Building Your Own PC

There are many excellent technical sites to assist us in building our own PC’s. We won’t try to duplicate what others have done better. For technical details, and a much more complete “how-to”, we recommend Tom’s Hardware. Before you get lost in tech talk about motherboards and chip overclocking, you might want to proceed directly to their step-by-step article Do-It-Yourself PC System.

When you’re ready to begin: print out the “Tom’s Hardware” article. (Note: as far as we can tell, Tom’s sells nothing. They are an established and widely respected reviewing service). But, first, then, why would we be writing this article?

  • Because we promised to
  • Because it’s a cool experience
  • Because you may save some money
  • Because we found there may be a few surprises.

How could you save money? Right now (May 2001) is an unparalleled opportunity for bargain-basement PC prices. Vendors are hurting for sales, all vendors, and even mighty Dell is discounting its desktop systems. A coworker bought a fast Pentium III for $599, and got three years of EarthLink free. Or, maybe she got three years of EarthLink for $599 and got the PC free. The deal left many of the rest of us scratching our heads.

The high-end systems come loaded with bundled software, speakers, still another 17” tube monitor, and many other features and options you may or may not want at all. Major vendors offer a “design your own system” order page, where you can specify the amount of memory you want, the size and kind of drives, what kind of PCI cards you want included, and virtually any option you can think of (and some you wouldn’t have). By the time you’ve flipped all the pop-up menu options, and checked all the checkbox features, you’re looking at $2,000, $3,000 – or even higher.

The catch is that even the “designer systems” are bundled their way. You may opt NOT to get the monitor, but you save only $100, because “it’s part of the bundle”. You may be upgrading from an older system, and you want to take some of your PCI cards with you (or maybe even the RAM, if it’s the same speed). You might want to part out some of the older hard drives, the new DVD-ROM, or maybe you’re going SCSI and already have the card and drives.

If you want it “your way”, you’ll pay a price for that freedom unless you build it yourself.

Some years back. We upgraded a Micron tower PC from a 300 MHz to 500 MHz chip, which meant swapping out motherboards too. Thanks to all the free advice at Tom’s Hardware, this upgrade built confidence, restored an awesome system to nearly state-of-the-art specs, and saved a bundle of money.

Because the Micron’s a tower (and has many older noisier drives), it lives in Phoenix now. There’s no room in the apartment here for something that big and loud. We lived with a laptop for months. Then I had a yen to get back into audio and graphics, and maybe start a server down the line.

We considered upgrading a trusty but aging Compaq 333 Mhz machine. It would have been an almost ideal candidate for a motherboard upgrade, but the motherboard is proprietary. As far as we could figure out, it can’t be replaced with anything that would fit with minor surgery. And, we were already maxed out on the drive bays.

Back to Tom’s Hardware we went. Things are a little different than when 500 MHz was a really fast chip. With the fastest chips, cooling is everything. Tom’s features The Tom’s Hardware Guide Power Box. This odd-looking puppy steams along at something over 1.2GHz (depending on how much you overclock the chip). A device that’s basically a miniature refrigerator cools the Athlon chip. We didn’t want anything that fancy.

What we decided on:

Parts & Ingredients List

  • Box: PC Power & Cooling mid-tower, includes
  • 300W Power Supply
  • Tyan Trinity 400 motherboard 133 bus (same as Micron Millennia Max)
  • Creative Labs SoundBlaster LIVE, built-in module (no card!)

On Motherboard:

  • Pentium III, 1GB (upper left)
  • Pentium cooler (replaces Intel “retail” cooler, which was too big, exceeded their own spec size)
  • (2) 256M DIMMS (Crucial, top right)
  • ATI 32MB AGP graphics card

Bays

  • 5-1/2 HD Bay, top to bottom
  • Pioneer slot-feed DVD/CD-ROM
  • APS 8x CD burner, SCSI
  • 45GB IBM Deskstar ATA66 HD, 7200RPM, with BayCooler
  • 3-1/2 inch HD bay, top to bottom
  • Floppy drive unit
  • 1GB JAZ, internal SCSI (not connected yet)
  • 20 GB IBM Deskstar ATA66 HD, 7200 RPM (bring 1 drive up at a time)
  • Optional: 3-1/2″ HD Bay, loose on wood stand
  • (2) IBM SCSI ultra drives, to be connected later

PCI Slots

  • 10/100T Ethernet, 3Com
  • Creative Labs 56K modem

Figure 1: partial assembly corresponding to list above

 

What we ended up with:

Figure 2: completed assembly

 
Don’t let the mid-size plain beige box fool you. This system kicks some serious butt.

Details and Notes

  • Buying the PC Power & Cooling “starter box” saved too much money over buying the box, motherboard and power supply separately
  • We investigated the board and power supply specs carefully and found them top-notch
  • All cooling is by PC Power & Cooling. It’s a fairly quiet unit.
  • The Intel “retail package” included a ventilated heat sink that was 50% too big for almost any motherboard ever made. We had to buy a correct-sized substitute for $17.
  • The people who sold us the Pentium had no idea what a “flip chip” was. We had to call PC Power & Cooling twice to translate what the motherboard could accept into an order the chip people could accept. We have NO recommendation on where to buy your Pentium.
  • We had a bad experience with the $19 floppy drive because three separate boot floppies failed to boot. Hint: format a new floppy, install a system, and try again. Three bad floppies in a row; who would have guessed?

The unit has been running fine now for a little over a month. What did we spend? More than we budgeted, but about $1000 less than a comparably equipped off-the-shelf system.

Would we do it again? Most definitely. Once you build your own box, upgrading a motherboard of chip is trivial.

Figure 3. Laying out the parts

In this photo, main drives are pre-installed in Bay Coolers. Metal box to left houses floppy and JAZ drives and will mount below main bay enclosure. RAM, the Pentium and PCI boards go in last.

Figure 4. Motherboard detail.

 Note the oversize cooler in the Intel retail kit. It dwarfs the installed chip (just to the right) and will not fit. We laid it on the board to illustrate the problem. The cooler “keeper” is laid on top of the cooling fins to give scale to the photo. (We ordered the correct size from PC Power & Cooling).

Reference: Where to go for additional information:

copyright Alex Forbes ©2001

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