Sunday, April 7, 2013

First PC Build: Hardware

I recently finished building my first PC.  My main goal here was to learn something new, because I've never really done much inside my computer and I figured the best way to learn more about it was to put one together myself.  On a more practical level, my wife's laptop is 6 years old and starting to act up, so I want to replace it.  My wife does some photo/video editing, so she needs a reasonably powerful machine, while I could get by with a much less powerful machine than my current desktop for most of what I do.  I decided to give her my current desktop as her main computer (she has a small netbook too for portability and looking up recipes in the kitchen) and build myself a cheaper computer as a learning experience.

My goal for learning here is two-fold.  First, I am interested in learning how to go about finding parts for a computer and physically assembling it.  I'm not trying to build a high-power computer for gaming or anything like that.  Second, I am trying to increase my proficiency and understanding of Linux.  I use Linux daily at work, but my capabilities are mostly limited to shell scripting and C++/Python development work, and a lot of what I would like to learn how to do is restricted to only IT people, so I have no way to learn at work.  My current desktop is set up to boot into either Windows 7 or Ubuntu, but I leave it in Windows basically all of the time because of some Windows only software I need for school.  I recently got a Raspberry Pi with intentions of using it to learn more about Linux...but it's just painfully slow for daily computing tasks.  I'll still use it in projects in the future, but I need something else for daily work.  Making my main computer into a Linux-only desktop seems like a good way to force myself to learn more.

My main uses for the computer will be web browsing, microcontroller projects, and C++/Python software development.  Some microcontroller vendors only release tools for Windows, but I'm not too worried about it.  I still have my old computer if I really need it for something, but I know that I should be able to do what I need to in Linux and I want to force myself to learn.

There is a series of articles on Lifehacker on how to build a computer from scratch that I read through, and then I headed over to Newegg to start looking for parts.  I also noticed that Tigerdirect has some pretty cheap barebones kits, but I wanted to go through the process of picking out the parts myself.  I had a couple of friends look over what I was getting, and they made some suggestions on brands to avoid, and basically made sure everything I picked out would be compatible together.

I re-used an old case from a friend, but the rest of the parts I got from Newegg.  My goal was to keep the cost under $300, and it came in at $320, so I was close.
  • Processor- AMD A8-5500 Trinity APU.  I went with AMD over Intel because it seemed to offer a better deal in the lower end processors.  This is a quad-core APU with Radeon HD 7560D integrated graphics.  I was not planning on getting a graphics card, so the choice was a regular CPU with integrated graphics on the motherboard, or an APU.  I picked the APU.  This is one of the areas I upgraded, because I was initially considering the A4-5300 Trinity APU (which is dual core instead).
  • Motherboard- MSI FM2-A75MA-E35. The AMD Trinity APUs use a FM2 socket, which is not compatible with any of their previous processors (including their first generation APU, Llano), although I believe the series to replace Trinity will share the same socket.  I would probably not recommend this motherboard.  It's working fine, but my board has a glitchy BIOS, and reading around more after purchasing I see that others have had issues as well.  Basically whenever I enter the BIOS menu, it lets me change whatever I want (in my case, upping the RAM speed), but completely freezes when I try to save the settings and I have to then reboot the computer and none of the settings are saved.  I found a forum entry by someone else who had the same issue, and the workaround is to hit the "X" instead of trying to save settings.  It will then prompt you to save, and it commits properly and then reboots.  Everything works, but it's an annoyance, and I'd rather just have it work properly.
  • RAM- G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 4GB.  A friend suggested the 4GB of faster RAM would probably be a better choice than 8GB of slower RAM if I don't think I'll be really memory intensive, so I went with that.  When I went into the BIOS to up the RAM speed to 1866 (it defaulted to 1600 when I first booted) I had to manually change the timing to what was listed on the Newegg product page (9-10-9-28) because the "auto" setting did not work and everything froze when I tried to just increase the speed without modifying the timing (although it worked fine at 1600 with the auto timing).
  • Hard Drive- Seagate Barracuda 7200RPM 500GB.  Nothing special here.  There was a good sale when I was buying, so I got it.  I would have been fine with a much smaller drive.  I was surprised by how little the price difference was between the different levels of storage.  I also considered getting an SSD instead (because I didn't need a lot of storage space), but even the small ones were expensive and I read a few articles on things to do when running an SSD in Linux, and I decided that sticking with a regular hard drive would be simplest for now.
  • Power Supply- CORSAIR Builder Series CX430.  The power supply was another one that I upgraded based on a friend's recommendation.  Apparently there are brands with bad reputations and I had picked one of those.
  • Optical Drive- LG 24X DVD Burner.  Again, nothing special.  Just a cheap DVD drive.  I almost didn't even include this, because you can install Linux from a thumb drive and I'll probably use thumb drives for any file transfers between computers.
Assembling the computer was surprisingly simple.  Between the Lifehacker article mentioned above and a video from Newegg I had a general idea of what I needed to do, and it was all very straightforward.  There were a couple of snags, but nothing too serious.  First, the main ATX power cable would not "snap" into place.  The motherboard was flexing, so I stopped pushing, but it definitely did not click in, though it is on snug enough and appears to be working fine.  The other issue I had was figuring out what to connect for the front panel connectors on the case.  Only about half of the cables were labelled, but I eventually figured out where they all went.  One of the things I had read about being a challenge is cable management, but my case was pretty empty at the end and there was plenty of room to pull all the excess cable into the empty drive bays.

My next post will talk about setting up the software now that the hardware is assembled.

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