Building a desktop PC is like dining at one of those huge buffet restaurants: You have dozens of choices for every dish, the variety ranging from hot dogs to filet mignon and everything else in between. Building a laptop reminds us more of a prix fixe menu: You can make a few decisions here and there, but you don't have much opportunity to customize your meal.
Indeed, building your own laptop is chock-full of challenges. Parts are harder to find, choices are fewer, and you need a steady hand to deal with small screws and the tight confines of a portable case. What's more, there's not nearly as much information available in books and on the Web about assembling portable systems from the case up.
Look past these limitations, however, and your DIY laptop dream can become a reality. With a thirst for challenge and a $1,400 budget, you can assemble a speedy, well-equipped mobile machine that performs better and costs less than many comparable pre-built systems. As for the difficulty in putting it all together, that's where we come in: We'll walk you through all the steps it takes to build a high-performance laptop from as close to scratch as you can get. (Also, check out our slideshow illustrating how to build your own laptop step-by-step. Also check out our related visual guide, Build Your Own Netbook, using a barebones system from OCZ.)
Choosing Your Barebones Notebook
The Asus C90s barebones, the basis for our DIY notebook.
Though you're unlikely to find barebones notebooks for sale at your local electronics store, a number of models are available through online retailers. A few manufacturers to look for include ASI, Asus, Compal, ECS, MSI, and Super Talent. (We even found an HP Compaq 6910p business notebook in a barebones configuration.) The main factors to consider when choosing a barebones model are processor technology, graphics-card support, and screen size. Do you want to use a fast but hot-running desktop CPU, or are you willing to spring for a pricier mobile chip that trades speed for lower heat and better power savings? If you're a gamer, you'll want a notebook that either has a good GPU built-in or can accept an upgradable notebook graphics card. Finally, do you prefer a more-portable system with a small screen, or a heavier notebook with a roomy LCD?
For our build, we chose the $690 Asus C90s, as it's one of the few models that supports an inexpensive-but-speedy desktop Core 2 Duo processor, allowing us to emphasize both performance and low cost. The C90s also sports an nVidia Mobile PCI Express Module (MXM) slot, allowing us to install a decent gaming GPU. Its 15.4-inch LCD offers an ideal size and resolution for gaming and watching DVDs while keeping the notebook's weight at a somewhat-reasonable 6.8 pounds. In terms of looks, the solid-feeling case could pass for a mainstream model from Dell or another brand-name vendor.
Gathering the Parts
Keep in mind that, unlike their desktop brethren, barebones laptops are not entirely"barebones." No matter which model you go with, it will likely come with a few built-in components that can't easily be swapped out—most notably, the motherboard and the optical drive. You still get a decent dose of DIY from the parts you can assemble yourself, however, including the CPU, memory, graphics card, hard drive, and wireless card. Most of these components are commonly sold as upgrades to pre-built laptops and are easy to find at competitive prices. Shopping at TigerDirect.com, we picked up 3GB of DDR2 667 SO-DIMM memory (the maximum amount the C90s accepts)—a $44.99 2GB stick and a $24.99 1GB stick. We also got a $199.99 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo E6700 CPU, a $159.99 160GB Seagate Momentus 7200.2 hard drive, and a $109.99 OEM version of Windows Vista Home Premium.
Rounding up the remaining parts, however, was not as easy: We found only a few online vendors who sold the Wi-Fi card and MXM graphics card we needed for our C90s build. For less-common components such as these, you should consult with the dealer that sells you the barebones laptop to make sure they're available. On that note, we turned to Asus for our 256MB nVidia GeForce 8600M graphics card, which the company sells separately for $90. After a lot of Web searching, we located a hard-to-find $32.50 Intel 4965AGM Mini-PCIe Wi-Fi card at Mwave.com.
Finally, before you hit the purchase button, be sure to carefully check that each component is compatible with the motherboard included in your barebones case. For instance, though the C90s' Intel 945G Express chipset sports the LGA775 CPU socket, it doesn't support newer quad-core processors. Also, note details like slot types: Standard video cards won't fit in an MXM slot, and the C90s uses a newer Mini-PCI Express (PCIe) slot for its Wi-Fi card, rather than a more-common Mini-PCI card. You'll need a 2.5-inch-wide, 9.5mm-thick Serial ATA (SATA) hard drive—older IDE drives won't work here.
The Asus C90s: Building the Laptop, Step by Step
Before you start building your laptop, you'll want to take a full inventory of your parts and tools. For the C90s, you'll need at least your CPU, memory, hard drive, and graphics card. (We can't imagine building a notebook without wireless capabilities in today's world, so you'll also need a Mini-PCIe wireless card.) In the tool department, you'll want both large and mini Phillips-head screwdrivers (preferably magnetic ones, to avoid losing small screws), needle-nose pliers for grabbing small parts, and a few small baggies to store the tiny screws you remove so that you don't lose them while you have the notebook open.
