July 9, 2007
Over the next few days, I'll be building Scott Hanselman's computer. My goal today is more modest: build a minimal system that boots.
I'd like to dispel the myth that building computers is risky, or in any way difficult or complicated. If you can put together a LEGO kit, you can put together a PC from parts. It's dead easy, like snapping together so many LEGO bricks. Well, mostly. Have you seen how complicated some of those LEGO kits are?
Granted, building computers isn't for everybody. There are plenty of other things you might want to do with your time, like, say, spending time with your children, or finding a cure for cancer. That's why people buy pre-assembled computers from Dell. But if you need fine-grained control over exactly what's inside your PC, if you desire a deeper understanding of how the hardware fits together and works, then building a PC is a fun project to take on. You can easily match or beat Dell's prices in most cases, while building a superior rig -- and you can learn something along the way, too.
Here's the complete set of parts we ordered, per the component list. The CPU and memory boxes aren't shown, unfortunately, because I had already opened those by the time I took this photo. Whoops!
All you need is a few basic tools to build this PC. I typically use needle-nose pliers, wire cutters, and a small phillips screwdriver.
Before we get started, let me share a few key things I've learned while building PCs:
- Computer parts are surprisingly durable. They aren't fragile. You don't have to baby them. So often I see people handle computer parts as if they're sacred, priceless relics. While I don't think you should play "catch" with your new Core 2 Quad processor, it's also not going to explode into flames if you look at it the wrong way. You don't have to tiptoe around the build. Just be responsible and use common sense. I've done some appalling things to computer hardware in my day, truly boneheaded stuff, and I think I've broken all of two or three items in the last 10 years.
- The risk of static discharge is overblown. I never wear anti-static wristbands, and I've yet to electrocute any components with static electricity. Never. Not once. However, I always touch a metal surface before handing computer components-- and that's a good habit for you to cultivate as well.
- Be patient, and don't force it. Those rare times I've damaged components, it's because I rushed myself and forced something that I thought should fit-- despite all the warning signs. I've learned through hard experience that "maybe I need to use lots of additional force" is never the right answer when it comes to building PCs. Take a deep breath. Count to ten. Refer to the manual, and double-check your work.
I always build up the motherboard first. Place the motherboard on top of the anti-static bag it came in so it's easier to work on. Slot in the CPU and snap in the memory sticks. We're using four sticks here, so every slot is populated. However, if you're only using two sticks of memory, be sure they are in the correct paired slots for dual-channel operation. If you need advice, the motherboard manual is a good reference for basic installation steps.
Continue building up the motherboard by installing the CPU cooler. I strongly recommend buying an aftermarket CPU cooler based on a heatpipe tower design, as they wildly outperform the stock Intel coolers. This particular model we chose for Scott's build is the Scythe Mine, but I'm also a fan of the Scythe Infinity and Scythe Ninja Plus. (You can see the Ninja Plus on my work rig.)
It's important to install the CPU cooler correctly, otherwise you risk frying your CPU. Refer closely to the heatsink instructions. Don't forget to place a bit of the heatsink paste (included with the cooler) on the surface of the CPU before installing. These larger heatsinks can be quite heavy, so be sure you've followed the installation instructions to the letter and secured it firmly to the motherboard. Check the orientation of the heatsink so the fan blows "out" if possible, e.g., towards the back of the motherboard, where the case exhaust fans usually are.
Now let's build up the case to accept the motherboard. We chose the Antec P182 case for Scott's build. This case is unique; it's a collaborative venture between the well-known case vendor Antec and Silent PC Review, one of my favorite PC enthusiast websites.
This is the second version of the case, which reflects a number of design tweaks over the original P180. It's a little expensive, but the P182 oozes quality and attention to detail. It's probably the single best designed case I've ever worked on. But don't take my word for it; see reviews at AnandTech and SilentPCReview.
Some cases are sold with power supplies, but the higher end cases, such as the P182, typically are not. For Scott's build, we chose the Corsair HX series power supply, which is a rebranded and tweaked Seasonic. It's considered one of the best quiet and efficient power supplies on the market, which is why it tops the list of recommended PSUs at SilentPCReview.
I opened the opposite side of the case to gain access to the PSU cage from both sides, installed the PSU in the cage, and threaded the power cables up through the opening in the middle.
If you have cats, like we do, you have curious cat helpers. Unfortunately, cat helpers aren't all that... helpful.
Now install the backplate included with the motherboard. Every backplate is different because every motherboard is different. It's held in by pressure; just snap it in firmly around the edges.
It's finally time to place the motherboard in the case. Clear room in the case compartment by moving any errant cables out of the way and stowing them. Make sure the screw holes on the motherboard line up with the pre-installed screw mount standoffs in the case. In our P182, everything matched up perfectly out of the box.
Angle the motherboard down slowly and line up the ports to the backplate, then gently let the motherboard down to rest against the standoffs. Loosely line up the motherboard screw holes to the motherboard standoffs.
Find the packet of screws included with the case, and use the appropriate screws to secure the motherboard to the case standoffs.
Now let's connect the power supply to the motherboard. There are two power connectors on modern motherboards, so be sure you've connected them both. Don't worry, the connectors are keyed; you can't install them incorrectly and blow up your PC. As you can see here, I threaded the power connectors along the back side of the motherboard platform. That's one of the many nifty little design features of the P182 case.
Before we can boot up, we need to connect the power and reset switches so they work. This part is a little fiddly. Find the cable with the labelled power, reset, and LED connectors from the case, then refer to the motherboard manual to see where the appropriate motherboard front panel connector pins are.
Connect each front panel wire to the specific motherboard front panel pins individually. Make sure you connect them to the right location, but orientation of these connectors doesn't matter. This is where the needlenose pliers come in handy unless you have nimble (and tiny) fingers. Why this isn't a universally standard keyed block connector by now is beyond me.
