Introduction: How-to: Build a PC

Building a PC can be a daunting task. It takes research and patience. Rushing through a build can create immediate or intermittent issues. In this tutorial, I'll walk you through the process of of installing the PC components and provide some handy tips along the way. This tutorial uses parts for an Intel based system. The parts for an AMD based system are similar; the only difference is the motherboard and processor. I'll toss in a brief segway into AMD processor installations for those of you going with the underdog. Let's get started!

Step 1: Parts and Tools

Gather the components. The components I use in this build are listed in parenthesis.
The bare minimum components for a computer to POST are are

power supply (Antec Earthwatts 380 Watt)
motherboard (ECS G31T-M MicroATX motherboard)
processor (CPU) and heatsink (Intel E5200 2.5GHz)
memory (2x1GB DDR2 Crucial Ballistix)
video card [can be onboard] (EVGA 8800GTS 320MB)

The other components of a standard computer are:
optical drive (none, I use an external USB DVDRW)
hard drive (SATA: Maxtor 160GB, IDE: Samsung 80GB)
case (Cooler Master Centurion 5)

magnetic screwdriver

gloves (latex will do, but antistatic gloves are better)
cable ties
cable mounts
thumb screws
thermal compound
cleaning rag
rubbing alcohol

Step 2: First Things First

First things first, read the motherboard and case manuals! It will have important information that you will need for the install process. Have them within arms reach during the build. Clear a large work area. This makes it much easier to find small things you may drop. Gather all the tools and components needed for your build. Inspect all the components to ensure it hasn't been damaged during shipping.
A magnetic screwdriver makes it easier to guide the screw into it's hole. A flat head screwdriver makes turning the Intel heatsink pin easier if you need to remove it.
Gloves serve two purposes: they protect your hands from nicks and scratches and the prevent the oil on your hands from contacting the components. Cable ties and mounts organize the plethora of cables inside the case. It will help with airflow and prevent wires from hitting fans. Thumb screws ease the removal of the side panel. Thermal compound, a cleaning rag, and rubbing alcohol are needed if you want to replace the existing compound with something that transfers heat better.

Step 3: Beginning the Install: the Motherboard and Processor

Discharge static electricity by touching a large metal object such as the computer case. The motherboard should come in an antistatic bag inside a small box. There is usually a thin antistatic foam pad to protect the board during it's travels. These items can be helpful during the build process.Carefully remove the board from the antistatic bag. Be cautious as the solder points can be prickly and avoid touching small soldered components. Place the antistatic bag on the motherboard box and place the foam pad on the antistatic bag. Place the motherboard on top of the foam pad (you may want to fold the foam pad in half and align it under the processor socket for additional padding). Using these accessories will ease installing the heatsink and protect the motherboard.

Tip: You can hold the motherboard by the I/O ports (serial/usb port area) as those are thoroughly soldered and unlikely to be damaged during handling.

Lift the CPU lever and lift the CPU plate. Remove the plastic CPU socket protector.
Hold the CPU by the edges away from the notches. Align the CPU notches with the CPU socket and lower the CPU, starting on the end with the notches and lightly dropping the other end of the CPU.
Make sure the edges of the CPU are flush with the socket. Close the CPU plate and lower the lever. You'll need to apply a little force to lower the lever.

If you need to remove the CPU from the socket, lift the lever and the plate. Carefully lift the CPU with one hand and pick it up by the edges with the other hand. Alternately, you can grab it by the center edge with two fingers and lift it straight up.

If you bought a retail, it should come with a heatsink with a thermal pad or paste. This thermal compound should be fine for most systems. As you can see from the fifth picture, the included compound may not fully cover the CPU. Enthusiasts and overclockers may want to use better thermal compound.

Step 4: Beginning the Install: Heatsink Installation

Line up the CPU fan over the four holes. Now this is where the antistatic pad comes in handy. The heatsink pins will protrude through the bottom of the motherboard. If the motherboard were on a flat surface, it becomes difficult to properly install the heatsink. If the motherboard is installed in a case, there may not be much room to manuveur to install the heatsink.
Position the heatsink over the four holes around the CPU socket. Notice how I positioned the heatsink relative to the placement of the CPU fan power connector. While pressing down on one corner of the heatsink, press the pin down on the opposite corner. Now, keep pressure on the same corner and press down the pin in that corner. Do the same for the remaining two pins.

The third photo shows how the pin should look on the bottom of the motherboard. Without the padding from the antistatic pad, the pin may not insert fully or worse, the plastic mount may become unuseable.

Note: If one of the pins didn't get installed properly, use a flat head screwdriver (or hand turn it) and turn the pin counter clockwise. This will release the pin. Pull the pin up fully, then hand turn the pin so that the line is purpendicular to the heatsink.

Tip: Make a loose knot with the fan power cable. This picks up loose slack and makes looks organized.

Step 5: Installing AMD Processors

If you have an AMD processor, the installation is a bit easier.
Lift the CPU lever, orient the CPU and drop it in. Press down on it and close the lever.
If you need to add thermal compound, wipe off the old compound and use a thin amount of the new compound. Using too much can increase heat retention.
Place the heatsink in the mounting bracket, loosen the latch, apply the clip to the mounting bracket, tighten the latch. Easy.

Step 6: Installing Memory

Next, install the RAM into the RAM slots. Many motherboards have two pairs of color coded slots. To enable dual channel, you need to install memory in pairs. You also need to populate one set of color slots. Also be sure to install the proper RAM type. There are three primary types currently available, DDR, DDR2, and DDR3. DDR2 is currently the most popular (and cheapest). DDR RAM has 184 pins, DDR2 and DDR3 have 240 pins. These three types of RAM are about the same size, but have notches in different places.
Align the notch on the RAM module with the notch in the RAM slot. Press down on the RAM module, then pull the white clips up to lock the RAM in place.

Tip: Press down on the RAM module and lightly wiggle it back and forth. This ensures all the pins will make reliable contact.

Step 7: Optional: Testing the Bundle

Optional, but recommended: Test the bundle. You 'll need to have the power supply outside of the case.

Refer to your motherboard manual and find the section that describes the front panel header. Unfortunately, this motherboard doesn't have a diagram imprinted and is not color coded on the motherboard. That's OK, because the manual will tell you the pin configuration. Right now, all we're interested in is the power switch pins. For my motherboard, it's the pins next to the blank header spot labeled PWR_SW_P. You can use your screwdriver to turn the bundle on by touching these two pins. The pins in this header are very low voltage. Touching the wrong set of pins will not damage the board. The speaker header has a +5Volt line which can cause damage, but you would need a very wide screwdriver to cause a short circuit. If you're afraid of breaking something, skip this step.

Grab your power supply and connect the 20/24 pin power connector, the 4/8 pin CPU power cable.

If you have onboard video, skip to the next paragraph.
Align the edge of the bundle with the edge of the motherboard box. Grab your video card and connect the monitor cable and if necessary, the 6 pin power cable. Insert your video card into the�large PCI Express slot closest to the CPU. Be careful not to put stress on the video card since it's basicly being held up by the PCI Express slot.
Plug in the power supply. If there is a switch on the back of the power supply, put it in the ON position. If there is a greed LED on your motherboard, it should light up signifying the board is receiving power. Now, simutaneously touch the two power switch pins that you found in the motherboard manual for a brief moment with your screwdriver. You should see the fan spin and the BIOS screen on the monitor.
Switch the power supply off or unplug it.

Step 8: Install the Bundle

Now we're on to the case. Remove the side panel. Install the power supply if necessary. The power supply can only be installed in one orientation.
Install the motherboard standoffs into the case. There's usually 6 for micro-atx motherboards and 6 to 10 for atx motherboards. Make sure you put the standoffs in the right places or you can cause a short circuit.
Snap in the I/O shield. Make sure it is fully inserted or the motherboard may not line up properly with the standoffs. You may need to bend some metal bars upwards to ease the installation of the bundle.

Note: Screws for the standoffs can be coarse thread or fine thread. Try the coarse thread first and if it doesn't fully screw down, use fine thread screws.

Note: If for some reason, your case came with paper washers for the mounting holes, do not use them. The screws help ground the motherboard to the case.

