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Start a DIY hobby
How to Build the Perfect Computer
Member Name: clumsy1974
How to Build the Perfect Computer
Date: 16/06/01, updated on 28/06/01 (343 review reads)
Advantages: Cheaper than buying a pre-built machine, Fun, Challenging
Disadvantages: Possible pitfalls are numrous
I am just puting together my latest DIY project. Its an AMD Duron 800Mhz machine which I intend to overclock, an ABIT KT7E motherboard, 256Mb RAM and most of the cards and drives from my old PC. The total cost of the project so far is £150! Cheap huh? Well read on and you could be saving pounds plus having some fun in the process...
I’m guessing that at least 50% of you reading this opinion, or even using this web site are doing so using a packaged and branded PC system. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m not going to make any comments about big name PC systems, or the shops that sell them. What I hope to do with this opinion is prod you gently into thinking about having a go at building your PC, and maybe starting you off in a new hobby/obsession.
So let me ask you a few questions. How much did you pay for your PC? Was it more than £1000? It probably was right? How close to the latest spec is it? If its more than 6 months old its not going to be right up there with the 1.4Ghz Pentium 4’s. Finally the last and most important question – Do you care about any of the above? If the answer is YES then why not have a go at putting together your own PC?
Why Do It Yourself?
DIY PC building is not for the faint hearted. It can be fraught with pitfalls and can leave you with an unreliable machine and that feeling that you should have popped down PC World and picked up that Packard Bell after all. But it can be extremely rewarding and interesting too. Even the little problems you might experience can be turned into a learning exercise, and believe me, if you learn from problems and mistakes, you will learn lots when you build your own PC!
You might think I’ve not exactly painted DIY PC‘s in the brightest of lights. I don’t want you to think its easy (every DooYoo op you’ll read on this will tell you the same) but I don’t want to put y
ou off either. If you do take the plunge and go DIY you’ll reap the rewards on several fronts.
The first and most obvious area you’ll make gains in is cost. DIY machines offer you much more bang for your buck. You can opt to save cash overall (a good idea for your first DIY project) and put together a simple PC using reasonably good components. This can be a useful learning exercise for future projects. By building a basic machine you will gain an understanding of what the inside of the box looks like, what goes where and how it all fits together. You’ll get the opportunity to select the parts you use, allowing you to make decisions on what graphics card you have, how big the hard disk will be, what case it all goes into and what operating system you run etc.
As you put the machine together you will find that your technical skills and confidence get huge boosts. Of course it is wise to find a friendly techie to oversee your first project, and I would strongly advise you to re-think the whole idea if you don’t know one. Under the watchful gaze of the expert eye, try to do as much of the construction and configuration yourself.
The final area where DIY PC building has the edge over buying from a shop is future proofing. No matter what the PC world rent-a-geek tells you, PCs churned out by big manufacturers are not very upgradable. They tend to use custom parts that will only be supplied by the machines maker. Some machines are more suitable for modifiying (MESH, DAN, Evesham to name a few) and you may be able to use them a sound foundation for your own project. I recently noticed that both Dell and Compaq are using standard size boards and parts now, making them a great starting point for future modifications. You can be sure that your DIY PC will be built using the standard bits and bobs you can find on the classified pages of any computer mag or web site. Once you have it up and running, you will be able to turn
your basic system into a turbo charged, customised beast with relative ease, if you really want to.
Come and have a go if you think your hard enough
So you want to have a go? Good. First find your self that friendly IT bloke. It really is important to take things slowly, and make sure you have a helping hand with any of the things you are not sure of. As I said above, if you don’t feel 100% happy, and don’t have a helper on hand, proceed at your own peril.
Next get an idea of what you want in your PC. If you have a machine already what don’t you like about it? Are there any parts of it you could re-use? The most expensive individual part of the system will be the monitor in most cases. Providing you have a PS2 mouse and keyboard (easily identifiable by the small, round, connector –identical on both) you can keep those too. Any other parts you can salvage will of course bring the cost down, but that’s up to you.
