How Do I build a Computer

Step by step instructions – Robert Galewaler, aka Realgun

There are a few things you will need to buy:

  • CPU
  • Motherboard
  • Heatsink
  • Memory
  • Video Card
  • Sound Card
  • Modem/ Network Card
  • Hard drive
  • DVD/CDRW drive
  • Floppy Drive
  • Case
  • Keyboard
  • Mouse
  • Monitor
  • Speakers
  • Fan(s)
  • Operating System

1. CPU

The biggest decision you will make is the CPU. This single part will determines the motherboard and that in turn determines the remaining components.

You will hear in forums many, many discussions as to what the best CPU is. My choice has been AMD for one reason only: Price and Performance. I believe you get more bang for the buck. On the other hand, my brother-in-law wants Intel for its stability and reputation.

In benchmarks for multimedia and games with identical systems, stock speeds, and the best of the best products, there is only a slight lead in these benchmarks for Intel. In productivity benchmarks, it will be AMD.

If price is your deciding factor, the Athlon XP or Celeron is the choice.
If performance were the deciding factor, the Intel Pentium 4 or Athlon XP 512K cache would be your choice.

Clock for clock, the Athlon XP will do more work; however, the Pentium IV can go faster in MHz.

Here is a very crude analogy: AMD is a bus that can hold 20 people. You have 20 people that need to go one mile. Intel is a bus that holds 10 people. The AMD bus does it in 1 cycle. The Intel bus is twice as fast so it can take the twenty people in 2 cycles. Intel is just twice as fast to do the same job in the same amount of time.

Good thing there are only two real choices, AMD or INTEL – the decision is yours.

AMD Choices – Athlon XP (512K L2 cache), Athlon XP
INTEL Choices – Pentium 4, Celeron

Component: Athlon XP 2500

2. Motherboard

This is determined by the CPU choice above. AMD processors use Socket 462, while Intel processors use socket 478. Both of these sockets are ZIF, which mean if the CPU is oriented correctly, the processor will slip into place with very little pressure when a locking bar is in the up position.

No matter the choice, price is a deciding factor here. You can go as low as $50 dollars for a basic motherboard to $200 plus for a motherboard that has every imaginable feature and then some.

Features you should look for now in any motherboard:

DDR memory support
AGP 8X video card support

If you are just building a machine to do work, go cheaper or more features.
If you are hardcore overclocker, read every review to see what is the best and buy it if it suits your needs.

Component: Asus A7N8X Deluxe

Robert Galewaler, aka Realgun

3. Heatsink

The Heatsink is needed with the modern processors to keep them alive. The Processor will die a quick death if the heatsink is not in place, unless there is a shutdown mechanism on the processor (Intel) or the Motherboard (AMD).

All heatsinks need a material between the top of the processor and the heatsink. This is because air is a good insulator and if there is any gap, heat will not transfer from the processor to the heatsink. If you are not overclocking, you can us a TIM, a small patch of thermal interface material, which will melt and form a fairly good path for heat to move to the heatsink. This usually comes with boxed processors or some low-end heatsinks.

Here is something you should consider: Buy a good copper heatsink or a copper base on the heatsink, and a slower fan if not overclocking. This will do two things.

1. Reduce noise
2. Reduce heat over a stock heatsink fan unit.

If you overclock, you need the best heatsink, fan and a good thermal compound, such as Arctic Silver 3 or Type 44, and place a thin layer on the processor under the heatsink.

Component: Thermalright AX-7, Arctic Silver 3

4. Memory

At the time of this writing, there is DDR memory and Dual channel motherboards. I would suggest you buy a major brand such as Crucial, Mushkin, or Corsair. If you down clock the memory, it will just run more stable.

All of these numbers are the same in terms of memory ie: 100 MHz Front side bus is 200 MHz DDR and PC1600 refers to the theoretical bandwidth of 1.6 megabits a second. In other words, you are describing the same memory no matter the numbers you use. The choices are: PC1600, PC2100, PC2700, PC3200 and PC3500. The front side bus is: 100 MHz, 133 MHz, 166 MHz, 200 MHz and 233 MHz. Doubling the FSB gives the DDR ratings: 200 MHz, 266 MHz, 333 MHz, 400 MHz and 466 MHz.

