How To Build Your Own Computer: Part 2

Alright, so you’ve read part 1 of this guide and have a good sense of what hardware you want and don’t want to put inside your custom machine. In part 2 of our guide, we will actually go over how to physically put everything together. Now, if you have taken my earlier advice, you shouldn’t be following this guide (or any other for that matter) step for step the first time around! What you should do is get familiar with the entire operation beforehand by reading and watching videos on how to install each and every component that will go into your system. I know I said building a computer from scratch was easy and I completely stand by that point. However, I just want you to get as comfortable as you can be so as to minimize any errors. This is also the chance to ask questions or perform more research to get more detailed information on a specific install phase.

READ THE MANUALS THAT CAME WITH YOUR HARDWARE! This is especially true when dealing with the motherboard. You need to know where each connector and switch is located at. Unless you know exactly what you are doing (but then if you did, you wouldn’t be reading this), reading the manual is one way to familiarize yourself with that specific component. If you are not sure of something, you can always look it up online to find more information. Whatever you do, please read the manuals first! Patience is key. Like with every other project you will set you hands on, your hard work will pay off if you remain calm throughout the entire process. I do apologize if I don’t sound like the dare-devil type (the just-do-it guys) because I’m not. I never want to fail at a project just because I didn’t take the time to go over the entire process beforehand. Can things sometimes go wrong even if you have followed all instructions down to the word? Sure. But you greatly minimize that from happening if you knew ahead of time just what the heck you were doing!

Preparing the Case/Chassis

The very first thing we need to do is to prepare our lovely computer case for our motherboard. Slide both panels off of the sides of the case. What you want to do first is to remove the metal connector face plate that is installed by the case manufacturer. The face plate is what allows the ports on your motherboard to stick out of the rear so you can have access to them. Because the PC case manufacturer won’t know what motherboard you will be using and because various motherboards will have a different port layout scheme, you need to remove the generic plate and install the plate provided by your motherboard manufacturer. Usually, the plate should pop right out if you give it a push from the back of the case. To install the new plate, simply snap it back in place from the inside of the case. Make sure that all sides are flush with the case. If not, you’ll have a hard time installing the motherboard.

Plate

Next, we prepare the spacers on the back panel of the case. Spacers are simply brass standoffs that raise your motherboard off of the metal panel case itself. This is required because if not, the motherboard can short itself out and you definitely do not want that! Never attach any motherboard directly onto the chassis itself without the use of spacers! In other words, the spacers lifts your motherboard up. You then use screws to fasten the motherboard onto the spacers. Before you can do that though, you’ll need to install the correct spacers onto the case. This is the trickiest part. Your case, if it supports both ATX and micro-ATX boards like mine, will have more spacer holes than required because both boards are different sizes and therefore will have different holes in different locations. What you need to do is to carefully align the motherboard to the case (making sure you don’t actually drop it) and see which holes you will need to install a spacer on. The motherboard will have holes for the screws in various places so the important part here is that you account for them all and use a spacer for each one. However, do not mistaken the holes for the CPU fan (there are 4, right next to the CPU). Installing the spacers onto the panel involves just screwing them in. You do want to make sure that they are as tightly fasten to the case as possible. Remember that not all holes on the chassis need to have a spacer on it if your chassis supports both ATX and micro-ATX form factors. You only need to install spacers for the motherboard form factor you are using and only for that form factor.

Spacers Spacers 2

Mounting the Motherboard

It’s up to you at this point whether you want to mount the CPU and RAM on the motherboard first prior to mounting the board to the chassis or mounting them afterwards. There really isn’t any right or wrong way, just what you feel comfortable with. However, I do not suggest you mount your peripheral cards (video card for example) till after the motherboard is safely mounted to the chassis.

You should by now have the spacers correctly installed on the chassis to support your motherboard. We can now gently place the motherboard on top of the spacers to fasten it down. Take care to align it properly and begin using screws provided by your chassis manufacturer to screw it into the spacer. As always, make sure not to over-tighten the screws! Doing so can cause damage to the motherboard. Also, be very careful to try and not drop any screws onto the motherboard or touch any of the components with your screwdriver!

