Building your own box from scratch
Welcome to my first and thus far only tutorial. This tutorial will deal with the decisions and actions required when building a PC (personal computer) from the ground up.
The first, and by far most important step, is to do a realistic analysis of exactly what you want your computer to be capable of on both a short term and long term basis. You should always leave yourself in a position that makes it relatively easy to upgrade or expand your system in the future. The one thing you can’t conveniently add to a PC once you’ve built it is room to grow. After you’ve decided what you want your computer to be capable of, then it’s time to start gathering your components. An excellent source for parts is www.pricewatch.com .
Choosing a Motherboard
The first thing you are going to be looking at is, of course, the motherboard and processor. The MB (motherboard) is more or less like the ‘body’ of your computer as it connects the processor (the brain) to the peripherals of the system. There have been several form factors of motherboard thru the years, the most prevalent at the present time being the ATX form factor. It is important to note that the form factor of your MB must match the form factor of your case and power supply. MB’s come with a variety of chipsets which control the interaction of the MB and the processor, which means you can’t just throw any processor into any MB. Add to that the fact that there are different processor ‘sockets’ and ‘slots’ for different processors and it can become very confusing to the beginner. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll recommend that you find the motherboard that suits your needs and then shop for what is called a ‘MB combo’, where the MB is shipped with the proper chip. This helps avoid confusion and return shipping charges.
Other MB FACTORS
To EIDE or not to EIDE, that is the question. The answer, for the basic user, is to EIDE (Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics), which is an attachment interface that allows fast data transfer as well as LBA (Logical Block Addressing) schemes that allow the use of high performance drives with a large storage capacity. The alternative is called SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) which allows you to ‘daisy chain’ (hook up in series) a total of 8 devices, including the host device. It can be a pain to configure, so we’ll just let that sleeping dog keep on sleeping for now. Several MB manufacturers now sell EIDE MB’s that are RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) capable if you are looking for the massive storage capacities that SCSI is famous for. I know of at least 10 different types of RAID, so there’s a little online research for you to occupy your leisure time with. One last thing to mention is that MB’s with onboard video and sound support have generally lackluster performance. If you can afford to buy an AGP (Advanced Graphics Port) video card and a decent sound card, by all means do so….you won’t be sorry. Also give consideration to the number of PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) slot the MB has. Any add-on cards (sound, modem, video capture) that you want in your system will require one of these slots each.
As for processors, you have 2 basic choices…Intel and AMD. Intel chips are reliable and fast, AMD’s are reliable and inexpensive, generally with a slower clock speed than the Intel chips but able to compete performance-wise. I’m not going to make a recommendation here as each has its own set of good and bad qualities. You will find a plethora of information concerning each by doing a simple search on the internet or the AO forums.
The Beige Box
OK…there are more choices out there than just beige, but color isn’t really important and should only be a determining factor in case selection after certain criteria have been met. As mentioned before, you need to make sure that your case will match your MB. Otherwise, you will be investing in a DREMEL rotary tool to modify your case, and I don’t want to go there with this tutorial. A case with a removable MB tray is nice, but not a necessity. A case with a sufficient power supply is an absolute must, and if you go with the AMD processor/MB, please makes sure your PS is AMD compatible. Standard rule of thumb here is the more devices you’re going to have, the higher the wattage needs to be. If you are going to be adding lots of Bells and whistles now or down the road, then go with at least a mid-tower case. If you have a RAID MB and intend to use it to its fullest potential, splurge for the full-tower. Remember, you are going to have to have an open bay for every drive you install. Floppy drives and most hard drives use the 3 ½” bays, while CD burners and DVD drives use the larger 5 ¼” bays. The number of bays in your case is directly proportionate to the number of drives you can install. I will also advise you to try to find a case that has front-mounted USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports. Reaching behind your case to plug in USB peripherals can be a real pain.
