Stop the Noiz

A Mac User Builds His First PC

Frank Fox - 2011.06.22 - Tip Jar

As a person who writes about Macs, I often compare the Mac experience to the PC experience. I can do this because I use a PC all day at work, so I experience both sides of the issues.

The one area I had never experienced was owning - and especially building - my own PC. I decided to do a little research and build my own PC with the hope of turning it into a Hackintosh. That way I could get the best of both worlds.

Now that I've finished building my PC, I can say from experience that building a computer for the first time is a pain. The worst part was when things didn't work, I worried that either the parts were bad or I did something wrong. Either way, it's not obvious what the problem was.

The most worrisome aspect was that I might spend hundreds of dollars on parts and end up with something that wouldn't work. There are no guarantees, and if something didn't work as expected, I was alone with the Internet to find answers.

The Internet gave me plenty of websites, each with three different reasons to explain what caused my weird problem. It was still up to me to troubleshoot the cause.

As a loyal Mac customer, why did I buy a PC? I currently own five Mac computers, an iPhone, and an iPad. I believe that, with a few exceptions, Macs are well made, and for what you get, the price is high but not outrageous.

Apple Doesn't Sell What I Want

The problem is that Apple doesn't sell what I want.

The Apple desktop line up consists of the Mac mini, the iMac, and the Mac Pro.

The Mac mini is an incredible machine; it is just the smallest desktop you could want. Unfortunately, the size means that it is built more like a headless laptop than a traditional desktop. The $699 base price is slightly higher than it needs to be, and the components are less powerful to fit with the cooling limits of a compact device.

The iMac is much more powerful and is configured more like the computer I wanted to buy. The problem is a new iMac, starting at $1,199, is too much. I don't need or want a new monitor, keyboard, or mouse. I don't even really need WiFi, Bluetooth, or Thunderbolt. As beautiful and simple as the iMac is, I would be happy with a black box under the desk.

The Mac Pro is a workstation class computer that is overkill for my kids to use for watching YouTube videos. I actually own an older Mac Pro. It has aged well. It is still plenty powerful, and I don't need to replace it.

Basically I wanted an iMac class computer without the monitor. Apple simply doesn't sell anything in this category. It was a choice of paying for extras I didn't need or settling for something different than I wanted.

Building a PC Comparable to the iMac

All the new iMacs have the latest Intel CPU with the Sandy Bridge architecture. Any PC I built would have the same processor type. I preferred to get the Core i5, but I was prepared to settle for the Core i3 if needed. The processor meant that the motherboard had to have an LGA 1155 processor socket.

Last year's Core processors used the LGA 1156 socket. I probably could have saved a few dollars by buying a motherboard with the older style, but I wanted to buy new. Also, if I ever wanted to upgrade, the processor socket would have been a limitation.

While I wanted to match the iMac on specifications, my limited budget meant I had to beat the Mac mini on price. I figured I could get budget desktop parts for less than the premium laptop rated parts that go into the Mac mini.

First, I looked at buying all the parts separately. I could pick out the perfect case, motherboard, power supply, and video card. It is a nice way to tweak the specs for the optimal design. Also, many articles on the Internet that talk about building a Hackintosh mention very specific motherboards. It would have been another way to insure compatibility.

I found that if I got too picky on which parts to buy, the price quickly crept up. For everything there was a budget model and a pro/gamer model, with a dozen options in between. As a person who'd never done this before, I just didn't know enough to see the benefit of a $250 case over a budget case for $50. It's not like I planned to brag to my friends about the look of the computer. I just wanted parts that would work without a lot of hassle.

I finally made the decision to buy a bare bones kit. This got me all the parts I needed for a low price. Later I could upgrade something after I got it all working. This meant that the deciding factors were the big ticket parts, motherboard and CPU.

I picked out a kit from Tiger Direct with a Core i3 and a MSI motherboard. This may not have been a perfect fit for a Hackintosh, but once I got it up and working as a PC, I could decide to add a separate video card or other parts for better compatibility with Mac OS X.

At the last minute, I decided to look for a better kit with a Core i5 chip instead. With the better kit, I got a different case, power supply, etc. The one detail I missed was that the motherboard didn't have integrated video. I was going to need a video card, but I didn't find that out until later.

I placed the order, and a few days later, two boxes showed up. Everything looked great, even the low budget case was nice and simple.

Assembling the PC

I'd ordered a few extra items, an antistatic wrist strap, a computer repair tool kit, a power supply tester, and a box of spare screws. Of these, I rate the antistatic wrist strap as a must have, the power supply tester and tool kit are nice to have, and the spare screws were a total waste. I never needed anything more than a Philips screwdriver.

