13. PC Hardware Setup
If you bought an assembled PC, all you have to do at this stage is
unpack it. If you're building a PC from parts, you might want to do a
preliminary test build at this point to make sure everything's working,
and to confirm that you have everything you need.
If you're going to install your PC equipment in your pin cab without a
standard PC case, you can do your test build with the parts spread out
on a tabletop. Be sure to do your work on a non-conductive surface
like wood to avoid accidental shorts.
Static electricity precautions
Many of the parts in a PC are sensitive to static electricity,
particularly the CPU and memory chips. That's why everything comes
packaged in those silvery plastic anti-static bags.
Your body can accumulate a significant static charge, enough to damage
semiconductors, so you have to be careful handling these parts to
avoid zapping them when you touch them.
The way to protect against damage when handling static-sensitive parts
is to frequently "ground" yourself, meaning that you electrically
connect yourself to the earth. Professional engineers do this with
something called a grounding strap, which is a conductive bracelet
that you wear on your wrist and connect by a wire to your house's
ground wiring. That keeps you connected to the earth ground the whole
time you're working. You probably don't have one of these unless you
do a lot of electronics work, but you can achieve the same thing by
simply touching a metal surface that's connected to earth ground
periodically while you're working.
Where do you find a grounded metal surface to touch while working?
When you're working on a PC, there's one that's always close at
hand: the power supply case.
Here's what I suggest. Before you start any other work, get your
power supply out of the box and plug it in. Put it on the
table where you're going to do your work. Find a bare metal
surface on the power supply case. If there are no bare metal
surfaces, an unpainted screw head on the case will work. The key is
bare metal attached to the case.
As long as the power supply is plugged in with a three-pronged plug,
you can now ground yourself at any time by touching that bare metal
You don't have to keep in contact with the grounded metal all the
time, although it's ideal if you do (which is why they invented those
grounding bracelets). But do ground yourself frequently while
working, at least every few minutes, and every time you return to the
work station after walking around. Walking around is is a great way
to accumulate static charge. Another good time is whenever you're
about to open an anti-static bag or start handling a new part.
Assembling the motherboard
You should find detailed installation instructions for assembling your
motherboard in its packaging. If you bought a retail-packaged CPU, it
should also include its own instructions for installing it in the
You should follow the setup instructions in your motherboard's
documentation, since every board is a little different. In general,
though, here are the steps:
- Install the CPU in its socket. Be especially diligent about
static electricity precautions while handling the bare CPU.
- Install the CPU fan. Most motherboards have clips or sockets
for securing the fan, so this is usually just a matter of fitting
the fan into place.
- Connect the CPU fan wiring. The CPU fan should have a short wire
connector that mates to a "CPU FAN" socket or pin header on the
- Plug in the memory (RAM) chips.
- Insert the video card into its motherboard slot. Note that some
motherboards have multiple slots that are physically capable of
holding the video card, but one slot might be better than the others
because it has a faster data connection. Check your motherboard
documentation to see if one slot is designated as the special slot for
the video card. The documentation might not put it in these terms;
it might instead list the PCI "x" speeds for the different slots,
such as x1, x4, or x16. The highest "x" speed is the fastest slot,
so it's the one to use for the video card.
- Connect the storage device (hard disk or SSD).
- Connect the power supply to the motherboard. There are usually
two connectors from the power supply that plug directly into the
- Connect the power supply to the video card. Most higher-end
video cards have a dedicated connection directly to the power
supply. Your power supply should have the special mating
plug attached to one of the wires in the bundle of cables
coming out of the supply.
- Connect the power supply to the hard disk or SSD. These
devices have their own power connection. As with the video card,
the hard disk/SSD has a dedicated power connector that will mate
with one of the connector wires coming out of the power supply.
- Connect a video monitor to the video card.
- Connect a keyboard and mouse to USB ports on the motherboard.
- If you have a wired Ethernet network, connect a cable to the
network plug on the motherboard.
Video card precautions
If you're assembling everything on a tabletop without a standard PC
case, the video card's connection to the motherboard will be
fragile, since it won't have the structural support that a normal case
provides. The PCI slot is really only meant to provide the electrical
connection; it's not meant to provide structural support or anchor the
card in place.
You'll definitely need to secure the card physically in your eventual
installation in the pin cab. For testing purposes, though, you can
work with this flimsy setup as long as you're careful not nudge
anything while the power is on. Even a little nudge, like someone
bumping into the table, can be enough to momentarily
interrupt the electrical connection in the socket. I'd avoid that; in
most cases the only harm will be to make the PC reboot itself
immediately, but these cards really aren't meant to be hot-plugged
(taken in and out with the power on) and could be damaged by this.
Power it on
Once you have everything assembled as described above (and according
to any additional instructions in your motherboard's documentation),
you're ready to give it a test run.
Modern PC motherboards have "soft power" controls, so even though it's
already connected to the power supply, it won't actually turn on until
you press the "on" button. If you have a case, the "on" button is the
one on the case. If you're working without a case, though, you have
to find the "Power Switch" pins on the motherboard. Check your
motherboard documentation to find the right pins. The motherboard
manual will tell you that these are the pins to connect to the "Power
Switch" connector wires from your case.
Once you identify the "power switch" terminals, you turn the PC on
simply by shorting these two pins together for a moment. They're
usually right next to each other on the motherboard, so if you don't
have the right kind of connector handy, you can simply touch a metal
screwdriver tip to both pins at the same time. (Be careful not to
touch any other pins while doing this, of course.)
When the PC first powers up, you should see a brief message flash on
the screen telling you to press a key on the keyboard to enter the
BIOS Setup. It's usually one of the function keys, often F8 or F12,
but it varies by motherboard. You'll just have to watch for the
message to find the right key. You should also be able to find this
information in your motherboard's documentation.
You should be able to reboot by pressing Alt+Ctrl+Del on your
keyboard, which should give you another chance to press the magic BIOS
Setup key. You can also power cycle by shorting the "Power Switch"
pins together again to turn the PC off, then wait a few seconds and do
it again to power up again.
You have to press the magic BIOS Setup key at just the right moment
after the power comes on. It usually works to tap on the key rapidly
while the machine is powering up.
The BIOS Setup lets you configure the machine's hardware and verify
that everything you physically attached (memory, disk, video card) is
being properly recognized by the motherboard. It's worth running
the setup as a very basic test, since the fact that it runs at all
confirms that the video card, keyboard, CPU, and memory are all