You might fancy putting together your next desktop computer instead of buying it off the shelf. Here’s some (useful?) advice to help you along the way.
Why Build Your Own?
These days even the big manufacturers can build you a computer tailored to your needs. In fact, companies like DELL have
- competitive prices
- plug and play, ready to go, they can even set it up for you
- you get support when things go wrong
- you can purchase a guarantee in case you have an accident/theft
Those are the advantages of buying new, what about building yourself? Here are my personal favourites:
- Getting packages delivered in the post
- You don’t have to wait on hold on the phone when things go wrong, instead you get to fix it yourself
What You’ll Need
You’ll need to buy the components and put them all together. I like to shop at Scan Computers, for good prices and great service.
When buying components you need to do your homework to get a good deal. Find out what’s hot and what’s not using websites like tom’s hardware. Also check out the specs, reviews, customer feedback, buying guides, and price comparisons before parting with your hard earned cash.
The essential components you need are:
- Motherboard: Buy a good motherboard that supports the best CPU, RAM speeds in your budget. Motherboards may have network cards, sound cards, and even graphics cards built in to them. Check to see exactly what you’re getting, you don’t want to go back to buy missing parts.
- CPU: Buy the best you can afford. You can buy retail boxes with CPU fans in them or buy the CPU fan separately. You need good cooling on your CPU to stop it overheating and getting damaged. Intel or AMD? AMD are cheaper, some say intels run cooler/faster. You’ll need to research the chips you can afford and make a choice.
- RAM: If a CPU is like a person cooking in the kitchen. The RAM is like the worktop. You need plenty of space to cut and chop and mix and whisk etc. So get plenty of RAM, especially when it’s cheap eg 1GB-4GB. 2GB is recommended for vista apparently
- Graphics Card: You need one to connect a monitor to the base unit. You can buy a motherboard with a graphics chip built in (it’ll say something like ‘onboard vga’), in which case you don’t have to buy a separate (usually more expensive) card. New cards come out all the time, so get the best card you can afford. If you’re into games and stuff, you might look for an SLI capable motherboard, and buy two cards, which work together for better performance.
- Hard Disk Drive: This is your permanent storage. Depending on what you plan to do on your PC, you can easily fill around 60GB to 250GB of HDD space. Buy as big as you can. 40GB minimum.
- Wireless Networking Card: To connect to your WiFi network
- Optical Disc Drive: To use CDs, DVDs, BluRay discs. Try a DVD-RW drive so you can write to DVD discs as well, so you can make data backups etc.
- Case: A good case to put it all in. You can buy cases with power supplies already in them, or you can buy the two separate. You’d generally go for a 450W or above power supply. You should also look out for front panel USB/speaker connectors on your case, so you’re not reaching round the back to plug things in all the time.
- Cooling: You’ll need a fan on your CPU, a fan attached to your case to draw air into the case, optionally, a fan to blow more air directly onto the CPU, and an optional fan to extract air out through the front of the case.
Putting It Together
Get an antistatic wrist strap. You can get away withouth one, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. You should touch a grounded surface before you start, to discharge any static electricity.
I like to insert the CPU & RAM into the motherboard before attaching the board to the case. Just be careful of the board when you attach it, because it can be chunky, and heavy.
You’ll need open your case, and find the screws that come with it. Sometimes the pack of screws gets stuck in some corner, so look for it properly. You have to attach the motherboard to the case. The motherboard musn’t be in contact with the case though, as the case is grounded, so if it touches, it’ll short out the board and probably screw your system up. Your motherboard manual should show you how to attach the motherboard, if it doesn’t google for a guide.
Attach your graphics card next, unless it’s onboard. Once the graphics card is connected, connect the cables coming out of the front of the case for your Motherboard Power, PC speaker, Hard Disk Drive Usage Light, Power Switch and Reset Switch to the motherboard. There should be some help in your motherboard manual telling you where to connect what. The cables should be labelled positive, ground etc. so make sure they’re in connected right way around.
Connect a PS2 keyboard up. Sometimes the USB ones don’t work with the BIOS the first time. You can go into your BIOS settings by pressing F2/delete keys on your PS2 keyboard and enabling an option usually called ‘legacy usb support’.
Connect a mouse, monitor and a power supply. See if it starts up, and you get your BIOS screen (usually a logo, and black screens with your PC specs). If not, wait a couple of seconds, sometimes things might take a couple of seconds to show on screen. If you’re still not seeing anything on the monitor, continue to troubleshooting.
If on the other hand you’re system boots, attach a Hard Disk Drive, Floppy and Optical Drives and boot the system again. If it starts again, you can proceed to install windows.
Next install the drivers for your motherboard chipset, graphics card etc. from the CDs you get with the boards.
If all goes well, install the latest windows updates to your system such as the service packs, .NET frameworks etc.
If all is still going well, visit your motherboard/graphics card/etc. manufacturers’ websites and download the latest updates. I don’t recommend flashing the BIOS unless you’re having problems. I wouldn’t even update the drivers unless theres a good reason for it, eg security update, performance increase etc. This is because, sometimes you have to think about the saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. In other words, new drivers can bring new problems. Especially the driver updates suggested by windows update.
You’re all setup with windows now so you can go ahead and install your own software.
Assuming you’ve hooked up the graphics card, and your system isn’t booting:
The first thing to ask is this: are all the cables connected properly?
Is the power switched on, and connected? Is the monitor switched on & connected?
Is the power cable coming out of the PSU connected to the motherboard? Sometimes there is a separate 12v connectors which you may have missed.
Is the power switch cable connected properly? Sometimes it’s hard to get it onto the pins, or it might not be the right way round.
Do you have all the right components? Is your RAM/CPU the right compatible with the motherboard?
Are you getting error lights/beeps/codes? Check these in your manual.
Is the RAM seated properly?
At this point, you could take out the graphics card and test it in a separate system. If it’s working fine, re-insert it into the motherboard. If you can’t test it elsewhere, try reseating it anyway.
Re-seat the CPU. Take it out and put it back in carefully.
Re-seat the CPU Fan. If the fan is loose, you’re system might start, then cut out. You can usually check the CPU/motherboard temperature in the bios (to see if the CPU fan is working/connected). Some fans need to be attached quite firmly so you might need to get it on tighter.
You’re system should be booting by now. If it isn’t try searching for your problem online. Usually other people will have already asked the same question on a forum somewhere. You just have to search for the right words, and read loadsa silly posts, totally unrelated to what you want, until you hit gold.
Problems Installing Windows
Sometimes your computer boots but you get other wierd problems. For example, your computer boots, but your display doesn’t turn on if you restart the computer. Or windows won’t install properly, eg setup begins but you get unexpected read errors (like hard drive read/write errors) which make the setup fail.
Most of the time this is to do with your CPU clock speed. You need to go into your BIOS (F2 or delete on startup) and set your CPU clock speed manually to a lower setting. Be careful when making these kind of changes, check your manual to make sure you’re settings are compatible with your components.
Rarely: You get windows installed, but it starts crashing etc. This may be solved by updating your hardware drivers. If this doesn’t help, try updating the motherboard BIOS.
If you screw up when updating the bios (eg you accidentally hit the standby button on you’re keyboard) you’re system can stop booting. This is when you dig out the manual and carefully follow the instructions. In most instances you can fix the problem no matter how serious and scary it looks.