Usually when something like this happens it's the power supply, I tend to run those into the ground pretty regularly. That did not seem to be the case this time, unfortunately. Didn't seem to be a cooling issue either. Next on the list is motherboard and cpu....
It turns out that while I wasn't looking a lot of things have changed in PC hardware. Intel has a terrible, confusing brand tangle* of processors to choose from. I bought a Core i7 920 processor and a motherboard that supports Core i7 chips. But the chip didn't fit. Core i7 is split into two socket types, LGA1156 and LGA1366. WHO KNEW. (I didn't. These concerns are completely absent from the "[how to select your awesome new intel processor]" marketing posters.) Anyway I went back and got the right motherboard.
Oh the motherboard doesn't fit into the case. I'm not sure if this is because my old Dell is just Dell, or if the case standard actually changed (AGP to ATX?) and frankly I don't really care. I bought a new case.
So I was finally all set to put it all together. Oh the ram doesn't fit either. DDR3 is not DDR2.
On we go. I mean it's not a disaster, the good thing about being an old man is that I have lots of money to throw at these things. Still, burnsauce.
I actually still kindof like working with PC hardware... the form factors, the interface design decisions, it all speaks to a very specific design aesthetic, a funny split between engineering and show business, between high-tech and consumer concerns.
I love that you can build a PC mostly by trying to plug things into eachother until everything is plugged in, and then turning it on. That's pretty much what I do. It's sortof similar to the old PC Adventure game ethos of "[pull every lever and pick up everything that isn't nailed down,]" and I find it amusing that those problem solving skills actually turn out to be useful in some situations. Which is to say, in environments where every possible/sensible physical interaction has been planned out ahead of time, and made to work or not work as appropriate. So that if you can plug it in, it probably works. There's a certain nostalgic beauty to the process.