Build a Desktop Computer

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Outline

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to outline the basic process of building a Personal Computer (PC) for general home use and to highlight some of the pitfalls in a way that should remain relevant for some years. I discuss in detail the major components of a computer and outline the considerations in choosing each one. Note that If you are looking for highly technical information on the various components, further research will be required at other web sites, like Tom’s Hardware and Wikipedia. A good place to start for more detailed background is Wikipedia’s article on custom built PCs. What I am specifically not trying to do is explain how to build a state-of-the-art high-end gaming rig.

Having built and rebuilt my PC a number of times over the years, I am always a little surprised at the new difficulties that I face each time, even though I used to assemble computers as a regular part of my job. While the essence of building a computer is fairly straight-forward, there are some details and considerations which you need to keep in mind.

I do have to caveat that while shopping for parts for my last rebuild (circa 2012) I came close to deciding to just buy a Mac and be done with it. However, there is an undeniable sense of accomplishment in doing it yourself as well as a substantial saving in dollars against a comparable pre-built system. There is also the ability to specifically tailor the build to exactly what you need, though I do have to admit that is often more a theoretical advantage than a practical one.

At the end of this article I have included a short [glossary] to define many of the jargon terms used. Hopefully this will help demystify this area for the non-technical reader.

Choosing The Components back to top

This section will need constant updating; please note the modification date at the top of the page to establish the relative applicability to current technology. Technology evolves rapidly and information can become dated in as little as 6 to 12 months and can sometimes be irrelevant in just a few years.

The Case

The most obvious consideration for your choice of case is the cosmetic appeal. Do you want utilitarian and functional, or cool high-tech? What color? What size? In the end, the appearance and size of the case is a very personal choice which for different people will have different priorities. For many people, lighting and case design can greatly impact the subjective impression of how state-of-the-art a computer is, though they bear absolutely no relation to the computer.

One very important considerations is the number and size of cooling fans. In general there will be intake fans on the front of the case, and exhaust fans on the rear or top of the case. Commonly, there is also an additional fan on the side opposite the main-board. This intake/exhaust setup is important since it should create air-flow across the drives, main-board, CPU, RAM and other components. If the fans are pre-installed you should verify that the directionality is correct.

Of paramount importance is the size of the fans - the larger the better. Essentially large fans can spin slower to move the same volume of air. I cannot emphasize enough how much quieter your system will be with larger fans. Don’t go with anything smaller than 120 mm and get 140 mm or larger if you can. Watch out for the small gimmicky 60 mm or 80 mm side fan - my current case came equipped with a small side fan that had LEDs built in which by itself generated more noise than the rest of the system put together. In order to retain the lighting I had to disable the fan motor by
cutting the wires on the electromagnets.

Most main-boards come equipped with 2 or 3 connectors for attaching fans with variable speed support; you’ll need fans with a smaller 3 pin main-board connector or an adapter lead in order to connect your fans. Conversely, if your main-board does not have system fan connectors, you’ll need the larger plugs in order to connect them directly to the power supply unit. Keep in mind that using the main-board’s connectors may provide some dynamic control of the fan speed; if
nothing else it usually means less cable clutter (which is itself better for air-flow).

In addition there are some other practical considerations you should give some thought to:

  • The size of main-board it can accommodate.
  • Ease of access to the case, especially for drive replacement.
  • Ease of mounting storage drives and other in-case peripherals.
  • Front panel peripheral device connectors such as USB, Firewire and SATA ports.
  • Front panel audio connectors are important if you use a head set and/or headphones. Also whether these are for analog or HD digital audio may affect whether you can connect them to the main-board.
  • Whether it comes with a PSU (increasingly rare except for budget cases), and if so, the quality and output of that power supply.

Keep in mind that there are a number of inexpensive peripheral units you can buy to add various connectors to the front of your system, provided the main-board has the connectors available.

Power Supply Unit (PSU)

The power supply unit provides the life-blood of your computer. Although often the most overlooked component in a computer a good quality power supply is critical for supplying the electronics with a stable, clean electrical current. The amount of power required depends on the number of components attached to it and the power-draw of each one. A common cause of instability in a computer is an inadequate, low-quality or damaged power supply unit.

