Building a Computer: Part Four

Cable management allows your new computer to breath better and is an important last step. I like to get everything hooked up, with software installed, before I start zip tying. Every build is different, but most cases have a general layout that is similar across the ATX standard. The area behind the motherboard mount is generally designed to hide the mess, with many cases including cable channels to route away bulky PSU cables.

I won’t delve into how to cable manage. The best thing that you can do is to purchase a large amount of zip ties and just start going to town on every bunch and cable route you can find. As you work and isolate paths to route, it’ll be more apparent which zip ties should stay and which should go. More information can be found here.

Installing an operating system is as simple now as dropping a DVD into your optical drive. No more BIOS to configure or Boot drives to select. More information can be found here.

I hope this series has been helpful for you. I’ve added a gallery of pictures below from a friend’s build. He used the Black Fractal Designs Define R4.

Building a Computer: Part Three

Note: This post contains many images that may require additional load time.

You’ve ordered your parts, they’ve arrived, and you are ready to build your computer! This is the fun part. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the amount of wasteful packaging involved with all of the individual components. I wish Newegg and the manufacturers would come together to develop packing materials that fit together like a build your own computer puzzle, as to reduce the amount of overall waste.

The first thing you’ll want to do is setup a clean, dust free, and well lit area to build your new computer. Wash your hands well and frequently throughout the build. Wear an anti-static wrist strap if you have one. If you don’t have one, don’t worry too much, but do be conscious of any movements that may build up a static electric charge. The most vulnerable components are the motherboard, processor, RAM, and graphics processor. Frequently discharge yourself on the steel portions of your case.

I like to start by assessing every component followed by removing the case side panels (usually attached with thumb screws in the back). You’ll notice some cables that come out of the front portion of the computer case, these are used to power the computer on and provide peripheral connections like audio or USB. We’ll worry about these once we have the motherboard installed, so feel free to tuck them away from the mounting area of the motherboard. In the case should be a box or bag containing a set of screws. Sort through these and identify their individual usage. Your case should come with a manual or reference printed on the box if you aren’t sure. The first set of screws you’ll want to find are referred to as “motherboard standoffs”.

Album one, prepping the case for the build.

Motherboards that adopt the sizing standard of ATX will require all of the available screw holes in your case, most likely. Extended ATX would present the only exception. Check out the manual included with your case, it should outline for you where to install these screws. There’s a good chance you’ll need to screw in nine of them, three on the top, three in the middle, and three on the bottom. I purchased two additional case fans, one to act as an exhaust for the top and another to act as an intake for the front of the case. Now is a good time to mount these as well.

Now, go ahead and mount your optical drives and card reader, if you have them. For this build, my case had thumb screws and quick detach covers for the front 5.25″ bays. Note at the end of this build the black bracket that surrounds the 3.5″ card reader, I had to order this to ensure that the card reader fit nicely into a 5.25″ bay seeing as my case did not include one. This is a Bytecc product at Newegg, about $15.

The last step before moving onto the motherboard is to mount the hard disks or solid state drives. The Define R4 case I bought for this build included two separate modular hard disk mounting areas. The top is easily removable and has the ability of holding five hard disks. I cannot imagine why anybody would ever need to do this, but it certainly is nice to know that you can in a $90 mid tower case. I had three hard disks from my old computer that I mounted along with two brand new Sandisk Extreme II solid state disks that nicely mounted behind the motherboard.

A Special note regarding the Define R4 SSD Mounts: These mounts make it difficult for the SATA cables to attach to the SSD’s, because they are flushly mounted to the case and some SATA cables come with “L Connector” ends. This causes a protrusion and can damage the SATA cables or the SSD’s if someone attempts to bend the L cable into place. I had to purchase two SATA power extension cables in order to get them to connect flush, because I had two SSD’s. Just search, “SATA Power Extension” on Newegg and you should encounter a Startech product, many other people have posted reviews stating that they used these extensions as a solution. The cost is about $9 per cable. I wish power supply manufactures did not ship “L Connectors” because they are a pointless feature.

 Album two, mounting the standoffs, fans, and drives into the case.

