Your Ideal PC

<table width="100%" border="0" cellspacing="4" cellpadding="0" bgcolor="#DBDBDB"> <tr> <td width="32" valign="middle" align="center"><a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank"><img src="/howto/graphics/116993-pdf_logo.gif" width="32" height="31" border="0"/></a></td> <td width="1"><img src="/shared/graphics/spacer.gif" width="1" height="2" /></td> <td class="black11" valign="top"><div class="blueCBold11">Article PDF Available</div> The magazine version of this article is <a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank">available for purchase</a> in a downloadable .pdf format. This complete article includes all the formatting, photos, tips, and charts contained in the original.</td> </tr> </table>

It's easy to forget just how good we PC and technology fans have it. Sure, the cryptic acronyms, evolving standards, and boneheaded salespeople can be annoying, but if you think they're bad, try shopping for furniture some time. This sofa's almost perfect, but the color doesn't match your d&#233;cor. This other one's the right color, but the style's all wrong. Want to add on another seat to accommodate a growing family? Forget it.

With PCs you can get what you want at any time by upgrading your current PC or by building one from scratch. A few simple upgrades can make the system you already have more productive and more pleasurable to use. Short on hard-disk space? Add a new drive. Getting creamed in the latest games because they run so slowly? Time for a new graphics board. But maybe you need a whole new system. With just a little more technical know-how than a typical upgrade requires, you can build a PC yourself from hand-picked parts. And you might even save a little money along the way.

Choosing the right components is critical to ensuring that you end up with the perfect PC. To get you started on the right track, we've assembled a guide to the main components in a PC, including recommendations for each part (based on what you intend to do with your machine), along with shopping tips and advice on installing or upgrading each piece.

Build It Yourself

If you'd like to assemble your own, our step-by-step guide shows you how to put everything together. We made four special-purpose PCs for this article: a loaded power system, a mainstream system built for maximum value, a computer designed to operate as silently as possible, and a media PC that can serve as a living-room entertainment hub. We include complete lists of components and prices for these four systems.

A few rules of thumb can help you decide whether it would be more cost-effective to upgrade your existing PC or to acquire a new one by buying it ready-made or by building it from individual components.

To decide which way to go, use our guide to each of the components, make a list of the parts you want to upgrade to, and then add up their cost. If the total comes to more than about $600--or to more than four components in need of upgrading--it's time to think about getting a new system instead. For around $700 you can pick up a new system like the Dell Dimension 4600 that probably runs faster than your current system would after upgrading.

Building your own PC can save money, but you're unlikely to save a huge amount in these days of stiff competition between PC vendors. Still, by building your own you'll get exactly the system you want, and gain insight into how PCs are put together.

One drawback of building a PC is that you won't get an overall warranty. PC vendors offer warranties and tech support on the whole system when you buy one; but if you build your own, you'll have to rely on the warranties offered with the individual components, which may be shorter or have conditions attached. For instance, if you damage a processor while building a PC, you may have trouble getting a free replacement CPU.

In every section that follows, you'll find a list of the components we selected for each of the four systems we built, plus guidelines on what to look for while shopping. We picked the best components we could find for each type of system, but our recommendations are merely starting points; in your quest to build the ideal PC, you may find parts that better suit your needs.

The Components--Cases: Different Shapes, Different Sizes

Cases: Different Shapes, Different Sizes
Photograph: Marc Simon
When you choose a case, you're buying a home for your PC. The right one can make working with your system a dream, but picking the wrong one will come back to haunt you. Though you can find a case plus power supply for less than $50, we recommend that you invest a bit more to obtain a case that will last through many upgrades and that you'll enjoy looking at.

Pick the right form factor: Most cases and motherboards use the ATX form factor--a set of design standards that specify things such as the size of the motherboard and the connectors on the power supply. It's critical that your motherboard match the form factor of your case. Be aware of other standards--for example, Shuttle-style cube-shaped systems that come with their own custom motherboard.

What's it made of? Steel cases weigh more than aluminum ones, they cost less, and they muffle the noise from components such as hard drives better than aluminum cases do. On the other hand, aluminum boxes tend to be more stylish, and they are certainly easier to carry around.

It's what's inside that counts: Even the best-looking case will seem ugly if installing your components becomes a pain. Look for helpful features like a removable motherboard tray, tool-less drive carriers, and multiple fan locations for cooling the system.

Does this come with a power supply? Cheaper cases often come with cut-rate power supplies that may not be up to the task of powering a high-end PC. Some expensive cases don't come with a power supply, which lets you choose your own.

Power Picks and Upgrades--Choose the Right Power Supply

Chart: Component -- Wattage required
If you've added a lot of new components to your PC, you may be overtaxing your existing power supply, so look at getting a bigger, better one. Power supplies can cause problems--including random crashes or even component failure--if they are asked to produce more power than they are designed to generate.

