So, you want to build a PC. The process is a lot easier than you might expect, even if you’ve never pieced together all the components that make up a typical system. Although the underlying technologies are often stupendously complex, modern PCs are no more complicated to assemble than the average piece of Ikea furniture.
Well, that might be a bit of an oversimplification—but only just. Today’s PC hardware is definitely user friendly. All of the various parts are designed to fit into only the right sockets, slots, and ports. In most cases, installation requires little more than a screwdriver, if that. Newer enclosures and power supplies have also smoothed out the wiring process considerably. Building a clean-looking system worthy of being shown off through a case window has never been more straightforward.
Now is a pretty good time to be putting together a new PC, too. The market is brimming with options to suit just about every budget. Even today’s mid-range graphics cards are likely to be more powerful than what’s coming in next-generation consoles, and there are plenty of PC games that take advantage of them right now. Solid-state drives have revolutionized storage and are affordable enough for budget builds. Then there are the latest processors, whose integrated GPUs have serious media chops and can keep up with casual games.
Best of all, builders can choose just the right mix of components to meet their needs. If those needs change, PCs can be adapted to serve new missions through substantial overhauls or gradual upgrades. They may not be the hippest computing platforms around right now, but PCs continue to be the most powerful and flexible.
We’ve built and upgraded countless PCs over the years, from the constantly changing systems that inhabit our labs to the personal rigs that sit under our desks, not to mention all those other boxes built for friends and family. We’ve picked up a few tricks along the way, and those morsels of wisdom have been sprinkled across our all-new PC building guide. Over the following pages, we’ll step through the entire process of assembling a PC from scratch. We’ll also show you video footage of exactly how everything comes together.
Choosing the individual components for a new build deserves careful consideration, of course. That subject is beyond the scope of this article, but the current edition of our System Guide will bring you up to speed on our favorites in each category. The enthusiast-worthy system we’re going to put together here uses parts pulled from our stash of test hardware in addition to a stack of components provided graciously by Asus and Corsair.
For more visual learners, we’ve put together a detailed video that chronicles the building process from start to finish. Snippets of footage are distributed across the following pages, but you can view the full-length cut below.
The video weighs in at about 47 minutes, so get comfortable. We’d suggest popcorn, but you don’t want to assemble a new PC with greasy fingers.
Setting the stage
Before beginning your build, clear a large, clean work area preferably devoid of 70s-era shag carpet and anything else that might induce a static electrical charge. Next, gather a few Q-tips or some paper towels, rubbing alcohol or higher-grade isopropyl hooch, a fistful of zip ties, and a Philips-head screwdriver. The few screws we’ll encounter are relatively small, so it helps to have a screwdriver with a magnetic tip.
Now, collect all the components. Go ahead and unpack the case right away, since those boxes typically take up quite a lot of space. Given all the unboxing videos online these days, we’ll understand if you can’t wait to tear through some cardboard and styrofoam. You’ll also want to get a sense of the size of the case, so you can clear enough space to work around it comfortably. Ideally, there should be enough space to lay the case flat in addition to standing it vertically.
Ground yourself before doing anything else. Static electricity doesn’t mix well with electronic components. Any charge you might be carrying can be discharged easily by touching a large metal object. Just about anything will do—a filing cabinet, the frame of a desk, or even a metal PC case. If you’re in a carpeted room, ground yourself any time your feet shuffle across the floor. Frequent grounding is also recommended if you’re wearing a static-prone fabric like polyester, which can generate a charge just from rubbing against dry skin. If you’re one of those people who seems to get shocked by every other doorknob, consider accessorizing with an anti-static wrist band. Anti-static gloves are also available, but they can be a little cumbersome when dealing with some of the smaller screws and wires we’ll be handling during the build.
Make sure the parts match
The beauty of PCs is the fact that their components are largely interchangeable. However, you can’t combine any old parts off the shelf. CPUs, coolers, and motherboards are designed around specific sockets. The motherboard’s form factor needs to match the case, too. Before beginning any build—and ideally when making your initial shopping list—make sure those components match. Let’s start with the CPU.
CPUs are designed to fit into only one kind of socket. AMD uses traditional sockets, which are riddled with holes to accept hundreds of pins on the bottom of the CPU. Intel transitioned to Land Grid Array (LGA) sockets years ago. LGA sockets work in reverse, putting the pins on the motherboard and contact pads on the base of the processor. There are different variations of the AMD and Intel sockets, each with a unique pin count and layout. Make sure your CPU’s socket type matches the motherboard exactly. Even seemingly similar sockets, like LGA1155 and LGA1156 or Socket FM1 and FM2, are incompatible.
In addition to matching the CPU’s socket type, the motherboard needs to be supported by the enclosure. Desktop motherboards typically come in one of three sizes, otherwise known as form factors. From smallest to largest, those form factors are Mini-ITX, microATX, and ATX.
From left to right, you’re looking at the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe, P8Z77-M Pro, and P8Z77-V—Mini-ITX, microATX, and ATX boards, respectively. The Mini-ITX board has only two memory slots and is limited to a single PCI Express expansion slot. The microATX one features four memory slots and a decent selection of PCIe slots, but not as many as the ATX model. Bigger boards have more memory and expansion slots because there’s more surface real estate for those parts.
Within each form factor, motherboard makers tend to offer multiple products. More expensive boards usually support multi-GPU schemes like CrossFire and SLI (at least for microATX and ATX boards with enough room for dual graphics card slots). Pricier models typically have auxiliary Serial ATA and USB controllers, as well. Some also court overclockers with fancier electrical components and beefier power circuitry. When running at stock speeds, though, these high-end boards deliver largely the same performance as their less-exotic peers.
Case compatibility for the various form factors is eased by the fact that microATX and Mini-ITX motherboards use subsets of the mounting holes employed by full-sized ATX models. ATX cases easily accommodate microATX and Mini-ITX boards as a result. MicroATX cases support both microATX and Mini-ITX boards, too. For obvious reasons, though, you can’t shoehorn a larger motherboard into a case built for a smaller form factor.
Installing the CPU
Prior to putting anything inside the case, it’s a good idea to plug a few components into the motherboard. These parts are easier to install with the board outside the enclosure. First, put the motherboard on a flat, insulated surface. A typical tabletop will do so long as it’s not made of bare metal.
To illustrate how the AMD and Intel sockets work, we have examples from each camp. Let’s start with AMD’s Socket FM1, which is designed for Llano-based APUs like the A8-3850 we pulled of the shelf. Click the video below to see the installation in motion.
Readying the FM1 socket requires little more than nudging the metal lever away from the socket and then swinging it all the way back. Next, find the small triangular marker in the corner of the socket. There’s a corresponding mark in one corner of the CPU. Line up the two to ensure the CPU pins align correctly with the holes in the socket.
Those pins bend easily, by the way. Handle the CPU carefully, and be sure not to let any dust, lint, or stray pet hairs get caught up in the metal bristles. The CPU is best held by its edges, pinched between one’s thumb and forefinger. Guide the CPU into the socket gingerly, ensuring the chip is fully seated, with no gap between the green rim of the CPU package and the surface of the socket. Then press down on the metal cap as you gently swing the lever back into its original position, tucked under the plastic tab on the side of the socket.
The Intel LGA1155 socket is similar to operate, but there are a couple of extra steps involved. First, you’ll need to remove the protective plastic cover from the face of the socket. This piece shields the underlying pins, so be careful. There should be a tab on one edge that unclasps the cap from the socket. Don’t toss this piece; motherboard makers sometimes require that it be put back in place if a board is returned for RMA service.
