Building Your Own Computer

So, you want to build your own computer? Excellent choice. Building your own computer allows you to get exactly what you want out of a system. Say goodbye to "canned" computers from beige-box manufacturers, and hello to a sweet system.

Here is a checklist of all the components you will need to build a system:

  • Motherboard
  • CPU (Processor) - Make sure it is compatible with your motherboard
  • RAM (Memory) - Make sure it is compatible with your motherboard
  • CPU Heatsink AND Thermal Compound - Make sure it is compatible with your processor
  • Video Card* - Make sure it is compatible with your motherboard slot
  • Sound Card**
  • Hard Drive
  • Optical Drive (CD/DVD drive)
  • PSU (Power Supply Unit)
  • Case

* If you get a motherboard with integrated graphics, you can avoid this; however I don't recommend using integrated graphics, as it liberally uses (read: eats) additional system resources.

** Motherboards with integrated sound will uses a minor portion of system resources for digital to analog conversion, but this is small. Also most integrated sound systems sound as good as their sound card equivalents.

Lay out your componenents so they are easily accessible

Laying out the components
Figure (1) - Laying out the Components

Open the case and observe the layout of the motherboard. Most cases have multiple pre-drilled/tapped holes for motherboard stand-offs. Stand-offs are metal or plastic items that screw into these holes that give a space between the motherboard and the chassis of the case. This keeps the motherboard contacts from grounding/shorting on the case material. Using your motherboard's holes as a guide, screw in the standoffs. Notice how much space you think you have inside a typical case. Later, you'll see it's not as much as you think.

Prep the case
Figure (2) - Preparing the Case

The first component to put into the case should be the power supply. Some will argue with me about this, but as you will see later. This can save you some backtracking. The power supply shown in Figure (3) is an OCZ Modstream. I highly recommend this type as it has a modular cable design. This means you only connect the cables you need. Other power supplies have TONS of cables laying around inside your case. Another feature with this power supply is the mirror chrome finish. If you use one of these, definitely use latex/vinyl gloves to put it in. You don't want smudges!

Prep the PSU
Figure (3) - Preparing the Power Supply Unit

In a typical ATX tower, the power supply goes in the back-top corner. I have, however, seen ATX cases where the PSU is placed in the lower-rear corner. The tell-tale sign of where the power supply goes, is your case will have a LARGE hole in the rear surrounded by four screw holes. Trust me, you'll know where the power supply goes. Also, you might have a case that comes with a power supply. While these are typically low quality power supplies, it'll get you started. Attach the power supply to the case using the four screw holes in the rear of the case.

Installing the PSU
Figure (4) - Installing the Power Supply Unit

The next part to install is the motherboard. Be gentle with it. Before you touch the board, touch a grounded piece of metal to discharge any static you may have built up on you (I recommend you use a grounding wrist strap if you have one.) The slightest spark can fry a motherboard into wall-art. Also remember that when it comes to motherboards, you certainly get what you pay for. A couple of years ago in the ~2002 timeline, several companies tried to save money by using cheaper capacitors on the motherboard. These cheaper capacitors bulged, leaked, wouldn't charge, and thus rendered a LOT of boards useless. Make sure you stick with a 1st tier manufacturer if you can afford it.

Also, make sure you buy a motherboard that is compatible with whatever type of processor you prefer. For example, an Intel compatible motherboard will only hold Intel CPUs; an AMD compatible motherboard will only be compatible with AMD CPUs. Therefore, it's a good idea to buy the motherboard and processor in tandum. A good rule of thumb (though certainly not all inclusive) is that AMD processors are better for gaming, Intel processors are better for decoding/number-crunching. Both are similar and will perform almost exactly the same to most users.

Prep the Motherboard
Figure (5) - Preparing the Motherboard

CAREFULLY remove the CPU (Processor) from its packaging. Yes that little square is where all the horsepower of the computer is from. Most processors have a multitude of pins attached to the bottom side. Make absolutely sure that you DO NOT bend these pins. If your motherboard uses a Land-Grid Array (LGA) style processor socket, the pins will be on the motherboard instead--likewise make sure these pins do not get bent. Refer to your motherboard manual on how to insert the processor. By no means should you force the processor to fit! The closing mechanism may require a little force to close. This is normal, just don't use a hammer. Check your CPU Heatsink for installation instructions. Some require you to install a bracket on the backside of the motherboard before you install the motherboard into the case.

