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Having worked for several small computer company'2 and now working for a large multi-national corporation in Technical Support I have built and repaired many computers from very simple e-mail/web surfers for grandma to bleeding edge gaming/multimedia editing PC's.
My experience is many people don't really know what they want or what they need. Some spend far too much on a PC and wind up never using the power they payed for and still more buy low spec and find the PC doesn't do what they want, at least not very well. So, my first suggestion is to really think about what you want to do with the PC then design the PC based on the requirements.
This might seem obvious but many people will not balance the parts in a PC and either wind up building/buying a PC with a Top of the line Graphic card and find the CPU they chose cannot push it to its potential or more often they get a Top of the range CPU and neglect the Graphics card and/or Motherboard that would really push the PC to its limit. What components you buy in the end is up to you but doing some real research will help you to avoid major mistakes.
There is no reason to spend a couple thousand on a PC then using it to send e-mails and surf the web, a $300 PC from wall mart will do that just fine. Conversely there is little point in skimping on parts if you are planning on playing the latest games like UT2K3 or Halflife2. These games can bring my near cutting edge XP2700 Radeon 9700pro rig to its knees if I turn up the graphics as far as they will go.
Now on to actually building a PC. This is a relatively simple process, anyone who can turn a screwdriver, has a little patience and is willing to RTFM can do it. In the most basic form the process is pretty much as follows.
1. Gather together your materials making sure you have plenty of room, you will need a Phillips screwdriver and possibly a pair of needle nose pliers (though you can usually do without). A wrist strap is always a good idea but if you set up your work area in a location with no carpet (which can generate static) and ground yourself frequently by touching something metal like the little screw that holds the coverplate on a wall socket you should be ok.
2. Start by opening your new Computer Case. You will need to open both sides to properly secure your disk drives.
3. After setting the jumpers on the back of each drive to the correct postions (usually Master for a single harddrive and Slave for a single CD/DVD drive if they are sharing an IDE cable or Master for both of they are to be on seperate IDE channels) secure your disk drives in the locations you want them using 4 screws each, there will usually be several locations for CD/DVD, Hard drives and Floppy. If you have a tall case it is worth considering that the longest an IDE cable can be is about 18 inches and are frequently shorter so if you only have one CD/DVD drive I recommend placing it in the Lowest 5 ½ inch bay especially if the IDE connectors on your motherboard are placed low on the board. If possible leave one bay unused above and below the hard drive to help cooling as the new drives can get very hot.
NOTE: the reason for putting the drives in first is they can be quite heavy and if you accidently drop it while positioning it you dont risk damaging the motherboard etc if they havent been fitted yet
3. Determine which standoff holes you need to use on the case by comparing the locations to the holes on the motherboard and place a standoff (use the metal ones if supplied)in each one. If the case does not have a hole where your motherboard does then consider using one of the plastic clip in type standoffs (if supplied) with the threads cut off with a Stanley knife to support the board in that location.
4. After insuring that you have the correct holes punched out of the I/O sheild plate and that the plate is securely in place, gently place the motherboard in in the case positioning the holes so they line up with the standoffs then secure in place with the screws. It is worth noting that there are several different type of screws supplied with most cases so determine which is for what beforehand by trying each in the standoffs and setting them aside.
5. Now that the motherboard and disk drives are in place it is time to put the CPU in, this is very easy and your motherboard manual should explain in detail but you basically just lift the lever on the CPU socket of the motherboard and after ensureing the CPU doesn't have any bent pins and determining the correct orientation place it gently in the socket. Lower and Lock the CPU lever. Now following the directions that came with it, install the Heatsink Fan (in the case of some types of Heatsinks like the Zalman Flower this can be left until the after all add in cards have been installed if necessary)
6. Install all of your add in cards and RAM by gently placing them in position over the appropriate slots and firmly but gently pressing them into the slots and securing eith the appropriate screws (do not force them, if they don't slide in relatively easily they aren't positioned correctly or there is a problem with the position of the motherboard, resolve the problem before proceding). Ensure the RAM is properly seated and that the clips have engaged into place (you will know when this has happened as they should rise up on there own when you are pushing the RAM into place)
7. Now that your add in cards etc are in place it is time to connect the dirves to the motherboard plug one end of your IDE cable(s) into the IDE connector(s)and the other end into the back of the appropriate Disk Drive. IDE 1 should go to the hard drive and IDE 2 should go to the CD/DVD. Alternatively you can set the CD/DVD to slave by moving the Jumper on the back of the drive to the correct position and connecting the remaining IDE connector from IDE 1 to this drive. Connect the split and twisted end of the Floppy cable to the Floppy drive and the other end to the Motherbaord. Most new IDE/ Floppy cables are keyed so they will only fit in the slot one way.
8. Plug the ATX lead into the motherboard and in the case of P4's plug in the extra 4Pin lead also. Make sure all components are now secure and install any components that have been left until last for what ever reason following the manufacturer instructions. Also ensure that you have plugged your Heatsink fan and case fans if present into the correct motherboard header or Mole connector from the Power supply and that the fans are well away from any wires, Secure any loose wires and cables as neatly as possible with Zip Straps while attempting to keep the ATX power wires seperate from the IDE and other data cables.
9. Now its time for a test run, Connect up Keyboard, mouse and Monitor and plug in the Base unit and Monitor to the mains power. Switch on the Power supply if it has a switch then turn on the computer. At this point it should power up to the boot screen and give you the option to go into the boot menu, if this happens without any error messages then you are ready to button it up and install the OS of your choice. If you get any error messages or the monitor doesn't come on then something is not plugged in, you have a cable the wrong way round or you may have recieved a faulty part. Turn off the power and try to determine what is wrong.
This may seem like quite a daunting task but in reality if you can turn a screwdriver and plug in your TV then you potentially have the skills necessary to build a PC as long as you are willing to actually RTFM that came with your components.
When shopping around for parts for your computer a great place if you are in the US is http://www.pricewatch.com then check the company you choose before you buy at http://www.resellerratings.com to determine if they have a good reputation.
Hope this helps someone and isn't too confusing, in this case it is actually easier done than said.