The Build

Building a basic home office computer is something just about anyone can do. All you need is a screwdriver, some patience, and a little bit of ingenuity! On Page 1 of this article, we explained how we set our budget ($500 in this case) and picked the necessary parts. Just note one small change in the component list provided earlier: we decided to use a "hybrid hard drive" instead of the standard desktop hard drive that we originally chose. While it increased the total build cost by about $50, it provided twice the capacity (1TB vs. 500GB), along with much faster boot and app-launching times. You can read our review of the Seagate Solid State Hybrid Drive that we used here.

Other than that, we're working with the components we selected previously. Read on to learn how it all came together!

Step 1: Setting Out Your Parts:

The first thing you'll want to do is review all the components you have, making sure everything you purchased is at hand. You probably don't want to open everything all at once - leave the parts boxed up until you're ready to install them, or things could get really messy!  

Step 2: Preparing Your Case

Because everything needs to fit inside your case, you should take it out first and get a feel for its design before you do anything else. First things first - set the case down on a soft surface, such as a carpet, a sheet, or a towel, and remove the side panel (typically the left side panel). Then look around the case to determine where each of your components will go. Make note of the front panel cables that you'll eventually need to attach to your motherboard (including the cable for the all-important power switch!). Set out the various screws and other fasteners that the case came with and try to match them up with the illustrations that (hopefully) appear in the instruction manual. 

Note that most high-quality cases provide you with all the fasteners you'll need to install all the typical components, including the motherboard, hard drives, SSDs, video cards, optical drives, the power supply, etc. We encountered an issue right away, however, in that our Zalman case didn't come with a sufficient number of motherboard setoffs, which are the little "legs" on which the motherboard sits, and into which the motherboard screws are fastened. We had to be a bit creative and decide where we really need the provided standoffs via trial and error. Unfortunately missing parts is a common issue, so check the inventory before you're knee-deep into your build!

One optional step at this point is to route all the cables from the front panel neatly along the edges or back of the case. You may use twist-ties or other fasteners to keep them together.

Step 3: Installing the Optical Drive


While this step doesn't necessarily have to come next, it's often easiest to install an optical drive, like a DVD burner, before anything else is in the case. To do so, you'll probably need to pull the front panel off the case, which is often secured with plastic tabs. These can be fragile (and yes, we've broken them in the past), so it's best to identify where they protrude into the case and gently push on them while pulling on the panel from the outside. Eventually, the panel will pop off, and you'll be able to insert the optical drive (which almost always goes in from the front). 

This process is illustrated in the photo to the left.  You'll see that the front panel is detached, hanging on only by the front panel cables. The DVD burner here was set into place, and then affixed using screws that came with the case. Many cases have tool-less securing devices that make it very simple, although either way, you'll likey have to figure out exactly how far the optical drive should be pushed in to make sure it lines up correctly with the front panel. You can adjust it later once you've reattached the panel.

Step 4: Installing the CPU


So you passed Step 3 with flying colors - on to the challenging stuff! Installing a CPU is often the step that worries people the most, and for good reason - the CPU is a small and relatively expensive component that looks quite fragile. But installing it isn't that hard, as shown in the illustrations that follow. Note that this is specific to Intel - the process of installing an AMD processor will vary slightly. 


It's hard to damage a CPU as long as you handle it correctly. Notice how we are holding it by the edges, so as to avoid touching the electrical contacts underneath. We then gently place it into the CPU socket, as shown in the next photo.

Notice how the tabs on both sides of the socket fit into notches on either edge of the CPU. Also note that a yellow triangle lines up with a white trangle in the lower left-hand corner.

Next comes the scariest part - you need to hook the bracket under the bolt (top circled part), and then lower the locking bar, hooking it under the restraint (lower circled part). It requires a large amount of force, and you might think you're crushing the CPU when you do it! This is the heatsink/fan assembly, which must be secured on top of the CPU. It comes with thermal interface material (TIM) pre-applied, but always confirm it's there. To secure it, push down on the four plastic pins until they lock in place.


