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How to Build a Computer?
By  Super Admin  | Published  11/21/2006 | How To Articles | Rating:
Choosing and installing the software

Regardless of whether your computer is a brand name system or one that you built yourself, it will need software. This may come preinstalled on the hard drive, but more than likely you will need to install this yourself. If you make informed decisions and select the right pieces of software you can avoid many hidden costs that are often charged to your computer. Installing operating systems (OSes) and software to your own specifications can greatly improve performance.

This section will attempt to explore the key options that you have when setting up your computer for use.

Operating system(s)
The first thing to do after you have a working PC is install an operating system (OS). You can select from several available on the internet or from your local computer store. The first option, and the one taken by most people, is to just install Microsoft Windows, of which the current version is Windows XP. Another option is to install a Linux distribution (a Free Software operating system). There are many other operating systems to choose from as well, notably the very famous Linux but let us not forget the other free open source operating systems, such as BSDs. Note that you also have the option of installing more than one operating system in what is called a multiboot setup.

If you are going to install both, install Windows XP first. This is because Windows overwrites the software that Linux requires to start up, even if something's already there. If you install Windows before all of your other systems, you will be able to easily boot into all of them.

Choosing between Microsoft Windows, Linux, or one of the other operating systems is largely depependent on user needs. Simply put, can you accomplish your day to day task with the sofware associated with the operating system installed in your system? Microsoft Windows is better in terms of software availability and support, but Linux wins in terms of stability, ability to run on older equipment, and cost. Both systems have a range of software, but determine your needs before installing either operating system.

Installing Windows
The installation of Windows is relatively easy. Push the button on the front of the PC, put the CD-ROM in your optical drive, and follow the on-screen instructions. Partitioning the hard disk(s) is different if you are dual-booting or going with just XP. If you are doing a Windows-only install, just allocate all of the hard drive to XP.

If you are dual-booting, some extra considerations must be taken. NTFS, which is the default filesystem that Windows uses, is not very well supported outside of Windows. GNU/Linux support is up to the point where it can read, but not write, an NTFS filesystem. However, it does have some advantages over FAT32, in that a 4GB file size limit no longer exists. Likewise, Windows has no support for any of the standard Linux filesystems. If you are going to be switching between the two frequently, then it might be in your best interest to create a FAT32 for both operating systems to use.

When it comes the time to partition the hard disk(s), remember to leave space for Linux (if you're installing it - a good amount is somewhere in the order of a third of your total hard disk space). You may want to have a spare FAT32 partition (of around 1 third of your disk space), on which to share documents between Windows and GNU/Linux, as Linux's support for NTFS disks is good, but not perfect. You should also modify the table as necessary - you may not need as much space for Windows or you may need more in your FAT32 transfer area. But you must ensure that you leave at least 3GB for your Windows installation, since the standard installation of Windows takes up about 2 GB of hard drive space, and it is always wise to leave a bit extra on, to allow for any changes that may occur.

Some people find that it's useful to create separate partitions for the operating system and data. This means that if something goes wrong with the operating system, the partition can be formatted and the operating system can be reinstalled without possibily losing data.

If you are installing Windows on a RAID drive, or a SATA drive in most cases you are going to have to provide the Windows installer drivers to access the hard drive on the raid controller. To do this while Windows install is at the blue screen, at the bottom it will read "Press F6 to install any third party SCSI or RAID drivers." Later during the install it will come up with a screen says "Setup could not determine the type of one or more mass storage devices installed in your system, or you have chosen to manually specify an adapter." At this screen you are going to want to hit 'S' to "Specify Additional Device," another screen will pop up asking you to insert the floppy disk containing the drivers, followed by a screen asking you to choose the appropriate driver out of the set contained on the disk (most disks will have a for each of the major Windows operating systems).

