Building Your Own Computer – Part 2

Now it’s time for the fun part – actually putting together your very own customized computer and watching it come to life!  If this is your first time and you really don’t know where to start, just follow this tutorial and we’ll get through it together.  But first, let’s run through some precautionary measures and considerations before we start un-packaging everything.

Computers parts are especially sensitive to electrostatic, even at levels humans can’t feel.  With that said, BEFORE touching any computer component you need to ground yourself.  You can do this by touching anything metal – the computer case comes in very handy for this.  If you were thinking ahead and wanted to be extra careful, you probably bought an anti-static bracelet along with all your computer parts.  This handy little contraption fits around your wrist and includes a clip that you can attach to something metal so you’re always grounded.

Next, make sure you have a clean and uncluttered workspace large enough to place all your computer parts.  Putting together a computer is much like putting a puzzle together; you want all your pieces laid out in an organized fashion so they’re easy to find.

Lastly, you may need a screw driver or two (I’d get a Philips and a Flathead; preferably with a magnetic head in case you drop a screw into a tight place), ample lighting, and a comfy chair (unless you’re like me and was standing up the whole time).

One final note and this is EXTREMELY important, so please heed my warning.  DO NOT FORCE ANY PART INTO PLACE!  Computer parts are to be handled with care and should NEVER be forced into their place(s).  If you read Part I of this tutorial, please remember my theory about only fitting a circle into a circle and a square into a square.  While some parts might fit tighter than others, know it should not take any undue force to mount or place computer parts to their interfaces!  Okay, now that that’s over with…we can finally get started so…

LET’S GET STARTED!!!

When my package(s) arrived from UPS, I felt like an 8-year old boy on Christmas morning!  The sun was glistening, birds were singing, and mother Earth was smiling.  Not really but it sure felt that way.  So first thing was first; accounting for all the parts I ordered.  One by one I checked off the parts I ordered as I pulled each individual component out of the box.  Once everything was accounted for, I physically inspected each part; checking for visible signs of damage, etc.  Everything looked good, so I got started…

Again, depending on if this is your first time or not, you can get started however you wish.  If you’ve built a computer before, go with whatever works for you.  If not however, follow along with me as I had a very easy time and everything fit together very nicely with the steps I took.

Step 1:  Mounting the power supply to the computer case

A fairly simple step to get your started.  Before messing with the motherboard, RAM, and CPU, I mounted the power supply to the computer case.

Simply slide the power supply into the computer from the INSIDE.  I’ve heard horror stories of people trying to jam the power supply through the back.  Once you get the power supply into the case, the mounting holes should line up like so…

Simply tighten down the screws that were provided and TADA, you have taken the first step in building your own computer!  Congratulations!

And there you see my son’s head after admiring my work!  LoL!

Step 2:  The Motherboard

At first sight a motherboard can look very intimidating to a newbie but in all actuality, 90% of the motherboard is already configured for you.  All you need to do is add the RAM modules, the CPU, and any add-on cards you might have purchased.  You can safely ignore all those little “towers” as I call them, but PLEASE exercise caution when working around these.  While I can’t be positive of what these towers and all the other little funny shaped things you see on a motherboard does, just consider them very important to the operation of your motherboard.

Adding the processor (CPU)

The CPU is considered the “brains” of the computer.  This little piece of metal and silicon is involved in 100% of your daily computing activities whether it’s something as simple as clicking your mouse or something as complex as editing the video you just took of a recent vacation.  Because of its importance, you should handle this piece with EXTREME care.

Once you have located your CPU socket, the area that will house your CPU, you are ready to mount the CPU to the motherboard.  Unpackage your CPU and any other parts that came with it (likely a heat sink and maybe some thermal compound).  Typically, new CPUs will come with a heat sink and thermal compound applied to it already but if not, you WILL need to apply thermal compound to it.  Processors can easily reach 100 degrees Celsius otherwise known as the boiling point for liquids…not a good thing!  Properly cooled CPUs should run anywhere between 20 and 60 degrees Celsius depending on its activity and depending on the type of processor.

In my case, this being a brand new Intel i3 CPU, thermal compound has already been applied to the bottom of the heat sink.  The next step is to “open” the socket so you can insert the CPU into its final resting place.  Just about every motherboard will have some type of locking mechanism to securely hold the CPU in place.  Notice the locking mechanism on my motherboard is an arm that goes over the metal shell of the CPU socket.

