Building a Great Computer an Interview With Alex Watson


For many years I have been buying my personal computers from the large companies. While I have always been happy with the computers I bought I thought that this time around I would try something different.   I had a job to do that was going to demand a lot of computing power.  So I decided I would try to get a computer that was more customized to my particular needs.  A friend highly recommended Alex Watson to me as the person who could build me a great computer system.  I was impressed with Alex from the first moment we met and  I am very happy with the computer he built for me.  I also found him to be a well spring of information on the hardware for assembling PCs.  I had originally planned on doing  do some speed tests comparing my new and old Intel chip sets but there were too many other differences between my new and old computer to make it a viable comparison.  I did think that Alex has some interesting info and insights to share so below is my  interview with him.

1. I know that besides building computers you are an actor. How did it happen that an actor started building custom computers? Tell me a little about yourself and what brought you to be interested in building custom computers for people.

Well, I came out to Los Angeles to do entertainment and I have done pretty well, but there is a lot of down time. So I started my company Mobile Mac LA.  At first I was just doing the repair thing, viruses,  iPhones, stuff like that,  then started doing upgrades.  I started noticing that not only did people have old hardware they had the wrong hardware.  I also noticed that a lot of people especially in entertainment had both PC’s and MAC’s.  They loved their MAC’s but there are some programs that wouldn’t run on them.  So I went about building a machine that could, if the client wanted to install it,  run all operating systems available today.  That’s pretty much how I started.

2. What advantages does having a custom computer built have over getting a customized computer from Dell,  HP or getting an Apple,  which I know can't be customized?

That is a great question and one I get all the time.  The custom computers I build have just as much to do with the software you are using as the hardware in your system.  When I meet a client for a custom build the first thing I do is get a list of programs or games they want to use and the priority in which they use them.  Not all hardware will play well or sometimes even be tolerable with some software.  I will give you a gaming and Pro Application example.  If you use your computer to play lets say World of Warcraft then getting the most expensive fastest 1 gigabyte graphics card wont run nearly as well as the cheapest 2 gigabyte card you can get. This is because that particular game relies heavily on memory rather then processing power. If you were however going with the game Crises the situation would be reversed.  On the application side using Adobe’s Premier Pro you could get the best top of the line AMD card and it would run horrible compared to a mid level NVidia.  This is because PP uses CUDA technology heavily and AMD doesn’t have that.  Those are just a few examples of hardware playing well with software and trust me when I say it encompasses the whole system not just the graphics card.  My aim is that the custom system is built specifically and primarily for the main use of the computer but also will perform very, very well with all programs the client uses.  I would also like to point out that a lot of times the client ends up saving money because they are not getting overpowered components that they would see no benefit from.

3.  I know you specialize in building multi operation system computers. What are the difficulties you run into setting up these multi platform computers?

Getting a computer that can run ALL operating systems available today can be a little bit tricky.  Many of the operating systems out there will run on PC hardware quite easily given the right drivers. Some are more difficult to set up but once you get them running correctly they are all incredibly stable.  I would say most difficult aspect is getting the right equipment and then telling the operating system what that equipment is even if its not initially designed to support it. Having it be friendly to the end user is also very important. Almost all of the systems I build I use a third party boot loader. This allows you at boot up time to choose what operating system you want to use. You can set a default OS and then if you want to switch you restart your computer and at the prompt choose whichever one you would like.  It can take some time in the set up of the system but once it is done it is pretty seamless to the client.

4. I know you use Intel chip sets in the machines you build. Why is that? How would you compare the new Intel chips that are coming out to the old ones?

Intel is just the best.  I hate to sound like an ad but its true.  It works without problems on all operating systems, they will run forever if you treat them well, and in my opinion introduce more innovative technology then anyone else.

I am very excited to get my hands on the new Ivy Bridge chipset.  The smaller size 22nm means less power, less heat.  The new architecture will give a performance boost at clock to clock speeds, its backward compatible to the 1155 Sandy Bridge boards and that’s not even what I am excited about.  For the past 5 years or so when a new chip comes out it’s not just about speed anymore it has become about functionality.  It used to seem like they would build the chip for the motherboard and now it’s seems its the other way around.  First it was the dual core processor then it was the quad core then it was hyper theading and now in addition to all of that its graphics and video encoding.  I think the new chips are going to be well worth the upgrade and I really love that they made it backwards compatible so you can just replace the chip and depending on your motherboard get most if not all of the new features.

5. What recommendations would you make about hardware to someone putting together a system now, especially someone looking for a lot of power and speed, say someone like me who is going to be doing a lot of 3D and multi media work versus someone who just wants to read email, go on the internet and play games on their computer?

Well there are so many choices out there and you really have to do your research. First off when your building your system, whether its high end like yours or just to surf the internet, to me you have to start with a great power supply.  It’s the foundation. I like to use Corsair myself but there are many great ones out there. Make sure you have the right amount of power and that its going to the right place. Second of course is the motherboard. Now this decision can be a tricky one, other of course then brands I like, Intel, Gigabyte and Asus. Once again there are many great manufactures out there these are just my preference. Back to what I was saying before, it can be tricky. You don’t want to get a board that won't do what you need but then again you don’t want to spend a bunch of money on features you won't use.  A good way to go about doing your whole system is think not only do you want it for now but also a year from now.  A great example would be graphics.  Lets say you want to build a system for gaming but you are about to drop a bunch of cash on the system and can't afford the 2 graphics cards you want. You have to make sure that when you do get the cash for the second card that the motherboard can do the crossfire or sli at the speeds you will want.  It’s much cheaper to spend an extra 20 bucks now on a nicer board then having to replace the whole thing in a year.  Now graphics is the most obvious but it applies to all features of the board i.e. max ram, SATA ports, I/O ports to name a few.  So make a list of what you want and need now and what you will want and need in a year. This is where research really comes in handy. Before you know what you need, you need to know what the programs you use need.  Most programs have a supported hardware list but that doesn’t mean that is the only hardware that will work with the program. Check the discussion boards on your programs, I guarantee there will be many topics on what hardware works and what won’t. In the end doing the research will save you time and money in the long run.

6.  What do you envision is the future of the PC?

This question is almost to vast to answer.  A lot of people think PC’s are going the way of the dodo,  but its not. It will be more of a transformation then extinction. I will sum it up with one word. Integration.  I think we are moving to the place where the home PC will be more of centralized system for data then a box with a monitor and keyboard. Science fact is starting to catch up to science fiction.  I am guessing that within the next 5 years whether you have one device or 5 they will all have the same information at your disposal instantaneously.  Computers are getting faster, smaller and more universally connected.  Some of the technology is here and some is right around the corner.  The PC used to be for education and business. Then came games, and it was also for entertainment.  Then the Internet was born and it became an instant information resource.  Now it is becoming your own little personal hub of you, all your work, all your movies, all your music, all your communication. Soon whether you need milk or not, gas or not, what time you want your lights turned on and at what level, auto scheduling your appointments. Voice commands and hand gestures will become more of the norm.  (Basically, the Jetson’s without the flying car and robot maid).  Most of what I have mentioned is already in use today in some form and is slowly starting to trickle down to the average consumer.  Now it’s just about linking them all together. We have cars that can park themselves, video games that use your body motions to play, and Siri.  Hey there you go, strap an iPhone to a Roomba and there’s that robot maid.

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