Hey everyone, and welcome back to the Modern Nerd. I will be concluding the rather daunting task I laid out in last week’s article this week, bringing that pile of parts together to form something useful (and awesome!). We’re building our own personal desktop computers, so let’s get started.
We can build it. We have the technology.
But we’ll need a place to do it. Your workstation is a very important thing, because you’ll want to make sure you have full access to everything with no interruptions. Non-carpeted areas with a large table that is well-lit will be your best bet. I would also recommend a mat of some kind over a hard table surface, not only to protect your equipment from scratches, but to prevent those tiny little screws and such from rolling off of the table and forcing you to look on your knees for 10 minutes trying to get them back. That’s the worst. You will want to have a large piece of metal somewhere that you can periodically touch to make sure you are not building up a static electricity charge, and certainly not shuffling your feet across the carpet will be a good start, but remember that the tower is large and made of metal. So don’t sweat it too much. Other essentials are a Phillips-head screwdriver, preferably size 0, and a power source to plug things in as necessary.
Anatomy 101 – Computers have exoskeletons?
Yes, it’s true. Computers are much smarter than your average insect, but one trait they share is their hard outer casing. We’re going to start with our tower after getting set up. First, familiarize yourself with the layout. Does the power supply overlap with where the motherboard should go in a corner? That will tell you what needs to go in first. Most of the time, your power supply will be place in the back and top of the tower, the motherboard will be anchored to one side of the tower, and the opposite side panel will be easy to remove via thumbscrews or a clever mechanism that opens the tower. Racks for mounting hard drives and CD drives are generally towards the front.
Start with the motherboard. These usually have included with them great diagrams and pictures showing you what are what, so I won’t spend a ton of time on that. I will note however that your board will include the ports to plug in sound, USB’s, network cables, etc. This should show you the orientation to anchor it inside the tower. Connect your board, and then you can mount the CPU.
Cooling off the Main Heat Source
When you buy a processor, you don’t just get a chip. You get a heatsink and a fan with it. A heatsink is a large, usually aluminum block that will conduct heat away from your processor and with the help of the fan, blow it out of the machine. Some elect to replace their stock heatsinks with sexier, more powerful fans and that is of course your choice. But keeping your CPU cool is mandatory either way. After you seat the processor into the receptor in your motherboard, and clip everything in (you’ll be amazed at how easy this step is, by the way) you need to attach the metal heatsink to the back of the CPU. This is usually done with screws or clips, depending on how the sink is built. Adding thermal paste to the connection is essential. You don’t want air gaps between the processor and the heatsink, because they can lead to areas that aren’t being cooled properly. Use a generous amount of the thermal paste that is usually provided with the processor (if it isn’t, tubes are less than 5 bucks) and get your heatsink attached. Be careful not to get the thermal paste on your clothing, it’s a pain to get back out again.
Getting the Hamsters Running on Their Wheel
Next you’ll want to get everything powered. When you purchase your power supply and unbox it, you’ll notice that it’s not much more than a transformer box with a ton of wires sticking out of it. That is why I recommend getting some cheap plastic wire-ties and a pair of clippers to organize the rat’s nest when everything is set up. If the wires are kept neat, you will have better air circulation, you’ll be able to clean the computer out more easily, and you’ll be able to add and subtract parts as necessary quickly and easily. The box screws into the tower, with the kill switch and AC power inlet towards the back. I am only going to say this once, but I’ll put it in big bold letters so it’s hard to miss.
DON’T PLUG ANYTHING IN!
Don’t do it. Please. Nothing should be plugged into the wall sockets until assembly is completed.
There is a long list of things that need to be powered by the power supply, but most important is that you recognize that the CPU and the motherboard each have separate power supply ports on the motherboard. One is dedicated to the CPU, which is a 4-pin plug, and the other supplies the entire motherboard with power, depending on it’s configuration it’ll be a 20 or 24-pin port.
Simplifying the Mess
From here the installation isn’t all that daunting. The tower has buttons that need to be wired to the correct slot of the motherboard to make the on/off button work. If it has any USB’s that aren’t part of the motherboard or other cool extras, they need to be connected.
CD Drives and Hard Drives need two things – data connections, and power. The power comes from the cords at the back of the power supply; the data connection will be a SATA cable into the motherboard. Graphics cards come in two varieties, the powered and the unpowered versions, depending on how much money you’ve spent. Either way, connect the card to the motherboard and screw the expansion slots in, making sure that everything is seated properly and aligned.
Fans are controlled by the motherboard, so make sure that the control wires are placed into the correct slots, and they are powered by the supply too.
Your RAM needs to be seated correctly into the motherboard, but does not require external power. Just make sure it’s clipped in correctly.
From here on it’s going to be trial and error, testing and troubleshooting. I discovered that my motherboard has its reset and power switches labeled incorrectly, so I needed to swap those wires. Go figure. You’ll enjoy getting everything connected and putting together the puzzle if you are a technically minded person. Just remember that there should be no loose wires inside the case when you are done, because that could contact something else and cause a short. Motherboards have built-in safeguards to prevent damage, and usually won’t start if something is shorted. If you hear a constant beeping from the PC’s internal speaker when you’re starting up, something isn’t plugged in right, open the case and check it again.
This is only an overview of everything. Read your instruction manuals and quick-start manuals with your equipment if you are unsure of anything, and don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. But building a computer yourself is nowhere near the challenge that it used to be, and doesn’t require anything other than patience and a love for solving puzzles. And maybe Google.
Thanks for reading everyone. I wish you luck in making your desktops the most powerful piece of equipment in the house, made even more cost efficient by doing it yourself. Email me if you want me to answer any specific questions or if you have a topic you’d like me to elaborate a little further on.
Blog Contributor at The Computer Fixer