Each part comes with its own install booklet. For the most part these instructions suck. You get a small diagram with the total written instructions of "install part". For me, the motherboard and power supply were a little better. The motherboard had dozens of connections, so it had both a diagram and a list of what each connection goes to.

Overall the parts themselves could either only fit one way, or they were labeled clearly. The big exception was the jumbled bag of screws that came with the motherboard. It was pure guesswork to decide what screws to use.

One more confusion issue had to do with the wires to the case for power, lights, and reset. The instructions for the motherboard said what voltages were at each pin, but the cables didn't have voltage listed. The wires were all different colors with no mention of which color was 5V and which was for ground. The best solution I found on-line was to treat red as positive and black or white as ground. Maybe it doesn't matter, but I've never done this before - a simple rule in one of the many manuals would have been helpful.

Eventually assembly was complete. That's when I realized that this motherboard didn't come with integrated video. Again, I'm going to plead being a novice as the reason I didn't check this detail. I knew that I might eventually have to buy a separate video card. I was just hoping to get the thing working first and then fork out the cash for a video card later.

Instead, I was once again overwhelmed by what choice to make. There are dozens of video cards for prices ranging from $50 to $500. I checked the compatibility of many video cards for use in a Hackintosh. I couldn't find a single definitive list for the newest video cards. In the end I decided to get as close as possible to what Apple had used in the past. I targeted $128 for a Radeon HD 5770.

(Note: This is the same model video card used in the 2010 Mac Pro. The card is made by ATI, which was bought out by AMD. The card is being replaced by the Radeon HD 6770, the same video used in the 2011 iMac. This "new card" has the same specifications, except it has the AMD name on it.

Near the end, I thought that everything had gone pretty smoothly. Everything had fit where it was supposed to go, and almost everything was keyed to fit the right way. All that remained was to turn on the power.

Troubleshooting

This is where all the hard work started. The computer wouldn't stay on. It would continually turn on for one second - and then turn off. This is were I looked for help on the Internet and found dozens of possible causes: bad power supply, need for a larger/better power supply, short between the motherboard and the case, bad RAM, bad video card, bad whatever.

I slowly disconnected everything one by one until only the motherboard was left.

I was almost convinced that somehow I'd permanently shorted the motherboard, or it was bad to begin with. This is when I finally used my power supply tester and found that it was good. I reread the manuals again and again. Finally, I noticed that the motherboard had two places to plug power in. I thought this was to allow for different power supplies, because there are lots of legacy connections possible on the motherboard.

This was the wrong answer.

To me, this was totally counterintuitive. Nothing I own needs two power cords plugged into it. No only that, but the listed voltages for the 24-pin connector included 12V. If the 24-pin connector already has 12V, why would I need another plug to supply the same 12V? Bottom line is I forgot something, and I was paying for it by having to reassemble my computer again.

Worse for me is that once I'd discovered this fact, plugging it in didn't fix my problem. I had to reinstall the RAM, processor fan, and video card before it would stay powered up. That also doesn't make sense, but I read to do it online at the MSI website. When I finally got the power to stay on, I put everything back together.

This time when I powered it up, the thing stayed on. Soon I was in the BIOS screen. I now had a working PC. No operating system, but everything stayed on.

I'm still a long way from having a Hackintosh, but with luck I soon will. LEM

Appendix: Component Costs

Components Gaming PC Budget PC
CPU: 3.3 GHz Intel Core i5-2500K $225 $225
Motherboard: ECS H67H2-M (after rebate) $120
Motherboard: MSI P67A-C43 B3 Motherboard (after rebate) $100
Video Card: Nvidia GeForce GTX 580 $500
Video Card: Radeon HD 5570 $128
Memory: 4 GB Kingston HyperX Gray $50
Memory: Patriot Viper II 4 GB RAM (after rebate) $30
Hard Drive: 300 GB Western Digital Velociraptor $150
Hard Drive: 1 TB Seagate Barracuda (after rebate) $35
Optical Drive: Lite-On iHAS124-04 $20
Optical Drive: Samsung DVD Writer $23
Power Supply: Thermaltake TPG-650M Toughpower Grand Gold $160
Power Supply: DiabloTek PHD550 550-Watt Power Supply $40
Case: Thermaltake Armor A30 $120
Case: Thermaltake V3 Mid Tower Case (after rebate) $35
Total Cost $1,345 $616

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