AMD processors are using both the 133 MHz and 166 MHz busses, Intel is at 100 MHz and 133 MHz but are Quad pumped, giving you 400 MHz and 533 MHz respectively.

Buy a good brand, as fast as your motherboard and Processor supports.
My suggestion is 512 Megabytes PC3200, 2 modules of 256 megabyte each. This will cover most situations.

Component: Corsair PC3200 256 Meg X2

5. Video Card

If you have a reasonably fast processor and a good motherboard, get a good video card. Most everything that you do depends on this card, as long as it is supported properly by the underlying motherboard/processor.

If you are just surfing the web and writing letters and not playing any games, watching DVDs, etc, then you can get a very inexpensive video card or use a motherboard with built in video.

There are two top video chip manufacturers: ATI and NVIDIA.
Nvidia has the Geforce family of cards and ATI has the Radeon family of cards. Right now the best card is the Radeon 9800Pro. Here is what to look for: 128 Megs of Video memory and an 8x AGP interface.

The buys in descending order of price/performance:

Expensive – High Performance

  • Radeon 9800 Pro April 03
  • Radeon 9800 May 03
  • Radeon 9700 Pro
  • Geforce FX (expensive but on par with the 9700 Pro) March 03
  • Radeon 9700
  • Geforce 4800
  • Radeon 9500Pro
  • Geforce 4200
  • Radeon 9500
  • Radeon 9000 Pro
  • Radeon 9000
  • Radeon 9100>renamed /Pkged 8500
  • Radeon 8500
  • Geforce 4MX
  • Radeon 7500
  • Radeon 7000

Cheaper – Still good performance

No matter what you do, the real performance of the system will be faster with a better video card than any other factor.

Please refer to this article if you don’t believe me.

Component: Radeon 9700 Pro


Robert Galewaler, aka Realgun

6. Sound Cards

There are quite a few sound cards on the market. It is very subjective as to what is the best.

Creative labs Audiology2, Turtle Beach Santa Cruz and Hercules Fortissimo series are all very good sound cards.

Some motherboards have built in sound which is fairly good, but most people are going to want an add in a sound card with one notable exception: the Nvidia Nforce2 Motherboard for AMD processors and Sound Storm audio.

If you are going to use two speakers and not listen to music on your system, then use the onboard sound – it’s not that bad.

If you are listening to music, playing games and watching DVDs, then by all means get a good sound card. But you must realize the best sound card is going to sound only as good as the speaker/headphones your using to listen to these sounds.

Component: Onboard sound (however, installing a Turtle Beach Santa Cruz).

7. Modem/Network Card

There are two types of modems on the market today: Hardware Modems and Software Modems.

A Software Modem is cheaper. It does not have all the hardware on the modem to do the processing of the signals from the phone line to digital signals the computer understands. It relies on the power of the processor to do some of these functions. With today’s powerful systems, you do not have to worry that it will bog down games.

A Hardware Modem does it all and feeds the digital signal to the system on its own.

It is suggested you get a V.92 modem, as it will work with virtually all Internet Service Providers that provide dial-up service to the Internet.

Network cards are for people with a Cable or DSL connection and/or networking. Some network cards are built into the motherboard and others are separate PCI cards. Some very good cards are very inexpensive to buy.

Only purchase a 10/100 card – this way you can plug into almost any network connection and you have room to expand. 10/100 refers to the speed the cards operate at when sending or receiving data, 10 Mbps (mega bits per second) or 100 Mbps.

Component: 2 onboard 10/100 cards, installing a US Robotics Modem V.92

8. Hard Drives

The things to look for in a hard drive are:
Speed of rotation 7200rpm
Size. Bigger is better – minimum now is 40 Gigabytes
Cache size. Most drives are 2MB cache – try to get an 8MB cache if you can.

There reason you want a faster rotation is the disk will read and write the data you need in a shorter amount of time. If you are just surfing the web and downloading a few pictures, your drive can be smaller. If you are editing images and downloading MP3’s, by all means go as big as you can.