Most power supplies are rated according to their maximum output (in watts). Online tools such as PC Power and Cooling's Power Supply Selector can provide a quick ballpark estimate of the wattage you need, based on the components in your system. To calculate your wattage requirements more precisely, use the table at right to tally the power drawn by all your components; then tack on at least 30 percent more for headroom and the upgrades that you'll add over time. For more details, see " Power to Your PC."

Our Picks

  • Power PC: Aspire X-Alien ATXA7AW ($91). This alien-inspired aluminum tower case includes a 420-watt power supply, six lighted case fans, and a window that shows off all of the expensive components.
  • Quiet PC: Antec P160 ($110). This case, specifically designed for quiet computing, uses rubber mountings to help muffle the hard drive. We paired it with a 400-watt fanless power supply from Coolmax (the Coolmax CF-400, $120) that runs silently.
  • Value PC: Antec SLK3700-BQE ($90). This moderately priced case comes with a good power supply and plenty of drive bays; its design is easy to work with, too.
  • Media PC: Shuttle XPC SN41G2V2 ($270). It's pricey, but this compact case includes a motherboard and a power supply.

<table width="100%" border="0" cellspacing="4" cellpadding="0" bgcolor="#DBDBDB"> <tr> <td width="32" valign="middle" align="center"><a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank"><img src="/howto/graphics/116993-pdf_logo.gif" width="32" height="31" border="0"/></a></td> <td width="1"><img src="/shared/graphics/spacer.gif" width="1" height="2" /></td> <td class="black11" valign="top"><div class="blueCBold11">Article PDF Available</div> The magazine version of this article is <a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank">available for purchase</a> in a downloadable .pdf format. This complete article includes all the formatting, photos, tips, and charts contained in the original.</td> </tr> </table>

CPU: AMD or Intel

AMD's Athlon 64 FX processor.
AMD's Athlon 64 FX processor.
The motherboard and the CPU are the brains of your PC, so selecting these components is probably the most important decision you'll make.

Choose the processor first: Despite running at slower clock speeds than their Intel-based rivals, AMD-based systems have maintained a significant performance lead in our WorldBench testing for a while now. At the high end, Athlon 64 FX CPUs are the fastest around.

Choose the motherboard next: This choice is mainly determined by the processor you select: Motherboards are designed to work with specific CPUs, indicated by the type of socket that the processor fits into. Socket A, Socket 939, and Socket 940 are designed to work with Athlon processors, while Socket 478 and the new LGA socket 775 are for Intel CPUs. Many dealers offer bundles consisting of a processor, a motherboard, and memory; these can be a good way to save some money. The system chip set (the chips that pass data between the peripherals and the CPU) is the other component that differs among motherboards; it determines which integrated components (graphics, sound, ethernet, and so on) will be included. Though integrated graphics aren't generally as good as dedicated cards, they're usually adequate for simple tasks.

New technologies to watch: Several influential new technologies and chips are making their way onto motherboards. On the Intel side, the new 915 and 925 chip sets support both PCI Express and DDR2 memory. Boards using these chip sets are designed to work with processors that fit the LGA775 socket. These motherboards weren't available when we built our systems, but they will be by the time you read this. Meanwhile, new chip sets that support the newer 939-pin Athlon 64 processors are starting to arrive and will be among the first to support PCI Express on the AMD side.

An OEM CPU is cheaper; can I use one? Yes--but OEM (for "original equipment manufacturer") chips have much shorter warranties (15 days), and they lack a cooling heat sink and fan.

Buying Tips: Keep Your CPU Quiet and Cool

The Zalman CNPS7000-AlCu
Photograph: Kevin Candland
The stock heat sinks and fans that accompany retail CPUs do an adequate job, but they're noisy. For truly silent cooling, swap out the standard heat sink and fan for quieter ones.

For our quiet PC, we selected a Zalman heat sink and fan (pictured at right): the CNPS7000-AlCu ($35). This is a great choice, but it won't work with all motherboards.

Thermalright and Spire make heat sinks that adjust to accommodate larger, quieter fans. You can reduce the speed--and hence, the noise--of any fan by adding a simple $5 device known as a fan speed regulator. Just make sure that you use a utility such as Motherboard Monitor to keep track of your CPU's temperature.

Upgrade Focus: Can I Upgrade My Motherboard?

Sure, as long as you're ready to add a new CPU and RAM with it. Your drives, AGP graphics card, and PCI add-in boards will work fine on almost any new motherboard (PCI Express motherboards without AGP slots are the exception). If you've kept the other components of your system up-to-date, a new motherboard will give you a faster machine for as little as $300. Read more pointers on when to upgrade and details on making the switch.