After removing the plastic cover, unhook the metal lever by pushing it away from the socket, and then swing back the lever. The LGA1155 arm swings back much farther than its counterpart on Socket FM1. Toward the end of its arc, the lever will lift the metal frame off the socket and back onto its hinge, exposing the pins completely. Don’t freak out if they all look bent in the same direction; LGA pins are set at an angle.
Instead of relying on corner markers, Intel CPUs are aligned with LGA sockets using indentations in the processor package. Two semi-circular notches appear on opposing edges of the processor. A corresponding pair of nubs can be found on the inner walls of the socket. Match the notches to the nubs before slowly lowering the CPU into place. When the CPU is resting in the socket, wiggle the chip gently to make sure it’s all the way in.
When handling LGA-style processors like the Core i7-3770K pictured above, hold the CPU by pinching the edges that don’t have the notches. The socket’s plastic frame makes room for your fingertips along these borders, allowing the CPU to be placed into the recessed socket with ease.
After the CPU is seated properly, flip the metal frame down onto the processor, and then slowly swing the lever back to its original position. Make sure the teeth at the end of the frame straddle the socket’s anchor screw. If everything is lined up correctly, a little bit of force will be required to hook the lever under the metal tab that locks the socket shut.
Priming the processor
Now that the CPU is installed, it needs to be prepped for the cooler. Start by cleaning the heat spreader, the metal cap covering the top of the processor.
Unless you polished off a bag of Cheetos before installing the CPU, the heat spreader should look relatively clean. We’re going to give it a quick scrub using a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol. Brush the metal cap gently to remove any particulate or oily residue that might have been deposited on the surface. Feel free to use a higher-concentration isopropyl alcohol or a paper towel to get the job done. Be careful that your cleaning implement doesn’t leave behind any fibers or debris of its own, though.
The stock coolers bundled with retail-boxed processors typically have a thermal interface material (TIM) pre-applied to the base of the heatsink. If you don’t have a separate tube of thermal paste, leave the factory coating as-is. You can skip straight to installing the cooler. Folks who want to replace the stock thermal interface with another compound will first need to get rid of the original.
Why bother? Because the compound applications found on stock heatsinks are typically thicker than is optimal for efficient heat transfer. Thermal compounds are used to fill tiny scratches and other surface imperfections, ensuring an unbroken physical interface between the CPU and cooler. Only a thin layer is required, one enthusiasts typically prefer to spread themselves.
The TIMs found on stock heatsinks are fairly hearty, so some scraping is required to remove them. Avoid using metal tools, which can leave scratches in the base of the heatsink—the very thing we’re trying to counteract. Find something with a hard plastic edge, like a credit card or the scraping tool in the video embedded above. Once the TIM has been scraped off, scrub the surface with rubbing alcohol. If any residue remains, you may need to resort to a more noxious solvent. Nail polish remover does a pretty good job of cleaning up persistent thermal paste.
If your cooler is TIM-free, it’s still worth taking a moment to clean the base of the heatsink. You never know what the surface has picked up on its journey from an overseas factory. Another alcohol-soaked Q-tip should do the trick.
There are different schools of thought on how best to apply thermal compound. Heatsink makers typically recommend squeezing a pea-sized dollop of the goop onto the center of the CPU’s heat spreader. These days, most suggest plopping the heatsink right down on top of that lump. Tightening the cooler’s retention mechanism will flatten the blob of compound, spreading it evenly between the CPU and heatsink.
If you’re really anal, you can spread the compound by hand using a credit card, a razor blade, or something like the plastic tool in the video above. The compound can even be spread with a finger, but you’ll want to wrap the digit in a plastic bag first. Some compounds, usually the silver stuff, can stain skin and clothing.
We like to keep a paper towel handy to clean the scraper after the last few swipes across the processor. This obsessive-compulsive step sheds some of the excess compound. Don’t hesitate to take the lazy route and rely on the heatsink to spread the goo, though. We do it all the time, and in our experience, the approach doesn’t result in substantially higher CPU temperatures.
Before moving on to installing the heatsink, make sure no thermal paste has made its way onto the motherboard, where some flavors of the material have the potential to short exposed connections. Typically, white compounds like the one we’re using aren’t conductive; it’s the silver stuff you have to worry about. Unless you’ve really made a mess, an alcohol-soaked Q-tip should be able to mop up any accidents with surgical precision. There’s no need to buff out smudges on the metal retention bracket, which is already conductive. Just make sure the circuit board and any adjacent electrical components are clean.
Affixing the cooler
CPU coolers come in all shapes and sizes, from the relatively basic stock models sold with AMD and Intel processors to more extravagant designs offered by third-party vendors. The standard heatsinks work just fine, but they don’t cool as well—or as quietly—as even budget aftermarket models, let alone the more exotic stuff. We’ve gathered a handful of different coolers to illustrate how the most popular mounting mechanisms work. Let’s start with a stock AMD cooler.
AMD sockets have integrated heatsink brackets that are screwed onto the motherboard. Note the outward-facing tab in the middle of each one. We’ll be hooking the cooler onto those tabs using the ends of the metal beam running the length of the heatsink.
Place the cooler on the CPU, lining up the beam with the plastic tabs. One end of the beam will have a lever, which should be open. Hook the other end of the beam onto its corresponding tab before doing the same to the levered side. When the beam is attached at both ends, flip the lever to lock the cooler onto the socket.
Once the cooler is secure, plug the fan into the corresponding pin cluster—referred to as a header—on the motherboard. There should be a three- or four-pin header marked “CPU” near the socket; the motherboard manual will indicate its precise location. Note whether the fan is a three- or four-pin unit, commonly called DC and PWM, respectively. That information may come in handy when you adjust fan speeds in the motherboard firmware.
Don’t worry if the number of pins in the motherboard header doesn’t match the fan plug. DC fans work just fine in PWM headers as long as you line up the plastic tab on the header with the ridges on the fan connector. You can also use a PWM fan in a DC header by lining up the same plastic tab. However, DC headers don’t support speed control for PWM fans.
To remove the heatsink, simply flip back the lever, unlatch the tabs, and lift the cooler off the socket. Some thermal compounds have a tendency to stick, so lift carefully to ensure the CPU stays in the socket. Yanking the cooler off the socket with the processor attached can bend or otherwise damage the pins on the CPU. If the heatsink feels bonded to the CPU, try rotating it back and forth to break the grip. Depending on the cooler design, you may be able to remove the motherboard’s heatsink retention bracket to allow for more rotation.
Intel’s stock coolers are quite different from AMD’s. There’s no mounting bracket around the socket, just four holes in the motherboard. Matching posts on the heatsink anchor it directly to the circuit board.
Before the heatsink is mounted, its push pins need to be primed. At the top of each post sits a plastic cap. Rotate each cap counter-clockwise and tug up to ensure the attached black pin is recessed in the post. Then, rotate the caps clockwise. The posts turn only 90 degrees, so don’t try to spin the caps.
Now, lower the cooler onto the socket, taking care to line up the posts with the holes in the motherboard. When the cooler is resting comfortably, push the posts down one at a time. Secure the pins on opposite corners first, much like you would when bolting a wheel onto a car. The pins should make an audible click when they lock into place.
To make sure the push pins are secure, flip the motherboard. As the picture above illustrates, you should see a protruding black tip pushing apart the translucent pieces that anchor the push pin.
Now that the heatsink is mounted, it’s time to plug in the fan. Follow the same procedure we discussed with the AMD cooler.