Component: Western Digital 80 G, 8 MB Cache 7200 rpm drive

9. DVD/CDRW Drives

A DVD drive will read both CDs and DVD. The price of these drives is at or below the price of a CD-ROM drive! Get a 16x DVD and that will read a CD at 40x (1x is about 150 Kbs). CDRW drive can read and Write a CD and there are now DVD writers, but they are very expensive. Most of the CDRWs are rated as Read-Rewrite-Write and will be expressed as 52x-24x-52x.

Look for “buffer under run” technology. This prevents or helps you to avoid burning a “coaster” (an unreadable disk) due to the system not feeding enough data to the CDRW while writing.

Components: DVD drive 16x and CDRW 48x-12x-48X

10. Floppy drive

Not really needed anymore except to flash the BIOS on the motherboard. The disk is slow and holds 1.44 Megabytes – 2.88MB on some drives. For $10.00-15.00, it should still be included as you just may need it.

Component: Generic Floppy

Robert Galewaler, aka Realgun

11. Case

The case is the where you place the components. There are a few important items:

1. The power supply you purchase or that comes with the case should work with your motherboard and supply the amount of power required. The power supply you purchase should be at least 300 Watts. If it is Version 2.03, it will work with all Pentium 4 and Most AMD systems.

Underpowered power supplies are the leading cause of system instability you will find. Cheap 300-400 Watt power supplies for $15-20 cannot supply the power needed for a truly stable system.

2. The case is large enough to hold what you’re going to install inside. There are many sizes of cases and colors and even materials they are constructed from. Most cases are steel that is painted beige or white with a plastic face or front cover. There are now aluminum cases on the market, but they are expensive.

3. Make sure you buy a case that is the same as your motherboard ie; the Motherboard is ATX form factor, buy an ATX case. This is pretty much standard.

4. Cheap cases usually have inferior power supplies, sharp edges and things don’t always line up, resulting in frustration. Get a good brand and you will be much happier. You will also find the case will continue when the Geforce 4600Ti has been retired to the kids’ system because it was not powerful enough!

5. Cases are labeled with the drive bays exposed and hidden. So if you see 4 – 5.25 and 3 – 3.5 inch bays, 1 hidden, then you know that you can have 4 large drives and 2 small drives that you can access from outside the case and 1 inside that cannot be accessed from the outside. For example you need to expose the floppy drive or you’re not going to be able to place a floppy in the drive without opening the case!

Component: Aluminum Chieftec case, Antec power supply – 400 Watts 2.03 compliant

12. Keyboard

There are inexpensive keyboards and good keyboards. The best way to purchase a keyboard is to try them. There are two types a standard keyboard: flat and a Natural keyboard, which is split and is more comfortable depending on your preferences. Some keyboards have extra functions that usually don’t get used, but there are exceptions like a power or sleep button.

Component: Microsoft internet keyboard

13. Mouse

This is probably used more than the keyboard, so purchase a comfortable mouse and you will not be disappointed.

A few suggestions:

Get an optical mouse so you don’t have to clean the rubber ball in a normal mouse.
Make sure it has a scroll wheel – this makes it easier to navigate.

Component: Logitech MX300 for left handed users and the MX500 for everyone else. The MX700 is a wireless mouse that works extremely well, even in gaming. Some older wireless mice actually lag when gaming. The Microsoft Intellimouse is very good also.

14. Monitor

The monitor is the most used component in a system. You should get a large monitor that will display at a resolution of at least 1280 x 1024 @85 Hz and have a Dot pitch less than 0.26. The smaller the dot pitch, the clearer the screen to a certain extent. 19-inch monitors are not that expensive, but if you can afford it, get the largest and best monitor possible.

LCD screens are now becoming more affordable. The good thing is they are clear and use less power. You need to watch the contrast ratio and native resolution, however. Contrast ratio is the difference between the lightest and darkest objects on the screen – the bigger the difference, the better the image.

If the monitor’s native resolution is 1280 x 1024, then that’s where you will get the best picture. One issue with LCD screens: If you’re playing a game and your video card cannot refresh the image at an acceptable frame rate at 1280 x 1024, the image is going to look bad if you drop the resolution to 1024 x 768. If the objects move too fast on the screen and the LCD cannot change colors fast enough, you will get blurred images.

