So as I said, I’d given Newegg one last chance as I ordered a bunch of parts to build my hun a new computer. While my experience with Newegg was yet again a flop, at least my experience in speccing and building computers wasn’t. So here’s a whirlwind tour of the building of my hun’s new PC.
Case: Raidmax Apex big mofo black case with 450W PSU
Cooling: one intake 120mm fan, one exhaust 120mm fan, side CPU vent
CPU: Intel Celeron E1200 dualcore 1.6GHz based on the Core2 design
Motherboard: Biostar GF7100P-M7S micro ATX, nVidia chipset, onboard graphics /sound /LAN
Graphics: Onboard nVidia 7100
Memory: 2 Gigabytes Wintec AmpX DDR2-800 (PC2 6400) set to 4-4-4-12 timings
Hard drive: Seagate Barracuda 160GB 7200RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s with 5 year warranty
Optical drive: Asus DVD+/-RW with LightScribe bundled with Nero 7 Essentials
Operating System: Windows XP Home SP2
Additionals: 1.44MB floppy, Logitech X-140 speakers, MS Office Home and Student
As you can see, it’s a budget home-office build PC. It doesn’t have many frills because the only gaming it will see are Spider Solitaire and Vegas Slots. But it can run nasty Excel spreadsheets and Word documents while surfing the web and playing music quite well. And with its oversized power supply, exceptional cooling, and moderate performance it is more than ready to stand the test of time and be upgradeable when or if it needs more.
You’ll also note that I stayed away from Windows Vista because I wanted my hun to have a computer that actually works and has drivers for all of her hardware.
So how did the build go?
Before we start, let me point out one of the first basic rules of building a computer: Zapping the parts with static electricity is bad. That’s why a fashion accessory like this lovely sky-blue wrist strap not only looks stunning, but it also protects your sensitive parts from being stunned. I never build a computer without anti-static protection.
Okay, enough of that. Now let’s start.
Here we have a menagerie of parts. Yes it looks like a lot of stuff to cram into that computer case. But actually, compared to years ago, it’s not that much. With the graphics, sound, and networking all built into the motherboard (and almost no one using internal 56K modems these days) there’s really not much that you need to add to it, at least when doing an office-type computer like this one. (Gaming computers need more graphics power at the very least.) And for the most part, things are pretty idiot proof these days. Parts and cables only fit in one way. You no longer have to remember details like pin1 typically points towards the power and things like that. Heck, the back panel on a computer and the external cables are usually even color-coded so that you’d really have to not be paying attention to get it wrong. It’s nice to see improvements in the simple things. Computers today are so much easier to work on than in the old days.
So we start taking crap out of the box. First thing I do is open up the case. You’ve got to put things in there, so you might as well get it ready then. And since this is a budget case without any luxuries of drive slide trays, quick mounts, etc. that means we have to take off not just the normal access panel, but also the back panel so that we can screw in the drives from the other side as well. A minor inconvenience – but also a little nostalgic.
Yes, I happened to have an old 120mm case fan from Antec from long ago. I added it as an intake fan since this case just happened to have a 120mm fan mount there. When you’re a geek, being a packrat can have some advantages. Now the more than adequate cooling of the 120mm rear exhaust fan is absolutely stellar with this added 120mm intake fan. For a budget office PC you don’t get much better than this. Why does it matter? Well electronics really aren’t partial to heat, and keeping them cool should grant them a longer lifespan as well as keep anything from getting flaky.
Insert drives to continue… It sounds silly, but with cheap cases sometimes one of the biggest pains in the butt is getting the darn drives into their respective bays. Sometimes you even have to bend the metal of the case a little bit to get them in. So, I decided to get that part out of the way before any real electronics were inside. Because on extremely rare occasions I’ve had to dremel a bit and the last thing you want on your motherboard are steel shavings.