Installing GNU/Linux
See also: Linux Guide
See also: Wikipedia:List of Linux distributions
See also: Wikipedia:Comparison of Linux distributions
The primary problem faced in installing Linux is choosing between distributions. Of the many variants of Linux, SuSE, Fedora and Debian are generally recommended, as they are updated regularly and compatible with a broad range of hardware:

SuSE, OpenSuSE 10.1 best GNU/Linux distribution, SLED 10 and SLES 10 for the enterprise desktop and servers.
Fedora Core, currently at version 5. Used to be the de facto-standard of good GNU/Linux.
Debian, another famous distribution, but much harder to install.
Some GNU/Linux variants may support hardware that these do not. If you have obscure or old hardware, you may want to search bulletin board sites for various GNU/Linux variants to ensure compatibility. For my purpose, I will pick Ubuntu, which the current standard of ease-to-use GNU/Linux. One can download the .iso image or order a CD set (containing the installation CD and LiveCD) from its website. An .iso is nothing more than a special file format that your cd drive buring software uses to create a copy of the software, in this case a copy of Unbuntu GNU/Linux. The installation of Linux is relatively easy. Push the button on the front of the PC, put the CD-ROM in your optical drive, and follow the on-screen instructions. By default, the installation version of Unbuntu will erase all files on the hard drive and partition 1.8 GB for the OS. If one wants to customize, follow the on-screen instructions carefully. The LiveCd version does not erase your harddrive and is intended solely for a user to test drive Unbuntu Linux, because of this it is the preferred choice in determining whether or not you wish to continue with a full installation.

After installation, your priority should be security.

From time to time, software companies and independent programers release new and improved versions to their software; these are known as updates. Updates usually install new features or fix problems, present or not present in the previous version. Usually, the computer user should download the latest updates to improve system performance. Many program programs update themselves, this process is know as an automatic update. If you have to manually update your software, do so through the software developer's site, not through a secondary source. This approach will reduce the chance of contracting a virus or other piece of malicious software.

A newly installed Windows XP computer using a broadband connection can be attacked within moments of being connected to the Internet. In severe cases, the attacks can render a system unbootable or make a second reinstallation faster or easier than manually removing the malicious programs causing the problems. The SANS Institute provides a PDF guide called Windows XP: Surviving the First Day, which explains how to update a new Windows XP box without immediately becoming infected by viruses and worms. To avoid having your new computer attacked, install a firewall, or activate the one that came with your OS. Both Windows and Linux have in-built firewalls: In some Linux distributions, it is enabled by default; in Windows XP Service Pack 2, it can be found in the program in your control panel.

As soon as you are on the Internet, run your operating system's update facility to fix any security flaws that have been found since your CD was printed. To do this under Windows, simply click on your Start Menu, click on 'All Programs', and then click on Windows Update, and follow the instructions. If you use other Microsoft products, such as Microsoft Office, then it can be valuable to use Microsoft Update, which covers updates for all Microsoft products. For either of these, you can also switch on "Automatic Updates" from the Security Center program mentioned above.

The method of updating your GNU/Linux system varies greatly from distribution to distribution.

For SuSE, there are two ways:

ZENworks updater
For Fedora, type

yum update
as the root user inside a terminal window.

It is perhaps easiest to update the OS from Debian-based distributions such as Debian, Ubuntu and Linspire. For Debian and Linspire you type the following into a terminal window while running as the root user:

apt-get update
apt-get dist-upgrade
Ubuntu has you run sudo to switch run a program as root. Type the following into a terminal:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade

Automatic updates
If your computer will be running overnight, it may be good to have your computer update itself.

Debian based cron-apt
Windows Windows Update

Programs such as Anti-Virus, Anti-Spam and Anti-Spyware of commercial quality or better can be found quite easily: Windows programs are listed in the software section below. (Usually these are not needed for non-Windows OSes)

An important point to note is that security software is one of the more important things to be set up rather than other applications first. In one case, a freshly-assembled computer running Windows XP with no security precautions taken was hit by the Blaster worm as soon as it was connected to the Internet, and has picked up a variety of spyware after only visiting a few websites; forcing the owner to reformat the hard disk and redo installation of the OS.