Component: 19 inch Sampo – 1600 x 1200 @85hz, 0.25 dot pitch

15. Speakers

There are lots of speakers on the market from $10 – $400. Speaker systems come in 2, 2.1, 4.1 and 5.1 packages; the “.1” refers to a subwoofer. Most people have either 2 or 2.1 systems as they are inexpensive and fit right on and under the desk. The 4.1 and 5.1 systems are for people who play games or watch DVDs.

You really need to listen to the speakers and decide for yourself which to purchase.

Component: Logitech Z-540 – a 4.1 system

16. Fans

There are many fans on the market for PCs. Most use 60mm, 80mm and 120mm.
Try to get a good flow of air with the least noise you can.

Component: 4 Panasonic Panaflow 21 CFM @ 20 decibels, quiet

17. Operating System

There are many operating systems to choose from, but the operating system most people use is going to be Windows XP. Linux is a good operating system and very powerful, but has a higher learning curve and some of the applications you may need are not supported.

You finally did it! You purchased all your parts, now what? The first thing is to read the motherboard manual. This will show you where everything is and how to install it.

Component: Windows XP OEM version

Robert Galewaler, aka Realgun

Building The System

Step 1


Want a 200-dollar paperweight? Ignore this small piece of advice.

Setup the case in preparation for the motherboard and components. All cases are oriented from the motherboard side. Open the side door and remove. This exposes the motherboard area (bottom left). The card slots are low and left; they lineup with the longs slots of the motherboard.

Above the card slots are screws that are used to hold plates to cover the open slots. These are removed to expose the slots for expansion cards. Towards the middle rear is the I/O plate. This is where you expose the rear of the motherboard to the back of the system to plug in keyboard, mouse, printer, etc.

To the right side are wires that are labeled, Power LED, Reset, HDD LED and Power. From the bottom up right side are drive cages. These hold your hard drives, up to 3 per cage, and floppy drives. One is internal and two are external. Above that are 4 drive bays for 5.25″ components, such as CDRW and DVD drives (note: your case may hold more or less drives). In the upper left corner is the power supply.

The rails to hold the 5.25″ drives in place are mounted to the bottom of the case – remove 4 of these (note: not all cases use drive rails). Take out the bag of screws and the power cable.

There are brass standoffs in the bag of screws – remove 9 of these. They have threads on bottom and holes in the top for a screw. These are inserted into the motherboard plate in the case. This is the big open area. There are lots of holes here you don’t need to fill them all – just the ones for the motherboard. This holds the motherboard off the plate and serves to ground the motherboard.

The easiest way to determine the screw location is to place the motherboard in the case and, with a marking pen, place dot through each hole. Make sure you are grounded or you’re going to be buying a new motherboard. Now insert the brass standoffs. Take the motherboard again and see if the standoff lineup with the motherboard.

There are other cases where you have pre determined bump or plastic standoffs – follow those instructions to install the motherboard.

Do not install the motherboard at this time.

Step 2

Prepare the motherboard for installation. READ THE MANUAL. If you read the manual, you will know where things are and how to install parts. Read the manual, as there are usually jumpers that need to be moved and is so much easier now then after you have installed the motherboard into the case. A jumper is a very small plastic block with a wire in it that connects 2 pins together.

For instance, you want the motherboard to power on if you press on the keyboard. By default, pins 1 and 2 are jumpered – this does not allow you to power the system on from the keyboard. Moving the jumper to Pins 2 and 3 will allow this. Read the manual thoroughly. Prepare it now as it may be difficult once the computer is up and running.

Robert Galewaler, aka Realgun

Step 3

In some instances, the motherboard tray removes from the case. This makes it easier to install some items, such as the CPU and memory.

Lay the motherboard flat on the package it came in. locate the CPU socket – in this case it will read Socket 462 but, you should not have any issues with any new motherboard. There is only one open area above all the slots with lots of little holes.

Locate the lever that is on the side of the socket and pull out slightly and lift up. It should now be 90 degrees to the motherboard. On the processor is a small gold arrow – this is the corner that is different from the rest of the processor – this will be reflected in the holes in the socket.

Line it up and it will slide into the holes. DO NOT FORCE IT! If it does not go, look closer – it should just slide into the socket. Once you have inserted the processor into place, push gently on all four corners to be sure you have seated it all the way. Lower the lever and be sure it locks under the small tab.

You will need your thermal compound, or if you are using a TIM, apply that to the heatsink if not already there. Place a rice grain sized drop of thermal compound on the CPU and use a straight edge to spread it over the processor in a thin layer. Do not touch either the processor or the heatsink on the contact area – the oils from your hands will slow the heat flow away from the processor.

Install the heatsink/fan on the processor. Be very careful not to move the heatsink too much, as it will wipe thermal compound off the processor. Most heatsinks us the tab or tabs on the side of the socket for attachment. Clip the side away from the hinge of the socket, the lever part, then clip the side with the hinge.

You may need a screwdriver; be very careful as you could gouge the motherboard. If you need a screwdriver, make sure it fits the clip and you don’t slip. Be sure to plug in the power for the fan on the CPU to the correct 3-pin header on the motherboard.

Step 4

On the motherboard are usually three or four slots for memory. You will need to move the lever on the slots out away from the slots before installing the memory. RAM is installed only one-way – if it doesn’t go in, turn it around. There is a small keyway in the slot – line it up with the memory. If the memory is inserted correctly, the tabs on the memory slot will come up to lock the memory in place.

Step 5

In this case, you need to push out the standard I/O back plate and replace it with the new plate (usually comes with the motherboard). Push from the outside and the plate should come free. Insert the plate that comes with the motherboard into the opening. The two round holes, for keyboard and mouse go towards the power supply.

Step 6

The motherboard is quite heavy, do not grab the heatsink, and place it into the motherboard area. The CPU should be close to the power supply. Tip the motherboard down into the rear of the case as the backplate has a few clips that go on top of the little metal boxes on the rear of the motherboard. Line up the holes and insert one screw.

I like to install the video card at this time, just to line up the motherboard and case. Once everything is lined up, place a few more screws and remove the video card. Tighten it down, but do not over tighten – it’s not going to come loose in normal operation and you do not want to damage the motherboard.

Step 7

There are some connections from the case to the motherboard, such as a power switch, reset button, power and hard drive LEDs. Look in the manual to determine the location of this block and make these connections. Generally, the wires are in the lower right side of the case and the block is on the lower right of the motherboard. Be sure to plug in the power for the fan on the CPU to the correct 3-pin header on the motherboard.

Robert Galewaler, aka Realgun

Step 8

Install the drives into the drive cages. In this case, remove the drive cages – it makes it so much easier. The bottom cage will hold 3 hard drives. Remove the hard drive from the package and make sure the jumper for Master/Slave or Single is in the correct position. Doing so now will save a few headaches in the future. Line up the hard drive with the screw holes and gently tighten the screws – you should use 4.

On some cases you have to remove the other side of the case to expose the holes in order to install the drives in “no removable” cages.

Install the floppy drive in the middle part of the upper cage and make sure you have its front sticking out so it will be flush with the case when exposed.

To install CD drives in this case and some other cases, you will need to install drive rails. The rails attach to either side with screws. If you have a hard time, install one rail only and insert the drive into the chassis to be sure it is lined up properly. If it lines up, simply install the other rail and insert the drive from the front into the case.

On some cases, a metal plate blocks the opening and you will need to remove a metal plate in the bay before installing the CD-ROM or DVD drive. Use wire cutters or twisting should remove the plate; however, be very careful as the metal edges are sharp!

If you use a single CD or DVD drive, make sure you have the drive set to master. If you are using two drives, make sure the CDRW drive is master and the DVD is slave. This arrangement usually works best. We suggest you leave the hard drive on a cable by itself or you may have a small performance degradation.

Step 9

Be sure to plug in the power for the fan on the CPU to the correct 3-pin header on the motherboard. Plug in the main power wire from the power supply to the motherboard; this is a 20-wire connection and fits only one way. There may also be secondary power connections, especially on Pentium 4 motherboards – be sure you plug them all in.

