All you'll need are a #2 Phillips-head and a 1/8" flat-head screwdriver. I find that magnetized screwdrivers work best (no, they won't hurt your computer) but if you don't have any or don't have the means to make one, that's okay. You may also want some wire ties or twist ties to wrap up the slack on your cords when you're finished, but this isn't required.
It would be a good idea to get yourself a pair of Hyflex anti-static gloves, which protect your computer parts against damage from static shocks. Electro-Static Discharge (ESD), even if it is only a tiny shock, can permanently damage PC boards and components. RAM is especially sensitive to ESD and you should never touch RAM unless you're wearing anti-static gloves, a grounding strap, or you've otherwise grounded yourself first.
Instead of gloves, you could get a grounding strap (sometimes called an anti-static wrist strap). These devices are rather silly and cumbersome, but they do work. If you don't want to buy the gloves or the strap, then there's one more solution: ground yourself. Before you handle computer parts, remember to touch something metal like a door, filing cabinet, shelving, a refrigerator, etc. to release any static charge that you might be carrying. I can't guarantee that you won't wreck something this way, but it's a better approach than taking no precautions at all.
Here is a comprehensive list of the computer parts you'll need (you may want to make a checklist to be sure you've got everything):
- Chassis (case)
- ATX power supply
- Heatsink/fan for CPU
- Video card (unless the motherboard has onboard video)
- Hard disk drive
- Optical drive (CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, CD-RW, DVD-RW)
- IDE cable (only one is necessary, but two are preferable)
- Operating system software (Windows, GNU/Linux, or BSD)
- PS/2-style Keyboard
- PCI cards (sound, extra drive controller, network card, modem, SCSI controller, etc)
- Floppy drive or other removable media and the proper data cable to attach it
- Memory card reader
Keep in mind that the photos shown above and below are not necessarily going to reflect your exact computer parts. There are many different types of computer cases, many different CPU pin configurations, different kinds of RAM, etc. The pictures will give you an idea of what to look for; they are not going to tell you exactly how everything will look, unless you're using the same exact parts that I did.
Let's get started!
First open up the boxes, find all of the manuals, and read them. Don't skip this step, because every motherboard is different. Each has its connectors and jumpers in different places, and there may be additional precautions specific to your motherboard that you should know about. You don't have to memorize everything; all you need is an understanding of what is addressed in the manual so that if you come across a problem that it can solve, you'll remember reading about it. No matter how many systems you've built, you can always learn something new by reading the manual that comes with each new generation of equipment, so don't ignore manuals on future computer builds just because you've read the manual for your current motherboard.
Installing the CPU and RAM and configuring the motherboard
Open up your motherboard box and take the motherboard out. Open the static bag that the board is in and lay the bag flat across the closed box. This will be your physical platform for working with the computer's mainboard, so put the board on top of it for now. The motherboard I've chosen to work with for this guide is the Asus A7N8X, which uses AMD processors in the Socket A package. Physically it is essentially the same as any of today's motherboards, with the exception of the CPU socket and the heatsink/fan unit, which seems to get a little fancier with each new CPU design.
Carefully take the CPU (in the CPU photos I have laid out two identical CPUs so you can see both sides of them at once; here's a picture of a CPU with an integrated heatsink ala the Pentium 4 and Athlon 64) out of its package and check the pin grid array on the bottom for any bent pins by rotating it at eye-level to look down the rows for any abnormalities. If you do have a bent pin, gently and carefully straighten it out with a small flat-head screwdriver.
Athlon, Athlon 64, and Opteron motherboards use zero insertion force (ZIF) sockets for CPU retention. Pentium 4 motherboards that use Socket 478 CPUs also have ZIF sockets, but the land grid array (LGA) Pentium processors use a pressure plate design. Refer to the proper section below to install the CPU.
