My main ‘work’ PC is on its knees after ten years of faithful service. I built a pair of them in 2004/ 2005 using AOpen motherboards (the fab AX4SPE Max II) and Pentium 3.0 / 3.2GHz CPUs, capable of mixing PATA and SATA drives, and having plenty of expansion slots for a wide variety of gadgetry that I would install in years head. Extra USB, Firewire, a twin tuner TV card, an eSATA port, an Ethernet card (after the onboard one failed), Lightscribe DVD writers, card reader & floppy... the trusty PC has taken everything in its stride and generally vindicated my decision to try building one myself.
I repaired it once when a small heatsink clip fell off due to a broken solder joint. The AOpen failed safe and shut itself down right on cue. I also upgraded it with a silent graphics card with no fan, and a near-silent Samsung hard disk. I stretched things out a couple more years by upgrading to Windows 7 Professional.
You know it’s time to swap though when it takes 10 seconds to open a window, nothing happens so you click two or three more times, then you get two or three windows opening at once. Web browsing grinds to a halt and anti-virus software brings it to its knees. You have time to make a coffee while it updates itself. So, I’ve decided to build myself another, and I expect it will last me another ten years or till I hang up my guns.
Here’s the final list of ingredients:
Asus Z97-C , a full size ATX motherboard with PCI Express 3.0/2.0 (2 off), PCI Express 2.0 (2 off) and vanilla PCI (3 off, but one will be lost) slots for any legacy stuff or expansion cards I might want to throw in, in years to come. It has SSD support (M2 Socket 3) for the future too. In short it’s a pretty decent size compared to a micro ATX and it gives me room to upgrade it in the future.
The Asus Z97-C has clever fan cooling software (Fan Xpert 3) which I hope to fine tune and eliminate unnecessary fan noise. Because I can. Can’t stand fan noise when I’m working.
It’s LGA1150, so my choice of CPU is (slight overkill for now) an Intel Core i7 4790 3.6GHz, a quad core processor which supports hyperthreading, unlike the i5. My old Pentiums dissipate some 100W and happily cycled between 35-50°C for ten years. I hope the i7 stock CPU cooler included by Intel is adequate, I expect it will be and I can upgrade to e.g. watercooling later if I want to play. I’ve bought some Arctic MX-4 thermal heatsink paste to improve heat transfer a bit.
Memory, it’ll be 2 x 4GB 1866MHz Dual Channel 1.5V DDR3 (Corsair Vengeance Low Profile). Middling price bracket. Don’t you just hate dumb, aggressive names.
Hard disk, 1TB Western Digital ‘Black’ SATA with 64MB cache.
While the motherboard has onboard Intel HD graphics support and graphics cards don’t excite me much, I’ve beefed it up slightly with a Gigabyte GT730 2GB (NVidia Geforce again), as a mid-budget compromise. Mine’s another silent type that has a big heatsink and no fan. It’s PCI-E 2.0. Cheekily the box says it’s compatible with PCIE-3.0 motherboards, (then in small letters: running at PCI-E 2.0 speeds). Some end-on manufacturer's photos imply it's a single-slot width, but in fact like most such videos cards, it takes up two slots because of the 35mm deep heatsink so I’ll lose the neighbouring PCI slot. But the quietness will compensate for that, and no fan means less moving parts to go wrong. The power supply (see next) will easily cope with it (needs 300W+).
Power supply: a 650W Thermaltake W0393RE ‘Berlin’ which meets the demands of the Intel i7. I chose to avoid more expensive ‘modular’ types where you only plug in the leads that you need to use (theory being that less wiring means better air circulation). The Thermaltake is a classic wire-ended, middling performance (700W peak) so should be future proof. Mainly, it is well priced and has intelligent fan cooling and is said to be ultra quiet. I found these are (don’t know why) part of their ‘German’ series. So the carton and instructions are in German. (Darn!) It auto-detects the mains voltage, and a UK mains lead was included.
I chose a couple of Asus DVD SATA writers, but separately I’m going to try rigging up my LG IDE/ PATA Lightscribe drives instead, once I figure out an adaptor. More on that later....
