Building a New Computer – Part 3: Setting it Up

So you’ve picked out the parts you want, and put the computer together… so now we need to power it on and start setting things up. Sure, you could drop your install cd in the drive, but you’ll have better luck if you check a few BIOS settings and run some tests first, both of which we’ll cover here.

When the computer first powers on, you’ll be prompted to hit a key to enter setup (usually the Delete key). The settings you’ll find in here will be different for each motherboard and BIOS version, so I’ll try to be somewhat general in explaining the available options. When in doubt, open up your manual or ask on our forum.

Setting Up the BIOS Options

Some people might be quick to point out that you can likely install an operating system with the BIOS defaults, but I think it’s best to understand the important options and set them correctly before you do anything else. (Note: If you flash your BIOS to a newer version, the settings will often be wiped and you’ll have to redo them)

The first screen usually lets you set your clock to the correct time, as well as disable the floppy drive (note Legacy Diskette A is disabled below).

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The System Information screen will show you the current BIOS version (more on that later), and you can verify that the CPU and memory are detected correctly. If you don’t see the correct numbers here, you need to verify that you installed the memory correctly. (check the manual if necessary)

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The SATA Configuration screen has an option that is critically important: Do you want SATA to function as IDE or AHCI?

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Here’s what you need to know:

  • AHCI mode allows the computer to use the more advanced SATA functions, and will give you better performance.
  • Windows XP does not natively support SATA mode. You must either create a slip-streamed install disc or use IDE mode here in order to install.
  • Windows Vista or current versions of Linux will function perfectly in AHCI mode.
  • Note: If you install in IDE mode and then want to switch to ACHI mode, you should follow these instructions.

You should also check to make sure your hard drive and CD/DVD drives are detected correctly. This screen will be different depending on your BIOS… in mine it was under AHCI Settings. If the drives aren’t detected correctly, verify that you installed them correctly.

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The USB Configuration screen will let you disable/enable USB… the important setting here is that USB mode should be set to use HiSpeed (480Mbps), which is usually the default setting anyway.

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There is usually also a screen that will allow you to do a couple of important things… for instance disabling the serial ports or the regular IDE controller. I recommend disabling the ports that you aren’t using, to keep Windows from loading unnecessary drivers for hardware you aren’t using.

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The Power Management screen will let you choose the power management options. If you are running Windows Vista, you’ll want to make sure ACPI 2.0 is enabled.

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And in the APM Configuration screen you can set a couple more important options:

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Here’s what you need to know:

  • If you want to be able to wake the computer from sleep mode using the USB mouse or keyboard, you should enable that option.
  • If you want the computer to restart automatically after a power outage, set the “Restore on AC Power Loss” option.
  • If your BIOS has a “Wake on LAN” function, you should decide whether to enable or disable it… sometimes enabling it will cause the computer to wake up when you aren’t expecting it.

Your motherboard likely has a Hardware Monitor screen, where you can see detailed information about temperatures, voltages, and even the speed of the fan.

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The Boot section is also very important: You want to make sure to set the CD/DVD drive as the first boot device so you can easily boot off the installation disc. You could also choose Removable Device here if you want to boot off a USB flash drive.

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Note: After you are completely finished installing, you can set the hard drive as the first boot device to speed up boot time.

You can also choose whether you want a quick boot, and whether numlock is on by default. If you are building a computer that won’t have a keyboard attached (like a server), you might want to disable the “Wait For F1 If Error” option, which will allow the computer to boot even if there’s a keyboard error.

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Most motherboards will have a System Performance and advanced chipset configuration screens, where you can configure various overclocking scenarios, which we might cover in a future article, but for now you should probably leave everything set to Auto and not really touch those settings.

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Finally, there’s usually a section under Security or Boot that will allow you to set a supervisor or user password.

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Usually you can set one password to prevent access to the BIOS, and another to prevent booting the system without the password. It’s very important to make sure that if you do use this, you don’t forget the password, because it’s typically a royal pain to reset it.

Note: If there are any other BIOS settings that you feel are important, feel free to mention them in the comments.

Updating Your BIOS

Depending on the hardware you’ve installed in your computer, you might need to upgrade the BIOS on the motherboard before things will work correctly. (For instance, the computer I built last year didn’t properly support the new Core 2 Duo processor until after I flashed it with the latest BIOS version)

In general, it’s best to be running the latest BIOS version, especially if you are buying a motherboard that has been sitting on a shelf for a while. You should check the manufacturer’s website for a new BIOS version (remember where we noticed the version earlier). Make sure to get the right version for your motherboard!

Unfortunately I can’t give you specifics on exactly how to flash the BIOS, since it’s going to be different for each motherboard. It’s very important to check that chapter in your motherboard manual and follow the directions exactly.

Some motherboards might have a flash utility built into the BIOS screen that will let you update the BIOS from a file saved on a flash drive:

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Others may have software that you can use from within Windows once you’ve already gotten everything installed:

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Still others might require you to boot from a floppy, bootable cd, or usb flash drive, usually running some version of DOS or FreeDOS. If this is the case and you need some help, be sure to leave a post over on our forums.

Important: Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully when updating the BIOS. I’ve not had a bad BIOS update in many, many years… but if it happens the motherboard would probably need to be replaced. The most important thing to prevent problems is to not power the system off during the BIOS update.

Testing the Computer Before Installation

Now that you’ve setup all the BIOS options, it’s a good idea to test the computer to make sure everything is functioning correctly. The last thing you want to do is install Windows and use it for a week, only to find out that you have a bad memory stick causing all sorts of problems.

There are a couple of options for testing… I always use an Ubuntu live cd to test out a computer first, because you can quickly boot and test out the general working operations of the computer:

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For instance, within a few minutes after putting the computer together and setting up the BIOS, I was online:

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The only problem with using the live cd is that you won’t be testing the hard drive at all… but it’s still a worthy test and it feels great to have your new computer online almost immediately.

Ultimate Boot CD

There are also a number of boot cds which you can download that contain testing tools. If you have a favorite, then be sure to let us know in the comments, otherwise you can always use the Ultimate Boot CD, which contains dozens of testing tools you can use.

Once you boot off the cd, you’ll be nearly instantly prompted with the menu of tools.

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If you look under Mainboard Tools, you’ll find the Memory Tests section, where you can choose from a number of memory tests.

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I highly recommend at least running a memory test, since RAM problems can be extremely tricky to diagnose later, and can cause everything from corrupted files to complete system crashes. It’s better to know that you have a problem right away than to waste countless hours troubleshooting problems that end up being memory related.

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You’ll also find CPU tests and Hard drive tests, although I’ll warn you that most of the generic hard drive tests won’t work for SATA drives. There’s a lot more options to look through if you want.

Note that I’m not necessarily recommending this boot cd over others, it’s just the one that I’m most familiar with. Hopefully our great readers will suggest some good pre-installation testing tools in the comments.

The Best Test

Installing Windows on your computer is the best test of how well everything is running, which is what we’ll cover in the next article. I was originally going to try and cover that here as well, but it really deserves an article by itself.

Stay tuned for the next article!

Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 06/8/08
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