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Once the core components have been assembled onto the motherboard, it’s time to start prepping the actual build.
At this point, your build should be partially assembled on a table and consists of the motherboard, CPU pre-installed, cooler pre-installed (with CPU fan cable connected, and pump cables as necessary), and the RAM installed. If you installed the GPU and connected power to do a quick test that the components work, those devices can now be disconnected.
We’re going to transplant the motherboard with its memory, CPU, and cooler into the case.
Most mid-tower and full-tower computer cases have the same general layout. There are intake/exhaust positions in the front, top, and rear of the case (also useful for radiator mounting). Some fans may be pre-installed, and will have cables that need to be attached either to the motherboard or a fan hub (more on this in our cabling guide).
Most cases are also riddled with holes – passthroughs, they’re called – which are sometimes shielded with rubber grommets. These passthroughs offer easy routing for later cable management, and help to keep the system clean when assembled.
Drive cages tend to be located toward the front of the case and are largely meant for 3.5” HDDs. Many cases now have separated 2.5” SSD sleds for more prominent (or secluded) display of SSDs, e.g. behind the motherboard tray or atop the PSU shroud. 2.5” SSDs can be adapted to fit 3.5” hard drive slots, if the sleds do not already have mounting points (and most do). Some cases have modular drive cages, which means the unused pieces can be removed for improved airflow.
Before installing the motherboard inside the case, it’s a good idea to double-check our work on the earlier CPU cooler installation. Some tower coolers apply a good deal of force to the motherboard, particularly if over-tightened. Remember our rule? “Monkey tight, not gorilla tight.”
If a CPU cooler is too tightly installed, it will create enough stress on the board to cause a slight bowing. Ensure that the board is flat. If it isn’t, back-off some tension on the screws. If that’s still no good, validate that the backplate was installed facing the correct direction.
How to move the build inside the case
- Remove both side panels – they’re both coming off, anyway. Rest the case on its side to expose the main compartment.
- Ensure that the stand-offs are installed in the case. More below.
- Ground yourself.
- Install the I/O shield for the motherboard.
- Lift the board gently from the underside, ensuring that the CPU cooler (if a heavy tower cooler) does not awkwardly weight or warp the board. Do not lift by the CPU cooler. More below.
- Carefully line the board up with the standoffs relevant to the motherboard’s form factor – this is easiest to do by lining-up the rear I/O with the I/O shield, then the rest of the board will follow.
- Add a screw to each standoff position, securing the board. Start with opposing corners.
Why should you use motherboard standoffs?
Motherboard standoffs provide an electrically-safe spacer between the motherboard and the case. This is important, as case paneling is often made of steel and would cause a direct short (short circuit) if the motherboard were to make contact with the case. Although such a short may not cause any permanent damage to an intelligent motherboard and PSU, it will minimally prevent boot. Best to be safe and just do it right from the get-go, though.
Motherboard standoffs are brass spacers that use a hex driver to install. They can also be tightened by thumb and finger, though the screws that socket into the standoffs may later spin freely if ever removed. Your case may have markings for which screw holes / standoff locations are suitable for the motherboard’s form factor. If not, check the manual. An alternative would be to line-up the board against the case, then determine by eye where the standoffs belong.
Why should you use an I/O Shield?
The I/O shield is, simply, a metal cover for the rear I/O on the motherboard. There is minimal functional purpose. For the most part, it prevents stray fingers or USB devices from exploring inside the case. It’s worth installing the I/O shield just to ensure no one accidentally reaches too far in and touches an active component. This must be installed before the motherboard is mounted. – GamersNexus
Video card installation is one of the easiest aspects of build assembly. Unlike CPU installs, the video card does not have the same type of fragile (and easily bent) pins in its socket. Before starting, for clarity, there is a technical differentiation that should be made.
How to Install a Video Card
- If your motherboard has multiple PCI Express (PCI-e) slots and you’re considering a multi-GPU or multi-PCIe device configuration, check the motherboard manual to determine which slots are ideal for your specific assortment of devices. Some boards will “multiplex” PCI-e lanes using special chips (called PEX/PLX chips) to get more performance out of devices. In such an instance, you’ll want to make sure you’re getting full use out of that option.
- Determine how many case expansion slots the video card takes. You can do this by lining-up the card in the PCI Express (PCI-e) slot on the motherboard. The most common count is two slots, but some cards will take “2.5” (or even three – though that is exceedingly rare); low-end devices might take only one expansion slot.
- Remove the screws holding the expansion slot in place.
- Remove the expansion bay covers. You may keep them in a separate box for storage or toss them. They are functionally useless for the remainder of our process, unless you need to repackage the case for some reason (like to sell to a friend in the event you later upgrade).
- Line the video card’s PCI-e pins and “shoe” up with the slot it’s going into. Like RAM, you’ll here a slight “click” once the card is pressed into place. Use light pressure through the thumbs to mount the video card. If too much force is required, stop and inspect to determine what’s causing the resistance. It may be improperly aligned or there may be a cable in the way.
- If the device uses multiple expansion slots, re-install all of those screws to mount it. Using both (in the event of a two-slot card) screws will significantly reduce “GPU sag,” or the act of the video card weighing itself down in a fashion which makes it un-level.
After installing, give the video card a slight wiggle to make sure it’s not going anywhere. Ensure the PCI-e slot’s shoe popped into place and is now locked (in the “up” position). Some motherboards, like some of the high-end X99 boards, do not use this same locking mechanism. If that is the case, look at the pins to ensure that they are fully socketed into the PCI-e slot.
What’s the difference between a “GPU” and a “Video/Graphics Card?”