Need to remove the cooler? Rotate the posts counter-clockwise, pull up to release the pins, and then lift the cooler off the socket. The posts are slotted to accept a flat-head screwdriver if the surrounding area is too cramped for your fingers. If the pins are all loose but the cooler still feels bonded to the CPU, rotate the heatsink. The twisting motion usually breaks the grip of sticky compounds. Thanks to the LGA socket’s CPU retention bracket, there’s no risk of accidentally pulling out the processor with the heatsink attached—or damaging the socket’s pins in the process.
Compared to aftermarket equivalents, the stock coolers sold with AMD and Intel processors are relatively small. The fans sit on top of the heatsinks, blowing air down toward the fins, perpendicular to the surface of the motherboard. Aftermarket solutions turn this concept on its ear; they’re typically made up of a tall radiator that rises up from the socket, with one or two fans pushing air across the fins, parallel to the motherboard. The increased surface area of the larger radiator, coupled with the greater airflow generated by the larger spinner(s), can result in lower CPU temperatures and reduced fan noise. Win-win.
Aftermarket coolers sometimes use similar mounting mechanisms to their stock counterparts, but increasingly, newer designs rely on custom back plate hardware. If you have an aftermarket cooler, follow the specific instructions associated with it. This is one of those situations where it pays to read the manual.
Most manufacturers have different spins on the same basic template, which is illustrated by the Corsair Air Series A70 tower we’re installing. A back plate is affixed to the underside of the motherboard and then tied to the heatsink through the holes in the motherboard, either with screws or nuts on threaded posts. The fan—or fans, as is the case with the A70—are usually attached to the cooler separately, using plastic or metal clips.
Depending on the socket, you may be able to adjust the orientation of a tower-style cooler in 90- or 180-degree increments. Since the fan(s) generate airflow parallel to the motherboard, their orientation can have a big impact on airflow inside the case. The CPU fan should blow toward a chassis exhaust vent, usually found in the case’s rear or top panels.
Fans typically indicate the direction of airflow with an arrow on the edge of the frame. In the picture above, the arrow on the right shows the airflow path. The arrow on the left points in the direction of the fan’s rotation.
If the fan lacks a marker denoting the direction of airflow, there are other ways to figure it out. Most fans blow in the direction of the frame holding the rotor and its associated motor. The intake side is typically completely open or covered by a grill to prevent your fingers from getting munched by the blades. The direction of airflow can also be determined by looking at the shape of the blades, which push air out from their concave sides.
Seating the memory
When orienting the cooler, also consider your system memory. The tall heat spreaders on some memory modules can interfere with CPU coolers that hang over a motherboard’s DIMM slots. The heatsink on our Corsair A70 tower stays out of the way, but one of its two fans encroaches on the first couple slots on our motherboard.
The overhang is a problem because our Corsair Dominator Platinum DIMMs have taller-than-normal circuit boards in addition to beefy heat spreaders. Since the A70 can get by with a single fan, we’ll ditch the one that gets in the way. If we wanted to keep the second fan, we could switch to low-profile memory modules.
Most desktop systems use dual-channel memory. For optimal performance, one DIMM per channel is required, ideally from a matched pair of modules. Motherboards typically come with four slots—two per channel. If you’re installing only two DIMMs, check the motherboard manual for guidance on which slots to use. Two-DIMM configs typically drop into slots labeled A1 and B1. The letters signify the channel, while the numbers reveal the order in which the slots should be populated.
Before installing the memory, make sure the plastic retention tabs at the ends of the DIMM slots are open. The tabs should lean away from the slots. Some motherboards, including the Asus P8Z77-V we’re using, have retention tabs on only one end of the memory slots.
DIMMs are keyed to fit only one way, making installation simple. Line up the notch in the bottom edge of the memory module with the separator near the middle of the slot, and then slide the module into place. If it rocks back and forth like a see-saw, the DIMM is oriented the wrong way. When the DIMM is the right way around, it should slip into the slot easily. Apply even downward pressure to both sides of the top edge to seat the module fully in the slot.
Seating the memory should cause the retention tabs to swing up, locking the DIMM in place. If that doesn’t happen, flip the tabs with your finger. They should hook into notches in the vertical edges of the memory module.
Preparing the enclosure
Although the internals of every case are different, there are two predominant layouts in the world of PC towers: traditional and upside-down designs. The former puts the PSU above the motherboard, while the latter situates it below. Upside-down layouts are particularly popular these days.
The Corsair Obsidian Series 650D enclosure we’re using for our build is an upside-down design, and it’s pretty representative of the breed. Inside, the chassis is filled with builder-friendly features like grommeted cable routing holes, access to the underside of the CPU socket, and tool-free drive bays. On the outside, there are multiple front-panel ports for peripherals, plus a dock that allows hard drives and SSDs to be plugged into the chassis’ top panel. Those external features connect directly to the motherboard, which we’ll install in a moment. First, we have to prepare the case.
Expose the case’s internals by removing the side panels and setting them aside. Most modern cases use tool-free latching mechanisms or thumb screws to secure their side panels. If your case doesn’t, you’ll need a screwdriver.
Don’t worry if your enclosure has a removable panel on only the left side. You’ll still be able to get everything into the chassis, but wiring it all cleanly will be more difficult. Right side panels provide access to the back side of the motherboard tray, which is the best place to hide cabling.
Motherboards are mounted onto the tray using a series of raised posts that line up with holes in the circuit board. On the 650D, these posts are already affixed to the tray. If the motherboard posts aren’t pre-installed in your case, they can be found in the accompanying bundle of screws and accessories. The posts look like short screws with long, hexagonal heads.
Special tools aren’t required to install the posts, which can be screwed in with your bare hands. Make sure the posts are tight and that they match the hole pattern of your motherboard. Misplaced posts can short exposed solder points on the bottom of the board, and the ensuing snap, crackle, and pop has the potential to damage system components.
ATX motherboards typically have nine screw holes. You don’t have to use them all, but we’d recommend it. You’ll need to use at least six or seven posts to prevent the board from flexing when installing expansion cards and other hardware, and it doesn’t take much time to add the remaining ones.
Next, rummage around in the motherboard box and extract the I/O shield, a shiny metal piece riddled with holes. Some cases come with their own I/O shields, but odds are they won’t match the port layout of your motherboard. You can pop out an existing I/O shield by pushing it into the case from the outside. Install the new one by pressing it into the rectangular cut-out next to the motherboard tray.
Make sure the shield is the right way around. Look at the port cluster on the motherboard, imagine it sitting in the case, and you should be able to figure out the correct orientation.
When snapping the shield into place, be careful not to slice your fingers on the little metal tabs protruding near each port opening. Some of these tabs, like the ones on top of the Ethernet and DVI ports on the shield pictured above, stick out quite a bit. To prevent the motherboard ports from getting hung up on the tabs, bend them up slightly.
Making sense of all the screws
The screws used to attach optical drives are different from the ones for 3.5″ hard drives, which in turn differ from those employed by SSDs. Then there are the screws commonly found securing side panels, power supplies, and expansion cards. And don’t forget those intended for case fans. No wonder tool-free case designs have become so popular.
To help folks with old-school cases make sense of the various screws, we’ve pictured them all above. To the far left sit a couple of M3 screws with different caps. Note the tight thread spacing. Screws with larger heads are typically reserved for motherboards and optical drives, while those with smaller ones are used with SSDs.
Next to the M3 screws is a pair of 6-32 screws meant for hard drives, PSUs, expansion cards, and side panels. The thread spacing is much larger on these screws. Use the small-headed screws for hard drives and the larger heads for everything else. Some motherboard posts require 6-32 screws, so check the posts ahead of time.
