DIY – Building a Computer

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Guys – you have no idea how excited I am about this post.  Like…super nerd me is going to come out.  And before we get into it – I did help build the computer, and it was my first time.  But let’s go back in time to WHY we are doing this.  The boy spilled coffee into his old desktop a couple months ago, and he was very sad, but had some extra Christmas money, which all went towards financing a new system.  The items had been piling up in our living room for a while, and over the snow days, we finally had some free time with which to put it all together.  The boy had said I would like it – I’m meticulous, excellent at following directions, and have a love of putting things together (needless to say, building IKEA furniture is my personal joy).  So after we’d put the girls to bed one evening, we pulled everything out, got some directions, had a handy computer-building friend on chat available for questions, and got to work.  The directions I had handy were these ones from Lifehacker, and they were generally spot-on.

Step zero was emptying out the new case – we wanted to make sure that the power supply would fit, and we also wanted to have as much room to work in there as possible.  So removing all extraneous bits and bobs to be replaced later was the way to go for us.  Step one is mounting the motherboard.  If I’ve done my homework correctly, I know that the motherboard is essentially a communications system for all the things that are going to be happening in your computer.  Without the motherboard, none of the pieces could talk to each other.  The installation was generally easy, the difficult part being placing the I/O shield (the metal plate that protects all those plugs you see in the middle picture) and getting everything lined up correctly – ports, screw holes, etc.  Unfortunately, this little metal shield was flimsy AND sharp, so the boy got a nasty little cut on his finger in the process.  If you see a Hello Kitty band-aid in future pics – that’s what it’s from.

Step two is installing the processor.  The processor (or CPU – central processing unit) is the brains of the operation.  This is where all the computing in a computer happens, and that’s why it’s such a delicate piece that requires a silly amount of packaging and precaution.  But this is still a fairly easy step – remove from box, lift clamp on motherboard, align correctly, and then close the clamp, trying not to get your fingers all over everything, because as the boy told me, you could potentially lose some processing power because of it.  Theoretically, that’s it for the processor installation, but this little piece tends to get over-warm very quickly, which means you need to install some kind of cooling system.  Sometimes the processor comes with a cooler, and you just install it immediately, but if you are the boy, you do something like install a water cooling system (in the setup that died), or in the case of this one, a separate cooling system that looks like a crazy skyscraper.

So, step two-and-a-half – install cooling system.  This one sits right on top of the CPU and has copper conductors – excellent for drawing heat – and lots of air pockets in the layers of metal that allow heat to escape.  There’s also a fan that draws heat away from the cooler, and lets your CPU do its thing.  The cooling system as you can see is a little large and unwieldy compared to everything else we had done so far, and after trying to attach the back bracket (seen on the left above), we figured out that it would be easier to remove the motherboard, install the bracket and THEN reattach the motherboard (and the dumb I/O plate!) before attaching the cooler to the processor.  The attaching of cooler to processor was also unwieldy because it involved lining up another bracket plate while placing the cooler on the CPU which has been smeared with thermal paste to improve conductivity between processor and cooler.  But we did it.  I think this was probably the most intimidating and scary part of the installation, because as the person lowering the cooling system onto the processor I was afraid of improper placement, or scratching something.  I don’t think that happened, and once fully installed with fan attached…it looked pretty cool, and the boy said I did a good job.  Self-high-five!

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Step three is installing the RAM.  RAM is where the data is stored while you are using it.  So if you’re the kind of person who has a dozen programs up on your screen at once and you find that your computer is slow, you might not have enough RAM.  Since this system is being used for games mostly by a person who also likes to listen to music and browse the internet while playing, it’s important to have a good amount of RAM.  The installation is super easy – open the clips in the RAM slots, line up the sticks appropriately, and then lower down until they click and the clips close.  Done!

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Step four is installing the graphics/video card.  This was the biggest upgrade from the boy’s old system, and he was very proud of it.  This was another simple installation – drop into the appropriate slot, and lock it into place.  There may have been another screw to attach it to the case, but it’s just one, and it’s much easier to access than other screws you would have dealt with before now.

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Step five is installing the hard drive.  That rack along the right side of the above picture holds hard drives, and as you can see, the boy has lots of room for expansion if necessary.  This case is also great because it has lots of sneaky openings that allow for wire management of connectors and power cords.  Step six would be mounting the optical drive in the case as well, but since the boy is only using a removable USB-DVD drive we didn’t worry.  Step seven is mounting the power supply, which for us meant removing it from the old machine, and chunking it down in the bottom left corner as you can see.  Step eight is plugging everything in – what we’re doing in this photo.  There are a dozen or so wires coming from the power supply that each have a specific number of pins, or separate types of connectors that go with each component.  The “fun” part is trying to find an appropriate connector , and also limit the amount of space the cables take over in the case.  Lifehacker tells me that tangled wires in the middle of the case can block air flow, leading your system to run hotter, louder, and possibly overheat.  It’s important to have a couple zip ties handy…which we did.  Once everything was connected, we closed it up and set it aside to go to sleep, because we had stayed up WAY TOO LATE (at least for me).

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The final step is plugging it in, and making sure that everything works.  We discovered initially that we didn’t have enough power going to the graphics card, and had to dig around to find a converter from six-to-eight-pins that came with the card and was necessary to provide enough power.  Once that was fixed, the boy turned it on and started installing drivers, and then Windows 10 (which he says is pretty great).  He’s been running the new system for a while now, and he says it’s much quieter and faster than the old one, and I can tell he’s happy, so…I’d say it’s a win.

And after all this, I feel like I know a lot more about how computers work, and am wondering about the potential for building my own gaming system.  It won’t be quite as big or as fancy as the boy’s, but I think it would be a fun challenge.  Now if only I could find room on my desk to actually put it…

If you’re interested in building your own system and are a noob like me, I recommend reading Lifehacker’s series of posts about it:

How to Build a Computer: The Complete Guide
The Best PCs You Can Build for $300, $600, and $1200

And as a final note, let me say that I’m glad that I didn’t end up in here: Your Worst Computer Building Horror Stories

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