Back in black! In computers, black is the new beige. Which in my opinion is just peachy-keen fine with me! So now that the drives fit into the steel part of the case, let’s try it again with the plastic front bezel on as well, since (especially in cheap cases) the plastic doesn’t always match up to the metal and you can have a mighty tough fit. Which was what happened in this case. But fortunately a tweaking with a set of pliers was all that was needed to get that DVD drive to finally slide in all the way. Yipee! It’s a fit. And I might add it looks rather good as well.
Next up is one of the biggest pains in building a computer: installing the motherboard standoffs. You see motherboards have little holes in them to screw them down onto the case. (Or if you’re really lucky, a removable motherboard tray in the case.) I’ve seen plastic standoffs used, but mostly I just see brass these days, which I prefer. Now even though we have things like ATX and micro-ATX standards, cases typically don’t have standoffs pre-set. No, you’ve got to play match the holes and then screw in the darned standoffs yourself. And you want to make sure to screw them in tight, because you are going to set a screw into them when all is said and done and you want those screws to come out freely should you need to remove the motherboard again. Fun fun.
So now that the case has the motherboard standoffs installed, let’s double-check that they’re right by putting on the motherboard. Depending on the CPU heatsink, or tight fight cabling situations, you may want to wait on installing the motherboard into the case until after you’ve taken care of those tricky problems. For example, because my heatsink required a certain amount of pressure, I actually took the motherboard back off while installing it so that I didn’t cause any bending in the motherboard as I installed the heatsink. But after installing the standoffs you still always want to double-check that you’ve installed them correctly.
Hungry Hungry Hippo? No, that’s a hungry CPU socket. Intel is notorious for having a new CPU socket to go with each new generation of processors, and once again they do not disappoint. This new LGA or Land Grid Array socket mechanism is certainly interesting. No longer do you have all manner of little pins sticking out of your processor. Now you have a flat processor and all sorts of little pins sticking out of the motherboard. Okay. Whatever. At least it’s not a ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) socket anymore. This one really holds down that CPU quite well.
It’s a perfect fit! The CPU goes into the socket quite nicely. It’s quite a relief really. The CPU is typically the part that computer enthusiasts worry about mostly. You really don’t want to break it, you know? It sounds funny to say, but it wasn’t long ago when it wasn’t always so clear-cut which way was “up”, and bent pins could really add a lot of trouble. Where as this, as the brits say, is easy as chips.
It’s cool, the heatsink is in. Okay, so it wasn’t actually all that cool. Of all of the heastsinks that I have ever installed, this is the second worst I’ve had to do. (The worst being a gigantic passive no-fan heatsink on an overclocked P4 Northwood C that was held down more by mounting bracket pressure than anything, so it was easy to slide around and hard to position “just right”.) This stock heatsink from Intel is crap to mount. You push down the pin at each of the four corners. And it’s supposed to lock into place. Except it doesn’t always just click-lock-stay. Sometimes it kind of stays until you do the next one and it pops back up. You’re afraid to push too hard because you don’t want to break anything. But with this stupid stock heatsink it’s really a push-and-pray brute force attack. It’s on now. And it’s stayed on moving it around a bit. But I sure wouldn’t trust that thing during shipping. If I was going to sell a PC like this to a customer, I’d definitely look into a non-stock heatsink that holds down better because I really can’t swear that thing will stay on even just going into a car trunk and back out. It scares me. I’m also not convinced by the cute little design of three separate TIM (Thermal Interface Material) shapes on the heatsink instead of just a simple single layer of TIM. It seems to be working, but it was not comforting. Intel, you really f____d up here. Stock heatsinks should not scare system builders this much. Things used to be so much better…
Thanks for the memories! So I took a little risk and went with a memory company I’ve never heard great things from, Wintec. But their AmpX line looked like a nice little rebranded stick with a heatspreader added. It’s a cheap trick that us geeks used to do on our own, but now so many companies are doing for us. (Opposed to the good professional jobs done by quality companies where you know they’ll hold up well.) The official timings from Wintec are 4-4-4-12. But of course the motherboard reads the programmed SPD as 5-5-5-15. Definitely not a pro job there. But hey, 4-4-4-12 is what the manufacturer rated it at, so (later) I manually set it to that in BIOS. And it works just fine. It’s what it’s warrantied at, and it works at it, so all is good.