Now, remove the motherboard from it’s anti static bag and place it onto a clean surface. Depending on whether or not you purchased an upgraded CPU fan determines whether you need to remove the stock mounting brackets or not. I show removing them and installing the ones required by the 212 Evo, which are pretty substantial in comparison. Follow the 212 Evo directions the best you can, as they are marginally helpful. If you have troubles, watch this video. Now mount your processor while being aware of the arrows that match up. If you bend any of the pins, you will ruin your processor. This is sort of difficult to do because the processor drops in nicely if aligned correctly.

Do not touch the top face of the processor, be sure to wash and dry your hands before handling.

I apply the thermal paste pretty heavily. Be sure to apply it in a nice straight line or as a single dot (look up the recommended method of application, which can vary based on the processor architecture) without the possibility of creating any air bubbles. If you mess up, get a washcloth, remove it, and start over. Don’t sweat the tiny size of the tube, you’ll have plenty of thermal paste for about three applications. Check out this article on applying thermal paste. Mount the CPU cooler to exhaust out the back of the case (see pictures for more reference). Place the CPU cooler and try not to lift it once placed, screw down in a cross pattern, starting with the top left screw. Tighten down on the 212 Evo just before you reach the black plastic washer-stays, they serve as a good indicator. You can wiggle the cooler to help the thermal paste settle and spread.

Now, mount your RAM by carefully placing it into each slot as evenly as possible. If you purchased dual channel RAM, be sure to place one in the first slot of each DIMM module. And just before you mount the motherboard into the case, pop in the back plate for the rear I/O connections.

Album three, prepping and mounting the motherboard.


To finish up, mount the power supply and graphics card. To mount the power supply, simply place it into the shelf and screw in the four mounting screws at the rear bottom of the case. The graphics card can be mounted after removing the case PCI slot covers. Note the wireless card I installed as well. These cards are commonly referred to as PCI slot or PCI Express slot cards, this is the naming convention for the Peripheral Component Interconnect bus standard. Your graphics card runs on a very fast and modern version of this original bus standard, so it may include a mounting lock that clicks upon placing the graphics card onto the motherboard.
Re-secure these cards with the screws that secured the PCI slot covers. I would never recommend using tool less mounts that some cases have for these slots.

Album four, mounting the PSU and PCI cards.


In part four, we will discuss the process of wiring, cable management, and the first boot up of your new computer.

Building a Computer: Part Two

Hopefully you took a good look around Newegg at some of the parts available to you for building a computer. By now you are overwhelmed by choice, even I am when I go to build a new machine after years of doing so. Newegg is spectacular and it is the only place I really recommend for purchasing components.

If you aren’t sure what components to choose from or even where to get started, have no fear, the internet is here. There are many resources available to you that will decide for you, based on price point. Check out some of these sites:

Logical Increments – “The PC builder’s friend. Always free. Always awesome.” This site is excellent and is regularly updated. Best viewed on a nice big screen to get a broad overview of what components they recommend from every price point, as low as $200 to as much as $3500+. It is interesting to see how much computer you can get for every dollar more.

PC Part Picker – “Pick Parts. Build Your PC. Compare and Share.” The part picking function is an excellent representation of the amount of choice on the open market. I find it to be annoying to use and I find that I give up quickly after searching for the exact model of CPU or motherboard that I am using in a build. But the nice thing about this site is the inclusion of benchmarks and computer builds from other people all over the world.

Choose My PC – “Cookie Cutter PC Build Generator” This site offers you the best bang for your buck recommendations, but leaves a few things out that I believe are essential to a more reliable build. I do like its simplicity, though.