Our Picks

  • Power PC: AMD Athlon 64 FX-53 processor ($800) and Asus SK8N motherboard ($180). If you want the fastest system you can buy, AMD's Athlon 64 FX-53 CPU is the way to go.
  • Value PC and Upgrade: AMD Athlon 64 3000+ CPU ($230). and AOpen AK89 Max motherboard ($115). Intel has several good, low-cost processors, but we chose the cheaper AMD chip for its performance.
  • Quiet PC: 2.6C-MHz Intel Pentium 4 CPU ($150) and Gigabyte GA-8IPE1000-G motherboard ($95). A fanless Zalman CNPS7000-AlCu quiet heat sink cools the processor.
  • Media PC: AMD Athlon 64 2500+ CPU ($80) and Shuttle XPC SN41G2V2 motherboard (integrated into case). CPU speed isn't paramount for most dedicated media PCs; the graphics card does much of the heavy lifting.

<table width="100%" border="0" cellspacing="4" cellpadding="0" bgcolor="#DBDBDB"> <tr> <td width="32" valign="middle" align="center"><a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank"><img src="/howto/graphics/116993-pdf_logo.gif" width="32" height="31" border="0"/></a></td> <td width="1"><img src="/shared/graphics/spacer.gif" width="1" height="2" /></td> <td class="black11" valign="top"><div class="blueCBold11">Article PDF Available</div> The magazine version of this article is <a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank">available for purchase</a> in a downloadable .pdf format. This complete article includes all the formatting, photos, tips, and charts contained in the original.</td> </tr> </table>

Memory: Get the Most You Can

RAM comes in modules.
Photograph: Marc Simon
Because it's an easy upgrade to perform and can significantly improve performance (see below), boosting a PC's RAM is one of the most popular hardware enhancements people undertake. This 5-minute procedure can let you keep more programs open, accelerate memory-hungry graphics programs and games dramatically, and sharpen your PC's responsiveness.

The memory modules that most recent systems accept are 184-pin DDR DIMMs of varying speeds, such as DDR333 or DDR400; the number describes the RAM's clock speed. You'll sometimes see memory referred to by the bandwidth it offers, such as PC2700 (DDR333) or PC3200 (DDR400). The type you should buy depends on the motherboard and processor you choose: For best performance, opt for the fastest type of memory module that works with both. A new type of memory (called DDR2) offers even speedier performance, but this can be used only on new systems equipped with the latest Intel chip sets.

Get at least a gig: Sure, you can save money by installing less, but 1GB of RAM puts you comfortably above the point at which most speed gains occur, and it should enable you to run the most demanding applications and increase the speed of your system when you keep more than one program open at a time.

Go dual-channel if possible: If your motherboard supports it, use dual-channel memory. This type of memory boosts performance by increasing the speed at which data can be read and written. But for it to work, you have to install matched RAM modules in pairs. Some early dual-channel boards came with only three RAM sockets. If two of those sockets are already filled, you must either upgrade with a single DIMM (and lose some performance) or replace your two existing DIMMs.

Don't buy cheap memory: RAM prices go up and down every day, but no matter how high they get, don't purchase cheap, no-name memory. Dodgy RAM can create many confusing, hard-to-diagnose problems, so it's worth spending a bit more for RAM from a well-established brand, such as Corsair or Viking, to avoid these problems. You should also buy all of the memory you'll need at once: Although memory from different manufacturers should work together, we advise you not to count on it.

Adding RAM: More Memory, Faster PC

If your system has 256MB or less of RAM, it's a good candidate for a RAM upgrade. Though most current PCs come with 512MB or more, just 18 months ago systems often had 256MB--not enough to run today's memory-hungry programs.

To see what sort of difference a RAM upgrade makes, the PC World Test Center evaluated the speed of a test system (a machine from Velocity Micro) on our new WorldBench 5 benchmark, using first 256MB and then 1GB of DDR400 RAM. Our test system got a significant speed increase from the extra memory; we found that the video editing, 3D rendering, and multitasking tests all showed at least a 10 percent increase. That's not bad for an upgrade that costs less than $200.

Test Report: Memory Matters (chart).


Richard Baguley

Upgrade Focus: What Type of Memory Should I Buy?

to upgrade your RAM, you must know what type of memory your system takes. Manufacturers like Crucial and Kingston offer automated memory selectors that will identify the right type for your PC.

Our Picks

  • Power PC: Two 512MB PC3200 Corsair Registered XMS3200 double-data-rate dual inline memory modules ($155 each). The AMD Athlon 64 FX processor that we selected for our power system requires a pair of registered DDR modules.
  • Media, Quiet, and Value PCs, and Upgrade: Two 512MB PC3200 DDR SDRAM DIMMs ($110 each, various manufacturers).

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Graphics Board: Pick Your Features

Gainward's Silent FX graphics card.
Gainward's Silent FX graphics card.
Graphics boards have become the high fashion of computing. As new, superfast graphics chips emerge every six months, trendy techsters don't want to get caught checking out the latest 3D game with a board that's "so last season." But you needn't spend a fortune to get good performance.

No need to buy the fastest: At the high end ATI and NVidia have been flirting with designer pricing, as loaded enthusiast parts go for upward of $500. At those prices, only the most hard-core gamers will pay to keep up with the latest styles; but even if your needs are relatively modest, you can easily find an affordable board that boosts your PC's 3D graphics speed.

Features matter: Most graphics boards today let you connect a second display to your PC. If you'd like to use your PC to record TV, a board with an integrated TV tuner (like the ATI All-In-Wonder line) is a good choice. EVGA (www.evga.com) makes a competing set of TV tuner-equipped graphics boards based on NVidia's Personal Cinema chip set.

PCI Express--the next generation: The latest graphics cards now use PCI Express, an improved version of the AGP slot on most PCs. Our tests of new PCI Express graphics cards detected no significant speed gains as a result of upgrading from AGP to PCI Express, though that will surely change as graphics chip speeds increase and as games get more complex.

Will a New Graphics Board Mean Faster Games?

An integrated graphics processor is like a suit bought at Wal-Mart: It does the job, but it doesn't look great. The PC World Test Center tested a PC with integrated graphics on a number of 3D games, and found them virtually unplayable. But when we installed a $220 Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card, the games ran much faster.

This upgrade isn't difficult. First, find out who makes the graphics chip you already use: Right-click your desktop, choose Properties, and select the Settings tab. Your graphics board will be listed under 'Display'.

All graphics cards based on chips from NVidia now use the same set of drivers, so if you're upgrading from one NVidia-based card to another, download and install the latest NVidia drivers. The same is true for ATI-based boards. If your new card switches graphics chip brands, you should uninstall the graphics drivers before you upgrade.

Shut down your PC, unplug it, and open the case. Remove the old graphics board (if any), insert the new board into its slot, and secure it with a screw. Plug your PC back in, turn it on, and follow the manufacturer's directions to set up the new graphics board.

Test Report: Integrated vs. Dedicated Graphics (chart)

Our Picks

<table width="100%" border="0" cellspacing="4" cellpadding="0" bgcolor="#DBDBDB"> <tr> <td width="32" valign="middle" align="center"><a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank"><img src="/howto/graphics/116993-pdf_logo.gif" width="32" height="31" border="0"/></a></td> <td width="1"><img src="/shared/graphics/spacer.gif" width="1" height="2" /></td> <td class="black11" valign="top"><div class="blueCBold11">Article PDF Available</div> The magazine version of this article is <a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank">available for purchase</a> in a downloadable .pdf format. This complete article includes all the formatting, photos, tips, and charts contained in the original.</td> </tr> </table>

Hard Drives: Two Improve Performance

Western Digital's WD Raptor WD740GD.
Western Digital's WD Raptor WD740GD.
The capacity of hard drives continues to increase: You can now hold 400GB of data on a single drive, which is great news for digital media pack rats and video editors. But though you don't have to compromise on the drive's size, you still have a few choices to make when picking a hard disk.

Is RAID the right choice? This has nothing to do with keeping bugs out of your PC. RAID, which stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, lets you use multiple hard drives to boost disk speed or to keep a mirrored backup of your data in case a drive fails. Either setup requires multiple identical drives, and configuring them calls for a little mental gymnastics. An increasing number of systems on our Top 15 Desktop PCs chart use a configuration called RAID 0, which can significantly increase system speeds for data reading and writing. If you would like to try it, first select a pair of drives that match the storage capacity you want. With 120GB hard drives available for under $90 and with RAID support included on most new motherboards, RAID can be a great value. The storage company AC&NC offers a guide to RAID setups.

Should I go with Serial ATA? If you're building your own PC from scratch, the answer is simple: Yes. Even bargain-priced motherboards now include SATA support, and going with an SATA drive will make your system easier to set up and your drive simpler to move to a future PC when the time comes.

If you're looking to boost the storage capacity of an older PC, the answer gets more complex: To use a SATA drive, you must add a SATA controller card. Many SATA controller cards, such as the Promise FastTrak S150 TX2plus ($60), give you the option of adding RAID support to your system, too. Is it worth it? Well, if you do a great many tasks that involve a lot of disk access (such as video editing), it can be. But otherwise, just add a second parallel ATA drive.

Transferring Your Data: Move Your Data to a New Drive

When you add a new hard drive to an older PC, it's almost always faster than the drive already in use. But simply installing the new drive on your PC will strand your OS on the slower drive, forfeiting some benefits of upgrading. Make sure you use the new, faster, hard drive as your boot drive.

