How to build a free computer from spare parts

Got a basement full of old components? Why not use them to build yourself a new PC? We show you how to do it.

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Case

Because the Asustek motherboard I decided to use was an ATX-sized board, neither of the two micro ATX cases I had on hand would work.

The Antec P180 case I selected is literally last year's model; it's been replaced by the Antec P182. Still, the original has sound-deadening material on the side panels, three 120mm fans (which I had previously expanded to a fourth) and lots of drive bays. Its bottom-mounted power supply setup is an acquired taste, however.

The Antec P180 case has a drive bay arrangement similar to most cases: the 5.25-in. drive bays are way up here and the 3.5-in. bays are way down there. This presented a problem: I wanted to seat a 3.5-in. hard drive as the primary unit and a 5.25-in. optical drive as the secondary.

Building a PC

The Antec P180 case.

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There was a three-in. space between lowest 5.25-in. bay and the highest 3.5-in. bay. Four and a half inches separate the connectors on the average PATA cable, which may seem like enough to span the bay gap. It's not.

Why? Because going with the existing bay structure meant that the 3.5-in. hard drive would become the second device on the cable and the 5.25-in. optical drive the first. Conventional wisdom is that your fastest drive (the hard disk in this case) should be the first device. I could have done that here by twisting the cable around a bit, but if I did, the distance between the two connectors would decrease with the twist and they would no longer reach their respective drives.

A 5.25-in. bay adapter (so that the 3.5-in. drive could go into a 5.25-in. bay) was an option, and I did have one on hand (naturally), but personally, I prefer a bit more panache. I found a used Antec Hard Drive Cooler in one of my new K-Mart plastic storage boxes of spares. The HD Cooler is basically an aluminum platform with side rails and a front panel into which the drive is installed. The cooler then mounts into a 5.25-in. bay, solving the distance problem. And that front panel isn't just a pretty face: it's used to alternately report the temperatures measured by the cooler's two sensors. Typically, I tape one to the drive and one to the power supply.

Power supply

Power supplies are often a cause of concern. We've been trained to "go big" no matter what. Even when, decades ago, it was shown that a computer could run reliably at under 100 watts of power, some pundits scoffed. Today, with higher-power processors and graphics cards, that's no longer the case -- we really do need a lot of power. Still, how high do we need to go?

Building a PC

The three power supplies available.

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Among my basement stock, I could choose between a 350-watt Phantom 350, a 430-watt NeoPower 430 and a 500-watt SmartPower SP-500 -- all by Antec.

Back when I first got the Phantom, it was an interesting premise: no fan, just a giant black heatsink wrapped around the electronics, and, of course, no fan noise. By the time I got around to building the system it had been intended to power, a multiplicity of hard drives and a graphics card that needed its own separate power line moved it out of contention.

The initial build of this computer will be rather light by my usually building specifications: midrange CPU, low-end graphics card (by current standards), one hard drive and one optical drive. The Phantom 350 could easily handle the initial few components without breaking a sweat, and do it silently. However, I have plans to add a pair of 15K Cheetah SAS drives and a Promise Technology SAS controller in the near future, and that will take more power.

The NeoPower 430 would probably have done the trick, but I decided that the SmartPower's 500 watts would be better in the long run, especially if I then decide to add another DVD burner and SATA hard drive or two.

(Note: If I do load this system up, over time you might find that I've switched to one of Antec's 80 Plus power supplies. There are two new models, the Signature 650 and the Signature 850 (the numbers tell the power rating.) These are both designated as "Bronze" units (think Olympic medal order of importance), meaning they're 82% or more efficient at 20%, 50% and 100% of load. With nine computers in perpetual motion in my house, it's something I'm seriously considering for a general upgrade.

Most importantly, when you're dealing with a bottom-mounted power supply -- new or old -- be absolutely sure that the cables will reach everywhere they need to go. That's especially true of the CPU power connector that's typically at the top of the motherboard, two virtual football fields away from the power supply unit (PSU) down at the bottom of the case. Measure twice, cry once.

Monitor

Did you know that I have four spare LCD monitors in 15-in. to 22-in. sizes? I didn't know I had them, either. They were boxed and stuffed into one of the corners of the garage. (One of the more troubling things about being a computer geek is that you also save almost every box that once housed your equipment. You never know whether you'll need to ship an item back or, as in this case, just stash said product in the garage when it's reached its point of obsolescence.)

Building a PC

The Optiquest monitor sits up front.

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The group included Optiquest, Princeton, Samsung and SYS displays. The SYS monitor was the first LCD I ever purchased, with built-in speakers and a stuck pixel from the factory. In this case, I went with the 22-in. widescreen Optiquest Q22wb. Optiquest is Viewsonic's "popular" (read "lower cost") brand of monitors.

Operating system

My initial impulse was to install Vista Home Premium on this system. At the time, Newegg was selling a version for resellers for $99. (Vista is not the hardware ogre the press makes it out to be; in fact, for media fans who do a lot of TV recording and editing, it's probably the best operating system that Microsoft has developed to date.)

However, this was supposed to be a free build. I dug up an ancient copy of Windows XP Professional (it was underneath the XP Home disc, which was underneath the Windows NT Workstation disc) and while I dreaded the 3.4 years I'd spend downloading updates, I decided to give it a try.

What, you may ask, about Linux? Unfortunately for those of us trying to pinch pennies, when it comes to legacy motherboards, there are copious drivers for Windows XP and a substantial number for Vista, but precious few for Linux. In fact, Asustek has no listed Linux drivers for the P5N-E SLI.

I was told that this shouldn't be a problem, since Linux will usually take up the slack. Unfortunately, a little nosing around on a few Linux forums brought not a few tales of woe regarding the onboard audio and LAN functions. Just the same, I equipped myself with live discs of PCLinux 2007, Mandriva and Ubuntu to try.

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