Prep the CPU
Figure (6) - Preparing the Processor

Installing the CPU
Figure (7) - Installing the Processor

Now it's time to install the motherboard in the case. Carefully set the motherboard down on the tops of the standoffs you installed earlier, and screw the motherboard into place. Make sure the back I/O panels match up (this is the metal part with the holes cut out to match the sockets on the motherboard.) Some motherboards include a custom rear I/O shield to install in the case.

Installing the Motherboard/CPU
Figure (8) - Installing the Motherboard CPU Combo

Use just a tiny amount (the size of a sesame seed--3mm or 1/8 inch diameter) of thermal compound. Use a single edge razor blade, a thin/stiff piece of cardboard, or something similar to spread the thermal compound on the top of the processor. spread the thermal paste VERY thin. If you use too much, it will do more harm than good. Thermal paste is used to fill any microscopic gaps in machined surface of the processor and heatsink. This helps to conduct heat away from the processor and direct that heat into the heatsink to be carried outside of the case via conductive/convective heat transfer. If you have an Intel motherboard, you will need the additional 4-pin 12 Volt connector from the power supply. This is typically connects near the processor. Go ahead an connect this before installing the heatsink. Once you get a thin layer of thermal compound spread on the processor and (if applicable) the 12V line, install the heatsink. Depending on the size of the heatsink you get, this could be a snug fit. You can see now why I prefer to install the power supply first. In order to install this 120mm Zalman copper heatsink, I had to bend some of the fins down to make room for it to fit.

Some general information about heatsinks. Most heatsinks are made of copper, aluminum, or a combination of both. Copper has a higher thermal conductivity meaning it will pull more heat off of the processor, but it is also more expensive than aluminum. The heatsink size also matters. A 120mm heatsink fan will have a higher air-flow rate with lower revolutions per minute than an 80mm fan. The more RPMs a fan turns to move air, the louder it will be. Since the processor can be the hottest part of a computer, it needs the most air flow to draw heat away from it. I recommend using a 92-120mm copper heatsink for this.

Install the Heatsink
Figure (9) - Installing the Heatsink

Install the memory into the memory slots. There is only one way RAM should fit into these slots, so don't force it. Refer to the motherboard manual to additional installation instructions. Also, make sure you are installing RAM that is compatible with the front side bus frequency of the motherboard. For instance, if you have a motherboard rated for PC3200 RAM install PC3200 RAM. Match the frontside bus frequencies (FSB) between motherboard and RAM. If you haven't already done so, now would be a good time to connect the huge power 20/24 pin power supply cable to the motherboard.

Installing the RAM
Figure (10) - Installing the RAM

Install the video card into the appropriate slot. Modern video cards use the PCI Express (PCIx16) slot. Last generation cards use an AGP slot. Some low performance cards use a standard PCI slot. Identify the correct slot on the motherboard and seat the card snugly into its slot.

Installing the Video Card
Figure (11) - Installing the Video Card

Remove the hard drive from its packaging and install it into one of the 3.5 inch drive slots on the interior of the case chassis via the appropriate screw pattern. If you have a SATA hard drive, DO NOT connect both the SATA power supply line with the 4-pin PATA power line. Doing so will burn the hard drive to charcoal. If you have a PATA/EIDE hard drive, make sure that it is the master device (dev-0) and any optical drives are set as slave (dev-1). Attach the appropriate cables to the motherboard.

Prep the HDD
Figure (12) - Preparing the Hard Drive

Install the HDD
Figure (13) - Installing the Hard Drive

Install the optical drive (CD/DVD) using four screws and the appropriate pattern. Connect the IDE cable to the 40-pin jack on the rear of the drive and the 4-pin power supply line to the drive. Now if you step back to look at your work of art, you can see the case is no longer the empty void it was in Figure (2). It's starting to look pretty :)

Work of Art
Figure (14) - The Complete Internals

Replace the case side panel and relish in your success at a job well done!

Complete Compy
Figure (15) - The Completed Computer

Pretty lights
Figure (16) - The Completed Computer II

Now connect your display, keyboard, mouse, and audio output to the tower and install your operating system of choice.