So, earlier this year I decided that I would build a PC for the first time. Previously, I had only done component upgrades on prebuilt computers. This got me familiar with working inside a computer case, but I never had built one from scratch, so I had to figure out what is involved with choosing components, matching things together to make sure everything is compatible, and what it’s like to do all the subsequent tweaking and troubleshooting when the inevitable problems arise.
When I started thinking about what I wanted to do, I made a few key decisions at the front. Usually you have some general idea of what you want your computer to end up looking like: general use office desktop, gaming PC, HTPC, low-end budget PC, etc. As a gamer and someone who loves gadgetry and also someone with money to burn, I opted to try and build a high-end PC. I also made the decision up-front that it would be air-cooled, because for my first build, I didn’t want to have to deal with liquid cooling systems, which I am unfamiliar with, and I wanted to be able to spend my time learning about them after I was comfortable with putting a PC together. I also was employed by AMD at the time so I was able to take advantage of the employee discount. Therefore, it was going to be an all-AMD system.
Before I made any purchases, I began looking around and researching what was out there on TigerDirect and Newegg (I ended up making all my purchases on TigerDirect because of a coworker’s recommendation for their customer service). I referenced benchmarks and recommendation lists on sites like Anandtech and Tomshardware, and decided to try and pick out hardware that already has high ratings by buyers on these sites, to try and minimize the potential for first-time building woes with sketchy or malfunctioning parts. I didn’t end up buying all the parts that eventually went into the final build at first. What ended up happening was after the initial build, while it booted, it wasn’t quite what I wanted yet, so I had to make some additional purchases and configurations. I ended up tweaking it for about a month before it became stable. Anyways, I’ll describe that process later. My initial parts purchase formed the base of the machine that ended up becoming my gaming PC. Here’s the list:
Motherboard: MSI 890FXA-GD65 AMD 890FX Socket AM3 Motherboard
System drive: Seagate 500GB/4GB Solid State Hybrid SATA HD
Graphics: 2 x MSI Radeon HD 6970 Lightning Ed. 2GB DDR5 PCIe
Power supply: Thermaltake Toughpower XT 775w Power Supply
Not long after placing the order, everything arrived at my door. As I made sure that everything was accounted for, I found that they packaged an extra item. There was an extra Seagate 1 TB 3.5” HDD in the box. I try to be an honest person, so I called up TigerDirect and explained what happened, and they sent me packing materials to ship it back to them right away. After that was squared away, I got everything ready and set up to start putting the computer together. As this was my first time doing this, I made sure I had everything set. I brought out our metal folding table from the garage and set it up downstairs, to provide a static-free area to work. I got all my boxes of parts together, as well as my toolset, and made sure I had my antistatic wrist strap handy. I blocked off some time the upcoming Saturday to start working, because I wanted to focus on it and not do it after being tired from the workday.
Saturday came and I got ready to get working. I kept my laptop handy nearby in case I needed to look something up online for help. I started with the motherboard, because I knew that for everything else I would be working off of it. Before installing the motherboard in the case, I decided to install the CPU into the motherboard. Now, I’d like to mention that the CPU that I purchased was one of those “CPU in a box” deals, which contained the CPU, heatsink, and fan all in one. As I was researching parts earlier, one of my friends mentioned that he doesn’t like to use stock fans and heatsinks because while they work, they usually don’t work as well as third party heatsinks and the fan is usually very loud. I decided that I would start with the stock heatsink and fan to get used to it and if I felt that I should purchase something else, I would do it after the fact, after getting some experience with what was there.
I unwrapped the motherboardand set it out on my table, and then opened up the CPU box. Now, when it comes to new tech purchases, I’m usually one of those people who play around with it before looking at the manual. However, since I wanted to do everything right for my first PC build, and I knew that these devices were electrostatic sensitive and delicate, I made sure to look through all the documentation that they came with to familiarize myself with the products and the installation process. I referenced the motherboard’s manual along with the CPU’s manual when installing the chip, then applying the thermal paste, and then the heatsink and the CPU fan. After I got that squared away, I got out the Thermaltake PC case and laid it out on the table, and got to work installing the motherboard into it. The instructions available on how to do it weren’t incredibly specific so I ended up also referencing some tutorials online. In my first attempt I started to screw the motherboard directly onto the case without using spacers and stand-offs. Luckily I didn’t get far before I realized this and corrected my error. If I didn’t, I suspect that I would have damaged the motherboard somehow or perhaps shorted something, because the underside would have come in direct contact with the case.
