So you’ve decided to take the plunge and assemble your own desktop PC. Maybe you’re ready to take your PC gaming to the next level, build a tiny entertainment machine, or just save some money by assembling your own budget machine. Whatever your intentions, our five part guide is here to help you.
Before you can get to building, you need a plan. The old adage “measure twice, cut once” is in full effect here: you’ll want to carefully select your PC components to make sure they’re all compatible with each other, and with what you want to achieve. So this entire article will be about selecting your parts, before you ever spend a dollar or touch a screwdriver.
Why Build Your Own PC?
The pros of a home-built PC are many, but it’s a good idea to make sure it’s right for you. You don’t want to get in too deep and regret your decision.
For example, building a PC can be cheaper than buying a prebuilt one—but it isn’t always! If you’re just looking for a general purpose computer, buying an off-the-shelf Dell is going to be way cheaper than building one yourself. You just can’t compete with the prices they get on bulk parts. Not to mention they come with warranties—if you’re the type of person who needs outside help when something goes wrong, you’ll probably be better off with a PC from a store who offers service.
However, if you’re a moderately knowledgeable user looking for a more powerful PC (for gaming or video editing) or a more specialized PC (like a compact home theater PC), you are much more likely to save money by building. “Gaming” PCs from companies like Alienware have big markups, and you can save a lot of money by building the machine yourself.
Building your own PC has other advantages, too. You can upgrade it at any time to keep it current without buying a new machine (since there’s less likelihood of proprietary or soldered-on parts), or even overclock it to access some extra power.
But the reason I love doing it, and the reason most enthusiasts swear by it, is that there’s a satisfaction in personally selecting and handling each individual part that goes into your computer. It’s fun (for people like me, anyway) in the same way that working on your own car is fun. And, since you don’t need years of practice to do it, it’s a whole lot easier.
If the length of this guide or the complexity of the components seem intimidating, don’t worry. It’s kind of like assembling flat-pack furniture or a set of LEGO with instructions. Everything fits together in a very specific way. If you follow this guide, you’ll be just fine.
Choosing Your Parts
There are six components that you’ll absolutely have to use in order to assemble a working PC. They include:
- Case—the PC case is what holds all the internal components together in a structure. Also known as an enclosure or chassis.
- Motherboard—the connective tissue of your PC build. Every other component will be attached to or plugged into the motherboard in some fashion.
- Processor (or CPU)—the central processing unit, which acts as the “brain” of your PC. This will broadly determine the speed of your computer. You’ll have to choose a CPU and a motherboard that are compatible with each other, both in terms of manufacturer (Intel or AMD) and the CPU socket itself.
- Memory (or RAM)—RAM stands for random access memory. This is a crucial component of your computer’s operation. You need to choose RAM that’s compatible with your motherboard’s RAM slots.
- Storage—your hard drive (HDD) or solid state drive (SSD), the part of the computer that holds the operating system and all your digital files. SSDs are much faster than hard drives, and are highly recommended these days, though HDDs are generally larger and cheaper.
- Power Supply (or PSU)—a heavy little box that regulates the electricity going into your computer and provides power to the individual components. The power supply will directly connect to the motherboard, CPU (through the motherboard), storage, and other add-on components as necessary.
Those are just the pieces you’ll need to get a computer up and running. For more complex builds, you can add any or all of the components:
- Graphics card—most CPUs come with on-board graphics that will run daily tasks just fine. But if you plan on playing high-end PC games or running intense media applications, you’ll want a separate graphics card that plugs into one of the PCI-Express ports on the motherboard.
- CPU cooler—all but the most expensive CPUs come with a heatsink and fan inside the box—this is essential to keeping it from overheating. But if you’re planning on using your PC for high-end gaming, or if you want to overclock it at some point, you’ll want a bigger, more robust aftermarket cooler. These come in air-cooled and water-cooled varieties. We’ll talk about installing both the stock and aftermarket kind in the next article. (Note: You may also need a tube of thermal paste if you buy an aftermarket cooler. Many coolers come with a free tube or with it pre-applied, but check to see if you need to purchase it separately.)
- Extra storage—see above. You can add as many hard drives or storage drives as you motherboard can handle, up to its maximum number of SATA ports.
- DVD or Blu-ray drive—this used to be more or less required to install an operating system, but these days most users have switched to simply loading up installation files on a USB drive. A separate disc drive is really only useful if you have a lot of media still on discs (like old games, movies, music, or file backups) that you need to access frequently.
- Case fans—most cases will come with one or two fans for basic airflow, but if you’re serious about cooling, you’ll want to use all the available mounting points. Or, you may want to get aftermarket fans that aren’t as loud (or come in cool colors). Whatever you do, be sure to get the correct sized fans for your case! Most fans are 120mm in diameter, but some cases may have 80mm or 140mm fan mounts.
