Franken-Dell

I have multiple computers that I use for photography editing. As a person with a technical background, one would not assume any differently. But there is one computer that has been ailing for quite some time – the desktop in my “man-cave,” where the nerdiest of nerdy activities take place. The holiest of places known as the “temple of man” as well.

It seems appropriate that this posting goes live near Father’s day as I inherited this Dell Studio XPS 7100 from my dad about 4 years ago when he chose to upgrade to other things. There wasn’t much in it, missing its optical drives and hard drive (those were reused in his upgrade at the time). The power supply fan was nearly gone with its fan making awful noises like a camel mating or something.

Many of you are not technically inclined, though many of you are. All I can say is if you get bored, I don’t blame you! For many, such technical things are nothing short of dry and boring. But, people post on blogs about things that make them happy. Photos make me happy, as does technology. The nerd in me will live forever.

AMD Phenom II X4 630 2.8Ghz, 16GB of RAM, and not much else. Enjoy the photobomb.

I knew from the beginning I wanted to get it usable again, but I did not want to spend a lot to do it. So began the first purchase – two new optical drives. New to me, anyway – I found them for $2 each at a local flea market. I threw in an old hard drive in the junk drawer and I was in very noisy business.

Eventually I replaced the power supply – an after-Christmas sale at our local Best Buy yielded a 600 watt power supply for $29.99.

About 2 years later, the hard drive was showing its age. I replaced it with a new SSD drive for $32.95 on sale at Amazon. Several months later, I added a second, still on sale. Considering they now go for $39.95, I should perhaps feel lucky.

For quite some time this worked fine, except there were problems lurking on the system board. Locking up, blue screens in Windows, kernel panics in Linux, failing diagnostics. And, as discovered when I began disassembly, a blown capacitor. I’m not an electronics expert by any means, but I’m sure that black broken off spot on the top isn’t good. That bulging shape probably isn’t great news either. It was the last component in the computer (aside from the USB ports and card slots on the front) that I have not replaced. What was I to do?

I began researching my options. I did find a new board from Dell on amazon for $90. Only the board – that just didn’t seem like a good deal to me to pay that much and then just have what I always had. I felt like it was time to upgrade. I’ve built my own computers in the past and there is nothing more rewarding for a computer enthusiast than doing that. The last computer I built myself was in 2005. My knowledge of computer hardware has atrophied badly in 16 years. I do work in IT, but deal with servers. I don’t deal with common desktop hardware anymore as I once did decades ago. Considering I’ve already replaced nearly everything, if could replace the system board, that would make this count as a home-built computer, right? Sure! I looked at other options to upgrade – it was good fortune that this is one of the few models of Dell computer that uses standardized parts. That means I could buy a system board from anybody and it would fit. I wanted to upgrade, but I didn’t want to spend a lot.

One night on eBay… (How many times have you people heard me say that?)

As it so happens, I found a good deal on ebay for a used ASUS Q87M-E board that just so happened to include an Intel Core i5-4330 processor rated at 3Ghz, with boosting options that can take it as fast as 3.2Ghz under heavy load. It included 8GB of RAM as well, a nice bonus since I believe I also had at least one faulty RAM module on the old board, probably due to the blown capacitor which was very near it. And for only $89.99 with free shipping! I felt good about that because the Intel chip by itself was going for around $100 by itself and the memory is about $40 per module (two of 4GB each). The seller was a very large computer recycler in Washington state. I am guessing in its previous life this board was part of a business computer.

The “new to me” board thoroughly cleaned with its battery replaced, memory and processor installed

Of course I couldn’t install it like that, otherwise it would overheat in minutes (literally). Before installing, I had to install a CPU cooler, which fortunately was quite cheap on amazon (only $14.95).

The white blades are sporty looking. Much better! For all you tech heads screaming – yes, I used very high quality thermal paste and no, I did not overdo. Nothing overflowed.

Now, it’s time to prepare. I painstakingly removed the old board, taking time to clean and perform a bit of cable management.

And after all that preparation, it was time to install. I wanted this build to be neat, though I was really limited on space to work with. I stole the plastic zip ties from my wife’s crafting room. I probably could have done better, but at least it’s all tidy and contained.

Now, for the burning question that everybody is wondering – does it run? After a good couple of hours, it was time to find out. I plugged it up and turned it on, and…

IT’S ALIVE!

In the words of Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein – “Life! Life, do you hear me?! Give my creation LIIIFEEE!!!!!!”

I was thrilled to see that my labor and dollars had not gone wasted. And to make the deal even sweeter – the new board had a built in license for Windows 8.1 Professional – which Microsoft permitted me to upgrade to Windows 10 Professional legally and free of charge. It works again! Diagnostics pass and it’s all stable. The board actually came out in 2013, so even at 7-8 years old it still is very up to date and the fastest home computer I’ve ever had.

If there are any gamers or technology enthusiasts out there, I am sure you’re screaming – why have I used a perfectly good PCI-express slot on a wireless card and not a fancy video card? Firstly – video cards are expensive, and this board has more than enough graphics power built in for what I use it for. Secondly, the router’s in my wife’s crafting room. I’m in the back bedroom. Do the math – wireless works best here. For the curious, the bottom card is a USB controller, which I don’t really need, but I had and I didn’t have anything to cover the slot with. So, I have a couple of extra USB ports to work with.

For the technical in the audience, I hope you enjoyed this. For the non-technical that are still here, I am glad you endured this and I hope you learned something. I call this project “Franken-Dell.” I’ve built many computers in the past, but for some reason I am most proud of this one. On this Father’s Day, I dedicate this one to my dad. Gone, but never forgotten. He’d think this project is either ingenious or insane, or more likely both.

And, there’s one more thing – a new computer deserves a snazzy keyboard and mouse, right? For $29.99 on amazon, minus a $10 gift card that I received from the thermal paste vendor I bought from on this project for leaving a good review on amazon, this isn’t a bad deal.

Shoot photos, not each other!

By Chris Moore

A photographer of both film and digital, IT professional, Star Trek fan and heavy metal junkie.

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