Sunday, April 20, 2008

Assembling own PC from scratch

Just around the turn of this century, someone gave me a Intel Pentium-4 processor (just the CPU chip) when it was just out in the market. The expectation was I can get a motherboard and other paraphernalia and assemble a PC myself. Sounds like fun? Read on and you'll know what it took me to get there.

Motherboard almost obsolete: At the time, only expensive motherboards based on Rambus memory were available (~$300). So, I waited for DDR memory based motherboards, which would be much less expensive. I finally bought one three years later for $80. Motherboards go with the specific packaging of CPU, and since mine was some kind of a limited time version (Intel released other Pentium 4 packages down the line), the motherboards were almost obsolete when I looked for them!

DDR memory: Obviously, I had to buy the DDR memory chips as well, and I settled for 512MB worth of memory, which at the time was another $80.

Chassis: The chassis or the PC box that holds everything. This can get exciting, but I settled for a $60 chassis at Fry's, the usual off-white color, that had 4-slots in the front (for CD drive etc), 4-PCI slots in the back, fans, power supply and cord, and a bunch of screws. It is important to get a chassis that has the right power supply for the motherboard.

CPU test: At this stage, I thought the barebones hardware exist to see if the CPU works. I screwed the motherboard onto the chassis, put the CPU and memory in the respective slots, and switched on the power supply. The goal was to hear the beep, which means it is booting. The idea was to get the CPU to wiggle before investing further in other components. Well, as it turns out, there was no beep! Since the CPU didn't seem to generate the beep, I was wondering how to test if the CPU was working. One test was to see if the CPU gets warm. I touched it soon after booting a couple of times, and it was actually warm!

Heat sink actually obsolete: The CPU did not come with a heat sink, which sits on top of the CPU chip and dissipates the heat. My friend told me that the CPU is likely toast, since I already booted without a heat sink - apparently, it only takes a few seconds to heat up and go in smoke. I didn't believe him, since I had heard there are power management features that shutoff the CPU and prevent overheating (later I learned this used to be a feature only on Intel CPUs - so both of us were right!). The heat sink is specific to the CPU version, and this one was actually obsolete, and I had to search in stores that I had not heard about before (called Weird Stuff, Surplus), to find the right heat sink and a paste that goes with it ($10). Not a bad investment to move ahead. However, this didn't help a whole lot either. I wasn't sure if I had already roasted the CPU to death, or if the motherboard was faulty.

Changing Motherboard: There was no investment to change the motherboard. Obviously this involved unscrewing, pulling out the CPU, heat sink and memory, and a trip to Fry's to return and exchange for another brand of motherboard. But even an exchange didn't help. I returned the motherboard to Fry's for a refund, and got another one from another store that sells older computer parts (Weird Stuff). The return policy would only be an exchange. But, I decided to take the risk and tried anyway. After screwing in the new motherboard, putting back the CPU and all that, I actually heard the beep! Great progress, except that I didn't get it every time I tried plugging in! But, now I was sure the CPU is ok, and there must be some connection issue with the motherboard, or the memory chip must be bad.

Changing motherboard... again: This time around, I got innovative, and called VIA, the company that manufactured the motherboard. Their customer support was very helpful, and asked me to bring it over to their facility in Fremont, CA. It was some 20 miles away, but I thought it was worth a shot. They asked me to wait for a few minutes in the lobby, and after checking out the board for a few minutes in their lab, the engineer came back and gave me a new board saying the memory connector was bad, and this new one works! I was so happy, that I forgot to take back the power cord I gave them. Shelled out another $6 to replace it.

Graphics card, Monitor: Now that the basic hardware was working, I was ready to invest in other components to build the system. I got a good graphics card (nVidia G4MX440 for $60) that goes into a PCI slot. The connections on the mother board and the chassis were straightforward. I got a new monitor (NEC TFT 17") for $350, and tested the monitor on a different machine, before connecting to this system. When I rebooted the system, I was able to see some text on the screen spelling out the hardware on the system!

Hard-disk, CD drive: I got the hard drive (80GB for $140), a good graphics card (nVidia G4MX440 for $60) and CD read/write drive for $40.The hard disk and CD drive are necessary to install the operating system. Obviously, I bought a keyboard and mouse as well ($20).

Operating System: When you assemble a PC on your own, you have to shell out for Microsoft Windows OS, which can run from $100 to $300 depending on Home or Professional version. Then, there is additional money to be spent for MS Office for word, excel application software. I wasn't willing to blow any of this money, nor willing to use any pirated copy. So, I went with Linux OS, which is free, and comes with free software as well for a variety of applications. A friend of mine gave me the installation CD for Red Hat Linux, and installing it on the PC was fairly straightforward. I just had to insert the Linux installation CD into the CD-RW drive, and boot, and follow on-screen instructions. It partitions the hard disk, installs the OS, as well as a host of free software for word processing, spreadsheet, games, music etc.

Getting Soundcard to work: For some reason, the sound card was not working (other than the beep from motherboard), I never heard a sound! The only way I could fix it was to upgrade the OS to the next revision, which fixed some driver problem. Now, it was a great media PC!

The system was up an running as a standalone PC. Took me a couple of months to get to this point, runnning around different stores, and making things work one thing at a time.

Network: I bought a Ethernet PCI card ($10) to get it on the network. Plugging it on the PCI slot, and connecting to the DSL modem was fairly straightforward, and it worked right away upon reboot.

The total cost was a little over $700 (including $350 for the monitor). Ever since, it has been serving our desktop PC needs. I have fixed so many geeky Linux stuff along the way (like getting WiFi USB card to work, browser plugins etc), but it has been very stable, and fast for our needs.

Was all this worth it? Yes, from a hobby standpoint. Not really, from a value standpoint. I may have picked bigger and better components (memory/HDD size, graphics, CD-RW speed etc) than the assembled ones from the known brands, but they bring value in support, warranty, installed OS & other software etc. Since they drive so much volume, they get all the hardware and software components at deep discounts, and you also get bundled pricing with monitor and printer, so it is really a wash at the end. Also, not worth it for anyone with a faint heart.

Finally, it was really fun typing this blog on my own assembled PC, after full five years of it's existence!

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