Jan 15, 2011

New PC assembly: it’s LEGO for adults

I’ve always enjoyed putting together computers. As a geek, cars were never really my area of expertise and it was nice to have something “hands-on” that I felt confident about. So when deciding on my new PC, I looked forward to getting to build it up. Really, though, it’s nothing to be too proud of: as Jeff said, “It's dead easy, like snapping together so many LEGO bricks.”

Manufacturers make it really simple and just about everything is color-coded these days. But it’s been fairly straightforward for as long as I can remember, even back in the Windows 95/Pentium days.

Once everything arrives we’re ready to begin. In my case, I watched prices and sales and ordered individual parts over the course of a couple months. This has the drawback that once it came time to put the thing together, many of the parts had long since passed their “return for replacement/refund” windows. Thankfully, I haven’t had any issues but even with the best of companies DOAs happen. Most of the time it’s not too much trouble and they’ll send you a replacement right away. Newegg is generally very good about that.

Missing from the picture is the case but not a problem since it will be the first thing we unpack.

If you have any animals around make sure they get a chance to properly inspect your new items.

The first thing I did after removing all of the packing material was to unscrew the top mounted fan and remount it in the front middle position of the case. The P183 comes with four case fan mounts and two Antec Tri-Cool fans pre-installed in the top and back positions. These fans aren’t too shabby and have little speed switches for “lo/med/hi”, but for noise reasons you should really leave them on the lowest setting unless you have serious heat dissipating needs.

The case has a little opening in the back where the speed switches can be exposed. You’ll have to detach one in order to move the top fan. It takes a bit of pressure, though, and I admit I felt like I was going to break the thing. It works via a simple tension clip so squeeze together and pull from the inside of the case.

Open the front door of the case and then press on the inside right edge around the middle to click a nifty hinged door open. Once you do that you can open the mesh filters away and mount the fan with screws. Use the fat squat ones from the extra screw bag, not the black case screws you removed from the top fan mount.

As you can see from the above picture, I’ve installed the power supply. The P183 has a bottom-mounted PSU, a first for me, which is interesting. On most cases they go in the top, making for a bit precarious center of gravity. It’s nice to have the generally heaviest part of the computer securely on the bottom. As a nice bonus, the PSU area comes with risers and soft rubbery lining to help absorb vibrations. Nice!

You can also see where the middle front case fan is installed, blowing through the middle hard drive (SSD, really) cage. I’ve removed the bottom cage since we’ll be putting the Western Digital in it soon enough. As such you can see where a bottom front case fan can also be installed.

It’s time for the motherboard. I strongly suggest that you install the CPU, heatsink, and fan on it before putting it in the case, though. It’ll be much easier to work on. The P183 comes with plenty of stand-offs and is a roomy case, so just about any motherboard size will probably fit. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t use all of the holes since some might be for other form-factors.

Lay the case on its side (you are working on a flat surface, right?) and go ahead and pop in the custom backplate. Most motherboards come with one designed to fit them and you’ll have to remove the generic one that comes with the case.

Set the CPU into the holes (make sure to align it with the triangle correctly) and lower the arm-lever down until it clicks to secure it. If you’re using the stock heatsink then it should already have thermal compound applied. If you’re using a custom one (like I am) you’ll have to apply it yourself. I used an old Walmart gift card as a make-shift paint scraper. Make sure you get a nice, even coating over the whole top of the CPU. Don’t worry about a little spillage here and there; so long as it doesn’t get down onto the motherboard or connections it’ll be okay.

Be ready to apply a lot of muscle to the heatsink clip. A tight secure fit is vital to proper heat transfer. Follow the instructions on your heatsink as best you can and don’t worry about breaking it too much.

Once you’re done, plug the heatsink’s fan into the CPU fan socket which should be nearby the CPU area. Now install the motherboard into the case and secure it. You don’t have to tighten it too hard to the case, though, just enough that it doesn’t shift around.

