Glenn's Junk Chest

An assortment of Glenn's writings, photography, gaming resources, flash movies, and other creative output.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Computers: Building a PC with my Daughter

Me, my daughter Ivy, & her new PC
A few months ago, my daughter and I were discussing technology, and talking about the various things that people can do, and somehow the topic came around to putting computers together, and I assured her that if she wanted to, it was something we could do.

"Really?!?" she asked.

"Yep," I foolishly affirmed.

A few months later she reminded me.

"Remember that computer we're going to build together?"

So... As we ramped up to Christmas, Ivy and I talked about the kinds of projects we could do, from building a small circuit board with transistors, to putting together some kind of simple computing device from chips, to assembling a PC from parts. After some discussion, she opted to build a PC.

Our Project Requirements
  1. A "real" computer. Uncrippled, updatable, and useful.
  2. Runs Linux as primary OS.
  3. Capable of running World of Warcraft
  4. Useful as a home theater media box
  5. Not horribly expensive.

Selecting and Acquiring the Components

Our first stop was at the Computer Store West, out by Frugal Muse on the west side of Madison. They've got a lot of computer parts, cases, and advice, and Ivy and I found it very helpful. After some discussion, we decided to select a motherboard, and work out from there. The store sold a nice little board, the "Asus P5N-EM HDMI Motherboard" It's a Micro-ATX motherboard with a 775 socket. (The 775 socket is a pinless socket that accepts Intel-manufactured chips).

You can look at it here: Asus P5N-EM HDMI Motherboard. $100

ASUS P5N-EM motherboard & CPU fan
This board was attractive to us because of the low price ($100), the integrated graphics card (nVidia GeForce 7100) and the built-in HDMI support, which meant easy hookup to a HD television. It also supported a wide range of powerful (and not so powerful) processors, as well as a wide range of DDR2 RAM.

Unfortunately, despite a desire to buy locally, the premium on some of the individual pieces was too much, and they didn't carry everything. Our goal was to get the minimum specification on every part, and it didn't suit our purposes to spend twice as much to get a slightly better part when we knew a cheaper (and slightly less powerful) part was readily available online.

So, we purchased the following pieces online from TigerDirect:

Thermaltake Black LANBOX Micro-ATX Case. $120

We liked this because it had clear sides. (If you're building it yourself, this is a plus, so you can show it off.) It also has a nice carrying handle, and a cool blue light when it's on.

Intel Celeron Dual Core 1.6ghz CPU. $40.

This is the cheapest processor readily available that will fit in a 775 socket. One thing I like about the route we took here is that if we need more power later on, we could replace it with something like this, a $500+ 2.93ghz quad core processor.

A Masscool 775 CPU fan. $20

Apparently modern CPUs need fans right on them. A heat sync alone won't do anymore.

2 DDR2 667mhz 1gb DIMMs. $24

I figured 2 GB of RAM, would be enough, and by picking the slower 667mhz stuff, it's another place where we could improve the computer's performance in the future by acquiring a more expensive set of DIMMs.

A Power UP 550 watt ATX power supply. $30.

Relatively low power, simple, and cheap, but it has all the needed connectors, and I don't think we'll need bigger for quite a while.

I didn't want to buy anything I didn't have to, so I started scrounging around for leftover hard drives, optical drives, keyboards, and mice. I've got extra monitors around the house, and part of the idea is that the thing should hook up to our TV as-is.

My brother was kind enough to supply a 330gb hard drive that had been dropped and that he no longer trusted for business purposes, even though it passed tests. I ended up purchasing a new mouse with Ivy, and while I was going to purchase a straight DVD-ROM, Ivy threw in her X-mas money to get me to go up to a Blu-Ray optical drive. For now, we're just using old crummy keyboards scavanged from older computers.

Scavenged Maxtor 3.5" hard drive. (PATA, 330gb), $0

Logitech wireless USB mouse. $20

LG blu-ray optical drive. $120

I'm still not sure (see below) that this thing will play blu-ray movies as is. But it comes close, and it might allow ripping them, even if it doesn't allow direct playback.

Total parts cost: $474

So, without telling Ivy, I ordered all the parts, boxed them up, and carried them as wrapped gifts down to the in-laws for our Christmas visit. I think it's telling that we could have shaved $100 off the price by going with a regular DVD instead of the blu-ray. By staying away from the cutting edge on a project like this, you can save a lot of money.


