4. Gigster Tech – Assembling Computers From Donated Parts

If you are following along with my blog and received a completely functional system, then you can skip this post. Not all systems require being cobbled together from parts and some of the ones I received didn’t either However, I wanted to cover the topic of assembling computers for those who weren’t so lucky. Fortunately, it’s a lot less daunting than people believe because all computers are assembled from smaller standardized parts.

Laptops are also modular and can be reassembled like desktop computers. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Laptops are also modular and can be reassembled like desktop computers. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Back when I started working with computers (I won’t say exactly when, as that is a very long time ago), computers were simpler but required more tweaking to get all the parts working together. Things have changed a lot on some level and yet have stayed the same on another level. Let me explain.

Most people don’t know this, but computers are completely modular. They are made up of parts that plug together very simply. This is because in the 80’s and 90’s there was an explosion of hobbyists who were interested in building their own computers and so many new companies developped products that met that need. As a result, parts from thousands of manufacturers where made to plug together and interoperate. This development was partly a backlash against large manufacturers like IBM, Sun, and DEC who built computer systems that required all specialized parts, but that where also conveniently more expensive. In response, the modular “white box” (un-branded & assembled from parts) computer was born.

Typical modern computer main system board. Note all the standardized slots and connectors for all the add-on boards and system cables. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

Typical modern computer main system board. Note all the standardized slots and connectors for all the add-on boards and system cables. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

This legacy is why even today, computers are still modular, even those from large manufacturers. This is very convenient for upgrading parts and, consequently, also for our goal of taking all these parts and making usable computers from them. As I received the computers, it was clear that people before me did a fair amount of upgrading as well, which is why I also had so many loose parts. Not everything was functional or compatible, but I had a large selection to chose from. Finding parts that worked well together did require a considerable amount of swapping and testing, but the modularity was a huge plus for me - I cannot imagine what this would have been like if I would have had to solder them together.

While I’ll explain my software choices in a future blog post, I needed to consider software compatibility in choosing my parts. I would be using non-commercial software which not as widely used as more popular software, and manufacturers don’t always make their parts work well with less popular software. So my goal was simple: stick with parts that were familiar with common brand names. As I mentioned, I had lots of parts to chose from, but that also meant a lot of trial & error.

It is beyond the scope of this article to build an entire system from scratch. If you want to do that, it’s definitely do-able, but if you don’t have experience with this, then I would recommend hiring someone to assist or to purchase a good book on the subject. If all you were able to receive are parts, then there are a number of good books on Amazon I would recommend like this one: Build Your Computer Made Easy.

For our purposes, I am going to assume that you have at least a partial computer already, one that has likely been partially “cannibalized” before you acquired it and so it is missing a few parts. Those parts are likely to be the memory, the hard drives and/or possibly the video board – these are typically the more expensive modular parts of the computer and most readily re-useable in other systems. If that is your situation, let’s grab a screwdriver, remove the cover on this computer case, and see what needs to be replaced.

Memory

RAM Memory is pretty straight forward: it looks like a small (4-6” x 1”) circuit board with a row or two of black computer chips on it:

Common computer memory boards. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

Common computer memory boards. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

Sometimes it has a colorful heat sink attached as well and looks a bit space-age-like. Memory typically comes in pairs. If your system is missing this, then you will need to find other memory boards to plug in. If you have spare memory, it should also be in pairs. System boards typically have the memory connectors very close to the main CPU, the main processing ship that is usually under an oversized heat sink and fan in the center of the board.

Note how the notch lines up with the slot in the memory board. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

Note how the notch lines up with the slot in the memory board. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

Memory boards have connectors on one of the long sides with a notch near the middle. This should fit into the main system board only one way. It should match exactly with the notch lining up perfectly. If it doesn’t, don’t force it. You’ll need different memory boards. If you need to purchase these, you can purchase them online or at your local MicroCenter or Fry’s parts stores.

Hard Drive

Hard drives are a bit more varied in type but we are going to assume that this is a reasonably new system and that if the hard drive has been removed, that the cables to it are still there. These will likely be 1/8” x 1/2” thin cables, about 15” in length usually black or red in color, stiff, and that look like mini HDMI cables:

Common hard drive data cable (aka SATA cable). Note the angled tab at one end of the connection. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

Common hard drive data cable (aka SATA cable). Note the angled tab at one end of the connection. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

The connectors will have a small right-angle notch at the end that will fit only one way into the hard drives. P.S. If the system has a CD-ROM, then it should have the same type of cable, so check and see how it is connected. There will also be a similar cable coming from the power supply. This cable provides power to the drive and will be slightly wider and have a similar connector at the end also with a right-angle notch that will fit onto the drive in only one way.

If you happen to have a spare hard drive, then plug this into the cables in the correct way. You should not have to force it. Make sure the angled tabs line up and then connect the drive. If you don’t have a spare hard drive, then you will need to buy one.

Typical hard drive with tabbed connectors. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

Typical hard drive with tabbed connectors. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

If so, carefully disconnect the cable from the main system board, noting where it plugs into for later, and take that cable to MicroCenter or Fry’s to show the sales rep and purchase a new drive. Since hard drives are typically fragile and often swapped, I usually do not recommend purchasing old/used ones unless you can confirm that they are in good condition (this isn’t easy). It is usually better to buy new - they aren’t too expensive and newer ones are considerably better than older ones. After you have the drive, plug everything back in. Slot the drive into the an available drive slot in your case. This is usually fairly straight-forward with modern cases, but may require that it is screwed into the slot with the right size screws - just make sure it is not flopping about loosely in the case as they are fragile.

Video

As for the video, most computers these days have a video connector built into the back of the case. This should plug into the back of most modern monitors using the appropriate cable.

The back of this computer case has both a blue analog (aka VGA) connector as well as a white digital (DVI) connector. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

The back of this computer case has both a blue analog (aka VGA) connector as well as a white digital (DVI) connector. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

There are several different types of cable for this and may even include an adapter or special cable. This isn’t too difficult, but may require some trying of different cabled until something works. As before, don’t force anything - if it fits it should just slip in, if it doesn’t try another cable. Cables are often color-coded too, so it’s not too difficult, but if you are new to this, here is a video that explains it reasonably well.

If your computer does not have a connector that matches your monitor’s cable, then it’s likely the video board has been removed. This is common: two of the systems I received were missing video boards.

Typical video board. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

Typical video board. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

Fortunately, it’s easy enough to add a new board. Just find where the board was removed, check your spare parts for one that has the connector you need for your monitor and see if that board fits into the corresponding slot. It may take a little trial and error, but as before, it is easier to see this in a video.

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Once you have the parts installed, then close the case up, plug in the keyboard, mouse and monitor, connect the power and turn it on. Everything should start up and you should have a something on the screen, and if this is a new hard drive, then it’s likely that you’ll have an error message about the system not being bootable. We’ll deal with that in the next blog post.

If you installed a new hard drive and see this on your screen, this is a good sign. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

If you installed a new hard drive and see this on your screen, this is a good sign. Photo courtesy of pixabay.com.

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Now I know I’ve gone over the process of re-assembling a computer very quickly. It simply isn’t possible to go over every combination and eventuality of installing parts into a computer. The bottom line is: use the online resources available – it’s likely someone else has already done exactly what you plan to do, so there is no shame in looking it up. And remember, you received all these parts for free, so if it breaks, it won’t break the bank. Remember that computers are designed to be modular, so use that to your advantage..

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