A lot of cases secure side panels and expansion cards with 6-32 screws that have huge, thumb-friendly heads. One of those is pictured to the right of the 6-32 screws, followed by the sort of screw typically used to attach case fans. Next to that is a motherboard post.
Hard drive and SSD installation
The 650D is pretty roomy, so we could add the motherboard next and not worry about it interfering with the installation of other parts. Not all enclosures are as accommodating, however. It usually pays to populate the case’s drive bays before dropping the motherboard into place.
Let’s start with a 3.5″ hard drive, which most cases make incredibly easy to install. Like a lot of contemporary designs, the 650D has tool-free sleds that allow hard drives to be installed without screws. Each case relies on a different mechanism to lock drives into place, and most of those designs are self-explanatory. In the 650D, simply remove one of the sleds, flex the walls away from each other, and place the drive between them. The metal nubs in the walls will line up with the screw holes in the sides of the drive.
Cases that lack tool-free drive sleds should come with a handful of hard-drive screws. Line up the holes in the hard drive with the corresponding mounting points in the drive cage, and then screw the drive into place. Some enclosure makers ship their cases with rubber grommets to help dampen drive vibration and noise. Use the grommets as spacers between the drive and the cage at every point there’s a screw. Most good drive sleds, like the ones in the 650D, have their own rubber bumpers.
If the chassis has a removable right panel that yields access to that side of the cage, arrange the drives so the connectors are facing the right side of the case. This orientation will allow you to hide the cabling beneath the motherboard, making the main compartment much neater. Otherwise, the connectors should face the left side of the case.
Some chassis have their hard drive bays rotated 90 degrees from the orientation pictured above. In these cases, install hard drives so their ports are facing the motherboard. This isn’t rocket science; the ports should face whichever direction makes them accessible inside the enclosure.
Solid-state drives are the new hotness in PC storage. They’re affordable enough to be worth considering for any halfway-decent build, either as a dedicated system drive reserved for the OS, applications, and games or as wicked-fast cache for mechanical storage.
Unlike 3.5″ desktop drives, the overwhelming majority of SSDs conform to the much smaller 2.5″ form factor used by notebooks. The 650D and most newer cases have mounting holes for drives this size, usually on the same sled used for 3.5″ drives. In our example, SSDs are screwed into the bottom of the drive sled. There’s no need for grommets because SSDs lack moving parts, allowing them to lie silent and motionless.
If your case doesn’t have dedicated 2.5″ mounting hardware, worry not. Most SSDs, including the Corsair Neutron GTX we’re using in this build, come with adapters for 3.5″ bays and sleds. First, attach the adapter to the drive using the screws provided, and then put the whole thing into the 3.5″ emplacement. Orient the SSD with the connectors facing the same direction as the hard drive.
In the unlikely event that your SSD doesn’t include an adapter, simply duct-tape the drive to the inside of the chassis. While hardly an ideal solution, this method will do until you can get the necessary adapter, and it’s better than leaving the drive loose. Don’t attempt to mount a hard drive with tape, though. Mechanical drives use platters spinning at thousands of RPM, so you want to lock them down securely; any jostling can result in a catastrophic head crash that can destroy your data. SSDs rely on memory chips with no moving parts, so they can withstand rougher treatment.
Drives are typically best off in the lower part of the drive cage, where the ambient temperature should be a little cooler than higher up in the chassis. However, if your case has a fan that blows directly over the cage, it’s worth putting hard drives and SSDs closer to the middle of the fan, where they can benefit from airflow on both sides. We recommend leaving at least one bay’s worth of space between adjacent drives to ensure the best airflow.
Adding an optical drive
Floppy disks may be long gone, but optical discs are still common, making optical drives handy to have in even a new PC. Just like 3.5″ hard drives, 5.25″ optical drives are typically secured with tool-free mechanisms. There’s usually an extra step involved, though. Most cases come with covers over their 5.25″ bays; you’ll need to remove one to slide in an optical drive.
We recommend using the top drive bay if your case will sit on the floor and the lowest one if the tower will reside on your desk. Choose the bay that’s easiest to reach from where you’ll be sitting relative to the machine.
Our Obsidian Series 650D case, and indeed most enclosures, requires the front bezel to be removed before popping off a 5.25″ bay cover. Plastic tabs on the inside, vertical edges of the bezel typically hold the front panel in place. Your case should come with specific instructions for removing the bezel and the associated drive cover.
Once the cover is off, replace the bezel and slide the optical drive into the open bay. In some cases, you’ll need to attach rails to the drive before insertion. The required rails should come with the enclosure and screw into the sides of the optical drive.
When the face of the bay is flush with the surface of the bezel, you should be able to lock the drive into place using the case’s tool-free mechanism or the included screws. Optical drives typically have eight screw holes—four per side, arranged in pairs. If you have to resort to screws, you can get away with using only one screw hole per pair, or four per drive.
Swapping a fan
Most enclosures come with at least a couple of their own cooling fans already installed. These stock air movers will suffice for most systems, but some folks prefer to complement them with additional fans. Other users swap the stock units for quieter or more powerful fans.
The 200-mm fans attached to the 650D’s front and top panels are much larger than the 120- and 140-mm spinners commonly used in desktop towers. A single 120-mm fan sits at the rear of the case, though. We’re going to replace it with a Corsair Air Series AF120 to illustrate the process.
The AF120 is a low-noise model with high airflow for case cooling. Corsair and others also make fans with high static pressure intended for heatsinks and liquid-cooling radiators, whose fins are more tightly spaced than case vents. Coolers use a variety of different fan mounting mechanisms, but cases are more straightforward.
Before installing the fan, we need to determine the ideal direction of airflow. That will differ based on where the fan will sit inside the chassis. Most cases suck air in from the front and bottom, exhausting it out the rear and top. Since we’re replacing the rear fan, we’ll match the orientation of the original and have air blowing out of the case. Like processor fans, case fans usually have the airflow direction printed on the edge of the frame. If your fan doesn’t, remember that air usually flows toward the side of the frame that holds the rotor.
Swapping out a fan involves little more than removing the four screws holding the original in place, switching fans, and screwing in the new one. Instead of screws, some case fans come with rubberized fasteners that are pushed through the screw holes. If the holes in the fan don’t line up with those in the mounting point, your fan may not be the right size.
Inserting the motherboard
With the case primed, it’s time to install the motherboard. Lay the case on its side, so the board can be lowered onto the tray. If your case has a removable motherboard tray (the 650D does not), remove the tray before screwing down the motherboard.
Depending on how much room there is to work inside your case, the motherboard may need to be inserted at an angle, with the port side first. Line up the ports with the holes in the I/O shield and let the board rest on the posts. You may have to nudge the board toward the rear of the case to line up the screw holes with the posts in the tray.
Once everything is aligned, screw the motherboard into the posts. A magnetic-tipped screwdriver really helps when guiding the tiny screws into the posts, especially in crowded areas of the board. As we did with the CPU cooler, tighten the screws on opposing corners first. This step should keep the board centered over the posts.
Circuit boards are more fragile than the case’s metal panels. Tighten the screws until they’re snug, but don’t give them an extra twist after that.
Next, we’ll start wiring the motherboard. For the cleanest layout, run cables along the right side of the case, behind the drive cage and motherboard tray. Newer chassis should have enough routing holes to keep the cables hidden until they need to poke out to make connections to the motherboard. In addition to producing a system that looks nicer, clean wiring prevents dangling cables from impeding airflow within the chassis. You can leave the wiring hanging loosely on the right side for now; we’ll tidy things up when everything is connected.
Our first connections will be for the case’s front panel. Look inside the chassis for a bundle of thin wires with ends labeled Power SW, Reset SW, Power LED, and HDD LED. These control the power and reset switches and the LEDs at the front of the case. There may also be a connector for a PC speaker, although that’s pretty rare for modern enclosures. The PC speaker was used primarily for diagnostic beeps—not for real audio output.
Motherboard makers still haven’t agreed on a standard layout for front-panel connectors, so you’ll have to consult the manual to see where the wires go. They should all plug into a single block of pins on the board. Most motherboard makers label the individual pins to make things easier, including positive and negative terminals for the LED pins. If the front-panel LED wiring has a mix of white and colored leads, plug the colored ends into the positive terminals. The +/- orientation doesn’t matter for the switch connectors.
Fiddling with these tiny connectors inside a cramped enclosure can be a real pain unless you have hands like a small child. Some boards, like our Asus P8Z77-V, come with a separate pin block that allows much of this wiring to be done outside the case. Simply attach the connectors to the auxiliary block, and then plug that into the motherboard.
Anyone who builds PCs regularly will tell you these blocks are pretty awesome. It’s a shame the PC industry hasn’t come up with a standard pin block for all to use.
Most cases include front-panel peripheral ports, which we’ll connect next. Most front-panel connector ports use 10-pin headers that are keyed differently to prevent insertion in the wrong header. Be careful with USB 2.0 and FireWire (IEEE 1394) connections, though, since they are keyed the same but are not electrically compatible. Connecting a USB port to a FireWire header can result in sparks and damage to the motherboard and any devices plugged into the port.
Locate the associated headers on the motherboard and connect the front-panel ports. Our motherboard doesn’t have FireWire, so we’re going to skip that connector. We’ll come back to the front-panel audio connector after we install our system’s sound card.
Front-panel USB 3.0 ports can be found in most contemporary cases, and there are two ways to connect them. The first method relies on a 20-pin block that plugs directly into the motherboard. You can see the P8Z77-V’s header in the picture above, but the 650D lacks the matching connector.
Instead, the case’s front-panel USB 3.0 ports are attached to cables that plug into the motherboard’s rear cluster. We’ll thread these cables out the back of the case and into the rear ports. The USB 3.0 ports are the rectangular ones with blue accents.
Before we add the final few components to the motherboard, let’s connect the system fans. The motherboard fan headers are easier to get at without expansion cards crowding the system. Most case fans use DC plugs similar to those employed by CPU coolers. Your motherboard should have dedicated headers for system fans, typically labeled CHA or SYS. The manual will map out the locations of these headers.
Some fans use much larger four-pin Molex connectors. These fans need to be plugged into the power supply, which we’ll install in a moment. You may also have the option of connecting fans to special controllers built into the case. These controllers allow fan speeds to be changed by flipping switches or twirling knobs, but we prefer the automatic, temperature-based speed control offered by motherboards. Not all boards provide intelligent speed control for system fans, though.
Most modern microprocessors have integrated graphics components. These on-die GPUs are fine for basic desktop tasks, including the decoding required to watch high-definition video, but they’re pretty lousy for playing blockbuster games. Unless most of your gaming time is spent with Angry Birds and FarmVille, odds are you’re better off with a discrete graphics card.
Installing a graphics card is easy. We’re going to use the Asus HD 7870 DirectCU II TOP, which is a mid-range offering with a beefy, dual-slot cooler topped by two fans. Although the card plugs into only one PCI Express expansion slot, the cooler takes up an additional slot. Dual-slot coolers can use larger heatsinks and fans than single-slot designs, which usually translate to superior cooling performance and lower noise levels. No wonder duallies have become the norm for mid-range and high-end cards. Only budget cards stick with single-slot coolers.
We’ll need to remove two of the expansion slot covers at the back of the case to make room for the graphics card. To determine which ones, we first need to locate the primary PCI Express x16 slot. It’s usually the top x16 slot on the motherboard and labeled PCIEX16_1. The manual should identify the slot if the motherboard isn’t labeled clearly. (If you have no idea what a PCI Express slot looks like, we compare the different slot types on the next page.) Remove the expansion slot cover next to the x16 slot and also the one below it.
Our enclosure uses thumb screws to secure the expansion slot covers, but a screwdriver might be required depending on the case. Don’t throw out the slot covers; you’ll want to put them back in place if the graphics card or other expansion cards are removed at a later date.
Point the graphics card’s I/O—the end with the display outputs—toward the rear of the case, and then lower the card into the appropriate slot. Apply even pressure along the top edge to seat the card fully. If the card is installed properly, there should be no space between its I/O plate and the chassis. Secure the card to the chassis with the screws that anchored the expansion slot covers.
If you need to remove the graphics card, be sure to release the retention tab located at the end of the slot farthest from the rear expansion covers. Motherboards use different mechanisms, and you might need to use a long poking tool to reach the tab in a fully-loaded system. The tab on our P8Z77-V behaves much like the ones on the memory slots. Release the tab before pulling up on the card.
For some folks, one graphics card simply isn’t enough. Two cards can be combined to deliver better performance, and there are a couple of things to consider for such a config. The second card should be installed in the secondary PCI Express x16 slot. Ideally, the motherboard will leave enough room between the primary and secondary slots to give dual-slot coolers some breathing room. You don’t want the second graphics card blocking the fans on the first one.
Members of dual-card setups need to be linked using the “golden fingers” connectors along the top edges of the cards. Your motherboard should come with a short ribbon cable or circuit board meant for this purpose. The link will be labeled CrossFire for Radeons and SLI for GeForce cards.
Another expansion card
Expansion cards are good for more than just graphics. We can also add sound cards, TV tuners, uber-fast SSDs, and other goodies using the motherboard’s expansion slots. Older cards typically use PCI slots, while newer ones drop into PCI Express slots. PCIe slots come in multiple sizes, with x1 and x16 slots common on most desktop boards. x16 slots are typically reserved for graphics cards, but they can also accept the x1 cards used by devices like sound cards and TV tuners.
In the image below, the top expansion slot is a PCI Express x16, while the one below it is an x1. The bottom slot is standard PCI. Note that the PCIe slots have separators in the same position, while the one in the PCI slot is at the other end. The PCI slot is also set a little farther to the left than the PCIe slots.
We recommend sound cards to anyone with halfway decent headphones and speakers, so we’re going to install one. The process is similar to what we went through with the graphics card, except expansion cards are typically single-slot affairs. We’re going to use Asus’ Xonar DG sound card, which has an old-school PCI interface. The connector on the bottom edge of the card is almost as long as a PCIe x16 interface, but it’s keyed differently and can’t be inserted into the same slot.
Remove the appropriate expansion slot cover from the back of the case, orient the card with the ports facing the rear, and then apply pressure to the top edge to seat the card in the slot. We’ve installed the Xonar DG right next to our graphics card to illustrate what not to do—expansion cards shouldn’t block airflow to any fans, especially those on the graphics card. Let’s yank the sound card and try a different slot using the Asus Xonar DGX, which is identical to the DG but features a PCI Express x1 interface.
Our dual-slot graphics card blocks access to one of the motherboard’s PCIe x1 slots, but there’s a second one above the primary x16 slot. Thing is, that region is already crowded by our graphics card and CPU cooler, and it’s best to keep the area around the socket as open as possible. We’ll use the lowest PCIe x16 slot on the board, which leaves plenty of room for future upgrades.