Next, the midi tower case: after a lot of mooching around I chose the popular Corsair Carbide 300R. It’s well equipped with two fans (intake, 140mm on the front and exhaust, 120mm on the rear) and removable dust filters. There’s space for four hard disks, three optical drives and (importantly) seven expansion slots. USB3.0 on the front along with power and reset (‘cos not all have a reset button these days). It’s tool free. Seems like the days of the 80mm fan have passed.
Lastly, the operating system – I chose Windows 7 Professional OEM. I’m not interested in re-learning Windows 8 and I have a few legacy software compatibility issues to handle (more about those as time unfolds).
The whole of the above has been delivered by Scan International whose service was excellent from start to finish. So I’ve got a lot of unboxing to do! Over the coming days and weeks I’ll keep you posted with my progress. Can't wait to get started!
How to assemble a new PC
Building your own PC is an immensely satisfying project, and any competent hobbyist with some sympathetic assembly skills can tackle a new PC with ease. Chances are, you won’t save much cash over buying a ready-built system, but you can spread the cost by buying parts over several weeks or months. You’re on your own with any debugging or troubleshooting though, but plenty of info. is out there on the web, and at the end of the day you’ll know intimately what went into your system.
The task of building a new PC boils down to budgeting and selecting compatible parts, assembling some very close-tolerance components and then installing the OS and software. My latest Asus-based PC has been running for several months without a hitch (apart from the Corsair Carbide power led flickering - fixed later), so this article explains what’s involved for anyone thinking of building their first PC. Apologies if some of the photos aren't as good as I would like them to be but they give you the idea.
I already specified my PC components, and it cost a shade under £800. Here’s how I assembled it, starting with the (expensive!) processor and motherboard.
How to mount the Intel Core i7 processor and heatsink onto the motherboard
Modern PC components are surprisingly robust, and they are an ultra-precision fit making it very hard to make mistakes. You need to be careful: never force anything together but treat parts sympathetically.
I wore an antistatic wriststrap to short any static charges to earth. (That’s also because I often get a static ‘belt’ from my office chair’s PVC carpet protector mat.) Fitting the CPU is probably the most nerve-wracking job, not least because if you mess up you could accidentally damage the processor or motherboard, e.g. by forcing or clonking a part or knocking something. So take care and don’t be ham-fisted. Treat all parts sensitively.
My processor is an Intel Core i7 4790 3.6GHz supplied in a ‘retail pack’. This included a stock heatsink and cooling fan ready for assembly (other times, you might get a CPU only). Many enthusiasts or gamers mix and match their choice of fan(s), or they pick a watercooled unit instead. Some users fixate on this, but I reckoned Intel's heatsink and fan in the Intel’s retail pack were good enough for my everyday purposes.
The processor can be installed onto the motherboard first, followed by the heatsink & fan, but the plastic cover (called the PnP or Pick & Place cap) of the CPU socket should not be removed until the very last minute. Keep it in case you have to remove the CPU again and return the motherboard under warranty. See Intel’s general advice here http://www.intel.com/support/motherboards/server/sb/CS-029451.htm
However Asus offers a really good video here which describes motherboard assembly (you guys):
Lever open the motherboard's CPU frame by unhooking and releasing the latch. The CPU fits one way round only: two notches align with the CPU socket on the motherboard. Hold the CPU by its edges and avoid contaminating the CPU socket or pins, drop the CPU into position and clamp the frame over it, locking the lever down securely.
The stock Intel heatsink assembly already has a smear of grey heat transfer compound that gives you an idea of the small quantity needed. Take care not to smudge it. I chose to upgrade this to Arctic MX-4 Thermal Compound so the existing compound was wiped off with a solvent (eg Isopropanol). I doubt if anyone will really notice much if any difference though.
