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Manta's Guide to building a great PC

This page is now out dated but still contains some valuable info
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First off lets all consider this, Intel's x86 code is pretty much the standard around which programs are written and so a wise decision is to build with Intel chipsets on both the motherboard as well as the CPU. Starting with an Intel base helps to insure that the programs you purchase will perform as you expect them.

Now there are many, including close friends of mine, that will argue the benchmarks of AMD Vs Intel, and so I will explain my reasoning for Intel here. As I mentioned above Intel x86 code is a clear choice, in my opinion, because it is considered by many as setting the standards by which software programmers write code (with the exception of MAC). My reasoning on this is simple if Intel sets the standard, then by using Intel based PCs I am eliminating one possible source of problems. INTEL CPUs may have slower benchmarks but that doesn't mean as much as compatibility when it comes to the elimination of frustration during normal everyday use. If I want more speed I'll add a faster processor. My recommendations here are to go with either the INTEL  P3 processor, or if economy is of importance then go with the INTEL Celeron. As for mother boards I have tried a few, and occasionally tested other chipsets such as the VIA, ALI and SIS, but my recommendation here would be to go with the BCM QS400BX motherboard. I've found this to be a very reliable and well performing board. The BX chipset is now becoming a bit dated but it will handle up to a 1GHz P3 processor and that should be more than enough for all your needs, at least until holodecks come along. My personal machine uses a BCM QS440BX motherboard and an INTEL P3 550 MHz chip which supplies ample power to allow my machine to act as server for 3 other machines as well as an internet gateway, and all the while I am able to work within it at the same time, without feeling any strain on the system. It even has enough horse power to allow a good game of Half Life or Blood2 while acting as a server in the background. (these games also require a good 3D card which I'll touch on in a minute).

A NOTE ON GAMES: Don't be too quick to poo-pooh the fact that I used games as an example above. It takes far more horsepower to run today's video games than it does for most work applications. And so before you mock those game machines that a lot of us are so proud of consider this, If I can run any game on the market with fluid speed, no lag and realistic graphics rendering I am not going to have any problem at all running my spreadsheets, word processors, art programs, etc.

After you have the mother board and CPU next you should consider HDs, CD-ROMs and Floppies. HD brands are a matter of taste mostly but I would recommend you stay with one of the BIG 3, Western Digital, Maxtor, or Seagate, my personal choice here is Western Digital who offers a 3 yr delivered to your door replacement policy in case of failure. As for floppies they usually come in 2 flavors TEAC or Y-Data. There are others but not as widely sold. Of the two I have encountered problems with neither and the price difference is almost nil, 2-3 dollars US. With CD-ROMs there is something more to consider than speed, and that is compatibility. For smooth audio and video operation all that is need is a quad 4X speed CD ROM, but my personal tests have shown that 6x is a more likely minimum. Today with speeds in excess of 50x speed is not even something to worry about. There is however the issue of compatibility, my person testing and experience have shown that Toshiba CD ROMs seem to be the most compatible. Compatible meaning use with different home made types of CDRs (those from read write CD burners). With Toshiba as with many other brands the faster CDs seem to experience slightly longer delays when they initially spin up. For that reason you may want to consider a fast but not blazing CD ROM, if you can find them it may save you a few bucks. My personal favorite here is the Toshiba and when I can get them I opt for a 40x. Now there is another thing to consider. Recently the DVD ROM has made its way into the market place. DVDs are priced between the $100 - $230 price range at the time of this writing. However prices change and in the PC world usually they drop! So it's up to you if you wish to wait for better times. Also DVDs have forced the price of standard CD ROMs even lower with prices starting as low as $39. While I wouldn't recommend going with the cheapest CD ROM out there, I would like to point out I have seen the Toshiba for $49 just $10 more for a better ROM! The final decision whether to go DVD or CD ROM will of course be up to you. While on the subject of CD ROMs lets do the sound cards too.

