SAN JOSE, Calif. -- I had half-expected to find a soldering iron heating up on the lab bench when San Jose Mercury News assistant business editor Steve Hamm and I arrived at Octave Systems in Campbell, Calif. to build our own personal computer clone.
As it turned out, all we needed was a couple of ordinary screwdrivers -- and it was easier than putting together my daughter's Rub-A-Dub Dolly bath set last Christmas. It didn't take much longer, either. From the beginning until we left with a finished computer was less than three hours, and at least an hour of that was spent interviewing company officials.
3:05 p.m.: The class begins. All the components have been carefully laid out for us on a workbench. Unlike many users who decide to take a class simply for the experience, we have specified a configuration in advance. That means we don't have to plug any chips into the motherboard.
Technician Jeff Spangler assures us that there's very little we can do during the assembly process that will cause any damage to our computer. There's just the matter of the main wire connectors running from the 200-watt power supply to the motherboard, labeled "P8" and "P9" (no other wires have labels). Despite all other advances in technology, these connectors can be installed backward, which "sometimes means no power, but sometimes, everything pops," Mr. Spangler says. "One time we had flames popping up."
That gets our attention, and we spend the next 15 minutes listening as Mr. Spangler explains the workings of the machine we're going to build, from how the memory is laid out to how to replace the battery that keeps the on-board clock running.
3:30 p.m.: We open a little plastic bag full of screws, nylon pins, plastic rails and other assorted parts and start assembling.
4:10 p.m.: The motherboard is installed. We begin mounting the two floppy disk drives -- a 1.2-megabyte 5 1/4 -inch and a 1.44-megabyte 3 1/2 -- that go into the wide bays at the right of the case.
4:20 p.m.: The 105-megabyte Toshiba hard disk drive takes a bit longer because we have to change the hard disk bracket that came with the case to one with properly spaced screw holes and wiggle the drive a bit to get it in place.
4:35 p.m.: After a brief lecture on the various kinds of disk controllers, we install our IDE-type controller card in one of the expansion slots.
4:50 p.m.: We plug in the monitor, the mouse and the power cables. And cross our fingers.
By 5 p.m., we are the proud owners of a IBM PC AT clone.
With tax and a copy of MS-DOS 4.01, the entire system cost about $2,600.