Sunday, 30 August 2009

Building Your Own Computer

[These are some notes prepared for people, like myself, without experience of building a computer. They result from my building a computer in New Zealand in the first half of September 2006.]

We all have a fair idea of what a desktop computer is.

There is the metal box [the case] that holds the works. On its front there is a power button to turn it on and sometimes a reset button to close and restart it. And there is usually a slide out thingummy operated by another button that takes a CD or maybe a DVD [the optical drive] and a slot of some sort where we can put a floppy disk [the floppy disk drive].

On the back of the case there are lots of sockets and plugs starting with the power plug and switch. Other sockets, some of which may be duplicated on the front of the case, take a variety of cables. There are Ethernet sockets for cables for joining us to the internet or perhaps a LAN [Local Area Network]. There are USB sockets for cables for connections to a whole range of things, including flash drives for storing things. [USB is short for ‘universal serial bus’, not that that makes anything clearer.] There may be a firewire socket for cables connecting us to things like video cameras. And then there are pinned sockets and cables maybe linking us to our printer and our scanner, if we have one, and our screen [the monitor] and usually our keyboard and mouse, although sometimes some of these things run off USB connections. Then there is another sort of plug connecting us to loudspeakers and microphones of some sort or another.

Inside the case are the things that make it all work. The absolute essentials are the CPU [the central processing unit that is the brains of the whole affair and usually has a heat sink and fan to enable it to be cool enough to work], the motherboard festooned with chips and bits that drive most of the things we use, the power supply unit [PSU], a hard drive that holds all our data, memory cards to deal with the data when it is first entered into the computer, a video card to handle what goes to our monitor, perhaps a modem to connect you to your internet server provider, and the optical and floppy disk drives. There is also a mass of cables and ties and mini-sockets and plugs and usually a case fan to try and keep the whole enclosure at a reasonable temperature.

All of these things, collectively called ‘the hardware’, support or are driven by an operating system, for most of us one form or other of Microsoft Windows. And then there is all the software, called ‘applications’, that makes things work or enables us to do other things with our computer.

If you’ve heard of most or all of the things I’ve mentioned you can probably build your own computer if you really want to do so. First though it pays to think whether an upgrade of various components might do the trick for you. I looked at various articles and decided that was not the answer for me. There is, incidentally, an article in NZ PC World, November 2006, p61, similar to other articles elsewhere, which would help you make that assessment and give you an idea what is involved in installing various parts of your computer.

Why build a new computer? There are lots of reasons including updating essential components, getting to know what makes your computer tick and understanding it better, having what you want and not what someone else has put in the case, having a quieter machine, or having a new challenge.

In my case it was a combination of those. My computer experience dates back to the late 1980’s. For about 16 years I used desktop and laptop computers for my work. Over about the last 12 years I have had three personal desktop computers, the first off the floor from a now defunct New Zealand manufacturer and the latter two built by a friend. There is certainly nothing wrong with the last of these as I am still using it, although it is now running Windows 7 RC1, .

I thought it would be a good idea to be familiar with the newer 64 bit system, which seems likely to replace the 32 bit system that runs most of our current operating systems and programmes. The new generation CPU’s from AMD and Intel, who between them control the market, seemed to be galloping in the 64 bit direction, Microsoft’s later operating systems, Vista and Windows 7, are providing for either 32 or 64 bits and all Apple MAcs are now 64 bits. Don’t ask me to explain exactly what 64 bits means but it affects the code the programmes are written in. Sixty four bits systems process bigger chunks of material and make better use of RAM [random access memory]. Thus 64 bit systems are faster and more stable and what everyone is likely to be using before too long. I wanted a quieter set up than I had as my attempts to make my old computer quieter had only been partially successful. I wanted to understand more about computers and have a new challenge.

Well, what do you do if you do want to build a new computer? I went to the internet and searched high and low, using ‘build computer’ and similar words in Google and other search engines, bought a booklet called PC Upgrade Guide, 2nd Edition, and combed the computer magazines I look at like NZ PC World and the Australian PC User and PC Authority. I looked in the library and book shops to no good effect.

You first need to sort out what you want from your computer. Is it just for basics, or do you want to use it for more complicated things or do you want to play electronic games on it? My objective was to have a mid-range computer with the capacity, with some add-ons, for me to play with old photographs, edit videos and use voice recognition software.

Then you have to choose the components you need to achieve your objective. The CPU is the key to everything else. That is because everything else has to be compatible with it, whether it be the power source, the motherboard or whatever. You really have a choice just between AMD and Intel. My choice, because of what was offering at the time, was an AMD Athlon AM2 CPU. To-day, three years later, your choice depending on your needs and priorities is still between AMD and Intel. I wanted other components to be of good but not top of the range quality.