You can get a good PCI sound card for as little as $15 these days, but I would recommend a PCI sound card with good SB (sound Blaster) emulation. The ESS chipset is one good choice but there are also others. I use a Diamond Sonic Impact 3D. When choosing your sound card SoundBlaster address emulation and compatibility is a MUST. Sound Blaster, like INTEL was and is a major standard by which software programmers develop new software to. While it is not necessary to have a genuine SB card, it is very important to have that emulation capability, and to be sure the addressing in either real mode or emulation mode matches that of the standard DOS settings of a genuine Sound Blaster. The Sound Blaster standard settings are as follows .....

Low Address  220h

High Address  330h

IRQ 5

DMA 1 (this is why we reserve this DMA which I will go into a bit later)

Again that's 220, 330, 1, 5  (if you use or emulate these settings when setting up your sound card you will be fully compatible)

AND if you decided to go DVD ROM then by all means consider going with the Sound Blaster LIVE Platinum card (the one with 5.1 Surround)

Now lets consider some of those cards that are in our machines starting with Video.Also now is a good time to start considering the cuss word of computer building "IRQs". Heheh

IRQs really aren't such a mystery. There are 15 of them (some reserved) and there really is a simple formula to setting them up so everything runs smoothly and the chance of argumentative Hardware is reduced drastically. First off here is a simple table to memorize or print out and keep handy.

IRQ 1 = Used By system (usually keyboard)

IRQ 2 = Used by System (usually Interrupt controller)

IRQ 3 = COM2

IRQ 4 = COM1

IRQ 5 = Sound Cards

IRQ 6 = floppy diskette

IRQ 7 = LPT1 (printer port)

IRQ 8 = CMOS/RTC

IRQ 9 = Floater (often used win95-98 during plug n play setups)

IRQ 10 = Network Cards

IRQ 11 = Video Cards

IRQ 12 = SCSI controllers

IRQ 13 = Numeric Data Processor

IRQ 14 = Primary HD Controller

IRQ 15 = Secondary HD Controller

Along with the IRQs are DMA addresses but the only ones you need remember, and   bother  with are DMA 1 and DMA 3. DMA 1 is for your sound card and DMA 3 is for your printer.

Of these IRQs you need only concern yourself with 3,4,5,7,9,10,11,12. In today's systems the USB will usually share with others and not cause problems (for instance USB and a network card sharing IRQ 10 would cause no problems). The lower end IRQs 1-7 are a bit more critical than the upper end, especially when it comes to the ability to run older DOS applications. It is very important to do it by the book if you want the most compatible settings.

Now, don't fret, this was actually the hard part, and its almost over whew! Also lets go and turn off COM2 (unless you are planning to use an external modem), So enter the BIOS and do so, and while we are on that page of the BIOS settings lets set the LPT port up as follows LPT1 address = 378h IRQ=7 MODE=ECP DMA=3 This is the best setting for compatibility with today's bi-directional printers.

OK so now the IRQs are under our control not windows, heheh this is how you keep it stable ;)

OK, save and exit the BIOS. Your machine should boot up part way. There is not an OS yet so it will stop right after it detects all the system hardware. On an award BIOS you should get a box that will display things like Memory, which ram slots, ram type, HDs, CD ROM etc. the bottom of this box shows the IRQ assignments for the detected cards along with things like USB COMs LPT etc. look and make sure that you only show 1 COM port, it should read COM1 = 3F8h and if you set the BIOS correctly it will be assigned to IRQ=4 even though the IRQ does not show. The LPT should be as we set it, LPT1 = 378h   IRQ=7, again the IRQ setting is not displayed. Our display card should be an IRQ in the range of 10-12. If it is not reenter the BIOS, you probably did not set IRQ 9 to "Legacy ISA". If all the settings are within the proper range then lets shut it all off and add in our other cards.

Now, back to Video. What you choose for a Video card is largely dependent on what you want to do with your computer. It is always a wise move to consider carefully everything you want to do with your machine, both now and in the future. The video card can be almost as important a decision as the Motherboard and CPU. Since our way of seeing output from our computers is through the monitor, we want the video to be displayed quickly and without strain to the CPU. None of us want to wait for screens to redraw themselves. First let's look at a business setup. IF (make sure you are not fibbing yourselves and would secretly like to relax and be a kid once in a while, I do and so do many. There is nothing wrong with enjoying life along the way. <SMILE>) you only want a business machine, then I would recommend a lower priced AGP card with some sort of support for 3D graphics. There are plenty of good cards priced between $50 - $90 and most offer 16MB RAM or more these days.