We need some kind of video output to see if our computer can boot, so let's install a video card. Scott's not a hardcore gamer, so I went for something midrange, a set of two NVIDIA 8600GTS cards. They're an excellent blend of performance and the latest DX10 and high-definition features, while using relatively little power.
Don't forget to connect the 6-pin video card power connector if your video card requires it! This is a common mistake that I've made more than once. Our power supply has modular connectors, so I snapped in one of the two 6-pin power connectors and threaded it up to the video card.
We're ready for the moment of truth: does it boot? I attached a power cord to the power supply, hooked up a utility 15" LCD I keep around for testing, and then pressed the power button.
Success! I know "reboot and select proper boot device" doesn't look like much, but it means everything is working. We've just built a minimal PC that boots up. It's a small step that we'll build on tomorrow.
Getting this system from a pile of parts to bootable state took about two hours. Like I promised -- easy! Writing it up is taking almost as long as actually doing it. This was a slow build for me because I was extra cautious with Scott's parts, and I was stopping to take frequent pictures. With some practice, it's possible to build a PC much more quickly-- even in under ten minutes.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
I can't wait to see the "official" benchmarks...I presume you are going to benchmark it? :-)
If that heatsink is going to be on its side (since the case is going to stand up), won't that cause undue stress on the CPU?
Sorry I'm always paranoid about things concerning CPUs. :-)
If the weight of your heatsink doesn't provide enough undue stress on your CPU for your tastes, you can always try compiling Firefox, Thunderbird, Xorg, and a few Linux kernels all at the same time. Remember, if it doesn't smell like something's burning, you're not doing it right!
You could build computers for Twitter!
Note to Scott, Jeff's cat is "in ur serverz making thingz better!!!"
yes it's true building your own pc is better than buying one. but the problem for me is, i'm using a laptop.. for sudden i thought of building my own laptop. previous night i made a surgery on my laptop try to understand the thing inside.. but it useless... hahahaha..
anyway, your entry inspire me to try work on my lappie..thanks
Hey now, the geek squad do a good service to old women everywhere... they allow them to look at their chest high pants and crotch high socks... $99 isn't to defrag... is the entertainment cost :)
It's amazing how many people are still intimidated when faced with the option to build their own computer. Ultimately, though, it's not a 'cheaper' alternative for the everyday user anymore. It's definitely satisfying to me, though.
Re: comments about that HS. Does anyone have any references to the Scythe causing any CPU problems? I've thought about grabbing a pair for my box since I saw them in another of Jeff's posts (possibly regarding quiet PCs).
Jeff: I'm glad your cat could lend a paw. I can't wait for my fiancee to move out with the cats; they find a way to help you do everything better. Walking is much easier with a cat between your feet. ;)
Write about the "REDIRECT AFTER POST" thing already!! :-P
"Unfortunately, cat helpers aren't all that... helpful."
What are you TALKING about?! Those little cats help Twitter run all day long!
Interesting about the p182 arrangement.
Like Simon though I'm a bit confused with your dual 8600gts cards when a single 8800gts card is equivalent in performance to both of those, cheaper, takes less power, and possibly quieter.
Oh...you explain in a comment from that post by Scott Hanselman that you link to (also has the component list) that the two graphics cards are for 4 monitors. Makes a bit more sense, at least as much sense as having 4 monitors can make.
In reply to the comment by Adam above, I have a similar heatsink on the digital audio workstation I built. They work ridiculously well - I put the processor plate on my hand after taking the heatsink out of the box and felt like I was getting frostbite. In the PC, the processor idles at around 80 degrees, and even under full load the AMD dual core 5200 I have in this machine doesn't go much above 110 degrees. That's Fahrenheit. I put a 120mm fan set to low speed on top of the heatsink when I built it just for some extra security, but it would probably do nearly as well without it.
The disadvantages to them are that they add considerable weight and are kind of a pain to bolt on. At least on Asus AMD boards the motherboard fan control system only works with the stock heatsink and fan, but with one of these things you won't need it. Oh, and make sure your case is big enough! Mine is mounted inside a 4 unit rackmount server case, so there are no problems, but there might be space issues with some of the slimmer tower cases.
"Makes a bit more sense, at least as much sense as having 4 monitors can make."
This is an "ultimate developer rig" so it makes sense :)
Makes a bit more sense, at least as much sense as having 4 monitors can make.
WHAT YOU SAY?!
Dual monitors is nice, but where's the center? Right in the middle where the border between the two monitors is? With three monitors, there's a real center.
I'll agree that four is pushing it, but there's a legitimate argument to be made for three monitors. (Says the guy who uses 3 monitor rigs at home and at work. Biased? Me? No.)
Yeah, I was also wondering about the two graphics cards... The hard drive choice seemed a tiny bit curious too, wouldn't it have been better to go for 2x 250gb (or more!) SATA drives and run them in a mirror RAID configuration for ultra high access speeds?
I also do zero gaming, so one of the great decisions I made was to purchase a motherboard that supported two monitors onboard, with todays processor speeds, etc the need for a dedicated graphics card is becoming less of a problem for your average programmer and even designers who aren't into 3D.
Mine seems to run everything quite nicely, even compiz fusion (beryl) runs smoothly and with no lag.
wouldn't it have been better to go for 2x 250gb (or more!) SATA drives and run them in a mirror RAID configuration for ultra high access speeds?
Mirror (RAID-1) doesn't improve performance. Perhaps you were thinking of striping (RAID-0)? Striping does not perform as well as most people think it does, plus it doubles your chance of data loss:
In general RAID [on the desktop] is a lot of complexity for dubious benefit. The only exception is mirroring for redundancy.
with todays processor speeds, etc the need for a dedicated graphics card is becoming less of a problem for your average programmer and even designers who aren't into 3D.
