Building a Computer in 10 Easy Steps
When I saw this optional assignment in my Google IT Support Certificate course, I wanted to participate to get the best of the certificate experience. I ran into a few challenges, but I came up with my own affordable solution.
First, I started looking online to buy individual parts. I looked through Amazon, NewEgg, and TigerDirect. I’ve researched building my own computer for the purposes of creating a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) over the years. One of my biggest challenges is having the resources to build the kind of computer that makes sense for my needs. Sure, I could spend $300.00 and build a basic computer with new parts, but I’d still have to wait for them to arrive at my door, and it wouldn’t be a computer that would enhance what I already own. Three hundred dollars is a lot of money for an exercise.
I even went to a computer parts store called Re-PC in Seattle, where I live. However, I was completely overwhelmed with the way they stored the parts. They had several disclaimers that most of the used parts available to sift through were damaged or not working. I had hoped to buy a used PC and just take it apart and put it back together again, but all the cases there had been stripped and were quite heavy on their own.
All was not lost at the store, however, as they did have an amazing Computer History Museum in the back. They displayed actual models of computers across the history of modern computing. The museum was small, but packed with artifacts, and walking through the dusty corner of the store felt surreal and magical.
As much fun as I was having, I still had not solved my problem: How was I going to be able to build a computer this weekend? I looked around at all the old computers and the bins of old poorly labeled computer parts throughout the warehouse-sized store and it struck me how outdated the entire store felt. I realized I was looking in the past to find a solution to my future. I needed to look to the future to solve this issue. At that moment, I remembered the Raspberry Pi I read about online while researching cryptocurrency mining. I found an ‘Ultimate Starter Kit’ for $150 on my Amazon app and ordered it on my phone on the way home, to be delivered the next day.
A Raspberry Pi is a very small computer. Instead of having a dedicated board to each part, there is one motherboard which contains the power supply input, CPU, GPU, RAM, Ethernet, USB, HDMI, Video and Audio ports. With the kit I purchased, I connect the motherboard to the touchscreen, apply heatsinks to the CPU and Wireless areas, insert the SD Card for storage, and secure the case which holds it all together.
10 Easy Steps
- I took out all the individual parts from their boxes and laid them out:
Touch screen display with connecting strip and four colored wires, 4 screws to connect touch screen to the motherboard, the motherboard, two heatsinks, the case with 4 screws, the SD card, HDMI cable, power supply, and a small screwdriver.
- This is what the mother board looks like.
As you can see, all the computer components exist together, on the same board.
- The mother board is like the body, holding all the parts together.
- The CPU is the brain, processing all the instructions and commands. You will need to apply the larger heatsink here.
- The memory is used to store important information for quickest use, with an optional cache to execute frequent instructions and commands. Since it is within the board, you don’t need to locate it for the purpose of a first construction.
- The GPU is dedicated to processing graphics. You will connect the four colored wires using the pins from touchscreen board to the pins of the motherboard. See below for further directions.
- The display port connects the motherboard to a display.
- The SD card input is on the backside and acts as the hard-drive storage device. You will need to insert an SD card here before securing the touchscreen to the motherboard.
- The USB ports can be used for a variety of peripheral devices.
- The HDMI out can be used to connect the computer to a high-definition display.
- The Audio/Video out can be used to connect to an RCA compatible device.
- The Ethernet port will connect directly to an internet connection.
- The Wifi area is where you will need to apply the smaller heatsink.
- The power in is where you connect the USB power supply cord.
- Heatsinks are used to keep the CPU and Wifi chips from overheating. Because all the parts are so small and on one board, there is no need for thermal paste, cables, or fans.
- Since starter kits rarely come with any instructions, you’ll want to preload a video tutorial someone else made to review how it will go ahead of time.
I learned how to construct my RP3 from a nine-year old kid, named Shawnak: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCtudfMEgVk
- Connect the touchscreen to the motherboard. I used the pink plastic foam which came with it to keep the screen safe from any possible scratches or pressure.