In deciding on components, here are some opinions I have for you to consider:

  • When deciding on a case consider where your computer will be, often it is tucked away out of sight. With this in mind, practical and without flare is what I would recommend more than the cases that come with thousands of LEDs, fan controllers, and other gizmos you’ll wish you never paid for when they stop working in six months. If you want something small, go for an ITX form factor. Be sure that the motherboard you decide on is compatible and will fit in the case. I would recommend sticking with an ATX mid tower form factor for your first build due to its ease of maintenance and excellent air flow. My first choice of case brands is 1) Cooler Master, 2) Corsair, and 3) Antec. Anything with good reviews will probably be excellent, so don’t limit your choices to what I recommend.
  • If your case includes case fans but has a few slots to accommodate extras, consider purchasing a few more. These range in price from $5 to $15 depending on how quiet or efficient they are. Cheap fans are fine as long as you are okay with the added noise. Most cases arrange airflow to enter through the front and exhaust through the back.
  • Never skimp on your power supply. It will surely fail in due time (about two years) if not 80 Plus/Bronze/Gold certified. I speak from experience here, on multiple occasions. Pay the extra $20 for the better rated model. Check the reviews and ensure that the wattage is adequate enough for what components you decide upon. For simple builds below $500, you can generally get a power supply at about 400 watts and be okay. Anything with a single dedicated graphics card should start at 450 watts and work up depending on your CPU/GPU choices. SLi and Crossfire builds will require specialized power supplies with extra PCI express power support. Modular power supplies allow you to connect only the cables you need to eliminate extra cable slack in your case from obstructing airflow. Although an excellent concept on paper, I find that for my builds it makes minimal difference. You’ll be better off putting that money into a higher wattage or a better certification rating. My first choice of power supply brands is 1) Corsair, 2) Rosewill (Newegg brand), and 3) EVGA (if you have the dough).
  • When considering a processor, don’t let benchmarks or reviews from opinion sites sway your choice too much. A lot of the processors today are excellent and there isn’t a war between AMD or Intel. Choose what fits your budget and needs. Gaming is generally preferred on an Intel processor and multi-tasking and general applications will run quite well on the latest from AMD. As of the day this article is written, an Intel 8 core is still unattainable by many. The AMD 8 core though, is quite attainable. What does this mean for you? It means little actually, because most programs are not designed to take advantage of either in their full capacity. Understand that more cores in general does mean more multi-tasking ability, which is helpful if you like doing a lot of things at one time with your computer. The build featured in this article will be an AMD. Again, I have no preference here. I own both in many different computers and form factors.
  • Stock CPU Coolers are not an option for me. I’ve seen way too many stock coolers that are inadequate and laughable. I’m not even sure why manufacturers choose to include them anymore, most people that build their own PC’s are purchasing separate coolers. I’ve seen a direct link between the longevity of processors and the choice of a beefier CPU cooler. Under extreme load circumstances, it’s very important for the processor to be able to dissipate heat efficiently, even if these loads only occur once in a blue moon. This process is a pain even with help, because the motherboard is such a delicate piece of hardware, and you don’t want to botch it. Open up a Dell or HP and look at what kind of heatsink/fan is ontop of the processor, I guarantee you that it’ll be tiny and stupid, mounts made of plastic. I’ve seen some stupid designs go into the Dell XPS models, which are supposed to be higher quality. The best brand and model to consider is the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO, it’s about $35 and I’ve used it a dozen times without trouble. The only gripe I have regarding these is the fact that you will need to remove the stock CPU cooler mount and mount the included Cooler Master backplate.
  • Motherboards are easy to skimp on. I am quite biased when it comes to purchasing motherboards, as I only purchase Gigabyte branded boards. Call me crazy but I firmly believe that they strike the best balance between reliability and performance. I’ve built computers with everything from the best known manufacturers like Intel (pure shit), Asus (pretty good but buggy),  to the once little known but now popular Biostar (nice). I also greatly weigh reviews on Newegg, with consideration given to DOAs (dead on arrival) and issues with BIOS. Sometimes certain chipsets will give you hell no matter what you do.
  • Graphics cards break down into a couple main price points: $40, $150, $225, and $350. I’ve found these price points to provide the best points of bang for your buck. One of the things you have to accept when deciding on a graphics card is that you absolutely get what you pay for, so if you only have $150 to spend but want the performance of a $225 card, good luck. Check out the Tom’s Hardware article series on the “Best Graphic’s Card for the Money.” Here is a link to the September 2014 issue. Graphics cards are important, if you decide not to buy one for your computer than you might as well go buy a Dell and call it a day. This is the primary component that popular manufacturers skimp on; they are all guilty of this, Apple included.
  • I don’t care too much about RAM/memory. Go for the highest reviews and the middle of the range clock speed. Always cross check with your motherboard manufacturer on their supported RAM list. Gigabyte helpfully supplies this information right on their website, which is excellent by the way. I recently bought a lot of G.Skill RAM, I look forward to seeing how well it holds up and will be sure to report.
  • SSD’s are finally cheap and stable for the most part. Good brands include Sandisk and Crucial. I’ll need to report back on how I’ve found either of these brands to be in more detail, but so far they have behaved well in my time with them. The “liteonit” SSD in my Dell Latitude E7240 is fast but definitely lags behind the ones I’ve used with my latest desktop builds, could be the mobile chipset causing the lag though.

