by Dustin Sklavos
In this ongoing series I’ve talked with you about why you should build an HTPC and what parts to get. I’ve gently cradled you and reassured you that you too can put one of these bad boys together without spending a whole lot of dosh. Now we’ve gotten to the part where we get our hands dirty, but don’t worry: it’s really very easy, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve done it a bunch of times before. Consider this: if it were difficult, would I have done it so many times without getting paid for it?
You can noodle that one later; right now, let’s get to work.
So your parts have arrived and you’re ready to get started. The first thing you’ll want to do is clear off a healthy amount of table space and keep it clean. While I’ve assembled and tinkered with my own computers on the carpet, I’m also a professional and a moron (professional moron?); static electricity is a killer here. What you’ll need is a dish to keep screws in and a Phillips head screwdriver.
In the picture I’m using a Vitamin Water bottlecap because I believe in paying more than a dollar for artificially flavored super water. I also have two screwdrivers of different sizes (though really only the larger one is needed) and a tube of a substance called Arctic Silver 5.
Arctic Silver 5 was not mentioned before because for most people it isn’t necessary. It’s what’s called a thermal compound, designed to help improve the cooling efficiency of the heatsink and fan unit that gets coupled to the processor. I’ll talk more about this when we get to that point.
What you’ll want to keep in mind as you’re building is that static electricity can build and promptly fry components. To avoid building up a static charge, either stay in physical contact with or repeatedly touch some of the bare metal on your case. The guy at Fry’s will try to sell you a grounding strap that you can wear that makes sure you never discharge static electricity into your hardware. He’s full of it. You don’t need it. You do need to keep your pets away from the computer though, at least until it’s all nice and sealed up. I have a cat that I’ve had to shoo away constantly because, like me, she’s incredibly interested in computers. She’s also a walking ball of static, and for that reason, she stays on the other side of the room while I’m working.
STEP 1: MOTHERBOARD, CPU, AND MEMORY
The first things you’re going to work with are the motherboard, processor, and memory. Your motherboard should bear some resemblance to this one:
Shown here is a Gigabyte brand board, different from the board I originally used for my build. I elected to switch to it as the BIOS for the Sapphire board was a little finicky, and as Chaz on the forums has said, if a component in your machine gives you pause, you should probably replace it. It’s a different brand and slightly different chipset, but is plenty comparable and perfectly suits our needs.
Note that the motherboard has a series of different connectors and ports; these are all basically keyed to the components you’ll connect to them. This means that a large part of your worries should now evaporate: with the way these things are designed, it’s pretty hard to plug something in where it isn’t supposed to go or put it in the wrong way.
Next is the memory, which should look like these:
I want you to notice how the memory is physically designed. On the sides of it are notches which the clips you saw on the memory slots on the motherboard (the yellow and red slots) snap into to hold it in place. Beyond that, take a look at the bottom of the stick itself and notice that there’s a notch in the middle of the connectors. This notch doesn’t evenly split the connectors, making it impossible for you to stick the memory in the slot any way but the right way.
Finally there’s the processor, the bottom of which looks like this:
The top is covered by a heatspreader, but the bottom is the important part for AMD processors (Intel ones have the pins in the processor socket itself). In the bottom right corner of the processor you’ll see that it’s missing a pin compared to the other three corners. This is another method the processor is keyed to fit the socket.
What you want to do is take the motherboard out of the bag it came in and rest it on that bag. Then open the clips on two memory slots of the same color and insert the sticks. By putting them in the same colored slots, you enable dual channel operation on the memory, which improves performance.
Finally, you’ll want to open the lever on the processor socket (as seen in the motherboard picture). Open it as far as it’ll go, then insert the processor; you’ll see that one of the corners of the socket is keyed the same way the corner I mentioned on the processor’s pins is. Once the processor is in the socket and all the pins are in, push the lever down until it snaps securely into place next to the socket itself.
