Building a free computer from spare parts

Got a basement full of old components? Why not use them to build yourself a new PC? We show you how to do it.

Ah, the joy of summer storms. A recent one involving a flooded basement (a torrential downpour traveled down a chipmunk burrow that led to an otherwise enclosed basement window with a broken windowpane) and several staccato blackouts sent one of my neighbor's computers, as well as one of my own, to their eternal rest.

Fortunately, I had two spare computers -- one for me and one for the neighbor. I bought a few uninterruptible power supplies and we were back in business. But now I had no spares left, and that's simply not acceptable for a card-carrying geek.

Problem was, after buying the UPSs (and fixing the basement) my disposable income was pretty much disposed of. But I had parts! After almost 30 years of playing with computers, I've accumulated a lot of stuff: motherboards, monitors, modems, processors, memory, graphics cards, TV tuner cards, drives (CD, DVD and hard -- both internal and external), cases, keyboards and mice. I think there's even a Bernoulli Box sitting on a shelf somewhere.

True, some of my collection (which was stored in that basement) met a sad end during that same storm. But I was pretty sure that I still had enough parts left to put together at least one complete computer.

Turns out I was right -- and any self-respecting geek should be able to do the same. What follows is a step-by-step account of how I put together a new computer from old parts at a bare minimum cost.

One disclaimer before we begin: My motherboards tend to be from Asus, my DRAM is from Crucial Technology, and my cases and power supplies are usually from Antec, so you will see those names appear quite a bit among my parts choices. We could launch a debate as to whether or not these companies are actually the best of the best, but they are companies whose products have given me, personally, the least grief. Your experience may vary. Don't be afraid if it does.

Choosing the parts

Even though I was just creating a spare computer, I wanted it to be a good one. It wasn't enough to simply cannibalize the first box of parts I came to. I wanted to end up with a PC that, if not bleeding edge, could be used without embarrassment.

Motherboard

When it comes to real estate, the important thing may be "location, location, location," but for a computer, it's "motherboard, motherboard, motherboard." You can easily build a computer based on a junk motherboard just for the satisfaction of saying you did it (for example, I have an MSI 486 ISA motherboard with an Opti chip set and memory installed, and I'm sure there's a compatible CPU around here somewhere), but intrinsically the result would still be junk.

Of the four motherboards I had on hand, two were too old for anything but Internet appliances, and one, a relatively new Asus M3A78-EMH I purchased back in May, is destined for a forthcoming HTPC system build. The fourth, an Asus P5N-E SLI, seemed to be the best choice. The P5N-E SLI is an ATX motherboard I've had for over a year. It was pulled from a system that died; it turned out that the problem really was a three-month-old hard drive that crashed and not the motherboard at all.

Incidentally, if you haven't retained the original installation disc for your chosen motherboard, this would be a good time to visit the manufacturer's Web site and download the appropriate driver for your operating system.

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Bill O'Brien

Computerworld
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