Wednesday, January 11, 2012

First Time MMO PC Builder, Part 2 (Initial Build)

Last weekend I sat down in a room with a box of parts - carefully selected after much deliberation - and embarked to turn them into a computer.  Two key lessons right off the bat:
  1. The internet is your friend.  I had a ton of questions that I was able to answer through guides - this step by step guide on Tom's forums was a key reference - and asking Google questions.  I don't know that I could have pulled this all off without that knowledge available (on a computer that wasn't lying in pieces on the desk).
  2. Allow time.  My goal was to install the bare minimum parts needed to see if the ones I had installed were working correctly.  This still took me most of the weekend.  More to the point, as a first timer there were definitely some things I ended up ordering, and it was just lower stress to know that finishing the project up this weekend was part of the plan.  
Anyway, here are my experiences approximately step-by-step.

Cables Everywhere
The first thing I did was open up the boxes to find and read (yes, read) manuals, examine cables and connectors, etc.  I was struck by how many cables there were.  My case alone came with 4 fans, each of which has a three pin power connector and a speed adjustment switch.  Throw in motherboard hookups for the front-of-case USB and audio plugins and you're talking 10 loose wires in the empty case before I even started putting anything in there. 
Some of the surplus cables that I have no planned use for, along with two of the fan hookups, stick out the side of the case as I wrap up for the night.  Many of these will have to live in the cable management compartment, above.
I can immediately see why so many people talk about "cable management" as a major part of building.  My case comes with a little nook, a bit under two inches wide and maybe half of the case's height, where apparently I can literally stuff the tentacle-like mass of excess cables writing out of the end of my power supply.  Speaking of which, I immediately had an unfortunate surprise in that the power supply had to be installed fan-side up because there is no venting in the floor of my case.  It would have been easier to stash the surplus cables if it had been the other way around.

In my shopping list post, Xaxziminrax II suggested that power supply manufacturers add excessive cables so they can then charge us to not include so many in more expensive "modular" units.  On one hand, I can see how it could be cheaper to have one model that everyone can live with, rather than separate models for people who actually want eight hard drives (the number of SATA power plugs on my power supply) and no PCIE plugs for graphics because they're running a server with intergrated or no graphics, versus people who want one hard drive and multiple GPU's.  That said, my power supply may have been excessive - the two universally required connectors for the mother board are joined by two for graphics cards, eight all-purpose four-pin MOLEX connections, the eight SATA connectors, and a pair of floppy disk connections - yes, not one but TWO of something I haven't seen on a computer in a decade - for good measure.

The swarm of cables threaten to overrun the hard drives.
Ironically, all these cables and I still didn't necessarily have as many as I needed or the right shapes and sizes.
  • The fans came with three pin connectors designed to be connected to motherboards, but A) the motherboard only has two chassis fan connectors compared to the four fans in my case and B) this means allowing the motherboard to determine whether and when to run the fans, and I had some trouble figuring out how to get it to do that properly.  A cheap solution to this problem is to buy some adapter plugs to convert the three pin inputs to the molex connectors that I have so many of.  A slightly more expensive but functional solution, which I opted for, involved ordering a fan controller (which will allow me to adjust the fan speeds from outside the case, because I'm definitely not opening the side to get at the controls on the fans).  
  • The motherboard came with a pair of SATA cables for connecting hard drives to the motherboard.  I have a pair of hard drives, so this should have been good, except for a minor problem; the cables have right angle connectors (you can see one, with the white tip on the black cable, pictured above).  The case has a floor mounting for an SSD, which would allow me to leave two of the three slots behind the lower case fan un-obstructed by hard drives.  This is also a cheap fix (under $4, shipped), but one I didn't think ahead to order.
  • As long as I'm ordering cheap cable-related items, I also snagged a sack of cable ties.  I got about 10 of these with various components, but I expect to use a lot more than that in the process of securing all of the fan cables.  On the plus side, this only cost $5, and I needed some cable ties to deal with my poorly organized home theater setup in any case.  
Putting it together
I showed my wife my progress at several stages along the way, and she remarked that in some ways it was like a very fancy Lego set. This is an exaggeration, but assembling a computer is nowhere near as complicated as I expected.  The only tool I needed was a screwdriver.  When you deduct all the time I spent looking up answers to questions like "can you plug a three pin fan connector into a four pin plug on the motherboard?" (answer: yes, the fourth pin is optional, and there's a plastic tab to force you to pick the correct three pins), the process was also remarkably fast.
  1. Install power supply.  This could go later, but the power supply is heavy enough that I'd rather lock it into place early.  I'd be even more nervous about waiting if my case had a top-mounting, because then I'd be juggling a large heavy object over an assembled motherboard.  Also, for people working in primarily plastic cases, this may be helpful in reducing the risk of static shock by adding a metal object - my case is almost all metal, so I was probably pretty safe even before strapping on the wristband. 
  2. Place hard drives in bays.  Ironically, I ended up undoing this work when I figured out that the cables weren't going to work the way I had it set up, and I'll need to re-do it again this weekend to get it back the way I wanted it.
  3. Get out the motherboard, screw in "stand-offs" to the case for future installation, install input/output bay shield (more on this in a few steps).
  4. Install CPU on motherboard.  This was the step that scared me the most, because it's theoretically possible to damage the components.  That said, it's apparently gotten a lot easier.  My CPU did not have pins on the bottom, instead a mostly flat surface that sits in the flat compartment with tabs that physically prevent you from doing it wrong.  All you have to do is remove the cap, set the chip down, and pull the lever that used to hold the cap back into place to secure the chip. 
  5. Install CPU cooler.  My cooler selection was common enough that I was fortunate to have pictures on the forums.  This was helpful, because the instructions aren't that clear if you don't already know what you're doing.  There's also a step where you need to apply thermal paste - hopefully the amount I added was correct, but I'm not opening it up to mess with it unless I encounter problems down the line.

