mechBgon's guide to building your first PC from parts   : )
  1. Start

  2. Case prep 1

  3. Case prep 2

  4. Data and power cables

  5. Serial ATA stuff

  6. General motherboard/CPU info

  7. Testing & installing the motherboard assembly

  8. Installing the hard drive

  9. Final connections

  10. Security during Windows Setup

  11. Best practices for ongoing security

  12. Resources (drivers, diagnostics, links, online antivirus scans, antispyware resources)

  13. A brief visual glossary

Previous: Introduction

Although the parts kit shown in this guide is old-generation hardware, the core knowledge shown here still applies to any ATX-type computer build.

IMPORTANT: How to prevent damage to your computer parts from electric/static shocks You can buy an anti-static wrist strap that grounds you at all times. Otherwise, make a habit of touching a grounded object before picking up or touching any of the hardware. If the case is plugged into the wall, it's grounded even when the power supply's rear rocker switch is in the 'Off' position, so that's a good item to use.

First, ensure that you have an ample supply of snacks and beverages. : ) For a value-oriented system, you can go with something basic like I used here:

On the other hand, if it's a high-end computer, it calls for...

(pizza pic courtesy of thraxes)

Here's my parts kit:

  • an Antec SLK3700AMB case with its 350W Antec power supply
  • an Asus A7N266-VM/AA motherboard
  • a retail-boxed AMD AthlonXP 2400+ processor (including its heatsink/fan unit)
  • a Crucial memory module
  • a Maxtor hard drive
  • a Sony CD-ROM drive and floppy drive.

This computer will be an office system, so it'll be fine with its onboard video, audio, and network features. The finished system won't have any add-in PCI or AGP cards. Later you'll see it with an AGP video card for demonstration purposes, however.

That motherboard seems small The case is a standard ATX case and will accept ATX, microATX or even FlexATX motherboards. I picked a microATX motherboard that has one AGP slot and three PCI slots. A full-sized ATX motherboard may have as many as seven slots.

It's 2009. Suggestions on a case?

It can be difficult to pick a computer case because there are so many choices. If you're looking for a conventional medium-sized tower case, you might consider the LanCool K7 if your budget allows. Here's a link to the K7 at Newegg: click here and check the Image Viewer for photos.

The K7's hard-drive cage orients the hard drives sideways (they can face either the left or right side of the case). This allows you to see what you're doing when you're attaching and removing cables from the hard drives. It also makes it easy to add and remove hard drives, without interference from your video card and its auxiliary power cables. The connectors on Serial ATA hard drives are thin plastic and can be broken off, so it's beneficial to be able to see what you're doing. On that note, if you pick this case, be sure to have some SATA cables with 90° plugs at one end, so the cables do not touch the side panel of the case. The motherboard may include them.

The K7 also has direct fan cooling for up to five hard drives, plus a 3.5" external bay for a memory-card reader (some cases don't have external 3.5" bays anymore). I also liked the top-panel location for the Firewire, USB and audio jacks, and the Power and Reset buttons. I prefer not to have vents on the computer's side panel, so that's another benefit of the K7. With two quiet 120mm intake fans, one 120mm exhaust fan, ventilated slot covers and your power supply's exhaust fan, it has ample ventilation.

You'll find two types of screws in most computers. The picture below shows the finer metric-threaded screws on the left, and the coarser UNC 6-32-threaded screws on the right. The big ones are "thumbscrews." If you have any difficulties with a screw, double-check that it's the correct threading. The case will come with the necessary screws.

Different cases open in different ways, but usually the left side panel comes off either by sliding backwards until it disengages, or by swinging outwards as if it were on a hinge. This case is the hinge type. To open it, I push on the thumb latches, and unscrew the thumbscrews at the rear of the left side panel until they let go.

I'm also going to take off the right side panel. It's held by the two Phillips screws at the rear.

Now that the side panels are off, I can unlatch the bezel (the case's plastic front face) and take it off. This case's bezel is held by a little clip on each side at the bottom. I'm pointing at one of them here. On many cases, the bezel is held on by multiple plastic tangs that are visible from inside the case. Adapt and overcome as needed, and be patient if you don't see how to release the bezel right away.

Pulling the bezel off...

...and here's the front of the case.

I'm not taking the case apart just for fun. This case uses "rails" that screw to the side of the CD-ROM drive, and the bezel had to come off so the drive can be slid into place, and the side panels had to come off in order to remove the bezel.

Let's unpack the box of parts that comes with this case.

Here's a pair of rails.

Screwing the rails to the CD-ROM drive.

Rails vary from case to case, so if your case comes with rails, don't lose your extra rails. Some rails have multiple sets of screw holes to choose from when screwing them to the sides of the drives.

Not all cases use rails. Here's the "traditional" design where the drives are simply held into the bays with screws.

It's 2009. Serial ATA optical drives are the new standard We are beginning to see the disappearance of 40-pin IDE connectors on motherboards, so when you choose a DVD drive, you're probably going to choose a Serial ATA model. On Serial ATA drives, you don't need to worry about Master/Slave jumper settings, because there can only be one drive on each data cable.

When choosing an optical drive, I suggest getting a retail-boxed drive, because it'll include some basic burner software like Nero Essentials. If you're going to use Windows Vista, also look to see what version of burner software is included, to be sure it's fully Vista-compatible. For example, if you're shopping at Newegg, use the "Image Viewer" to see the package contents, and look for Nero Essentials 8 or higher, not 7.

LightScribe disc labelling is slow (20-45 minutes per disc) but it can be fun if you're making something special. If you get a DVD burner with LightScribe capabilities, get the latest core LightScribe driver software and basic LightScribe labelling software from this page. Burner software like Nero Essentials will let you make more complex label designs if you want to. In the LightScribe Control Panel, there's an option to boost contrast...

...which can produce nice results (although it can take over 40 minutes per label). The label below was made in Nero Cover Designer, part of an older Nero suite. As you may already know, LightScribe does require a LightScribe-enabled drive and LightScribe discs.

This CD-ROM drive is typical of IDE optical drives, whether DVD or CD: from left to right, it's got

  • a two-pin digital-audio receptacle (rarely used)
  • a four-pin receptacle for an analog audio cable (commonly used)
  • a three-position jumper block that determines whether the drive will be Master, Slave, or use Cable Select to determine its role on its data cable
  • a 40-pin receptacle for an IDE data cable
  • a 4-pin power connector

I'm leaving the CD-ROM drive's jumper on the Master pins. It'll be alone on its own data cable, so any jumper setting would work. If I were adding a second drive on the same cable, then I would set the second drive to Slave. If two drives are on the same IDE cable, you don't want both of them to be set for Master, or both Slave, because then they'll conflict with eachother.

With the rails screwed onto the CD-ROM drive, I push it into a vacant bay. Many cases come with metal covers in the bays, as you can see here. They prevent EMI (electromagnetic interference) from escaping. The covers are designed to be broken out by flexing them.

The rails will click-lock when the drive is seated. To release it, I would press the exposed ends of the rails against the drive while pulling the drive outwards.

In this day & age, you are more likely to be installing a memory-card reader than a floppy-diskette drive. In either case, here's how:

This case's 3.5-inch drive cage is removable.

Before putting the bezel back on, take out the placeholder "blanks" that the drives will now occupy.

Re-engaging the bezel. For this case, I engage the hooks at the top, and then push the bezel in at the bottom until it latches on.

This looks right, the drives are flush with the bezel. Snack break! : )

Next we'll get the inside of the case ready for the motherboard.

Next: Caseprep, page 2