Here is the list of components I worked from:
• Case, including PSU and case fan, although you can get them separately.
• CPU, including CPU cooling, which you can get separately.
• Motherboard, including various cards and adapters than can be separate.
• Hard Drive
• Memory Modules
• Graphics/Video Card
• Optical/CD-ROM Drive
• Floppy Disk Drive
• Operating system
• Monitor
• Keyboard & Mouse
• Speakers
• Modem.

As I wanted a quiet PC I also researched that side of things carefully and chose components including the case, PSU, CPU, hard drive and video card that scored well for quietness.

In choosing components I found articles and reviews in the Australian PC magazines already mentioned, particularly PC Authority, combined with web reviews of components on sites such as ConsumerReview.Com the most helpful. After I had my list I took the precaution of having it checked for component compatibility.

You can buy your chosen components in all sorts of ways. Once I had my list I looked for a local supplier who could supply everything I wanted and got everything from that one company. That had the advantage its technical adviser also checked my chosen items for compatibility.

When it came to building the computer there was no really good information available. Just by chance NZ PC World, September 2006, p82, had quite a good article on building a new computer. However, like nearly everything I read, it is a bit once over lightly as it assumes knowledge novices just don’t have. However, at the end of the day, that article, one or two articles found on the web, with some excellent material on the AMD Athlon site, combined with some notes of a friend and the material that came with the components, usually for the initiated and not the new chum, were what I relied upon. Most of the material on the web was very out of date. For example, some articles say you need a huge array of tools. I found that apart from an anti-static wrist band all I really needed was one non-magnetic Phillips screw driver. [The article in NZ PC World, November 2006, p61, on upgrading your computer has a reasonably clear guide to installing most of the essential components.]

In a way putting the hardware together was the easy part. I made one minor mistake as a result of unfamiliarity with the input/output fitting plate that goes into the back of the case to take the plugs of the motherboard but otherwise there were no insurmountable difficulties. I did have some difficulty in reading various instructions and names on parts. Even although I had done it once before, I found the placing of the CPU on the motherboard, the most important thing of all, a difficult business. However, it took me just a day and a half to assemble everything and get it going properly.

What I had been far more casual about was checking the compatibility of my printer, keyboard, mouse and essential software, particularly security software, with a 64 bit system as opposed to my old 32 bit system and I got some unpleasant surprises.

My HP printer was incompatible with the 64 bit system but fortunately software making it 64 bit compatible was available for download. My Logitech keyboard and mouse software was incompatible, although they work in the standard basic way. Programmes such as Acronis True Image, which I use for back-ups as well as drive imaging, are compatible. However, Bart's PE Builder is incompatible as was my previous Genie back-up programme.

None of my security software was 64 bit compatible but much is now - September 2009.

Fortunately, most things one commonly uses and needs are compatible with the 64 bit system as for the most part it enables the use of 32 bit software.

Nevertheless if I’d read what appeared in PC Authority, October 2006, p22 or had read more carefully what one or two other reviewers on the web had said I think I would have stuck to a 32 bit version of Windows. If I was starting again to-day I probably would be in two minds. There still seems to be a lack of drivers for the 64 bit system and some software as well as hardware is incompatible with it. However, I suspect that with Vista and soon Windows 7 providing both 32 and 64 bit alternatives things will continue to change as a number of providers both of freeware and commercial products do have changes on hand. Significantly there are no problems with freeware such as Mozilla Thunderbird and Firefox or Open Office or with “essential” software such as Microsoft Office 2003 or 2007.  There can be no doubt 64 bit represents the future and 32 bit the past.  

I found only a few web sites that were of any particular help for 64 bit matters. There are now many more.

My two worst problems, which caused me no end of frustration, had nothing directly to do with building a computer and so are really outside the scope of this note. Windows kept on opening in the Administrator's screen and not my own. No web search gave me even a clue on that one. Indeed I was led down some very useless paths. I at last discovered that I had accidentally cleared a box in the Logon menu in TweekUI, for which there is a 64 bit version available through Neo Smart Technologies, and when I ticked it all was well. The second thing was scarier as I found myself with a totally blank screen and the computer wouldn’t even fire up into boot mode. I’m still not sure what went wrong, but think it was possibly a loose connection in the case as I eventually fixed whatever it was and have had no trouble with my basic set up since.

Would I do it again? Yes, with less anxiety than the first time. Was it worth it? I think so. I have a very quiet computer that seems fast and robust. I know precisely what is in it and I have the satisfaction of knowing I built it.

Addendum: I prepared the bulk of the above notes in September and October 2006. I have now been running my 64 bit set up for about three years. There have been some difficulties unconnected with my build that would not have arisen if I had used a 32 bit version of Windows XP Pro or, more recently, of Windows Vista. Whether there will be the same difficulties with Windows 7 only time will tell.

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