Tips & Techniques For Building Your Own PC PT.2

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5. Install the Video Card (and test it.)
Close your eyes and imagine the incredible video you're going to see once you're brand new, custom-built PC is up and running. Okay, open them up again and let's get to work. It's time to install the video card so you can see those great images. First, remove the backplane cover for your AGP or PCI Express X16 slot, install the graphics board in that slot, and then secure the card with a screw. Some graphics boards require a dedicated connection to your PC's power supply. If yours does, you should plug in the correct power connector now. Connect a keyboard, mouse, monitor, and power cable to your computer and turn it on. If the internal fans begin to whir, the system beeps, and you see the machine starting to boot, power down (by holding the power button for 5 seconds) and continue building. If nothing happens, back up a step and recheck all of your connections. Make sure that both the processor and the memory are properly seated, and recheck those minuscule leads connecting the motherboard to the power and reset switches.

Graphics boards have become the high fashion of computing. As new, super fast graphics chips emerge every six months, trendy techsters don't want to get caught checking out the latest 3D game with a board that's "so last season." But you needn't spend a fortune to get good performance.

TIP: Don't pay for features you don't need: At the high end ATI and nVidia have been flirting with designer pricing, as loaded enthusiast parts go for upward of $500. At those prices, only the most hard-core gamers will pay to keep up with the latest styles; but even if your needs are relatively modest, you can easily find an affordable board that boosts your PC's 3D graphics speed. If you're doing some light photo-editing, gaming or just surging the web, a $50 or $75 video card is more than adequate. Look for models that have 64MB or 128MB of dedicated memory.

TIP: Make sure you get the features you want: Most graphics boards today let you connect a second display to your PC. If you'd like to use your PC to record TV, a board with an integrated TV tuner (like the ATI All-In-Wonder line) is a good choice. EVGA makes a competing set of TV tuner-equipped graphics boards based on nVidia's Personal Cinema chip set.

TIP: PCI Express--the next generation of video display: The latest graphics cards now use PCI Express, an improved version of the AGP slot on most PCs. Our tests of new PCI Express graphics cards detected no significant speed gains as a result of upgrading from AGP to PCI Express, though that will surely change as graphics chip speeds increase and as games get more complex.

Gamers Agree: Don't Skimp On The Video Card.
An integrated graphics processor is like a suit bought at Wal-Mart: It does the job, but it doesn't look great. The PC World Test Center tested a PC with integrated graphics on a number of 3D games, and found them virtually unplayable. But when we installed a $220 Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card, the games ran much faster. This upgrade isn't difficult. First, find out who makes the graphics chip you already use: Right-click your desktop, choose Properties, and select the Settings tab. Your graphics board will be listed under 'Display'. All graphics cards based on chips from NVidia now use the same set of drivers, so if you're upgrading from one NVidia-based card to another, download and install the latest NVidia drivers. The same is true for ATI-based boards. If your new card switches graphics chip brands, you should uninstall the graphics drivers before you upgrade.

Shut down your PC, unplug it, and open the case. Remove the old graphics board (if any), insert the new board into its slot, and secure it with a screw. Plug your PC back in, turn it on, and follow the manufacturer's directions to set up the new graphics board.

6. Installing the Drives
Now it's time to install your drives. It's an easy process, but again requires some attention to detail. Gather up all your drives. Collect the hard disk, the optical drives, and the floppy drives, but be certain to make any necessary changes to jumpers on the drives before mounting them in the case. A two-drive system (one or two SATA hard drives, plus one parallel ATA optical drive, for example) is easy to set up; the SATA drives are jumper less, and the optical drive can be set as master on its own parallel ATA channel. Many cases use removable drive rails or cages to house drives. Use the included screws to attach your drives to the rails or cage, and slide them into the case. For externally accessible drives such as a DVD recorder, you can save time by installing one drive rail and sliding the drive in for a test fitting to make sure that its front is flush with the case.

When the drives are installed, connect power and data cables to each one. Parallel ATA drives use wide, flat data cables that can be installed only in the correct way. Floppy drives use a similar but smaller cable; SATA drives use a thin, 1cm-wide data cable. SATA drives use a new type of power connector that many power supplies don't come with. Fortunately, many motherboards ship with adapters for converting a standard four-pin power connector to a SATA power connector. Some drives ship with both the older connector and the SATA power connector. In that case, use one power connector or the other, but not both. The capacity of hard drives continues to increase: You can now hold 400GB of data on a single drive, which is great news for digital media pack rats and video editors. But though you don't have to compromise on the drive's size, you still have a few choices to make when picking a hard disk.