Although the Xonar’s PCIe x1 interface fits into the x16 slot with ease, it’s not long enough to activate the retention tab at the end of the slot. Only cards that reach the end of the slot are locked by the tab. Worry not, though. Screwing the card’s I/O plate into the chassis will hold it steady.
Remember the case’s front-panel audio connector from a few pages back? We’re going to plug it into the Xonar to link the case’s headphone and microphone ports to the card. The 10-pin connector plugs into a block of pins on the card labeled Front Panel. If you’re using the motherboard’s integrated audio instead of a discrete sound card, you can find a similar block of pins on the mobo. The pin layout is a little different from the ones used for front-panel USB and FireWire ports, ensuring the connector is plugged into the right block.
Our system is nearly complete, but we don’t have a way to power it just yet. That’s where the power supply comes in. There are two kinds of PSUs: traditional and modular. The former has all its cabling attached, while the latter allows users to connect only the power leads required by their systems. Check out the difference between Corsair’s GS600, a traditional design, and the modular AX850. The AX850 is on the right.
All those tentacles branching off the GS600 can make installation and wiring more complicated than it needs to be. Typical systems use only a fraction of the cabling that comes with most PSUs, leaving a bundle of extra leads that needs to be tucked away somewhere inside the case. With a modular PSU, these extra leads can be left in the box, where they won’t get in the way. When all other factors are equal, we much prefer modular PSUs.
Most PSUs have bottom-mounted fans that suck air into the unit and expel it through vents at the rear. This arrangement works well for traditional cases that mount the PSU above the motherboard, because the power supply ends up exhausting hot air from around the CPU. In an upside-down chassis like ours, however, this orientation sucks air through vents in the case’s floor. That’s OK in the 650D, which has a removable filter to prevent debris from getting hoovered into the PSU. If you have an upside-down case with an unfiltered PSU intake and will be setting the system on the floor, you probably want to flip the unit so the fan faces up.
The orientation of the PSU can be changed only if the enclosure has the appropriate mounting holes for the flipped config. A lot of them do, including the Corsair 650D we’re using today. Even if there’s a filtered intake below, some folks prefer to use a flipped orientation to exhaust more air from the chassis. The topic of enclosure air pressure is too advanced for this guide, so we’re going to stick with the traditional orientation.
PSUs are attached via four mounting holes in the rear panel. The holes have an asymmetrical pattern, which is why some cases work with only one orientation. Line up the screw holes in the PSU with those in the rear panel, then attach the PSU using the 6-32 screws included with the case.
Some enclosures have different PSU mounting brackets, so check the manual if your setup doesn’t resemble the one we’ve illustrated. The 650D has a secondary bracket that screws into the floor of the case. We’ll make sure this extra piece is snug against the PSU before screwing it into place.
Upside-down cases like the 650D tend to leave a lot of room around the PSU, making it easy to connect modular power leads after installation. If your chassis isn’t as roomy, connect the cables to the PSU before putting it in the case. Most systems will need 24-pin primary and 4/8-pin auxiliary 12V connectors for the motherboard, one or two 6/8-pin PCI Express leads for the graphics card, plus enough SATA connectors for any SSDs, HDDs, or optical drives. We’ve illustrated what the various plugs look like in the picture below.
From left to right, we have a 24-pin motherboard connector, an auxiliary 4/8-pin 12V plug, a 6/8-pin PCIe connector, a Molex plug, and a SATA plug. A four-pin floppy connector is at the far right. The odds of needing one of those are about as good as the Kansas City Chiefs winning the Super Bowl. My apologies to our Editor in Chief, who lives just outside of KC.
All of the components are now installed, but we still have to make a number of connections before we fire up the system. This is where you really want to pay attention to routing cables cleanly through the portals surrounding the motherboard tray. Messy cabling in the main compartment can impede airflow, so tidying things up isn’t just a matter of cosmetics. If your case doesn’t have room for cabling behind the tray, try to run wires along the internal scaffolding. Most chassis have enough internal perforations to secure cables with zip-ties. Some even have designated anchoring points for an included stash of ties. Don’t start strapping cables in place until they’re all connected, though. It’s best to bundle adjacent cables into smaller bunches rather than to deal with them all individually.
Attach the drives using the Serial ATA data cables included with the motherboard. Count yourself lucky, too, because SATA cables are a huge improvement over the fat, clumsy IDE ribbons that persisted for oh-so-many years. In our system, we’ll need three SATA cables: one each for the hard drive, SSD, and optical drive. The SATA docking station integrated into the top of the case has its own cable attached already.
SATA cables are keyed to connect only one way. Use the L-shaped socket as a guide for the tip of the cable. On some SATA cables, one of the two plugs is cocked at a right angle. This end should be connected to the drive rather than to the motherboard, where it can block adjacent ports.
These days, most SATA cables have locking connectors that keep the cables from coming unplugged accidentally. To remove a locked cable, simply depress the raised metal tab on the plug, and then pull the connector out.
We recommend connecting devices one at a time to help keep track of what’s plugged in where. You’ll want to make sure any solid-state drives are connected to the motherboard’s 6Gbps SATA ports. Some mechanical hard drives can also take advantage of 6Gbps SATA, but only for brief burst transfers. HDDs are otherwise too slow to need anything faster than a 3Gbps SATA port. Optical drives are even more plodding.
The motherboard manual should identify the speed and source of each onboard port, so you can make connections intelligently. For optimal performance, it’s best to use the ports associated with the AMD or Intel platform hubs rather than those tied to auxiliary controllers. As a general rule, the lower port numbers are assigned to the platform hub.
Our 650D enclosure leaves enough room around edge of the motherboard to plug in SATA cables without too much contortion. The graphics card does obscure access to some of the ports, though. If you’re working in a tighter enclosure that crowds edge-mounted SATA ports, you might want to connect the cables before installing the graphics card.
With all the drives connected, it’s time to make sure everything can draw power from the PSU. For modular units like our AX850, connect cables first to the PSU and then to the appropriate components. The power supply’s sockets are keyed to accept only the right leads, provided you’re using the cabling that came with the PSU. Modular cables aren’t necessarily interchangeable between different PSU models, so use only cables that came with your unit.
Start with the motherboard’s primary power connector, a large, rectangular plug with 24 pins. Like everything else, this connector is keyed to ensure it isn’t plugged in backwards. Make sure the clip on the plug lines up with the tab on the outside of the motherboard socket. If the connector doesn’t slide into the socket smoothly, try flipping it around.
Next, attach the auxiliary 12V connector, which will occupy four or eight pins depending on the board. PSU cables often have the highest number of pins that might be required by a given socket, but the end plugs can be split to accommodate lower pin counts.
More than any other PSU cable, the auxiliary 12V lead tends to pull up short when routed behind the motherboard tray. Cable extensions are available if you’re really obsessive about having a pristine layout. Otherwise, just string the cable across the main compartment. Fortunately, the AX850’s cables are long enough to go around the back.
Fun fact: the graphics card is probably the most power-hungry component in the average enthusiast’s desktop PC. Most graphics cards require external power in the form of one or two PCIe connectors. These look like the auxiliary 12V plugs, except they can be changed from eight to six pins. Some PSUs offer only six-pin PCIe connectors. Either setup should be labeled clearly and easy to spot. Attach as many PCIe connectors as your graphics card requires. Ours needs two six-pin connections.