Even the crappiest, cheapest discrete video card *crushes* the latest onboard video. And CPUs replacing GPUs? Forget about it. Not for another decade at least.
Unless you're on a laptop there is absolutely no reason to settle for the severe limitations of onboard video. Just pick up an entry level card, like the ATI X1550/X1650, or the NVIDIA 8400/8500.
Pretty nice article. Although along the years I got quite familiar with building PCs, your review of the used hardware is interesting.
I must still confess that I somehow hate you for it, cause now I feel that I can't hold much longer before to change my CPU cooling device, my case and my PSU. And you know the drill, while I'll be at it I'll for sure need new CPU, therefore new motherboard... And getting that close, buying a whole new computer would allow me to rotate my computers (secondary comp as server/sandbox, main as secondary, and server/sandbox in the closet).
Oh by the way, anyone got advice on how to get the 3d card(s) cool enough while gaming and silent? 3d cards fans I bought so far are pretty noisy, and not cooling all that much (I usually use a Zalman VF700-AlCu, but I live in a pretty warm area at times).
Can haz solderin iron? Kthnx.
you might also dispel the rumor that building your own machine is more affordable. Well, there is one case where it can be.
IF you have a Fry's close by, you can wait for an older motherboard/cpu/case sale. Sometimes these go for $100-200. Then use an old monitor, video card and ram. You MAY be able to build a pc for the price of a comparable off the shelf dell on sale ($350-450 w/ flat screen monitor).
Actually that is a little harsh, you could probably buy a new video card or flat-screen monitor or ram and still stay under price.
Oh, the other exception is if you are interested in having the absolute best performance for the next 6 months regardless of price. Of course YOU think YOU will NEED that performance, but trust me and everyone who has gone through the cycle a few times--YAGNI.
After 6 months, of course, you'll have an average PC that runs really hot, uses a lot of power and is difficult to upgrade since bleeding edge components are often based on technologies that go out of style--like the video bus of the day--I must have seen 8 different standards for high-throughput video buses so far. Oh, and it'll probably be drawing near the max comfortable amount from your power supply anyway.
I used to work for a small PC building company back when build-your-own computers were worth while. The computers were 8086/8 and 286 based. Since the 386, going to a custom building company or building your own just isn't worth it.
However, you should absolutely not be afraid to replace a component--a t least video cards, hard disks and ram.
I've learned through hard experience that "maybe I need to use lots of additional force" is never the right answer when it comes to building PCs
Now, that's not always true. True, it wasn't a self-built machine, but at one of my former offices we got a bunch of IBM servers. None of the staff could get the things open. Finally, we let an intern at it. He just hammered away at the case until it opened. Brute force and ignorance at its finest.
in case you wondered:
a.)the pair of video cards Jeff is using are NOT mid-range by any specs that i've seen
b.)the heatsink gets bolted to the case
c.)the standoffs come disattached
At the beginning I was wondering what you were going to use the wire cutters for (I couldn't think of anything). (Of course, that was the last mention of them.)
snipping the sleeves that hold the HD cables is BAD. they're intended to be like that to improve airflow.
I'm going to buy all the parts and build one too!
Putting together a pc is so much easier these days, all the parts fit nicely and the cases are so much better. I remember putting together a 486DX and having to cut off parts of some of the cards because they didnt fit properly etc ;).
Cats are curious arent they ? This whole excercise is one big adventure for them. There are boxes (!) involved, cables (!), and usually they take off with one or two screws you can laying around, and you cant find once you need em ;).
I used the wire cutters to snip a preinstalled zip-tie on the power supply cables that was preventing me from reaching the full length of the cables around the back of the motherboard tray.
I also used them to cut away the plastic sleeves on the "rounded" IDE cable included with the motherboard (which is really just a flat IDE cable twisted into a tight cylinder), which makes it more flexible.
Sometimes add-in cards will have long metal tabs on the bottom, which bottom out on the case. I use the wire cutters to cut then twist that bottom "tab" off the cards.
But mostly I use the wire cutters to snip zipties, either removing or adding. I included them in the photo because I had 'em out.
Indeed, they're very durable. Worst thing I've ever done to hardware: Re-inserted an A64 a bit off, bending a pin. Wondered why it wouldn't post, stripped it and found that, had to get frisky with a pocketknife, a paperclip, and needlenose pliers, if I recall. But it works to this day. =D
It's amazing that you generally need nothing but a Phillips screwdriver to completely assemble or disassemble a computer, even a laptop. (Though a flathead sure helps for prying things up.)
Hey, my little programming helper just showed uzk;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;/
At the risk of sounding conceited, I'll say that I've been building computers since I was in high school and I've totally given up on the whole thing. It's not worth it for people in our position. Let's look at the reasons why:
1) It's just not worth our time. We bill at a pretty good rate. Even if we considered our time "free", it would be better spent looking for/going out with/whatever with a RLG*.
2) What happens when a component is DOA? This has happened to me a couple of times. What a friggin' PAIN in the ass it is to return a component and blow your whole day (or be out of a computer for a week returning the component to an online store...) Not to mention some vendors are quite reticent to accept returns. Then again, that's the vendor's fault...
3) There's freakin' nothing left to learn by building a PC. They go together in pretty much the same way as they did 10 years ago, give or take some form factor changes. What are we learning now that we haven't learned before? Learning is what makes it interesting. I think every techie should build his or her own PC a couple of times, but once you've learned how to do it, you're basically just a factory worker in your own home.