A typical desktop system will require a 500 - 700 W power supply. Additional storage drives, a more powerful CPU, a high-end GPU all increase the power draw of the computer. Generally speaking you want 400 - 500 W for a very basic system, 500 - 700 W for a mid-range system, and 750 - 1000 W for a high-end system. If you want to be safe, you can use an online calculator to figure it out, but be careful not to overlook anything.

Since one of the advantages of building your own computer means you can easily make additional changes later, be sure to allow some head-room in choosing a power supply. Personally, I add a couple hundred watts to my best estimate to allow for future additions.

Buy a high-quality single rail PSU, not a cheaper multi-rail one and buy the most efficient PSU that makes sense. The better the PSU is in transforming mains power to DC current, the less energy it will waste as heat.

Finally, a cautionary note from experience. I had a period of many months with my most recent build where my computer was unstable. Occasional blue-screens of death and mysteriously “failing” HDDs which then appeared perfectly reliable when tested in my external disk dock. After trying everything under the sun, I finally tried replacing the PSU and the problems immediately vanished. I believe the PSU was either faulty or the triple rail system did not supply enough consistently voltage to several critical components, including my HDDs.

Main-board

Also known as the mobo or mother-board, this circuit board connects all the computers components and enables them to communicate with each other. In its most essential form, it is to the computer what your central nervous system is to you. Over time, main-boards have expanded in function to integrate many of what used to be separate peripheral add-on cards. At time of writing a the minimum that is needed for a working computer is a case, power supply, mobo, CPU, memory and a storage device. A typical main-board now also includes a reasonably capable GPU and Ethernet networking controller.

The mobo dictates the type and model of CPU, the type, speed and amount of RAM, the type and number of storage devices, and the type and number of peripheral expansion cards you can use in your system. You should specifically consider:

  • The CPU socket.
  • The type and number of RAM sockets and whether the board supports dual or triple channel operation.
  • The type and number of storage device connectors, PATA and SATA.
  • The type and number of expansion card connectors.
  • The type and number of peripheral connectors, including for any front panel connectors provided by your case.
  • The PSU connectors it requires.

USB (Universal Serial Bus) has become the ubiquitous interface for connecting peripherals, removable storage devices and all manner of other devices to your computer, including many adhoc devices like personal fans which simply draw power and do not interact with the computer at all. Generally, the more of these the better, and the later the generation the better. I find I need at least 6 and preferably 8 or more connectors on the rear, and at least another 2 on the front. If you end up with too few you can always buy an expansion card or a powered USB hub to connect more devices. The latter are also useful for relocating USB connectors from the back of the machine to a more reachable location. I have a USB hub installed on my desktop for quick attachment of temporary devices. Note also that many monitors and keyboards now have USB hubs built in to them.

USB technology is (as of 2014) in its 3rd generation. USB 1.0 provides speeds of up to 1.2 MB/s (12 Mb), USB 2.0 provides up to 48 MB/s (480 Mb), and USB 3.0 provides speeds of up to 480 MB/s (4.8 Gb). The USB 3.0 physical connection is modified such that USB 1.0 and 2.0 devices and cables will connect to a USB 3.0 socket, but a USB 3.0 cable or device requires a USB 3.0 socket and cannot be connected to a legacy USB socket.

One thing to beware of is that all USB devices attached to the same controller on the mobo will share the available bandwidth.

Firewire, or IEEE 1394, is another serial bus interface standard for high-speed communications and data transfer, frequently used by personal computers, as well as in digital audio, digital video, automotive, and aeronautics applications. The system is commonly used for connection of data storage devices and DV (digital video) cameras, but is also popular in industrial systems for machine vision and professional audio systems. That being said, I have personally not yet come across a device which supports Firewire, and I believe that USB 3.0 will cause it to become obsolete. Again, if your mobo does not have a Firewire connector and you need one, an expensive expansion card will do the trick.

Unless you are building a very basic system, make sure you have at least 4, and preferably 6 or more SATA connectors.

