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Building your own computer

Putting it all together

Mmmm ... bit of a daunting task this, or what? You've gone and bought a complete set of components (sure, with a few bits you intend to "recycle" from that old one in the corner) and here they are laid out in front of you. How to begin?

How to begin

Have space to build your computer. Trying to do in the corner of the living room, amongst toys and the TV, on a coffee table is sure to lead to frustration, stress, swearing, arguments, fights, tears and the divorce courts. And if you're married it can be even worse.

So prepare your area and be prepared to spend some time there - not consecutive time but over many evenings, perhaps. You will need good lighting, that single 60W light bulb hanging in the middle of the kitchen just ain't gonna be good enough. The older you are the more light you will need (because you will find it increasingly difficult to focus up close, with or without specs. I speak from experience).

If you have commandeered the kitchen table, be prepared to pack up each evening without having those ever-so-vital screws disappear down the back of the fridge.

A soft sheet folded over into a 1m x .5m (3ft x 2ft) workpad is ideal to lay on whatever your work surface is. Not only does it stop the surface getting scratched, it stops things bouncing off it and sliding around generally.

Let's do it for real

The first thing you must do is dismantle the PC case. If it's a new one (ie you are not recycling your old one) inside you will find a bag of screws, the mains electricity lead, the tiny PC speaker (if not already pre-fitted) and little else. Put the top cover and sides somewhere far away where they won't get scratched or in the way -- you won't be needing these again until you've finished.

If you got a cheapie case then the drive bay holes will still have the steel blanking plates fitted (mostly punched out but still attached at two or three points). Bend them until they break off and discard. Remove all the plastic bezel covers even if you only have one item to fit -- it will give you more manoeuvrability later.

If the side panel onto which you will screw the motherboard comes out of the case now is the time to remove it. If it is a fixed (riveted) one, just lie the case down on its side so that the panel is lying on your folded up sheet. Now gently unpack the motherboard, hold it at the edges only, and see where the holes in the motherboard line up with holes in the panel. Don't scratch the underside of the motherboard whilst you do this.

Where the holes lined up, screw in a brass stud from the little pack of nuts & bolts that came with the case. If you run out use plastic ones (you usually get an assortment). Don't skimp on these support posts.


A word about static electricity. Every human body stores electricity, just from walking over carpets or rubbing their clothes. You don't want this electricity being diverted into your motherboard (and certainly not some of the other components we'll be talking about later). Buy yourself a grounding lead that you wear round your wrist and then earth by plugging it into the mains system -- don't worry it only connects to the ground (earth) pin! This 5 safety tool can save your entire system from being frazzled.

Now place the motherboard onto the posts (careful about scratching the underneath) and screw each one in gently. At the same time place the rear cut-out bezel between the motherboard and the case so that from the rear all you see are nice pretty sockets not massive gaps into the case where the sockets are.

Wow! doesn't that look good? Now plug in the ATX power supply cable from the case to the motherboard socket. It only goes in one way so don't force it. Then plug in the case to the mains socket, but don't turn on the electricity at the socket yet. This just grounds everything via the plug and protects everything from static electricity. But don't take off your grounding strap just yet.

Adding peripheral cards

If your motherboard does not include integrated peripherals, such as video (graphics), sound, network and so on then chances are that you have at least one PCI or AGP card you want to attach to the motherboard. First snap out the back plate (just like the blanking plates in the drive bays at the front of the case) on one of the PCI cards so that the card has somewhere to fit in. Gently, and vertical, push the PCI or AGP card into the slot and screw in the one screw to hold it tight. Job done.

If you have more than one card, don't cram them all together if you can help it. Space them out so you have more room to manoeuvre. Just an intsy wintsy little warning here: if you have a card that doesn't play nice with the other cards in your system you may have to move them about about (as happened to me recently with a modem). You won't know this until you boot up Windows. So ensure you have a few spare blanking plates to cover up unused gaps from PCI slots that you opened up only to find that you had to move a card to a different slot. They are only pennies each. (That's the good news. The bad news is that you cannot use the ones you snapped out. Just chuck 'em away.).

Danglies

Next attach all those dangly cables from the PC case; you know, the internal speaker and the little lights on the front panel that tell you when the PC is on, the Hard Disk is being accessed etc. Refer to the motherboard booklet for this. If you get it wrong the lights wont light so just turn them round (they are polarity sensitive) until they do work. Just this step could take you 30 minutes as you try and decipher the motherboard booklet against the actual motherboard and the set of little tiny plugs. Don't worry - this happens to everyone!

Gulp...The processor

Pay attention now because this is the biggie. Your processor only goes in one way, and it literally drops into the socket, no pressure is required. So if it doesn't drop right in with just a flea push then you ain't done it right.

Firstly, lift the lever on the processor socket a tiny fraction outwards then all the way up. This opens up all the pin holes for the processor. Take your processor by the edges, check the corner(s) with no pins, and orient so that those corners match the socket corners. Drop processor in. Well, what I mean is, gently place processor in the socket. Remember my warning; if it doesn't fit, lift it up and check the orientation of the processor viz-a-viz the socket. Assuming it has dropped right in, place finger pressure on the chip as you lower the handle of the socket back down and clip it back in. Jone done. That was the easy bit.