4) New pre-bought machines are *physically* better engineered than what you can build yourself. Take a look at what you've built there. Nice rig. But look at that heatsink, with its enormous hanging mass when the tower is upright... Do you think that travels/moves well? Not to me. Is the case designed for just the right airflow over *that* brand of heatsink with the CPU in *that* position? No. If you get a Dell or an Apple, a team of engineers (probably mech E's) has sat around a table and designed how the airflow will go around the components. They've put in clips and snaps to keep everything tight during shipping, and the result is a better, more durable physical box. This is probably my biggest deciding factor in buying pre-built now.
5) The cost argument doesn't hold water for me. You are building a cheaper machine, but it's, well, cheaper (see 4). And like I said, our time is worth a lot more than the cost differential on the box.
* Real, live girl
You guys really seem to know much more about software than about hardware.
For example, you would have saved $250+ just by waiting until July 22, when the Q6600's price will drop to 50%.
Number 2, that motherboard is really far from being the best $150 can get. I can think of a number of P35 and more future proof MoBos around that price point.
The Raptor is good for snobbish people, because it's not much faster than the 3 Gbps drives. Plus it's noisy. The 7200.10 is noisy, too.
And buying that RAM is the frosting on the cake, when you had something like Crucial Ballistix for about the same price in June, when you guys bought the components.
I can see a blind man and a deaf man walking on the highway...
I always build up the motherboard first. Place the motherboard on top of the anti-static bag it came in so it's easier to work on
Be careful with this advice Jeff. It can be easy to bend any excess solder or exposed pins/wires on the underside of the motherboard and cause a short circuit. Cases that come with a removable motherboard plate are better as you can mount correctly on the screws where the motherboard is designed to be supported and still have accessibility.
"2 x Kingston ValueRAM 2GB (2 x 1GB)" is TWO sets of Kingston ValueRAM. A set contains TWO 1GB sticks. 2*2 = 4. :D
I used to build all my own PC's. Haven't built one in several years, other than a couple servers, which I don't upgrade nearly as often. When I started, over 15 years ago, you could save yourself serious $$$ by building it yourself. I know I saved over $1,000 over what Gateway was charging at the time, and Gateway was by far the cheapest.
Lots of times now, you can't even save. The big names get their components far cheaper than you could (buying in bulk helps) and the profit margins are so slim, that it's hard to beat their prices, at least by anything significant. What you do get though, still, is the opportunity to get something spec'd out exactly as you'd like it. And, if you're doing something like a dual-video card, or RAID, then it's worth it. Because you will pay extra for those kinds of premiums, if you can even find them.
However, there's another reason I don't build my own PC's anymore. I've gone totally laptop. Turned off my last desktop computer over 2 1/2 years ago, and I've never looked back. I know I don't get the performance, but the only time that's ever been an issue for me is when I'm gaming, and I just don't do as much of that anymore, and when I do, it's usually "classic" games, like the Gabriel Knight series from Sierra On-Line. Those are so old, the challenge isn't getting good enough hardware for them, it's getting them to run with Windows XP or Vista.
Anyway, good luck and enjoy yourself.
#1 reason to build your own PC is as Jeff explains in this and many other articles is to have it with your custom parts. Low power/silent was one of his goals. If you have someone else build it with all the custom parts is it worth the extra bling.
#2 you talk about billing more then the time to build, I would agree I would never build a customers PC, but for myself or close friend that needed something custom, it would be worth it.
#3 sometimes it's just fun to build stuff hardware wise. most of us spend all day create/modifying programs all day long, let us play with the hardware too!
Cats and computers are a perfect pair. I used to have two (I "borrowed" them from my sister while she was moving house). There's nothing as satisfying as coding on a winter's day with two cats on your lap.
I remember a time I was upgrading the harddrive in my Mac. I opened the box, disconnected the drive and turned around for the new drive. When I turned back, not one, but both cats were inside the box pretending to be innocent. It was one of those "You little bastards!" moments.
As both a PC enthusiast, and a LEGO Enthusiast (we prefer the term AFOL), Kudo's on the LEGO mention!
As my wife and I have said frequently during computer assembly days "[our cat] is putting the IT back in kITty"...
Speaking of Legos and computer building have you ever seen the modded computer cases made completely out of Legos?
Yeah, but does it make coffee?
Once you've finally managed to get all the front panel wires plugged into the motherboard, you should wrap a piece of tape around the whole bundle. It makes it much easier to reconnect them all, should you ever need to.
Regarding the hooking-up of those pesky little LED, PWR, RST, etc. wires. Asus makes and bundles their "Q Connector" with (some of) their motherboards. It's specific to each motherboard and you plug all those wires into the one Q Connector. Then you plug the Q Connector into the motherboard. Unfortunately, no one (that I can see) sells generic versions. I noted one thread where a person said "20 pin block pin extenders" from "your favorite electronics parts store" do the same thing. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to track that down. If anyone does find such a generic connector, let me know.
When did heat syncs become such hugh bricks? Does anyone just use processors at their recommended speeds anymore?
Mr. Markle, smart people don't buy prebuilt PCs the same way good chefs don't buy ready-to-heat plastic food. When I build a PC, I know exactly what I put inside it and I don't cut corners to meet a certain price tag. Plus I can customize the rig according to MY needs, spending more for video cards and less for the case, for example.
When you buy a prebuilt desktop computing appliance, you either get something cheap built with cheap components (e.g. ECS, Maxtor) or you get something much more expensive than the price of the components + the price of your time. And the support is not much better then when dealing with hardware manufacturers and you have to pay for expensive on-site support in case you don't want to mail-in the whole PC every time a RAM stick fails.
The only place where I can see the clear results of "engineering" are the business series notebooks. And that's where I am ready to pay the premium.
About the LED connectors, you said the orientation doesn't matter, but if you get the parity wrong for the LEDs, they won't work.