Step 10

Plug in the floppy cable to the motherboard and run it to the floppy drive. On most motherboards and cables, there is a keyway this makes it easier to plug in. There is also a darker edge (usually red) on most cables – this goes to pin 1 on the drive. Some drives do not have this keyway.

Repeat for the hard drive, making sure you use the blue end on the motherboard. If it does not have a blue end, it may not be an 80-wire ATA 66/100/133 cable. Plug in the CDRW and DVD cables also. The slave drive is usually plugged into the middle of the cable.

Step 11

Plug in the power for the drives. The power cable is “D” shaped and only goes one way. The power connecter for the floppy is unique and is smaller.

Step 12

If the operating system is Windows 95 or Windows 98, you will need to plug in a molex connector from the CD drive to the sound card to listen to CDs on your system. This cable is still included with most CD-ROM drives.

Step 13

Install your video card. The slot closet to the CPU is usually the video card slot. Be sure you see no gold contact above the slot and you push the card firmly into the slot. In some very new cards, you will need to insert a power connecter – this is the time to do that. Be sure you install a hold down screw to secure the card.

Step 14

Install your sound card. Remove the slot cover and retain the screw. The lowest slot is usually a good sound card slot. Be sure you see no gold contact above the slot and you push the card firmly into the slot. If you have a CD-ROM molex connection, please plug it into the “CD IN” location. Be sure you install a hold down screw to secure the card.

Step 15

Install your modem card. Remove the slot cover and retain the screw. The middle slot is usually a good modem card slot. Be sure you see no gold contact above the slot and you push the card firmly into the slot. Be sure you install a hold down screw to secure the card.

Step 16

Install a network card. Remove the slot cover and retain the screw. The middle slot is usually a good network card slot. Be sure you see no gold contact above the slot and you push the card firmly into the slot. Be sure you install a hold down screw to secure the card. In this case, there are two networks cards onboard.

Robert Galewaler, aka Realgun

Step 17

The box is now completed. Plug in you monitor, speakers, keyboard and mouse.
Note the orientation and don’t force anything. Speakers should be setup according to the directions.

Step 18

Take a deep breath, as the system may not boot. However, I have yet to have a system not post or make a beep and I have built a lot of systems.

Step 19

Push the power button.

Step 20 – If Nothing Happens:

Things to Check and Do:

  • Did you plug in the power cable to the power supply? Wall? You do have power at that outlet?
  • Did you in fact plug the power button cable to the correct pins on the motherboard?
  • Did you plug the power supply cable into the motherboard?
  • Start a strip of the motherboard, testing for post.
  • Start by taking one card out at a time to see if the system posts. Test after you remove the card. Leave the card out.
  • Leave the video card do not remove yet.
  • Remove the Floppy cable, test.
  • Remove the CD-ROM cable from motherboard end, test.
  • Remove the hard drive cable, test.
  • Push the memory into the slots and test.
  • Remove the memory one piece at a time, or if one stick, remove it, test
  • Reset the CMOS, Follow the directions on the manual!!! Test.
  • Remove the Video card, test.

At this point, you have a short on the motherboard, possibly due to having a metal standup in the wrong place or a bad CPU/Motherboard.

Step 20 – If It Posts:

Congratulations! It posts and says “No Operating System found”.

In the BIOS, you will want to setup some of the parameters for your system. Look in the motherboard manual to set this up.

You will be setting time/date, size of hard drive, usually auto detected, size of floppy, CPU speed. Almost everything else, leave alone unless you need to change it.

Step 21

If you are running Windows XP, insert the CD-ROM into the Master CD drive and boot the system from that drive. You may need to enter the BIOS to set the CD-ROM as the first boot device. It will lead you all the way through the install no matter how little you know. Believe me – you can do this if you have actually constructed your system.

Important things to do after installing any operating system:

  1. Install the motherboard drivers. This allows Windows to interact properly with your motherboard.
  2. Install the video card divers.
  3. Install sound card drivers.
  4. Install modem drivers.
  5. Install all other required drivers for your equipment.
  6. Install all updates to the operating system and drivers.

I hope you enjoyed reading this, but more importantly, please build your own system; you will get more pleasure from doing it yourself than anything you can purchase.

Robert Galewaler, aka Realgun

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