Crack the Case
You might think that the logical first step to building your new notebook would be to break out the instruction manual. Unfortunately, the only documentation included with the C90s describes how to use the notebook once it's up and running. There's no assembly manual, not even on the Asus Web site. That's not a problem in this case, as we'll walk you through the entire building process. But if you choose a different barebones model, you'll want to do some research beforehand to ensure that instructions are available either in the box or online. Otherwise, you'll be left to trial-and-error—and the potential nightmare of leftover parts when you think you've completed the assembly.
To open the C90s case, you'll need a very small Phillips screwdriver. Place the notebook upside-down on a clean, flat surface and locate the removable rear panel. (Asus calls it the ACE Door, for "Accessible, Convenient, Effortless.") With the notebook resting on its lid and the front toward you, the ACE Door makes up the right half of the notebook. Look for the four screws that have a small screw icon next to them. These are the only screws you need to remove to open the back panel. Be careful not to remove the fifth screw in the panel, which has a disc icon next to it—that one secures the DVD±RW drive in place. Once the screws are removed, place them in a plastic bag, as they're easily lost and you won't need them again until everything's put together. Carefully push the panel gently toward the back of the notebook, and then lift it when the tabs are free of the notebook's case.
Asus did not provide an instruction manual for the C90s, so we had to figure out how to remove the back panel on our own. Make sure that assembly instructions are available for the case you choose.
With the ACE door off, you can take stock of the various sockets and slots you'll be filling. Be careful to keep fingers and objects clear of the motherboard, as the processor socket is unprotected, and if you bend one of those tiny little pins, your new laptop will be useless.
First step, now that the cover's off? Find and expose the CPU socket.
Inside the Asus C90s. The CPU socket is toward the upper right, just down from the strip of yellow tape. Here we've already removed its lid.
Install the Processor
To install the processor, lift the small arm next to the CPU socket, then raise the socket cover, taking extreme care not to touch the pins in the socket during the process. Now carefully remove any snap-on covers from your CPU chip and line it up in the socket so that the two notches in the chip match the corresponding notches in the socket itself. Carefully place the chip straight down into the socket; don't slide the chip into place.
The first component to install is the processor. Take extreme care not to touch the pins in the socket during the process.
Once the chip is safely resting on the pins, close the socket cover and snap the locking arm back down into place.
Two heat sinks come included with the C90s: one for the processor and another for the video card. The processor heat sink is the larger of the two, with four screw holes and a small plastic cover protecting a block of thermal paste. Remove the plastic cover, being careful not to touch the thermal paste, and slide the cooling fins of the heat dissipater under the fan assembly at the rear of the notebook. Simultaneously line up the four screw holes on the heat sink with the corresponding holes surrounding the CPU socket. Find the baggies containing four black screws and use those to secure the heat sink.
Screwing down the CPU heat sink.
Wire the Wireless
Now it's time to install our Intel 4965AGN wireless adapter. It simply screws down, using tiny screws, like so...
Plugging the card into the Mini-PCIe slot is a snap, but then you have to contend with connecting the wires. Looking at the Mini-PCIe wireless slot near the top right corner of the C90s, you'll see four wires held down with yellow tape. Three of the wires come from the top corner of the case; the fourth, a black wire, comes from the side. This fourth wire is an antenna for an optional internal TV tuner; we won't use that in this build. Remove the tape, grab the fourth wire, and use the yellow tape to hold it out of the way while you connect the antenna wires.
A closer look at the Mini-PCIe card's wires.
At the end of each of the remaining three wires, you'll see a small round connector. These connectors snap onto the corresponding numbered connectors at the edge of the Wi-Fi card. Connect the black wire to connector 1, the gray wire to connector 2, and the white wire to connector 3. (If the wireless card you're using has only two connectors, connect the black wire to connector 1 and the gray wire to connector 2.) Now slide the card into the slot, being careful not to dislodge the antenna wires. Secure the Wi-Fi card with two small silver screws.
Pop in the Video Card
To install the MXM graphics card, first find the baggie with three larger silver screws and two small black screws. Hold the card at about a 30-degree angle as you insert its edge connector into the video-card slot near the center of the motherboard. Press the card in and downward, and then use the two small black screws to secure it in place. Our card had its heat sink/bracket already installed. If your card included a separate metal bracket, install it now using four spring-loaded screws.
Installing the MXM module. Most barebones notebooks use upgradable MXM graphics cards, which can be difficult to find at stores but are easy to install. Gamers should go with the most powerful MXM card available (and rated for the machine).
Next, you should install the remaining, smaller heat sink by sliding the cooling fins under the fan assembly next to the fins on the CPU cooler, placing the heat sink over the video card. Use the three silver screws to secure the heat sink in place.
Mounting the heat sink atop the MXM module.
Set Up the Drive
At this point, you should be down to your last storage baggie—it should have four screws in it. Use the two screws that don't have blue paint on the tips to secure the metal drive cage around your hard drive. The open end should be on the end of the drive with the SATA connectors.