Once you have your “freebie” parts, get an idea of what you want to buy for your new machine. I’ll add a list of links to the bottom of this rather long op to help you decide and cost out your components. Here’s a guide to what you’ll need – if I’ve missed out anything I’m sure I’ll get pulled up and I’ll add it to the list.
There are so many cases available you’ll go crazy looking for one. You can choose between two main styles. Desktop cases are typically thin horizontal boxes that allow the monitor to stand on top, making the traditional looking computer. Tower cases are my personal favourite. These boxes give an upright machine that can be tucked away under the desk. Go for a case with detachable side panels, rather than a lift off cover. Detachable panels make it much easier to work on the PC, and offer better room for future upgrades and tweaks (see the section on overclocking and customising fo
r more on this). The case you choose will dictate your motherboard, as they are designed to fit different shapes. However, the older style AT board is more or less phased out now, and you will probably be looking for an ATX form factor. You should get all the screws, fixings etc but may need to buy a PSU (Power Supply Unit) as an extra. If you do need a PSU, try to get a 300W AMD/Intel approved unit with twin fans.
The core of your system is of course the CPU (Central Processing Unit). You have two main choices – AMD or Intel. I favour AMD (I hate Intel’s grip on the PC market and the chips are slower) but you need to make up your own mind here, as chip choice dictates motherboard choice. AMD have the edge over Intel in performance and cost, but the P4 chips are getting cheaper. Once you decide which manufacturer you want you have to choose between the chip type (getting scared yet?). AMD produce two processor types – Athlon and Duron. Intel offers the choice of Pentium or Celaron.
The Duron and Celaron models are aimed at the value conscious buyer, while the Athlon and Pentium chips are for the high performance market. If you read between the lines of the marketing blurb you’ll see that the Duron and Celaron chips are based on a similar design to their higher speed siblings, but have less cache (on board memory) and are offered at lower speeds (sub 1Ghz). Research your choice before you look at the motherboard options. Remember – you should ideally go for the fastest CPU in the range you choose. Current CPU speeds are up to 1.4Ghz+. Make sure you purchase a cooling fan and heat sink suitable for your CPU’s power and size. Never ever run the machine without this part - CPUs get HOT! AMD's in particular will cook in minutes. Not having a heatsink will lead to serious damage. Check out the web sites (www.amd.com & www.intel.com for more details). Note that if you choose an ABIT motherboard y
ou will need to be very careful when selecting your heat sink. Certain models will not fit over the chip socket due to surrounding componants.
The motherboard is the backbone for your system. Every component you choose will be connected to this board. The motherboard has a special attachment for the CPU which comes in two styles. Opt for a “Socket” model rather than a slot, as the current ranges of chips from both manufacturers are socket style.
Be sure to select a board that suits your CPU. Each board has a “chipset” designed to work with a specific processor. The socket itself will only take the chip it is designed for; attempting to insert the wrong chip will only damage it. Think about what you want from your machine and select a board based on those criteria. Check what type of Memory the board takes – DDR RAM is becoming more widely available, but the most common choice is SDRAM – make sure you know which you board will take, and how much you can install.
What extra features does the board have? If it offers on board sound and graphics I would suggest you rethink your choice. Generally the built in components are inferior to a specific card. Rather than opting for built in features check for what goodies the BIOS offers, such as CPU voltage settings and RAID, which will be useful to you as you progress to more advanced DIY jobs. Try to opt for a board with an Advanced Graphics Port (AGP), as you will have a wider choice of graphics cards available to you. A good sound choice would be any of the ABIT range. These all come with a tool called SoftmenuII or III. THis is basically a BIOS setup system that will llow you configure your system down to the tinyest detail. Chaintech and Asus also get good reviews.
