Build a Free Computer from Spare Parts

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Power Supply

Power supplies are often a cause of concern. We've been trained to "go big" no matter what. Even when, decades ago, it was shown that a computer could run reliably at under 100 watts of power, some pundits scoffed. Today, with higher-power processors and graphics cards, that's no longer the case -- we really do need a lot of power. Still, how high do we need to go?

Among my basement stock, I could choose between a 350-watt Phantom 350, a 430-watt NeoPower 430 and a 500-watt SmartPower SP-500 -- all by Antec.

Back when I first got the Phantom, it was an interesting premise: no fan, just a giant black heatsink wrapped around the electronics, and, of course, no fan noise. By the time I got around to building the system it had been intended to power, a multiplicity of hard drives and a graphics card that needed its own separate power line moved it out of contention.

The initial build of this computer will be rather light by my usually building specifications: midrange CPU, low-end graphics card (by current standards), one hard drive and one optical drive. The Phantom 350 could easily handle the initial few components without breaking a sweat, and do it silently. However, I have plans to add a pair of 15K Cheetah SAS drives and a Promise Technology SAS controller in the near future, and that will take more power.

The NeoPower 430 would probably have done the trick, but I decided that the SmartPower's 500 watts would be better in the long run, especially if I then decide to add another DVD burner and SATA hard drive or two.

(Note: If I do load this system up, over time you might find that I've switched to one of Antec's 80 Plus power supplies. There are two new models, the Signature 650 and the Signature 850 (the numbers tell the power rating.) These are both designated as "Bronze" units (think Olympic medal order of importance), meaning they're 82% or more efficient at 20%, 50% and 100% of load. With nine computers in perpetual motion in my house, it's something I'm seriously considering for a general upgrade.

Most importantly, when you're dealing with a bottom-mounted power supply -- new or old -- be absolutely sure that the cables will reach everywhere they need to go. That's especially true of the CPU power connector that's typically at the top of the motherboard, two virtual football fields away from the power supply unit (PSU) down at the bottom of the case. Measure twice, cry once.


Did you know that I have four spare LCD monitors in 15-in. to 22-in. sizes? I didn't know I had them, either. They were boxed and stuffed into one of the corners of the garage. (One of the more troubling things about being a computer geek is that you also save almost every box that once housed your equipment. You never know whether you'll need to ship an item back or, as in this case, just stash said product in the garage when it's reached its point of obsolescence.)

The group included Optiquest, Princeton, Samsung and SYS displays. The SYS monitor was the first LCD I ever purchased, with built-in speakers and a stuck pixel from the factory. In this case, I went with the 22-in. widescreen Optiquest Q22wb. Optiquest is Viewsonic's "popular" (read "lower cost") brand of monitors.

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