ZIF socket installation
If you're dealing with a ZIF socket, raise the retention lever on the mainboard and make sure it is all the way up (perpendicular to the board). You'll notice that there is a white or gold triangle drawn on one corner of your CPU; line up that triangle with the corner of the ZIF socket that is closest to the lever's hinge (there should be a dot there on the socket to line up with the triangle). The CPU will drop in without any effort, so if you've got it facing the wrong way it won't fit in the socket. Under no circumstances should you force the CPU in. If you've tried every different way and it still doesn't drop into the socket, re-check for bent pins. Once the CPU is in place, pull the lever back down and lock it in.
Pressure plate installation for LGA775 CPUs
If you have an LGA775 processor, the procedure is mostly the same as the ZIF socket. Push down on the retention lever and move it out from under the pressure plate. Then lift it up and push it in the opposite direction so that it no longer holds the pressure plate in. You can now lift up the plate, so go ahead and do that. There is a plastic cap covering the contacts inside the socket. Remove this plastic cap and put it someplace safe -- if you need to return the motherboard under warranty, you will need to put the cap back into the socket. If you don't keep the cap, your warranty could be cancelled.
Once the plastic cap is removed, place the CPU into the socket. It only fits one way, and requires no force to insert; in other words, don't force it in. Usually the gold triangle printed on one corner of the CPU should point toward the lever. Once the CPU is in place, put the pressure plate down on top of it, then push the lever back down to where it was locked in place before.
Installing the heatsink/fan unit
Most heatsink/fan (HSF) units come with a thermal pad or a thin layer of heatsink compound already installed on the bottom. You do not need to use any heatsink compound with this type of HSF unless the thermal pad is missing or badly damaged (if you scratch it once, don't worry -- it will still work), or if you're installing a pre-used HSF. You cannot re-use heatsink compound or integrated thermal pads more than once. To re-use the HSF, you must first remove all of the previous material from it, then apply your own heatsink compound. If you don't have any, you'll have to buy some. Do not ever install a HSF without an appropriate thermal compound between it and the CPU.
In some instances, heatsink compound is provided in a plastic or paper dispenser or syringe, so you'll have to apply it yourself. The key to installing heatsink compound is not to use too much. The purpose of this stuff is to provide good thermal transfer between the CPU and the heatsink; if you put too much on, you'll actually be insulating your CPU (which can cause higher operating temperatures) and you run the risk of shorting out nearby surface-mount components. All you need is a paper-thin coating of compound -- no more and no less. In this diagram I'm applying the compound using the plastic bag-like container that it comes in. If it is in a syringe, you can apply it using the syringe or by using a plastic or rubber glove to even out the compound with your finger. In any case if you get some of the heatsink compound on the rest of the CPU or on the motherboard, wipe it off when you're done.
Socket 478 HSF installation
Now we're going to attach the heatsink/fan (HSF). For Intel Socket 478 CPUs, the HSF locks into a retaining mechanism that is included on the mainboard. Simply put it in place and gently push down on it until it locks into place on both sides, then flip the two beige pressure levers.
Socket A and Socket 754 HSF installation
AMD Socket A heatsink/fan units use pressure retention clips that attach to the sides of the ZIF socket. These are much more difficult to install, and if you don't do it right you can wreck your CPU or motherboard.
Most Socket 754 HSFs can be easily hooked onto both sides of the CPU socket. From there you flip a lever 180 degrees to lock the retention clips in place. Other HSFs may not have this feature, forcing you to use your strength to install the clips. If that is the case, or if you've got a Socket A CPU, go on to the next paragraph.
Notice that there is a difference between the two retention clips -- one is clearly designed to help you push down on it. That's the side that you want to have the easiest access to, so line up the prong or prongs on the other side of the HSF with the side of the CPU socket that is most difficult to access. You'll have to tilt the HSF at an angle to get the metal prongs hooked onto the plastic clips. Once you have the first side on the clips, hold the heatsink/fan down so that it is level on the CPU. Insert your flat-head screwdriver into the slot on the remaining retention prongs (if the screwdriver is too thin and slips through too far, use a thicker one -- there is too much pressure required to do this without a screwdriver) and push down until the prongs hook onto the plastic clips on the socket.
