Build a Free Computer from Spare Parts

Operating System

My initial impulse was to install Vista Home Premium on this system. At the time, Newegg was selling a version for resellers for $99. (Vista is not the hardware ogre the press makes it out to be; in fact, for media fans who do a lot of TV recording and editing, it's probably the best operating system that Microsoft has developed to date.)

However, this was supposed to be a free build. I dug up an ancient copy of Windows XP Professional (it was underneath the XP Home disc, which was underneath the Windows NT Workstation disc) and while I dreaded the 3.4 years I'd spend downloading updates, I decided to give it a try.

What, you may ask, about Linux? Unfortunately for those of us trying to pinch pennies, when it comes to legacy motherboards, there are copious drivers for Windows XP and a substantial number for Vista, but precious few for Linux. In fact, Asustek has no listed Linux drivers for the P5N-E SLI.

I was told that this shouldn't be a problem, since Linux will usually take up the slack. Unfortunately, a little nosing around on a few Linux forums brought not a few tales of woe regarding the onboard audio and LAN functions. Just the same, I equipped myself with live discs of PCLinux 2007, Mandriva and Ubuntu to try.

Assembling the System

What I offer here aren't, strictly speaking, step-by-step instructions. I'm going to assume that you know the basics of actually mounting a hard drive or attaching a motherboard. (You don't? Then a good idea is to get an experienced friend to help you with this.) These are tips based on what I experienced while assembling my computer from a variety of disparate parts.

Before you start, it's always a good idea to make sure you have all the tools you'll need. Luckily, very few tools are actually needed to build a computer -- and if you need to drop a few dollars to pick one up, be assured that you'll use it again.

These should prove helpful: a Philips screwdriver (preferably with a magnetic tip), a wire cutter or nipper (don't worry, it's for lopping off the end of cable ties, which you should also have on hand), some compressed air in a can, a small flashlight or some task lights, and either a magnifying glass or pair of "hands-free" wearable magnifying glasses.

OK, you've got your parts, your tools and a couple of hours of free time. Ready? Let's begin.

1. Case Prep

After you've removed both the left and right side panels, place the case flat down on a table or workbench and start tucking wires out of the way. Don't worry about where you put them right now -- tape them to some innocuous spot if you have to. What you're trying to do is clear the motherboard tray of anything that might hinder your slipping the board into place.

2. Motherboard Logistics

"Standard" ATX motherboards often show up in slightly different sizes. The P5N-E SLI, for example, eschews the usual nine mounting points for just six to accommodate its somewhat narrower width. The extra silver standoffs seen peeking out along the right side of the board won't contact any of the circuitry or solder joints underneath, so I've left them in place. If you find that not to be the case when you test-fit your motherboard, remove any unused standoffs under the board that might cause an electrical short.

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