The NES-PC Part 0: Background

Fifteen years ago, I built a custom computer. Here it is next to the Nintendo Entertainment System that my sister and I used to play with as children.

Yeah, I don’t know which one is which either. That was by design. I thought of this box as a bit of a ‘sleeper’. It didn’t look like much, but it was far more fully featured than it appeared. This idea was pretty fully formed in my head for a couple of months before I actually took the jump and started to order parts. I remember having to hand my dad cash to pay for some online purchases, because he had an eBay account and I desperately needed a part that could not be gotten in a physical store.  I was quite proud of this build when I was 19. It went off to college with me and acted as my movie watching computer and occasional “lend to a friend” gaming box for over a year.
To be honest though, it wasn’t a complete success. Let’s take a look at my shame:
If I was willing to give myself some credit, I could call this “hiding my crimes” and point out that from the front everything looked fine. Some of this mess was the result of limitations; my best tool was a dremel and I didn’t have the patience or nerve to deal with sanding and painting. Some of this was due to laziness and rushing forward without planning ahead. This… this thing had a lot more potential than I managed to fulfill.

Regrets aside, it did its job amicably and lasted about as long as you could expect tech like this too. The hardware was arguably under-powered, but it really was the best small form factor gear that I could get my hands on at the time. It played a ton of slightly-old-for-the-time games, pushed pirated movies to my old CRT TV, and even acted as a friend’s only PC when his blew up. It features in the background of a bunch of my old photos from my college days. I used it until the little VIA cpu just couldn’t keep up anymore, and held onto it way longer than it was actually useful. Stupidly, I put the thing in the trash.

I found the digital photos the other day and was hit was a pair of simultaneous emotions. On the one hand, I cringed at how badly I’d done that job in the past, how primitive the workmanship and the hardware, and how little documentation of it had. On the other, I desperately wanted that NES-PC back.

Ten minutes later, I put “broken nintendo entertainment system” into the eBay search window and  found a cornucopia of options. I’ve been working on the new one since and it’s time to start putting together a log of my work here. Let’s get this party startet.

  • Part 0: Hardware
  • Part 2: Initial fit
  • Part 3: Brackets and fittings
  • Part 4: Ventilation
  • Part 5: I/O
  • Part 6: Finish

Network

I really have to redo some of my networking. 90% is waiting on locational problem and another 9% is going to have to wait for me to have some spare cash (and with my car slowly dying, that’s a ways off).

Problems with my network as is:

1. Wires are run all over the damn place.
This is a problem generated by living the apartment lifestyle. I really want to run the R6 cables through the walls but I can’t do so even a little bit. First off, this is ugly. But this also leads to a real problem in that my segments are laid down more for physical constraints then for what’s actually good for the network. Instead of a central switch with segments running to every box in the house, I’ve got at least two more switches then I properly need. Combine all this with the fact that I have at least one dog who likes to chew cables and we have a recipe for disaster whereby we can loose half the house at once.

Solution: Buy a house, run some cable. Build a server closet.

Projected cost: What do houses cost these days?

2. Fuck this connection is slow.

Related to issue #1, some of my network is running 100mbs rather then gigabit. Mind you, most of the devices on those segments can’t run gigabit anyway, but at least one can (the wife’s computer) and it get’s the shaft just for being upstairs.

Solution: See Problem #1

Projected cost: As above + cable costs and an new switch.

3. Fuck this connection is slow, again.

Different issue, I’m seriously itching to upgrade my connection speed. Downloading isn’t a huge issue at this point, but the 1mbps upload speed is starting to constrain. I operate an FTP server out of the house, and I’m logged into at least one machine via RDP most of the time. It would be nice to bump that sucker up to 5-20mbps instead. Fiber isn’t available in my area, and I’m already at the top tier of cable, so this is another locational problem.

Solution: See problem #1 again.

Projected cost: As above but something like $30-40 more a month.

4. Bard does too much.

This is a bit of a reversal on my part, as Bard (my main server) was originally built to do everything. He still has two main roles: he acts as my NAS provider and as my virtualization host. The longer I go the more I realize that I’d like these roles to be split off from one another. As the host for all my VMs, Bard acts often as a test bed for new tools and ideas I want to play with, which is not the most stable role in the world. As the NAS, he really ought to be as stable as a rock.

Solution: Split the NAS duties off to a dedicated device, rebuild Bard as a dedicated VM Host.

Projected cost: ~$250 for driveless NAS box.

