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If you’ve read this column in the past, you’ll know that I focus my efforts on lawyers who are novice computer users who want simple advice without getting too technical. Today I’m going to go the opposite route and tell you how to build your own computer. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, and by doing so, you’ll gain a better understanding of how everything works. There are a number of reasons why you should build your own personal computer: 1. It makes upgrading your machine easier. 2. You can customize for your specific needs. 3. You may save a little money (but not much) over buying a pre-assembled machine. 4. It’s a really cool thing to tell your clients. THE PARTS When building your own PC, you’ll need the following components: • Computer case: $50. • Power supply: included. • Motherboard: $67. • CPU with cooling fan: $99. • Memory: $61. • Hard drive: $124. • Floppy drive: $16. • CD-ROM drive: $35. • Cables for the above items (usually included with packaging). • Extra case fan: $10. • Video card: included. • Sound card: included. • Network card: included. • Operating system (Windows): $200. • Keyboard: $10. • Mouse: $8. • Monitor: cost varies. • Total (without monitor): $680. Some of these components may come packaged together, so you may not need to purchase each item separately. Generally, I don’t recommend specific brand names or software, but for those who may be trying this at home, I’ll mention the specific items I am using and their costs. I’ve found the best place to purchase these items is by searching the Internet rather than using more established vendors. Since one of our goals is cost savings, you’ll get the best prices through small, online vendors, who often have close-out specials. When building a PC, I usually look for items that are a notch below the state-of-the-art as it stands today, as you’ll get the best prices and performance that were top-of-the line six months ago. The first thing you need to purchase is the computer case, or the box that houses everything. The machine I’m building today is a relatively simple version, so the case is not all that involved. I recommend buying a case that already has a power supply built in, since it is easier that way and you’ll know that the case and power supply are compatible. When buying a case, look for one that is an ATX form factor with a 300-watt power supply. For our example today, I purchased a generic ATX case with 300-watt power supply for $49.99. When purchasing a case, make sure it is the ATX form factor. The next components are the motherboard and the processing unit. I tend to go with AMD processors rather than Intel Pentium units, as they combine good value with good performance. It is important that the motherboard support the processor. You can’t have a motherboard designed for Intel and the CPU made by AMD. For our example, I’m using the Shuttle Mainboard MK35N, which is a Socket A AMD Athlon/XP/Duron motherboard, which also contains a built-in video card, sound card, and network card, at a cost of $66.99. This supports the Athlon XP 1700+ 266Mhz Socket A CPU that I purchased for $66.99. The CPU is known as an OEM model, which means it is only the chip. You could purchase a packaged AMD Athlon XP 2000+, which comes with the cooling fan, for around $99. I’m using a Thermaltake Volcano 6Cu+ cooling fan with the processor, a slightly better (but unfortunately louder) product that I purchased separately for $17.95. An additional cooling fan for the computer case is not a bad idea, at a cost of about $10. A standard CD-ROM drive costs about $35. I am using one made by ACER, although any brand will do. If you spend another $50, or even less, you can get a CD-RW drive � a CD burner. A floppy disk drive costs $16. The hard drive I’m using is a Maxtor 80GB, 7,200 rpm hard drive, which cost $124. You can probably get a lower price than this with another brand or a smaller drive, but I wouldn’t go below a 40-gig hard drive, and I would not get a slower drive than a 7,200 rpm. For memory, I purchased Viking 256MB DDR PC2100 RAM, at a cost of $60.88. You may be able to find a better price with another manufacturer. When purchasing computer parts, search the Internet for the best prices. Some places may have one piece for a good price, while other vendors may specialize in other parts. Beware of shipping costs, however. It may be more prudent to buy your parts all at one place and suffer only one shipping charge. A simple mouse would cost around $8, and a keyboard around $10. Sometimes you can get these packaged together for around $15. If you are replacing your previous computer, you won’t need to buy a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. And you could take your floppy drive and CD-ROM drive from that machine as well. Likewise, you could probably transfer your Windows license from that machine as well to the new machine, but you need to check the license carefully to see if that is allowed. Yet one thing you may not want to keep if you are replacing an old machine is the old operating system. A new version of Windows XP would cost approximately $199. Another option is a Linux-based operating system. Red Hat Linux goes for about $80, quite a savings over Windows, but you would also be venturing into a brave new world that you may not like. When you total up the cost of all of the parts and operating system, you don’t save much over a prebuilt machine. But what you do get is the opportunity to know the inner workings of your computer. And you also have the ability to overemphasize a certain portion of your machine. For example, if graphics and sound are really important, you can purchase a high-end graphics card and high-end sound card. If storage space is essential, then a large hard drive can be substituted for the one I used here. As time goes on and hardware gets better and faster, you can easily hook up the improved units piece by piece. As far as tools go, you really don’t need all that much, but I would recommend a magnetized screwdriver, usually a Phillips head, although keep it away from the hard drive. Some computer screws are specially configured, and you can purchase a computer tool kit, but it’s not really necessary. PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER To begin assembly, we’ll start with the motherboard, the component that contains the heart of your system. The motherboard we are using for this project is the Shuttle Mainboard MK35N, which comes with very good directions. If you bought a different motherboard, follow the directions included with your purchase. The first thing to install is the CPU, or central processing unit � the AMD 1700+ processor chip. This is a small, square piece, and it fits easily into its compartment on the motherboard. An arm bar lifts up, you place the chip’s pins into their appropriate slots, and put down the bar. The chip can go in only one way, so you can’t make a mistake. Don’t force anything, however, as you could bend the pins. Next, install the fan on top of the CPU. The fan model we are using, a Thermaltake Volcano 6Cu+, can be a little difficult to mount, as you need force to get the arm bar to connect. Make sure that the geography of the fan matches with that of the chip. (There is a slight elevation in one area on both.) If you purchased a chip that comes with its own cooling fan, the directions with the chip will give you more information. If you bought them separately (as we did in this case), refer to your fan’s installation instructions. A power cable from the fan attaches to the motherboard, so that the fan turns on when the machine does. Check your instructions with the motherboard to find the proper slot for the fan cable. Memory should be installed next. Open the two clips on either side of the memory bank, slide in the memory, and snap the clips back in place. Don’t be afraid to use a little force to get the memory in. However, if it doesn’t seem to want to slide into the slot, check to make sure the pins and slots are lined up properly. Memory can go in only one way, so you may need to turn it around to get it to fit correctly. Once memory installation is accomplished, you are done, for now, with the motherboard. Next, storage and reading devices � the hard drive, floppy drive, and CD-ROM drive � need to be attached to the computer case. To do this, you’ll have to open the case. This can prove tricky, so take your time and find out which screws are necessary to remove the panels in order to open the case. Once you’ve opened the case, it should be obvious where the floppy and CD-ROM drives go, as spaces are allocated for them that align with the front cover of the case. Line them up, and screw holes should line up with metal bars. Screws usually come with either the case or the motherboard (more than you’ll ever need), so screw in these drives tightly, but make sure they fit. Metal on the drive compartments will line up with the holes on the floppy and CD drives. Occasionally you may have to add additional bars on either side of the drives to make them fit. These bars are usually included with the drives. The hard drive housing is often harder to figure out, because it can be located anywhere. However, the directions with your case usually tell you where to put the drive or drives. After all of these items are installed, attach the ribbon cable to the back of the drives. The slots on the cable will line up with the slots on the back of thedrives. They usually fit together in only one way. You will also need to plug in the power supplies to these drives. The power supply usually has a white plastic ending with four holes. These holes plug into the CD and hard drives. The floppy drive power supply is smaller. You’ll also want to install the sound cable that attaches from your CD drive to your motherboard. This isn’t essential, but if you want to play CDs with sound or music, then it’s important. Check the diagram that came with your motherboard to find the location of these pins. Now that all of the hardware is installed on the case and on the motherboard, it’s time to put the two together. When putting the motherboard on the computer case, you will need to line up the screw holes on the motherboard with those on the case. Usually, more holes are available on the case than are needed, in order to accommodate various models of motherboards. Also, the slots for your keyboard, mouse, and so forth are different on each motherboard. On the case I used for this project, I had to remove the covering for these, and replace it with the one that came with the motherboard. Included with your computer case are a number of posts. These posts screw in to the holes on the case, and hold the motherboard suspended slightly from touching the case. Line up the motherboard holes with the holes on the case, then screw in the posts. Then put the motherboard on top of those posts, and using the screws provided, attach the motherboard to the case. Once the motherboard is attached to the case, you will need to attach the ribbon cables from the hard, floppy, and CD-ROM drives to the motherboard. This is usually a simple job, since the ribbon cables for each of these can fit only into one spot. With the motherboard, the hard drive cables and CD-ROM cables are the same. Find the slots on the motherboard into which these cables will fit, and slide them on. Generally, they only fit one way, but occasionally, you will get cables that could fit both directions. In this case, look for a notch or square that is not filled in. Match it to the space for the missing pin on the slot, and you will be fine. The floppy drive ribbon is smaller than those on the hard drive and CD drive, but it is inserted in the same way. Next, attach the computer case fan cable to a power supply outlet. Usually extra power cables will come with the computer case for these attachments. You can also get an extra fan to keep things nice and cool inside your case. Directions with your case will show you where to install the fan, or you can figure it out pretty easily on your own, as there is usually an obvious place for it to go. Now connect the power supply from the computer case to the motherboard. Again, this is obvious, as the cable coming from the power supply on the computer case will only fit into one slot on the motherboard. The next part is the trickiest. A series of very small cables running from the front of the computer case need to be attached to their appropriate section on the motherboard. While the description on the motherboard directions will tell you where they are supposed to go, unfortunately they are only guessing as to what they will look like. Often the cables coming from the case will vary slightly from the description with the motherboard. Likewise, the diagram or directions with your case will often vary from what the motherboard looks like. Also, the cryptic description on the connection will not correlate exactly with the motherboard description. Nonetheless, using a process of elimination, you can pretty much figure out where each one goes. The most critical of these cables is the on/off switch from the front of the case. While this will often be a double connector, sometimes it is two single ones. Follow the directions that came with the motherboard; it will point you where to plug these in. The next connection is the reset button, which is a similar configuration to the on/off switch. Next are hard drive LED lights, which, if you don’t connect properly, aren’t that important. You may also have USB port connectors, which tend to be obviously named (for example, USB1 or USB). Directions with the motherboard will point you to the correct place. So, assuming you’ve hooked everything up, now comes the moment of truth: Powering up for the first time! Go ahead and do it if you want, but in the final installment in this series, to be published next month, we’ll discuss the final stages of preparing your computer: tinkering with the bios, loading Windows, adding hardware drivers, installing programs, and other customizations. Brian R. Harris is the database administrator for the American Lawyer Media-Pennsylvania division and the former editor in chief of The Legal Intelligencer in Philadelphia, where this article first appeared.

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