LGA775 HSF installation
Most LGA775 HSFs have plastic spikes that go through holes in the motherboard. Obviously it can go two different ways; orient the HSF so that the cable that comes out of it is closest to the matching connector on the motherboard. Usually this connector is labeled "CPU_FAN" or something similar; check your motherboard manual if you are not sure where it is.
Line up the HSF with the holes, then gently press down on it until it makes contact with the CPU. Notice the four posts on each corner of the CPU. Press down firmly on them two at a time (diagonally) until they click into place.
Connect the fan
Don't forget to plug the CPU fan into the motherboard. There are several 3-pin power connectors on the board, so be sure to use the one that is for your CPU fan. If there is no clear marking on the board, consult your motherboard manual.
At this point, make sure there are no jumpers or switches to set. Most mainboards these days are configured through the BIOS, but check the setup guide in your motherboard manual to make sure.
Installing the RAM is a simple process, but there are some precautions to take. The RAM is keyed on the bottom so that it can only fit one way in the memory slot, so it's impossible to put it in backwards.
Make sure the bottom of the motherboard is properly supported so that it doesn't bow when you push down on it. Next, turn the two levers on either side of the RAM slot so that they are diagonal in the unlocked position. Then use one hand to guide the RAM module so that it doesn't wobble back and forth, and use the heel of your other hand to gently force the RAM stick into the slot one side at a time until you hear the locking levers click into place. When it is properly seated and fully inserted, the levers will have snapped straight up into the locked position. Do not grip the RAM stick by its flat sides and use friction to push it down -- that's an excellent way to break off some of the tiny surface-mount components on the module.
This may be a good time to hook up your power supply and video card temporarily to test the motherboard, RAM, and CPU to make sure they work outside of the case. Sometimes when you install a motherboard incorrectly it can short out on the case and fail to start. If you test it before it goes in the case and gets hooked up, then you've got the problem narrowed down already. If you don't want to go to the trouble of testing the board out of the case, that's fine -- this is only a suggestion and not a required step.
Preparing your drives
Your hard drive and optical drive may need to have different jumper settings than the ones they get at the factory. If you're putting them both on the same IDE channel as master and slave, you will have to set their jumpers accordingly. If you are keeping them on separate cables (this is the recommended method), then you probably don't have to change the jumpers at all. Consult the stickers on the top of the drives or the manuals that came with them (if they came with manuals) to get the proper jumper settings for each drive.
Getting your chassis ready
Once your drives and motherboard are prepared, unpack your new computer chassis and open it up. Usually the left-hand side of the case (facing the front) is held in by two or three screws in the back. You only need to take the other side panel off if you need to screw the drives in. The case I'm using for this guide is the Antec Plus 1080AMG and it uses drive rails, so I didn't need to take the other side panel off. Your case may be different. Once you've removed the side panel or panels, set the case on its side so that the open side is facing up; this will make it much easier to work on.
If your power supply is not already installed in the case, go ahead and put it in now. It only fits in one way and it is held in place via four screws in the back of the chassis.
Inside the case you'll usually find many things. From left to right in the preceding photo, they are: 80mm case fans already installed, with Molex power connectors; ATX, voltage regulator, case fan, and Molex power connectors all coming from the power supply; cords to connect frontpanel LED, button, USB, and Firewire ports (some cases also have frontpanel audio connectors); a bag of screws, an Antec logo sticker, and keys to the case door (all in the brown box); and a standard black AC power cord that goes from your power supply to a wall socket.
Once you've got the case open you're going to need to examine the I/O shield to make sure it will fit your motherboard; usually it will not, and you'll have to pop it out and put in the one that comes with your motherboard. Some cases do not have an I/O shield installed at all. If you do have one already there and want to see if you can use it, make sure all of the holes line up properly with all of the jacks, ports, and connectors on the back of your motherboard. If they don't, you'll have to pop that panel out -- usually you can just tap on it from the outside and it'll fall into the case. Sometimes there are one or two screws holding it in from the inside; check for them before you go for the sledge hammer.
