Building a Complete Computer from Scratch
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Feature Article
Building a Complete Computer from Scratch

April 1, 1999
By Scott Lewis

If you missed last month’s column read it now to understand why I built my own computer instead of buying one. This month we will cover the building of my computer from scratch. Next month I hope to have some benchmark scores, and detail the steps I will take to overclock my new computer for better performance.

CPU on Backorder

I originally ordered my CPU (Intel 400MHz Celeron SEPP, Slot 1) from OnSale.com. They had it listed for $150.18. OnSale.com includes a Transaction Fee, Processing Fee, Sales Tax, and Shipping. This brought the total to $177. I would be reluctant to buy anything from OnSale.com. It seems they charge these fees on each item separately. This negates the savings of buying mail order online. Since I couldn’t find the Slot 1 version of the 400MHz Celeron anywhere else I let the order stand.

As the components of my computer started arriving, and it was clear I would have no processor, so I decided to try again to find it. Armed with my credit card, and the protection it provides (I can refuse payment if there is a dispute), I hunted down a 400MHz Celeron in stock at HardwarePro.com.

CNET’s Shopper.com showed they had it in stock. This alone was not god enough for me. CNET showed it in stock at 4 other places, and three of those didn’t even have the part listed at all. HardwarePro.com’s web site let me order it, but didn’t actually say whether it was in stock. So I called them on the phone instead. They did indeed have it in stock at $178. With UPS Blue 2nd business day delivery the final cost was $192 and it was on its way.

The Arrival

I received the motherboard, hard drive, video card, sound card, and CD-Writer on the first day of multiple arrivals. Non of this stuff could be used as is. The next day the case, and monitor showed up. I hooked the monitor to my old machine. It looked great. I love true Sony monitors. Since I couldn’t complete anything, and the instructions for the case had you install the floppy drive first, I waited.

Day 3 the cordless keyboard and mouse arrived. It was a Friday and UPS tracking indicated that the memory, processor, and floppy drive would all arrive on Monday. I hooked up the keyboard and mouse to my old computer. I didn’t install the software, so I was not able to use the scroll wheel in the mouse. The keyboard and mouse performed fine out of the box. The receiver plugs into the keyboard and mouse PS/2 ports on the computer. (Adapters are included for 9-pin serial and old AT keyboard plugs.) It is neat to have a mouse you can pick up and move to any place on the desk and have it work. Highly Recommended.

Pre-Assembly

My patients got the best of me. I decided to start working on assembling the new machine. I followed the instructions with the case to take it apart. The ASUS case comes apart nicely. One thumbscrew removes the side panel and the front snaps off from the bottom. Once opened I removed the snap-in brace. A twist of a lock and the 3-1/2" drive cage was out. Then the 5-1/4" cage slides out. I bolted the CD-Writer into place, and put the 5-1/4" cage back. I put the new hard drive into its cage, and replaced it in the case.

The ATX form factor motherboards are fairly standard. I was using an ASUS motherboard in an ASUS case, so I had extra insurance that everything would fit together just fine. I set the jumpers on the motherboard for a bus speed of 66MHz, a multiplier of 6.0X and the AGP slot for 1:1 speed. The motherboard screwed in perfectly. There wasn’t any point in hooking up wires or ribbon cables at this time, since I didn’t have the floppy drive and I still needed to get the old 540MB hard drive out of my old computer.

I put the video card into the AGP slot and the sound card in one of the PCI slots. I added the brackets to the remaining openings on the back of the case. Now wait until Monday.

Remove Backup/Download Hard Drive

Sunday night I decided to take out the 540MB hard drive from the old computer. I opened it up, removed the drive, and removed the jumpers from the remaining 4.0GB drive. Its documentation showed it without jumpers if it was a single drive. Power it up, and it won’t boot. It displays the hard drive and the floppy as part of its setup, but then hangs.

I boot from a floppy. Everything seems all right. I can see the hard drive and CD-ROM drive. Reboot and enter the CMOS setup. Everything looks fine. There are two sets of jumper settings listed on the drive. The second set s for special cases with drives over 2.1GB. I try that, and now I get error there is no operating system. I boot from the floppy and run the SYS command to insure the drive is bootable. The SYS command works, but it still won’t boot.

I try every combination of jumpers on the drive’s label. Nothing works. I either get a message about no operating system, it hangs after the floppy drive is recognized, or the hard drive is not detected at all.

Back to basics. I put the 540MB drive back in, and return all jumper to their original positions. Still won’t boot. I do a SYS command on the 540MB drive. Reboot and the machine boots from the D: drive.

Desperate measures arrive. I reformat the 4.0GB drive. I had backed up everything of value except about 400MB of MP3 files that I could not fit onto the 540MB drive. The drive formats, but I still get the same errors.

The drive is a Western Digital (as is the 540MB, and the my new 18GB), so I decide to get out the diskette that came with the new drive. I boot from it, and it says my BIOS is not compatible with the 4GB drive. I find this disheartening since I upgraded the BIOS specifically to accept this drive, and it has been working fine for over two years. The WD diskette offers to prepare the drive for use. I let it, but interrupt it when it asks for the operating system disk. All I had with me was my bootable diskette. I abort the rest of the WD installation and run FDISK. It recognizes the disk because of the EZ-BIOS that the WD diskette installed. I create the partition, format with the /s option to transfer the operating system.