My main reason for always building my own is that I'm generally stripping an old system of a number of parts: it's an upgrade, rather than a "new box" -- I don't need a new DVD drive, and my hard drives are still working fine, after all. So why pay for new ones? -- and if I'm going to have to be installing hard drives anyways, why not do the whole thing?
Good article so far. Cannot wait to see the multiple video cards part, one area I have never ventured into but want to on my next build.
By chance, can you include rough costs of the parts as you use them, or a link with a parts list / rough price? Was really curious what this build costs, and too lazy atm to check each part myself.
As another poster pointed out, the most time spent on building a new system is in researching all of the components that work well together. There is nothing worse than finding some incompatibility between your motherboard and the RAM you purchased.
So your cost and time comparison is not valid at all since you fail to tell us how much time you've spent over the years researching all of the options you had to wade through when deciding which components to buy. My time is more valuable than that. I'd prefer to let someone else make those decisions. And when they mess up, I'm glad that someone else has to stand behind the choices they made instead of me.
The only reason I build rather than buy is to be able to rebuild with all the software when the machine has become so infected that it is not worth trying to repair.
I have all the original driver and OS disks plus all the original app disks so I get to have everything working from scratch, not from a recovery disk. I have kids and they manage to mess things up badly enough often enough that rebuilding twice a year has become a regular part of having computers.
Friends who bought name brand computers with pre-installed software have no idea how to rebuild and often trudge on with crippled computers or pay to have them rebuilt or hope the recovery removes it all (and often doesn't).
The components list says "2 x Kingston ValueRAM 2GB (2 x 1GB)" for the RAM, but you somehow fill all 4 slots. Did something change?
"Scott's not a hardcore gamer, so I went for something midrange, a set of two NVIDIA 8600GTS cards"
mmmm, if Scott is not a harcore gamer, maybe he needs the *Two* 8600 to run Win Vista propertly :P
If this is his new machine, can you send the old one to Argentina :P sure is more modern than any other here :P
It's been quite a few years since I built my own rig (the one we still are using is the last one and boy is it getting old!! at least I was given a brand new one for some contract work I am doing)... I just haven't had the interest in that stuff, but this actually kind of gets me all sentimental about it again :)
I guess I got tired of trying to help family that got mad over me "installing viruses" (that they already had - they just didn't ever know they had) and friends/acquaintances asking for help all the time that I got used to telling almost everyone to just go and buy a Dell or HP or something instead. It really did seem like the prices for std manufacturer computers were almost nearly as low as what I could buy for (but remember it's been a few years). However I thought I had read that the parts Dell/HP/etc. used were not always the best quality ... but I have no quantifiable facts to back that statement up.
You said "There are plenty of other things you might want to do with your time, like, say, spending time with your children, or finding a cure for cancer." - what you can't build a computer with your kids?
Seriously my son really likes to be my helper when I'm doing anything with a screwdriver (he gets to hold the tools or screws and help push things around, but he's only 4) and my daughter who's going to be 6 soon really likes using the computer (just the games though). It's funny because when she was telling my wife that she really likes to use the computer and my wife told her how I used to spend *so* much time on the computer, she was amazed. Needless to say, I spend more time doing other things now that we have kids, but maybe I will slide back a bit to show the kids a few things :)
Last comment - I always have thought that the little details were why so many people don't take building a PC on specifically choosing all the different parts and knowing they all will work together (can be very confusing), and also having an operating system to install. I've helped one friend years ago (in college) learn how to do it, but I'm sure he probably wouldn't have done with it without something there to make sure he was doing the right stuff (honestly, I only made sure the parts would work together and generally point him in the right direction) and what to do about the OS when he got it all running.
Jeff - maybe provide some links (assuming there are some!?) to help people know how to find all the parts and make sure they work together, and what to do about installing an OS (that's a sticking point for me as I don't have any recent OS CDs and don't want to use unlicensed versions that I can get).
dammit Jeff...this post really makes me want to upgrade my now aging rig.
I still don't agree with you on the ValueRAM though. After going through some really terrible ValueRAM I always buy the good stuff. I know most of the stuff all comes out of the same bins, but I still like to get higher quality stuff for piece of mind.
I had to laugh at the cat photo. Been there. However, one finds it much less amusing when things aren't going right. Time to eject kitty from the room, by air. Wheeee!
One thing you didn't mention is that things very rarely go that smoothly. Perhaps they do for you, and I'm just a klutz. It seems I always end up with some bizzare problem.
For example, my current rig did absolutely nothing when I tried to power it on. It turned out that the header for the power switch on the MB was hosed. However, the MB happens to have a tiny power pushbutton on it (presumably for bench testing). Rather than send it in and be without a main rig for weeks, I just open the rig and (carefully) hit the tiny power button with a pencil whenever I need to power the rig on. I leave it on 24/7 anyway, so its no biggie.
On the installation before that, my hard drive was not being recognized. I was pretty sure the drives were OK, as I was just swapping out a MB. All my drives were the same. After swapping around cables for a couple of hours (and much wailing and gnashing of teeth), I figured out that the CDROM drive had somehow gotten fried in a way that prevented anything else from being recognized by the BIOS. It was working fine before I started the swapout. (ESD?) Buying a new DVD drive fixed it all.
As for electrically destroying things, I always wear the strap. However, I have to admit the only other components I've ever fried were because I was (stupidly) connecting things with the power supply plugged in. Hey, its grounded that way, right? :-)
I used to be intimidated by the prospect of messing with the PC internals until I helped someone build a PC. This is a very good article indeed. Looking forward to Part II.
I always build up the motherboard first. Place the motherboard on top of the anti-static bag it came in so it's easier to work on.
Be careful here Jeff. Anti-static bags remove the static from the inside by migrating it to the outside of the bag. You may not have messed up a component yet, but try putting your motherboard on the anti-static bag during winter...