Using the flat white and blue strip, you want to insert each side to each component so that the silver tips are just barely visible to you. This is what it should look like connected to the motherboard.
This is what it should look like when the other side of the strip is connected to the touchscreen.
When they are connected properly, the strip will form a loop when you center the motherboard atop the touchscreen board. Something to note: I found the strip connected quite easily to the motherboard, but I struggled to get the touchscreen board connected. I had to guide the strip in with some force. You may likely create a small bend in the wire to do so and that is okay. Take your time.
- Connect the SD Card before securing the motherboard to the touchscreen board.
The SD Card slot is on the back side of the board, right on the other side of the display connector.
Take the card out of its case and insert it into the motherboard with the label facing you.
- Secure the motherboard to the touchscreen board using 4 screws and a small screwdriver. It is always a good idea to screw anything in diagonally, meaning you secure one corner, then go to the diagonal corner next. Then secure the rest in any order.
You’ll find the screw pictured above was the most difficult due to a lack of space to set the screw, so I would recommend going with that one last.
- Apply heatsinks to CPU and WiFi chips. I started with the smallest (WiFi) heatsink first. Remove the sticker from the back to expose the adhesive.
You’ll want the heatsinks to be placed so the recessed lines are horizontal to the HDMI text on the motherboard.
This is perhaps the most delicate part of the assembly as the adhesive is very strong and you’ll want to apply it perfectly to the chip squares they belong to.
- Connect the colored wires from the touchscreen board to the 3D graphics core on the motherboard. This is the easiest part to get confused. There are five connector pins on the touchscreen board. From right-to-left, you first connect the red wire to the first pin. Leave the second pin open. Connect the green wire to the third pin. Connect the yellow wire to the fourth pin. Connect the black wire to the fifth pin.
Next, you want to connect these wires to the secured motherboard. You will be concerned with the three right-most columns of pins, with a top row and a bottom row. Connect the wires like this:
- Apply and secure the case. With care, place the case around the boards, ensuring that the display connector strip and graphic core wires are not bent. Screw in the remaining four screws once you’ve handle the touchscreen into the case so that you can see the complete circular screw-hole. Remember to secure the case diagonally.
Finally, you’ll take the case cap with the Raspberry Pi logo on the back and snap it into place. Look on the inside of the cap to match the circular inputs the case.
Plug in the power supply cord, and you should be good to rock and roll. Congratulations, you now have the basics of a Raspberry Pi. From here, you can modify the computer to best suit your needs. I found when I put mine together that the screen is upside down.
This is a design flaw of the case that came with the starter kit. There are some short-term fixes, like telling the computer to rotate the screen. For now, I will use the product as it stands and will spend time learning how to program with it and decide the best use for it for me. I will also need to attach a keyboard, whether that be through Bluetooth or USB.
- This is, by no means, the finished state of this Raspberry Pi. I will likely take it apart again and perhaps create my own case or find a better case. I could also attach a camera to the board, which wasn’t an option included in this starter kit. This is a great starting point to learn about Linux, programming code, and enhancing a small computer.
If you’re looking for the experience of building a computer, but you don’t want to spend a lot of money on it, the Raspberry Pi is a great learning tool for both children and adults. While you aren’t connecting the same type of computer parts as you would a traditional laptop or desktop, you do have to assemble and make connections which are similar in technical proficiency.
The most difficult aspects of putting this computer together were connecting the display strip to the touchscreen board and connecting the 3d graphics core wires to the correct pins. The wire strip was quite delicate, so you do need to use a bit of force to insert it into the touchscreen display. I wasn’t sure how much force might damage the strip, but I saw that the Shawnak’s wire was slightly bent, so I felt secure that mine had slightly bent as well. Regarding the colored wires, I strictly followed the directions I was given from the instructional video and have yet to fully understand the placement of the pins deeper than the instructions. I considered the instructions to be an automation where I didn’t need to fully understand how the placement works to make it work. However, as I continue to delve into the capabilities of the computer and how I want to use it for my lifestyle, I will inevitably research those connector pins for further enhancements.