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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Assembling the system

What I offer here aren't, strictly speaking, step-by-step instructions. I'm going to assume that you know the basics of actually mounting a hard drive or attaching a motherboard. (You don't? Then a good idea is to get an experienced friend to help you with this.) These are tips based on what I experienced while assembling my computer from a variety of disparate parts.

Before you start, it's always a good idea to make sure you have all the tools you'll need. Luckily, very few tools are actually needed to build a computer -- and if you need to drop a few dollars to pick one up, be assured that you'll use it again.

These should prove helpful: a Philips screwdriver (preferably with a magnetic tip), a wire cutter or nipper (don't worry, it's for lopping off the end of cable ties, which you should also have on hand), some compressed air in a can, a small flashlight or some task lights, and either a magnifying glass or pair of "hands-free" wearable magnifying glasses.

OK, you've got your parts, your tools and a couple of hours of free time. Ready? Let's begin.

1. Case prep

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

Building a PC

The motherboard sitting in place.

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"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 façade. They're put in place to reduce radio frequency interference.

Building a PC

The secondary metal faceplates.

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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).

Building a PC

Learn which wires mount to which pins.

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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.

Building a PC

With the cables partially routed into the system, start jiggling the power supply into place.

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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.)

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