Now that the main bits and bobs are installed on the motherboard, it’s time for the next most annoying part of building a computer, those front panel blues. Why we can’t standardize those + and – pins from the hard drive light, power light, power switch, reset switch, etc. is beyond me. Sometimes you get lucky at least and the front panel audio connector is a solid block. Same with USB. And sometimes you have to fiddle with it all pin by bloody little pin. Because it’d kill the industry to just have one damn big block that does it all. Just a standard audio, two USB ports, power light and switch, reset switch, HDD light, and piezo PC speaker. And then have the rest (like additional USB, audio, or Firewire ports) all willy-nilly. I just don’t get it. But at least in this case the audio and USB were solid blocks. But it was still a pain in the behind to hook up the rest.
In a bad Star Trek parody scene, we’re now going to “give her more power!” Now for some demented reason we haven’t fully switched over to the 24-pin main power cable yet. Some are still using only 20-pin power cables. So some dumb arse invented the “20+4″ pin power cable. Which sounds adaptable. And it is. But it’s also a bit of a pain to work with. You plug in the +4 cable, hopefully putting it into the right spot (at least I know where it goes, but not everyone may have my experience) and then plug in the old 20-pin standard cable with the clip to hold it in place. And hopefully that 20-pin cable also has little bobs on the end to hold down that +4 cable so it can’t come free. And then there’s the part that so many newbies forget, the new addition of a 12v 4-pin CPU cable. You really don’t want to forget that. If you do, your system probably won’t boot. Nothing bad should happen other than that, but getting it right the first time is always the best way to do things. Why this extra cable wasn’t made part of the main power cable is beyond me. But so now we have to basically deal with 20+4+4. Goofy to say the least. I say it’s time for a new standard. Keep it simple, stupid!
And wire we’re at it, let’s hook up all of those extra wires and cables and doo-dads. Okay, so I’m screwing my air flow a bit by not using rounded IDE and floppy cables. You can see how the innovation of using Serial ATA (the SATA cable is the red one at the bottom) sure helps a computer’s air flow. No more bulky cables blocking things up in there if you can go all SATA. Me, I just don’t trust SATA optical drives yet, so I went with an IDE still. And while most people would wonder why bothered to install a floppy, all I can say is you never know when you’ll need it. Yes, USB sticks are much better. But better safe than sorry in my opinion. So that’s the mad mess of cables. Some of them are tied down a bit here and there, but until I transfer all of the data from the old PC’s hard drive (not installed yet) to this box, I’m not going to tie down every last cable. But trust me, I will. A clean box is a happy box.
Viola! Tada! It’s a computer! It was assembled by me. With completely legal and legit software (including MS Office, by request) for a smacking $550. Not bad. You’d be hard-pressed to get a complete match to that out of Dell and the likes. And unlike Dell, I didn’t use a ton of cut-rate corner-cutting parts that will break down. In fact after torture testing overnight in a tiny office with the door closed (meaning the ambient temperature in the room could heat up to baking in that time) the PC not only survived a SiSoftware Sandra burn in, but did so at an average CPU temp of 28 degrees Celsius. This is a system that was built well and will last the test of time.
And for all of you geeks out there who noticed, yes, that is a Star Trek movie on the TV in the background. Is there really anything better for a geek to build a new computer to? It was fate.
And now, for the hours and hours of installing software and running Windows Updates. And setting everything up. And validating. Et cetera.
And then? The hours and hours of copying data from the old hard drive to the new computer.
But then she’ll be good to go! Aw yeah!