Before applying compound, see how the heatsink fits on the board. In my case, four plastic catches are rotated which rivets the heatsink down through corresponding holes in the motherboard. They can be undone if needed. A tiny quantity of MX-4 is then applied to the processor in-situ. How much to apply? My rule of thumb is to apply a blob no bigger than your little fingernail. A pea-sized blob, maximum, then squash the heatsink down and lock it into place. Using too much heatsink compound would be bad news as it could seep out and contaminate the board or CPU area. Here's an Asus video:
The system memory can be fitted next. My Asus Z-97C motherboard has four DDR3 DIMMs slots. These are notched differently from DDR or DDR2 modules so only DDR3 modules will fit properly. The motherboard screen print shows how pairs of them can be fitted: use DIMM A1 and B1, or DIMM A2 and B2. They will of course fit perfectly and are then locked into place with end latches.
My advice is then to spend time studying the motherboard and see what goes where. I put mine aside while I attended to the rest of the hardware.
Case and PSU Preparation
My PC case is a Corsair Carbide 300R which is smart and very well ventilated all round. Start by fitting the steel I/O panel (which carries the I/O ports) that came with the motherboard. Clip it carefully into place on the case’s back panel (it’s a bit flimsy but good enough.) The little metal fingers are ‘contact wipers’ that provide electrical continuity for grounding and shielding when the motherboard is mated to it.
The power supply can be fitted next. My chosen Thermaltake Berlin is a very quiet, middle of the road 630W unit that will be perfectly adequate for everyday use. It’s installed at the bottom of the case and its large fan sucks cooling air in from underneath, so the Carbide has an inlet grille and removable filter to keep out fluff. The PSU is gently screwed into place.
The fun will begin with sorting and routing the power cables which will cause a lot of headscratching, so do some dry runs and expect to rearrange the wiring if required. At this stage, plan the power supply cabling to your motherboard, hard disks (two in my case), and DVDs (two more).
The motherboard requires two ATX power looms: EATX12V is a polarised 8-pin connector and EATXPWR is a 24-way one. Everything fits one way only and it is impossible to get them wrong!
My Thermaltake PSU has two separate 4-way connectors that are grouped to fit the 8-way EATX12V power socket. They fit only one way round, and the design of the spring clips is another clue. They both latch onto the motherboard EATX12V socket when aligned properly. (The Thermaltake’s 6+2 PCIE connectors don’t fit!) The 24-way connector is easy to connect.
Route the SATA power leads through the cable management in preparation for installing the hard disk(s) and DVD drive(s). Tiewraps can be fitted later to tidy things up. Large oval ports and cutouts are there to help route the cables tidily, whilst small metal lugs are punched for the cable ties.
The Corsair Carbide 300R has a front panel holding the power and reset switches, audio, USB 3.0, plus white power and HDD leds. Mine proved temperamental as the power LED was flickering, so I describe a fix separately. A large fan is also on the case’s front grille, which blows ambient air over the motherboard.
The front panel controls and fans connect onto the motherboard using standard pin headers which are clearly labelled. Everything is polarised and it will be hard to get this wrong (see later).
These simply clip into the plastic trays (a quick release feature for gamers) but I added an extra 6-32 screw on the sides for security. They mount on silicone rubber anti-vibration bushes.
The DVD drives slid into place and can also be secured with an extra screw. Metric M3 screws are used for this. They are usually the ones having the finest thread in a bag of PC nuts and bolts.
The motherboard, complete with CPU and heatsink, can then be gently installed, ensuring it is mated first with the rear I/O shield so that all metal ‘wipers’ contact the components properly, especially in areas like the Ethernet port.
The Carbide has a male threaded stud that helps locate the motherboard, and then five 6-32 screws are used to screw it down firmly to the pillars fitted in the case. Locate all those studs marked 'A' (for ATX motherboard).
All the front panel connectors can then be plugged onto the motherboard system panel header, which is straightforward. Audio and USB3 headers etc. can also be hooked up to the relevant headers. Note the power and HDD LEDs are polarised and will only illuminate if hooked up the correct way round: if you find yours don’t glow then reverse the connections on the header.
The SATA connections to two hard disks were then made. They can fit one way round only. Note that SATA_1 is disk 0 in the BIOS and OS, and SATA_2 is disk 1. I used the SATA_3 and SATA_4 edge-mounted ones for the DVD drives.
Only then did I notice that the cabinet and motherboard had no speaker, so I added a separate one (see my Amazon Astore). It fits onto the motherboard pin header and is extremely useful for hearing BIOS error codes or confirming that it’s booted up.
