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August 29, 2007

Top 10 "To-Dos" After Building a Computer

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Thinking about building your own computer? It’s not a bad idea! It’s the best way to make sure that you’re getting what you want and it’s also a great way to get some experience with your PC and with computers in general.

Building your own PC helps you understand the components of a computer and how they work together; and at the same time, it can be a very satisfying learning experience. But if this is your first attempt, make sure to check out these top 10 “to dos” after you’re done building your PC!

  1. Get Organized!

  2. You have just put the cover on the case of your new custom-built computer. All the puzzle pieces have been put together; all input and output devices such as monitor, mouse and keyboard are connected and all that is leftover is a mess of packaging, documentation and driver disks. Now it’s time to clean up!

    Your first instinct may be to throw all the packaging away. Don’t! Aside from the cellophane wrapper stuck to your shoe, there is very little I recommend throwing away. The leftover boxes, static proof bags and bubble wrap just so happen to be useful for storing things. All your computer parts are being used at the moment, but since you put everything together yourself, you won’t be voiding any warrantees by taking it back apart and making upgrades. Which, more than likely, you will.

    So do what you can to consolidate space by putting smaller boxes in bigger boxes and stacking them neatly in a closet. When you make those inevitable hardware upgrades, the original packaging is the best place to keep the used parts alive. And you never know, your used parts may come in handy for a friend or you may even end up using them towards building another computer.

    With the packaging out of the way, you are left with the hardware documentation, receipts and driver disks. These leftovers can all be stored in a folder for organization and easy access. Should anything break and you need to redeem a warrantee, it’s nice to have the receipts handy. And when you need to install drivers for the hardware, you don’t want to have to dig in all the boxes that are neatly put away either. I also recommend making a list of manufacturers and model numbers of all the hardware used to build the computer.

  3. Configure the Computer’s BIOS Settings

  4. With everything organized and cleaned up, it’s time to give life to your new computer. The first time you power the machine on you will need to set up the Basic Input/Output System (BIOS). The BIOS is an array of low-level configuration settings that tell the computer how to use its hardware. The BIOS settings are stored on a microchip called the complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS).

    Accessing the BIOS settings is performed by pressing a key or combination of keys during the computer’s power on self-test (POST). The key used to access the BIOS settings varies between BIOS manufacturers. Usually when the computer is turned on it displays a prompt with instructions on how to access the BIOS setup; if not, consult your motherboard’s documentation.

    Nowadays, there’s usually not much you need to do with the BIOS. Unless your hardware documentation specifies settings that need to be changed, you should only need to set the date and time, boot order and power saving settings. You will be installing the operating system next so you’ll need to adjust the boot order to boot from the CD-ROM or the floppy drive (which depends on your operating system), before the hard drive.

  5. Install the Operating System

  6. With the BIOS ready, insert your operating system disk. The procedure for installing the operating system varies from one operating system to another. The odds are, you will be going with a Microsoft operating system and the rest of this article assumes that. Before Windows 2000, you had to partition the hard drive with the fdisk utility, then format with the format utility. Both of these were available from the root of the operating system disk or boot disk and accessible through the command prompt.

    Since Windows 2000, partitioning and formatting can all be done during the operating system’s installation. When installing the operating system you will be given a series of prompts to guide you through the process and allow you to select which operating system components to install. Then you wait for an hour or so for the installation to copy all files and reboot to the installed operating system.

  7. Install Drivers for Your Hardware

  8. Once the operating system is installed, your computer will be set to run the most basic hardware such as your mouse, keyboard and limited video capabilities. In order to unleash the potential of the hardware used to build the computer, the operating system must be taught how to use it. That is where the drivers come in.

    A driver is a program used for defining the operating parameters and instructions of a piece of hardware. Upon the first boot of a Windows operating system you will most likely encounter the Found New Hardware Wizard. The Found New Hardware Wizard is not as user friendly as it makes itself out to be. If you follow the defaults, Windows will try to take care of everything with the Windows Update and if that fails, it will automatically search for drivers — which is never the route you’ll want to take for installing drivers.

    Instead, choose the option to install manually and choose to install from a list or specific locations. Usually by the time you get to the list of devices to install, you should have a good idea of the hardware that is being installed. Before selecting anything from the list, insert the manufacturer’s driver disk, click the Have Disk button and browse to the driver directory on the disk, which should contain files with the inf extension. Once the driver location has been selected the list of manufacturers and models should be narrowed down to the hardware being installed. Confirm the installation with the rest of the wizard prompts and reboot if necessary.

