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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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.

Building a PC

Not a work of art, but it works.

Click to view larger image

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.

Building a PC

It's alive!

Click to view larger image

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.

If you bought the parts ...

What if you didn't have the parts in your basement or back room? Building this system could get expensive. If you include everything that I have, it comes to a grand total of $1,213 -- a bottom line that comes in above quite a few prebuilt systems.

Antec P180 case $135
Intel Core 2 Duo E6700 CPU $321
Asus P5M-E SLI motherboard $120
2GB Crucial DDR2 PC 4200 RAM $46
Radeon X1600 Pro graphics card $70
Hauppauge WinTV PVR 500 TV tuner $145
Antec 120mm case fan $10
Optiquest Q22wb LCD $240
Logitech keyboard $7
Microsoft Mouse $5
Windows XP Professional $115

Of course, if you went the Linux route, you could chop $114 off that amount, bringing you to $1,099. And if you were smart, you'd pick up an Intel Core 2 Duo E7200 instead of the E6700 and pay $125 rather than $321. That would bring things down to $903. And if you wanted to, you could forget the TV tuner and subtrack another $145 -- although I wouldn't. (I've substituted an equivalent Happauge tuner for the Nvidia, which has been discontinued.) That means your do-it-yourself system would come in at a less painful $758.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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