With all this said and done, you should have something like this:
You’ve noticed undoubtedly that a big old metal thing with a fan on it came with your processor. This is the heatsink and fan unit. On the bottom of the unit will be a square of a gray substance which is thermal compound similar to the Arctic Silver 5. The intrepid user can opt to use rubbing alcohol (91% purity or better) and cotton to remove the compound and then apply AS5 per the instructions on their website, but the vast majority of us will be fine with just using this stuff.
The unit has two clips on either side that allow it to easily and securely lock into place above the processor by using the black frame around the processor socket.
There’s also a small cable coming from the fan; this plugs into the motherboard’s CPU fan header, which should be a three or four pin plug near the socket, usually labeled “CPU_FAN” or “CPU” on the board itself.
When you’ve done that, your board will look like this…
You’re now ready to start working on the case.
STEP 2: CASE
Unfortunately, I can’t really give you detailed instructions on how to work with the case as cases vary greatly. Some brands, like Antec, include detailed instructions in theirs. Others, usually cheaper ones, just kind of let you fend for yourself.
The one important part I can definitely help with here is the backplane for the motherboard. Your motherboard should’ve come with a thin piece of metal (probably cruddy metal) that has cutouts which match the ports on the back of the board. This is the backplane, and you’ll want to snap out the one that came with the case and replace it with the one that came with the board.
The picture above should give you an idea about the backplane.
With it properly and securely in place, you’ll see that the plane inside the case perpendicular to it may have standoffs or holes for standoffs. At this point you’re going to match the screw holes of the motherboard to these standoffs, and you may have to put in your own. These bronze standoffs will have screw sockets in them and should have come with the case, along with the small screws (generally with a round head) used to mount the motherboard into place. It’s going to be a tight fit, especially after gently pushing the ports on the back of the board through the backplane, but that’s how it’s supposed to be: secure.
This is how the inside ought to look with the board in place. In the process I’ve also connected the 24-pin power cable that comes from the power supply along with the smaller 4-pin power cable (the head will be square with pins arranged 2×2); these both have white or beige keyed sockets on the motherboard and will only go in one way. You’ll want to connect these now.
The blue-black cable is an optional one that comes from the fan in the power supply; it tells the computer how fast the fan in the power supply is operating and allows the motherboard to control its fan speed. If you elect not to connect it, the fan will just run at full speed. If you would like to, you can connect it to one of the fan headers similar to the CPU fan one; these fan headers will only have three pins and will probably be labeled “AUX” or “AUX_FAN.”
Congratulations! You’ve actually done most of the hard stuff.
STEP 3: HARD DISK(S) AND OPTICAL DRIVE
Your case may have slots for the hard disk(s) and optical drive(s) built in, or it may have a separate cage for them like mine does. It may even have rails to attach to them; this depends on the case itself. If you bought an Antec or similarly high end one, it should include instructions – in English, no less! – that will explain to you how to mount optical drives (which use 5.25″ bays) and hard disks (which use 3.5″ bays).
The drives have two screw mounts on each side, and the hard drives have an additional four on the bottom. While it’s not vital and essential for you to mount these with all four screws, it’s generally wise. This part may require a little trial and error to get the drives to fit properly, particularly lining up the optical drive with the front bezel, but it’s not very time consuming.
For reference, above is the back of the drive cage that my Antec case comes with. The hard disk in place is actually a smaller notebook drive I’ve repurposed for my HTPC and fitted with a pair of rails that adapt it to the larger space for a desktop drive, and in the process like a true genius I installed it upside down. This doesn’t actually matter that much, though, it just means I’ll have to twist the cables a bit when I connect it.
I know it must seem like I’m being unspeakably vague here, but honestly, this part does vary from case to case and it’s generally pretty easy to figure out.
STEP 4: VIDEO CARDS AND OTHER SLOT PERIPHERALS
Next to the processor socket will be three or four ports of varying sizes and colors. The longest one is the PCI Express x16 port, and that one is used for the video card. The shortest ones will be PCI Express x1 (sometimes x4, as in the case of the board I’m using here), and the identical white ones are standard PCI.