After getting all that squared away, I went about installing the RAM. I made sure to pick out the correct RAM for my motherboard. As RAM is one of the things that I had experience with replacing in the past, I knew what was involved in choosing it and installation. That went pretty smoothly.
Next, I worked on hooking the motherboard up to the case’s front panel. Basically, this hooks up the power and reset buttons, USB ports, and indicator lights, to the motherboard. The motherboard’s manual described the ports for these cables, but again it wasn’t the most explicit. I had to ask my father (an electrical engineer) how they usually color wires to indicate + and – polarization, because it wasn’t mentioned anywhere. After I got that hooked up and I was satisfied that it was probably correct, I moved on to hooking up the drives.
Even though I bought the 2.5” to 3.5” HDD bracket, I realized at this point that the case provided mounts for 2.5” drives. It was located directly adjacent to the motherboard’s area, above the PSU’s compartment. I got that installed and then installed my two bluray drives in the case. I was going to install the multicard reader/floppy drive as well but then discovered that the case I chose didn’t have a properly sized expansion slot, nor did my motherboard have a location to interface with floppy drives. So, I left out that part from the installation and decided I would later exchange it for a multicard reader that would fit. Having a floppy drive was something I wanted but didn’t need, so I decided to forgo it.
Next, I installed the graphics cards. Here, I ran into a problem. The graphics cards that I chose ended up being longer than the motherboard itself. With the way the internals of the case was laid out, this was a problem, as you could probably guess from this image of the inside of the case:
The hard drive cage ended up blocking the end of the graphics card from fitting. After thinking on this and pondering cutting into the case itself, I discovered that Thermaltake allows you to slide the hard drive cage out. After I did this, I was able to get the graphics cards to fit. I didn’t like that solution though, since it left me with a large part of the case hanging about the house and was a bit ugly inside. As I was concerned with getting something put together that worked, though, I put the thought aside for the moment, knowing that I could go back and change things if I wanted to.
After installing the cards, I installed the PSU. It fit nicely into its designated compartment in the case, so that wasn’t much of an issue. However, I did notice at this point that Thermaltake’s decision to put the 2.5” drive mounts so close to the PSU probably wasn’t for the best. With all the power cables entering and exiting that space made accessing the hard drive a bit difficult. On top of that, I figured that its physical proximity to the PSU itself and the heat it generates probably wouldn’t be good for the drive’s long-term health. However, since I was stuck with the hard drive cage removed, I had little recourse at the time, so I left it at that and did my best to get everything cabled up.
During this process, I ran into a problem (or so I thought). While I made sure that for the components I selected, my PSU was rated to handle them all, I ran out of PCI-e power plugs. Part of the culprit, I discovered later, was that I was using one to hook up the motherboard’s PCI-e power input port. That port provides power to the PCI-e slots if the cards don’t have power connections themselves. Mine did (2 8-pin connections each), so I didn’t need it. However, at the time, I didn’t know this and it meant I was with one less power cable, so I removed one of my video cards and put it aside for the moment.
After that, I got everything hooked up and I was ready to test the computer. I plugged in my keyboard and mouse and monitor and crossed my fingers as I pressed the power button. It worked! Well, mostly. The case I bought had extra case fans (front and side intake, and top exhaust) but they didn’t turn on. However, the CPU fan was spinning as was the exhaust fan in the rear so I let it continue booting. Everything started up, and so I celebrated a little bit. Then I shut it down and decided to figure out why the other fans didn’t start up on the case. It turned out I forgot to plug them into the PSU, which was an easy fix. The next boot ended up having them turn on.
As it was my first build, I took my time, so I ended up working on it for 7 hours. My back hurt from crouching over a table for so long and I was a bit tired. It wasn’t quite done yet, though, because there was more I wanted to do to tweak it. So I took some pictures to show off to friends and coworkers and left it for the weekend. Here’s what it looked like so far: