By Peter Olsen
For my high school senior science project, my dad challenged me to build a computer from scratch – and he offered to foot the bill. I couldn’t believe my ears! Once I overcame the initial surprise, I started thinking about what I needed to do: research computer hardware, decide what to get, order the parts, and put it all together. Admittedly, I felt some uncertainty since I had never done anything like this before. But how could I refuse? In the end I would own a new computer and enjoy the satisfaction of building it by myself. During the process, I might even learn some useful skills. Nevertheless, one question continually lingered in the back of my mind – would the final result boot up, or blow up?
Before doing anything else, I needed to plan what type of machine to build. My wide range of computer uses included: word processing, web surfing, online courses, educational software, video editing, multimedia, and gaming. As an extreme gamer, I knew that high-end parts were crucial for top speeds and graphics quality. Of course, I also had to think of a cool name for my computer. I officially called it the Xbolt PC, short for Explosive Bolt. However, a friend nicknamed it “The Technological Terror” when I told him that my system would include three hard drives, two DVD drives, two graphics cards, 7.1 surround sound speakers, backlit keyboard, a 28″ widescreen monitor, and a sleek black case with four fans and a see-through side panel.
Following several weeks of researching specifications, prices, reliability and compatibility of various parts offered by different manufacturers, I felt ready to purchase the components. Searching for the best quality with the most bang for the buck, I knew that it’s better to buy a six-month-old part rather than the newest on the market. By that time the price will have dropped, any bugs will have been worked out, and more product information will be available. After shopping around at several places, I found lower prices online than at the local big box electronics store unless the store had something on sale. I remembered to figure in any added costs such as sales taxes, shipping and handling. I also looked for manufacturer rebates to reduce the final price, but unfortunately missed out on some savings when I forgot to send one in.
With the choices made and orders placed, the waiting period began. The sense of anticipation increased each day that went by. Like a kid at Christmas time, I kept listening for the UPS truck to come rumbling down our driveway. In less than a week, the wait was over! The delivery man made three trips back and forth from his truck to my front door, carrying a giant monitor box and two large cardboard boxes. As soon as he left, I carefully unpacked each box, checking to be sure all of the correct parts were there. Now that everything had arrived, I could start building the machine.
For my work space I needed a large, flat, hard area that was clean and dust-free with plenty of room. The living room floor was the perfect place. Since the floor was vinyl-covered wood, I didn’t have to worry about static from a carpeted surface. I gathered the necessary tools: screwdrivers, long-nose pliers, flashlight for illuminating dark corners inside the case, and a small shallow container to hold screws. Since my dad had worked in the semiconductor industry, I knew the importance of creating a static-free environment such as wearing cotton clothing. I also kept the anti-static bags and foam that the components were packed in to absorb any static when setting a part down.
Following a step-by-step process, I began to assemble the computer. First, I opened up the case and put the case on its side. I placed the motherboard I/O shield into the slot in the case, took the motherboard out of its anti-static bag, carefully aligned the motherboard holes with the standoffs and screwed it in. Next, it was time to install the CPU. However, in my excitement to get started, I initially didn’t bother reading the manuals. Consequently, my computer building process came to an abrupt halt when I found out that the CPU didn’t come with thermal paste. That resulted in an unplanned trip to the electronics store to buy some. From then on, the manuals were always at my side for ready reference.
After my unexpected interruption, I returned to apply thermal paste to the CPU. I set the CPU into the CPU socket on the motherboard, added the CPU heat sink, and put the power supply in. Next, I inserted the various cards for sound and video. Then I placed the hard drives and optical drives into their bays. The last series of steps involved attaching wires from the case to the motherboard, connecting the power cord to the power supply, running data cables to the motherboard, and the individual power cables to the main power supply. Trying to fit so many wires inside the case was like dealing with a tangled mess of sticky spaghetti. At that moment I realized that a full tower rather than a mid-size case was better suited for my system.
Now for the grand finale – it was time for the boot test. I plugged the computer into the wall, and with my fingers crossed, I pushed the power button. Lo and behold, the computer jumped to life! The fans whizzed, the drives spun, and all the bright blue LEDs lit up. It was a thrilling moment. My victory was complete! I turned the power off, closed up the case, and moved the computer to its proper place so that I could hook up the external devices. After breathing a sigh of relief thinking that the hard part was over, the time came to install the operating system and hardware drivers. Little did I know that this would actually turn out to be the most challenging part of the whole process. Suddenly seeing the Blue Screen of Death on my newly built computer was not a pleasant experience. While the assembly was accomplished in only half a day, I spent several weeks of frustrating trial and error before finally solving the software issues and ensuring the system was running efficiently.
Despite the problems and setbacks that I encountered, I’m proud to have built my own computer. I was able to design it with my particular needs in mind – nothing more, nothing less – and it’s a better setup for a lower cost than an equivalent name brand. Besides gaining detailed knowledge about computer hardware, I feel more in control of my machine by understanding exactly how it was put together. For technical support I found that there are many helpful forums on the internet where I can get my questions answered. Now I have greater confidence when troubleshooting any type of computer problem. I learned that patience and perseverance can make the difference between failure and success. Moreover, I can impress my friends by saying: “I built a computer all by myself – and it works!”
Peter is a 19-year-old homeschool graduate, currently enrolled in the honors program at the local community college.