washers for around £11, which do the job nicely.

With that, the final issue was fixed.

Surprisingly for such a cobbled together computer, it runs really well.

So what were are the final specs?

  • An Intel i7-4770 Quad core CPU running at 3.40GHz

  • 32gb of DDR3 RAM (4x8gb sticks)

  • AMD Radeon RX 480 with 8gb GDDR5 VRAM

  • A 250gb SSD

  • And a 1tb Hard disk

Which compared to what I've been working with since I started my channel:

-Intel i5-4210U Dual core CPU running at 1.7GHz

-8gb of RAM

-NVIDIA GeForce 940M with 4gb dedicated VRAM

-1tb Hard Disk

Is hopefully you will agree, a significant improvement. And the cost?

  • HP Z230 - Free (Though you can buy them on eBay for around £70 if you keep an eye out.)

  • Extra 24gb RAM - £10 each stick, £30 total

  • Graphics Card - £70

  • Power supply - £30

  • Case - £25

  • I/O Shield - £3

  • Thermal paste - £5

  • 24-to-18 Pin adapter - £16

  • M3.5 Nuts/ Washers - £11

Total: £190 (£260 if you had to buy the workstation)

Conclusion

The point of this article is that if you're resourceful and willing to work your way around small roadblocks like this, you can make a decent pc for an absolute steal. Anyone could do this with some Google searches, a little time watching YouTube how to videos and a screwdriver set, it's also taught me a lot about how computers work, making me more capable of repairing and upgrading it later on.

No these aren't at all modern parts. They're mostly end of life and discontinued, but for the applications I want them to run they're going to work nicely for as long as they have some life left in them.

Would I do anything differently?

I'd save a bit more money at first and buy something like a HP Z240 instead were you to do this yourself and not receiving a Z230 for free. The Z240 has significantly better starting specs, including a 600W power supply meaning you could throw some more RAM in there and a better GPU and call it a day. It might easily end up cheaper and more efficient in the end than my long and painful learning experience here.

What would I do next?

The next thing to be replaced has to be the motherboard, with that I lose all the remaining proprietary issues and that will represent the transition to finally being able to use all regular consumer parts without adapters.

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If you've read this far; thank you! I know it was a long article and I'm neither a journalist or a tech reviewer so I doubt you could all it 'well written'.

If you found it of any use or entertainment at all please give it a like, and let me know in the comments if you'd like me to use this platform to publish things more regularly, not tech like this, but folklore, history, culture etc.

-Jack Raven

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