Monday, December 15, 2008

Building Your Own State-of-the-Art Computer Part 3 of 4

So let's talk about putting this sytem together. What do you need to assemble the machine? What are the pitfalls? How long will it take? What skills do you need?

You need a good standard medium Philips (cross head) screwdriver, a good 3" X 6" table top with a soft, static-free work surface, a non-dry or humidified environment with at least 40% humidity (don't want to zap the motherboard, CPU or memory), and small containers for the parts, screws and little bits that come with the machine.

Don't hurry assembling the machine! Take your time. Most everything is straightforward. Assembly will take a couple of hours. Maybe as much as 4 hours if you get stuck a few times.

Can you do this? If you have replaced parts in a computer, and you know this difference between a CPU and a video card, YES, you can!

You can have MWAVE test the CPU/Motherboard/Memory combo, and the Power Supply for a nominal fee, which is well worth it. Then you know the important subsystems work.

You're going to lay out the case and parts on a towel on your table -- keeps the parts from rolling around, don't you know, as well as other items you will need soon, e.g., the Power Supply, the Motherboard, the DVD drive, and the Graphics Card. Examine the parts lists and diagrams for these components, and dump and segregate the bagged fastening hardware, such as screws and other small bits into shallow plastic containers or the like near the related component.

If you have any static electricity buildup, postpone working 'til another day when it's more humid and/or buy a cheap wrist strap grounding kit and work on an anti-static mat, also readily available on-line.

Lay the motherboard out on the antistatic bag it was packed in, and examine the Intel CPU, leaving it in its plastic packaging until you are ready to lay it in place on the motherboard. Underneath the body of the fan is a heatsink with a decal of thermal grease applied to it which will lie between the CPU and the fan heatsink to provide an optimal mating of the 2 surfaces for heat dissipation, so be gentle with the bottom of the fan assembly when attaching it to the motherboard.

Following the boxed instructions included with the Intel CPU, you will mount the CPU on the motherboard, and the add the fan, also according to instructions. Then add the memory in the slot order the motherboard instructions require; the memory only mounts in one direction. Be especially careful with the CPU, the memory, and the motherboard, since these are the most easily damaged parts.

You are ready to mount the motherboard in the case. Most off the little brass standoff nuts are already attached to the bottom of the case. So you just need to snap in the motherboard supplied I/O shield to the back of the case, and then drop the motherboard in place so the holes in the board line up with those in the standoffs and the I/O ports on the back of the motherboard push through the I/O shield holes. At this point fix the motherboard in place with a supplied Philips head screw fairly loosely and then add the other screws, finally tightening them all. See that the CPU Fan power cable is attached to one of the nearby sets of fan pins.

Attach the case connections to the motherboard per instructions. ASUS makes this easy with a removable multi-pin connector. Also attach the case fan cables to the motherboard according to the ASUS instructions.

Now add the Power Supply and snake in the cables to the drive cages and the motherboard. Attach the main and auxiliary power cable from the power supply to the motherboard.

Now, I would use the top 5-1/4" drive bays to add the drive cage and the DVD drive, with the DVD drive on top.

Add the DVD drive and secure it to the case. Attach the power supply cables, and the ASUS supplied ICE cable from the motherboard to the DVD drive.

Add the RAID cage, secure it and the attach the power supply cables.

Now add the graphics card to one of the PCIE 16 slots where there appears to be the most room, hopefully well away from the CPU, and remember to attach the 8 pronged power connector to the card per the instructions, since you've read them already!

Now we're ready for a quick test. We're going to see if the system will display to the graphics card, pass its few attached peripherals, and boot to the BIOS firmware.

Before we do that, check all of your work -- all of the the power cables, fan cables, and chassis cables to the motherboard.

Connect a monitor, a mouse, and a keyboard.

Make sure the Power Supply switch on its back is in the OFF position, plug in the supplied power cable to the wall and supply, turn the power supply switch on, and look for a momentary LED flash on the motherboard, and perhaps a quick spin of the power supply fan.

Great, now give the power button on the front of the case a push, and the system should power on. If it does, great, if not, check that you attached the power-on cable from the case to the correct pins on the motherboard. Not sure? Use the switch on the motherboard to power on. If that works, you attached the chassis cable incorrectly, if not check your Power Supply cables again.