Retail hard-drive upgrade kits usually come with software that you can use to clone your existing drive to the new one, making the faster drive your boot drive. Alternatively, you can use a program like Spearit Software's MoveMe to move data over a network from an older PC to a new one.

But before you do this, pause and consider whether it may be time to start over. Over time Windows fills up with discarded files, drivers, and other crud. Adding a hard drive can be just the excuse you need to reinstall Windows from the system restore CD that came with your PC.

Upgrade Focus: Break the 137GB Barrier

Many people who have added a large hard drive to an older PC report that it mysteriously failed to show its full capacity. That's because, without a technology update, operating systems older than Service Pack 1 of Windows XP are unable to recognize more than 137GB of available space on a hard drive.

If you use an older OS, you can work around this problem in several ways. Visit your hard-drive manufacturer's Web site for instructions. XP users can check Microsoft's advice on what to do after installing SP1.

Our Picks

  • Power PC: Western Digital WD Raptor WD740GD 74GB hard drives (two; $210 each). We installed a pair of these hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration to provide super-speedy storage.
  • Quiet PC: Samsung SpinPoint P SP1614N 160GB hard drive ($105). Silent PC Review picked this as the quietest 3.5-inch hard drive it tested, and we found it to be extremely quiet in use.
  • Value and Media PCs, and Upgrade: Seagate Barracuda ST3200822A 200GB hard drive ($130). This hard drive balances capacity and value, making it a good choice for various uses.

<table width="100%" border="0" cellspacing="4" cellpadding="0" bgcolor="#DBDBDB"> <tr> <td width="32" valign="middle" align="center"><a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank"><img src="/howto/graphics/116993-pdf_logo.gif" width="32" height="31" border="0"/></a></td> <td width="1"><img src="/shared/graphics/spacer.gif" width="1" height="2" /></td> <td class="black11" valign="top"><div class="blueCBold11">Article PDF Available</div> The magazine version of this article is <a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank">available for purchase</a> in a downloadable .pdf format. This complete article includes all the formatting, photos, tips, and charts contained in the original.</td> </tr> </table>

Optical Drives: Speedy and Cheap

Plextor's PX-712SA.
Plextor's PX-712SA.
Whether you upgrade or build a new PC, adding a fast optical drive can increase its flexibility. And even if you're on a budget, drives that read and burn any format under the sun won't break the bank.

One drive'll do ya: No need to worry about whether your drive supports DVD+RW or DVD-RW--just plunk down $90 for an 8X DVD combination drive that writes to all major formats of rewritable DVD. For example, the Lite-On SOHW-812S, which we use in our value PC configuration for this story, shows its adaptability by burning DVD+R and -R discs at 8X, both rewritable DVD formats at 4X, CD-Rs at 40X, and CD-RWs at 24X. You'd save only $40 by scaling back to a simple CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive, so you might as well spring for a DVD burner that does it all.

How much speed do you need? Even no-longer-top-of-the-line 8X DVD burners can write an entire disc in less than 10 minutes, and CD burning speeds these days are sufficiently fast at the upper end that the difference between 48X and 52X is negligible. Consequently, if you're on a budget, there's no reason to pay a premium for a 12X or 16X DVD burner or to insist on buying the fastest CD-RW drive you can find.

Lose that bulky data cable: The flat, wide ribbon cables that Parallel ATA drives use to carry data can restrict airflow inside your case, robbing your system of valuable cooling; and functionality aside, they're just plain ugly. Rounded data cables available at your local PC store look much nicer, and they don't impede airflow. For a geekier solution, check out Plextor's $200 PX-712SA, the first optical drive to use Serial ATA instead of parallel ATA.

Get a storage boost: What's 12 centimeters in diameter and can hold 8.5GB of data? A dual-layer DVD disc, that's what. We tested some of the first for this month's " Better Backups." Most stand-alone DVD players can play the dual-layer discs that these drives burn, boosting the amount of video that will fit on one disc. You'll pay a small price premium for early dual-layer drives, however, and compatible media may be hard to find at first. In addition, writing to dual-layer discs is slower than writing to single-layer ones--2.4X for the former, as opposed to 8X, 12X, or 16X for the latter. We recommend waiting until the prices of drives and media fall before switching to dual-layer unless you're desperate for the extra storage space.

Adding Extra Drives--One Cable, Two Drives: Master and Slave Demystified

Adding a drive to an older PC isn't always a question of simply plugging it in. Most older PCs use parallel ATA technology, where two drives share one cable (this is referred to as a channel; most PCs come with at least two IDE channels for a maximum of four drives). Setting a jumper designates each drive as either a master or a slave, which permits a single cable to connect two drives to one IDE channel. The jumper settings for each designation are usually labeled on the drive itself.

