This is a project I wanted to do for a long time. When I started studying for my CompTIA A+ cert, I was shocked at how much I learned about the hardware side of computing. My current laptop, a great Sony Vaio, was bought in 2009 after my college laptops motherboard finally croaked. Freshly loaded with the new Windows 7 OS, my Vaio served me faithfully until a month ago when the errors started to pile up. In an effort to health the machine, I attempted to load Ubuntu onto it. Ubuntu is a Debian-based Linux operating system that requires fewer resources than Windows to run. But alas, the strain was too much for the Vaio, and it is no more.
But now what? At home, we have a Chromebook and a laptop that kind-of-works. But I want something with a little more power. Something that I can upgrade over time. Computing constantly changes, and it would be able to improve my machine over time. Spend $200 every few years instead of $700+. Plus, building would be a fun project.
Where do I start?
1. Defining my needs: To know what to build, I need to know why I’m building it.
2. Choosing and buying the parts: I need to buy each individual part of my machine. So I need to decide what will meet my needs, and where to purchase it.
3. Assemble the computer: I need to put the parts together, duh!
4. Install the OS: To use the computer I need to install Windows or a Linux system.
5. Configure PC for use: Setting up the PC to my preferences.
1. Defining my needs:
What do I plan on using this computer for? Coding, generic Raspberry Pi support, picture/video editing, and some gaming. For my purposes, picture/video editing will probably require the most power, due to the size of the files. But, I’m not a professional, and nor do I play games that are new so I can make some sacrifices there for power.
2. Choosing and buying the parts:
To assemble my plan, I went to PC Part Picker pcpartpicker.com. You can view my parts list here: https://pcpartpicker.com/list/jbPZD8. This list is actually modified from a build featured at Lifehacker. I’ll go down this list talk about each component, and why I chose it.
- Intel Core i3 6100 3.7GHz Dual-Core: The processor is the heart of a computer. It’s what controls how the computer functions. Much of what I read suggested that I go for an i5 quad-core processor, which is a newer and more updated processor from Intel. As stated above, I don’t think I need that power. the i3 should work fine for me. If it turns out it isn’t enough, I can always replace it, or by a video card at a later date. In the near-term, going with the i3 saves me $100-$150.
- MSI H110M Gaming MicroATX LGA1151 Motherboard: While there are a million options when picking a motherboard, I feel a few questions really narrows it down. First, are you using an AMD or Intel Processor? These two companies use different designs, which limits the type of board you can use. Next, what form factor do you want? I wanted a MicroATX, as this is the current standard. And finally, what type of interfaces do you want? VGA, HDMI, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB C, and audio connections are all items to take into consideration. The MSI board suggested by LifeHacker ticked off everything I wanted, so I decided to go with it.
- Corsair Vengeance LPX 8GB (1 x 8GB) DDR4-2400 Memory: RAM (Random Access Memory) is the memory that used by PCs to run programs. RAM generally comes into play when running programs, so I want to have enough. Modern 64-bit operating systems have an upper limit over 17 million GB of memory, but I don’t need that much. Yet. 8GB is plenty, and should I need more, there’s an extra slot to place another stick of RAM in the future.
- Kingston SSDNow UV400 120GB 2.5″ Solid State Drive: SSD’s (Solid-state Drive) are the future. Probably. They are starting to replace traditional hard drives. They are less prone to data loss from being moved around, and the memory in the SSD can actually be used in place of RAM in some cases. The other advantage is a faster read/write capability. Programs loaded onto the SSD will load faster than ones loaded on a traditional HDD. This is where my Operating System will be loaded.
- Seagate BarraCuda 1TB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive: Here is the traditional hard drive (HDD- Hard disk drive). Any media I have (pictures, movies, music) will be stored here. Why bother having this when I have an SSD? Byte for byte, a traditional HDD is significantly cheaper. That’s why this 1TB HDD drive is less than a 120GB SDD.
- Cooler Master N200 MicroATX Mini Tower Case: I went with the suggest tower here. This is the case that will hold all of the components described above. This one has plenty of space inside and two fans to ensure adequate airflow through the computer. That’s important because computers can get hot. Sometimes they get so hot, parts melt. Then it gets really expensive.
- EVGA 500W 80+ Bronze Certified ATX Power Supply: Again, I went with the suggested PSU (Power Supply Unit). 500W is more than enough power, with plenty to spare, and allows me to expand in the future.
Once I made this list I went to Amazon and purchased them. With PC Part Picker, you can actually track the prices of different components over time from several different sites. I found that Amazon tended to have the cheapest price at any given time. On the odd chance that they were more expensive, it was only by $1-$4.
Now it’s time to Build!!!
3. Assemble the computer
This whole process went much smoother than I anticipated. I followed several online instruction lists, watched a couple YouTube videos, but at the end of the day, the paperwork that came with the components was the most useful tool I could have asked for. So I grabbed my trusty screwdriver and got to work.
I started with assembling the motherboard first. I place the processor in its slot and followed that up with placing the cooling fan on top. This fan will pull heat off the processor, stopping it from, well, overheating.
Next, I plugged in my stick of RAM. Too easy.
Following that, I installed the PSU into the bottom of the case, and then connected the motherboard to the side of the case.
I followed up with installing the SSD and HDD.
The last step was plugging everything in. This took quite awhile, but fortunately, nearly every connection has a unique shape, and most cables were labeled.
I plugged in the PSU, pressed the power button, and voila! I got the BIOS!!!
4. Install the OS
I decided to use Ubuntu as the OS for my PC. I wanted to save $120 by not using Windows, and I wanted a traditional desktop feel. Ubuntu is great. It’s easy to use, it’s stable, and there is a huge community of support. Plus, it’s built on the Debian branch of Linux, which I’m familiar with thanks to my time using Raspbian.
I downloaded the image off of the Ubuntu website. I used an arcane Windows program called Win32DiskImager to flash the image to a USB Drive. The Raspberry Pi Foundation suggests using a program called Etcher. After installing Ubuntu, I will learn I don’t need extra programs, the OS has an amazing formatting tool and writer built in!
Once the flash drive was created, I booted up the computer and received instructions to try Ubuntu, or install it. I chose to install it. I followed the instructions, and I was ready to go quickly.
As an aside, most modern computers will boot an OS and run it from a flash drive. This is an excellent opportunity to try out different flavors of Linux, and see what you like the most.
5. Configure PC for use
Now that my computer has an OS, I can use it! I took some time to set up the display as I wanted, and download any additional programs that I want. Ubuntu comes with LibreOffice already installed, so I had an MS Office type suite installed. I also downloaded Chromium to use as a web browser. This list will grow as I move forward using this machine more and more, but until then, I’m psyched to play with my new toy.
Takeaways and future thoughts
There was some difficulty loading Ubuntu. I was able to load it on my first boot, but then something broke during the install. Turns out my flash drive was bad. So grabbed a new drive, flashed a new image, and was good to go.
There is a small concern Ubuntu won’t work for me, and I’ll need to switch to Windows. But that’s a bridge I’ll cross when I need to. Otherwise, I can’t think of anything that I’m worried about right now.
I may get a graphics card in the future, that could extend the life of the computer for little money. I’ll also probably add a webcam. Why not chat with people?
I received a much help from the authors of the following sites: