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Building the Perfect Budget PC, Part 2
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

Installing drives

With the motherboard installed and connected, the next step is to install the optical drive and hard drive. Before you install the drive, verify the jumper settings. We plan to install the hard drive as the master device on the primary ATA channel and the optical drive as the master device on the secondary ATA channel.

The Seagate Barracuda hard drive was jumpered properly by default. The Lite-On CD burner was jumpered as a slave device, as many optical drives are by default. We used our needle-nose pliers to move the jumper from the slave pins to the master pins, as shown in Figure 17.

Figure 17
Figure 17. Setting a drive jumper

To mount the optical drive, choose a 5.25-inch drive bay and pop out the plastic bezel cover. We used the top bay because our system will sit on the floor and we wanted the optical drive as high as possible for easy access. If your system will sit on a desk, we recommend using the lowest bay, for the same reason.

Behind the bezel cover is a metal RF shield plate. Twist it back and forth until it snaps out. (Be careful not to cut yourself on the burrs that remain when the plate is removed.) Remove the drive rail that is affixed to the metal plate.

The Antec SLK2650BQE uses a clever tool-free method for mounting 5.25-inch drives, using only one rail per drive. The left side of the drive rests on a narrow shelf that supports it vertically. The single rail connects to the right side of the drive. Unlike most rails, this one doesn't require screws. Instead it uses a spring-steel bracket, each end of which fits a screw hole on the drive. When the bracket is relaxed, the tips are too close together to span the distance between the screw holes on the drive. Putting pressure on the bracket flattens it and spreads the distance between the tips, allowing them to snap into the drive screw holes. To mount the rail, place one bracket tip in a screw hole, and align the rail along the bottom of the drive, parallel to the edge. Press down firmly with both thumbs, as shown in Figure 18, until the second bracket tip snaps into the second screw hole.

Figure 18
Figure 18. Seating a drive rail

To install the drive in the bay, first move the black plastic lock mechanism (visible in Figure 19) to the unlocked position. Connect an ATA cable to the rear of the drive, making sure that Pin 1 on the cable, the side with the red stripe, corresponds to Pin 1 on the drive, the side nearest the power connector.

Most ATA cables have three connectors. The blue connector on one end of the cable connects to the motherboard. The two device connectors are gray, in the middle, and black, at the other end. Some cables do not have colored connectors. In that case, the two connectors closest to each other are the device connectors.

Feed the slack end of the ATA cable through the drive bay to the inside of the case, and then slide the drive into position in the bay. With the drive fully seated, slide the lock mechanism to the locked position, as shown in Figure 19. Connect one of the peripheral power connectors from the power supply to the drive.

Figure 19
Figure 19. Securing the optical drive

To install the hard drive, begin by removing the hard drive bay, as shown in Figure 20. Slide the chrome locking lever to the rear, unlocked position, and slide the hard drive bay toward the rear of the case until it releases. We had to apply significant pressure to release the bay. Make sure the locking lever is unlocked, and then use as much pressure as needed to free the bay.

Figure 20
Figure 20. Removing the hard drive bay

Verify that the hard drive jumper setting is correct, and then use four of the hard drive mounting screws, shown in Figure 21, to secure the hard drive to the bay. The black rubber grommets physically isolate the drive from the bay, reducing noise and vibration. Be sure not to tighten the drive screws more than finger-tight. Overtightening them eliminates the benefit of the rubber grommets.

Figure 21
Figure 21. Securing the hard drive

Connect an ATA cable to the hard drive, making sure that Pin 1 on the cable corresponds to Pin 1 on the drive. Slide the drive bay back into position and move the locking lever to the locked position. Connect one of the peripheral power connectors from the power supply to the hard drive.

The final step in installing the drives is to connect the ATA cables to the motherboard ATA interfaces. Connect the hard drive ATA cable to the primary ATA interface and the optical drive ATA cable to the secondary ATA interface, as shown in Figure 22. (On the ASUS A7N8X-VM/400 motherboard, the primary ATA connector is blue and the secondary ATA connector is black.)

Figure 22
Figure 22. Connecting the ATA cables

Related Reading

PC Hardware Buyer's Guide
Choosing the Perfect Components
By Robert Bruce Thompson, Barbara Fritchman Thompson

Conclusion

The system is now complete except for a few finishing touches. Connect the rear case fan to a power supply connector, and spend a few minutes dressing and tying off all the cables to keep them clear of fans and airflow. Verify all the connections one last time, and make sure you haven't left a tool in the patient. Replace the left-hand side panel, making sure the TAC vent is unobstructed, and connect the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Finally, connect the power cord, make sure the power supply rocker switch is on, and press the main power switch. The system should come to life and attempt to boot.

As the system comes up, press the Del key to enter BIOS setup. Set the date and time, and configure the other options to your preferences. Make sure the optical drive is set first in the boot sequence, save your changes, and insert your operating system CD in the drive. Restart the system, and install the OS.

We installed Windows XP temporarily to verify that it would install properly, which it did. We then installed Xandros Desktop 3.0 Linux, which is our primary OS. Xandros 3.0 recognized all hardware, including the integrated video, audio, and LAN.

After using the system for several days, we are quite pleased with it, particularly given its low price. Benchmark tests show it to be noticeably slower than our 3+GHz Pentium 4 systems and fast Athlon 64 systems, but it doesn't "feel" much slower in daily use. Although this system wouldn't be our first choice for processor-intensive tasks, it more than suffices for routine web browsing, email, and productivity applications.

The noise level is moderate--louder than we prefer for a quiet working area but not intrusive in a normal office environment, particularly if the system is under a desk. The Antec power supply and case fan contribute little to the noise level; nearly all of it is caused by the small, high-speed CPU cooler fan. Substituting a $20 to $30 quiet CPU cooler such as the Zalman CPNS3100+ or CPNS6000-Cu would allow this system to run almost inaudibly in a normal residential environment.

With the $7.50 Dynatron CPU cooler we used, the Sempron processor idles at 108 degrees Fahrenheit (42 degrees Celsius), a bit warmer than we'd like but still well within specifications. Again, using a better CPU cooler and superior thermal compound would reduce idle operating temperatures significantly, probably to somewhere in the range of 91 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit (33 to 37 degrees Celsius).

Overall, we're delighted with this system. For $500 or so complete ($350 without a monitor, keyboard, or mouse), it makes a perfect second system for a home or dorm room. With some minor targeted upgrades--such as more memory, an inexpensive AGP video adapter for casual gaming, a DVD writer, or a quieter CPU cooler--it may even suit many people as a primary system.

Robert Bruce Thompson is a coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, Astronomy Hacks, and the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. Thompson built his first computer in 1976 from discrete chips. Since then, he has bought, built, upgraded, and repaired hundreds of PCs for himself, employers, customers, friends, and clients.

Barbara Fritchman Thompson is a coauthor of "Building the Perfect PC" and "PC Hardware in a Nutshell." She runs her own home-based consulting practice, Research Solutions.


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