5. No linux

At the moment, I’m running a completely windows house. This isn’t completely a problem, as I’m getting good at the windows environment, but to increase my marketability, I really ought to learn linux as well.

Solution: I’m going to rebuild my main desktop as an ubuntu machine and hopefully get a couple of VMs up as well.

Projected cost: Free.

There’s probably more I’m forgetting so this post may get updated as I go along.

Consumer be warned.

I need to put the Consumerist on my RSS reader.

I’ve been watching this line of stories with particular interest. I just started working in the field at a Mom & Pop competitor to Best Buy’s Geek Squad*. I also saw, a couple of weeks ago, a youtube video of a similar sting operation to see if a computer stores would catch a really simple problem and how much they would charge.

Hashand, in the interview, makes some interesting points about how low-paid professionals (ostensibly feeling under appreciated and untouchable, and probably apathetic) won’t show proper regard to their customers. He gets a bit sidetracked by IP issues, I think, but his advice is about pulling your computer’s hard disk drive and/or keeping all your important information on network attached storage.

Can I use by best bottle-blond middle school girl voice? PUH – LEAZE!

First off, the network attached storage idea is great for a bunch of reasons but privacy isn’t one of them. Who are you going to take that NAS to when it breaks? Stealing your porn/financial data off a USB device is just as easy, if not more so. I wholeheartedly support the concept behind  distributing the system and everybody ought to have some sort of external storage now a days for backup purposes. Storage is cheap; recovery is not.

Furthermore, unless Joe Consumer boots off the network and wipes his hard drive, there’s going to be sensitive information on your computer. I could get lots of tasty information from your browser cache or program files directory**.

Secondly, pulling the HDD before you give them your machine is a terrible idea. More the half the stuff I fix is software related, and if possible I prefer to find a software fix for a problem as it is usually less expensive for the customer. Without their HDD and the stuff on it, I can’t do any of that. 90% of the customers in the store wouldn’t be able to pull their HDD on their own at any rate.

That last note drive the heart of the problem I think. The people who frequent a computer repair shop, for the most part, aren’t going to be tech savvy enough to handle the kinds of tasks they’d need to undertake if they don’t trust aforementioned repair shop. I know my customers would cock their heads to one side like a lost spaniel if I tried to explain how to secure their data in such a way that I couldn’t misuse it. On the converse, anyone tech savvy enough to effectively manage their data securely has probably picked up enough other skills to forgo the expense of hiring out the repair of the equipment and just do it themselves.

There is no clean solution to this problem, people are going to have to trust the guy in the back room who actually doing the work on your machine. Hashand mentions bonding a solution but I fear that government requirements could easily be used to force smaller businesses like the one I work at out of business. If Best Buy lobbied the state legislature to set the cost of license exorbitantly high or makes the process overly complicated or expensive, my bosses would probably have to close the store and I would be out of a job. Hashand claims to be a libertarian a would welcome some regulation, but I’m practically socialist and it poses a serious worry to me.

So far I’ve spent my whole post talking about how this other fellow is talking out his ass. Do I have anything useful to add to the discourse? Maybe not. I’m going to think about it for a little while and get back to you.

* I occasionally have to clean up the messes they make of customer’s machines.
** I know for a fact I can find out the character names, account name, and server info for your World of Warcraft game just by glancing at the WoW folder. I just looked at my own. I wonder if my password is cached anywhere…

Scheme

Well, I mentioned I was looking for a new naming scheme for my computers and it’s finally arrived.

Office box – Benedict
Laptop – Claudio
Living room HTPC – Laertes
Bedroom HTPC – Demetrius
Linux Box – Lysander

My PDA will probably be Hero or Hermia when I get around to changing it. Workgroup and SSID will be Act1Scene1.

Networking

I have been on a real networking kick lately. I upgraded 3 of the 5 computers in the apartment up to gigabit speed, set up some remote access (with the help of my intrepid father, ripvansabre) and now have something more like a server-client relationship in regards to files. The new network speed is really noticeable because I move gigabytes of files around often and stream constantly. I also managed to upgrade my internet connection without paying anything extra. I also undertook a massive re-cabling initiative that really needed to be done. Instead of a mass of ill-kept and tangled cables in the bedroom, I have a neater pile behind my desk (pictured) with a nice stack of modem/switch/router and a linux laptop for ssh tunnelling and general messing about to learn.

Also, seriously you all need to see the BBC’s Planet Earth series in High Def. It’s the first thing I’ve downloaded to use my HTPC’s native 720p and it really really shows. The visuals are amazing. The GF was drooling over the biology and I was drooling over the cinematography.