I used to build machines for myself, friends, and family. But nowadays, the big vendors get such a discount on the operating system and productivity software that I can't come close on the price. Sorry--my friends and family aren't going to learn Linux, and I don't want to be their system administrator. OpenOffice is looking better every day, but it's still only one piece to the puzzle.
Building a *personal* PC is still a worthwhile effort, but it's not cost effective for most folks.
Oh dear god, yes, as Gregory says, please write something about the Redirect-after-POST thing.
It has to be said that .NET developers are the worst offenders here. I managed to accidentally place an order twice on an e-commerce site last night because of this exact problem.
It's one of those things that anybody who ever wishes to do web development should be taught on day one.
Hate to rain on your parade, but the cheapest way to go is BestBuy. No im not an employee. No you cant get EXACTLY what you want but you can get really close. Get the 6 months same as cash or pay it all in cash at once. Dont get any of their extended or extra warranties or you will lose (its already obsolete anyway so why would you :D).
If you carefully spec out a PC from BestBuy part for part you will see that buying individual parts is more expensive. I tried really hard to beat them and couldnt. That was even before adding in postage fees BTW. And I included Windows. My biggest aingst with prebuilt machines is you get a version of Windows license that doesnt transfer. The transferable Windows license is what killed the custom PC price (and the mailing fees).
Otherwise if you like the satisfaction of picking exactly what you want for hardware and a Windows license (or go linux) you can transfer, and dont mind paying a little extra then build it yourself.
"They go together in pretty much the same way as they did 10 years ago,"
Back in my day it was possible to let the magic smoke out of your cache RAM chips by installing them the wrong way. I remember trying to figure out what combination of DIP switches and jumper settings would set the timer up right for a CPU I found at a use computer store. I've also made a couple of power supplies go BANG. Get off my lawn!
A few years ago I bought a pre-built HP just because I wanted something that I KNEW would work out of the box. Sometime with all the drivers already installed. It worked for a while, then I had some kind of lockup problem and had to install a new driver. Which caused other problems. Then a new video card came out, I installed a bigger hard drive. Pretty soon, I was right back where I started building my own PC and hunting down drivers like a truffle pig. Except I had a crappy, cheap case that made my hands look like raw beef whenever I went to upgrade something.
Maybe what you need to do is ExTRemE PC building! Don't wear a static strap and install shag carpeting where you are putting your rig together. Shuffle around a lot. buy the cheapest parts you can and try finding a combination of driver versions for all of them that will work under Windows Vista AND Linux.
"it would be better spent looking for/going out with/whatever with a RLG*."
Those of us who have a RLW stuck in the house with us ALL the time, appreciate a technical diversion from time to time. Even if we don't, our wives sometimes appreciate us being out of their hair for a while.
"I never wear anti-static wristbands, and I've yet to electrocute any components with static electricity. Never. Not once."
I never wear a seatbelt, and I've yet to die in a head-on collision. Never. Not once.
I never change the batteries in my smoke detector, and I've yet to die in a fire. Never. Not once.
I never use a designated driver when I go out drinking, and I've yet to kill anyone while DUI. Never. Not once.
They aren't fragile. You don't have to baby them.
Solder joints can be quite fragile. And quite difficult to repair for surface-mount chips. So I would say while you don't have to "baby them", you should avoid placing uneven stress on any PLC. For example, if you hold the motherboard horizontal by just one corner, the weight of the heavier components on it can stress solder joints to the point of cracking. If you're lucky this will either break your board altogether. If you're unlucky, it will give you very frustrating, inconsistent, impossible to reproduce issues, that you will want to fix, but will likely just end up banging your head over.
how sad, I can't see the pics because they're hosted on flickr and my corporation's automated shoulder-surfer blocked them all.
Just a small comment regarding static electricity. It takes about 1,500 volts (At least) to physically feel a shock so it is possible to damage components without feeling anything.
These smaller shocks will burn small pits in the IC substrate and while the parts will still work you've probably shortened its lifespan.
Touching something metal will definitely help but keep in mind that carpeted floors + shoes = 15,000 volts and that you can even generate static from coffee cups. Microchip damage can occur with as small as 10 volts of static.
In between build-it-yourself and buying from someone like Dell, another good alternative are "white box" vendors. I had my current PC built for me at a local computer shop (Central Computer) and was able to specify the exact components and configuration I wanted.
I'd avoid buying parts for a whole system from Fry's Electronics. I've been in the return line before and watched someone who obviously had trouble assembling his components. Rather than accepting the return, the clerk made him unpack and assemble everything to prove/disprove what was broken. Not a pleasant experience.
Back in the late 80's-early 90's I worked my way through college building PC's for a little mom and pop computer shop, so I've built a *lot* of PC's. You've done a great job here explaining the basics. This is a post I wish I'd written for my blog!
I agree with you about how building a PC at least once gives you a deeper understanding of your hardware. It isn't going to fill a specific checklist item in your resume, but IMHO the desire to try it at least once is part of the passion that a true craftsman should have for his tools. As an example from another field, I think it's similar to how you'll frequently see the celebrity chef's on PBS, etc. go a winery, an organic farm, a bakery, etc. They aren't going to learn something there that will make or break their ability to cook a specific dish. But as master craftsman they're passionate about their tools and ingredients. They want to know everything they can about them.
10 years ago, you were installing DIP-based RAM in your machine? That was 1997 (can you believe it?!). We were well into the SIMM era by that time. Hell, in 1997, my computer had PCI slots! (A Pentium 90 with 12 MB of RAM) 15 years ago, yeah, you're definitely right.
