Your Ideal PC

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and copy them to a CD to avoid headaches later on; the drivers that come in product boxes are often several versions out of date.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°C and 50°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>

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