Diary of a First-Time Computer Builder
by C. Roos
For a couple of months now, I have been wanting to upgrade to a new computer. My old PII 450 still works very well, and is a very respectable computer for most applications. However, there are several games out there now that I want to play which have higher system requirements, and I also want to do some video editing. Last Christmas, my cousin Steve did a rendition in pirate costume, of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" set on a pirate ship, for our family. I've been wanting to digitize the video and put it up on the web so that friends and family can see it. I can do the video capture on the PII 450 just fine, but my system always crashes in the editing phase. Also, you can't beat the price on computer parts these days, unless of course you wait a few days, when they will drop further still. But you gotta jump in sometime.
Given my ongoing aspirations to geekiness, and all that I have learned from The Screen Savers and Scott Mueller's Upgrading and Repairing PCs (a must-have book for those who want to build, upgrade or repair their own computer), I've decided to build my new computer on my own. My old computer was built by an independent shop, and they did a good job, but the staff in those places can be pretty scary (one of them almost started a fight with my dad). A prebuilt system (Dell, Compaq, etc) was out of the question. You can't get all the parts you want in it, they can be difficult to upgrade, and they often use non-standard hardware which can cause problems if you want to load a different operating system.
I thought I'd relate my experiences with this project by keeping a "diary" of the process. There doesn't seem to be any comprehensive guide to building your own computer out on the Internet. I had to get my information in bits and pieces, so I thought my experience might be useful to others who are first-time computer builders.
I have to explain that I'm not really a novice at computer hardware. Over the last year, I've installed a CD burner, a new hard drive, and more RAM in my PII 450. A few months ago, I took it apart to install it in a new case when the power supply failed. However, I've never put a processeor in a zif socket, or mounted a fan on a processor. Given Patrick's misadventures with the Athlon processors earlier this year, I've been a little nervous about it. But I've mustered the courage and am ready to jump in to it.
Prologue: What Parts To Buy?
This is thee first question when setting out to build a computer. I knew that I wanted to go with an Athlon based system because the Athlons have been out performing the Intel chips, especially when comparing the prices of each. I also like the underdog. We all have AMD to thank for low prices on processors lately. I also did not want the expense of Rambus, which is the only type of RAM available for the high end Pentiums. I settled on the 1.4 GHz Athlon processor. I know that the usual recommendation is to get the next fastest chip, not the fastest one, because it is usually the better value for the money. But hey, I want bragging rights, for the next two months, anyways. It was only about $20 more than the 1.3 GHz chip.
Next comes what turned out to be the hardest decision: which motherboard? I knew I wanted a DDR system, but many manufacturers have been having problems making stable boards. I had heard of great benchmarking stats for the Asus A7M266 from the hardware sites, but elsewhere I have read about reliabilty problems with them. Most of the VIA chipset boards seemed to have problems as well. I got most of my information about AMD motherboards from amdmb.com, a site specializing in AMD motherboard reviews that was featured on TSS a couple of months ago. They gave a 9.5 out of 10 star rating to the EpoX 8K7A. Its only drawback seemed to be that it only had 2 RAM slots, which wasn't a major concern for me, so I settled on that one.
Another difficult decision was what case to get. Cases seem to get the least amount of attention from hardware reviewers, but with Athlon processors running very hot, it was important to get a case that accomodated cooling fans and wasn't too cramped. I also wanted something that looked nice, and would fit under the shelves above my desk. This eliminated the full tower cases which were simply too big. I'm going with the aluminum Lian-Li PC 60 based on favorable reviews, attractive appearance, and it has a place in back for a case fan. It also has four rather than the standard three drive bays. Later on, I'm planning to set up this computer with slide-out hard drive trays so that I can switch between Windows and Linux without all the problems that can occur with a dual boot system. So, having the extra bay will come in handy.
RAM? A single 256 MB stick is sufficient. Nuff said. I can add another stick later if I need it.
Power supply: I'm going a bit extravagant here. I want a quiet power supply. The fan in the 300W power supply on my current machine is pretty noisy, and the computer is located in my bedroom. Large hard drives take a long time to defrag, and I'd like to be able to set that to run overnight. Since Athlon systems require a bit more power than Intel systems, it should be at least 300W to be safe. PC Power & Cooling offers an ultra-quiet model called the Silencer. But there's no option between 275W and 400W. And the 400W supply is $179, yipes. Well, I'm not really on a budget for this thing anyway.
There have been several good reviews of the Thermalright SK-6 CPU heatsink. I have to figure out which fan to put on it. I want a quieter fan, but I decided to go with the default to insure that I get adequate cooling. If it turns out to be really noisy, and the CPU temps are low enough, I'll go ahead and replace it.
I already have a 40GB Quantum Fireball in my old computer that I've been using as a second hard drive for data storage. A techie friend of mine likes Quantum drives because they are quiet. There's not a lot of data on it, so I'll back that stuff up to CD-RW and reformat.