And I guess you're right about the RLG thing and technical distractions sometimes being a good thing. I'm not married, so I don't feel your pain (yet!). LOL
For me the difference between a factory and a home build is :
The Factory is in the biz of cutting costs.
My goal is 24/7/365 uptime.
Building rigs is easy ONLY if you've checked for component compatibility ahead of time. This is the key step. Otherwise, you'll run into a situation like I did when I last built a system (several years ago) where I had an incompatible power supply and memory. And this kind of crap is very hard to debug when problems pop up.
The truth is that it's just not worth it anymore. I think it's good for everyone to build *one* system just to see how it's done, but after that...just get a Dell. ;)
That is one monster CPU heat sink! I'm curious as to what brand or where you got it and how well it works also.
"As another poster pointed out, the most time spent on building a new system is in researching all of the components that work well together. There is nothing worse than finding some incompatibility between your motherboard and the RAM you purchased."
I can attest to that. My buddy had his machine take a dump on him, and what we initially thought was going to be a cheap motherboard replacement ended up being a complete rebuild. This was compounded by the fact that I forgot to take into consideration the processor socket type and RAM type (I'm a programmer, not a hardware guy), so instead of waiting a week for all the components, we're up to 2 1/2 while we wait for his socket 775 P4 and DDR2 RAM to arrive.
Research = Teh Win.
That first boot is the scariest ... especially with the Intel or Intel-based boards I've used on my last 3 builds, it takes maybe 10 seconds from power-on until I get the monitor going from stand-by to turned-on. :)
not to mention that the sockets and connectors are usually asymmetric, and no 2 of those are alike, very hard to make a mistake, unless of course...
Some people have been mentioning the importance of research. I agree totally.
I'd also add that its important to have a backup machine (with internet connectivity). The reason is that even with a lot of research, something is eventually going to go wrong on you. If its something complicated (eg: RAM incompatable with motherboard w/o BIOS change), you're going to have a lot more trouble figuring it out without net access.
Of course all these caveats we are adding are *not* going to help Jeff's thesis that this is something easy that everyone should be doing. :-)
impressive heat sink and nice cat!
As someone who doesn't have a lot of money I find myself slowly upgrading my rig one component at a time. However, if that component happens to be the mother board I'm effectively rebuilding the entire thing.
I don't think it's terribly difficult to understand what's going on inside that box, and rebuilding from scratch certainly helps know what most of what's going on, which really helps when your upgrading individual components.
Now I'm moving out of my parents house and am having to buy an entirely new rig all at once. It's going to be...fun. And expensive. Still debating whether to roll my own or not.
Run wires *underneath* the motherboard tray. Great idea, Jeff! I think that might solve my wire tangle in my my power-supply-in-the-bottom rig. It's just too much with power, SATA, IDE and MB connectors running through the same area.
Great article, too. After building even a single PC, small installs like a new video card or hard drive aren't so intimidating.
One piece of advice - make sure you don't add extra standoffs that your motherboard doesn't use! One of the computers I've built didn't boot at all until I realized an unsed standoff was shorting something out. It was hard to tell which hole in the case was the right one, so I put a standoff in both, figuring I could just ignore the wrong one and screw in the other. Oops. Fortunately, nothing broke; it was just very difficult to tell what the problem was.
Bought a MSI mobo, died inside of a year. It was replaced by the manufacturer, but died in 8 months, so no more MSI for me.
I trust you do not have power on the PC when your cat is messing around, or I will call the SPCA!
Nice system. I scrolled down and saw that pic of the heatsink, I almost choked. That thing is massive! If I were you, I'd use a piece of wire (not anything plastic or string) to support that assembly from the top of the case, maybe from an existing screw. Take some weight off the motherboard.
Just because you've not totally fried a component with static discharge doesn't mean you've not damaged it. Static discharge can substantially shorten the lifetime of a component - the MTBF of electronic components handled without antistatic precautions is *years* shorter than the MTBF of the same components handled with anti-static precautions.
So you don't in fact know that you've never zapped anything. All you know is that you've never zapped it so badly that it was dead from first use.
If you don't expect your machine to last more than 2 years then you probably don't need to worry. For hardware that lasts 25+ years (e.g. some telecomms kit), you're grossly irresponsible not to take precautions.
For anything in between...well it's hard to say where the line comes exactly. Caveat zaptor etc. But the main thing is, it's slightly irresponsible to tell people that static discharge is over-stated. It's more that it's misunderstood.
"A few years ago I bought a pre-built HP just because I wanted something that I KNEW would work out of the box. Sometime with all the drivers already installed. It worked for a while, then I had some kind of lockup problem and had to install a new driver. Which caused other problems. Then a new video card came out, I installed a bigger hard drive. Pretty soon, I was right back where I started building my own PC and hunting down drivers like a truffle pig. Except I had a crappy, cheap case that made my hands look like raw beef whenever I went to upgrade something."
My first real understanding of hardware (besides the basics having put CD-rom drives together myself) came with an HP. My friend had a maxtor that was about to fail (go figure, right?) and it was a hardware nightmare. The way that the motherboard was seated in the cpu, you had to completely mangle the IDE cable to fit it in the slot, and that was with well lit room, and fingers that bend in unnatural angles.
Hee. Definately going to keep this page as an interesting piece. I've never set up my own motherboard but this looks like a rather fun project for when I actually have the time and money. And yes, like everybody else, you start with what works together IMHO. Of course at the same time I'd think about what I was going to do with the thing to begin with then work from there. LOL
As far as pre-built computers. I have a Dell computer. Because I'm not a complete idiot three years later it's still running pretty good. I may not know the complete specs (anyone know where to find out your hard drive information save opening the case? I can't find it in the hardware manager).
Now that I've properly rambled on....