- Add-on components—thanks to PCI-E, SATA, and M2 ports on the motherboard, plus open slots for CD drives, SD card readers, or even older floppy disk drives, you may have room to add more or less anything to your build. Extra USB ports, a sound card, a fan manager—your options are only limited by your build. Just make sure your add-ons can work with your case and your motherboard.
Want to get crazy? There are all sorts of add-ons that you can use, including entirely cosmetic stuff, like lights and cable sleeves. Check out this article if you’re looking for a deep dive.
Also, for the assembly of the PC and installing Windows (covered in the following articles in this series), you’ll need:
- A screwdriver
- A USB drive with at least 8GB of space
- Access to another working Windows computer (a public library PC should work fine)
With all that in mind, let’s talk about where to buy your parts, and how to go about selecting them.
Where Should I Buy My Parts?
If you’re looking to secure your parts at retail, it will be tough these days: since computer supply stores like CompUSA went out of business, there aren’t many places you can go in the US to find all the parts above in the same store. Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, and Micro Center are more or less the only national chains still going (and they’re not even available in all areas). You might be able to find more general parts like graphics cards and storage drives in office supply stores, like Staples and OfficeMax, but you won’t be able to buy the whole build there.
If you want computer parts, the best place to look is online. And generally speaking, the best places to look online are Amazon and Newegg (again, in the United States). With millions of parts in stock, they’ll generally have the best prices and selection between them. You might be able to find deals on smaller sites, though—it wouldn’t hurt to look around a bit.
The best way to shop, in our opinion, is to use the following process:
- Start planning your build by looking at a site like Logical Increments (shown above). It lists a number of builds at different price points, and while you don’t need to follow it to the letter—by any means, it’ll give you a good idea of what a balanced build will look like at each budget level, which will keep the rest of the process from being too overwhelming.
- From there, we recommend you start browsing parts at Newegg, even if you don’t necessarily plan on buying the parts there. Newegg has fantastic search filters and spec lists that will help you browse for the parts you want. You can start with Logical Increments’ base build and swap out certain parts you like better, or start selecting parts from scratch—your call.
- Once you start gathering parts, plug them into a tool like PCPartPicker. It has a huge database of PC parts, and knows which parts are compatible with each other, ensuring you don’t accidentally order parts that don’t work together. Then, it’ll show you which retailers have the best price on each of those parts, so you get the best possible price on the total build.
Logical Increments and PCPartPicker are great tools, but they aren’t the only places to do research and make your selections. Here are our favorite free tools for PC builders.
So now you know the basics of what goes into a computer and where to start your shopping. Let’s talk about how to select the right parts for the job.
Which Parts Should I Chose?
Here’s where a lot of people get tripped up. How powerful does a full-sized desktop need to be? Should you buy an Intel processor or an AMD one? Do you need a graphics card, or will the CPU’s on-board graphics be okay? How many watts do you need in a power supply?
Let’s break it down piece by piece. Understand that you generally want components that have been released in the last year or two, because going back further tends to trade price for efficiency and future-proofing. And generally speaking, the more expensive a part is, the more powerful it will be.
Let’s start with the brain of your computer: the CPU. This will determine which other parts are compatible, so it’s a good place to begin.
AMD or Intel? The first question you’ll have to answer is: which brand? These two processor manufacturers have been duking it out for decades. It generally shakes out like this: Intel sells more and has more raw power available at the high end of the market, while AMD competes on price and power efficiency. For example, Intel’s latest Core X series processors offer ludicrous amounts of speed and cores for those who can spend well above $500 on processors alone, while AMD’s Ryzen series competes on frugality, with savings of several hundred dollars at the same general performance level.
Generally speaking, Intel processors fare better in gaming and high-end media applications due to their raw power and popularity, but if you’re on a budget, AMD’s general price advantage may be worth choosing the less popular option.
AMD also offers designs that have much more powerful integrated graphics than Intel, referred to as “APU” models. These APU designs can handle light 3D gaming, whereas Intel’s integrated graphics aren’t generally enough to hack it. They’re also great for applications like home theater PCs.
Which Model? Once you decide which brand to go with, it’s time to narrow down your processor selection. You might recall that computers used to be advertised based on their processor speed, expressed in megahertz and gigahertz. Those figures are still around, but thanks to advancements in processor design, it’s hard to express exactly how powerful a processor is based on a single factor like its clock speed. There are other factors, like how many cores it has, what kind of cache it has, power consumption, and integrated graphics performance (if you aren’t using a dedicated graphics card). In layman’s terms: more cache and more cores means better multitasking performance, more pure speed in each core means better single-task performance, like rendering a big image in Photoshop.
Intel’s current product line includes four main desktop CPU lines: Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, and the top-line Core i9. There are multiple processors in each line, generally going from least to most expensive and least to most powerful. So for the latest models, the fastest Core i3 processor will be a little slower than the slowest Core i5 model. (Again, there’s a lot of variation in composition and architecture, so that may not be true in every single case.)
New models come out on a yearly basis, and…
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