Next, find the I/O shield in your motherboard box and snap it in the empty slot. If the old shield had screws holding it in place, put them in now. No matter how the shield goes in, it should stay in place all on its own. If it does not, it is not properly installed; usually this means that it is not snapped into place correctly.
Next you'll want to look at the front of the machine to determine where you want your optical drive (and floppy drive, if you have one) to go. Use your flat-head screwdriver or your fingers to pry out the plastic faceplates that cover the spaces you want to use. Generally there are metal blanks behind the plastic faceplates. While you only need to remove the ones that will be in your way, I usually take all of them out to make it easier to upgrade in the future.
Sometimes the blanks can be difficult to remove; I find that it is easiest and safest to put your Phillips-head screwdriver in the center and give it a good solid tap -- that should break the blank off. If that doesn't work you may have to twist it a bit to weaken the metal tabs that hold it in.
Now you have to figure out where you want to put your hard drive. On most modern cases there is a removable hard drive cage that you can take out of the case to make it easier to install or replace the hard drive. If you don't have a removable cage, skip the rest of this step and go down to the section on installing the motherboard.
If you've got two cages, it doesn't really matter which one you use, but using the upper cage might interfere with your floppy drive, if you have one. There is also usually a bracket for an 80mm fan in front of the cage (it's the purple bracket in the picture, but yours may look different, or your case may not have one at all) to help cool your hard drive. You don't need to install a fan there if you don't want to, but if you have multiple hard drives, it might be a good idea to put a fan in.
Remove the hard drive cage and the floppy cage, if there is one. Usually there is one screw and/or a locking mechanism holding the cages in place.
Open the bag of screws and take out the motherboard standoffs -- those are the hexagonal brass things that you can screw screws into. Examine your motherboard and determine where the standoffs should go. Sometimes a chassis will already have several standoffs installed. Make sure that there are no "extra" standoffs screwed in where there will be no holes in the mainboard. Likewise be certain that you don't miss any, otherwise the motherboard will not be held securely in place.
Installing the motherboard
Now that your case is prepared, you're ready to put the motherboard in it. Clear all of the cables out of your way and put the motherboard in, making sure the I/O panel is facing toward the rear of the case. Make sure the pressure clips on the I/O shield aren't accidentally bending into any of the ports or jacks, especially the PS/2 keyboard connector and the network jack. Do not skip this check; if you overlook something here, it will take a lot of work to correct it later.
Once all of the motherboard holes and standoffs are lined up, take the fine-threaded screws and screw them into the standoffs. Start from left to right, top to bottom, to ensure that you get them all.
Once it's screwed in, you'll want to connect your frontpanel LEDs, the power and reset switches, and the frontpanel ports if there are any. Every motherboard is different, so get your manual out and make sure you connect everything properly. The black wires are always negative, and the LEDs will only work if you have the cables plugged in the right way, so make sure you're plugging everything in the way the manual tells you to. Here is an idea of what it will look like when you're finished, and here is what the Firewire connector may look like when you're done hooking it up. Sometimes when you use the motherboard headers for frontpanel ports, it makes some of the rear ports inactive. The motherboard I used in this guide has some rear faceplates for USB and Firewire (explained below) and I had to forfeit one Firewire and two USB ports on the back in order to use the ones on the front. Plan your port orientation according to the devices that you will be plugging into them.
When you've got your frontpanel stuff connected, it's time to install your rear faceplates, if you have any. These are ports that are plugged into the mainboard headers and are screwed into the rear openings in front of the PCI slots. You can put them in any slots that you like, but in this guide I'm putting them all at the bottom. Remember to check your manual to make sure you're plugging them into the correct headers.
Installing the drives
If you do not have drive cages or rails, insert the optical and hard drive into your preferred slots, then screw them in. You will have to remove the other side panel from the chassis to do this.