You didn't count the time you spent doing the following:
1) Researching motherboards, power supplies, video cards, compatibility, and the like = 40+ hours
2) Hunting for the best price online for EACH component = 8 hours
3) Downloading all of the latest drivers = 4 hours
4) The cost of the OS = $150
So how much did you save again?!?!?
I guess that most of the times it is easy to put a computer together. I built my own computer last year and it all went without problems.
But before you buy all the components, you should be very careful and do some research to find out if it all works together. Some brands of memory don't work well with some motherboards. You have to know which kind of memory you need (DDR, DDR2, DDR3? Which speed? Which voltage? etc.), if all the components work well with the OS you're going to use (if it's Linux, you'd better not get ATI video cards, for example, because they don't have very good drivers for Linux), etc.
So while putting the PC together once you have the components is easy, you do need to spend some time to research what's available and what you need / want.
By the way, why two videocards if the guy is not a gamer? That seems like total overkill to me.
"I've learned through hard experience that "maybe I need to use lots of additional force" is never the right answer when it comes to building PCs."
Except when installing CPU heatsinks that require you to BEND THE MOTHERBOARD so that they will snap into place. No amount of force is excessive for these things.
I hope the cat touched a metal surface before helping out.
"Me too", I can't see the photos either thanks to damn shoulder surfing web blockers that can't see flickr.
The text was good though !
I have nuked memory chips, but then this was a time when memory came in a tube and you had to place individual IC's onto the circuit board and they were really sensitive. I haven't since, but I then I do like yourself, touch an "earth" first.
Ah, this takes me back. Well done - its the best guide I've seen for assembling a pc. Plenty of common sense there also.
All that burn-in stuff is pretty important, I used to do that on machines I built, turn up the graphics full in quake3 to stress the graphics card, load up a deathmatch with no time limit, spectate from the bots POV, ( this is better than playing a demo in a loop, cos the demo just gets cached ). Then run prime95 in the background to soak up any spare cpu cycles. If you get up in the morning and the house hasn't burned down and the game is still playing, the pc is ok.
I think the burn in process would still be a good idea on a pc that you've bought off the shelf, like a dell or whatever. It might warn you up front of possible stability problems down the line.
where did you purchase your components?
mirror RAID configuration for ultra high access speeds?
Mirror (RAID-1) doesn't improve performance.
It improves performance for reads.
I wish I will someday build a computer like this for me :).
1. Using an Antec case, they've been one the best for a very long time.
2. 3-Monitor setup. I've wanted one since the Parhelia came out, what, 6-7 years ago?
3. Snipping the rounding plastic off of the IDE cable. rounded cables can cause interference problems, I've seen this firsthand.
1. MSI boards, neither I nor my friends have had any good luck with MSI boards in the past, I refuse to use them.
2. Intel? Nothx, I'm an AMD man for life. I can wait for AMD quad-core, especially since I'm using a single-core 32-bit Athlon XP 300+ right now and it works perfectly fine. Of all of the components in a PC, the processor is definitely far from being the bottleneck these days.
Man this looks just great. Can I tell you how jealous of Scott I am?
Good looking, with Type 1 diabetes, AND a custom PC built by Jeff. What a guy. :-)
Wow, I suppose you should install Mepis 6.5 64bit Distro. Runs mine just fine!
You will be disappointed if you try any Microsoft '64bit' OS!
Hi Jeff. Great article! Just a question, i want to build a PC. which is better for the quad processor, Intel 975XBX2KR Intel Socket 775 ATX Motherboard OR the MSI P6N SLI Platinum LGA 775? Thank you
hi,zhensen here .i want to build a pc but i not sure what hardware to use .can u show me ur hardware part?
Once you mentioned that you don't properly protect against static you immediately lost a great deal of authority as far as I am concerned.
It seems that you have a poor understanding of how this can harm components.
It does not have to be fried to be damaged.
The consequences of static may not be apparent until a later date.
The advice you have given is irresponsible.
Jeff, those are some excellent photographs!
May I ask what kind of camera you have?
I've tried to take photos of electronics in the past but they always came out blurry on my ancient Canon PowerShot S45 camera.
Once you mentioned that you don't properly protect against static
you immediately lost a great deal of authority as far as I am
My experience is the same as yours - I've worked on/inside/building PCs since 1985 and I have NEVER killed any component with static.
As you say, touch an earthed metal surface and you are pretty much safe. And don't wear anything that generates lots of static (nylon, fleeces etc.)
I don't see why some of you are still complaining about building a computer. So what if you have to research to see if a component supports the motherboard - thats the point. I work at a computer company called CompUsa and we always have customers complain about a faulty motherboard a company installed for them and they have no one else to turn to but us. Most of the time its pre-built pcs, and the manufacturers give them a big run around about fixing them. You want to build a computer to last, and that is why I stress take your time, you don't need to rush. If you do this you will learn that they will last as long as you build them. Research on the website to see what motherboard is rated the best. Don't get a motherboard that has hundreds of complaints on it saying it was a bad bored. People get those bad motherboards because they think they look cool, but trust me if the board dies, it really isn't cool now is it. Trust me I spent $6400 dollars on Alienwares Area-51m desktop and regret it to this day. The motherboard completly burnt out, and since it was 2 months after 30 day warrenty to send the pc back for a new one, I was stuck. I couldn't do anything, I contacted those newbies on the phone who knew 10 times less than me about computers and gave me nothing but a run around. Finally they told me to take it back but I didn't waste my time because I knew it would be sitting at their warehouse months on end before it would be fixed, but luckly I went back to my old pc I built which was an AMD 3200+ 939 pc, its been working for about two - half years and still going strong. As for this Alienware pc I saved up and bought, I took some of them parts out inside the motherboard and threw the case and the damn problematic liquid coolant they installed in the trash. It was no use to me anyway.