CPU

Where the case is the skin, the PSU is the blood and the mobo is the central nervous system, the CPU is the brain of your computer. This particular piece of technology changes so fast that anything specific I might say will be out of date in 6 months. But there are some general guidelines that can be helpful.

Intel or AMD? Generally, the only way to answer this is to research chips in your price range and see who is doing a better job with them. Other than actual performance test results there is simply no way to compare chips. Within a particular family, generally bigger numbers in the product code are better, newer is better than older and you get what you pay for.

Clock speed is the frequency that the CPU operates at, measured in Hertz (Hz), or cycles per second. The faster the clock, the more instructions per second that the CPU can execute. More is always better but also generally draws more power and generates more heat. Advances in CPU design are constantly reducing the power draw and, therefore, the heat generation required for a particular clock rate. So often newer CPUs run faster and draw less power than older ones.

Cores provide the ability to execute multiple streams of instructions at the same time. More is better but the usefulness of multiple cores is impacted by the ability of software to utilize them. As of 2014 most software is woefully non-parallel, meaning most software can only fully utilize 1 core on your CPU. However, the other cores are available and useful for other processes. Also, with the advent of managed software platforms like Java and Microsoft’s dotNet, more software is being produced that can utilize multiple cores. Expect this situation to continually improve over time. Multiple cores are definitely valuable, but you don’t want to trade off too much clock speed for additional cores. By way of broad example, a 3 GHz dual core will probably out-perform a 2.5 GHz quad core for most common workloads on a desktop PC. But that could radically change in the next 2-5 years.

Cache refers to various levels of memory which are part of the CPU die and allow the CPU to avoid making more time expensive accesses to main memory. More cache is always better since it allows the CPU to retain more data closer to where it’s likely to be next needed.

Power draw is how much electricity the CPU uses at full load. Recently CPUs include technology to step down their clock rate when it is not needed, reducing power draw when the CPU is not being fully utilized. This is an extremely worthwhile feature as your computer will cost less to run and produce less heat and extend the life of the components since heat is one of the cheif causes of degradation.

CPUs have a history of having exponential price curves that peak at the high end. Essentially you get to a certain price-point where the price shoots up for each bit of additional performance. So unless you have a real need, or a lot of money to toss away, the middle-high range tends to be the sweet spot for the price/performance ratio.

Memory

Memory is fairly easy. You just have to make sure the type and speed you buy is supported by the CPU and the main-board that you buy. Type refers to the basic technology, like DDR, DDR2 and DDR3. Speed is a clock rate, just like CPUs, and is the frequency at which data can be moved between the CPU and RAM.

As with CPUs, faster is better and newer technology is better. The actual transfer rate is a function of the memory bus multiplied by the memory “multiplier”. Thus with a memory clock frequency of 100 MHz, DDR2 SDRAM operates at 200 MHz and gives a maximum transfer rate of 3200 MB/s, while DDR3 SDRAM operates at 400 MHz and gives a maximum transfer rate of 6400 MB/s.

You also need to be aware of whether your other hardware can support ECC (error-checking and correcting) memory. If it does, you can pay more for better reliability. From Wikipedia’s article for ECC memory:

Typically, only machines intended for server use support ECC. Mainboards intended for desktop (rather than server) machines typically do not support ECC, and even those that do support ECC will be shipped with it disabled to allow use of non-ECC memory. Most modern PCs do not support ECC at all as can be seen by examining computer and main-board specifications; those that do are often supplied with memory modules that do not support parity or ECC. It may be that most users opt for non-ECC systems and memory anyway even when ECC is available. The most important reasons for this are:

  • the higher cost of ECC memory (each bank is 9 memory chips compared to 8 for non-ECC memory, and more importantly there is more volume for non-ECC. In some cases the price ratio reduces to 9/8, as an example, on 2008/11/30, on Crucial.com, an ECC CL=5 unbuffered 2GB DDR2-667 DIMM costs $30 while the corresponding non-ECC part costs $28, a difference of 1/15, however some ECC modules cost twice as much as their non-ECC equivalents [Crucial CT12872Z40B and CT12864Z40B, Jan 2009]);
  • the higher cost of a main-board that supports ECC functionality in RAM;
  • the additional time needed for ECC memory controllers to perform the error checking and possibly the correction steps, which may lead to an all-around performance hit of around 0.5-2 percent, depending on application[10]; and
  • simple ignorance of the issue.