If you do have drive cages and a floppy drive, you're now ready to put your floppy drive in its cage and install it. Make sure you line it up with the slot so that it's flush with the front of the chassis -- you don't want it recessed into the case, nor do you want it jutting out in front. When you've figured out where you want it, screw it in using the fine-threaded screws. Use two screws on each side for best drive stability. You can put the cage back in when you're done.
Now mount the hard drive in the hard drive cage in the same fashion. The hard drive is going to be recessed a lot further into the case than the floppy drive is, but as long as you can get two thick-threaded screws into each side, you'll be fine. Replace the cage in the chassis when you're finished. When you put the cages back in, make sure there aren't any cords or cables behind them that will prevent the cage from being seated properly. If there is a locking mechanism, make sure it is properly engaged.
You may need drive rails to mount your optical drive. If your case doesn't need rails, skip this step and just screw the CD drive in using two or four fine-threaded screws per side. Most cases have their rails clipped into a holder at the bottom of the case. You're going to need two per drive -- one for each side. You may have to experiment with the mounting of the rails a bit to get the CD drive to sit where you want it. Once you've determined what holes to line up the rails with, use either two or four fine-threaded screws per side -- if you use two, put them diagonal from each other for best stability. Now you're ready to put the CD drive into whichever drive bay you prefer.
When you're done installing your drives, replace the plastic faceplates over the empty holes, if necessary. Here's a photo of what it might look like when you're finished.
Connecting the data cables
If you have a Serial ATA hard drive, connect the SATA cable to an available port on the motherboard. It doesn't usually matter which one, but for simplicity's sake, connect it to SATA_0, or the connector with the lowest number. Then connect the other end of the cable to your hard drive. The cable is keyed and will not plug in backwards. It doesn't matter which end goes to which part, so in effect the cable is reversible.
For parallel ATA hard drives and optical drives, retrieve the IDE drive cables from your motherboard box and connect them to the motherboard. They are usually keyed and will only fit one way. If you are keeping your drives on separate channels as primary master and secondary master (recommended), then make sure you use the proper cable for each. In this photo you'll notice that the cable on the right has thicker wires than the other one -- the one with the thick wires in the ribbon is a 40-wire cable, and it's the one you want to use for the optical drive. The one on the left has finer threads in the ribbon -- it's an 80-wire cable -- and you'll want to use it for your hard drive. If you have two 80-wire cables, use one for your optical drive. There is no harm in using the "wrong" cable for the "wrong" drive, but using a 40-wire cable for your hard drive can greatly reduce performance. On some mainboards, the IDE connectors are differently colored. If there is a blue connector, that will be your primary IDE controller. The black one will be the secondary IDE. If they are both black, check the writing on the mainboard near the connectors, or look in the motherboard manual to determine which is which.
Generally, IDE cables have three connectors on them. The end that you want to connect to the motherboard is the connector that is furthest from the middle connector. You'll notice that the connector is keyed so that it can only go in one way; just in case though, you may want to verify that the red or blue stripe that you see on one side of the ribbon cable lines up with pin 1 on the motherboard and drive connectors. Pin one is always marked with either an arrow, a triangle, or a 1.
Once you've figured out where the cables are going to plug in, go ahead and connect them. Do the hard drive first, plugging it into the motherboard and then the drive; then plug in the optical drive's cable. If you're only using one cable, you want the slave drive to be on the middle connector and the master drive to be on the end. You may have to reposition your drives or buy a longer cable to get it to reach both drives. The floppy drive cable is smaller, but works along the same principles. The only difference is that you want to make sure the end of the floppy cable that has the twist in the ribbon is the end that you plug into the drive.
Connecting the power cables
The Molex connectors that connect to the optical and hard drives are keyed so that they will only fit in one way. You should have more than enough of these to connect all of your drives. Beware of any Molex connectors that are labeled "FAN ONLY" -- those are meant to power the 80mm case fans, if applicable (some case fans are powered and monitored through the motherboard; if you have these 3-pin fans, consult your motherboard manual to figure out where they plug in, and then go ahead and connect them at this time) and you'll want to plug your fans into them. A floppy drive is going to have a smaller power connector; take extra care when hooking it up so that you don't put it in the wrong pins. You can wreck both your floppy drive and your power supply if the power cable is hooked up to the wrong pins.