A word of warning. Choose a motherboard that is supplied with an english manual. Many a poor soul has been stuck with a cheaper motherboard complete with Kor
ean or Tiwanese instructions.
Random Access Memory is available in a huge range of types and ratings. Check your board to see what you are permitted to use. Memory comes in various speeds. Most boards will run P133 RAM, while older boards only allow PC100. DDR RAM is available in 1400 and 2100 speeds – opt for the fastest speed you motherboard supports.
Hard disk –
Hard disks are available in two forms – SCSI and IDE. SCSI drives are generally faster, bigger and more expensive. Using SCSI drives requires a special adapter card or motherboard support. IDE drives will suit most home users. Opt for the biggest drive you can afford. Choose a drive from a reputable maker, such as IBM or Seagate. Make sure you purchase the correct cables to connect the drive to the main board.
Floppy Drive –
Essential for setting up the PC. Buy the correct cable for this too.
DVD drive or CDROM drive –
Most software vendors are shipping DVD’s nowadays. You will be able to run advanced games off your DVD drive, DVD movies (with software and graphics card), as well as standard CDs. A CDROM drive will be faster but will only read CDs. CD-ROMs are cheaper, but I would opt for the DVD to future proof your system.
Graphics card –
There are so many cards available you will be boggled. Your board will more than likely have an AGP port, so go for an AGP card. If you select a motherboard without AGP you’ll have to plump for a PCI graphics card (these are few and far between now, and cost more). The card you choose will decide what you can expect from your PC’s graphics. Go for a good 3D card, preferably a GeForce 2 or higher. Look for one with TV out and DVD capability and you’ve got yourself a DVD player for your TV.
Sound Card –
There are quite a number of sound card options. You would be best to choose a Sound Blaster model
for ease of use, but again, research your choice and opt for one that has the features you feel you’ll need.
Prehaps this should be the most important part of the system? Without one your DooYoo experience might be a little bit dissapointing.
Choose your weapons carefully, as modems are often the hardest piece of hardware to configure. I would recommend you avoid any internal modem (PCI modem) and instead opt for a Serial or USB model. These generally offer better performance and are much easier to set up in my exeperience. If you really must have it all inside make sure you go for a hardware modem instead of a software model. Opt for a reasonable brand such as a US Robotics/3Com.
That’s about it. Order your bits and have fun putting it all together. Be careful when handling parts. Always use an anti-static wrist strap as this can save your chips from your electric personalities. Never ever force a component in. If you feel resistance you are probably fitting the part wrong. Read all manuals carefully, if you are unsure of anything check out the manufacturers website for further advise.
One final note. You may buy the leading edge parts today, and your PC wil run well on them, but PCs move on so fast. Please dont be disheartend when the next chip line comes out (AMD launch thier Palamino chip any day now) and you are left behind again. Just pop the lid, whicp out the offending slow poke part and pop in the latest and greatest - thats the beauty of DIY.
DIY PCs as a hobby
Once you’ve got your machine up and running what next? Well, now you’ve proved your technical skills, why not have a go at customising your PC? The most common way to customise your PC is to overclock it. This is quite a serious step down the DIY PC highway. IT basically revolves around squeezing more and more speed out of your CPU and hardware, using various methods such as changing the CPU voltage and spee
d. Be warned – This is tricky stuff, and should be handled carefully, You will need to know the limits of your hardware, how much cooling your case needs and how to fix things when they go wrong! It becomes an obsession, with users squeezing 800Mhz processors up to 1Ghz and beyond. Why not see what your machine can do? While you’re at it, customise that boring old cream case. Check out the links below for more.
Here are a few useful links for those bits and bobs and vital research.
Good for all parts
Another good general parts supplier
Check them out for special offers and good low prices
Good for Cooling equipment (fans etc) links to reviews and more
Great for memory and overclocking bits. Check out their custom case section for some good ideas.
A good resource if you know what you want – I got hold of a Duron 800 for £40!