Now that your computer is relatively secure, you will need to install software to control your various hardware components. This type of sofware is known as a driver.

Although, most of your hardware will come with a cd containing the necessary driver, it is generally a better idea to download the driver straight from the company's Internet site. This will insure you have the lastest edition of the software complete with a minimal or no known software problems. Knowing where to download the driver is also good in the case you lose the cd that came with the device. If you do not have a fast internet connection (broadband), the company usually provides an option to receive the driver cd in the mail. Even if something seems to be working fine, downloading new drivers may help increase computer effiency. Downloading drivers for your motherboard's chipset can often help. Finally, many monitors will not go above a certain refresh rate without its driver, which may be of great concerns to gamers.

If you are using Microsoft Windows, you can generally find drivers for your selected hardware on the manufacturer's website. Most Linux systems already have all of the drivers installed, with the exception of proprietary modem and graphics drivers. If you can't find your required driver, a simple Google search will yield the best results.

Finally, load it with some good quality software. The majority of programs to meet your day to day needs, are available for free. It should be noted that cramming your hard drive with all the software out there is a BAD IDEA and decreases your computer's efficiency. Please, only install software that you actually need for your computer. Also, before installing any piece of software make sure you have backed up your hard drive.

There is free software for all current operating systems used by the general public, including Word Processors, graphics application, email clients, and Anti-Virus software. The following are recommendations for each operating system:

Web Browser: Mozilla Firefox or Opera (Opera is usually faster on slower hardware and works better on older versions of windows).
E-mail Client: Mozilla Thunderbird
Office Suite: OpenOffice.org
Disc Tools: CD Burner XP, Burn at Once
Instant Messenger: Gaim, Trillian, Miranda
Media Player: DivX Player, Nullsoft Winamp, iTunes, SnackAmp
Anti-virus: AVG Anti-Virus, Free Edition, avast!Antivirus Home edition, ClamWin
Security: Spybot: Search & Destroy, Ad-Aware Personal Edition, K9 Anti-Spam,ZoneAlarm Free Edition
Compression: 7-Zip, IZArc, TUGZip
Desktop Search: Google Desktop

Unlike with Windows, on a GNU/Linux system the majority of the software that you will want for your computer is already included. You will probably not need to download anything. Most GNU/Linux distributions have a package manager (Portage for Gentoo, APT for Debian-based distros like Debian and Ubuntu, etc.) For some distributions, simply download RPM or DEB files from your distribution's web site.

If they aren't already installed by your distribution:

Web Browser: Swiftfox or Opera (Opera is usually faster on crappy hardware).
EMail Client: Mozilla Thunderbird.
Office Suite: OpenOffice.org or AbiWord
Instant Messenger: Gaim or Kopete.
Media Players: Rhythmbox, mpd, amaroK (depending on what desktop environment you use), Beep Media Player or Video Lan Client.
Movie/DVD Player: Xine or MPlayer.
Windows Compatibility Layer: Wine.
x86 Emulator: QEMU.
PPC Emulator: PearPC.

Additional Software
For additional software some excellent sources of free and open-souce software are

Tucows a downloads site with freeware, shareware, open-source as well as commercial software. It has many mirrors all over the world for speedy downloads from local servers.
Download.com similar to tucows
SourceForge a site featuring many OpenSource projects. You can start your own, or get software for almost every need. Most projects have GNU and Windows versions. The mirror system isn't as large as Tucows, but you can still usually get a mirror on the same continent.
Table of equivalents can be usefull if you want to know more about specific programs when changing from windows to GNU or vice-versa.

  • Comment #1 (Posted by Pat)
    I know you couldn't itemize costs, but it would have been good to estimate a cost for each item. Very informative information.
  • Comment #2 (Posted by Vince)
    After reading it twice, i think i have digested about half of all the technical stuffs u explained. I will read again a 3rd time because this article is so throughly to pass by. Thanks to you, i'm no longer a computer dummy. This article is very informative and well explained. I would recommend it to everybody.
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