    Note how close the CPU cooler sits to the top RAM slot.  Fortunately, my motherboard did not require that slot if you are only using two DIMM's, and I should not need to upgrade to 4 anytime soon since I started with 8 GB of RAM.  I could see why people suggest installing the RAM first if their situation was different, and it's possible that I would need to replace the CPU cooler with something smaller if I do want to try this in the future.
  6. Install RAM.  This is easy enough, chips are notched so that they can't be installed backwards.  The only thing that's surprising about this process is that it actually does take some amount of force - not excessive but it definitely don't just slip in like a USB plug or anything.  
  7. Now that the motherboard is loaded with the things that do not have cables attached to them, mount it on the standoff's.  Here's where I had a bit of a struggle with the input/output plug shield.  This thin piece of metal is apparently used to make sure the jacks on the back of the machine are touching a piece of metal that is touching the metal case, to ensure that any static charge that happens to be on my USB plug doesn't end up on the motherboard.  The catch is that some need to be bent out of the way to avoid blocking ports, while some need to be NON-BENT to avoid blocking the installation process.  This part actually took me a non-trivial amount of time.
    Here is the exterior of the I/O shield, you can kind of see the little metal tabs going into the case.
  8. Start connecting cables!  The motherboard gets two inputs from the power supply.  The hard drives get one power cable and one data cable to the motherboard.  The case-front USB, audio, and even the power button/light all have their own spots on the motherboard (the manual: it is your friend).  Fans have spots.  And so-on.  
Once I got this far, I had reached my minimum goal of being ready to test functionality.  Having onboard integrated graphics means not having to plug in a graphics card and wondering whether that is why the whole system didn't turn on at the moment of truth.  I didn't connect the data hard drive because it won't be needed, and obviously I didn't even have enough cables to hook up all of the (arguably excessive) fans for my build.  Because I'm using an external DVD drive, that was one more thing that could be deferred. 

I double checked all of the connections, hooked up an old monitor, double checked again, plugged the thing in and pushed the power button.  Never before has the absurd "no keyboard detected, press F1 on non-existent keyboard to enter setup" message been so welcome - if the fact that I hadn't plugged in the keyboard yet was the biggest problem (and the machine was well enough to recognize this), I was in good shape. 
The guts so far.
Ironically, I got further than I'd originally hoped.  The machine accepted my wireless keyboard/mouse and the external DVD drive without any issues, and was easily set to prioritize the DVD drive over the empty hard drive.  I was then able to go on and install windows onto the SSD without issues - and let me note that the machine boots nice and quick off of the SSD.  I hit a minor snag because Windows didn't have a driver for the ethernet port on the motherboard, but fortunately the DVD that came with the motherboard did, and I was then able to go online for my antivirus and Windows Update needs.

There are a number of tasks left for next weekend.  I will need to install a graphics card, a wireless network card (the finished machine won't be sitting on the desk with the router), move and install the secondary hard drive, install the fan controller I ordered and connect all the fans.  Then will come the more involved tasks of actually securing all the cables in a way that does not leave loose cables to block airflow or get caught in moving parts.  After that comes stress testing and overclocking (nothing too agressive, but on paper I should be able to bump the stock CPU speed by several hundred MHz based on the hardware I have).

More on this project - and eventually the fun part of actually taking it for a spin in games - next week.


    1. I have describe assembling a computer in exactly the same way to non-technical friends and family who were curious. Once you have the parts picked out and know they're compatible the rest is no more difficult than assembling a child's toy.

      Looks good, by the way, I look forward to hearing how you enjoy firing it up for the first time.

    2. You've reminded me what a good decision I made about ten years ago to never again build my own PC, but rather to carry on carefully selected parts, but then get the shop to assemble for me. It's soooo worth paying fifty-odd bucks to save so much hassle, and get a warranty to boot.

    3. A five-star post. You point out a lot of the things even a more experienced builder finds perplexing about the entire scenario.

      One thing in particular stood out to me...

      "The motherboard came with a pair of SATA cables for connecting hard drives to the motherboard. I have a pair of hard drives, so this should have been good, except for a minor problem;"

      Okay, go on.

      "the cables have right angle connectors"

    4. This is where having built a computer previously helps out immensely, the assortment of cables/parts available to you on demand (if your spouse allows it).

      *also, /wave to fellow biomedical professional and gamer. MT/ASCP

    5. I had a little chuckle at your wife comparing the process to lego. I brought me back to my very own first self built PC some years ago.

      My wife had observed intense research that preceded the selection and ordering of components and knew that building my own PC was a big deal for me. When the assembly day finally arrived however she promptly deflated my ego by pointing to the shiny new motherboard and saying "But that is already built. I thought you would have to solder in all those components".

    6. "I hit a minor snag because Windows didn't have a driver for the ethernet port on the motherboard, but fortunately the DVD that came with the motherboard did"

      Yeah, Windows never seems to have the NIC drivers, so it's good that you had your mobo's driver disk. Here at work when creating a new image I tend ot have to download the driver on a different pc, then take them over on a thumb drive or somesuch. Glad you resolved it so easily!


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