Building a PC

While there are lots of places one can buy a PC loaded with GNU/Linux, it is still useful to build a PC to avoid “the tax” M$ places on personal computers. Even Dell, which supposedly sells PCs with Ubuntu, makes it so difficult it may well be easier to build your own. This article takes you through the steps.

  1. Review what you want to do with the PC. There are few who need a powerful CPU unless you create/edit/render video or compile huge quantities of software. Gamers may or may not benefit from a powerful CPU depending on the software. I will assume in the article that a modest but reliable CPU is all that is required. You might as well have a CPU that works a bit as a powerful one idling. Your review may also touch on how much storage and RAM are required. Generally we interact with a few windows in a browser and one or two other applications, so tons of RAM are not required. Even a system with 512 MB of RAM will do most users. If all you do is run the PC, you don’t need much storage although you might benefit from the speed of SSD and put the bulky storage files on a hard drive. One should use gigabit/s networking on any modern PC. Video is another place where tons of money is wasted. If all you do is browse the web, you can do with just a modest video interface.
  2. Choose a motherboard which does what you need. I normally want a 64bit system because the throughput is huge and the cost is modest. 64bitness is one of the few frills that really pays with the huge data rates possible between RAM and CPU and between peripheral devices and RAM. If everything can run at full speed simultaneously you are much less likely to have a bottleneck. AMD CPUs tend to be less expensive so I would start with a 64bit CPU with 1 or 2 cores. 3 or more cores will be idling most of the time.
  3. Choose a single supplier for convenience. Time is valuable so being able to shop in one place is very important. I like ComputerAvenue or ComputerBoulevard in Winnipeg (both on St. James Street) or NCIX (NetLink Computers) in Vancouver. Other useful suppliers are NewEgg and TigerDirect or FrontierPC.
  4. When the goods arrive, verify that everything is there by laying it out and checking off the invoice. This helps in the assembly process as well because you will need parts in a certain order and having them laid out on a table makes it easier to find stuff. A sharp utility knife of scissors may be useful to open packages…
  5. I generally start by positioning the case where I can see the mounting points and the connectors on the motherboard well so that no moving around is required in the process. Installing the motherboard is first because everything attaches to it. Leave the power supply out if it is not pre-installed because the cables are many and stiff and bulky. Pay attention to static electricity especially in heating season in cold climates or very dry climates. At least bring yourself and all packages in contact with the case as you install things before opening the packages. A wrist strap or grounding wire may be useful. In many years of working on these things, I cannot recall a destroyed motherboard or part but it is certainly possible. Take care.
  6. Install the standoffs on the backplane where there are mounting holes on the motherboard. Handle the motherboard by its edges and line up the connectors with the template if there is one and the opening at the back of the case. Done right the motherboard comes in for a multipoint landing with everything where it should be. If it hangs up, adjust carefully and do not force anything as the board is fragile. When the motherboard is in position it may need to be pushed to the reare a millimetre or so to compress springy fingers on the connector template. Gently screw in the fasteners.
  7. Take the CPU out of its box and open the clamp on the motherboard. The motherboard will likely have instructions for the particular socket. Place the CPU gently down on the socket in the proper orientation. Done right the CPU should fall into the holes in the socket. It is amazing that one can line up 1K+ connectors like that but it works. Again, no force should be used because the pins may bend and make a mess. The tiny weight of the CPU should be all that is necessary. If it does not drop in nicely, it is probably in the wrong orientation. The pins are in a nearly-square array so there are four ways it might line up but only one will do. There is a triangle on many sockets and CPUs to help or you can examine the pattern of pins and sockets. Engage the clamp.
  8. Install the heatsink/cooler for the CPU according to the directions. Usually there is a wad of a thermal interface with a protective layer that should be removed and the cooler is placed on the CPU and clamped down. Connect the cooler’s fan to the motherboard.
  9. Install the RAM modules. Many have locks at both ends which should be out of the way for insertion. When the module bottoms-out it should have pushed the locks in to engage the module. The manual for the motherboard will indicate what RAM sockets should be filled with various combinations of memory modules.
  10. Connect the various cables: front panel, USB, SATA, CD-audio etc. The front panel cables are usually identified by colour or markings so you may need to consult the manual that came with the motherboard to find where they go. On older systems this cable was a loose bundle but on newer systems they are clustered to make it easier.
  11. Install the power supply and its cables to motherboard and drives. Many motherboards will have one large Molex connector and one or two additional 12V connectors. Generally, if it fits, plug it in. If you have all your stuff installed, connect monitor, keyboard and mouse and apply power. A single post “beep” and something on the monitor should indicate a good installation but we can do further testing after installing an operating system or utilities like memtest86. An installation tends to use most of the RAM but a few days of memtest86 is a great test. Most problems with RAM will be detected early but tests every week or so for a few weeks may find some infant mortality.