Upgrade Option: RAID RAID, which stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, lets you use multiple hard drives to boost disk speed or to keep a mirrored backup of your data in case a drive fails. Either setup requires multiple identical drives, and configuring them calls for a little mental gymnastics. An increasing number of systems on our Top 15 Desktop PCs chart use a configuration called RAID 0, which can significantly increase system speeds for data reading and writing. If you would like to try it, first select a pair of drives that match the storage capacity you want. With 120GB hard drives available for under $90 and with RAID support included on most new motherboards, RAID can be a great value.

Upgrade Option: Serial ATA; Even bargain-priced motherboards now include SATA support, and going with an SATA drive will make your system easier to set up and your drive simpler to move to a future PC when the time comes. If you're looking to boost the storage capacity of an older PC, the answer gets more complex: To use a SATA drive, you must add a SATA controller card. Many SATA controller cards give you the option of adding RAID support to your system, too. Is it worth it? Well, if you do a great many tasks that involve a lot of disk access (such as video editing), it can be. But otherwise, just add a second parallel ATA drive.

Transferring Your Data
When you add a new hard drive to an older PC, it's almost always faster than the drive already in use. But simply installing the new drive on your PC will strand your OS on the slower drive, forfeiting some benefits of upgrading. Make sure you use the new, faster, hard drive as your boot drive. Retail hard-drive upgrade kits usually come with software that you can use to clone your existing drive to the new one, making the faster drive your boot drive. But before you do this, pause and consider whether it may be time to start over. Over time Windows fills up with discarded files, drivers, and other crud. Adding a hard drive can be just the excuse you need to reinstall Windows from the system restore CD that came with your PC.

Whether you upgrade or build a new PC, adding a fast optical drive can increase its flexibility. And even if you're on a budget, drives that read and burn any format under the sun won't break the bank.

TIP: Get An "All-In-One" Drive: No need to worry about whether your drive supports DVD+RW or DVD-RW-for around $90 you can get an 8X DVD combination drive that writes to all major formats of rewritable DVD. Burn DVD+R and -R discs at 8X, both rewritable DVD formats at 4X, CD-Rs at 40X, and CD-RWs at 24X. You'd save only about $40 by going with a simple CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive, so you get more value with a DVD burner that does it all.

TIP: Burn Speed Even no-longer-top-of-the-line 8X DVD burners can write an entire disc in less than 10 minutes, and CD burning speeds these days are sufficiently fast at the upper end that the difference between 48X and 52X is negligible. Consequently, if you're on a budget, there's no reason to pay a premium for a 12X or 16X DVD burner or to insist on buying the fastest CD-RW drive you can find.

TIP: Do not use bulky "Ribbon" cables: The flat, wide ribbon cables that Parallel ATA drives use to carry data can restrict airflow inside your case, robbing your system of valuable cooling; and functionality aside, they're just plain ugly. Rounded data cables available at your local PC store look much nicer, and they don't impede airflow.

TIP: The Storage Secret: Dual-Layer DVD "DL" What's 12 centimeters in diameter and can hold 8.5GB of data? A dual-layer DVD disc, that's what. Most stand-alone DVD players can play the dual-layer discs that these drives burn, boosting the amount of video that will fit on one disc. You'll pay a small price premium for early dual-layer drives, however, and compatible media may be hard to find at first. In addition, writing to dual-layer discs is slower than writing to single-layer ones--2.4X for the former, as opposed to 8X, 12X, or 16X for the latter. We recommend waiting until the prices of drives and media fall before switching to dual-layer unless you need the extra storage space.

