How I spent my afternoon....

How I spent my afternoon....

...or, my reward to myself for surviving grad school. : )   Actually, I'm super looking forward to having some free time, and one of my big hobbies for years has been video games. Specifically, MMORPGs, massive multi-player online role playing games. (See why the acronym now?? ; ) My current desktop is too old for the newer video games, because of the older single core processor; to upgrade it would require replacing the cpu and motherboard, and at that point, it makes more sense to replace the entire computer.

But, since this is truthfully a luxury item, I didn't want to spend a lot of money on it.  So, I waited to find good deals online, and ordered the components to build my own super gaming computer. This way, I can get exactly the components and specifications that I want, and I don't have to spend a lot of money on a pre-fab system. The downside is that I have to put all the pieces together to make them work, and I have to supply my own operating system software. Conveniently, I have a Microsoft developers software access account through school, which means a free copy of Windows 7, among other applications.  I downloaded the OS while I waited for the computer parts to arrive in the mail; then I burned the .iso image to a DVD so it would be ready to install.  When the parts arrived, it was like Christmas. CHRISTMAS!!! But sadly, I had to set the parts aside, as I was busy with other things and couldn't set aside an afternoon to play with the computer stuff. :SIGH: I didn't have to wait for long, I'd made plans to take today off from work, so that I could have a 4 day weekend to decompress from everything, and set up the new computer.

See? Christmas morning! For geeks!!! : )

The chassis is a cooler master case with a clear side panel (how cool is that??) and ports for case fans on the top, front, bottom, and rear. It comes with a stock front fan with a blue LED light, it is AWESOME.  The cpu is an AMD Phenom II quad core with 3.2ghz; the motherboard is an Asus board, with USB 3.0, support for 64 bit OS, up to 32gb ram on a 64x system, onboard temperature and control tools, and a million other cool features.  I picked a 1 terabyte Seagate Barracuda hard drive, with 7200 RPM and a 6gb/s sata transfer speeds; 8gb kingston 1866mhz ram; a Sony optiarc DVD / CD drive, a 500watt psw, and a fancy super cpu cooler and fan.

First up, admire the empty, empty chassis. It's so exciting to start!

First component to install is the power supply. It just gets screwed in with 4 screws. This is a bottom-mount psu case, so the air gets sucked in from the vents in the bottom of the chassis, and pushed out the rear of the psu.

The next component to install is the motherboard, but first the cpu gets mounted in the motherboard, which is a little more convenient when it's not in the case. Also, the cpu heatsink and fan get mounted to the motherboard before installing, because the backplate for the heatsink unit goes on the backside of the mobo, which is usually unaccessible in a normal case. This case has a built in hold under the right side panel, which is awesome for replacing the cpu or heatsink.  But I decided to at least install the chip prior to mounting.

(Is this not the prettiest motherboard you have ever seen in your life?? I am so glad that the chassis has the clear side panel so I can admire it often!) The cpu goes in the grey square in the center of the right half of the board.  There is a little wire lever on the left side of the socket that raises to place the chip, then it lowers to lock the chip into place.


In the picture above, the chip is to the right of the mobo, lying upside down on it's packing foam. The mobo is lying on an anti-static bag; I am also wearing an anti-static bracelet that clips to the metal chassis to ground me, so that I don't short out any of the components, which isn't a huge risk, but I was sitting on the carpet like a grade schooler...   (Actually, the wrist bracelet is as annoying as hell, it slips around, since it was made for a man; and the tether is like a cord forever getting in the way. After about two minutes of this, I made the wrist bracelet an ankle bracelet.  I felt a little like Martha Stewart, except I could actually leave my house if I wanted to. ; ) The cpu gets set on top of the socket, with the marked corners matching. Then the lever gets pressed down to lock it in place.

Yay!  Next, the heat sink and fan. This is always the most stressful part for me; the heatsink is awkward to maneuver, and the bracket never seems to fit right. And then there are all the warnings about unevenly weighting the chip, not enough / too much heat compound, breaking the brackets...  It is a part of the process I am glad to get finished.  In this case, the mobo came with preinstalled traditional fan mounts; I removed those (you can see one in the first mobo picture; I'd already removed the left one, but you can see the right one, it's the black plastic piece screwed directly to the mobo.)  Then I placed the backplate on the backside of the mobo and held it in place with screws and nuts.  The backplate is used to help support the weight and structure of the heatsink and fan, so that the weight isn't all just resting on the motherboard at the screw insertion points. It's sort of like a big washer.

 After the backplate is screwed in place, the mobo gets flipped over, and the heatsink installed. Only I wanted to put the mobo in the chassis first, because the heatsink is gigantic, and it just seems easier to install the empty mobo first, then add the heatsink.  The motherboard screws into the back side panel of the case; risers are used between the screws and the panel to lift the mobo off the panel a few millimeters I didn't take a pic of those, sadly. I was anxious to get the heatsink installed. : )  So now the chassis has the psu and the motherboard installed.  Yay!