If your PSU doesn’t have enough PCIe power connectors for your graphics card—or if the plugs simply don’t have enough pins—check the graphics card box for an adapter. Most cards come with PCIe adapters that draw power from multiple Molex connectors.
Finally, attach the SATA power cables to the SSD, the hard drive, the optical drive, and the case’s docking station (if your case has one). The SATA power plugs have L-shaped keys just like the associated data cables.
With everything connected, it’s time to tie up loose ends—literally. Use zip ties to arrange the cabling neatly. Take care to keep a low profile behind the motherboard tray; otherwise, the right side panel might bulge out when it’s replaced, if it can be attached at all. Also, avoid blocking the cut-out that provides access to the underside of the CPU socket.
The right side of the chassis can look a little messy as long as the main compartment is clean. Only the left side will be visible through the 650D’s windowed panel, anyway.
With relatively little effort, we can make this side of the system look nice and tidy. Be thankful modern hardware has simplified the process. Back in the day, we had to route much fatter cables around cases with no internal cutouts but plenty of bloodthirsty sharp edges—all while standing barefoot in two feet of snow, of course.
If you have an old-school PSU that lacks modular cables, bundle up all the unused leads and scout your case for a good place to stuff them. Make sure the bundle doesn’t block airflow to any of the fans or vents. For upside-down cases, the bottom panel is usually the best dumping ground. In traditional towers, we like to stuff the excess into unused bays in the 5.25″ drive cage.
One more thing: Liquid cooling
Before we move onto the final touches, we’re going to perform a quick upgrade. Liquid cooling systems used to be reserved for those brave enough to do their own plumbing—something we wouldn’t recommend for first-time builders. These days, however, closed-loop systems have made liquid coolers no more difficult to install than the average heatsink. Closed-loop coolers are sealed at the factory, so there’s less worry about springing a leak that might drench the inside of your system.
This new breed of liquid coolers includes multiple models from several manufacturers, and they all follow the same theme. A block sits on the CPU and is linked to a radiator via flexible tubing. The tubes cycle coolant between the two components, and they have enough reach to allow the radiator to be mounted inside the case. Radiators are typically designed to attach to mounting points for 120-mm fans. Our 650D enclosure has one such mounting point in the rear panel, conveniently next to the CPU socket.
Most liquid coolers are bolted to the CPU using custom mounting brackets and back plates. If your case doesn’t have a cut-out in the motherboard tray that provides access to the underside of the socket, you’ll need to remove the board. The 650D makes it easy to get at the bottom of the socket without having to disassemble the system.
Since each cooler’s mounting mechanism is slightly different, consult the manual before installation. We’re going to use Corsair’s Hydro Series H80, which is supposed to be attached first to the case’s rear panel and then to the socket. Remove both the existing heatsink and the rear fan before installing the liquid cooler. If this upgrade is being performed on a system you’ve been using, make sure to unplug the power cord first. You don’t want to turn on the machine inadvertently when there’s no CPU cooler attached.
The H80 has dual fans, and Corsair recommends orienting them to suck air into the case and over the radiator. That arrangement should work just fine in our system, which already has a large exhaust fan in the top panel. The radiator fans can also be oriented to exhaust air from the system. CPU temperatures may be slightly higher with that configuration, however.
Although the H80 comes with a couple of its own fans, we’re going to swap those for some of Corsair’s Air Series SP120 spinners. They should offer better performance, and they definitely look better in pictures.
Once the radiator and fans are connected, install the CPU block. The H80 uses a custom back plate we can attach easily thanks to the cut-out behind the motherboard tray. Be sure to clean any old thermal compound off the CPU before applying a new coat for the liquid cooler. (The H80’s block has its own TIM, which can be used instead of applying your own thermal paste.)
When the block is secure, connect the fans. The H80’s fans attach directly to the block, which has its own leads that plug into the motherboard’s CPU fan header and into a four-pin Molex connector from the PSU.
Closed-loop liquid coolers might seem bulky, but they take up much less room around the CPU socket than typical heatsink towers. The block keeps a low profile, and it doesn’t interfere with other components, like our skyscraper DIMMs.
With all the internal components installed, it’s time to attach the side panels and to connect external peripherals. Move the case to its desired location and hook up your keyboard, mouse, monitor, and audio. The keyboard and mouse likely have USB connectors. Use the ports in the rear cluster, and avoid the ones with blue internal tabs; those are USB 3.0 ports, whose support for higher transfer rates is wasted on keyboards and mice.
Premium keyboards like our Corsair Vengeance K60 typically offer at least one built-in USB port tied to a pass-through connector that plugs into the system. If your keyboard has multiple USB connectors, make sure they’re all plugged in. You can connect your mouse, in our case a Corsair Vengeance M60, directly to the keyboard or to the rear port cluster. It’s usually a good idea to keep the keyboard’s USB port available for portable storage devices that tend to be connected and disconnected frequently.
Next, attach a network cable to the motherboard’s Gigabit Ethernet port, which looks like an oversized phone jack. You remember when phones had wires, right? This cable should run directly to your router or to your ISP’s modem. Wired networks offer much higher transfer rates than wireless ones, but Wi-Fi is still sufficient for the speed of most folks’ Internet connections. Since our P8Z77-V motherboard has built-in Wi-Fi, we’ll attach the included antenna, as well.
Most modern motherboards have display outputs for the graphics processors integrated into the latest CPUs. If you have a discrete graphics card, connect the display to card rather than to the motherboard. If you’re stuck with a monitor has only an analog VGA input recognizable from PCs dating back to the 80s, we’re very sorry. Fish around in the graphics card box to find an adapter for one of the DVI outputs.
Most modern monitors have at least one digital input. Some, like our Asus ProArt PA246Q, offer three: DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. Unless your monitor has built-in speakers, we recommend using DVI. HDMI and DisplayPort are capable of carrying audio signals alongside video, which can sometimes cause Windows to assign the monitor mistakenly as the primary audio device. We expect most folks to use separate speakers or headphones. (You may need to use DisplayPort to support really high resolutions or multiple monitors, though.)
If you’re running a discrete sound card, be sure to use its audio ports instead of the ones in the motherboard’s rear cluster. Alternately, you could use the case’s front-panel audio ports. The rear ports typically work best for speakers, while the front ports are ideal for headphones that may be shared with other audio devices and disconnected frequently. We’re going to plug an Asus Vulcan ANC headset into the front-panel ports.
The last connection to make is power from the wall socket. The necessary cable should have been included with the PSU. Remember to flip the master power switch at the back of the PSU before attempting to turn on the system.
With the hardware assembly complete, take a moment to step back and admire the system. You just built that… with a little help from this guide. You’re not finished yet, though. Before installing the OS and the latest drivers, we’re going to dip into the motherboard’s firmware to tweak a few important settings.
Otherwise known as the BIOS or UEFI, the motherboard firmware controls numerous system variables. Getting into the firmware interface typically requires hitting a specific key—often Delete or F2—within a few seconds of pressing the power button. The motherboard splash screen that pops up on the monitor when the system is booted will indicate which key needs to be pressed to get into the firmware.
If you’re familiar with old-school BIOSes from a few years ago, the new generation of motherboard firmware interfaces will look very different and probably a lot less intimidating. UEFI-based firmware implementations have rich graphical interfaces, complete with mouse support, so they behave more like modern software.
Each motherboard maker has a different GUI, but we’re not going to try to walk you through them all. While the surrounding eye candy can vary from one firmware interface to the next, the settings we’ll be tweaking are present in most motherboard firmware. Before making any changes, we’ll first update the firmware to the latest release.