A few simple rules should guide your configuration choices. If possible, each drive should sit on its own IDE channel configured as a master drive. If you have two drives on one channel, always make the faster drive the master drive.

or example, suppose that you wanted to add a second hard drive and a DVD burner to a PC equipped with one hard drive and one CD-RW drive. In that case, you would want to set the new, faster hard drive as master on the primary IDE channel. Your older hard drive should be the slave drive on the primary channel, with the two optical drives as master and slave on the secondary channel. PC Guide has a detailed overview of the ins and outs of configuring IDE devices.

Our Picks

  • Power System: Plextor PX-712SA ($230). This new 12X dual-format rewritable DVD drive uses the Serial ATA interface for easy installation.
  • Media and Value PCs, and Upgrade: Lite-On SOHW-812S ($90). This 8X multiformat rewritable DVD drive provides an excellent balance of price, performance, and adaptability.
  • Quiet PC: Asus CRW-5232AS ($35). Unfortunately, we discovered that really quiet CD and DVD drives are surprisingly difficult to locate. This Asus model ranks as one of the quietest CD-RW drives we've tried, though it still makes noise when you access it.

<table width="100%" border="0" cellspacing="4" cellpadding="0" bgcolor="#DBDBDB"> <tr> <td width="32" valign="middle" align="center"><a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank"><img src="/howto/graphics/116993-pdf_logo.gif" width="32" height="31" border="0"/></a></td> <td width="1"><img src="/shared/graphics/spacer.gif" width="1" height="2" /></td> <td class="black11" valign="top"><div class="blueCBold11">Article PDF Available</div> The magazine version of this article is <a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank">available for purchase</a> in a downloadable .pdf format. This complete article includes all the formatting, photos, tips, and charts contained in the original.</td> </tr> </table>

The Build: Prepare to Build Your Own PC

Building your own PC isn't as difficult as you might think, but it does require patience and planning. When you're ready to buy everything, you can save money on shipping by purchasing a good-size chunk of the components from one place. We did this but we also relied on specialist dealers for some parts. In particular, we bought many parts for our quiet PC from Compuquiet.com (a subsidiary of the component seller Directron), which specializes in components for noiseless PCs. It's definitely worth spending some time shopping around; the prices of many components (particularly memory and processors) change daily, so watch for deals.

The tools that you'll need.
Photograph: Rick Rizner

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A Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Own System

1. Prepare

Before you begin building, check one last time to ensure that you have all the parts you need. It's no fun to get halfway through assembling your PC only to realize that you forgot to buy a vital part. Clear some work space and set aside a few hours of your day. Carpeting can create static electricity that's harmful to PC components, so work on a bare floor if you can.

Grab a set of screwdrivers, a pair of needle-nose pliers, and an antistatic wrist strap. We've rarely seen components succumb to static electricity; but it's a wise precaution, and a wrist strap costs less than $5. Finally, download the latest drivers from the vendors' Web sites for each component you'll be installing, and copy them to a CD to avoid headaches later on; the drivers that come in product boxes are often several versions out of date.

2. Populate the Motherboard

Place the motherboard on a flat, clean workspace before installing components.
Remove the motherboard from its packaging and place it on top of the antistatic bag it came in. You'll want to install the processor, the heat sink, and the memory modules on the motherboard before you secure it in the PC case. If you aren't sure which socket is which, the motherboard manual will identify them.

The CPU will fit correctly into the socket in only one way.
Photograph: Rick Rizner
First, lift the lever on the processor socket so you can install the CPU. Carefully line up the pins and place the chip in its socket; it will fit only when oriented the proper way. An arrow or a missing pin on one corner of the chip will show you how to line things up. Lower the lever to lock the CPU into place.

Installing some heat sinks requires substantial force. Work carefully.
Next, follow the manufacturer's directions to install the heat sink and the fan that will cool the processor. If you bought an OEM CPU and a separate heat sink, you may need to spread a thin layer of the thermal grease that came with the heat sink over the chip to ensure proper transfer of heat (some heat sinks come with this grease already applied). Attaching the clip that holds the heat sink in place may require a fair amount of force. Again, the instructions that came with the heat sink will show you how to know whether you've fitted it correctly. Plug the fan's power connector into the proper connector on the motherboard.

Insert the memory in the proper sockets.
To install the memory modules, insert them into the proper sockets and push down firmly but evenly until the clips on both sides of the socket pop into place. If your motherboard supports dual-channel memory, consult the manual accompanying it to determine which pairs of RAM sockets you should use.

3. Put the Motherboard in the Case

These spacers prevent the motherboard from touching the case.
Some PC cases, such as the Antec P160 that we chose for our quiet PC, have a removable motherboard tray. If yours does, remove the screws holding it in place and pull it out of the case. Note the pattern of the holes in your motherboard, and screw brass standoffs into the motherboard tray or into the PC case in the correct locations.