Mating the MB to the “Box”
Rule one is to always discharge any static charge from your person as static electricity will KILL your new motherboard. Get a wrist grounding strap to avoid this potential snafu. Rule two is never use magnetic screw drivers to mount any components. Computers use magnetic storage, so it shouldn’t take a PHD to figure out why you shouldn’t do this. The manual that comes with your MB will diagram the procedure for mounting your specific MB. You will be provided screws and insulating washers for mounting the MB, and you better make sure you use them…they are there for a reason. Be gentle when placing the MB on the mounting plate, and do not use undue force when tightening down the mounting screws. After you get the MB mounted, keep the manual handy, you’re going to need it again very soon.
<EDIT> It's almost 24 hours later and WHAM!! out of the blue it hits me...AL, you idiot, you never even mentioned RAM. The type of RAM (Random Access Memory) you buy MUST be compatible with your MB, and the more the merrier here, especially when using Windows as the OS. There are several flavors to choose from, the most prevalentat present being RDRAM (Rambus), SDRAM, and DDR RAM. This is one of the specs that will be prominently advertised while you are shopping for you MB. In my book, you're going to get the most 'bang for your buck' out of the DDR variety. The exact position of where the RAM slots are will vary from MB to MB, but this is info that is usually well diagramed in the MB manual.
Installing the Drives
Let’s start with the 3 ½” floppy drive. It has its own unique cable, as well as its own unique FDC (Floppy Disk Connector) on the MB. Check the manual for its specific location. You have the capacity for two drives, most folks only use one. The drive itself will mount in one of the 3 ½” bays. I prefer the topmost position as it allows placement of the hard drives in close proximity to a front-mounted case fan. Mounting the afore-mentioned hard drive(s) follows basically the same procedure as used when mounting the floppy drive. The manual will refer you to the specific connector on the MB where your hard drive plugs in. Please use the manual and the installation guide for the hard drive to make sure that you have connected the ribbon cable properly. In the case of an ATA (AT Attachment Interface) 100 drive, the BLUE end of the ribbon cable MUST plug into the MB. If you only use one drive, make sure the jumper on the rear is set to use the drive as a MASTER drive. If you have two devices on one ribbon cable, one must be set as MASTER and one must be set as SLAVE. This holds true for the CD drives as well. And it should go without saying that you have to hook a power cable to each of these devices. Your CD, DVD or CD-RW drives will follow the same cabling procedure as the hard drive(s), but will be mounted in the 5 ¼” bays. I also advise that you always set a CD burner as the master device in order to avoid buffer under-run errors when burning CDs.
Not a lot to say here. Make sure you have a good heatsink and fan on your processor, or it will surely die a quick and somewhat smelly death. And you will note that your case has several spots where you can hook up extra fans...use as many of them as you can afford to. A cool system is a happy system.
Installing the Graphics Card
If you are using an AGP card, you will notice that the topmost peripheral slot on the MB is shorter that the rest and paced at a slight offset when compared to the PCI slots. Again, refer to the MB manual to confirm its position. Basically I’ll tell you two things about AGP cards. The more memory they have, the faster your computer will run when gaming or using graphics-intensive applications. Secondly, they have to be WELL SEATED in the slot to be recognized and function. Don’t break the MB, but make sure the AGP card is in the slot tight!
Time to Power Up
Now it’s time to hook up the monitor, put in a boot disk and see if this bird will fly. After a successful boot, it’s time to FDISK and FORMAT your hard drive(s). This is done to create and prepare a partition to install your OS (Operating System) on. After restarting the computer, you can install your OS. When you have installed the OS, the first action will be to refer back to the MB manual and install the software that came with the MB in the exact order specified. Any variation from this order of installation can, and usually will, result in a GPF (General Protection Fault). You will also want to note if there are any recommended BIOS settings that need to be adjusted and do so according to the directions specified in the manual.
Now you can begin to add the other components of your system. With the system powered down, insert a PCI card (your sound card, for instance) and then power up the computer. Have the driver software ready to insert into the CD (or floppy) drive when your system requests it. After a successful installation, turn the system off and install the next peripheral, repeating the above process until all of your peripherals are installed. Take a break, grab a snack, then enjoy the new computer that YOU just built!