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

A Vista-capable system with quality components at a reasonable price can be yours--if you're willing to build it. George Ou explains the parts you'll need and provides illustrated, step-by-step instructions to guide you successfully through the assembly process.

This article is also available as a PDF download and a TechRepublic photo gallery.

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.  That price includes a massive 22" LCD and Vista Home Premium OEM software, as well as the cost of shipping.  For that kind of money in the retail sector or mail order, you wouldn't get close to these specifications and you'd probably end up with lousy embedded graphics chipsets.  The only catch is that you actually have to build it. But in this tutorial, I'll explain the parts you need and show 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. I can't think of a better hobby to have.  We'll start with the parts list.  Note that the pictures shown aren't necessarily the same parts in the list, but they're close enough for the purposes of this tutorial.


Parts list

Mainstream home or office dual-core workstation Cost
Biostar TForce965PT with Realtek gigabit LAN and 7.1 audio * $105
Intel dual-core C2D E6300 (can clock very high) ** $184
Stock Intel retail CPU fan (included with CPU)  
Seagate 400 GB SATA II HDD $120
Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW $70
NVIDIA GeForce 7300 PCI-Express with 256 MB (w/HDTV out) $70
Patriot 1 GB (2 x 512MB) DDR2-667 RAM *** $72
SeaSonic silent/efficient 330 watt PSU $60
Lite-on 16x SATA-based dual-layer DVD burner $36
Dell 22" widescreen 1680x1050 LCD monitor $296
Vista Home Premium Edition OEM 32-bit (64-bit same price) $120
Total (shipping included but not taxes) $1,133

*You will need Vista drivers found on Realtek's Web site for LAN and audio.  This is especially true if you get Vista 64-bit edition, since the sound drivers included won't run correctly without the updated drivers.  All other hardware should run fine on a fresh Vista install, though it's recommended that you use the latest 32-bit NVIDIA drivers (64-bit).

** This CPU can typically safely overclock 25% over the stock speed with minor voltage increases to keep it stable in Vista and permit SpeedStep power saving mode to function.  Some more aggressive overclockers have been known to push this to 50% and even beyond, with high voltage increases and massive cooling fans.  Do not attempt more than 25% with the stock Intel CPU fan and stick with modest voltage increases if you want your system to be stable and without error.  You can read more on how this type of hardware works with Windows Vista.  This type of a mainstream system isn't meant for massive overclocking and a free 25% boost in performance (bumped up to 2.33 GHz) is very safe and doable.  Also note that you'll need to bump up to DDR2-800 if you want to clock the CPU any higher.

*** 1 GB in Vista will offer good performance.  If you double the RAM to 2 GBs, it will offer premium performance and allow you to work with much larger graphics files or run multiple virtual machines inside the free Virtual PC 2007.


Assembly instructions

We'll start by taking the PC chassis out of the box.  The chassis shown is the Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW, which is solidly built and relatively cheap at $60.  There's usually a small bag or box that contains screws you need to put the system together.  In Photo A, 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.

Photo A

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

Photo B

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 of Photo C.

Note on the power supply: I'm using a SeaSonic S12-330 330 watt power supply, which can be had for $55.  I swear by these power supplies, and I own five of them because they're super efficient at above 80 percent, they're dead silent, and they're very affordable.  Most power supplies make much more noise and are typically in the 60-70 percent energy efficiency range.  Many people spend upwards of $100 on a higher power supply, citing the myth that you need at least 400 watts and higher on a modern computer.  That's utter nonsense even for a high-end PC. Even the highest-end PCs peak out at around 250 watts.  The measured power consumption at the plug for the PC in this tutorial idled at around 73 watts and peaked out at around 110 watts during intense CPU loads.  The high wattage power supply proponents will often cite video card manuals specifying that they need a 400 watt power supply, but those numbers were just pulled out of thin air and aren't based on actual power consumption measurements.  330 watts happens to be one of the smallest ATX power supplies you can find, and it's more than enough for what we're building here.

Photo C

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

Photo D

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

Photo E

Note the location of the nine red circles shown in Photo F.  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 Photo E 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.

Photo F

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

Photo G

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 in Photo H.  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.

Photo H

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

Photo I

Gently screw them in where the red circles are in Photo J.  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.

Photo J

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

Photo K

Photo L 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.

Photo L

Photo M shows a 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.

Photo M

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

Photo N

Photo O shows 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.

Photo O

Photo P shows some generic thermal grease.  A much better material made of liquid metal is available, and you might want to use that if you have a higher-end system.

Photo P

Photo Q shows the CPU cooler 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.

Photo Q

Photo R shows 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.

Photo R

Photo S 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. 

Photo S

Photo T shows 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 in Photo T.  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.

Photo T

Photo U 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.

Photo U

Photo V shows 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.

Photo V

Photo W shows 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.

Photo W

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.  Photo X 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.

Photo X

Photo Y shows the DVD burner and hard drive 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.

Photo Y

Photo Z shows the gray SATA data cables connected and the SATA power cables plugged into the drives.

Photo Z

Photo AA 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.

Photo AA

Photo AB shows the memory DIMMs 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.

Photo AB

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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