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Brier Dudley's Blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

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January 7, 2008 10:17 PM

CES 2008: A painful PC race

Posted by Brier Dudley

LAS VEGAS == I love the Tiger Direct PC race, an annual CES event where tech journalists race to build computers that are donated to charities.

But this year it felt like I was back in the Seafair milk carton boat derby on Green Lake, where I raced as a kid. I was so far behind the pack, the support crew came to haul me in. At least this time the "important lesson" I was getting was obvious.

In the PC race, you have to assemble a hot new PC from components and start it up. It then wirelessly logs into a server that keeps track of the rankings.

Tiger Direct, a Florida-based computer retailer that just bought what's left of CompUSA, sponsors the event along with AMD. We built Vista Ultimate systems on AMD Phenom 9500 processors with 1 terabyte hard-drives and VisionTek Radeon 3850 video cards, connected to Hanns-G 28-inch widescreen monitors.

All the systems will be rebuilt by the company, packaged with a bunch of tech products worth a total of $3,500 apiece and donated to charities. I chose the Seattle Children's Home, which didn't stand a chance of getting the first prize bonus of $10,000 cash.

Last year I placed 18th, finishing in 13 minutes and 34 seconds, so I was hoping to at least make the top 15.

Challengers included familiar faces such as pundits Roger Kay and Rob Enderle; PC World's Steve Bass and The Inquirer's Charlie Demerjian, last year's champion. Among the newcomers was Aaron Broder, a 13-year-old Nashville-based reporter for Scholastic Kids Press Corps, who trounced me.

Despite a near Le Mans start, after being stuck in traffic on the way to the event, I was doing fair, holding my place in the Slow-Am class with a few tips from the roaming Tiger Direct helpers. But when I closed the box and powered up, the monitor said no video signal was detected. I wiggled a bunch of things, checking to see that plugs were in tight, and tried again. Still no signal.

When I asked for suggestions, a helper and I focused on the video card. He rearranged a few of the wires and we tried again, but still no signal. Meanwhile the award ceremony began for the top winners -- I think first place went to Peter Fung, a Vancouver, B.C. webzine publisher. (UPDATE: Peter was bumped to second for leaving out a few bits and Will Smith of Maximum PC magazine moved into first, followed by Charlie in third; the video's below).

Finally, we escalated to another helper who taught me the night's lesson, which is probably PC building 101: When installing PC memory, make sure the memory sticks are firmly seated. I thought I had them in all the way and had locked them with the plastic hold-downs, but one was just a bit loose.

It was double jeopardy. Even after the sticks were in place, the system wouldn't start because the loose memory led to a CMOS error. The tech explained that sometimes there's no lasting problem, but other times the goof fools the system into thinking you're doing something esoteric, like overclocking.

Finally, he unplugged a bunch of the power cables and waited a bit, so the system could reset, and it started up and logged in, 40 minutes and 45 seconds after I started.

I still think it was one of the most fun ways to spend an hour in Vegas.

Here's Tiger Direct's video of the race:

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Gadgets and games | Fun stuff I've written about lately includes Apple's iPhone, Hewlett-Packard's HDX laptop and Microsoft's Halo3. Also on the radar are new digital video boxes such as the Tivo HD and the Vudu.