If you are looking to have a smooth game machine with plenty of graphics horse power I hands down recommend the Voodoo6 3D cards. AGP Voodoo6 3D is my first choice but if you already have an existing video card then by all means try and find the Monster II 3D (if you can find one, or two if you really want it to scream), don't skimp on your 3D video or you will be disappointed. I was on the scene a while back before AGP and so I run a Monster II 3D with 12 Mbs, I would only choose the Voodoo6 3D 3000 over this card, but there are plenty of othere great cards such as the Gforce2. I do want to point out that the Monster II is an add-on card to provide support for voodoo II 3D graphics and will not work for anything but your 3Dfx and Glide (you must have a primary graphics card for your other graphics if you choose to run a Monster II 3D). Both of these game cards are a bit more expensive, than some others, but when it comes to games they are awesome. Make sure you've set the BIOS to assign an IRQ to the Video Card. I would recommend you consult with a technician rather than playing around in the BIOS unless you have experience and know what effects changes to BIOS settings will have on the overall system. If you do make your own changes, be sure and turn off the "AUTO" setting for IRQ control in your BIOS to allow manual control of the IRQs. For a BCM Board and many other motherboards that use award BIOS you can leave most of the IRQ assignments at "PCI/PnP ISA", but I would recommend setting IRQ3 (that's for COM2) to "Legacy ISA", do the same for IRQ 9 (this is to prevent startup from assigning it unless we are truly short on IRQs 9 is not desirable). Also Set DMA 1 to "Legacy ISA" (we want to reserve this DMA for our sound card. )

NOTE: This article is now becoming a bit dated and there are a few more choices in graphics cards. The GeForce2  vid card which comes highly recommended, by a good friend of mine who recently put one thru all the grueling paces, and could also be an excellent choice.

Lets take a look at modems now. Set the IRQs BY THE BOOK, modems and other COMs should be set up ... Mouse/Com1 = IRQ4 and your Modem at Com2 = IRQ3. When installing a modem it is better to use an ISA modem when possible. While things are moving to PCI, it is not the best choice when it comes to modems. ISA is fine for modems, but keep in mind 2 things, choose a NON plug and play modem. PCI modems in most cases try and emulate the COM port in software and this can pose a problem since software emulation's are susceptible to corruption from other programs loading into or over part of the memory area or addresses needed for that emulation. It is better to use an ISA modem set up for COM2 IRQ3 (use non-plug n play). It may take a few minutes of your time to study the jumpers and set them (most manufacturers will factory ship with the proper setting but it's always good to double check). Also be sure and turn Com2 off in the system BIOS.If you leave Com2 turned on in your Bios you will create an address conflict that will prohibit your system from accessing the modem properly. Although there are 4 COMs 1-4 by the book, programming standards prevent them from being used fully without some expertise and so it is my recommendation that you set your Modems to IRQ3 COM2 and set the built in Com ports (those on most of today's motherboards) to disable COM 2. If you are still unfortunate to have an older motherboard those with an I/O card you will have to disable the COM2 port manually with the jumpers on the I/O card. This can be very difficult and I would recommend you let a qualified technician handle that since improper settings could result in many I/O problems (I/O = Input /Output I.E.: Communication Ports, Printer Ports, Game Ports, etc.).

IRQs are assigned to the PCI bus in the usual order, PCI (white) Slot farthest from ISA (black) slot then each consecutive slot moving towards the ISA slot, and finally the ISA (black)slots. (most new motherboards have only 1 or two of these ISA slots now). This is important if we are to obtain the desired IRQ assignments.

For the sake of this example lets say I have a PCI Sound Card, PCI Network card, and I have Installed an AGP Video Card, I want my sound card to grab the first (lowest) open IRQ so I will put it in the first PCI slot, this should have the desired effect of giving it IRQ 5 (the first available IRQ which has been assigned to "PCI/PnP ISA" remember our BIOS settings). Secondly I will add in my PCI network card this should allow it to grab the second available IRQ which is IRQ 10.

HEY! What happened to IRQs 1,2,4,5,6,7,8,9??? HUH???