Memory timings refer to detailed technical aspects of the memory chip operation related to the number of cycles required for various stages of a memory transfer. Here, lower numbers are better. The details of memory timings are beyond the scope of this article, but should be researched for performance tuning once you new PC is built and has proven to be stable.

Storage Devices

PATA

Parallel ATA is an interface standard for the connection of storage devices such as hard disks, solid-state drives, floppy drives, and CD-ROM drives in computers. This technology has been superceded by SATA and uses space consuming ribbon cables connectors that are clumsy and awkward and result in significant restrictions as to where you can locate drives in your case. In particular, one IDE cable connects two devices, and those two devices much be mounted nearly adjacent to each other. As well, they tend to be a significant air-flow obstruction.

This technology is best avoided altogether, but may be required if you are recycling parts, especially if you are using an older optical (CD or DVD) drive. If you do opt to use them, it’s really important to connect the cable the right way around; I remember once, years ago, I had a cable backwards, and the system worked fine during initial testing but then just failed after connecting all the other components.

SATA

Serial ATA is a computer bus interface for connecting host bus adapters to mass storage devices such as hard disk drives and optical drives. Serial ATA was designed to replace the older ATA (AT Attachment) standard (also known as EIDE). It is able to use the same low level commands, but serial ATA host-adapters and devices communicate via a high-speed serial cable over two pairs of conductors.

SATA is currently in its 3rd generation. SATA 1.0 provides 1.5 Gbit/s max transfer rates, SATA 2.0 provides 3 Gbit/s max transfer rates, and SATA 3.0 provides 6 Gbit/s max transfer rates. A particular advantage of SATA is the greater flexibility provided by its data cables which a much thinner and which connect just one drive each.

RAID

This refers to a system for using multiple storage drives together to provide increased performance, increased reliability or both. It stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks or alternately (I believe, incorrectly) Redundant Array of Independent Disks).

Data may be “mirrored” such that the same data is written to multiple drives so if one drive fails the data is still available on the redundant drive. The cost for this reliability is multiplying the number of storage drives for a particular capacity.

Data may also or alternately be “striped” such that successive sequences of data are written to different disks allowing blocks to be read back concurrently since all disks can simultaneously read and buffer data. This results in an increase in performance only, and does not affect maximum capacity greatly (although some capacity must be used to store out-of- band “meta” data about the RAID array itself).

The issues and considerations of using a hardware-based RAID setup are extensive, and I can’t cover them here. If you are considering using RAID at all I strongly advise that you first research the subject extensively. Generally speaking most pundits will claim that to do RAID properly requires expensive high-end controllers; that said, I have had great success with simply mirroring two drives using the support built into my main-board.

An effective, simpler and very effective option is to use O/S level RAID support; I have used mirroring in Windows for a long time now and have found it be be a very effective means of keeping a redundant copy of my data against the event of a disk failure. I have survived several disk failures with data intact and without any downtime aside from the 1/2 hour required to replace a disk (my system does not support hot-swapping disks).

There are two things you really need to know about RAID. One, it is not, repeat not a substitute for maintaining backups (in fact striping without mirroring increases your risk of data loss). Mirrored RAID only protects you against a disk failure that leaves the remaining disk(s) functional. Two, with hardware RAID, disks are often readable only by identical hardware, so if you are using your main-board’s RAID and the main-board dies, your disks effectively die along with it unless you are able to source another main-board with exactly the same RAID chipset. Having said that, I have reason to believe that my mirrored-only RAID array may be done in such a way as to leave the data readable as a standard disk (but I have not yet verified that by pulling a disk and trying to read it in another machine). In fact, I transitioned from motherboard RAID to O/S RAID and found that after breaking the RAID array I had two standard, identical disks, so this caution likely only applies to RAID hardware before, perhaps, 2005.

If you decide to use hardware RAID, caveat emptor – do your research.

