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Building the Perfect PC by Barbara Fritchman Thompson, Robert Bruce Thompson

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Things You Need to Have

The following sections detail the items you should have on hand before you actually start building your new system. Make a checklist and make sure you check off each item before you begin. There are few things as frustrating as being forced to stop in mid-build when you belatedly realize you’re missing a cable or other small component.

Components

Building a PC requires at least the following components. Have all of them available before you start to build the system. Open each component box and verify the contents against the packing list before you actually start the build.

Case and power supply, with power cord
Motherboard, with custom I/O template if needed
Processor
CPU cooler, with thermal compound or pad
Memory module(s)
Hard drive(s) and cable(s) (and S-ATA power adapter(s), if applicable)
Optical drive with data cable (and audio cable, if applicable)
Floppy drive and cable (if applicable)
Tape drive, cable, and tape cartridge (if applicable)
Card reader and cable (if applicable)
Video adapter, unless embedded
Sound adapter, unless embedded
Network adapter, unless embedded
Any other expansion cards (if applicable)
Supplementary case fan(s)
Keyboard, mouse, display, and other external peripherals
Screws, brackets, drive rails, and other connecting hardware

Hand tools and supplies

You really don’t need many tools to build a PC. We built one PC using only our Swiss Army Knife, just to prove it could be done. Figure 1-1 shows our basic PC building toolkit. Yep. It’s true. You can build every PC in this book using only a #1 Phillips screwdriver. It’s a bit small for the largest screws and a bit large for the smallest, but it works.

A basic PC toolkit

Figure 1-1. A basic PC toolkit

It’s helpful to have more tools, of course. Needlenose pliers are useful for setting jumpers. A flashlight is often useful, even if your work area is well lit. A 5mm (or, rarely, 6mm) nut driver makes it faster to install the brass standoffs that support the motherboard. A larger assortment of screwdrivers can also be helpful.

Note

Don’t worry about using magnetized tools. Despite the common warnings about doing so, we’ve used magnetized screwdrivers for years without any problem. They are quite handy for picking up dropped screws and so on. Just use commonsense precautions, such as avoiding putting the magnetized tips near the flat surface of a hard drive or near any floppy disk, tape, or other magnetic media.

You may also find it useful to have some nylon cable ties (not the paper-covered wire twist ties) for dressing cables after you build the system. Canned air and a clean microfiber dustcloth are useful for cleaning components that you are migrating from an older system. A new eraser is helpful for cleaning contacts if you mistakenly grab an expansion card by the connector tab.

Software tools

In addition to hand tools, you should have the following software tools available when you build your system. Some are useful to actually build the system, others to diagnose problems. We keep copies of our standard software tools with our toolkit. That way, we have everything we need in one place. Here are the software tools we recommend:

Operating system distribution discs

OS distribution discs are needed when you build a system, and may also be needed later to update system software or install a peripheral. We always burn copies of the distribution discs to CD-R or DVD+R and keep a copy with our toolkit. If you use Windows or another non-free operating system, remember to record the initialization key, serial number, and other data you’ll need to install the software. Use a felt-tip permanent marker to record this data directly onto the disc.

Service packs and critical updates

Rather than (or in addition to) updating Windows and Office online, download the latest service packs and critical updates and burn them to CD-R. In addition to giving you more control over the process, having these updates on CD-R means you can apply them even when the system has no Internet connection, such as when you’re building it on your kitchen table.

Warning

It’s a very bad idea to connect an unpatched system to the Internet. Several of our readers have reported having a new system infected by a worm almost instantly when they connected to the Internet, intending to download patches and updates. Unless you have a very good firewall, patch your new system before you connect it to the Internet.

Major applications discs

If your system runs Microsoft Office or other major applications that are distributed on CDs, keep a copy of those discs with your toolkit. Again, don’t forget to record the serial number, initialization keys, and other required data on the disc itself.

Driver CDs

Motherboards, video adapters, sound cards, and many other components include a driver CD in the box. Those drivers may not be essential for installing the component—the Windows or Linux distribution CD may (or may not) include basic drivers for the component—but it’s generally a good idea to use the driver CD supplied with the component (or an updated version downloaded from the web site) rather than using those supplied with the OS, if any.

