Debunking the Black Box
We at Tom’s Guide don’t typically deal much with screwdrivers. We’re busy being gadget geeks that love to unwrap a new and complete device from its packaging. These gadgets tend to be viewed as “black box” items. This means that usually, you use them as they come. Short of adding memory, the interior of a laptop is a dark, mysterious, and fragile place for most of us.
So, why would anybody want to build a notebook? First off, it’s cool and satisfying, like building your own car. We assembled our first notebook five years ago, back when Centrino was a new word. There’s no brand on the outside, and the sticker over the keyboard merely reads “notebook.” (We still use this notebook every day. A home-brewed system is every bit as dependable as a branded one.)
When people ask what kind of notebook it is, and we explain that we built it, most are very impressed. They apparently don’t know that building a notebook is about as difficult as setting up a food processor and much easier than cooking a three-course meal.
Another reason to build a laptop: flexibility. When you order a notebook, you’re usually stuck with a short list of options. True, a do-it-yourself notebook currently isn’t as open as a build-it-yourself desktop PC is. For instance, you usually have no say in the graphics components once you pick the “shell,” meaning the main unit containing the motherboard and LCD display. But if you want a certain solid-state drive (SSD) or an ultra-low-voltage CPU, most notebook vendors don’t offer a choice. Fortunately, because you’re building from scratch, you can pick whatever you want.
Here are the parts we chose to build our demonstration unit with: OCZ’s DIY 15" Gaming Notebook, a 250 GB OCZ Apex SSD, and a 4 GB RAM kit (2x2GB) of OCZ PC2-6400 SO-DIMM memory. We used a Core 2 Extreme X9100 mobile processor.
While we went with wall-to-wall OCZ parts here, you don’t need to. That’s the whole point of DIY. OCZ does offer a list of validated components for its shell, but any shell should work with any format-compatible parts. For example, if you get a shell that takes SATA drives, any 2.5" SATA hard drive or SSD will be fine. You’re still stuck with the shell manufacturer’s short list of optical drive options, but the list will get longer over time. To start your shell quest, try searching for “barebones notebook” or “whitebook shell” online.
Most modern notebooks provide access to internal components through two or three panels attached to the shell’s bottom. Older models may have you working through bottom panels as well as removing the keyboard, which is considerably more difficult. Double-check this before you buy. We like that the OCZ unit only has two bottom panels, which makes access to where you add the components simple and easy.
See that reddish smudge in the lower-left corner of our image? We left that visible to remind you to keep track of the thermal adhesive on the bottom of the CPU heatsink fan (HSF). OCZ ships its HSF with protective tape over the adhesive for the CPU, but there was no tape shielding the adhesive on our unit. When we set the HSF down, the thermal adhesive stuck to the table. Not only is this unsightly, but it could affect the bond between heatsink and underlying chip. So, be careful.