Building Your Own Computer (A Treasury Of Computer Knowledge And Links)

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Here I offer some advice and tips for those considering assembling their own computer from component parts. This information is intended for the particular combination of components I set forth on the page of this site entitled "My Ideal Computer" but much of it will apply to any comparable set of components.

The Main Divisions On This Page:
o Rolling Your Own

Rolling Your Own

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I would not recommend building your own computer if you are not comfortable with even simple tools or have zero knowledge of computer hardware or electrical devices in general. But in all other cases I recommend it very, very highly. Rolling your own will, of course, save you some serious money. More vital yet, though, is the sad fact that if you do not roll your own, you will simply not be able to get a computer with your choice of hardware. Not one vendor I enquired of was willing to build--at any price--a system comprising the optimal components I describe on this site: not one vendor. Few were interested in bidding at all on a custom system (as opposed to one of their own devising) and none of those could come really close to my component list. (All that is because dealers have ties to certain parts suppliers and not others.)

Believe me, there is really very little to building your own computer from parts. For tools, a couple of average-sized screwdrivers (regular and Phillips) and a pair of average-sized long-nose pliers are pretty much it. The recommended Elan Vital case comes, as I explained above, with a very clear set of instructions accompanied by photos for each step. There are really only three stages to the building: assemble the case and mount the motherboard into it (essentially one operation); plug in the cards; and plug in the needed cables. Computer-cable plugs and sockets are so designed that it is nearly--I am tempted to say "totally"--impossible to plug something into something in a way that will cause any harm.

First-time system setup is pretty straightforward too: the BIOS on my recommended motherboard needs little or no fiddling, being able to automatically sense the hardware in the system; in any event, that motherboard comes with a very detailed manual describing in detail all the settings available.

Do I have any specific tips or "gotchas" to point out? Yes, a few. Here they are, not in priority order. These tips are meant only for the specific hardware recommended on this page, though most will be valid for other hardware as well.

1. Mount the hard drives for good air flow. I have set forth the details elsewhere on this page, but here's a little more: put the CD Drive in the top slot of the "wide" bay and the floppy drive in the top slot of the "narrow" bay, then put two hard drives--using suitable adapter kits--in the other two "wide" bay slots and the third (if you do get three hard drives) in the bottom "narrow" bay slot. "Top" here means what will be the top when the case--a "tower" type--is standing as it will be when in use.

2. Be very careful about static electricity when handling any electronic component. I have never once personally lost any hardware to static electricity even though I do not own a "discharge strap" but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. The very best way to be sure is to have a piece of large-gauge wire thoroughly connected at one end to a good, solid ground and the other end, bare, available to you wherever you're working: just grasp the wire before each time you go to handle a piece of electronics. If you don't have a good ground (unpainted house plumbing, for example) conveniently available, use common sense: don't wear rubber-soled shoes, work in an uncarpeted area, and if static shocks are common in your house (that's especially likely in the winter) zap yourself out before going to work on the hardware.

3. Remember that the LED lead for the hard drive wants to get plugged into the SCSI drive-controller card, not the motherboard.

4. The motherboard mounts on little screw fastenings that snap into holes in the case. For a particular motherboard you only use a few of the many fastenings provided and remove the extras before you actually mount the board. Ignore the case manual's information on which screw fastenings to use for your motherboard: just hold the board in the case over the fastenings and use your eyes (but look carefully to identify all the true screw holes in the motherboard--each will align with a fastening). As you try the motherboard for location, be very careful not to scrape its bottom on any of the extra fastenings you will later be removing from the case.

5. Before you plug any cabling in, lay it out in place to see what best lies over what; it's a nuisance (and a strain on the connectors) to be constantly unplugging and replugging cables because the next one fouls on the one you just did. And avoid sharp turns or other obvious stressing of any flat cabling.

6. If you get, as I recommend, an "OEM" CPU it will likely not come with any instructions. Also, the recommended CPU cooler has no instructions worth mentioning. You will need to spend a few minutes examining the various bits of mounting hardware for both the CPU itself and the cooler (which mounts onto it) to see what goes where how. In the end, it becomes clear, but fiddle with it until you're sure you've got it worked out. (What would it cost these folks to include one lousy page of mounting instructions, with maybe even a sketch?)

7. Most cable plugs and sockets are arranged so that you cannot put the plug in upside down or backwards. Look carefully at each plug and socket combination to make sure you're putting them together correctly, because even the right way often takes a little force to get the plug in and you don't want to be forcing it if you have it a wrong way.

Each mechanism--hard drive, floppy drive, CD drive, fan, whatever--will require a power plug to it; those are the four-connector plugs (usually white plastic) with a red, a yellow, and two black wires going to them. Those wires and plugs come out of the power supply (the metal box mounted into the case). Note that they can "daisy-chain": some units, notably fans, have both a socket and a plug connected, so that they do not eat up a power lead (there are usually fewer coming from the power supply than there are units needing power, which is exctly why fans and some other things provide that daisy-chaining).

Besides the several four-wire power leads, there is a large one-of-a-kind many-wire power cable whose plug goes onto a matching socket on the motherboard.

Finally, there are those annoying exceptions to the "one-way-only" rule for cables, the signal cables. Those are recognizeable because they are all flat ribbons of cable. On each such cable, the outermost wire on one side or the other will be marked in some way, commonly by being red in color. That wire identifies the "Pin #1" side of the cable;

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(Last updated: 27 December 1998.)

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