Confusing? I wouldn’t worry. These ports have removable shields in the back of the case that are held in place by single retaining screws. If you have anything to plug in to any of these (video card, wireless card, etc.), just unscrew the shield, pop it out, and gently but firmly insert the card into the appropriate port.
You can see here how I’ve installed my video card. Since writing the article, ATI released a Radeon HD 4670 that is, in my opinion, the hands down most ideal HTPC video card on the market.
For my build I’ve also installed the fan that comes with the Antec case I’ve used, which occupies one of the ports near the video card. This uses a four pin power connector called a molex connector. It’s strictly optional, but I’ve connected mine to the appropriate power cable.
STEP 5: CABLING
I told you the hard part was over with the motherboard. I sort of lied. This part can be kind of tricky. Basically, now you’ll be connecting the appropriate power cables from the power supply to the hard drive(s) and optical drive(s). We already connected the power for the motherboard (and everything directly connected to it by extension) in step 2. The power cables for the optical and hard drives will be long, L-shaped female plugs that connect to the male ones on the backs of the drives.
Next you’ll want to connect the Serial ATA, or SATA, cables. These will be thin, usually bright red (with the Gigabyte board they come in orange), and they have L-shaped plugs that connect to the smaller L-shaped plugs on the backs of the drives. These are then connected to the similar plugs on the motherboard; in the picture in step 4, they’re the orange ones, though the color may differ depending on the motherboard manufacturer.
Finally, we get to the stupid part: the front panel headers. Despite all of the advances made in every other part of the motherboard, this crud is still the same aggravating stuff it was ten years ago. In the picture in step 4 you see a bundle of cables connected to the front of the case that lead off the image; these cables are connected to the front panel headers, and you’ll find a diagram of those headers in the manual that came with your motherboard.
At this juncture I can’t tell you exactly what goes where because these vary delightfully from board to board. The best I can do is give you a couple of helpful hints:
1. The connectors coming from the case will all say what they are.
2. If the connector has just two small wires and one of them is white or black, that one is probably the negative.
3. If there’s a black and white one, the white wire is probably the negative.
4. If the schematic in the instruction manual calls for connectors the case doesn’t come with, don’t worry about it. The only truly important one is the power cable.
5. The power LED cable may be three pins wide instead of two; in this instance, there should be a three pin header near the main set of front panel headers for you to connect this to.
There will also likely be an audio connector coming from the front panel, and modern ones tend to have this bifurcated into two different connectors marked “AC’97” and “HDA.” You can find the HDA header in the motherboard’s manual and connect this where appropriate; it’s keyed. This is optional, though. If you don’t connect this, all that happens is the front audio jacks don’t work.
Above is what my board looked like with all the front panel cables connected and everything installed.
If you’ve gotten past this point, snap the side panels back on the case. You’re done!
If when you try to power the computer on, nothing happens, have no fear.
The first and most obvious solution is to check and see if the power supply is on. Some power supplies have a black switch on the back, and if yours does, try turning it on then pushing the power button on the front of the case. This seems like a “well, duh, why don’t you make sure it’s plugged in while you’re at it,” but trust me…you can’t imagine how many times I’ve made this mistake. It’s actually the first thing I check at this point.
If you don’t have this switch, you’re going to want to check and make sure the 24-pin and 4-pin power cables are connected to the motherboard (refer to the motherboard’s manual for details).
If none of this works, double-check the front panel headers. This is a really easy thing to screw up, and you may have the power switch one on backwards.
And finally, even after all this, you still can’t get it to work, take some pictures and post to our forums. We’ll be happy to help.
Congratulations! You’ve actually physically built a computer. Note that the steps here can happily apply to the construction of your own desktop machine, too, so hey…there’s that. Desktop machines can be more involved in some ways, though, and I’ve tried to keep this one fairly simple.
In Part V, we’re going to get Windows installed and running and have you on your way!