Most motherboard firmware has an integrated flashing utility. You’ll have to go to your motherboard maker’s website and download the appropriate firmware file for your board, though. Extract the firmware file to a USB thumb drive, connect it to the system, and boot into the firmware interface. From there, you should be able to launch the flashing utility and select the file on the thumb drive. Make sure the system doesn’t lose power during the flashing process. If the power fails before flashing is complete, the firmware may become corrupted, rendering the board unable to boot.
Motherboard firmware is filled with settings that even most enthusiasts don’t understand. We’ll only check and change a few things, and we don’t recommend that inexperienced users alter anything else. The firmware should have a default profile you can revert back to in order to erase any changes.
On our Asus P8Z77-V motherboard, most of the settings are confined to the “advanced” section of the interface. We’ll start by checking the CPU features.
Power management features keep modern processors from consuming too much juice when they’re idling. If you have an AMD-based rig, make sure Cool ‘n Quiet is enabled. On Intel systems, turn on SpeedStep. Motherboard makers sometimes disable these features in a bid to improve performance in certain benchmarks. In the real world, you’re better off with the features enabled. Also, make sure Turbo is enabled if your processor supports it; most newer models from AMD and Intel do. This feature will raise the CPU clock speed opportunistically, when thermals permit.
We don’t recommend that first-time builders overclock their systems—at least not right away—but it’s worth noting that most motherboards now feature automatic overclocking functions. Some of these are accessible through the firmware, although we still prefer the manual approach. If you want to dabble in overclocking, we’d recommend getting a processor with an unlocked multiplier. The value of that multiplier can be increased easily via the firmware, resulting in higher clock speeds for the CPU.
Some motherboards are a little sneaky about overclocking behind the scenes. Like a number of other Asus motherboards, the P8Z77-V has a “Multicore Enhancement” feature that overclocks the CPU when the system load is spread across multiple cores. This feature is enabled by default, and we recommend turning it off. There are better ways to overclock if you want to go down that road.
Modern motherboards do a pretty good job of setting the right memory speed and timings based on the modules installed in the system. Some modules, like our Corsair Dominators, have their speed and timings programmed in special XMP profiles that can be accessed via the firmware. The memory speed and timings can also be adjusted manually, if your DIMMs aren’t detected correctly. We’d recommend that first-time builders use the auto settings or XMP profiles.
Next, navigate to the storage section of the firmware. Make sure the Serial ATA controller is set to AHCI mode, which enables command queuing. Also, enable hot-plugging for any SATA ports on which you might want to swap drives while the system is still running. We’ll enable hot-plugging for the SATA port associated with our drive dock. Hot-plugging should also be enabled for any external SATA ports that might be on your board.
While we’re tweaking the storage config, it’s worth taking a moment to set the boot order. If the OS will be installed from a DVD, set the system’s optical drive as the primary boot device, followed by the SSD. Those who are installing the operating system from a USB thumb drive should set that as the primary boot device. To ensure the USB drive is available as a boot option, connect it before powering on the system.
If your system has a hard drive and an SSD, check the boot order to make sure the SSD is listed first—that’s where we’ll be installing the OS. Some firmware has a separate boot priority menu reserved for hard drives and SSDs. USB thumb drives are sometimes included on this auxiliary boot list, as well.
Fan controls are one area where there’s a lot of variety in motherboard firmware. Most boards should at least offer some kind of “smart” setting for the CPU fan. This setting should change the fan speed intelligently based on the CPU temperature, and you may be given some freedom to set temperature ranges and fan speeds manually. Typically, you don’t want the CPU getting above about 70°C.
Our Asus motherboard has smart control options for the CPU and system fans. It also features a number of preset profiles, including one optimized for low noise levels. The presets should work fine if you’re not obsessive enough to tweak temperature ranges individually.
Although our Asus firmware doesn’t have it, some motherboards feature a “fan type” setting designed to differentiate between DC and PWM units. If the fans connected to the motherboard have four-pin plugs, use the PWM setting. DC fans have three pins.
Since we installed a sound card in our system, we should also disable the motherboard’s integrated audio. You can have both running at the same time, but there’s no need for two audio devices. Disable the “HD Audio” entry in the peripherals section of the firmware interface.
Most firmware supports multiple configuration profiles. Our Asus board can save settings associated with a whopping eight different configs. The final step in our firmware tweaking process is saving the current configuration to one of the open slots. Doing so will allow you to revert back to our baseline settings quickly if you want to do some additional tweaking. If you’re going to dabble in overclocking, we recommend storing that config in a separate profile.
Installing the OS and drivers
As long as you stick with Windows, which we’d recommend for a desktop PC, installing the operating system and associated drivers is easy. The Windows installation routine is pretty simple, so we won’t go into too much detail on that front. We’re going to use Windows 8, since it’s Microsoft’s latest OS and the one most likely to be installed on new builds.
Early in the installation process, you’ll be asked where to install Windows. If your system combines a solid-state drive and a mechanical hard drive, make sure you install the OS to the SSD. You want to use the fastest drive in the system. Windows 8’s installation routine doesn’t show the drives by name, but it’s easy to tell which is which based on the total size.
Once the destination drive has been selected, the installation routine does its thing, rebooting as necessary. After prompting the user to select a computer name and color scheme, Windows 8 offers express and custom install options. We recommend the latter, which lets you enable various OS features depending on your preferences. When you reach the Modern UI Start screen, it’s time to start updating drivers. Click on the desktop tile to get started.
First, install the latest platform drivers—also known as chipset drivers—for the motherboard. These are best downloaded directly from AMD or Intel. Drivers for the motherboard’s integrated networking adapter, plus any auxiliary peripherals like USB or Serial ATA controllers, can be downloaded from the motherboard maker’s website. If you’re without an Internet connection entirely or need to install the board’s networking driver to get online, there’s a driver disc in the box. This disc has all the drivers required for the motherboard, but it may not be up to date.
The graphics card will come with its own driver disc. Ignore it and grab the latest drivers from AMD or Nvidia, depending on whether you have a Radeon or a GeForce. Graphics drivers are updated frequently, often with a new batch of performance tweaks and bug fixes. If you’re a gamer, it’s worth staying on top of the latest releases.
PC audio tends to move slower than graphics. Still, we advise checking to see if your sound card’s manufacturer has newer drivers than what’s on the included CD. If you’re using the motherboard’s integrated audio, download the appropriate drivers from the board maker’s website.
Once all the drivers are updated, launch the Windows Device Manager. Getting there is a little different in Windows 8. The quickest way is by right-clicking the hot corner in the bottom left of the screen. You can also type “Device Manager” in the Start screen, click “Settings” in the search pane that pops up on the right side of the screen, and then click the Device Manager icon in the results area. If all the drivers are installed correctly, the Device Manager window should look a little like the one in the picture above. Any devices that require additional attention will be marked by yellow, triangular icons with exclamation points.
Finally, fire up Windows Update and download the latest patches for the operating system. Windows will want to install updates during your PC’s next scheduled maintenance period, but since this is a new build, it’s best to apply the updates right away.
Enjoying the afterglow
Congratulations on building a PC from scratch, especially if this was your first attempt. Once you realize how easy it is to piece together a system from components, it’s hard to go back to generic, pre-built rigs with limited customization options. The beauty of building your own PC is getting exactly what you want exactly how you want it.
If you need some help deciding on which components should constitute your system, be sure to check out the latest version of the TR System Guide, which details our favorite hardware for a range of budgets. The System Builders Anonymous section of our forums is also filled with knowledgeable folks who can help with any questions you may have about your build.