You might notice some washers (red cardboard circles) included with your chassis kit. These are used for the screws holding the motherboard to the spacers. Unless you are using a really, really ancient motherboard, these really aren’t needed. The important part is making sure that each hole that holds the motherboard down has a spacer underneath it and that you align it correctly. I personally used the red washers just because there really isn’t any harm in doing so.

Mount

 

Installing the Power Supply

The power supply unit (PSU) is one of the easiest components to mount. Depending on your chassis, the PSU can either be mounted at the top or at the bottom. The decision you have to make, if your PSU includes a 120mm fan, is to whether have the fan face towards the motherboard or away from it. The former will allow the PSU to suck in the hot air inside the case and blow it out the back. Some say that this is bad for the PSU itself as the PSU can already get really hot and so having more hot air blow over its internal components can shorten its lifespan. By facing the fan away from the motherboard, it can suck in cool air instead. I personally went for the latter option. If your PSU is mounted at the bottom, I recommend you do the same because hot air rises and so even if you face the fan towards the motherboard, it might not be of use. Carefully align the unit into the resting area and insert the screws on the back of the case. That’s pretty much all there is to it! Once again, the important part is making sure everything is aligned correctly.

PSU 1
PSU 2

 

Installing the CPU and Heatsink/Fan

Mounting the CPU to the motherboard is another critical moment. The procedure is extremely simple but it cannot be stated enough that you still need to take extra care in handling the component! Depending on your CPU model, the pins will either be on the CPU themselves or on the motherboard. Either way, it is imperative that you do not touch any of these pins! A bent pin is not something you want to deal with. The CPU architecture I am installing is the LGA 775. This is the older architecture but I’m fairly certain that the procedure should be quite the same for newer one’s as well.

First, you’ll need to unlock the lever holding the CPU cage on the motherboard. Gently slide out the lever and open the cage to expose the actual CPU socket. Anytime you are handling the CPU, you want to be as gentle as possible. Do not use a death grip on it like you are trying to strangle your worst enemy! Gently hold it by the top and bottom using your thumb and pointer finger. New CPU’s will most definitely have some sort of plastic cover protecting the pins on the underside. Remove this cover. Both on the CPU and the socket on the motherboard shows you a notch to help you correctly align the CPU. This is important because the CPU can only go in one way. Once you have aligned it correctly, simply drop the CPU into the socket. If done correctly, it should drop right in. You should not have to use any pressure whatsoever. Make sure it is in place and it is not moving around. However, do not press down on it! Once you have confirmed the CPU is in the socket, close the CPU cage and re-lock the lever to place. Here you will need to exert some pressure to get the lever back into the lock position. This is normal.

Open
CPU
Closed

Once the CPU is attached to the motherboard and locked in place, we can proceed to install the heatsink and fan (they should be in one piece). The generic heatsink provided by your CPU manufacturer should get the job done for an average computer user. If you will be overclocking or do heavy gaming, it is recommended that you purchase a third-party heatsink and fan to better dissipate the heat from the CPU.

The generic heatsink provided by the CPU manufacturer should already have thermal compound applied to it. Look underneath the heatsink and if you see some gray material on it, then you’re good to do. If not, then you’ll need to purchase your own thermal compound. You only need to apply a small drop (the size of a single grain of rice or dime) onto the center of the CPU. Once the CPU starts heating up, it will slowly spread the compound around to make better contact with the heatsink. Alright, so next you need to find the CPU fan power connector on your motherboard. This is where the CPU fan gets its power from. The connector should be somewhere above the RAM sockets. Consult your motherboard manual for more information. Locating this connector is important because you want to position the fan’s power plug as close as possible to this connector. You certainly can unwrap the wire on the fan to reach the connector but you really don’t want to unwrap too much of it. Once you have found the correct orientation, position the heatsink and fan on top the CPU. There should be four long plastic pins surrounding the heatsink and fan in which you insert into the four corresponding holes around the CPU socket. Align it and simply snap each of them into place. Start by snapping the top left and bottom right pins first. Then move to the top right and bottom left. You’ll need to use a little pressure to snap the pins into place so don’t worry about that. If you are having a hard time, try rotating the pins a bit. Once the heatsink is in place, connect the fan’s electrical wiring to the connector on the motherboard.

Thermal Paste
Fan

 

Installing the RAM

RAM is one of the easier components to install. When handling a RAM module, as with other components, try to avoid touching the pins! Always try to hold it by the sides if possible. Locate the RAM slots on your motherboard. Prepare the slot by simply pushing the clips on both sides of the slot. Don’t go overboard though. Look for a notch on the slot. This notch corresponds with the notch on your RAM module. It can only be installed one way. Line up the notches and push down on the RAM module. Don’t be afraid to use a little force. The two clips should automatically snap back in place and hold the RAM module securely. Listen carefully for a clicking sound.

RAM

 

Installing the CD/DVD Drive

Depending on your chassis, the steps to install an optical drive may differ from the steps I mention here but they should be very similar. For my Antec 900 case, I simply unscrew two screws holding the front panel bracket. Once I pop that piece out, I can then slip in my optical drive from the front and then tighten it with screws. Again, depending on your chassis, your steps may differ but for the most part, it should be very similar. You will definitely want to consult your chassis manual for more precise instructions.

Panel
Screws

Installing the Hard Drive

Mounting the hard drive is very similar to mounting an optical drive. You’ll need to find an empty 5.25″ bay to place the hard drive in. Some cases include hard drive cages that will allow you to completely take it out, mount the hard drive to it and then mount it back to the chassis. Older cases might not have these cages but other mounting mechanisms in place. For my Antec 900, I have to unscrew 8 screws to be able to remove one of the two the hard drive cages out. One hard drive cage can hold three 5.25″ devices. I simply slide in my Hitachi hard drive, secure it using the screws provided by my chassis manufacturer, slide the cage back in and then refasten the 8 screws.

Drive 1Drive 2

Connecting All the Cables

It’s up to you at this point to decide how you want to manage your cables. Obviously, your options will depend on how your chassis is set up. Some special cases have built-in cable management features while many others require you to be innovative and create your own solution. Some users even go as far as cutting out some part of the back panel to route the cables behind the case. If you just want something simple, do what I suggest and use simple cable ties to fasten the wires to some part of the chassis. Or, use the ties to simply bundle them up. As long as it’s not dangling everywhere and hindering air-flow, it should suffice. It might not look the prettiest but it should be good enough.

At this stage, we pretty much have all of the components installed to create a functioning system. The last major step is to provide power to these components along with connecting them to the motherboard. We do so by connecting the cables coming out of the PSU to the devices. The procedure to do so is fairly simple but you must refer to your motherboard’s manual for more detailed instructions. For example, you’ll need it to locate where the actual connectors are on the motherboard. Also, as with all cable connections, make sure that each connection is tight by pushing the cables all the way in. Don’t be afraid to apply pressure. However, if going one way doesn’t fit, try turning the connector around.

OK, so first I will be connecting the main motherboard power connectors. These two connectors are very important because it is what feeds the motherboard and CPU with power. First, you have the main 24pin connector. On some motherboards, this connector might be only 20pin. Many modern PSU attach an extra 4 pin connector to the end of the 20pin connector to conform with both types of motherboards. The connector can only go in one way so you really can’t make a mistake. Do not be afraid to use pressure. I actually had to use more pressure than I intended to get both the 20pin and 4pin motherboard connector to be deeply seated into their socket.

The second motherboard power connector is the 4pin 12v connector which I believe is for the CPU. For more power hungry processors, this will be a 8pin connector (4+4).

24 Pin 4 Pin

Next up you attach your SATA devices. These include both your optical DVD drive and your hard drive. Each device will require two connections: one for the connection to the motherboard (data) and the other for the power.

SATA
SATA 2

Next is the very important front panel connectors. These are the connectors that allow you to power on your computer with the power button, reset it, the hard drive activity light and the speaker (the beep you hear when you turn on your computer). Your case may have other switches but these are the most basic ones. Each connector switch is really tiny and for this part, you definitely have to refer to your motherboard manual on where to connect the switches along with how to properly orient them.

Front Panel

If the front panel of your chassis has an audio source (to plug in headphones and microphones), then you’ll need to next find the front panel audio header on your motherboard and connect it with the wire coming from your chassis. The audio type could either be the Intel High Definition audio or the more regular AC’97 audio source. You have to refer to both your chassis and your motherboard to see which one it supports. Obviously if both your case and motherboard supports the HD audio source, use that instead of AC’97.

Audio

If your chassis provides front panel USB and/or Firewire (1394) ports, now is the time to connect them. The procedure is exactly the same as plugging in other connectors. You just have to consult your motherboard manual to locate the header location.

USB

Last but not least, we connect the internal chassis fans. Usually, a fan from the front will suck in cool air from the outside of the case, blow it over the internal components and a rear fan will suck in that hot air and then blow it out the back. The main components you want to remain cool at all times is the CPU, motherboard and graphics card (if you have one). The airflow within a chassis is very important so if one of the fan should malfunction, replace them immediately! Most fans will connect to a simple 4pin Molex connector.

Fan 2

Here is the final image of my build. Notice my sub-par cable management skill.

Final 1
Final 2

Post Installation

Once you have connected all the cables and whatnot, it’s time to fire it up for the first time! Don’t worry, you can leave the side panels off during this testing phase so that if something goes wrong, you can easily get to the components. Hook up your monitor, keyboard and mouse, press the power button and cross your fingers. If nothing turns on, make sure that the actual power supply switch is flipped to the ON position! If everything goes smoothly, you should hear one beep. This is normal. You also would see an error on your monitor since you don’t have an operating system installed on your hard drive but you should be able to head into the motherboard’s BIOS. If something goes wrong during this testing phase, power down the computer, unplug the power cable and make sure that every component and cable is plugged in correctly.

You might want to skip the activation of Windows 7 during the install phase. Un-check the option to automatically activate Windows as soon as you’re online. You are NOT REQUIRED to activate Windows in order proceed with the install. In fact, you can install Windows 7 without entering any license key at all! Many users already know that Microsoft gives you 30-days to use Windows 7 without requiring activation. Once that time period gets closer, you will be notified. During this time, your copy of Windows 7 functions pretty much the same when compared with an activated copy.
The good news is that there is a trick to extend that 30-days to a full 120-days. Why would you want to do so? Simple. You want to make sure that your system is working properly. Remember, once you activate an OEM license key (which is what I presume you will be using to save money over the retail license key), that key will forever be locked to that system. You want to absolutely make sure that your system is completely stable before using that activation! Take advantage of the 120-days grace period to make sure of it!

Once you have verified that everything is working, replace the side panels to your chassis. At this point, you can begin to install your operating system. You have the option of testing your RAM modules now or wait till the operating system is installed and then test everything at once. To test your RAM for errors, simply use a tool such as Memtest or Windows own memory diagnostic tool (you can perform the Windows diagnostic right from the Windows 7 install disc by going to the system recovery option). Your next job is to install all the drivers for your hardware. For the most up-to-date drivers, visit your motherboard or component manufacturer website. You could alternatively use the provided CD/DVD that came with your motherboard/hardware to install the drivers.

Once that is done, proceed to scan your hard drive for any errors using a utility called HDTune. Another great utility to run to make sure your newly purchased CPU is actually what you thought you have purchased, use the awesome CPU-Z utility. You can also use this utility to get a lot more information than just from your processor. When everything is in working order, proceed to reinstall your software. Save a ton of time by using a free online service by the name of Ninite to install some of the most popular software out there with only one installation step. When your computer is configured to the way you want it to be, your last step is to create a backup image of it and keeping it in a safe place.

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