Here’s a shopping list I drew up as an exercise to see how shopping for parts compares to certain barebones offers.

I looked at my favourite supplier’s site, NCIX.com and found

Item SKU Cost
Motherboard, MSI 785GM-P45 with 6 SATA, 1 PATA, gigabit, 4 DDR3, and ATI Radeon HD 4200 video on-board bundled with AMD Athlon II 160U processor with 1 MB cache. See the manual This CPU is 64bit and contains two cores with the second one disabled. Unlocked, the CPU runs as a X2 260. 60038 $79.99
RAM two sticks of Corsair DDR3 2gB 1333MHz 39572-1097 $39.98
2 500gB SATA hard drives, Seagate 58611-1097 $75.98
Case, Coolermaster Elite 350 Black ATX Mid Tower Case 400W 4X5.25 1X3.5 6X3.5INT, a decent basic case with room to expand. RC-350-KKR400 $59.98
Total $255.93

I am assuming you have a USB drive the thing can boot for installation. I recommend setting up the two drives in software RAID 1, a trivial operation at installation. This gives you two heads for seeking files and you can transfer two files simultaneously. Compared to some retail systems, this thing is quite competitive. see for example, Zotac, for $50 more giving less (Atom with much less storage). Instead of spending more money, spend less and a bit of your time. The government can tax your purchases but not your leisure-time labour.

You can put an installer on the USB drive easily. It’s bascially copying the installation CD image.iso file to the USB device, overwriting the file system there.

You can also boot from the network if you set up DHCP and a server on your LAN.

The beauty of building your own PC, is that you can put in what you need, not what someone else wants and you don’t have to dodge M$’s tax.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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10 Responses to Building a PC

  1. Yep. Those babies are fast. Unfortunately they are expensive in the larger sizes. It might be possible to use SSD for booting and hard drives for file storage. You can also use the SSD as a cache for the hard drives. Some makers of hard drives have that built in.

  2. Ray says:

    Solution: an SSD

  3. That looks like a powerhouse. 95W for a CPU for one person? Perhaps you are going to run it as a terminal server and share. You could please 60 simultaneous clients browsing and word-processing with that. I don’t see storage in the list. Storage is the bottleneck on most systems I have seen recently. Seek times do not seem to keep up with Moore’s Law. I use multiple hard drives in RAID 1 to open that up. I like 500gB because they are considerably more reliable than 1TB+. Some ATX cases can hold 10 HD so the possibilities of RAID 10 etc. come to bear.

    Used as a terminal server in a school or office, $425/60 is about $7 per client. The clients could be <$100 a box.

  4. rMatey180 says:

    My build:
    Rosewill Smart One ATX Mid Tower Computer Case, Black interior, comes with three Fans-1x Front Blue LED 120mm Fan, 1x Rear …
    ASUS M4A785TD-V EVO AM3 AMD 785G HDMI ATX AMD Motherboard
    SeaSonic S12II 520 Bronze 520W ATX12V V2.3 / EPS 12V V2.91 80 PLUS BRONZE Certified Active PFC Power Supply
    AMD Athlon II X3 445 Rana 3.1GHz Socket AM3 95W Triple-Core Desktop Processor ADX445WFGMBOX
    G.SKILL 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) Dual Channel Kit Desktop Memory Model F3-12800CL9D-4GBNQ
    ASUS DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS Black SATA 24X DVD Burner – Bulk – OEM
    Total was $425.35
    I later added another 4 GB of memory.

  5. That would mean a lot of editing. YouTube only allows 15 minutes and it takes me 30 minutes or so. Perhaps that’s something to do eventually. For a terminal server it really is worthwhile because you get the benefit of 30 minutes work divided by the number of clients which can be large. Even this wimpy project could run 30 or more clients.

  6. Richard Chapman says:

    I have built a few. Each time I have to educate myself on the components. I guess I did a good job last time, for the hardware that is. I’m still using it after nearly eight years. The OS I purchased from Newegg (Microsoft XP) got tossed after only two years. It didn’t wear out, I just realized I made a mistake in buying it. I found something much better, GNU/Linux.

  7. oe says:

    Perhaps you can make this one into one of your videos…

  8. Ray says:

    What I meant by better, I meant say, adding another core, instead of having to unlock one, and risking CPU unstability.

  9. “Better” does not always mean more expensive and using more electricity. Athlon II is a fine CPU. I built the system at Easterville with them and they were solid. One can save a ton of money by using things made of mature technology.

  10. Ray says:

    I’d say I agree on that, building your own PC is better than buying one 😀

    Though, I would probably get a better CPU, and get a better integrated video card, and a more reliable/efficent power supply. 😀

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