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Having recently heard the woes of some family who are getting by with a tiny netbook and some kind of obscure Linux, I decided to build them a real computer for Christmas using components I have left over after various upgrades. I thought it would make for an interesting article to document the build process with photos, so here it is.
This isn’t a how-to article though – I couldn’t possibly write about how to build a PC from scratch in one article. Instead, I will give tips and describe the process in a whirlwind manner, but you should maybe think of it more as motivation for you to try the same. The whole process took about 2 hours.
If you haven’t already seen them, we have a number of fantastic free downloadable guides on the matter:
- Your PC Inside & Out Part 1 – Case, PSU & Motherboard
- Your PC Inside & Out Part 2 – CPU, RAM & Video Cards
- The Idiot’s Guide To Building Your Own PC
Here’s what I gathered together to work with:
- An Asus p5B motherboard, dual core Intel CPU, and 2GB RAM. This was left over after my last upgrade so it’s already assembled.
- A standard ATX case I’ve had sitting around boxed for about 10 years.
- 380w power supply, with a variety of molex and SATA connectors, bought recently for under $50.
- A nice 17″ Dell monitor I rescued from the trash at Kyoto University last year, and a USB mouse and keyboard.
- Selection of 160GB SATA hard drives (I’ll be using 3 for this).
- Multi-DVD RW drive (IDE).
So here we go. The first step is to open up the case and add the motherboard spacers.
These screw into holes in the case and raise the motherboard, and must be matched to the form factor of the motherboard you are using.
Connecting The Case Switches
This is probably the hardest step of all. Before securing the motherboard to the case, I made sure to write down a quick diagram of the jumper pins for the case switches and LEDs as they’re difficult to see once the motherboard is in place. These can be found on the bottom left, if you were looking down into the machine, and they look like this:
There are 5 things which need to be connected here:
- Power switch
- Reset switch
- Power LED
- Hard disk LED (sometimes IDE LED)
+ve LED leads are coloured or red, -ve are black or white. These match up to the corresponding pins on the board. This can be immensely fiddly.
Some cases have USB ports on the front, which need to be connected to the motherboard to be functional, the pins for which are situated next to the switch pins we just connected. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have a bundle of 8 cables which must connected one by one to the matching jumper.
A quick Google search for my “asus p5b usb pinout” led me to this helpful diagram:
Each USB port requires 4 cables, so the bundle of 8 can be split up into two sets of 4 cables. One USB port uses the top set of pins, one the bottom. The cables should be labelled with either a 1 or 2, plus something similar to the following:
- V on the motherboard = VCC or +5 cable
- – on the motherboard = D- on the cable
- + = D+
- G = GROUND
You may find your power supply doesn’t match up if your case is particularly old and you’re trying to use it with a newish motherboard. Older PSUs have only 20 pins, while newer ones have 24. You can see the difference in this photo.
There’s another 4 pin power cable next to the CPU that needs to be attached.
Before screwing in the PSU, verify everything is working. Connect the power suppy and try to power it on. Without a video card installed yet, there’s an initial error beep – but this is fine, it’s just to check the switch wiring, and the motherboard fan is spinning.
Next up is the video card. They come in 3 types:
- PCI – the long white slots in the photo below. These graphics cards are the oldest you’re going to find.
- AGP – brown or blue slots (not pictured).
- PCI-Enhanced – the black slot in the picture below.
Motherboards from the last 4 years or so will likely have either AGP or PCI-E (not both). The two are not interchangeable.
I have a few drives, so I dug out a 7,200RPM as the main bootable system drive, with some slower ones to act as data drives.
Most DVD drives need to be installed from the front, so that means taking the front panel off carefully and avoid pulling the wires for the power switch. It’s also better to connect any cables now before it’s slotted in, as things can get quite tight back there.
Power For Everything
Power for system components will come from either a regular molex 4 pin, or SATA style plug for SATA devices. Case fans will often come with daisy chain connectors for regular molex power plugs, like this.
Checking The BIOS
After connecting a keyboard, the first thing to do is access the BIOS setup screen. I’m looking first to see that it’s correctly recognised the three hard drives and DVD drive I put in:
All good. Then I examine the hardware monitor to see if the system temperature or CPU is abnormal. I leave this running for a while, just to check that they’re not rising which might indicate a fan failure somewhere.
Then once Windows is installed, I’m sure we can all agree that the most essential final step is to install Google Chrome!
That’s it from me. I hope you enjoyed this little visual build-log. If you’d like to try the same thing yourself, keep an eye on FreeCycle, or head down to the city dump and find old some old PCs to play with. Just tearing them apart fully, mixing a few components, and trying to make them work again is a fantastic learning experience. Comments are welcome, but I might not be able to answer any specific hardware related questions for your particular build.