    Repeat the process for every Found New Hardware Wizard that comes up, until no more hardware is detected. The Device Manager should indicate any hardware that is not installed with the Found New Hardware Wizard, which is accessible through the computer properties dialogue on the Hardware tab for recent Windows versions, or on the Device Manager for older versions. From the Device Manager you can view all the installed hardware as well as hardware that requires attention, which is indicated with an exclamation point or an “X” icon. Eliminate those bad icons by double clicking them and installing drivers from the drivers tab, if that is the problem. In the case of conflicting interrupt requests (IRQs) or Input/Output (IO) resources, consult the hardware documentation for alternate configurations that can be used.

  9. Secure Your Computer

  10. Before you expose your computer to the potential threats of the Internet, it’s a good idea to secure your machine. This means installing antivirus, antispyware, and firewall software. If you must get your security software from the Internet, it’s best to do so from an already protected machine and copying the installation software to a CD-ROM or other media.

    If getting the software from another machine is not a possibility, you should be able to get away with connecting and getting the software. Be sure to install it immediately, update definitions and following up with a full scan. You can usually get away with connecting before securing, as long as you make it your first priority. There was a time though, when you were guaranteed to get a nasty virus as soon as you connected without any antivirus application installed. This was actually due to poor security with the Internet service provider’s (ISP) domain name servers, which for the most part has been rectified.

  11. Connect to the Internet

  12. Once you have your security applications installed it should be relatively safe to connect to the Internet. Connecting to the Internet depends on your network configuration, ISP and operating system. Most computers that are put together today will be using newer versions of Windows and broadband connections. In this case the process to connect is not much of a process at all, and usually involves plugging in an Ethernet cord or selecting which wireless network connection to use.

    Before Windows 2000 you were required to use the Network Connection Wizard to configure the connection. If using dial-up, the ISPs phone numbers, user names and passwords would need to be configured for the computer to know how to connect to the Internet. For newer operating systems and broadband, if the act of plugging in or connecting to a wireless network does not give you access to the internet, review the instructions provided by your ISP and use their tech support if necessary.

  13. Install Security and Operating System Updates

  14. The first thing you should do after connecting to the Internet is update the definitions for your antivirus and antispyware applications. Updating these definitions is important because the biggest threat to your computer’s security is not last year’s viruses and malicious software, it’s the new ones. Old threats aren’t usually a threat at all due to the fact that the threats are usually eradicated by antivirus and antispyware applications as they are introduced. As malicious software is introduced, they have a tendency to spread like wildfire until everyone is protected against them with the latest definitions blocking their ability to spread.

    Once your security applications themselves have been updated, you should secure the computer further by installing the latest service packs, updates and security patches for the operating system. For Windows operating system this usually takes connecting to the Windows Update site and installing components in sequence. This usually involves rebooting and connecting to the Windows Update site again and again until you run out of updates to install.

    With the latest updates installed you should configure how updates should be installed in the future. Personally I prefer to have Windows download updates automatically but require manual installation. This prevents unwanted random reboots and allows you to pick and choose which updates to install in case Microsoft releases a bad update, which unfortunately they do on occasion, so check out anything you are not sure about on the internet before installing.

  15. Install and Update Applications

  16. So far you have covered the essentials of setting up the computer. The computer is secure, updated and able to realize the potential of the hardware installed. Now it’s time to load it up with all your favorite software, including: office application suites, media players and codecs, games and applications for whatever else it is you want to do with your computer.

    Many applications have a feature to update over the internet or have a website you can go to for updates and patches. Sometimes updating software requires you to register it, if you paid for the software, you should always register it. Sure you are helping the business with valuable marketing data, but it also helps them improve their product, the product that you’re using.

  17. Personalize Your Computer

  18. Now the only thing missing from your computer is you. You have just put together the most powerful tool man has at his disposal and it is all yours! So make it yours and decorate a bit! Change your desktop, taskbar and Start Menu preferences. Make it easy to find shortcuts and hotkeys with the shortcut properties for your most commonly used applications and clear out the ones that get in the way. Set up a system to store and retrieve your files by coming up with a directory structure to organize them. Then fill at least half of your hard drive with your favorite music and movies.

  19. Plan a Backup Strategy

  20. You’ve poured your time, money and soul into building your computer — it would be a shame to lose your work. The last but not least “to-do” after building a computer is backing it up. Before you can perform a backup, you must have the media and a plan. Once you have that set up, do it on a regular basis so you don’t forget!

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About the Author

(A+) is experienced in both IT and development. He has completed training in computers, electronics and networking and obtained his A+ certification. Jason is a self-taught developer and over half of his career in technology has been in web and Windows development, while the rest has been IT orientated. He hopes to be able to use his cross industry expertise to be able to shed more light on the exciting life of a developer for those in IT considering making the move to software. Jason has written articles on various topics including SharePoint, CompTIA A+, and Windows Server 2008.


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