Hard Disk Drive

Hard disk drives contain spinning metal disks on which data can be recorded. HDDs are sensitive to vibration when operating and magnetic fields all the time. When installing them handle them carefully, although they do seem to tolerate a surprising amount of abuse.

Staggering amounts of storage space can be obtained for relatively paltry sums of money. Current magnetic HDDs are the most cost-effective storage available.

Solid-state Drive

SSDs are still a developing technology, whose chief advantage is being faster than HDDs and more rugged since they have no moving parts. Essentially, an SSD is a massive array of non-volatile RAM, which is RAM which does not loose its content when power is turned off (unlike the SD-RAM in your computer which does).

SSDs are rapidly getting more cost-effective per MB, but are still hugely more expensive than HDDs for the same space and are not available in nearly so large capacities as HDDs.

One thing to be aware of is that SSDs are limited in the number of times a particular memory cell can be written, so they tend to loose capacity by natural attrition over time. The technology is still new enough that comparisons of effective lifetime against HDDs are still not readily available.

Optical Drive

There is not much to say about optical storage. They are cheap and reliable. You want at least a DVD drive with burning capabilities so you can record your own CDs and DVDs. It remains to be seen what happens with the high capacity BluRay format, but currently BR-DVD drives are still expensive and do not have the option to burn BR disks (although most do burn CDs and DVDs).

Card Reader

The predominant storage card formats on the market today are Compact Flash (CF) and Secure Digital High-Capacity (SDHC). Your card reader should also read MMC and Memory Stick. Most card readers read 20-30 different card types and formats, so you pretty much can’t go wrong. And card-readers are cheap, so replacing it down the road should not be an obstacle.

Most card-readers also offer other connectors like USB, Firewire, eSATA and audio jacks - these can be a useful bonus if your case does not have these connectors. It may also offer a removable portable disk bay, which can be very handy. But be aware of the number of main-board connectors the read demands for these options and whether or not it will share USB bandwith between the various connectors.

Floppy Disk Drive

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Enough said. I have not had a FDD in my computer for many years. They are obsolete, their function having been entirely replaced by USB thumbdrives and portable storage media.

If you have a need for a 3.25" floppy drive, your best bet is to just get a external drive with a USB connection.

Video System

GPU: For home and business use the GPU integrated into most main-boards is perfectly adequate. For a little more performance a low to mid-price discrete video card is more than sufficient.

The main considerations with higher-end video cards are the extra heat output with it’s consequent greater demand on the cooling system for your case and the extra power draw. Especially if you elect to install two or three video cards for multiple monitors.

Monitor(s): Here is where more and bigger is always better. For me, the minimum resolution is 1920 x 1200 and the minimum physical size is 22“ diagonal. Be aware that the vast majority of monitors are ”HD", which means 1080 vertical pixels. In my opinion that’s just too low a resolution. You have to search hard for a greater vertical resolution, I suspect because manufacturing coincides with TV manufacturing and that’s just where the sweet spot is in the cost-to-resolution equation.

Also pay attention to the viewing-angles for the monitor, both laterally and vertically. Some monitors have a very poor vertical angle at which the colors are true and very little change in elevation results in distortion of the colors. These are to be avoided - try to avoid buying a monitor sight unseen, and if you do (say online), make sure you do the research.

Audio System

Audio Card: I have not for a long time wanted nor needed anything more than the typically excellent integrated audio that comes with any main-board. Every main-board I’ve seen for the last decade has had at least 5.1 sound output, and now that norm seems to be 7.1.

Speaker System: Here, again, is where it’s worth spending some money for a mid to high-end system. The quality of sound is directly related to the quality of your amp and speakers. But know that with a half-way decent sub-woofer and stereo speaker system you can expect good to excellent sound. I am something of an audiophile but I don’t personally see the point in getting a high end audio system for a computer; I’d rather spend that money on CPU, RAM and Disk (of course, that’s because I listen to music and watch movies with my home theatre system, not my computer).

Other Options

Modem: Unless you live in an area where dial-up is your only option for Internet access, don’t bother with a telephone modem. For broad-band access you will typically be supplied with some sort of modem/router from your ISP.