Well IRQs 1 and 2 were grabbed by system resources and 3 was turned to legacy so it was skipped, 4 was given to the com ports as they took priority over the PCI Bus, 6 was given to the floppy and 7 was handed off to LPT1, 8 belonged to the CMOS/RTC and we turned 9 to legacy so that left 10. See, not really such a mystery after all, is it? Had we installed another PCI card it would have received either 11 or 12 depending on your mother board and which was assigned to your AGP slot. Usually AGP comes after and it would have received a 12 for video making our card IRQ 11. Finally the system looks at our ISA (black slots) Since we have jumped our ISA modem to COM2 IRQ3 and since it was defined are available in BIOS the system can now accept those too as valid settings. OK lets turn on the machine and see if we got it all right....

Again the HDs have not been set up and there is no need to insert a boot disk yet. When the machine stops booting our white box should indicate that we now have 2 com ports, COM1 (the one on the mother board) at 3F8h IRQ4 and our Modem Card with will show up as COM2 2F8h IRQ3. LPT1 will be at 378h IRQ7, and our cards will be Multimedia Device IRQ5, Network IRQ10, Display Adapter IRQ11.

Congratulations you are ready to begin programming your new PC. But that's a whole 'nother webpage :)

 

In closing I can't stress enough the importance of pointing out the need to use good quality components I will leave you with the following parts list. While you may be able to save a few dollars on some components such as the case I would recommend you stick to others such as mother board, CPU, Sound Card and Modem

an ATX case with at least a 250watt power supply (300watt is better)

BCM QS400BX 100mhz motherboard (although there are many better and faster boards now at a slightly higher price)

INTEL P3 or Celeron Processor (I highly recommend usint the p3 rather than the Celeron)

at least 128 Mb of  SDRam (with today's prices I have installed 384Mb)

Western Digital HD (or similar quality HD. I would stay with WD, IBM, or Maxtor)

Toshiba 40x CD ROM (or DVD ROM if you are so inclined)

TEAC 1.44 floppy

A goog AGP video, or VooDoo6 3Dfx  AGP (for high end machines & gaming)

Diamond Sonic 3D PCI Audio Card or Sound Blaster Live (SB Live Platinum w/5.1 surround for DVD)

(both are excellent cards with the SB Live being top of the line, although the Sonic 3D is available at a fraction of the cost. Also please be aware that the DOS drivers must be installed in Config Sys for many of the older DOS games. The Sonic and ESS chipset PCI cards seem to be more backward compatible with these older games so be aware that not all sound cards are going to perform the same with DOS software.)

NOTE: The author uses the Sonic 3D sound card and TWO video cards in the following configuration.  ....   Sonic 3D sound card w/ Matrox Mystique 4 Mb PCI video card coupled with a 12Mb Diamond Monster II card to handle 3D gaming. This is my personal personal machine and there are better configurations such as SB Live and Voodoo 5500 3Dfx or GeForce2 out there these days. My personal machine's configuration is not necessarily the  fastest but it serves the purposes I put to it just fine.

SN3200 Network card (SN500TX for 100 Mbit operation) the SN cards are a good card in the mid price range).

SmartFast 56K ISA non PlugnPlay Modem

 

I hope this servers everyone as a guide to more enjoyable computing. I would like to say for those of you with less experience or the more timid, seek out the guidance of qualified technician. I have tried to make this as straight forward as possible but it is very difficult to impart over 15 yrs experience in a single lesson.

 

Good luck and happy computing.

 

=MANTA=

Disclaimer

The views, opinions, and recommendations of this article are solely my own personal opinions based on over 15 years of building and operating computers. This article is intended for information and guidance based on my opinions and experience and not meant to degrade nor detract from any other hardware or software that may have been mentioned or not mentioned. All brand names mentioned in this article are copyright of their respective owners and do not imply endorsement of me or CyberCity 2000 by those companies. The above recommendations are based upon my own system which has performed to my every expectation and in sharing this information it is my only intent, that I can be of some help to those of you who would like to try building your own PC. I assume NO LIABILITY for anything you do with this information. If you are not experienced in computer construction or repair you are advised to seek professional assistance.

Copyright © 1998-2011 Ron Hainesall rights reserved

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