The last step here is to connect the CPU fan. Your system may not start, or alternatively will issue a warning, if this fan is not connected. Why? Because without the fan spinning, it's very likely the CPU will overheat, shutting down the system and potentially causing damage.


Step 5: Installing the Motherboard

IO Shield

There are a number of steps that come with installing the motherboard. Let's start with the easiest step first - installing the rear input/output (IO) shield. This comes with your motherboard, and is custom-cut for the specific ports on the motherboard. You just need to snap it into place, making sure it's fully inserted or the motherboard won't sit correctly in the case. 

The next step is to install the motherboard standoffs, which are the mounting posts. These are typically gold-colored metal posts on which the motherboard will sit. Sometimes they are pre-installed, but even if they are, you'll need to make sure they are in the right locations for your motherboard. Hold the motherboard over the mounting area to see if the holes in the motherboard will line up with the posts before you continue to the next step.

OK, on to the actual motherboard installation. This is when you will feel like you're getting close to the end - because your system will really start looking like a computer. To mount the motherboard in the case, we recommend you grab it by the CPU heatsink - this is a good test of whether the heatsink is firmly attached (it better be!), and also avoids contact with any delicate componentry on the motherboard. As you lower it down, do so at an angle, focusing on lining up the rear ports with the I/O shield. Then lower the whole board down, taking care to line it up with the mounting posts. You will know it's in place if you can see the mounting post holes through the screw holes in the motherboard. Once you've done that, locate the motherboard screws that came with the case and use them to secure the motherboard to the case. When you're done, it should look something like the photo below (although if you look closely, you'll see the motherboard screws have not yet been inserted).




There is one more step before we can say the motherboard installation is complete - we need to attach the front panel connectors - these are typically for the power button, reset button, front audio plugs, front USB ports, and various LED lights. You will probably also have at least one case fan that needs to be connected. What you'll see below are a closeup of the power and reset button plugs and the LED panel plugs, which are the trickiest to install because they are so small, and the corresponding "headers" on the board can be hard to decipher. They also must be matched up by positive and negative leads. Positive will generally be a bright color, while negative will be black or white.

The other connectors, like the front audio plugs, front USB ports, and fans, are fairly straightforward. The front audio plug will be labeled HD_Audio, and there will only be one corresponding header on the motherboard. It will usually be on the left side of the motherboard, either on the lower edge or near one of the PCIe slots. There will probably be multiple USB connection headers, possibly including a single USB 3.0 header (which looks quite different from the rest due to being about twice as large). They'll all be along the lower edge or right edge of the motherboard. Fan connectors will always be either 3 or 4 straight pins, and the fan connector can only be installed in one orientation due to a tab that will block it otherwise. The fan headers will be labeled chassis fan, power fan, system fan, or some abbreviation of these words. The photos above show a USB header (labeled USB 10_11), as well as a fan header (CHA_FAN1). The red-colored plug in the right-hand picture is a fan plug inserted into the fan header. 

Step 6: Installing the Memory (RAM)


Now's when we start putting the final touches on the motherboard to make it fully functional. We need to insert the RAM into the motherboard. There will be either two or four RAM slots on most motherboards, although very high-end motherboards can have six or eight. Assuming you are using DDR3 RAM, which has been the most common standard since about 2010, you will see that there is a notch in the RAM stick and a tab in the motherboard that match up so you can only install the RAM in one direction. The notch in the RAM stick is circled below. To insert the RAM, hold it with both hands on either side, and press down straight into the RAM slot.  The locking tabs on either side should pop up when the RAM is in place.

If you have more slots than you have RAM sticks, the RAM sticks should be inserted in every other slot, so for instance, the second and fourth slot from the left is typically optimal on a four-slot board. Having two sticks in alternating slots (or having all slots filled) allows for "double-data rate" operation, which speeds things up a bit (but certainly doesn't double the speed!). Do keep in mind that it's always better to have an even number of sticks than an odd number of sticks for that reason. If you only have one stick, you should probably use the second slot, but take a look at your motherboard manual to be sure. 

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