TechnoFILE is copyright and a registered trademark © ® of
Pandemonium Productions.
All rights reserved.
E-mail us Here!

Thinking Outside of the PC Box

Or: A Technophobe Builds a PC

by Jim Bray

Part Four: Powerup, rejigging, and on with the software!

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 columns, 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.

Last time around, I installed the drives and other peripherals and brought the PC to the point where it's time to flip on the power switch and see it I have a functioning computer or a smoking hunk of metal and plastic.

Ah, the moment of truth!

But First, a Word....

Before you power up the computer, it needs something to which it can boot - since, at least in this case, the hard drive is totally blank and anxiously waiting for something to hold. Initially, in this installation, this something will be the Windows 98 (and, later, Windows 2000) operating system, but until you get that on the hard drive you need to boot from elsewhere.

Which is one of the few times one uses a floppy disk these days, other than for exchanging files with other people or computers.

The "full version" of Windows 98 comes with a boot floppy, so that problem takes care of itself. If you have the "upgrade" version, you'll need to create a boot floppy before you shut down your old system in preparation for the assembly process. Unless you're staying with your status quo hard drive, of course.

Creating a boot floppy is easy. Just put a blank floppy (or one with data you don't mind losing) into your floppy drive, and format it so it's a "bootable" disk.

How? You can format it from Windows or from a DOS Window you access from the "Start" menu. I prefer the latter, 'cause I've been formatting disks that way for some twenty years or so, but either way works fine.

From Windows, go to "My Computer" icon (unless, like me, you have shortcuts to your drives on your Windows Desktop, in which case you can use that one) and right click to bring up a menu. Click on "format" and when the dialogue comes up choose the format type. You can choose "Quick" (if the disk is already formatted and you only want to erase its data) or "Full" (for a blank disk or ones that won't succumb to a quick format). There's also a "Copy system files only" choice which you can use if the disk is already formatted and blank.

Otherwise, to copy the needed system files onto the floppy (the files that make it a bootable disk) choose "Copy System Files" from the "Other Options" section below the "Format Type" section of the dialogue.

Using the DOS Window is quicker and easier. Just load "MS DOS Prompt" from the Windows "Start" menu then, at the command prompt, type "format a: /s" (without the quotes and substituting whatever your floppy drive letter is for "a:"). You'll get a confirmation message (remember, formatting erases everything that was on the disk, so be grateful for this final chance to bail out).

You'll also need to copy the "FDISK.exe" and "" programs onto your boot floppy, so you can partition and set up the hard drive. These files are on the Windows 98 boot disk, so if you have the full version you don't have to worry about that.

Anyway, once the disc is formatted, put it away until you need it to boot your new system.

Which brings us back to where we are now in the assembly/configuration process.

My Friend Flickers....

Armed with my Windows Boot Disk, I was ready to see if all my work so far would pay off. I stuck the floppy into the drive, turned on my monitor and other peripherals (they should always be turned on first and turned off last) and - heart in my mouth - flipped the Power Switch.

Voila! The monitor flickered to life with the BIOS messages you' see every time you boot, telling you what type of processor you have, how much RAM, yadda yadda yadda. So far so good.

Wait a minute!

The computer claimed it was powered by an AMD K6-III CPU running at 300 MHz - yet it's a 400 MHz processor. What gives?

Remember when I mentioned in an earlier installment how I'd reversed the DIP switches on the motherboard? It took until now for that error to become apparent - and it was this misconfiguration that caused the CPU confusion.

So we shut it down and, after a few minutes of decrying the unfairness of life in general, starting analyzing the problem. Since there are no adjustments on the CPU (which to all practical intents is just a big chip), it had to be a motherboard problem. That meant revisiting all the configuration choices made earlier to see what might have happened.

It didn't take my son long to discover that his impression of the DIP switch settings as illustrated in the drawing we downloaded from Gigabyte's web site was 180 degrees different from mine. Hmmm...

It figures. The illustration was in black and white and didn't indicate which color was "on" and which was "off" - and we'd both arrived at opposite conclusions about which was which.

So we tried it his way and, wouldn't you know, it worked. I hate it when that happens.