I'm going shopping for parts. Now, I live in the Silcon Valley, and there are two [cavernous electronics stores]* within five miles. But, as massive as those stores are, they usually don't have the specific parts that I want. What's more is that I've learned that I should only go into [the cavernous computer store] if I need something faster than I can get it delivered. And I only ask for help there if I am feeling particularly masochistic. I learned my lesson a few months ago when I wanted to replace the front panel power switch in a computer case. I took the part with me to show the salesperson, but still ended up being sent all over store to find it. I had given up and was standing next to one of the help stands where the staff hangs out. I looked at the rack next to me, and there it was. Sheesh. I'm going with mostly online ordering through Pricewatch so I can get good prices. It's a bit more risky though, because most of the low prices are for OEM equipment, with limited warranties and a short time limit on returns. But I'm feeling adventurous.
Okay, I've ordered the case, power supply and CPU heatsink/fan. I'm ordering the case in the first round so that it will hopefully get here ahead of the other parts. It's getting late, and I need some sleep, so I'll order the rest later.
* Name has been changed to protect the guilty.
I've ordered the motherboard and CPU. I've decided to get them from the same place just for convenience. I'm ordering the RAM from Crucial because I like the feature of their site which helps you select the righte RAM, and I have been pleased with orders from them before. Their prices are competitive. $45 for a 256MB stick of PC2100 DDR RAM. That's what I paid last March for a 64 MB stick of PC100. RAM prices this year have been in a dizzying freefall. Oops, I inadvertantly ordered two 256MB RAM sticks. I'll have a really fast computer now. This is what happens when you order online late at night.
I also bought rounded IDE and floppy cables, and a silver TEAC floppy drive from Directron. Theirs is a good site for finding parts to match black and silver colored cases. I went with the blue cables because I'm a chick, and I gotta have color in my life, even if it is where it can't be seen most of the time. Kinda like wearing purple underwear, I guess. Maybe someday I'll do that case mod with the window and the internal light.
My DSL was out last night, so I couldn't order the last of the parts that I needed, namely a video card and sound card. What's worse is, to try to make up for lost time, I decided to go to [the cavernous electronics store] tonight to buy them, forgetting my past experiences there. They went 0 for 2. They didn't have either the ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon AGP or the SoundBlaster Live Value cards that I wanted. Fortunately I was able to find both online for a decent price from the same vendor. They also had thermal compound, which I had forgotten to buy earlier for the CPU heatsink. The trip to [cavernous computer store] wasn't a total loss, however. I spent a few moments gazing longingly at the 17" flat panel monitors, which have come down in price to a little over $1000. Someday, but not now. My credit card balances will need a few months to recover. I'm gonna wish I had one when I put this computer together later. It's no fun lugging a 17" CRT from bedroom to dining table where I will be assembling the new computer.
The first parts arrived last night: the power supply and the CPU heatsink/fan. I consoled myself for the lack of Internet access by assembling the fan and heatsink. It was a little tricky because the fan attaches with tight wire metal clips. With some persistence I finally got it attached. Then I realized that I had it on upside down. Oh well, practice makes perfect.
Yipee! The motherboard, processor, and RAM arrived today. At first I wondered where the processor was, until I saw that the nice folks at Bunta had already installed it on the motherboard. Many computer hardware dealers like Bunta offer the option of putting together a CPU, motherboard, heatsink, and RAM for you and then testing it to make sure that it works. This is a good option to consider for novice computer bulders.
Unfortunately, my case has still not arrived, so I busied myself by reading the motherboard manual. This manual from EpoX is much better than the one for the Gigabyte board in my old computer. The Gigabyte manual is so cryptic that I think the guys who deciphered the Rosetta stone had an easier time. Because EpoX is a Taiwanese company, there is still plenty of badly translated English, but you can still understand what they mean. My favorite example is "Use this option to configurate the type of DRAM in your system."
This motherboard has a built-in feature that I have never seen before called a port 80 card. It is a two-digit LED display that displays BIOS error codes, giving a lot more information than the traditional post beeps. This article from Tom's Hardware Guide shows an example: Requirements For BIOS Tuning
Doh! Don't ever do this. I went to Pricewatch just out of curiosity, to see what the current price on processors is. The 1.4 GHz Athlon dropped $40 between when I ordered it and when I got it. Don't go look at prices right after you buy something. It will go down in price, and knowing about it is simply depressing.
Got the case today, and it sure is pretty. One really nice feature that I haven't had in a computer case before is that the motherboard tray and back panel are all one piece that can be slid out the back. This makes it possible to remove the guts of the computer without pulling out all of the PCI cards. I went ahead and installed the power supply in the case.
The drive bay covers pop out very easily, and I can greatly appreciate that. I had to wrestle to remove the ones in my old computer.
The last of my computer hardware (sound and video cards) came today! Talk to you guys later.