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Build a great PC on a budget with these parts and procedures

A lot of people don't realize that it's possible to build a dual-core workstation with good 2D graphics and even some decent 3D performance that's fully Vista capable for a reasonable price. In fact, you can do it for around $1,133. The only catch is that you actually have to build it. This tutorial explains the parts you need and shows you how to assemble it all. Not only do you get the satisfaction of knowing you've put in good components, you also get the satisfaction of giving the PC life with your own hands.
By Mark Kaelin, Contributor on
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A lot of people don't realize that it's possible to build a dual-core workstation with good 2D graphics and even some decent 3D performance that's fully Vista capable for a reasonable price. In fact, you can do it for around $1,133. The only catch is that you actually have to build it. This tutorial explains the parts you need and shows you how to assemble it all. Not only do you get the satisfaction of knowing you've put in good components, you also get the satisfaction of giving the PC life with your own hands.

This gallery is also available as a TechRepublic ""="" href="http://www.techrepublic.com/5100-10877-6161342.html">article and a TechRepublic ""="" href="http://www.techrepublic.com/downloads/abstract.aspx?docid=284211">download.

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The chassis shown is the Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW, which is solidly built and relatively cheap at $60. It's lying on the chassis on top of the drive bays. I've also taken the power supply out of the box and laid it inside the chassis, shown in the upper-right of the photo Note how the power supply has the fan grill exposed toward the motherboard. That is the orientation you want.

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Next, we need to find the following kind of screw to hold down the power supply.

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Now, we need to use four of those screws to screw in the power supply. Note the location of the four highlighting circles I drew in the bottom left.

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Next, we have to find the following types of screws, shown, to mount the motherboard in place. You'll usually need nine of them.

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You can mostly put these screws in with your finger, but you'll still need something like the tool shown.

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Note the location of the nine red circles shown. That's where the screws typically go for mainstream ATX motherboards. Some motherboards may be smaller, so you'll need to mount the three top screws one notch lower. Be sure to examine your motherboard to confirm the placement of the screws. You'll need to use the tool shown in the previous photo to tighten them, but do not make them so tight that you strip them. It's just as bad if you make them too loose, because you'll never be able to get your motherboard out.

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Next, you'll need to find the I/O panel that came with your motherboard, which will look something like the one shown. Be sure to knock out the necessary holes if your motherboard has that component. The red square is the main LAN interface port hole, and it needs to be knocked out.

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Carefully knock out the old placeholder I/O plate with the dull end of a screwdriver. (If you use your finger, you could get cut.) You want to strike from the outside in. Then, place the new I/O plate in from the inside and press all four corners in place, as shown. I usually do this with the dull end of the screwdriver hitting all four corners so I don't get cut. The edges here are sharp.

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Next, you want to find the kind of screws shown to hold down the motherboard. You'll need nine of them.

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Gently screw them in where the red circles are shown. DO NOT overtighten because if you lose a screw below the motherboard, you'll never get the screw out. You want it all the way in but not too tight, unless you want a stuck motherboard. The only way to get it out will be to take something and carefully cut the screw without damaging the motherboard--not something you want to have to do. Note that for Intel-based Socket 775 systems, you should probably put the CPU and fan on the motherboard before you put the motherboard in, since those things aren't easy to put into place with the flexing of the motherboard.

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If you didn't do this before you put in the motherboard, find the CPU socket and remove the cover.

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This photo shows an Intel Socket 775, used in most recent Intel-based desktop PCs. You must open the lever and then pop open the lid to expose the pins in the socket.

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Here is the retail Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 and the fan it comes with. In the red square is the CPU. The radiator device on top is the CPU cooler.

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Take the CPU out and remove the protection cap. Note the positions of the CPU notches. I've circled them because they have to be aligned with the CPU socket.

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Here is the chip in place. To get it there, you simply line up the notches and place the chip on the socket. Close the lid and then close the lever and secure it under the hooks.

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Here is what the generic thermal grease tube looks like. A much better material made of liquid metal is available, and you might want to use that if you have a higher-end system.

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Here the CPU cooler is in place. Putting in those four pins isn't easy because of the motherboard flexing away. That's why it's a good idea to put the cooler in before the motherboard. All four pins need to be snug and securely inserted into the motherboard holes. Note the four-pin connector, shown by the red rectangle. You use that to power the fans. The four-pin connector allows RPM readings as well as dynamic fan speed control based on the temperature. The stock Intel CPU fan works well for all Intel processors when the chip runs at official stock speeds.