Quite the wall of text there, but I hope that my opinion will be taken with some consideration. I really do believe that brand matters when looking at which components to purchase. Good experiences speak to me and I am always sure to remember the bad ones as well. If you went to a restaurant and weren’t satisfied, would you ever go back? I wouldn’t and generally don’t.

By now you should have a pretty good idea of what you want in your new computer. Feel free to use my part list spreadsheet to record the information and estimate your total cost to make sure it fits your budget.

Continue to Part Three, where we begin the build process.

Building a Computer: Part One

If you’ve decided to build your own computer but are not sure where to begin, you’ve come to a pretty decent article (among many) that aims to put you in the right direction. You will save hundreds of dollars of your hard earned money, learn something new about the standards and design of computer hardware, and will understand better the ripoff that surrounds purchasing a desktop computer from a brand name manufacturer. I’ve written this article to be simple, for those who have never thought of doing such a thing for themselves before, but have the willpower to try!

I built my first computer in middle school after reading a few articles about doing so and seeing the end result from a friend, Rob. At the early age of 14, I had successfully researched, procured parts, and assembled a machine that ran quite well for most of my time in high school. My second machine, built in my senior year of high school, got me through college entirely without a hitch. Both of these machines still run to this day without fault. Impressive? Absolutely. Am I surprised? Not for a minute. I know what went into those machines and why they continue to run so well.

What is most revealing about this story is the fact that there have been many manufactured computers that have come and gone in their life cycle during the last 8 years. Think of all the Dell  and Hewlett Packard’s that lasted just beyond the crest of their warranty expiry, only to be trashed (by frustrated or continually optimistic rich people) with hardware that probably would otherwise still be operational if only for a few minor changes in design, efficiency, airflow, and procurement research.

The beginning of a computer starts with a basic understanding of what each component does, so that you can better decide what you want to buy that will suit your needs the best. I’ve made a table below that outlines the basics, enough for you to wrap your head around it all so you can start researching on your own.

