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Thinking Outside of the PC Box

Or: A Technophobe Builds a PC

by Jim Bray

Part Two: The Chips are Down/a Mother of a Board

This series details my experiences at assembling a Windows-based PC tailored to what I do and what I need in a computer. I'll also include links to the various manufacturers involved, whenever possible, so you can take a closer look at the components in this system. Those links will open in a new window. You can also link to more in depth TechnoFILE reviews of each component tried.

I'm building a PC!

Little ol' me, the guy with the black technological cloud that follows him around!

As outlined in the previous column, I've gathered together the bits for a beautiful new PC - which is a nice way to ensure you get exactly the components and performance you want.

Now begins the process of putting together all the pieces.

The AMD K6-IIIFirst things first…

Since Intel is the leader in the CPU world, I wanted to see how one of the "other brands" of microprocessor measured up. "Other brand" CPU's can be less expensive than Intel's flagship product and, according to their hype, work as well or better.

So let's find out.

I'd heard good things about AMD microprocessors, so I hit them up for one of their new ones and they kindly obliged with a 400 megahertz K6-III. This chip competes head to head with the Intel Pentium III.

Since it arrived - and before I had a chance to finish this series - AMD has released a new series, the Athlon, which it claims is the fastest PC processor on the market. This figures; but for my purposes, including using my new system as a benchmark for comparing other PC systems, the K6-III 400 is more than adequate - for now.Click here for more in depth coverage of the AMD K6-III 400 CPU.

Gigabyte 5AXFor the motherboard in which to mount the AMD, we chose a Gigabyte GA-5AX ATX, distributed in Canada by Peripheral Express, who made the board available for this project. The Gigabyte is a very easy board to configure since, for the most part, it uses DIP switches instead of jumpers.

(Right: the motherboard. The CPU/fan mount in the white square at the center top. To the right are the sockets for the RAM. The five white slots at the center bottom are PCI expansion slots, with two black ISA slots below them.) Click here for a more in depth look at the motherboard.

Go configure…

This motherboard configuration process you have to go through sets the voltage, bus speed and "clock multiplier" (which makes the CPU's internal clock relate properly with the motherboard's).

I had to visit AMD's web site to find a diagram for the DIP switch configuration. AMD's diagram was explicit - but it was in black and white. This led to me confusing "off" with "on" and setting the switches to exactly the opposite of where they should be. Of course, I didn't notice this until the system was all together and fired up.

Fortunately, all it meant was that the motherboard thought it was hosting a slower processor than it was - and once the correction was made everything was fine.

DIP switches are easy: you just switch 'em one way or the other with your fingertip. Jumpers, a common alternative to DIP switches, are another matter entirely. They're horrid little plastic anomalies that mount over three wire sets, "jumping" two of them to direct the electrical current in the proper direction. I hate them. They're fussy, break easily, and are hard to see and/or handle. This is the main reason why I chose the Gigabyte motherboard. It only uses three jumpers and, I'm happy to say, they were already adjusted correctly for my K6-III right out of the box.

Lucky me!

The CPUWith the motherboard (supposedly!) configured, it was time to install the K6-III CPU - the heart of the entire system.

Sure, I was scared. Who wouldn't be? But the chip mounts easily and you can't put it in wrong unless you take a hammer to it - which, for obvious reasons, wouldn't be recommended. All that's required to correctly mount the CPU is matching the "different" corner of the chip with the corresponding place on the motherboard's socket; the chip drops right into place.

You then mount the CPU fan on top of the chip (which is also fairly straightforward, though it required a bit of fiddling) and you're off to the horsepower races.

The Gigastar "Full Tower" caseThe next step is to install the motherboard into the case. The ATX-style board mounts into the ATX case with six screws, but before you put in the screws you have to mount the "screw holders." These are little gold doohickeys with a "male" screw end and a "female" socket on the other.

First, place the motherboard onto the case's motherboard mounting studs (you can't miss them) and line it up to find which studs are the right ones for your motherboard. Then, take the motherboard off again and put the "screw holders" into the appropriate mounts. Once that's done, all you have to do is line the motherboard up again and insert the screws, which go right into the "screw holders" you've just mounted.

Don't tighten too much or you can crack the motherboard!

Adding the RAM memory takes about half a minute once you've located the proper slots. On the Gigabyte motherboard they're a series of brown slots mounted right near the CPU. The RAM clips into place easily and, since it also only goes in one way, it's tough to screw up. We mounted SDRAM - Synchronous Dynamic RAM - mounted in what are called "Double Inline Memory Modules" (DIMM's). This is standard stuff nowadays.

You can add your RAM before mounting the motherboard, but my son advised me not to because once the motherboard's securely in place you have a more solid platform with which to work. And, as usual, he was right.

Check the mounting situation before you screw down the motherboard, though, because some PC cases can get in the way of the RAM's sockets, making installation more difficult if the motherboard's already aboard.

I also had to attach the floppy disk controller cable to the floppy drive connection on the motherboard. I'm not going to update that dinosaur of a drive, so I'm using my old floppy disk drive. Why change now, considering the number of times I use floppies these days?

Anyway, the floppy drive connector is mounted on the motherboard right near the RAM (next to a pair of IDE controllers that look very similar but which are larger), and the connection is straightforward - though you have to make sure you get it right or it won't work. The other end hooks into the floppy drive (easily, too); you also have to connect the power from the drive to the motherboard - as in the following paragraph.

The final hookups for this part of the project are for the various other thingys on the case: connections for the "power" and "reset" buttons and the LED that tells you when (or, as has usually been my experience over the years, if) your hard drive is operating.

These connectors (little sets of wires terminating in beige plastic thingys) only work one way - though they can be connected in a variety of ways - so once again you have to get it right.

There's a whole series of "jumper-like" mounts onto which these connectors connect, and finding the right one can be a pain. This is where you'll want to check with the manual that accompanies the motherboard.

The final connection on the motherboard is for the case's power supply. This is clearly marked and only connects one way, so it's hard to screw it up.

And I didn't!

Relatively speaking, everything I did so far was fairly painless and - except for the reversed DIP switches (which, as mentioned, I hadn't yet discovered) - the configuration ended up working just fine when I eventually plugged the system in and breathlessly pressed the power button.

But it isn't yet time to do this...

I was also very grateful to find the installation - so far - was virtually bozo proof (after all, I did it!), and this gave me the confidence to press on with the installation of all the other neat toys.

Next: - things get really "SCSI" as I install the interface cards, hard drive, and other marvelous toys.


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January 31, 2006