Keyboard: Here, I am absolutely sold on a split-style ergonomic keyboard, such as the Microsoft natural series. Be wary of cheap knock-offs. Using a split keyboard is significantly more comfortable for long periods of typing. I have little use for the gazillion “extra” keys these keyboards have, but your mileage may vary - it doesn’t hurt to have them, but I wouldn’t pay extra for them. If you spend any significant amount of time on your computer it’s worth spending decent money on a decent keyboard.

Mouse: A good optical-laser mouse is a must these days. Optical mice track better than mechanical mice and are never impacted by dirt and such.

Assembling The Computer back to top

Avoiding electrostatic discharge is critical to safe-guarding the delicate electronic components in your computer. The worst of it is that ESD may not result in a non-functional component but instead just enough damage to make, say, a memory stick unstable or fail only when specific memory cells are accessed.

I have had good success with leaving the power cable connected to the power supply mounted in the case and touching the metal case frame to ground before handling any component. I also avoid wearing any synthetic fiber clothing - stick to pure cotton.

1. Install the Power Supply

First mount the power supply in the case, if it was not preinstalled. This is usually a simple case of screwing in 4 or 5 screws through the back panel of the case to the back of the power supply.

2. Install CPU, Cooler & Memory on The Main-board

Place the main board on a firm level surface.

(Note that the CPU may have been shipped with a cooler preinstalled).

Unlock the CPU mount by gently pressing down on the locking level on one side of the mounting bracket and moving it a little to the side, away from the mounting bracket, and then let it spring up. Align the pins of the CPU to the holes in the mounting bracket - there will be one pin missing, such that it’s not possible to get it wrong. The CPU should slip into the socket with no pressure required. With the CPU sitting in the mounting bracket, replace the locking lever - the CPU should then be locked in place.

Now examine the CPU cooler mounting system and satisfy yourself you know how it works (you don’t want to fiddle around with mounting and dismounting the cooler once you have applied the thermal compound). It’s OK to carefully practice attaching it until you have it right. Generally, the cooler has some (fairly strong) sprung levers on two opposing sides which attach to a rib on each side of the CPU mounting bracket. You want to attach the clip on one side, and gently press the cooler flat onto the CPU and then press down on the top of the opposing spring clip and affix it to the mating rib on the opposite side of the CPU mounting bracket. Once you know how the mounting system works, dismount the cooler.

Next apply thermal compound to the top surface of the CPU (refer to your specific compound’s instructions) and carefully mount the cooler flat and level on top of the CPU and fasten it into place.

Last, mount each memory stick. Note that mounting bracket on the main board and the memory stick have a matched tooth and notch to ensure that the memory is inserted the correct way. Place the memory stick in the slot and then firmly press down on the top of the stick - the stick should click-lock into place as the two levers on each end move into place mating to two notches on each end of the stick.

Place the sticks in adjacent slots if you have more slots than memory sticks.

3. Install the Main-board, monitor, keyboard and mouse.

The main-board will be pre-drilled with a number of mounting holes. The case will contain an equal or greater number of holes - the extra holes in the case will be to accept multiple different main-board form-factors. Determine which of mounting holes in the case have corresponding holes in the main-board and mark the holes on the case with a marker.

The main-board will be oriented with the expansion slots towards the rear and bottom of the case and the rear panel connectors to the rear and middle/top. Usually the power supply is at the very top of the case and the main board is immediately below (but some cases may be different).

Locate the back-panel insert that came with your main board and clip it into the back of the case where the main-board rear connectors will be. You may need to break out a blank from the casing.

You will need the correct number of mounting spacers - these are like hexagonal nuts about 5 mm long, with a screw at one end and a screw-hole at the other. These screw into the marked screw holes in the case, making sure they are good and tight. Then place the main-board on top of the spacers, aligned with the back panel insert and screw it down firmly, but not too tightly so as not to crack the circuit board.

Be sure only to install mounting spacers which correspond to mounting holes on the main-board or there is a risk of creating a short on the circuit board.

Connect the power supply to the main-board. There’s generally a 20 or 24 pin main connector, and a separate 4 to 8 pin connector which plug’s in near the CPU socket.