The Gigabyte GT730 is a fanless video card and therefore silent, but it takes up the width of two expansion slots due to the depth of the GPU heatsink. So I sacrificed a legacy PCI slot (PCI1). The card clips into place easily in a PCIEX_16 slot. As the Carbide case has thumbscrews on each expansion slot bracket, installation was a doddle.
Adding a Serial (COM) Port to a motherboard
At the same time, I fitted a 4-port USB expansion card to a PCI slot. I also wanted to try using my legacy Wacom GD-0608-R graphics tablet which requires a traditional COM port. Happily the Asus motherboard has a COM port header but it’s necessary to buy and install a separate COM port bracket to fit in the case. I sourced a 9-pin (male) serial port to 10-pin motherboard header from Amazon (see my Astore) which installed directly. (The graphics tablet worked successfully, see here.)
With assembly completed, double check everything is in situ and seated properly, and maybe tidy up the wiring with tie wraps.
Then connect a suitable monitor to the DVI or VGA ports, a USB keyboard and mouse, a mains cord and it’s ready for powering up. It started without a problem.
The next stage is to install Windows (7 / 64 bit in my case) from the Microsoft DVD. Do not (re)boot from the DVD as that restarts the Windows install process all over again! Windows Activation will be required separately. Then the hardware drivers (Ethernet, USB, PCI etc) were installed from the Asus DVD. Finding and using the most up to date drivers was the most bothersome aspect, especially the Asus Suite III which brings in the fan controls. Manufacturer's DVDs are often out of date and a web site search is necessary.
Before doing anything, anti virus software (Avast) was next. Video drivers can be downloaded from (in my case) NVidia's website.
Suddenly my mouse pointer disappeared when installing from the Asus disk. Running (I think) the Intel PCI Simple Communications Controller seemed to knock out the mouse completely. The only workaround is to open Windows Explorer (WIN+E) via the keyboard and key-tab to the Asus DVD, then find and run the driver for (strangely) USB3 drivers. The mouse was then found again. Very weird.
The latest version of Asus AI Suite III was then fetched from Asus. It allows access to the settings of your PC, including fan speeds and controls and performance tweaks. Using the FanXpert program, I could choose near-silent settings or turbo full speed fans, or somewhere in between. It works extremely well and the fans could soon be tuned for low noise or high performance, depending on circumstances. It has been totally troublefree.
It was then a case of downloading the Windows Updates (> 100 of them) and gradually the Windows software setup began. Happily my favourite Eudora email installed in a trice and then other programs were ported over to the new PC.
The Asus BIOS screen can be explored and in case you've been away a while, it’s light years ahead of traditional DOS-type BIOS screens seen of old computers. Because I have two hard disks (C: and D:) it automatically skips through an Intel RAID-screen dialogue during booting up.
Everything is working well three months after use. I really appreciate the fast and snappy Core i7 CPU and the virtually silent operation. The CPU barely gets above 10% capacity in normal use. I can tweak the fan profile in Windows (a discrete button is on the desktop edge).
So there you have it! Building a modern PC from scratch is a bit of a satisfying treat, and I hope that this one will keep things moving for a few years to come.
Asus PC startup error - Lost log.iniis files
I ran the latest version of CCleaner on my Asus PC and probably overdid it a little. This PC clean-up program can be quite aggressive and should be used with care, always backing up the Registry via the button included. Creating an occasional System Restore point won’t hurt either.
CCleaner cleaned out all web browser cached files, cookies and tons of temporary files, but imagine my gloom when the PC rebooted and showed two Asus setup messages about AppData\Local \Temp\123456Log.iniis lost files
Turns out that an unimportant Asus program runs in the Task Scheduler and, stupidly, its log files were hosted in temporary folders that CCleaner then deleted. The workaround is to delete the Task. Do this in Windows 7 by going Start, then type “Task Scheduler” into the Search box. The program will open, so click Task Scheduler Library followed by ASUS. In the centre window, find ‘i-setup’ then right-click over it (there may be more than one) and select Delete (or Disable, if you prefer) to remove it. This cured the problem.