Step 9: Fun With Wires

Now the fun part. Connecting the tiny wires for the front panel header. There will be at least four sets of wires (8 wires total): power, reset, power led, and hdd led. Take a look at the wires from the case. The ground wires will be either black or white. The important colors that we need to know are the orange cable which is the positive HDD led cable and the green cable which is the positive power led cable. If the orientation of the HDD led and power led are reversed, the light will not work. The orientation of the power switch and reset switch do not matter. Use the diagram in your motherboard manual to find the positive HDD led cable and positive power LED cable and connect those first in the proper orientation.Next, connect the power and reset cables.

Note: Some motherboards have 3 blocks for the power led, some have two blocks. Some cases have 3 blocks and don't fit into motherboards with 2 blocks. You can either break the center unused block to connect the wires or move one wire over and have a block hanging off the side of the header.

Step 10: Drives and Connectors

There are two types of drives that are installed in computers, optical drives and hard disk drives. They come in two varieties, IDE and SATA. SATA is the newer standard utilizing thin cables and faster transfer speeds. All modern motherboards have SATA connectors whereas IDE connectors are fading out.

When using IDE devices, be sure to properly set the jumpers for Master and Slave devices. There are three connectors on a standard IDE cable with a red stripe on one side of the cable. The red stripe will be closest to the power connector of the optical or hard disk drive. The blue connector goes to the motherboard. The device connected to the opposite end of the cable must be set to Master. The device connected to the middle of the cable must be set to Slave.

Tip: If you have an 80 pin cable, you can set your devices to cable select. The motherboard will automatically set the device as master or slave depending on where it is connected to the cable. Most modern motherboards come with an 80 pin cable.

The SATA connectors have made things easier. Only one device can connect to a SATA cable. The connectors can only connect in one orientation. The cable is thin and pretty flexible allowing for better airflow. To connect a device, yo just plug the SATA cable into the device and motherboard.

Step 11: Install Your Drives: Optical Drive

Cases can vary a great degree. Some cases use rails to mount the drives, some are screwless. Refer to your case manual on how the drives should be installed. I'll document how to install drives into a Cooler Master Centurion case as a reference and include photos of other cases.

Optical Drive

Remove the front cover by lifting the front panel from the bottom of the case.
Remove the metal EMI shield from the slot you plan on using. (I prefer using the top slot)
Unscrew the slot cover. Replace the front cover.
Install the optical drive by sliding the drive in from the front of the case until it's flush with the case. Slide the plastic lever forward and lock the drive in place.
Note: All optical drives use fine thread screws.

Step 12: Install Your Drives: Optical Drive (cont'd)

Some cases use a rail system. Some cases just need the slot cover removed and the drive slides in.

Step 13: Install Your Drives: Hard Drive

Hard Drive

Install the HDD into a 3.5" bay. Slide the plastic lever forward and lock the drive in place. Connect the data cables for your devices. If you're using IDE devices, do not fold and flatten the cable. This can damage the wires in the cable causing errors.

Note: All HDD's use course thread screws

Tip: If you have multiple HDD's, space them out for better airflow. If your case has a fan that blows over the HDD, mount the drives behind the fan. This can extend the life of the hdd which holds all your data.

Step 14: Finish It Up

If you have case fans, you'll either be plugging it into the motherboard or to the power supply. Plug in any other case cables you may have (Firewire, USB, audio). The cables are usually color coded.
You can install any other add on cards you may have before installing the video card. Due to it's size, you should install the video card last. Remove slot cover(s) and install your video card.

Tip: If you have a lot of fans, I recommend plugging them into the power supply to reduce the power load on the motherboard.

Plug in your power connectors. You'll be plugging in the primary 20/24 pin ATX cable, 4/8 pin CPU power cable, 6/8 pin video card cable (if necessary), and a power cable for each drive. Use cable ties and pads to organize the jumble of wires. That should be it! Plug in your power supply and test it out.

Phew! I wanted to make it under 10 pages, but there's a lot to cover. Good luck and let me know if I missed something.

Step 15: Video of All the Steps

I'll post a video of the build process soon. It won't be completely detailed, but it should give you a good visual of how to do things.