Somehow I had managed to get this far in life without ever having assembled my own computer. Sad, but true. But when my 5-year-old Dell kicked the can a few weeks ago, I had a good excuse.
After looking at the different build configurations on Hardware Revolution, I decided to go for a budget gaming build. It would be fast enough for everything I do, and it would be cheap enough that I wouldn’t feel quite as bad if things went horribly wrong.
I hauled up an extra table from the basement into the office to work on. For tools, I dug up a small Philips screwdriver and bought an anti-static bracelet. For an assistant, my six-year-old daughter was eager to help. For parts, I relied on newegg.com except for the hard drive which I got from Amazon.
- CPU – AMD Athlon II X3 455 Rana 3.3GHz 3 x 512KB L2 – very cheap and includes a fourth core, which can often be unlocked.
- Motherboard – ASUS M4A87TD EVO AM3 AMD 870 SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX AMD Motherboard – I wanted USB 3.0 and this one was on sale, so I upgraded a bit from Hardware Revolution’s recommendation.
- Graphics card – MSI N460GTX Cyclone 768D5/OC GeForce GTX 460 768MB
- Case – Antec Three Hundred Illusion – conveniently on sale, with four very quiet fans
- RAM – 2 x G.SKILL Sniper 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333
- Hard drive – Samsung 1 TB Spinpoint 7200 RPM – I almost bought an SSD, but it seemed like most of the ones recommended were either sold out, or had bad reviews on newegg; and getting 1 TB for $60 was hard to pass up.
- DVD burner – ASUS Black 24X
- Power Supply – Antec BP550 Plus 550W Continuous Power ATX12V V2.2 80 PLUS – there are some good online tools to estimate how big a power supply you need, but it’s also nice to have a particular one recommended for your components.
For instructions, I relied on various websites like this and this that I just found googling. Most of the sites were a bit old and included more complicated steps only required with older equipment. I also checked out a fair number of videos. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the manuals that came with the parts were not all terrible. The motherboard manual, in particular, provided detailed instructions, and plugging everything into the motherboard is half the work.
If you build it…
The case I chose was nothing fancy but well-made and it already had enough fans installed. First to go in was the power supply, which was simple. Then came attaching the cpu and its heat sink to the mother board. This took a bit longer only because I was nervous about getting it wrong. There’s a lot of stuff online about thermal paste which I didn’t have, but if you have a new cpu and heat sink in the box, you don’t need it. Then the RAM went in- even I had done that before.
Putting the motherboard into the case was another step that made me nervous. I found a lot of warnings online about shorting out motherboards and problems with cases that didn’t match. As it turned out, it was very easy. The only problem I had was with the cheap metal I/O panel that covers the ports that are accessible from the back of the finished computer. The panel had tabs extending over the holes for the ports which I thought was odd, but I didn’t cut them off or bend them back, which caused an issue described later.
Hooking up the various cables from the motherboard to the case and power supply took some patience but was straightforward. Mostly, I just wondered about connections that I didn’t use, like for chassis and power fans. Instead, the case fans just plug directly into the power supply, which as far as I know is correct…
Then came the hard drive and dvd burner. Again, very easy, just a matter of making sure they connected to the motherboard and the power supply. The graphics card was a tiny bit more work- making sure I was using the right pci connection on the motherboard and figuring out the 2 x 6 prong connections it required for its power. And that was it. I looked around for more parts to put in, but there’s really not very many.
Before I hit the power button, a wave of fear swept through me that I had just wasted a lot of money because it couldn’t really be this easy. Oh well. I hit the power button. Pause. Nothing happened. Deep breathe…I looked around the back and turned on the power supply, then tried again. This time, the fans’ blue LED lights lit up the room. But after celebrating seeing the ASUS motherboard’s splash screen, an error popped up: “USB Over Current Status Detected, Computer will shut down in 15 seconds.” Then it made good on its threat and shut down.
I checked all the connections from USB ports to the motherboard again and they all looked fine. I looked online for the error message and found a bunch of worthless comments. Then it occurred to me that the I/O panel in back couldn’t possibly be right. I folded the metals tabs out of the way- some were actually touching the inside of the ports, then tried again, and this time I went right into BIOS without an error.
I expected to have to fiddle around with BIOS for a long time, but there was barely anything to do. I think I maybe had to set the time zone. Even unlocking the fourth cpu was a breeze. The motherboard had a switch for it, and in fact, my system came up with 4 cores, reporting that I had a Phenom II x4 instead of an Athlon II x3. I haven’t tried overclocking yet.
Installed Windows and wondered a little about connecting to the internet, until I thought about it and checked the motherboard’s CD for ethernet drivers. I also installed drivers for the graphics card, the dvd burner, yada yada…Done! Here’s my cool new and sad old computer side by side.
I think one of the things I like best about the new computer is that there is no crummy manufacturer software pre-installed trying to get me to buy McAfee or bugging me to check the Dell Support Center for updates. It’s surprisingly quiet, and building it myself saved me at least a bit of money, allowed me to tinker with hardware, and let me skip the usual bloatware. I highly recommend the process!