Monday 23 May 2016

Building A New Computer: The Story of UNICORN-31

The time had finally come. DRAKE-22, the PC that I had bought in October 2007, which had taken me through four generations of Windows, which had moved with me countless times including all the way from London to San Francisco, was at last starting to stumble in its duties. Eight-and-a-half years is an extremely long time to own a computer, showing that my initial investment of over £2000 was well made, but with increasingly frequent system hangs and extremely long video-rendering periods it was time to put the old workhorse out to pasture and upgrade to a newer model.

I had never built a computer before because it sounded scary. Hearing people talk about applying thermal paste and being careful not to zap sensitive components with static electricity, it sounded like a recipe for spending a lot of money and ending up with a massive headache. There's an episode of Top Gear where the presenters have to put together a kit-car, upon which one of them observes "Would you drive a car built by us?" That neatly sums up how I felt about trusting myself to build the machine that I would go on to rely on for the best part of a decade.

Having completed the task I'm happy to say that it's not quite as scary as I had thought, but it did involve a lot of time, stress, frustration, worry and sore knees. Things did not go perfectly smoothly, but overall I'm glad of the experience. I learned a lot, and hopefully I can share some of that learning with other would-be DIY PC builders.


I'll start off by listing the parts that I used:
  • Intel Core i7-6700K 8M Skylake Quad-Core 4.0 GHz CPU
  • ASUS Z170-A motherboard
  • DIYPC Gamemax-W White case
  • Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO CPU cooler
  • G.SKILL Ripjaws V Series 2 x 8GB DDR4 memory

Parts taken from the old machine
On top of these I re-used some components from my old machine:
  • nVidia 760 GTX graphics card
  • 250GB SSD and 250GB HDD
  • 700W power supply
  • DVD R/W drive
I was particularly keen to make use of the video card because I had only bought it a couple of years ago after the one I bought with the old computer started failing. I had thought about re-using the old RAM as well but since it was DDR2 it wouldn't have fit in the new motherboard.

Putting It All Together

The cooler and motherboard inside the case
Using the How Stuff Works guide to building a computer I worked for a few hours putting all the parts together. The step that I had been the most nervous about, applying the thermal paste, was actually not very difficult. The cooler I bought came with a tiny tube of paste so it would have been quite difficult to use too much. I knew I was aiming to get as even a layer as possible across as much of the CPU as possible to form a seal with the cooler above so I applied a blob in the middle of the CPU and then pressed the cooler on top. It was at that point that I realised I didn't know which direction the cooler should be facing (for anyone wondering, the fan should blow towards the back of the case). There was an anxious period where I was sliding and twisting the cooler on top of the CPU to get it into the correct orientation. In retrospect this might have actually helped get a thinner, more even layer of paste, but at the time I was quite worried about whether I had done it right.

Everything else was faily simple, for the most part it's impossible to plug something into the wrong socket on a motherboard. The main challenge was getting the motherboard into the case, which took a little bit of adjustment to get the ports on the back to line up with the faceplate on the case. After that most effort came from finding the right angle and positioning of the computer to reach in and hook up all the cables.


After many hours of fitting components into each other and finding the right socket for very, very tiny wires to fit into, it was time to power up the computer and see what happened.

I saw the case LEDs light up, heard the fans whir into action, but nothing on the screen. When you're tired and have spent a really long time working on something, there's nothing quite like the feeling that you're going to have to do it all over again. Or worse, that you need to spend more time figuring out what went wrong and fixing it, potentially having to deal with faulty components that need to be returned to the manufacturer for a refund. I spent another hour or so that night trying different things, including connecting my monitor up to all the different VGA plugs on the motherboard and video card in case I had the wrong one, and trying different SATA ports for the hard drives. No luck, and eventually I accepted defeat knowing that it would be much easier to continue in the morning after I had had a chance to rest and calm down.

What I did glean from that first evening's frantic work was that the How Stuff Works guide is tremendously unhelpful for the average person trying to figure out why the computer they just built isn't working. The main point of their troubleshooting section is to try to figure out if any components are broken by swapping them out for others. I don't know about you, but I don't have an extra CPU or motherboard lying around for this purpose.

I spent most of the night worrying about what the problem might be. Maybe I had seated the CPU incorrectly, or applied too much thermal paste. Maybe the CPU had been broken when I fitted the cooler; it had seemed to apply a very large amount of force when all the screws were in place. Perhaps the motherboard had a fault somewhere. My imagination had no shortage of ideas for things that could have gone wrong.

The next morning I looked around online and found a check-list that someone had written, and as it turns out this was much more helpful. So helpful in fact that I only needed to follow the first step. This step was very simple: read the motherboard manual carefully. I hadn't really considered this before because I was following a guide, but on opening the manual I discovered pretty much everything I needed to figure out what was going wrong. The motherboard had various small LEDs on it that would light up red to show if something wasn't working, and I was able to use these in conjunction with the manual to figure out that the CPU was actually fine and it was the memory that was the problem. This was surprising because I've installed RAM numerous times before and never had a problem, which is why I didn't try re-doing it the day before.

After re-seating the RAM the computer was finally able to complete its power-on self test (POST), and then it was on to easier things like installing Windows 10 and copying all my backed-up data from an external hard drive onto the new computer.

The Name

I like to name my computers, using a scheme that I came up with years ago that has actually proved quite useful since it gives me an idea of how long I've had a particular machine. My first gaming rig was DRAKE-22, so called because I was 22 years old at the time, and because it was an Alienware and I had just learned what the Drake equation was.

I already had a name picked out for the new machine. I had decided to get a white case because I wanted a change and liked how it looked, and so I was thinking of a white knight motif and calling it KNIGHT-31. However, when everything was finally put together and working, and I plugged in the wireless adaptor to the USB ports on the top of the case to start downloading updates, the right name was immediately obvious.
Thus, UNICORN-31 got its name.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, my main piece of advice for anyone building a PC:


I know it seems like a lot of stuff you don't need to know but it's actually very helpful throughout the whole process. Not only will it explain what all the lights and indicators are on the motherboard, it will also direct you immediately to the right connector for every other component. Mine even had decent instructions on how to install most parts which would have been helpful if I had seen them before I started.

I've been using the computer for over a week now and am very pleased with the performance boost. Episode 05 of Shadow of the Colossus demonstrated just how much more powerful the CPU in UNICORN-31 is than that in DRAKE-22: the 32 minute episode rendered in about 26 minutes, a dramatic improvement from the 3 hours that the old computer took to render an episode of similar length.

I'm sure that I'll continue to tinker with things over time, but for now I'm glad to have completed my first ever PC build.


  1. Hi James,
    Congratulations on completing this project, definitely not for the faint of heart!
    Back in the good old days of IT, we would advise our users to "RTFM" :-)
    May UNICORN-31 dutifully serve you for many many years to come, so we can keep enjoying your game reviews!

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