Pop the correct I/O shield into place.
Check the layout of the sockets on the motherboard, and confirm that the ports on your motherboard's back panel match the holes on the I/O shield that is installed in your case. If necessary, remove the old I/O shield by tapping it firmly a few times with the butt-end of a screwdriver, and then replace it with the shield that came with the new motherboard.

Screws fasten the motherboard onto the system case.
Carefully position the motherboard on top of the brass standoffs, line up all the holes, and use the screws that accompanied the case to fasten down the motherboard. If you are using a removable tray in your system, slide the tray and motherboard back into the case and then secure the tray.

4. Connect Power Cables and Front-Panel Controls

The ATX power connector attaches to the motherboard.
Plug the large ATX power connector for your power supply into the corresponding port on your motherboard. Find the smaller, square processor power connector (the one with the yellow and black wires) and attach it to the motherboard; the connector is usually near the processor.

Make sure these tiny leads are attached to the covered pins on the motherboard.
Next, open your motherboard manual to the page on front-panel connectors, and prepare for some frustrating detail work. Attach each of the tiny leads from the power and reset switches, the hard-disk activity lights, the PC speaker, and any front-panel USB and FireWire ports to the corresponding pin on your motherboard, using the needle-nose pliers if necessary.

5. Install the Video Card and Test

Some graphics cards need their own power connection.
Remove the backplane cover for your AGP or PCI Express X16 slot, install the graphics board in that slot, and then secure the card with a screw. Some graphics boards require a dedicated connection to your PC's power supply. If yours does, you should plug in the correct power connector now.

Connect a keyboard, mouse, monitor, and power cable to your computer and turn it on. If the internal fans begin to whir, the system beeps, and you see the machine starting to boot, power down (by holding the power button for 5 seconds) and continue building. If nothing happens, back up a step and recheck all of your connections. Make sure that both the processor and the memory are properly seated, and recheck those minuscule leads connecting the motherboard to the power and reset switches.

6. Install the Drives

Collect the hard disk, the optical drives, and the floppy drives and make any necessary changes to jumpers on the drives before mounting them in the case.

The configuration we used for the systems we built (one or two SATA hard drives, plus one parallel ATA optical drive) is easy to set up; the SATA drives are jumperless, and the optical drive can be set as master on its own parallel ATA channel. For other drive setup options, see " One Cable, Two Drives."

Many cases use removable drive rails or cages to house drives. Use the included screws to attach your drives to the rails or cage, and slide them into the case. For externally accessible drives such as a DVD recorder, you can save time by installing one drive rail and sliding the drive in for a test fitting to make sure that its front is flush with the case.

Parallel ATA cable (left) and Serial ATA cable.
When the drives are installed, connect power and data cables to each one. Parallel ATA drives use wide, flat data cables that can be installed only in the correct way. Floppy drives use a similar but smaller cable; SATA drives use a thin, 1cm-wide data cable.

A standard, 4-pin power connector (left) and a floppy drive power connector.
SATA drives use a new type of power connector that many power supplies don't come with. Fortunately, many motherboards ship with adapters for converting a standard four-pin power connector to a SATA power connector. Some drives ship with both the older connector and the SATA power connector. In that case, use one power connector or the other, but not both.

7. Install the Add-In Cards

Some PCI cards may require a bit of force to seat correctly.
For each add-in card, choose a free PCI slot and remove its backplane cover to allow access from the rear of the case. Position the card above the slot, and press down firmly to seat the card. Secure the card with a screw.

Many motherboards have additional sound connectors or ports housed on small add-in boards. Some of these plug into slots on the motherboard; others screw into the back of the case in place of slot covers.

Usually the additional ports aren't critical to the operation of your PC--if you're installing a sound card, for example, you don't need connectors to the motherboard's built-in sound chip. Check your motherboard manual to determine what each of these boards does.

8. Power On and Check PC Setup

Plug the keyboard, mouse, and monitor into the appropriate ports on the back of the PC. Plug the power cord back in, and turn the machine on.

Enter your PC's BIOS setup screen by pressing the indicated key (often Delete) as the machine boots. Menu options vary from board to board, but they have the same general categories. Set the date and time, and then look for a setting that deals with PC health status and monitoring. That choice should bring up a screen showing processor and case temperature.

Watch the processor temperature for a few minutes. It should stabilize at a level between 30&#176;C and 50&#176;C. If it keeps increasing, your heat sink probably isn't installed properly. Power down and check to see whether the heat sink is securely attached and making good contact with the processor.

Next, find the section of the BIOS setup that determines the order in which your machine checks drives and devices for one it can boot from. Set CD-ROM to the highest priority so that your machine will boot from the Windows installation CD.