Ivy screws in the Hard Drive
On Christmas, we opened it all up, and Ivy and I set to the assembly with a will. Mostly, this is just a physical process of plugging things into other things, screwing things into other things, and spending a lot of time looking at the manual to make sure that everything that needs to be hooked up is hooked up.

One observation I have about this process is that most connectors are keyed, so you can't connect them backwards or to the wrong thing. The only exception I noticed was that the firewire and USB connections to the motherboard look the same, and you can apparently damage the motherboard by hooking them up incorrectly. We didn't have firewire on this motherboard, so I tucked that cable out of the way.

Everything else was pretty straightforward. Including mounting the drives, which required a little ambitious positioning and screwing, but nothing too out there. It was especially convenient that our case had lift out mounts for both the power supply and the drives, which meant we could pull them out to screw things in. Very nice.

Still not done, but happy.
Our only hang-up during initial assembly came in connecting the "power" light on the case to the appropriate pins on the motherboard. The case manufacturer thinks that an ATX motherboard power light connector should have three pins, and the important ones are 1 and 3. The motherboard from ASUS, however, had two pins as part of a grid of many connectors. I had to reconfigure the power connector by pulling loose one of the wires and reconnecting it, and then jamming into the available space, with part of the connector hanging out over the edge. Inelegant, but it works.

After we wired it up, we plugged it in in the kitchen for the smoke test, and had no trouble. We then hooked it up to one of my father-in-laws monitors and keyboards, and we were able to boot to the bios configuration screens, where the computer promptly froze.

A little research revealed the only significant misstep Ivy and I made in the entire process. The motherboard has three DIMM slots for RAM. One of which is a different color than the other two. I put the two DIMMs we had into the two slots that had the same color. Turns out that the 3rd slot is a different color because it requires a DIMM to be inserted there. After about 15 minutes with the motherboard manual, I figured this out, moved one DIMM to that slot, and then I could boot to BIOS configuration without crashing. Huzzah!

Configuration and Installation

Since my goal was to create a linux-primary machine, I then installed Ubuntu linux on it. I cannot stress just how easy this was. Unfortunately, I also wanted to be able to boot Windows XP, because A) That's the easiest way to play World of Warcraft, and B) The blu-ray video playing software only comes for Windows.

Sadly, it would turn out that this was a mistake on my part. Important tip: To create a dual-boot system with windows, install windows first. The dual boot manager I'm using is called "grub", and if you install Ubuntu after you install windows, it ends up properly installed, but if you install Ubuntu first, Windows blows it away during its own installation.

In my experience, new system configuration is always a hassle, and this was no exception.

Problems Overcome:

  • It passed the smoke test!
    Couldn't get grub reinstalled after Windows blew it away. Fixed that by running it from the command line in Linux after booting Ubuntu from the live CD. However, the grub menu didn't show Windows as an option. Had to modify the grub boot config file to add Windows to the list. Solution: Some messing around at the linux command line. Annoying, but not too bad.

  • No sound on Windows XP. For whatever reason, the default configuration after installation didn't have Windows using the nVidia sound hardware. Solution: Changed settings in Sound control panel in windows.

  • Ubuntu didn't have nVidia drivers, so maxed res at 800x600. In addition, the automatic installation program in Ubuntu doesn't currently work for this. Solution: Found and downloaded current drivers. Had to boot Ubuntu in recovery mode to install them, since the installer wouldn't let me do it while x-windows was running.

  • World of Warcraft and its two expansions took 8 hours to install. I kid you not. Solution: Excessive patience.

Problems still outstanding:

  • Blu-ray software "PowerDVD" won't play blu-rays. When I first installed it, I put in the Dark Knight blu-ray, and it played at a reduced frame rate. I fiddled with the settings trying to get better performance. Then quit and tried installing an updated version of PowerDVD. Since then, and despite a full reinstall of PowerDVD, when I put a blu-ray disc in and try to play it, PowerDVD quits without generating an error message. Very frustrating, especially since it worked once. mini-update: It worked again when hooked up to HDMI instead of VGA. Could it be a copy protection thing?

All photos courtesy my wife, Liana Loos-Austin.

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