OK, the system powers on, and gives you a few messages, complains about its configuration and offers to take you into the BIOS. You accept. Now, there is nothing we want to change in the BIOS until we are certain the computer is working correctly, except perhaps the boot order of the devices we have connected, that is which possible boot device is checked first on reboot or boot. We want the first device to be the optical or DVD drive, so we will navigate to the end of the menu and make sure this is so.

Meanwhile, this is a good opportunity to check out the firmware options available and check out the default configuration of the system. you might want to go back to the ASUS manual's section on the BIOS and overclocking to see if it makes more sense after having seen the BIOS up close and personal.

Save the BIOS configuration and reboot.

Once the system comes back up, power it off by holding down the front panel PS button until it goes dark.

Now it's time to add the drives. It's simple you take them out of their static-safe bags and slide them into the front hot swap slots. Now attach the cables from the main motherboard SATA connectors to the connectors at the back of the Promise RAID cage.

Reboot the system and see if the Intel ICH10 SATA BIOS recognizes all of the drives.

Good! No? OK, check your cables and the orientation of the drives in their slots. Good!

We have a choice now. We can configure the onboard Intel RAID to allow is to install Vista, or we can go straight to the Adaptec RAID, which is better, and install to that, as a test of the system.

I say pop in the Adaptec 5805 and install to that. To do so , we have to turn OFF the Intel ICH10 RAID however, because it interferes with the Adaptec card.

Boot to the BIOS -- you'll see the option to depress the "Del" key to invoke the BIOS on power on -- and travel to the Menu item for the Intel SATA RAID and DISABLE it. Save your settings and reboot.

Turn off the computer, and add the Adaptec 5805 to the 3rd PCIE 16 slot (the one farthest away from the CPU), connect the drive LED chassis light cable to the pins on the card, and add the power cable to the connector at the end of the card. Disconnect the SATA cables from the RAID cage and attach one of the 4-way SATA Adaptec cables to one of the connectors on the Adaptec card and 4 of the connectors at the back of the Promise RAID cage..

Power on. As the system boots you will now see the Adaptec firmware message, and you will have an opportunity to hit "CTL-A" to invoke it. Read the Adaptec Instructions on building a RAID 10 logical volume from the 4 WD drives. OK, now do it. Make it "instantly available", save it and reboot. The RAID 10 volume will build in the background while you install Vista 64.

Place the Vista 64 disc into the drive and boot to the install program. Make a clean installation to the entire 2 TB volume of available space. Vista comes with a driver that recognizes the Adaptec hardware, but you will want to upgrade to the latest driver and 5805 firmware after the Vista OS has installed, from either the Adaptec CD or website.

You will also want to install all of the ASUS specific motherboard software that come with the motherboard on the accompanying CD, as well as the ATI 4870HD driver and interface software on the Sapphire CD.

Once Vista has installed and you have the hardware specific drivers and software upgraded you are essentially in the same position you would have been if you had purchased a computer from Dell or HP or whomever, and you can take it from there.

One final note on being aware of the operating conditions of your self-built system. It is important to see that the air paths inside the computer from the fans and the drives and the CPU to the exhaust of the case are clear, so that the hot air can be easily vented.

Also, for peace of mind, I like to know what the temperatures in voltages inside the system REALLY ARE. There is a very nice piece of software that will install to the Vista Sidebar and give you a constant readout of CPU core temps, motherboard temps, and various voltages, and a whole host of other info, so you can instantly be aware of any departure from the norm, and that is Lavalys Everest Ultimate Personal Edition, which is $35, and so well worth it, that it will pay for itself in preventing you from ignorantly soldiering on while your CPU fries.

OK. Congratulations! You are done.

Now you may as well put the side panel back on the machine and make sure all of your screws and parts are put back away. Check the fan noise and CPU temps after you have (re)assembled everything to make sure you haven't blocked anything. You can check the motherboard and CPU temps by booting to the BIOS and looking for them in the menus. Look for resting overall CPU temp of 40 to 45 deg C, and individual Core temps a bit above that. Operating Termparture ranges are available on Intel's web site. But you don't want to push the cores much byond 90 deg C.

I'm going to wait until next time to discuss building a moderate system, but I will say this -- now that you've built a high-end system, the lesser one is easy.

Stay tuned for Part 4 ...

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