Here we’ll need to pay extra special attention to how to actually insert the CPU into the CPU socket as it ONLY GOES IN ONE WAY!  If you click on the above (or below) image you will get a much larger version of it.  Once enlarged, look very closely at the bottom left hand corner of the CPU socket; do you see two tiny white triangles facing each other?  If not, I’ve placed a red circle on the same photo below to help you out.

So what’s the significance of these white triangles?  These white triangles tell you how to insert the CPU because the CPU will also have a triangle on it (as seen below).  These triangles need to match up.  Essentially these triangles are telling you the correct pin configuration.  Again, it will only go in one way; so find the triangles on the motherboard and the triangle(s) on your CPU and match them up.  Gently but evenly apply pressure to the top of the CPU until it’s securely in place like so…

Above is a full shot with the CPU installed.  And below includes a photo of the locking mechanism securely holding the CPU in place.

One last thing with the CPU then we can move on to the RAM.  As mentioned earlier, CPUs must be cooled properly for them to work optimally.  You can literally damage the entire system simply by overheating the CPU.  Stop errors, unexpected shut downs and restarts, and a whole slew of other nasty things can happen as a result of an improperly cooled CPU.  Moving on…the heat sink that is generally included with your CPU provides this cooling along with the thermal compound applied to the bottom of the heat sink.  Then, the heat sink is mounted on top of your CPU where the bottom of the heat sink (where the thermal compound is located) is physically touching the top of the CPU as shown below

Once the heat sink is properly mounted on top of the CPU, simply lock the heat sink in place.  In the above image you see three black locking devices (a fourth is hidden from view).  Simply twist these locking devices into the motherboard, locking them in place.  Its worth noting that heat sinks have different locking mechanisms but generally all will need to be fastened to the motherboard.  We will get to connecting the heat sink power to the motherboard shortly.

Adding the RAM

Most of your performance is determined by a combination of your CPU and the type and amount of RAM your computer possesses.  Many people ask me, “Can you clean up my computer…it’s so slow…”.  True, a congested (or fragmented) system can bog it down but the quickest, most effective, and cheapest way to increase performance on your computer is to add more RAM.  Note that a motherboard will only support specific types and amounts of RAM.  For instance, my BIOSTAR motherboard supports DDR3 1333/1066 RAM modules and supports up to 16GB of this particular RAM.  You can’t add DDR2 RAM modules to this motherboard or add more than 16GB, so be aware of its specifications.

Like you’ve heard me say before, these modules only go in one way!  For this particular build, I purchased 8GBs of G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 240-pin DDR3 1333 (PC3 10666) desktop RAM.

Each one of these “sticks” contains 4GBs of RAM.  Notice the notches towards the middle left of the modules.  You’ll find where the RAM is to be inserted will have a “male notch” indicating the proper way to install the RAM. The below photo shows these notches in greater detail.

On opposite sides of the RAM rails as I call them, are eight locking levers, four on each side for the four rails.  To open them, simply take your thumbs (one of each side for the specific rail you wish to open) and firmly press down.  This should open the rail so you can install the RAM modules.  After that, line up the notches as described earlier and firmly but EVENLY push down on the RAM modules until the locking levers return to their original position.  Note that sometimes the locking levers will not fully return to their original position so you might have to help them out a bit.  The key here is to listen for the click, indicating the RAM was installed correctly.  Improperly seated RAM can cause the system not to start as well as a variety of memory errors.

You’ll notice in previous pictures this particular motherboard has 4 RAM rails (2 white and 2 red).  The color combination does exist for a reason and here’s why.  If you are not planning on filling up the motherboard with RAM, you’ll need to insert the RAM in very specific RAM rails.  Since I’m not filling up my RAM rails, I have to place my two RAM modules in “bank” or “rail” “DDR3_A2” and “DDR3_B2”.  Below is an image detailing the rail naming convention.

The other options are of course “DDR3_A1” and “DDR3_B1”.  Consult your motherboard manual and/or documentation for specific information in regards to which banks or rails to utilize if you’re not filling them up during the initial install.  As mentioned earlier, improperly seated RAM can cause system failures and malfunctions and so too can utilizing the incorrect rails.  If you’re planning on filling your RAM rails up during your initial install, you can safely ignore this information.

Step 3:  Mounting the motherboard to the case

Mounting the motherboard to your case is a relatively straight-forward process; so long as you heeded my advice and made sure the case you selected during your initial purchases will accommodate your motherboard and vice versa.

The above image indicates the appropriate mounting holes for my size motherboard.  You see some holes without the brass fittings that are used to accommodate other motherboard sizes, so when preparing to mount the motherboard to the case you’ll need to lay the motherboard inside to get an idea of which mounting holes you’ll need to use.  Once you locate them, take the brass fittings that were supplied with the case or motherboard and screw them into place.  These brass fittings allow for the motherboard to be elevated so it is not in direct contact with the case.

Once the brass fittings have been fixed to the case, simply lower your motherboard over them and fasten the motherboard down with the appropriate screws that came with the motherboard or case as illustrated below (I’ve done the first two).

That’s it…the motherboard is now mounted to the case.

Step 4:  Installing the hard drive

Hard drives are somewhat sensitive to movement because of the platters and read/write heads located inside the actual hard drive, so be gentle when handling them.  Solid state storage hard drives (the technology used in thumb drives, flash drives, etc.; no moving parts) are becoming popular due to the limited life span of these moving parts found in their traditional hard drive counterparts but for now, traditional hard drives will do the trick.  I considered purchasing a solid state hard drive but as of this writing, they are still a bit expensive.

Installing a hard drive is as simple as opening the case side panel, placing it on the shelf, and fastening it to the sidewalls with the screws provided.  In the below image, note the holes in the sides of the hard drive.  These are used to mount the hard drive to the sidewall of the case.

Line up the holes on the hard drive with the holes in the sidewall and fasten them down with the screws provided like so:

Once you’ve secured the hard drive to the sidewall, you can connect the cables to the motherboard.

Step 5:  Installing the DVD/CD Drive

Installing your DVD/CD drive is much like installing a hard drive.  They are similar in size and shape, are fastened in place very much the same, and connect to the motherboard almost exactly the same.  The primary difference though is that generally DVD/CD drives are inserted from the outside in.  Here is an image of my case before I inserted the DVD/CD drive.

If it wasn’t already done for you, remove the face plate where you want to insert the DVD/CD drive.  In the below image you will see this particular case allows you to install three 5.25″ drives.  These slots are otherwise known as drive bays.  You’ll notice I have already removed the plastic face plate as well as the metal piece only viewed with the face of the case removed.

Once the face of the case has been removed, simply insert the DVD/CD drive from the OUTSIDE IN.  Much with the power supply issue, I’ve heard of people struggling to install a DVD/CD drive from the inside out, so please refer to your documentation on the proper way to install your particular DVD/CD drive.

Slide the DVD/CD drive all the way back until it’s flush with the front of the case AND the mounting holes are lined up.

Once they are lined up properly, fasten the DVD/CD drive to the sidewall of the case as illustrated below:

Complete on both sides and you’re done!  Now all that’s left is to connect the cables from the DVD/CD drive to the motherboard, much like you did with the hard drive.

Step 6:  Connecting the power supply and peripherals

If you haven’t already began connecting your power supply and peripherals to the motherboard, now is a good time to do it.  So far I’d like to think we’ve understood one thing:  every part in a computer has a dedicated home and will only fit where it is designed to fit.  The power supply connectors are not any different.  Different connectors of different shapes and sizes are only meant to go in one location and one way (I’ve heard that somewhere)!

In the past, power supply units generally came with everything already attached inside the power supply.  While convenient in some aspects, this leads to unused power connectors restricting air flow (which I’ll get to in a bit) or otherwise just being in the way.  Now days, power supplies are more modular, meaning you only connect what you need.  Unfortunately I didn’t take a good shot of it, but my power supply comes with the main ATX connector already connected as well as the ATXPWR2 connector; and that’s it.  The other necessary power connectors accompanied the power supply unit but they can be connected on an “as needed” basis by simply plugging the needed power cables into the power supply via modular connectors.  Here is an “ok” image of just the main ATX power connector in the power supply.

So anyway, onto connecting everything.  As already referenced, the main ATX connector is the main power supply connector.  This is what breathes life into your motherboard as a whole.  It’s by far the largest power connector of any others and very hard to miss.  It’s often even labeled for you as you can see on my motherboard “ATXPWR1”

Much like the CPU had to be inserted a very particular way, so do these connectors.  You see the white 90 degree angle at the bottom left hand side of the power connector?  That is very similar to the white triangles I mentioned earlier.  It indicates the correct pin configuration.  In this power connector example, this is often known as “Pin 1”.  Incorrectly situating the power connector in this slot can damage the electrical system thus rendering your motherboard useless, so use extreme caution.  Here’s a close up of “Pin 1” and the white angle I mentioned.

Simply connect the ATX power connector to this slot.

Another connection that needs to be made is to “ATXPWR2”.  This is a much smaller connection but again, easy enough to find as it is generally labeled for you as seen below.

Some of these are 4-pin connectors and some are 8; depending on your motherboard.  My power supply came with a 4 and 8-pin configuration so I was covered either way.

Since my “ATXPWR2” has a 4-pin configuration, I connected the appropriate cable to the slot (read motherboard & power supply documentation to find out which you should use) and attached it like so:

You’re motherboard is now able to be powered on.

Unfortunately there are too many variables in the rest of the power cable connectors to provide any real help to everybody.  My hard drive and DVD/CD drive are SATA and my fans are powered by Molex connectors.  I will address these areas only.  If you have IDE drives, first get into the 21st century, and secondly, consult your documentation for assistance in connecting these.

SATA drives are much easier to connect than older IDE drives not to mention their MUCH faster data rates.  Newer motherboards will almost always have SATA connectors in place.  Here are mine located in the below image.  Note the two white connectors and the four red connectors.  The white connectors are for SATA III compatible devices; offering data rates at 6GB/s.  The red connectors are for SATA II compatible devices; offering data rates at 3GB/s.

Take the cable provided by your hard drive manufacturer and simply connect one end to your motherboard and the other end in your SATA compatible hard drive or DVD/CD drive.  Next, the power connector, which is a little larger than the SATA data cable will connect to the power supply on one end and the device on the other…simple as that.

I mentioned earlier about getting back to how to connect the heat sinks power connector to the motherboard, so here we are.  Again, nicely labeled for you, simply take the power connector from the heat sink and connect it to the motherboard as illustrated below:

Lastly, I’ll cover the fans.  My fans happen to be connected via Molex connectors.  Molex connectors are 4-pin connectors used to connect a variety of devices.  And as of this writing they are becoming phased out due to their difficulty in making connections and removing connections.  They work by friction instead of latches, which most other cabling methods have adopted.  Latches are easier to work with and reduce the stress placed on the pins and wires when connecting and disconnecting.  Anyway, one very important thing to remember…MOLEX CONNECTORS ONLY GO IN ONE WAY!  Yes, I said it again.  Molex connectors, both male and female, have one straight side and one arched side.  Believe it or not, they’re supposed to be idiot proof but again, I’ve heard horror stories.  Connecting Molex connectors wrong WILL damage your system and/or components, so please…don’t be that idiot.  With the fans, you simply connect the Molex adapter already provided by the fan to the Molex connector coming from the power supply and you’re done.

Step 7:  Cable Management

Cable management while not entirely necessary can impact the performance of your system.  How you ask?  My answer is air flow.  Much like a vehicle runs much better when its cool (think cold air intakes) computers operate much better when a steady cool air is flowing through it.  The fans that reside inside your case act as an intake and exhaust system.  Generally the front fans suck in the air and the fans near the back of the case act as exhaust fans; pushing out the warm air.  If you have a cluttered case, air flow can be restricted quite a bit.  Managing cables and clearing obstructions between the intake and exhaust fans can extend the life of your computer and to help with cable management, I implore you to purchase cable ties.  These come in very handy in this step.  Here are a couple tips in cable management:

  • Route your cables in such a way that you can tie a number of cables together with a cable tie
  • Route the cables in such a way that they are not in the path of any fans.  While this can be nearly impossible depending on the size of your case, the location of the connectors on your motherboard, and the amount of add-on cards, devices, and other components you have, just do the best you can.

Step 8:  IT’S ALIVE…IT’S ALIVE!!

Now the moment of truth; the moment you’ve been waiting for!

With the “bare essentials” (refer to Part I of this tutorial) in place, all electrical and data cables connected, the CPU and RAM chips seated properly, and the power supply plugged into the wall, it’s now time to finally turn on your brand new, fully-customized PC.

If you just want to test the initial functionality of your system, don’t worry about connecting a monitor, keyboard, or mouse as you likely don’t have an operating system (OS) installed on the hard drive anywhere.  Therefore, the most you’ll see on the monitor is a message stating something to the effect of “No Operating System Found” or “Insert Boot Disk and press any key to continue…”.


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