Before we move on to expansion cards, follow your motherboard manual to plug in all of the little things like the power/HDD lights and such, which should be tied together neatly already on your case. Be aware of cable management now, especially, and thread things through intelligently as best you can. The goal is to have the least amount of cable exposed in the inner chamber that might block airflow.

You can also go ahead now and pop in any DIMMs for your RAM. Remember they only fit in one way with the notch. You’ll know you have them all the way in when the white clips on the sides snap straight. Again, follow the motherboard instructions on which slots to use. In dual channel setups they’re usually colored (see above: I have two blue and two white slots). Also be aware if you have really large heatsinks that overhang the RAM slots. DIMMs with large heatsinks themselves might conflict with the CPU’s heatsink assembly.

Next we’ll install the graphics card and other expansion cards. I was tickled that MSI included little blue plastic protector covers over all of the ports (complete with their MSI logo even). In fact, I left them all on except for the HDMI port since I’ll be using it.

The Twin Frozr II Radeon HD 6870 is quite attractive I must say, with its black PCB and large chrome accents for the fan assembly and heat-pipes. Makes me think of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Installing PCI-style cards is a breeze. Figure out where it will line up and remove the PCI back plate. Then insert until it is securely seated in the port. Line up the back and screw it in to place. Depending on the size of your GPU, you may need to attach extra power plugs onto it. Sound cards also might need to be connected to any front-audio ports and the like.

Installing the hard drive is also easy. On the P183, it mounts on its side in a special cage that can be pulled out. Screw it in tight enough that it doesn’t shift but loose enough that the rubber grommets provide plenty of cushion to vibrations and insert the cage back into the case. Then connect power and SATA cables accordingly. The P183 has a special middle compartment plastic cover for threading cables from the bottom compartment up to the motherboard; use it well!

Once everything is installed double-check connections and cables. Get them threaded nicely now before we put the case back together. Most power cables from the PSU can come up the back of the motherboard and out through various holes. Try to get them to enter the middle area as close to where they will be plugged in as possible. From the above picture you can see I have the main ATX power coming in from the side and the additional CPU power coming in from the top, such that both are only briefly exposed to the inside airflow area. Some cables can’t easily be avoided, like the CPU heatsink fan’s, but that’s okay. We’re just trying to minimize as best we can.

If you’re sure everything is connected and ready to go, put the case sides back on. If your CPU or other parts came with any case stickers you can find a nice clean spot to apply them if you like.

Connect everything to the back: power, video, and keyboard at minimum. It might be a good idea to connect some old stuff to it temporarily so that you can confirm it boots and set up BIOS stuff. If you go ahead and set it up at your desk or something you run the risk of needing to open it up again to fix something whereupon you’ll just have to disconnect everything and pull it out again anyway.

Power it up and see what happens! Do you get one beep and a POST screen? Awesome! Go ahead and hit DEL or whatever key to enter the BIOS setup. Load any defaults and change things as you see fit. Your motherboard probably comes with instructions on BIOS settings, but if not (or if they aren’t helpful) use another computer/laptop to Google each setting to find out what it does.

On my ASRock, for instance, I needed to enable several performance settings on the HDD that were turned off by default as well as adjust the CPU fan auto speed settings.

And you’re done! Well, almost. You’ve now got a few more hours to spend installing the OS and all of your favorite software and games.

I’ve been running mine for two weeks now roughly and it’s been fabulous. No problems at all! Don’t be too discouraged if you run into issues, though. Even the best of manufacturers sometimes have DOA parts and even the pros sometimes forget to plug in one little thing. It happens. Thankfully most problems you will probably notice pretty quickly, such as temperature spikes, loud noises, boot error messages, or other anomalies.

All-in-all it will probably take you a few hours to put together, but it’s not too bad and you can pause and resume at your leisure over several days if you need to. Mine took awhile, but I was also taking pictures and being extra careful.

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