Lastly, you need to connect the 20- or 24-pin ATX power connector and the 4-pin (sometimes it's 6-pin) 12v voltage regulator cable to your motherboard. Some motherboards have a Molex connector on the motherboard; this is for older power supplies that don't have the extra voltage regulator connector. You can safely ignore this connector.
The ATX motherboard connector is obvious; it is also keyed and only fits in one way. If it is too small or too large and does not fit into your motherboard, you will need to get an adaptor to change from 20 pins to 24 pins or vice-versa. Figure out which one you need and buy it. You can get a 20 to 24 adapter here, and a 24 to 20 adapter here.
The voltage regulator cable is square and has two yellow and two black wires, and it plugs into your mainboard. AMD Socket A motherboards usually do not require this extra power connector unless they have onboard graphics (the nForce2 with IGP does require the 4-pin connector, but only a handful of Socket A motherboards use an integrated graphics processor).
Installing the peripheral cards
The final items to install are your video and PCI cards. The reason why we leave them for last is because they can often get in the way of installing the other parts and connectors.
You'll have to take some of the blanks out of the rear of the case in order to install your peripheral cards. If your video card has a power connector on it, connect it after installing the video board into the system. Most motherboards have little clips at the end of the AGP or PCI Express slot that have to be moved before you install a video card, and they cover a tab at the end of the video card once installed to keep it from wiggling out. Some AGP slots have a sticker or a piece of plastic in one end of the slot -- that is meant to be taken out only if you are using an AGP Pro video card. If your video card is not AGP Pro (most video cards are not AGP Pro, they are AGP 4X or 8X instead), don't mess with the sticker or tab. Don't forget to screw everything in, and when you're done use your blank faceplates to cover up any open slots.
Wrapping it all up
Your system's loose cables and wires can look like a real rat's nest when you're done. You'll want to keep them out of the way so that you can get good airflow through the machine to keep it cool; you also want to make sure that the cords aren't going to get caught in or interfere with the fans. Use wire ties or rubber bands to ensure that your wires and fans will be safe.
When you're done, connect the monitor, keyboard, and power cables to the machine and test it before you put the panels back on it. If it powers up, gets a video signal, and the drives are correctly recognized, you can turn the computer off again and safely put the covers back on the chassis.
When your build is finished, power the system on again and go straight into the BIOS. Usually you press F1, F2, or the DEL key to get into BIOS shortly after the computer powers on. Check all of your BIOS settings to make sure they match your hardware. AMD Socket A motherboards are notorious for detecting the wrong CPU frequency settings. For the Duron you want a frequency of 100Mhz; for the Athlon XP1500 through the XP2400, the setting should be 133Mhz. For the XP2600 and XP2700, the setting should be 166Mhz. For the XP2800 and XP3000 (Barton core), the setting is 200Mhz. Check the information that came with your CPU to verify the settings.
Also make sure the correct amount of RAM is showing (motherboards that have integrated graphics chips will take some of your RAM for video usage, so it'll report less than expected), and that your drives are properly detected. Then put your operating system installation CD into the optical drive and navigate to the Boot menu in BIOS. Set the first boot device to the optical drive, and your hard drive as the second boot device. Save the settings and exit; the system will restart. Some systems will ask you to press any key to boot from the CD -- go ahead and do it. From there, follow the directions on the screen and you should be all set.
If you have RAID capabilities built into your motherboard (most new boards do), you do not have to set up an array to use your hard drive. If you have several hard drives and want to set up an array, then get your motherboard manual out and follow the directions for initializing a RAID array.
If you're using Windows, you won't need to load the driver CDs that came with your motherboard and video card (and other peripherals) until after Windows is loaded, so don't worry about it until the OS has completed installation. If you're using Linux or BSD, you probably don't need the driver discs at all.