Hands down, the favorite activity that my students complete is building a computer from a kit. Nothing seems to compare to the satisfaction of taking a collection of parts from a bunch of colorful boxes and making a fully functional computer. While I have been putting together systems with my computer club for a long time, integrating the activity into my CS classes over the past few years has afforded the opportunity to explore something other than programming with my students.

First, you set a budget

As with any major purchase, the initial step should be a realistic appraisal of how much money you can spend. I assure my students that we can build a fully functional computer for around $200. This amount does not include the necessary peripherals such as the monitor, keyboard, mouse or speakers but those can usually be obtained for around $100  if one shops carefully.  Many of my students have used screens and input devices lying around from their old systems or donated components from relatives or friends.

Most modern computer hardware is very modular. Parts such as motherboards, power supplies, memory and disk drives can easily be combined from a variety of manufacturers. This flexibility also allows someone to upgrade components over time as more money becomes available. For example, many motherboards have integrated graphics capability built into their chipsets. Several of my students assembled computers and saved their money to later install a dedicated graphics card for better performance.

Operating system and applications

There is no surprise that I normally recommend Linux to my students. Not only is it free, the availability of open source programing tools and productivity applications make the resulting system instantly useable for most needs. A basic installation of Ubuntu,  Fedora or other popular distribution will almost always include standard productivity software such as LibreOffice, multimedia player VLC, image editing programs and web browser.

What about gaming?

Many of my students are devoted computer gamers and want to run Windows for access to the latest games. However, with the wide variety of games available on the Steam platform, Linux users can also get into the action.

Sometimes you need Windows

If a pure Windows environment is required, then expect to pay around $120 for the latest version of Windows 10 Home. Microsoft has it available on their online store.  You can typically save a bit of money if you search carefully on other websites. One of the most popular vendors for a broad variety of hardware and software including the Windows operating system is TigerDirect.

Hardware costs will certainly be higher for more capable gaming computers. Some students and teachers at my school have been willing to pay significantly more for exotic video cards, Blue Ray disk players, solid state disk drives and liquid cooling systems to support overclocking.

Where to buy the hardware

The majority of my students purchase computers online. With the dizzying array of components available, it can be a challenge to make sure that everything works together properly. One does not want to inadvertently purchase a AMD processor that will not fit into a motherboard with an Intel processor socket. Perhaps the best resource to help with the configuration is PC Parts Picker. On this website, you can view builds that others have created along with the required parts to complete them. Step by step purchasing allows you to make sure that all of your components work together and stay within your budget.

If you don’t want to deal with a highly granular approach, you can select from barebone systems offered by several vendors. One of the best is from NewEgg. They have DIY Superbundles with complete systems in a variety of price ranges. Another option is a brick and mortar store that specializes in computer products. MicroCenter maintains stores in many parts of the country. While there, a sales associate can browse the aisles and help you fill a shopping cart with everything from the case to the keyboard that you need. A visit to a large computer superstore can also be a fun field trip for your students!

Tools

Putting a computer together usually requires no more than a single philips head screwdriver. For handling the widest variety of hardware, I suggest purchasing a simple tool kit with torx drivers, needle nose pliers and magnetic pickup for the inevitable time you drop a screw deep inside your case. An antistatic mat is certainly recommended for doing all of your assembly work but in the many years I have been working with computers, it has been extremely rare for me to see components damaged by ESD.

Finishing Touches

My students take a great deal of pride in the work they do.. Make sure that when the hardware is fully assembled you test and configure the machine properly. Install the latest drivers from the vendor’s website and verify that the various ports, lights and switches work correctly. When you complete the tests and the owner is satisfied that all is copacetic, box up the entire system carefully and be certain to enclose all of the disks, cables, manuals and extra parts that accompanied the hardware. Finally, we have made it a tradition for everyone involved in the building of the computer to sign the inside of the case.

 

Neil Plotnick (nplotnick@everett.k12.ma.us) works at Everett High School, an urban district located just north of Boston. He has previously taught Exploring Computer Science and has been piloting the new Computer Science Principles course developed by Code.org during the 2015-16 academic year. Neil has a keen interest in Open Source software, especially Linux operating systems and how they can be used in the CS classroom.

 

** All pictures taken by Neil Plotnick