Plug in the monitor, keyboard and mouse to the appropriate rear connectors.

4. Basic Hardware Diagnostics

For this stage, which is optional, but highly recommended, you’ll need a bootable USB drive with hardware diagnostic software. Alternately, a bootable CD or DVD can be used - just install and attach the DVD drive first. Typically at least a memory checker and a CPU burn-in program is needed. I’ve had good success with the Ultimate Boot CD.

Boot up the system and run the memory test (for example MemTest86+). Allow the full tests to run for several iterations. If you have any memory errors reported, search the Internet for information on how to diagnose and proceed. But essentially it involves trying to isolate the memory stick and/or memory slot or combination of both which causes the problem. If you have a bad stick, you’ll need to replace it; if you have a bad slot, you might be able to avoid using it, or you might be needing a replacement main board. Remember that a bad PSU could be the problem.

You may also want to run a CPU burn-in program and stress tests.

5. Install the Storage Devices

Next attach the DVD drive (if you didn’t already to run memory diagnostics), and disk drives. Look for the SATA sockets on the main-board and connect one to the connector on each drive. Then locate a power cable for each drive from the power supply and connect that to the drive.

Boot the computer into the BIOS and ensure that all drives are correctly detected.

6. BIOS Settings

Using your main-board manual peruse the various (myriad?) settings available.

7. Install an Operating System

Choose an operating system and install it.

Glossary back to top

   
APU
Accelerated Processing Unit. This acronym has been coined to refer to microchips which combine the functions of a CPU and a GPU.
BIOS
Basic Input/Output System. The firmware in a computer responsible for causing identifying the hardware and causing the operating system to load (boot). The BIOS used to provide the interface to various hardware components, but modern systems generally bypass these primitive (and slow) interfaces, providing services for access to the hardware to the programs which are running.
Bus
A subsystem which transfers data between computer components.
CPU
Central Processing Unit. This microchip carries out the instructions of a computer program, and is the primary element carrying out the computer's functions.
IDE/EIDE
Integrated Drive Electronics & Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics. See PATA, below.
Firewire/1394
A peripheral connector also known by its technical specification number IEEE 1394.
FSB
Front-side Bus. Carries data between the CPU and the north bridge. The speed of this subsystem effectively dictates the maximum speed RAM that the computer can run.
GPU
Graphics Processing Unit. This microchip carries is a specialized processor that offloads 3D graphics rendering from the microprocessor.
Mobo
A contraction of Main-board.
Main-board
The circuit board which interconnects all the components of the computer.
Northbridge
Typically handles communications among the CPU, RAM, BIOS ROM, and PCI Express (or AGP) video cards, and the south bridge. Some north bridges also contain integrated video controllers.
O/S
Operating System. This is the software which manages access to the hardware and the execution of all other programs in the computer.
PATA
Parallel Advanced Technology Attachment. Also know as IDE and EIDE. An older technology for attaching storage devices to a computer, rapidly becoming defunct, and being replaced by SATA.
PCI
Peripheral Connect Interface. A technology for attaching expansion cards to a main-board.
PCIe
Peripheral Connect Interface Express. A technology for attaching expansion cards to a main-board.
PSU
Power Supply Unit.
RAM
Random Access Memory. RAM stores the instructions and data for any program executing on the system. In addition, the O/S can use it to hold frequently accessed disk files to vastly decrease the time to access them.
SATA
Serial Advanced Technology Attachment. A technology for attaching storage devices to a computer. Currently in its 3rd generation, each generation provides greater speeds and is backward compatible with devices built for early revisions.
Southbridge
Also known as an I/O Controller Hub (ICH) or a Platform Controller Hub (PCH) in Intel systems (AMD, VIA, SiS and others usually use 'south bridge'). This is a microchip that implements the "slower" capabilities of the main-board in a north bridge/south bridge chipset computer architecture.
USB
Universal Serial Bus. A peripheral connector which has become ubiquitous. Currently in its 3rd generation, each generation is capable of greater speeds and is backward compatible with devices built for early revisions.

Further Reading back to top

Discussion

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