The motherboard SATA connectors are along the front, right edge, under the lip of the laptop's shell. Drop the drive into place and then carefully use your thumb to push the drive into the SATA connectors. Now use the remaining two screws to secure the drive in place.
The hard drive, mounted.
The last internal components to install are the SO-DIMM memory boards. The two memory slots sit between the graphics card and the large silver-finned heat sink, near the center of the motherboard. Take the 2GB board, hold it at about a 30-degree angle while you line up its connector with the lower memory slot (note that the slot is keyed so that you can't install the board upside down), and then snap it down into the slot, like so...
Repeat the process with the 1GB DIMM, installing it in the top slot. Done from the hardware end of things! The interior looked like this on completion...
Now that all the hardware components are installed, find the four screws you removed from the ACE Door, slide the door back into place, and replace the screws. To prepare for power up, pop in the notebook's battery pack, connect the power brick, and plug it into a wall outlet. Finally, open the laptop's cover, cross your fingers on one hand, and use your other hand to press the power button.
If all went well, you should be greeted by an Asus logo, followed by a warning that you have no operating system installed. If this doesn't happen, check the power connections; if that's not the issue, you'll need to reopen the case and ensure that all the components you installed are securely in their slots and sockets, and that all of the screws are tight.
Installing the Software...and Benching the Build
The only thing your machine should be lacking at this point is some critical software. To add the Windows OS, power down the notebook, turn it back on, and press F2 to enter the BIOS setup screen. Select System Information to confirm your processor speed and memory amount. Then press Esc to return to the main menu, move to the Boot screen, and adjust the Boot Priority setting to put the DVD drive first in the boot order so that you can install the operating system. Place the Windows Vista Home Premium DVD in the drive, start your system, and follow the instructions to install the operating system.
Once Vista's installed, you're still not quite at the finish line: You also need to install the drivers for your notebook's components. Insert the C90s driver CD and install the appropriate drivers, starting with Intel Chipset INF Update Program. (This enables your notebook's motherboard chipset.) Work your way down the driver list in order, then pop over to the Utilities tab and install Asus' Hotkey Utility, Turbo Gear overclocking program, and any other software you'd like to use.
Installing the C90s drivers.
Finally, open Control Panel, click System and Maintenance, and select "Check your computer's Windows Experience Index base score." Running this test will enable Vista's Aero Glass transparency on your desktop.
Congratulations. Your hot new gaming notebook is now ready to rock.
Reviewing the Results
In the feature department, the C90s excels with its large, comfortable keyboard, a bright display with an adjustable Webcam, and a cutting-edge collection of ports that includes HDMI and external Serial ATA (eSATA). There's also the nifty Turbo Gear option, which lets you overclock the notebook's CPU up to 10 percent (in our case, up to 2.93GHz). The overclocking utility is much more stable than when we first tested the fully configured version of the C90s; we didn't have any of the blue-screen crashes we saw in our initial review.
As for performance, the notebook's Futuremark PCMark05 score of 5,823 and Cinebench 9.5 score of 893 are in line with pricier performance laptops we've seen. Gaming was a mixed bag, however. While the C90s turned in an excellent 49.2 frames per second (fps) on Company of Heroes at its native 1,680x1,050 resolution (with anti-aliasing on), F.E.A.R. performance was less impressive: We managed just 48fps at 1,024x768, and a poky 18fps at native resolution. These scores reflect the limitations of the notebook's 256MB nVidia GeForce 8600M card MXM graphics, which is certainly not as speedy as the high-end graphics cards you can find in retail machines. In fact, our card is currently the fastest MXM model available, and we wouldn't count on a more-powerful upgrade option coming out any time soon. Though MXM technology has been available for about three years now, it hasn't received much support from manufacturers. That said, these scores won't thrill die-hard gamers, like other notebooks in its price class, our system can certainly handle newer games played at moderate resolutions with the details set to high.
The C90s demands a few other compromises—namely, a protruding heat sink that adds extra heft, and a power-hungry desktop processor that runs hot and quickly drains battery life. These are issues you may not encounter with other barebones cases, especially those that use mobile CPUs.
Was It Worth It?
So is the effort spent building your own notebook worthwhile? If you have a bit more than an entry-level budget, you're not a hard-core gamer, and you're willing to spend as much time searching the Web as you would actually building your PC, the answer is yes. In terms of power-versus-price, there's no doubt our C90s trumped the retail competition. There aren't many sub-$1,400 notebooks out there that can clock in at 2.93GHz, and at press time, comparable systems with GeForce 8600M graphics were typically running about $250 to $300 more than our build—and those notebooks had slower processors, smaller hard drives, and less memory. Though the parts you can put in a barebones laptop are limited compared to those you can find for a desktop, you essentially get as much variety as you would when configuring a pre-built system through a big-name or boutique vendor.
The biggest reward, of course, is being able to show off your new notebook and proclaim, "I built this myself."