However, the end result was that a scary moment had been handled with relative aplomb.

My Friend Flickers, again...

So we fired it up again, booting to the floppy. After all the whirring and whining was done (including that from the computer!) I was faced with an onscreen menu offering three different boot options: boot to a CD, boot to the floppy but with CD-ROM drivers loaded, or boot to a floppy without CD-ROM drivers loaded.

Well, that was an easy choice. Windows 98 came on a CD-ROM, so to install it you need to have a CD-ROM drive working. The drawback here is that this choice takes forever to boot - but it's your only choice unless you're installing from floppies (and I wouldn't wish that on anyone!).

So I made that selection on the menu and it whirred and whined for a while longer and finally left me with the "a:> prompt" on screen. Time to install Windows.

A short digression...

Well, not quite. Before you can install the operating system you have to prepare the hard drive to receive the data. If your drive comes already formatted, you're off to the races - but the Quantum in this test didn't come formatted (which is probably the best way of doing things anyway, considering the number of different operating systems - Windows, Linux, NT, etc. - one can put onto such a drive).

This process is called Partitioning - and you need a primary partition to which the computer can boot (unless you want to leave a floppy in your drive all the time). This is where FDISK, mentioned above, comes in. You run it from the floppy and it walks you through the process of setting up your partition(s).

We kicked things off by making the drive one big FAT32 partition, though later we used a nifty utility called PartitionMagic to change this into three separate partitions (you can think of partitions as being like separate hard drives, and that's how they work, except that they're actually separate partitions of a single hard drive).

Once the partition is set you can format the disk. But before we get to that, another minor digression:

When you first boot your PC, and it starts going through the memory checks, you're offered the choice to "press 'delete' to enter setup" (or words to that effect). This is where you adjust your BIOS settings (changing your PC's boot order - to which drive it tries to boot first - whether the video is PCI or AGP, various power management parameters and about a zillion other arcane settings you should really never mess with unless absolutely necessary.

In most cases you'll never have to adjust any of these - and I wouldn't recommend poking around in there unless you know what you're doing.

I don't, save for some minor tweaking, so I leave that sort of thing to my son. Fortunately, the factory settings were all fine, and we didn't have to worry about them. Hopefully, your installation will be as lucky...

We Do Windows...

If the drive needs to be formatted, now's the time to do it - so I did. Since the Quantum is 18 gig in size, this took so long that I had time to go and walk the dog while it was accomplished.

To format the hard drive so it's bootable, you do it exactly the same as you would for making your bootable floppy - making the appropriate change for the drive letter, of course. So, in my case, I typed "format c: /s" - and headed for the park with the dog and some baggies.

When I came back the drive was ready, and so was I.

Time to get things operating...

Installing Windows is easy, if tedious. But I've learned a neat trick from my son about doing the install that may take a bit of time at the beginning, but which pays off in the end.

This is the trick of copying the operating system's source files from the CD to a directory (in this case "C:\source") on the hard drive. Why? Because even a fast CD-ROM (in this case the 6X Pioneer DVD drive that reads CD's at 32X) is slower than a fast hard drive (in this case a rocketing Quantum SCSI drive).

Besides, having the files on the hard drive makes reconfiguration or changing drivers easier: you don't have to keep putting the CD ROM into the drive; Windows goes directly to the "source" and finds what it wants without much thought on your part. I like that!

This may not work as well with the upgrade version of Win98, but it's sure a hot darn with the full version.

Remember, however, that if you don't first load "Smart drive" (smartdrv.exe in the "\Windows 98" directory of the CD), this process will take forever. So, from your DOS prompt (a:\>), type "x:\win98\smartdrv" ("x" represents whatever your CD-ROM drive's letter is). You probably won't even notice anything happen - but you'll be glad you took this step.

Now you need to create the source directory on the hard drive. Do this by typing "md c:\source" (or whatever drive letter or directory you're using). Then, copy the files from the CD to the source directory.

You do this by typing (again, from the DOS prompt and using your own drive and directory information) "copy [cdrom drive]\win98 [hard drive]:\source". You'll probably use drive "C" as your hard drive, but not necessarily as the place for the source directory. This depends upon how many hard drives you have or how many "partitions" you've created on your hard drive.