Viola! It works. I copy the generic CD-ROM driver from the floppy to the hard drive, remove the 540MB drive, and boot again. Everything is working. I close it up, and off to bed.

The Final Parts Arrive

Monday the CPU, memory and floppy drive all arrive. I am trying so hard to be a good Dad, and eat with the family. But after dinner I take the case and bring it into the living room so I can finish bolting things together. I add the floppy drive to the 3-1/2" cage. I plug in the memory. I plug in the CPU. I connect the CPU fan wire to the spot on the motherboard and the CPU.

We put the kids to bed. I take the case to the bedroom with all the ribbon cables. I connect the CD-Writer and the 540MB drive to the secondary EIDE controller on the motherboard. I attach the floppy to its controller. I attach the 18GB drive to the primary EIDE controller on the motherboard. I hook up the big power connector from the power supply to the motherboard. I also hook up the small power supply wired to the floppy drive, and hook up the power wires to the rest of the drives.

It is now time for the little wires. I look at the pins on the motherboard. I find the speaker pins separated by two pins not used. I was confused. Let’s look at the wires first. One of the wires is labeled "turbo sw." I don’t find anything to connect it to in the motherboard documentation. This doesn’t bother me since turbo switches are old and not used anymore.

I connect the power switch, the reset switch, the hard drive light, and the power light. Low and behold I have one wire left. It is not labeled, but it is from the speaker, and its clip is big enough to attach to the two speaker pins without the pins in between. Everything fits like a glove.

I bought a fan at a local store to fit in the place on the case for a fan. Since I will be overclocking it, I wanted the extra insurance. Unfortunately, the power lead on the fan doesn’t match up with anything in the case or on the motherboard. I leave it aside. I will get another fan on the weekend.

Power Up

Time to see if I screwed up. I plug in the box, connect the monitor, keyboard and mouse. Power on. It works. It boots up and Windows 95 comes up to a command prompt. I thought, "Wow, they preformatted the drive." Do a DIR and see my backups. Oops. That’s the 540MB drive. Run FDISK and it only sees one drive. Get the Western Digital documentation out. Sure enough there is an addendum that covers my drive. The jumpers are set wrong. Change the jumpers and power up again. I have to boot from the floppy. I run FDISK, create a partition on the new drive, reboot, and format the drive. Go watch TV for a while. 18GB will take a while.

Time to install the operating system. The 540MB drive is supposed to hold the Windows 98 installation files. This will let Windows load faster and anytime windows needs its original files they will be there without swapping CD-ROMs. I highly recommend this. Problem is that I only have 32MB free space on the little drive. The Win98 files are 110MB on the CD-ROM. I’ll just copy off some stuff to the big drive. This is a problem because almost everything uses long filenames. I would lose those names if I copy them from a DOS prompt (remember Window 95/98 is still basically DOS, especially at a command prompt).

I manually copy as much stuff over as I can, making sure not to copy any files with long filenames. I manage to get the little drive to 112MB free. Cool. Create a directory \IMAGES\WIN98. Copy the \WIN98 directory from the CD-ROM. Remove the CD-ROM and run setup from the 540MB D: drive.

Win 98 installs fast. Much faster than it has on the Pentium 166MHz I have loaded it on at work. I get Windows 98 up and running. Time to transfer files that would not fit on the 540MB drive from my laptop. I setup a direct cable connection with the parallel ports and start copying around 400MB worth of files. It takes a while. I go watch Star Trek (classic) on the Sci-Fi Channel.

It was the tribble episode. A fun episode to watch. Cool. I go back to the computer at midnight when Star Trek ends. It has about 40-60 minutes left. I don’t know if I want to wait that long.

Ah-ha! I still have the old machine with a freshly reformatted hard drive. I hook the monitor, keyboard, and mouse from the new machine (they are all on the same desk at this point) to the old machine and boot. This machine is going to my in-laws. It doesn’t bother me that I had to reformat the drive since I was going to do that anyway. I was just hoping to do it after the new machine was up and running.

I start setting up the old machine with the software that my in-laws can make use of. This takes me till past the time the laptop and new machine are done copying files. I hook the monitor, keyboard, and mouse back up to the new machine. The mouse doesn’t work. Not surprising since I disconnected it while the computer was running. Reboot.

I load all the software for the hardware I have. I run through the Hewlett Packard installation for the CD-Writer, the Creative Labs’ software for the video and sound cards, and finally the software for the keyboard and mouse. Everything is working perfectly. Install Microsoft Money 95. This was a freebie back when Windows 95 first came out, if you downloaded it during the first 60 days of its release. I did, and have kept the download all this time. I was using Money 3.0 (for Win 3.1) before Windows 95 came out, and now have over 5 years worth of data in Money 95. I restore my money data file. Cool! My wife and I can balance our checkbook. This is the closest thing to a mission critical application for me. It is always the first thing I get working after any major surgery with a computer.

Time for bed. And it looks like it is time to end this article. Next month I will run some benchmark tests. I will try to get a hold of new benchmarks so I can see how my machine compares to the new Pentium III 500s, especially if I run mine at 500MHz. I really want to compare it to benchmarks for Pentium II 400MHz. This way I can see if it was worth saving $200 by getting the Celeron processor.

Stay tuned.

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