Note

Pay close attention to the instructions that come with the driver. Most drivers can be installed with the hardware they support already installed. But some drivers, particularly those for some USB devices, need to be installed before the hardware is installed.

In addition to basic drivers, the driver CD may include supporting applications. For example, a video adapter CD may include a system tray application for managing video properties, while a sound card may include a bundled application for sound recording and editing. We generally use the bundled driver CD for initial installation and then download and install any updated drivers available on the product web site. Keep a copy of the original driver CD and a CD-R with updated drivers in your toolkit.

Caution

Keep original driver CDs stored safely—they may be more valuable than you think. More than once, we’ve lost track of original driver CDs, thinking we could always just download the latest driver from the manufacturer’s web site. Alas, a company may go out of business, or its web site may be down just when you desperately need a driver. Worse still, some companies charge for drivers that were originally freely downloadable. That’s one reason we don’t buy HP products.

Hard drive installation/diagnostic utility

We’re always amazed that so few people use the installation and diagnostic software supplied with hard drives. Perhaps that’s because many people buy OEM hard drives, which include only the bare drive. Retail-boxed drives invariably include a utilities CD. Most people ignore it, which is a mistake.

Seagate, for example, provides DiscWizard installation software and SeaTools diagnostic software. If you’re building a system, you can use the bootable floppy or bootable CD version of DiscWizard to partition, format, and test the new drive automatically. If you’re adding a drive, you can use the Windows version of DiscWizard to install, prepare, and configure the new drive automatically. You can configure the new drive as a secondary drive, keeping the original drive as the boot drive. You can specify that the new drive be the sole drive in the system, and DiscWizard will automatically migrate your programs and data from the old drive. Finally, you can choose to make the new drive the primary (boot) drive and make the old drive the secondary drive. DiscWizard does all of this automatically, saving you considerable manual effort.

Note

All hard drive makers provide installation and diagnostic utilities. Maxtor, for example, distributes MaxBlast installation software and Powermax diagnostic utilities. If you buy an OEM hard drive or lose the original CD, you can download the utilities from the manufacturer’s web site. For obvious reasons, many of these utilities work only if a hard drive made by that manufacturer is installed.

Diagnostic utilities

These are a bit of a Catch-22. Diagnostic utilities are of limited use in building a new system because if the PC works well enough to load and run them, you don’t need to diagnose it. Conversely, when you do need to diagnose the PC, it’s not working well enough to run the diagnostic utility. Duh. (Diagnostic utilities can be helpful on older systems, for example to detect memory problems or a failing hard drive.) The only diagnostic utility we use routinely when building systems is a Knoppix Live Linux CD (http://www.knoppix.com). With Knoppix, you can boot and run Linux completely from the CD, without writing anything to the hard drive. Knoppix has superb hardware detection—better than Windows—and can be useful for diagnosing problems on a newly built system that refuses to load Windows.

Note

Many system builders routinely run a memory diagnostic to ensure that the system functions before installing the operating system. One excellent utility for this purpose is MEMTEST86 (http://www.memtest86.com). It’s free, and either self-boots from a floppy drive or can be run in DOS mode from an optical boot disk. Best of all, it does a great job testing the otherwise difficult-to-diagnose memory subsystem. Microsoft offers a similar free utility (http://oca.microsoft.com/en/windiag.asp) that we have not used.

Burn-in utilities

PC components generally either fail quickly or live a long time. If a component survives the first 24 hours, it’s likely to run without problems for years. The vast majority of early failures are immediate, caused by DOA components. Something like 99% of the remaining early failures occur within 24 hours, so it’s worth “burning in” a new system before you spend hours installing and configuring the operating system and applications.

Many people simply turn on the system and let it run for a day or two. That’s better than nothing, but an idling system doesn’t stress all components. A better way is to run software that accesses and exercises all of the components. One good (and free) ad hoc way to burn-in a system is to compile the Linux kernel, and we sometimes use that method. We generally use special burn-in software, however, and the best product we know of for that purpose is BurnInTest from PassMark Software (http://www.passmark.com).

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