Technically speaking, the GPU – or graphics processing unit – is the physical silicon package (silicon die, or “chip,” atop a substrate) that is mounted to the video card by the factory. Many builders and manufacturers will use “GPU” and “video card” or “graphics card” interchangeably when describing this aspect of the build. There is a technical difference between them, but for all intents and purposes, the interchangeable references are more-or-less globally accepted as referring to the physical card.
A video card might be the GTX 960, but its GPU would be the GM206 (Maxwell GPU, model 206); another example would be an R9 Fury X, whose GPU is a Fiji chip. GPU naming schemes normally refer to their subsequent “architectures,” or the specific generation of design as instituted by AMD or nVidia. – GamersNexus
This part is one of the easiest in the entire system building process. SSDs and hard drives only require two types of connectors: data and power. With the advent of M.2, U.2, PCI-e, SATA, and gumstick SSDs, those connection types have changed their interfaces, but still function more-or-less the same.
Most builders will be installing 2.5″ and 3.5″ drives. Hard drives and SATA SSDs generally ship in 2.5” and 3.5” form factors. To install one of these components in your case, simply locate the hard drive cages or SSD mounts, then begin the process of screwing the parts into those mounts.
Some cases, like the NZXT S340 and NZXT H440, will host SSD sleds in separate locations from the hard drive cages. The S340 and H440 both offer installation points on top of the power supply shroud and the rear of the case (behind the motherboard tray). These rear points can be accessed when you’re working on cable management, just by removing the right side panel.
The drives could also be installed into 3.5-only mounts with adapter brackets, but we do prefer the special sleds as the smaller form factor requires less mounting hardware.
How To Install Storage
- Remove the drive tray from the side of the case and attach the HDD or SSD to the tray.
- Re-attach the tray to the case.
- Finally, we connect the SATA data and power cables.
Installing U.2 SSDs
U.2 is a new standard that has begun shipping on motherboards. U.2 looks sort of like a mix of SATA and SAS connectors. The motherboard ports are double-stacked (kind of like a stack of two SATA ports) and use a cable to communicate with the SSD. In this regard, most U.2 SSDs will be cabled and of the 2.5” form factor, which means that they follow the same installation process as the above.
Installing M.2 SSDs
There are several different types of M.2 ports, called “keys.” Some M.2 keys are only compatible with wireless modules and do not carry the bandwidth to drive an SSD. Gumstick M.2 keys and other M.2 keys do allow for SSD comms, though, and are located on the motherboard.
Installing an SSD into one of these slots is more-or-less the same as socketing a device (like a video card) into a PCI-e slot. You slot the SSD into the key, then add one screw to lock it into place.
Installing PCI-e SSDs
PCI Express SSDs are installed by using an add-in card, which sockets into one of the expansion slots of the case. A PCI-e SSD is installed by first removing the expansion slot cover and screw for the desired slot, then dropping the card into place and re-applying that removed screw (to lock the card).
Determine which slot is best by checking the motherboard manual. Generally, PCI-e SSDs will use x4 slots (not full-length PCI-e x16 slots), as they only need 4x PCI-e lanes to perform to their fullest potential. – GamersNexus
Cooling performance is entirely a function of case fans and component fans. The primary component fans dwell on the CPU cooler (either a tower fan or radiator fans), the power supply, and the video card. The CPU cooler’s fans are connected to CPU_FAN headers on the motherboard, the power supply’s fan is wired internally and requires no user intervention, and the same is true for the video card as for the power supply.
Case fans are responsible for funneling that air into the system, of course, for use by the component fans. Case fans ensure lower internal ambient temperatures and help prevent temperature build-up inside the case.
Case fans should be pre-installed in your enclosure, but if you’d like to move them around or install different fans, we’ve done some testing on this.
Here’s an example on how air should travel inside the NZXT Manta:
Here’s an excerpt from the post:
“A general rule seems to be that system builders should avoid top-mounted exhaust fans, as those may actually end up “stealing” cool intake from both the CPU and GPU, assuming a tower cooler or rear-mounted radiator.
Assuming a 120mm radiator, our recommendation is to run NZXT’s stock configuration (2x 120mm intake, 1x 120mm exhaust) with no additional top exhaust fans, as those may hinder GPU cooling potential. The rear exhaust fan will receive the front intake from the radiator and exhaust its slightly warmed air, leaving the GPU to intake from the lower front fan. For larger radiator setups, the cooling potential of a 240/280mm CLC is so great that a top-mount – although it will yield warmer temperatures than a front-mount – will ensure the GPU doesn’t get suffocated for cool air. We would recommend mounting larger radiators in the top as push (exhaust) setups.”
How to Install Fans
- Place the fan on the case in the direction you want air to flow
- Screw fan to case
- Make sure the cable is left exposed and doesn’t get stuck under the motherboard when installed.
It’s important to install case fans correctly. Additional fans should be installed pursuant to their location in the case. Generally, match the fans with whatever’s pre-installed in the enclosure – front is normally intake, rear is normally exhaust. Top can be either, depending on the case setup. To determine which is the correct orientation for the fan, observe the location of the manufacturer’s sticker on said fan – that’s the direction into which the air is blowing. You can also look at the curve of the fan’s blades to determine how it’s carving the air, or spin by hand and feel for airflow.
In the case of a fan with stickers on both sides, and if you’re not sure which way the fan’s blades are oriented just by a glance, check for directional arrows in the plastic. Some fans will use arrows/engravings to inform the user as to airflow paths. Holding paper in front of a powered fan will also reveal airflow.
As for radiator fans, those generally use longer screws. The radiator fan gets mounted to the radiator by using a screw that mounts through the entire fan (in one side, out the other). A few threads will be exposed on the other side, used for the radiator install. You’ll then mount the radiator to the case (normally on the other side) by using four more screws. – GamersNexus