9. Set Up RAID (optional)

If you plan to use multiple hard drives in a RAID arrangement, you'll want to configure it (using the motherboard RAID controller) before you install an operating system. As your machine boots, you should see a message from the RAID controller indicating a key sequence that will activate a configuration utility. Enter the utility and follow the directions to create the type of array you want. Warning: Once you've created the array, you can't change it without deleting all of your data, so make sure that you set up the right type.

10. Install the OS

Place the Windows installation CD in your optical drive, reboot the PC, and allow the system to boot off the disc. Windows setup should begin.

Early in the process, Windows will ask you whether you need to install a third-party SCSI or RAID driver. If you're using a RAID setup, press F6 when this message appears; then insert the floppy containing the appropriate driver when it is requested.

If your machine hangs while installing Windows, there may be a problem with one of the components. Try removing everything except the core components (motherboard, processor, one memory module, and hard drives); then, once you've successfully installed Windows, begin reinstalling each component one by one to isolate the source of the problem.

11. Update Drivers and Install Programs

Once Windows is up and running, you need to update your hardware drivers. Insert the CD with the latest drivers (from step 1) and install them, starting with those for the motherboard and graphics card and then moving on to less critical ones like mouse and sound card drivers. (Windows comes with basic drivers to get you up and running.) Several reboots later, you should have a shiny new PC!

Next, get your network connection up and running, install a firewall, and download the latest Windows patches.

Finally, make sure that everything runs okay, and then back up your system. That way you'll have a clean, current image of Windows to go back to if serious trouble arises in the future.

<table width="100%" border="0" cellspacing="4" cellpadding="0" bgcolor="#DBDBDB"> <tr> <td width="32" valign="middle" align="center"><a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank"><img src="/howto/graphics/116993-pdf_logo.gif" width="32" height="31" border="0"/></a></td> <td width="1"><img src="/shared/graphics/spacer.gif" width="1" height="2" /></td> <td class="black11" valign="top"><div class="blueCBold11">Article PDF Available</div> The magazine version of this article is <a href="http://find.pcworld.com/44464" target="_blank">available for purchase</a> in a downloadable .pdf format. This complete article includes all the formatting, photos, tips, and charts contained in the original.</td> </tr> </table>

Our Hand-Built Systems: Cost and Performance

Our Hand-Built Systems: Cost and Performance
Photograph: Marc Simon

Value PC Shopping List

  • AOpen AK89 Max motherboard: $115
  • AMD Athlon 64 3000+ CPU (retail version): $230
  • Kingston ValueRAM 512MB PC3200 DDR SDRAM DIMM: $86
  • Seagate Barracuda ST3200822A hard drive: $130
  • Lite-On SOHW-812S DVD&#177;RW drive: $90
  • Abit Radeon 9600XT graphics board: $195
  • Antec SLK3700-BQE case: $90
  • Windows XP Home (OEM edition): $87

Total: $1023

Media PC Shopping List

  • Shuttle XPC SN41G2 barebones system: $270
  • 1.83-GHz AMD Athlon XP CPU: $90
  • Kingston 256MB PC2700 DDR SDRAM (two): $144
  • Seagate Barracuda ST3160023A 160GB hard drive: $140
  • TDK IndiDVD 440N 4X DVD+-RW drive: $145
  • ATI All-In-Wonder 9200 graphics board: $149
  • Windows XP Home (OEM edition): $87

Total: $1023

Power PC Shopping List

  • Asus SK8N motherboard: $180
  • AMD Athlon 64 FX-53 CPU (retail version): $800
  • Corsair 512MB PC3200 Registered DDR SDRAM DIMMs (two): $310
  • Western Digital WD Raptor WD740GD 74GB hard drive (two): $420
  • Lite-On SOHW-812S DVD+/-RW drive: $90
  • ATI Radeon X800 XT graphics board: $480
  • Aspire X-Alien ATXA7AW case: $91
  • Creative Audigy 2ZS sound card: $80
  • Windows XP Pro (OEM edition): $139

Total: $2590

Quiet PC Shopping List

  • Gigabyte GA-8IPE1000-G motherboard: $95
  • Intel Pentium 4 2.6C CPU (OEM version): $150
  • Zalman CNPS7000-AlCu heatsink: $35
  • Kingston ValueRAM 512MB PC3200 DDR SDRAM (two): $220
  • SpinPoint P SP1614N 160GB hard drive: $105
  • Lite-On SOHW-812S DVD+/-RW drive: $90
  • Asus CRW-5232AS CD-RW drive: $35
  • Gainward Silent FX Powerpack Ultra/980XP graphics board: $180
  • Coolmax CF-400 silent power supply: $120
  • Antec P-160 case: $110
  • Windows XP Home (OEM edition): $87

Total: $1227

Eric Dahl and Richard Baguley are senior associate editors for PC World.

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