We’ve built many systems over the years, and we’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Here are some things to keep in mind as you begin your project.
Have all of the hardware, software, and tools you’ll need lined up and waiting. You don’t want to have to stop in mid-build to go off in search of a small Phillips screwdriver or to drive to the store to buy a cable. If your luck is anything like ours, you won’t find the screwdriver you need and the store will be closed. In addition to tools and components, make sure you have the distribution CDs for the operating system, service packs, device drivers, diagnostics utilities, and any other software you’ll need to complete the build.
Read the fine manuals, if only the Quick Start sections. Surprisingly, while system manuals are notoriously awful, many component manuals are actually quite good. You’ll find all sorts of hints and tips, from the best way to install the component to suggestions on optimizing its performance.
Although PC component inventories turn over quickly, the CDs included with components usually don’t contain the most recent drivers. Some manufacturers don’t update their driver CDs very often, so the bundled drivers may be a year or more out of date, even if the component itself was made recently. Before you begin building a PC, visit the web site for each of your components and download the most recent driver and BIOS updates. Unpack or unzip them if necessary, burn them to CD, and label the CD. You may choose to install drivers from the bundled CD—in fact, at times it’s necessary to do so because the downloadable updates do not include everything that’s on the CD—but you want to have those later drivers available so that you can update your system immediately.
Processors, memory modules, and other electronic components— including the circuit boards in drives—are sensitive to static shock. Static electricity can damage components even if the voltage is too low for you to see or feel a static spark. The best way to avoid static damage to components is to get in the habit of grounding yourself before you touch any sensitive component. You can buy special anti-static wrist straps and similar devices, but they’re really not necessary. All you need to do is touch a metal object like the chassis or power supply before you handle components.
Building a PC yields an incredible number of small pieces that need to be kept organized. As you open each component box, your pile of screws, cables, mounting brackets, adapters, and other small parts grows larger. Some of these things you’ll need, and some you won’t. As we can attest, one errant screw left on the floor can destroy a vacuum cleaner. Worse, one unnoticed screw in the wrong place can short out and destroy the motherboard and other components. The best solution we’ve found is to use an egg carton or ice cube tray to keep parts organized. The goal is to have all of the small parts accounted for when you finish assembling the PC.
Some PCs use a variety of screws that look very similar but are in fact threaded differently. For example, the screws used to secure some case covers and those used to mount some disk drives may appear to be identical, but swapping them may result in stripped threads. If in doubt, keep each type of screw in a separate compartment of your organizer.
Many books tell you never to force anything, and that’s good advice as far as it goes. If doing something requires excessive force, chances are a part is misaligned, you have not removed a screw, or there is some similar problem. But sometimes there is no alternative to applying force judiciously. For example, drive power cables sometimes fit so tightly that the only way to connect them is to grab them with pliers and press hard. (Make sure all the contacts are aligned first.) Some combinations of expansion card and slot fit so tightly that you must press very hard to seat the card. If you encounter such a situation, verify that everything is lined up and otherwise as it should be, and that there are no stray wires obstructing the slot. Then use whatever force it takes to do the job, which may be substantial.
An experienced PC technician building a PC does a quick scan of the new PC before performing the “smoke test” by applying power to the PC (if you don’t see any smoke, it passes the test). Don’t skip this step, and don’t underestimate its importance. Most PCs that fail the smoke test do so because this step was ignored. Until you gain experience, it may take several minutes to verify that all is as it should be—all components secure, all cables connected properly, no tools or other metal parts shorting anything out, and so on. Once you are comfortable working inside PCs, this step takes 15 seconds, but it may be the most important 15 seconds of the whole project.
The moment of greatest danger comes when you power up the PC for the first time. If the system fails catastrophically—which sometimes happens no matter how careful you are—don’t smoke more than you have to. For example, the SOHO Server project system we built for this book uses four hard drives and two memory modules. When we built that system, we installed only one drive and one memory module initially. That way, if something shorted out when we first applied power, we’d destroy only one drive and memory module rather than all of them. For that reason, we suggest starting with a minimum configuration—motherboard, processor, one memory stick, video, and one hard drive. Once you’re satisfied that all is well, you can add your optical and other drives, additional memory, expansion cards, and so on.
The corollary to this rule is that you should always put the cover back on the case once everything is complete and tested. Some people believe that leaving the cover off improves cooling. Wrong. Cases do not depend on convection cooling, which is the only kind you get with the cover off. Cases are designed to direct cooling air across the major heat-generating components, processors and drives, but this engineering is useless if you run the PC uncovered. Replace the cover to avoid overheating components.
Another good reason to replace the cover is that running a system without the cover releases copious amounts of RF to the surrounding environment. An uncovered system can interfere with radios, monitors, televisions, and other electronic components over a wide radius.