Build Your Own Computer!

Never built a computer before? It’s not as hard as you think!

This guide is not meant to be comprehensive, but to answer some of the most common questions I get with regard to computer building.

First off, this is not about laptops, but desktops and other essentially stationary machines. Laptops are very limited in terms of their customizability so there’s not much to discuss there.

That said, a new desktop computer will generally consist of the following parts:

  • Case (to hold everything)
  • Motherboard (the base to which all other components are attached)
  • CPU (the brain, if you will)
  • RAM (memory, the computer’s scratchpad)
  • Disk drive (for storage)
  • Video card (because of course you want nice graphics on your video games)
  • Power supply (computers need clean, voltage-regulated power, and often a lot of it)
  • Sound card (for audio; often built into the motherboard)
  • Network card (for networking; often built into the motherboard)
  • Optical drive (Blu-Ray/DVD/CD; may be able to write discs; maybe you don’t even need this anymore)
  • Monitor (assuming you like being able to see what your computer is doing; you can also use a TV for this)
  • Keyboard (computers need input)
  • Mouse (ditto)

You may already have some of these parts lying around–particularly a monitor/TV, keyboard, and mouse. Those are cheap and a lot of people have spares. You can use them.

Now comes one of the two difficult aspects of this: choosing parts. This can be made a lot simpler using a site like PC Part Picker. PC Part Picker is great since it can make sure you don’t choose incompatible parts (always a concern), you are shown prices (including sales and rebates), and you can easily save and modify your part lists as you make adjustments. It’s an invaluable tool and I wish something like that existed back when I was building computers a decade and a half ago.

But now it gets tricky. With so many choices and limited funds, what should you choose? You’re not made of money, right? And nobody wants to get scammed. So, I will explain what really matters when it comes to choosing computer parts, and what you can avoid worrying about.

Unless you are a particularly aggressive power user with steep or unique requirements, the following advice should serve you well.

First off, there’s no reason to buy the latest and greatest CPU. This is because most of what today’s PCs do is limited by your graphics card, network, and disk drive(s). CPUs are rarely utilized to the fullest, and buying excess capacity is just wasting money. For instance, an Intel Core i5 CPU in the $150-200 range is (more than) sufficient for most users. As for RAM, more is better, but there’s still a diminishing return to think about. 8GB is probably enough. 16GB is plenty. Going beyond that is generally not worthwhile. When it comes to video cards, it’s wise to balance what you’re paying today with how long the card will be capable of playing upcoming games at high or moderate settings. This is obviously a concern if you do a lot of PC gaming. If you don’t, then you can happily go low-end and not worry too much about it. You could even stick with an integrated video card in your motherboard, or one of the AMD APU configurations. But say you do care about gaming: you’ll want to put your money there before investing in a very powerful CPU or a lot of RAM. In terms of cost, it’s entire possible to get good gaming performance while buying a card that’s $200 or less. Find nVidia or AMD cards in that range and you should be fine. For instance I’m currently running an nVidia GeForce 950, which is more than adequate for just about anything on the market today.

Another area where you don’t want to skimp is on a power supply. This will be regulating the flow of power to your computer, so you want to make sure it’s providing enough, and doing so reliably. There are plenty of good power supply manufacturers out there, so I won’t steer you to a particular one. Just look for something that offers 500 to 600 watts (you can cut this in half if you aren’t getting a video card for gaming) and looks well-reviewed. There are modular and non-modular power supplies. Modular supplies have detachable wires so you can use only what you need. They cost a little more, but they are less hassle and save space inside your case. Non-modular supplies, then, have all the wires attached and you just have to make do with securing the ones you don’t use.

Unless you are doing music production or other high-quality/low-latency audio recording, don’t spend money on a nice sound card. Other things not to splurge on unless you have a pressing need:

  • Wireless network cards/adapters. If you have a 5GHz wireless router that supports 802.11ac (google your router’s model number for specifications, to find out), then it’s worth getting a wireless adapter that supports it, as well–you’ll notice a performance increase. Otherwise, any of the extremely common 802.11n adapters out there will be just fine.
  • Heatsink, fan, and cooling units for your CPU. It may be worthwhile to get an inexpensive heatsink/fan kit for your CPU ($20 or less), but there’s little reason to invest in, say, liquid cooling, unless you’re determined to have bragging rights.
  • Cases. Buy a fancy one for style, if you want, but there’s no practical reason to spend a ton of money on a case. One thing to keep in mind is whether the front ports of the case you choose (for audio and USB) have appropriate headers on your chosen motherboard. PC Part Picker will tell you if they don’t match up.
  • Optical drives. These are about as interchangeable as it gets. If you even need one at all, don’t spend much money. There’s no real advantage to doing so for most users.
  • RAM heatsinks/heat spreaders. Some RAM chips come with these, and you ought to use them if so, but investing in heatsinks or heat spreaders is generally unnecessary unless you plan to significantly overclock your RAM. (I wouldn’t recommend this unless you have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing, anyway.)
  • Motherboards. Though it is essentially the backbone of your computer, it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money on one. As long as it supports the hardware you plan to plug into it, you should be fine. At the outside, $200 might be justified, but you can get away with spending a lot less if you’re budget-conscious.

On the other hand, I do recommend buying a good keyboard, mouse, and monitor. These are how you interact with your computer, so you want them to be as robust and comfortable as possible. Money spent on those items is usually a good investment in terms of the quality you get. As always in these matters, be sure to check reviews and manufacturer ratings so you can be confident about your purchase.

Another consideration for which you will find plenty of online discussion is what type of hard drive to get. The main choices these days are solid state drives (SSDs) and traditional hard drives (HDDs). The bottom line is that SSDs are expensive and have lower capacity but are very, very fast. If you want your operating system and most common applications to be as snappy as possible, an SSD is worth the money. If you aren’t so demanding about performance (or just want to save some money, or value the extra space), stick with the traditional HDD. Personally, I’ve yet to upgrade to an SSD, though I’ve seen their performance advantages on other systems.

With that covered (and parts ordered), it’s time to think about building. I could spill many, many words over how best to approach the act of assembling a PC. Rather than do that, I will instead point you to PC World‘s article with best practices for PC building, and offer some advice of my own. In particular, building PCs is not that hard. If you’ve never done it before, it may seem intimidating, but it consists mainly of mounting your motherboard in the case–this is usually done with screws and mounting brackets that go into standardized, pre-drilled holes–attaching components to it, and plugging in all the power cables from the power supply to the motherboard and other components. Everything is held in place with various screws, brackets, and latches. The whole process is quite standardized, even boring by this point. Just be sure to do it in a clean area, and wear a static guard to avoid inadvertently zapping your components with static discharges.

Thus far, I’ve left out a critical piece: the operating system! This is mostly because it’s so easy to deal with nowadays. If you want to run some flavor of Linux, it’s as simple as getting a USB thumb drive and searching for “linux live usb image”. If you want Windows, you can use Microsoft’s media creation tool, available here. It might be a good idea to download drivers for any hardware you will be using and put that on a separate USB drive, but both Windows and Linux are good about installing drivers on the fly at this point. If in doubt, look up the operating system compatibility before you buy!

Again, this post is by no means exhaustive (nothing really could be), but has hopefully sparked your interest in tackling some PC configuration and assembly (or upgrades), and with any luck some of the tips here will be useful to you. Happy building!

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About the Author

James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Build Your Own Computer!

by James time to read: 6 min
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