TIP: One Cable, Two Drives: So-Called "Master And Slave."
Adding a drive to an older PC isn't always a question of simply plugging it in. Most older PCs use parallel ATA technology, where two drives share one cable (this is referred to as a channel; most PCs come with at least two IDE channels for a maximum of four drives). Setting a jumper designates each drive as either a master or a slave, which permits a single cable to connect two drives to one IDE channel. The jumper settings for each designation are usually labeled on the drive itself. A few simple rules should guide your configuration choices. If possible, each drive should sit on its own IDE channel configured as a master drive. If you have two drives on one channel, always make the faster drive the master drive. For example, suppose that you wanted to add a second hard drive and a DVD burner to a PC equipped with one hard drive and one CD-RW drive. In that case, you would want to set the new, faster hard drive as master on the primary IDE channel. Your older hard drive should be the slave drive on the primary channel, with the two optical drives as master and slave on the secondary channel.

7. Install the Add-In Cards
Take another deep breath. You're getting close to the end. Perhaps you might take a short break, check out all the great things you've done and get ready for the home stretch. Now, for each add-in card, you must choose a free PCI slot. Next, remove its backplane cover to allow access from the rear of the case. Carefully position the card above the slot, and press down firmly to seat the card. Secure the card with a screw. Many motherboards have additional sound connectors or ports housed on small add-in boards. Some of these plug into slots on the motherboard; others screw into the back of the case in place of slot covers. Usually the additional ports are not essential to your PC's operation. For example, if you install a sound card, you do not need connectors to the motherboard's built-in sound chip. Although we may sound like a broken record in saying this, once again check your motherboard manual to determine what each of these boards does.

8. Turn It On (and check your PC Set up)
Having fun yet? Of course you are. It's time to get on with the business of turning on your system and checking out your PC set up. So plug in the keyboard, mouse, and monitor to the appropriate ports on the back of the PC. Plug the power cord back in, and turn the machine on. Enter your PC's BIOS setup screen by pressing the indicated key (often Delete) as the machine boots. Menu options will vary from board to board, but they share the same general categories. Set the date and time, and then look for a setting that deals with PC health status and monitoring. That choice should bring up a screen showing processor and case temperature. Watch the processor temperature for a few minutes. It should stabilize at a level between 30°C and 50°C. If it keeps increasing, your heat sink probably isn't installed properly. Power down and check to see whether the heat sink is securely attached and making good contact with the processor. Next, find the section of the BIOS setup that determines the order in which your machine checks drives and devices for one it can boot from. Set CD-ROM to the highest priority so that your machine will boot from the Windows installation CD.

9. Installing the Operating System
Now you are just two simple steps away from running your very own custom-built personal computer. All that's left is to install the operating system and then update your drivers and install the programs. First, place the Windows installation CD in your optical drive, reboot the PC, and allow the system to boot off the disc. Windows setup should begin. Early in the process, Windows will ask you whether you need to install a third-party SCSI or RAID driver. If you're using a RAID setup, press F6 when this message appears; then insert the floppy containing the appropriate driver when it is requested. If your machine hangs while installing Windows, there may be a problem with one of the components. Try removing everything except the core components (motherboard, processor, one memory module, and hard drives); then, once you've successfully installed Windows, begin reinstalling each component one by one to isolate the source of the problem.

10. Last, But NOT Least: Update Drivers and Install Programs
Once you've got Windows up and running, the last step in this exciting, build-it-your-self process is to update your hardware drivers. This is not an optional procedure - you MUST do it. Insert the CD with the latest drivers (from step 1) and install them, starting with those for the motherboard and graphics card and then moving on to less critical ones like mouse and sound card drivers. (Windows comes with basic drivers to get you up and running.) Several reboots later, you should have a shiny new PC! Next, get your network connection up and running, install a firewall, and download the latest Windows patches. Finally, make sure that everything runs okay, and then back up your system. That way you'll have a clean, current image of Windows to go back to if serious trouble arises in the future.You're installing. If these steps check out and you're still experiencing spontaneous reboots, your problem may be one of the following situations.

Overclocking: We do not recommend overclocking. Memory Timing: The fix? Go into your BIOS and set your memory on "Auto" or at a more conservative setting and see if the reboot problem goes away. Outdated BIOS: Make sure you have the latest BIOS for your board. You can determine if your CPU is supported by browsing the BIOS updates of the motherboard's manufacturer. If you're running a Pentium 4 Extreme Edition and notice that it's only supported with the latest BIOS updates, you may have located the problem! Inadequate Power: If you've made significant component upgrades---with the exception of the power supply---your power supply may be overstressed or failing due to heat or age. Finally, if you've migrated your OS and other files from machine to machine to machine, it may be time for a clean install.

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