Case ($40-$100) This is the box that your selected components will mount into. Cases come in different sizes, some small and some large. The larger size is referred to as ATX, the smaller is commonly referred to as ITX. This sizing information will coincide with the selection of your motherboard and possibly other components for your computer.
Case Fans ($10-$20) Cases often come with a few fans that are preinstalled, but sometimes it’s a good idea to buy a few more to ensure that your computer has adequate airflow. Generally, the front of the case intakes air and the rear of the case exhausts hot air from components. The most common size of case fan is 120mm.
Power Supply ($50-$100) Power supplies for computers are relatively standardized, they take regulated power from an outlet and transfer it into usable and stable power for components in your computer. Many power supplies look like a box with a bundle of thick wires coming out the side. They range in voltage from 300w to as much as 1200w (1.2kw). This range is dependent upon the components you choose but is not required to be a specific choice, the power supply will regulate its output based on the component load.
Optical Drive ($15) These are becoming obsolete, but are often still desirable due to their use of reading CD’s, DVD’s, and Blu Ray discs. Optical drives are very inexpensive and are generally recommended in a desktop computer. Often times, the operating system software (explained below) still comes loaded on a DVD that you must read to offload the data onto your hard disk.
Memory Reader ($20) Used to read common types of memory cards often found in your camera or cell phone. SD cards are the most commonly used due to their size and read/write performance. A must have for every computer build, in my opinion.
CPU ($100-$1000) The brain of your computer and often the smallest component. This chip looks like a small square with hundreds of tiny pins on the back that mount to the motherboard. There are two big manufacturers of processors that dominate the market: AMD and Intel. Both are excellent choices and are dependent on the user need for performance or value. As of late, AMD has been the value oriented choice and Intel has been the performance market leader.
CPU Cooler ($30) Think of it as the air conditioning for your processor. Generally it is a copper pad, with a heatsink attached to it, and a fan that pulls cold air across the fins of the heatsink. I would never recommend using the stock heatsink and fan that comes with the processor. For about $30 you can purchase a significantly larger and better designed cooler unit for your processor.
Motherboard ($60-$200) The backbone of your computer, or nervous system; the motherboard controls all routing information between every major component including the processor. It takes power from the power supply and routes it to the major components including the CPU, RAM, connectivity ports, and more. I believe that the best motherboards are manufactured by a company called Gigabyte.
GPU ($80-$500) The eyes of your computer, all visual data requested by the processor is delivered to the graphics ports on the back of your computer. This card is sometimes integrated into the motherboard, but for the purposes of making your own computer, you’ll almost always want to purchase a dedicated card for this purpose. Graphics cards make or break the performance of a computer today and are generally the most expensive component. There are two major players in video graphics cards: Nvidia and AMD (formerly ATI).
RAM ($50-$200) RAM is the temporary memory of your computer, operational when the computer is in a powered on state. A good analogy of RAM is the free space on top of your desk, used to allow your brain (or CPU) time to process and work through information. The bigger the bank of RAM you have, the more intensive the tasks your computer can handle at a given period of time. Good RAM is produced by many companies, I often purchase G.Skill branded RAM. RAM comes in smaller sizes and is generally more expensive due to it’s fast read/write capabilities.
SSD ($75-$175) This is the primary storage of your computer, it keeps information even when the computer is off. SSD stands for Solid State Drive. These are the latest in computer storage and have become cheap enough to attain for any level of budget. They are different from a classical hard disk because they do not have moving parts. They are flash based memory. Hard disks are now obsolete in my opinion.
OS Software ($120) This is the software that loads onto your computer, the most popular is Microsoft Windows.

 

Now that we’ve explored the different types of components, let’s set a budget. They range in price, starting from $350 (some say you can build for less) to as much as $3,000+. If you aren’t sure what budget to set but don’t want to spend too much, a good price point is around $800. This is the price point that I believe you will see the most bang for your buck, including longevity of components. Often times the higher price is commanded due to the reliability of the components rather than their performance. When you buy from a name brand, you get neither.

The best places to purchase these components is Newegg or Amazon, due to quick shipping, and decent exchange policies in the rare case of a faulty component. To end this article, I would recommend you go ahead and shop around for a bit to see what’s on the market at Newegg. It’s okay if you aren’t entirely sure what to look for, just start by looking at computer cases or motherboards. Take notice of the specifications of these components and try to cross reference the denotation of sizing standards I mentioned in the chart above.

Continue to part two, where we discuss more in depth the choice of components.

Building a Computer: My Part List Spreadsheet

pc-build-public.xlsx – Click to download a spreadsheet outlining my future computer build for the  series on “Building a Computer.”

And, the quick and dirty specs for those who would rather not download:

Case Fractal Design Define R4 Arctic White
Case Fans 1 x 120mm top and 1x 140mm front (Fractal Models)
Power Supply Corsair CXM 600 Modular
Optical Drive ASUS Internal 24X DVD Burner
Memory Reader Rosewill RCR-IC001
CPU AMD FX-8350 Eight-Core 4GHz AM3+
CPU Cooler CM Hyper 212 Evo
Motherboard GIGABYTE GA-990FXA-UD3 Rev.4
GPU XFX Radeon R7 265 2GB 256-Bit DDR5
RAM G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB DDR3 1600
SSD SanDisk Extreme II 120GB (x2 in RAID 0)
OS Software Win 8.1 Pro 64 Bit