 The heatsink and the fan. The bottom of the heatsink, where the copper tubes and the flat plate are, is where the connection with the cpu is made. The plate is to provide 100% coverage of the cpu; the copper tubes absorb the heat from the cpu, and heat up; the heat is transferred to all the thin metal fins, which give a large amount of surface area for the heat to dissipate from. The fan clips onto the fins, and blows air through the fins to help speed the cooling process.  A cpu cannot operate without some sort of cooling device; they run so hot they will burn up without one.  If the fan malfunctions on the cpu and fails to operate, the cpu will rapidly overheat. Most newer systems will shut down at a certain temperature to prevent damage to the cpu and mobo. So if your computer won't stay running, open the side panel, and fire the computer up; if the fan doesn't run, turn off the pc immediately, and then replace the fan. : )


 After mounting the mobo in the chassis, I smeared a bit of thermal compound on the cpu face, then placed the heatsink on top.  An x-shaped bracket is placed between the heat fins and the copper tubing, and screws into the backplate mounting screws. When tightened, the bracket holds the heatsink onto the mobo, and maintains 100% contact with the cpu. The fan assembly just snaps onto the heat fins with plastic retaining clips; and the attached power cord is mounted into the cpu fan port in the mobo.  The hard part is done, yay!!! : ) (I realize it doesn't SOUND hard, but it's very fiddly, and a bit nerve wracking. You'll just have to take my word for it. : )

 Next, the drives go in. DVD/CD  and floppy drives get installed from the front of the front panel; hard drives are installed from inside the computer into the front panel area.  I popped off the front panel for access, and while I had that open, hooked up the cables that make the front usb and audio ports work.

This is a tool-free case, so the drives just slide in. The optic drive is held in place with a pressure bracket; the hard drive has two locking bracket with posts. So much easier than screwing the drives in place on both sides! The wires aren't connected to the drives yet; the wires in the picture are from the power supply unit, and from the ports on the front of the case.

The memory gets pushed into place in the mobo, next to the cpu fan. There is JUST enough room, I'm only using two chips, so I used alternating ports, and not the one closest to the fan. These are the fanciest memory chips I have ever seen!

You can see the edges of the two memory chips behind the heatsink.  To the right of those, on the right hand edge of the motherboard, you can see where I started plugging things in; those multi-colored wires twisted with white are the front panel connectors that make the lights work, and make the power and reset buttons work.

Each drive gets a sata cable connecting it directly to the mobo, and also gets a power cable from the power supply; the front case fan gets a power supply cable; the usb cables from the front case ports get plugged into to the mobo; and the power supply itself plugs into the mobo. Some of the ports are larger and well-marked; others are just pins in the mobo, and the orientation isn't always standard, so I had to consult the manuals and wiring diagrams from the case, the mobo, and the power supply to get things sorted out. This took the longest of all of the building process.  There is still a giant birds nest of cable in the computer; I wanted to wait until I fired the whole thing up to see if it even worked before I bothered making it all pretty. Before I did, though, I slipped in my gaming video card from old desktop into the PCI slot of the new computer. The card is a newer nVidia GeForce card with onboard graphics memory; it should work just fine for my purposes.  At some point I will upgrade the video card, but if I can save a few bucks and use this one for a bit longer, I will be happy.

So, the moment of truth. I put the side panel on, plugged in the power supply cable, attached the monitor cable, and hit the power button. The blue led fan flashed, I heard a whirring, and then everything went dark. Uh-oh... that can't be good. I opened the panel, checked the connections, all was well. I hit the power button again, and this time the led light came on and stayed on, and the case fan was running; it was lit up like Christmas, but the monitor was receiving no signal, and I didn't hear a POST beep, so the computer wasn't getting through the entire start up process. Hmmmm.... POST is the power on self-test sequence, and the computer beeps the codes so you can start troubleshooting. No beep meant the power wasn't adequate, or wasn't getting everywhere it needed to; but the fan was powered on, and the mobo light was on, so the psu was working.... HMMMM....  after going over the manual for the mobo, I realized the psu connects to the mobo in TWO places, the usual 24 pin connection, and also another 12v connection, and the connection depends on the cable available from the mobo, which explains why the documentation was a little fuzzy. I went back over all the psu cables, found the one I thought was the right one, and mounted it in the right half side of the power 2 port. Back on went the side panel, and I replugged in the power cord and monitor cable, and again hit the power button. This time, the lights came on and stayed on, and I heard the POST beep! WOOOT!  The diplay came on the monitor; because there was no operating system yet, the display is of the BIOS, a very basic program that lives on the motherboard, and controls pre-OS functions, like whether or not your num lock is on automatically (you can change that!!) and if the computer should load from the hard drive or the CD first.

I installed Win 7 after partitioning the hard drive, and then spent an hour or so upgrading drivers. The pain of a built system is that a lot of drivers have to be loaded manually, so I had to install LAN drivers so I could get online, and video drivers for my widescreen monitor. But now all is working wonderfully, and the system is super fast! Tomorrow, I'll download a game and test it out to see what it really can do. In the meantime, I'm watching for stability issues, just to make sure there isn't any issue with the memory, hard drive, or mobo. So far, everything has been going just fine!

The front of the tower with the blue LED fan lights (they go off when the computer is in sleep mode):

View from the side (I really have to fix that bird's nest now that I know it all works!) How cool is the see through panel?!?! It's a shame the unit sits on the floor, it should be somewhere prominent because it just looks COOL.

The whole process took about 4 hours, from start to finish (all software and drives updated, and grooveshark playing awesome tango music. ; )  I'm admittedly rusty, I haven't built a computer in about 8 years; I've just replaced components. And while a lot of the fundamentals have stayed the same, some of the details have changed, like cabling and connectors and wiring diagrams.  But it was super super fun, and I love the final product, and I love having saved a ton of money by doing it myself.  Now I'm super excited to get a game on there and try it out!!  : )


So what is the new set-up?
AMD Phenom II 3.2ghz quad core processor; 1TB Seagate Barracuda hard drive, with 7200 RPM and a 6gb/s sata transfer speeds; 8gb DDR3 ram; Sony optiarc DVD / CD drive, nVidia GeForce 8400 video card with 512mb onboard memory and hdmi, and Windows 7 64 bit.
you forgot the Blu-ray player. ;p Nice. :)
I didn't even think about Blu-ray!! I have 2 more spots for sata drives, so I can always add it, but I don't even own a single Blu-ray disk!!!

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