Adding the fan is more difficult. I'm going to assume for this article that you have a standard round fan attached to a reasonably normal heatsink. If you absolutely must have a Typhoon Cyclone Turbo Megawatt Heatsink then just make sure you can put the thing on the CPU OK!

OK, the fan will have a spring clip thingy running through the middle. Each side of the clip attaches to a lug on the processor socket. You won't want to break those lugs off so softly softly is the key here. First, put a paper thin smear of heatsink paste onto the processor core (it's entirely up to you whether you use standard white paste or silver stuff costing 3 times as much. They all work, some apparently better than others, but your pocket will dictate what you use. Just a smear now.) Then place the fan horizontally flat on the processor whilst sliding the first clip under the processor lug. Then, using a flat bladed screwdriver in the specially shaped other end of the clip, push the clip down and under the opposite lug on the processor socket.

So many motherboards have been ruined by screwdriver blades or that spring clip scraping the motherboard that many manufacturers now put a piece of transparent plastic round that area to protect the motherboard. If you are lucky enough to have this protection remember it is not a bullet proof jacket and still requires care fitting that heatsink. If you have no such protection, use 10-times as much care; one slip of that screwdriver or scrape of the clip and your motherboard is history. But don't let this put you off!

Thanks for the memory

Last thing is the memory. These are mega-static sensitive so handle only by the upper corners. Like the processor they only fit in the memory slots one way round, so check for the cutout on the memory stick and the corresponding lug in the socket (remember my tip about sufficient lighting to do all this). Slide into the slot and end clips and firmly psuh down on both ends until the clips sort of snap back into place.

I won't pretent this is not a bit daunting even for someone who has done it many times before. The amount of pressure you have to excert is not inconsiderable so watch you don't bend the motherboard too much. That's why you need all those mounting points. Tip: in my experience the memory slots are at the edge of the motherboard. Jam some folded up paper temporarily under the motherboard to give added support whilst you fit the memory chips. Badly seated memory can lead to all sorts of problems in Windows, and has been the biggest source of problems for new builders. It all seems to be seated OK until Windows give the old BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) during the build process. Just make sure it is all seated OK with the side clips firmly in place (not still partially at an angle; they should be vertical and fully engaged into the memory sticks.

Because of this mucking about some people prefer to fit memory, processor and heatsink/fan onto the motherboard whilst it is still out of the case and I can understand that approach. But be aware that static electricity can zap all the components in one fell swoop if you are not very carefull doing this.

Disks, hard and floppy

Slide your disk(s) into the mounting bays at the front of the PC. Screw in tight-ish (hey, they're only hard disks your installing here, you're not building the Empire State building. Tight is tight, as my dad always used to tell me.) Connect the flat ribbon cable(s) from the motherboard to the disks (watch for the Pin 1 (red-stripe) orientation) and connect the power supply leads.

Tip #1: the floppy cable is the narrower of the two and you want to connect the drive to the connector with a twist in the cable. If you connect it the wrong way round the floppy light will be permanently on. Power off and reconnect the other way roound.

Tip #2: hard drives (non-serial ATA) have the red strip (pin 1) closest to the power lead. Serial ATA leads are tiny in comparison and only fit one way.

Install the CDROM in the same way. Ideally put the CDROM on a separate cable and socket (channel) but you can share the cable with another device, as long as the CDROM is set to SLAVE (not MASTER) and is the FIRST device on the cable.

The big red switch

So the time has come to fire it all up. Connect your monitor, keyboard, mouse. Turn the power ON at the wall socket. Turn the power ON at the mains inlet of the PC case (if there is such as switch). At this point your motherboard will be "live" but not running. Some lamps (LEDs) may be alight, especially if you have a network card installed. Quick double check that the CPU fan is on properly (or your CPU will last about 1 second), and hit the ON switch on the case front.

At this point a number of things happen very quickly and its easy to get panicky. First off, asumming you have at least connected the switches on the PC case via their dangly cables to the motherboard correctly, and have plugged in the ATX power supply to the motherboard, a couple of fans will start spinning. That's the CPU fan; another, smaller fan on the Northbridge chip (if it hasn't got a large heatsink stuck on it instead); and, of course, the power supply fan(s).

Within a few seconds, you should hear a beep; more than one beep and you have a problem. The single beep means "I am well and am about to boot up". A combination of long and short beeps "beep beep (pause) beeeeeeeeeeep" might mean "I can find no memory on this motherboard". The exact combination of beeps and beeeeeeeeeeps depends very much on your motherboard. Read the fine motherboard manual for "beep codes" to find out what could be wrong.

If you detect a strong smell of burning within those first few seconds (or God forbid, actually see smoke) hit the power switch on the wall QUICK! Perhaps that fan is not on properly at all. Check it out before proceeding.

Let's assume you have the single beep. The monitor now should burst into life and show you screens of white text on a black background. All this will be covered in your motherboard/BIOS manual so let's not dwell. If you used a brand new disk the system will get at far as it can (trying to boot) then fail miserably and sulk. If you used an old disk it may actually try to load Windows (and probably fail, but you never know) or you may get a BSOD.

Put in your Windows disk into the CDROM drive, set the BIOS to boot from CDROM first and off you go!

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