Since I had 18 gig to play with, I used "C" for the source directory and for Windows 98.

Anyway, once this (again interminable, but handy) copying is done, you're ready to do Windows.

So I changed to the directory "C:\source" and typed "setup". This unleashed Windows' installation program, which sets itself up and configures your system.

Most people will find the typical install works fine. I always customize my installations for my own needs, though (for instance, I don't need the online services crap Windows installs - but I do want the "character map" feature).

The installation is relatively painless. Windows itself copies its own files to the hard drive, then goes over your computer with a fine tooth comb, looking for and installing the proper drivers (usually) for all your hardware, from video card to sound card to monitor, printer, etc. Make sure all these gadgets are turned on so Windows can find them.

You'll be prompted occasionally for some input (like in what time zone you live), but for the most part the process is automatic.

My biggest problem with installing Windows 98 (and, in fact, most Microsoft products) is the damn CD product key you have to enter each time. I uninstall and reinstall software (and Windows) often and these long gobbledegook codes are a real pain in the neck - and they won't prevent anyone intent on pirating the disk from doing so, which is supposedly their reason for being.

Anyway, the computer will reboot itself a couple of times during the installation and configuration process. You may even find it hangs up on you (though I've found this rare during the install - but common during every day use!). If that happens, shut the system down for a couple of minutes and then power it up again, by which time it will have hopefully finished its hissy fit and will continue on.

Depending upon your PC's speed this installation can take up to an hour, after which you'll have a functioning PC that's ready to use.

Custom Job...

Windows' default display settings are 640x480 at 256 colors, which really sucks. I generally run 1280x1024 (one of the joyful things about having a big monitor) with 16 bit color depth, which means I have to manually change the settings. This is easily accomplished (usually) by right clicking on a blank area in the desktop and bringing up the "properties" dialogue. From here you can change the look of Windows (I usually set it to "smooth edges of screen fonts" and "show windows contents while dragging"), enable/disable a screen saver (disabled is the default), change the colors of your Windows or (thankfully!) disable the "active desktop" and its channel bar.

As outlined in the "component reviews" section of this series, I had some initial angst over the video settings, but these were worked out within a few minutes.

Once Windows is working on your system, you can install the rest of your software - so this is what I did. No need to get into that here, however, because that's outside the scope of this series - and what I use every day is irrelevant to your application.

That's a Wrap...

So there on my desk sits a (at least for today) state-of-the-art system custom built for my needs. Was it worth it?

On the whole, yes - though it wasn't as straightforward as I'd expected. In fact, I would definitely think twice about doing this if I weren't lucky enough to be blessed with a son who knows what he's doing - and who knew what I should do whenever things got dicey.

I could have done it without him, but it would have taken a lot more time, a lot more consultation with the owners manuals and other documentation, and it would have caused a lot more of my hair to have been torn out.

So thanks, Chris!

Should you try it? Boy, I'm not going to make that call for you!

If you're looking at a project like this as a way to save money, don't. While you may be able to do that, the whole point behind mixing and matching is to get custom (read, better for your life) components that may be more difficult to find in - or are more high end than - an "off the shelf" PC. You may be able to save money by shopping around for individual components, but that will change the investment from one of money to one of time.

If you're looking at it as a learning experience, boy are you on the right track!

If, like me, you have specific needs that require mixing and matching, you can accomplish the same by getting a customized "clone" or by purchasing the individual pieces and paying someone who knows what he or she is doing to assemble and configure them for you. This may be more pricey, but if you don't have confidence in your ability it can be your ace in the hole.

Knowing what I now know, would I do it again?

Definitely. I have a lot more confidence now and have learned so much about the job that I feel pretty good about it.

Besides, Chris still lives here for now.

But when he moves out my opinion may change really quickly...

Thanks again to all the manufacturers who participated in this project. JB


Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think













Support TechnoFile
via Paypal

TechnoFILE's E-letter
We're pleased to offer
our FREE private,
private E-mail service.
It's the "no brainer"
way to keep informed.

Our Privacy Policy

January 31, 2006