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Here we have a mess of front LED and switch connectors going to the chassis. It's a crying shame that in 20 years, the motherboard industry hasn't figured out a way to standardize this so that you have a simple connector for everything. It hasn't really changed all that much. Even the front speaker/microphone connectors are a mess, and I actually decided not to hook them up, since I have 5.1 audio anyway and the front ports on the chassis support only 2 channel audio. Unfortunately, you'll have to dig out the motherboard manual and figure out where the pins for all these connectors go on the motherboard, and you might want to use some long tweezers if you have them.

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This photo shows all the connectors for the front of the chassis plugged in. Note that the HDD fan connector shown on top is for the 80 mm fan cooling the hard drives in the bay. I generally don't use this if there is only one hard drive in the bay, since it can cool off relatively easily. Two or more drives definitely need it.

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Here are the motherboard power connectors, with the SATA power cables in the red rectangle on the bottom. The motherboard connectors are plugged in, but the SATA connectors aren't yet. Be careful how you connect these motherboard connectors and make sure the clips line up and snap into place for both the left and right connectors shown. If you reverse it, or worse, shift it over (which is pretty hard to do), it's possible you'll see smoke coming out of the motherboard when you try to plug it in and turn it on. I've seen someone do this before, and it isn't pretty. If nothing snaps into place and you can easily pull it out without having to squeeze on the release clips, it's plugged in wrong.

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This photo shows a Gigabyte made NVIDIA 6600 PCI-Express 128 MB video card with completely silent passive cooling. This particular video card seems to be discontinued, and a NVIDIA 7300 with 256 MB is the closest I could find in the $65 price range. It's not for gaming, but it's perfect for business and non-3D graphics design usage. It can be used for moderate 3D gaming, and it's much better than the embedded Intel or NVIDIA 6100 graphics chipsets you get with those expensive retail computers.

If you want a higher-end model with dual digital DVI ports, you can try an NVIDIA 7600GT card for $120 on an "open-box" model. I must also stress the fact that all the cards I'm showing here are passively cooled, which means they contribute zero noise to the system. The finished system shown in this tutorial is almost completely silent, which is music to my ears.

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Here is a 400 GB SATA II hard drive. To the left of the image are the SATA power and data connectors. These drives can be obtained from discount retailers for around $110.

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Here is a new Lite-on 16x SATA-based dual-layer DVD burner, which is now only $32. DVD drives have always used those wide PATA connectors, but most new motherboards have only one--or often, no PATA connectors at all. On the other hand, even a cheaper motherboard will have four SATA connectors.

This is the first time I've used an SATA DVD drive, and I will say it's a pleasure to work with compared to PATA.

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My drive came with a black faceplate, but the case is silver. So I had to swap out the faceplate with the gray one that came with the drive in the box. This photo shows how you take these apart. First, you have to use the pin (paperclip will work) and insert it in the hole in the front to pop open the tray. Then, you slide the tray lid up and out and take off the front panel. You put the new panel on and then the new tray lid.

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Here the DVD burner and hard drive have been inserted into the chassis. This particular chassis uses a screwless locking mechanism to hold the drives in place. The photo also shows the PCI-Express Video card plugged in at the bottom-right of the photo.

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Here you can see the gray SATA data cables connected and the SATA power cables plugged into the drives.

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This photo shows the DDR2-800 memory DIMMs. DDR2-533 is all that's needed for this system, but since the price isn't all that different, I went with the higher-end memory. Note where the notches are because they need to line up with the motherboard memory socket.

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Here you can see the memory DIMMs are inserted. Be sure you line up the notches and open the side clips before you insert the memory. It should work its way in relatively easily, and you should feel the clips on the side snap into place. Squeeze the clips in to make it secure.

Now, everything should be working. But before you put the side panel on, try to see whether the system BIOS will post. If it doesn't, don't panic. It's usually something you forgot to connect or something that isn't seated properly. Just check all your connectors and it should work. If the LED lights in the front don't light up, simply reverse the connectors. Those LED connectors are no big deal, and nothing bad will happen if you plug them in wrong. Every other connector in the system is pretty much idiot-proof, since you'd have to be formidably strong to connect them incorrectly. Just make sure the clips and notches are all aligned correctly.

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