Building a free computer from spare parts

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After you've removed both the left and right side panels, place the case flat down on a table or workbench and start tucking wires out of the way. Don't worry about where you put them right now -- tape them to some innocuous spot if you have to. What you're trying to do is clear the motherboard tray of anything that might hinder your slipping the board into place.

2. Motherboard logistics

"Standard" ATX motherboards often show up in slightly different sizes. The P5N-E SLI, for example, eschews the usual nine mounting points for just six to accommodate its somewhat narrower width. The extra silver standoffs seen peeking out along the right side of the board won't contact any of the circuitry or solder joints underneath, so I've left them in place. If you find that not to be the case when you test-fit your motherboard, remove any unused standoffs under the board that might cause an electrical short.

3. Mounting the drives

Even if you've figured out how to get the faceplates off the front of the case, it's not necessarily a victory. Most good-quality cases have a secondary metal faceplate behind the case's fa?ade. They're put in place to reduce radio frequency interference.

For the P180, these metal plates twist along the horizontal axis and are held in place by two small tabs, one on each side. It doesn't take much force at all to twist these plates back and forth until the tabs break. Don't worry if the plates fall into the case. They drop down to a platform at the bottom of the 5.25-in. bays and you can retrieve them when you're done.

4. Primary wiring

With the motherboard and drives installed, it's time for the primary wiring session. This includes connecting all of the cables routed from any top- or front-mounted ports (usually USB, FireWire and audio) as well as the front panel controls and LEDs (power-on, reset, power-on light, hard drive activity light and so on).

The front panel wiring (the multicolor ribbon cable in the picture) requires that you refer to the motherboard manual to learn which wires mount to which pins. I usually just print out that particular page from the electronic version of the manual (often found on the install CD or the vendor's Web site) so I'm only fumbling with a single sheet of paper. A good flashlight or task light is a must because you're actually sticking your hand and head into the case to do the job and you're probably going to block most of your ambient light.

5. Mounting the power supply

This is the moment when you meet the worst grief of the entire build. In the case, my P180 not only had the standard mounting screw positions at the back of the case, but it also had a cage for the PSU that needed to be removed first.

Once you've removed the cage and placed it on top of the PSU, start routing the power cables up into the center of the case. This is impossible to do with the power supply installed.

With the cables partially routed into the case, you can start jiggling the power supply into place while pulling more of the cable through the hole in the partition. It's not really that difficult to do if you keep your wits about you and your eyes on how the PSU is sliding into place. For the P180, I needed to re-install the four screws at the bottom of the four corners of the cage plus the four screws that hold the power supply to the back panel.

(In the picture, it looks like that main trunk of power supply cables is right against the lower fan hidden by the black mount. It's not. The fan itself is recessed three-quarters of an inch further forward, and that's more than enough breathing room.)

6. Drive cables

One of the great things about the P180 case is that I could remove both banks of 3.5-in. drive bays during the assembly. If you have ham-hands like mine, removing the upper bay can give you better access to the IDE connector (the blue one is the primary on this motherboard) so you can connect your PATA drives.

7. Tying it all together

Reviewers often give system sellers a hard time about how poorly they've managed to bunch all of the cables in a computer together and out of the way. Somehow, the standards tend to slip when the tie-wraps are in the other hand. As you can see from the photo, this didn't turn out to be a work of art, but it is a work of me. Everything is in its proper place, nothing will wander out of the case, and so it passes in-house standards with a wink and a nod.

8. It's alive!

No matter how good a builder you might be, there's always that split second of abject panic that strikes just as your finger reaches out to press the power-on button. It encapsulates a cavalcade of scenes in your mind's eye showing you what you did do, what you could have done and perhaps what you should have done. Often, those mental images culminate in a small atomic cloud straight out of Dr. Strangelove mushrooming up just after finger and button meet.

However, the only way to prove one's prowess is to actually power up the system... so I did.

A loud moaning immediately filled the room. It was horrific. It would have sent me into a tizzy had I not immediately realized that it was one of the four fans that were installed in the case. It took a couple of seconds to localize the noise to the fan in front of the upper-drive bay -- the one I'd scrounged from the parts bin, rather than any of the three that were pre-installed in the case.

The noise stopped after a few minutes once the fan bearing (or what I think was the fan bearing) had worked itself in (and yes, the fan was still turning). But that's only a temporary fix. At some point in time, that fan will seize up and stop. Right now, there's nothing in front of it to cool -- the bays are vacant -- so it really doesn't matter. I'll be changing it when I add the SAS drives. (Not all old parts are good parts.)

Just a note on operating systems: It turned out that the Linux Live CDs ran the system just fine, so Linux was an option after all. But I'm a Windows fanboy from before Version 1.0. As a result, PCLinux 2007 just didn't feel right. Ubuntu had a better GUI but seemed a bit slow. Mandriva was the best of the three (at least when measured with a Windows yardstick), but I still couldn't get comfortable.

I guess you really are what you geek. Windows ended up as the operating system of choice.

The final tally

This system was free, collected from a variety of parts bins, boxes and drawers spread out across two rooms and a garage. Of course, you could actually go out and buy the parts, but that could get expensive. For those of us who have the capacity and the time to do it ourselves, keeping a good selection of spare parts seems to be infinitely cheaper.

This story, "Building a free computer from spare parts" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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