Building a free computer from spare parts

Got a basement full of old components? Why not use them to build yourself a new PC? We show you how to do it.

Ah, the joy of summer storms. A recent one involving a flooded basement (a torrential downpour traveled down a chipmunk burrow that led to an otherwise enclosed basement window with a broken windowpane) and several staccato blackouts sent one of my neighbor's computers, as well as one of my own, to their eternal rest.

Fortunately, I had two spare computers -- one for me and one for the neighbor. I bought a few uninterruptible power supplies and we were back in business. But now I had no spares left, and that's simply not acceptable for a card-carrying geek.

Problem was, after buying the UPSs (and fixing the basement) my disposable income was pretty much disposed of. But I had parts! After almost 30 years of playing with computers, I've accumulated a lot of stuff: motherboards, monitors, modems, processors, memory, graphics cards, TV tuner cards, drives (CD, DVD and hard -- both internal and external), cases, keyboards and mice. I think there's even a Bernoulli Box sitting on a shelf somewhere.

True, some of my collection (which was stored in that basement) met a sad end during that same storm. But I was pretty sure that I still had enough parts left to put together at least one complete computer.

Turns out I was right -- and any self-respecting geek should be able to do the same. What follows is a step-by-step account of how I put together a new computer from old parts at a bare minimum cost.

One disclaimer before we begin: My motherboards tend to be from Asus, my DRAM is from Crucial Technology, and my cases and power supplies are usually from Antec, so you will see those names appear quite a bit among my parts choices. We could launch a debate as to whether or not these companies are actually the best of the best, but they are companies whose products have given me, personally, the least grief. Your experience may vary. Don't be afraid if it does.

Choosing the parts

Even though I was just creating a spare computer, I wanted it to be a good one. It wasn't enough to simply cannibalize the first box of parts I came to. I wanted to end up with a PC that, if not bleeding edge, could be used without embarrassment.

Motherboard

When it comes to real estate, the important thing may be "location, location, location," but for a computer, it's "motherboard, motherboard, motherboard." You can easily build a computer based on a junk motherboard just for the satisfaction of saying you did it (for example, I have an MSI 486 ISA motherboard with an Opti chip set and memory installed, and I'm sure there's a compatible CPU around here somewhere), but intrinsically the result would still be junk.

Of the four motherboards I had on hand, two were too old for anything but Internet appliances, and one, a relatively new Asus M3A78-EMH I purchased back in May, is destined for a forthcoming HTPC system build. The fourth, an Asus P5N-E SLI, seemed to be the best choice. The P5N-E SLI is an ATX motherboard I've had for over a year. It was pulled from a system that died; it turned out that the problem really was a three-month-old hard drive that crashed and not the motherboard at all.

Incidentally, if you haven't retained the original installation disc for your chosen motherboard, this would be a good time to visit the manufacturer's Web site and download the appropriate driver for your operating system.

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Bill O'Brien

Computerworld
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?