Build Your Own Computer from the Ground Up

buildyourowncomputerIf you are hoping to get exactly what you want from a PC, and nothing that you don’t, you may be considering building your own personal computer, rather than buying one already assembled from an electronics retailer. If that is the case for you, you may be glad to hear that this is a possibility that’s completely do-able! With a basic understanding of PC components and how to put them together, anyone can build their own, well-running personal computer from the ground up.

And even better, the home-built route can often save you money while giving you exactly the computer you want. Since you can custom pick the components you want to emphasize and save on the elements that don’t need to be top of the line, you can cut some superfluous costs without having to sacrifice on important features.

This guide will explore the steps of building a PC, including selecting the components you need and putting them all together. It will also take a look at a number of operating systems you can use to get your computer working just the way you want it to.

If you would like a guided approach to building a PC that covers every step in detail, you can take an online course in home PC building that will cover everything you need to know.

First, decide on the type of computer you want

Personal computers are just that: personal. Not everybody has the same needs. For some, the everyday use of a PC involves very simple functions that don’t require a lot of sophisticated tools. For others, there are specific parts of a PC that need to be running like a well-oiled machine to get a certain job done. If you think about the kind of PC user you are, it can help you build the machine that’s just right for you.

  • Low-resource: If you are looking to build a computer that will support the most basic applications, such as browsing the web, checking email, simple word processing, managing photos, etc. you can build a barebones system that will allow you to do that for a very low cost.

  • Average computing power: If you are planning to use your PC for a lot of multi-tasking, playing some games, and some simple desktop publishing, you’ll need a little more power, but you can still construct something pretty simple without spending loads of money.

  • Entertainment center: If you plan to use your computer mostly for entertainment, perhaps hooking it up to a high-resolution TV screen, you will want to think about what you’d like to get out of it.  If you want to be able to run detailed 3D games at high resolutions, this will require some quite powerful resources. On the other hand, simple video streaming can be handled with basic, lower cost resources.

  • Editing video and graphics: A smooth experience that will handle complex video and graphics editing tasks will require a powerful machine.  By building your own computer, though, you can focus on the resources that need to be supercharged and save in other areas.

  • Other applications: You might have another specific purpose in mind for custom building a PC (e.g. audio engineering) and this will bring up some additional considerations for your computer configuration.

Choose the parts

Before you piece together your PC, you will, of course, have to purchase the pieces. If you want a good overview of the basic elements of a computer and how they work, you might consider taking a course that gives you a good introduction to computer essentials.

Case

Computer cases come in a range of different sizes and forms.  Generally, you will want something that will fit all of the components and allow you some room for upgrades.

Modern PC cases are made specifically to fit different classes of motherboards, so it is absolutely critical that the case you choose is designed to fit the motherboard you plan to place in it. Here are the major configurations you will encounter

  • ATX: The most common and largest form factor. Takes up additional space but offers the most potential for expandability. High-power systems will need to be housed in this type of case.

  • Mini ATX: a common small form factor (SFF) design. These smaller boards give perhaps the greatest ability in SFF computers to accommodate hardware and expansion.  However, they are not compatible with other case types.

  • Micro ATX: Another small form factor that is built to be compatible with ATX cases. These can be a good choice if you plan on incrementally expanding your computer.

  • Flex ATX: If space is a major issue, and you don’t need much expansion, flex ATX might be an option for you. It is essentially a modification of the micro ATX form that uses the same mounting holes but will allow for an even smaller case.

There is more to consider when it comes to a case’s size and form, as well.  Even if different cases accommodate the same type of board, they can be very different sizes, so you will want to make sure the case you choose will fit well in whatever space you plan for it.

With ATX cases, there are two common types: tower and desktop.  Desktop cases are usually wider, as they position the motherboard so that it lays flat.  Towers position the board to be upright.

There is more to consider than simply the physical size of your computer case. Here are some additional, fundamental things to look for:

  • Fans: You’ll want to pay attention to the fans that the case includes and how much you can expand this later on. Most have intake fans on the front panel and exhaust panels on the rear. If you are using a lot of high-power components that require a lot of extra cooling, you might also want to consider a case that includes sound proofing to combat, noise from the fans.

  • Ports: Pay attention to the ports available on the case’s front panel. If you are using a lot of plug-and-play devices, mice and keyboards that connect through USB, etc, it will be a big convenience to be able to connect these to the front panel. The number of available ports will vary, so make sure you consider this if having front-side access is important to you. Additionally, if you are planning on using SD cards, micro-sd cards or other types of removable storage, you will want to make sure you have front-side ports available for these.

  • Drive bays: It is common for most computer cases to include a 5.25 inch drive bay for an optical drive (i.e. CD or DVD drive), internal 3.5 inch bays for hard drives, and often an external 3.5 inch drive that’s often used to house a card reader.  Make sure the case will accommodate as many hard drives as you will need to suit your data requirements.  Particularly if you plan on using your computer for home entertainment and you will be downloading a lot of music, videos, and games, you can easily fill up a lot of space.  So make sure you have room for enough storage.

  • Expansion slots: in addition to slots for storage space, the PC case will have slots for adding expansion cards. These might include graphics processors, Ports for USB connections, sound cards, etc. Consider the types of expansions you will need to include with your PC and make sure the case will give you enough room for what you want to build.

Motherboard

We have already touched on how motherboards differ by size because this will affect the type of case you are going to buy.  And of course, the size and layout of the board will also affect the number and kinds of features you will get. Traditional ATX boards will offer the most features, including more PCI Express slots, USB connections, and more. With other models, you will sacrifice some of the advanced capabilities to suit your needs in terms of form.

However, there is much more to think about when purchasing a motherboard. Here are some of the main considerations:

  • Socket: A motherboard you choose will not fit just any processor.  Instead, you will need to match the socket type of the board to the processor’s socket type. This can be a confusing decision if you don’t have a frame of reference for the different processors and the sockets they will fit.

For this reason, you might want to determine the type of processor you want to use and narrow your motherboard search based on the socket type it will fit. Each of the main microprocessor manufacturers use different sockets for their processor lines.  For instance, the most recent high-performing Intel Core processors use the LGA 1150 and LGA 2011 sockets.

  • Chipset : The chipset of a motherboard is one of its most important factors. Essentially, it integrates the devices in a computer and controls the flow of data between them. Chipsets consist of a northbridge and a southbridge, each of which controls different components of the PC.

Since they are integrated into the motherboard, chipsets cannot be modified or upgraded, and they are optimized to work with certain processors. Thus once again, choosing a processor first can help you narrow your selection.

  • Bus speed: How quickly data travels from one part of the motherboard to another is referred to as its bus speed, and it is a specification that can have a significant effect on your PC’s performance. Usually, bus speed is measured for the front-side bus, and it is expressed in megahertz (MHz). Bus speeds can vary widely, from about 66 Mhz to more than 800 Mhz, and a higher count will generally indicate faster performance. An exception to this, however, is in the case of a low-powered processor. In other words, a fast bus speed cannot make up for an underpowered CPU.

  • Memory: Most of a computer’s memory consists of RAM (random access memory), which controls how quickly a processor can access data to process. Therefore, RAM is extremely important to system performance. An addition to the amount of RAM, up to the maximum amount a motherboard will support, is often an essential upgrade that will greatly benefit a PC. The RAM type is also important to consider, and the current type you will want to make sure your board supports is DDR3.

Processor

Functioning essentially as the computer’s brain, the processor you choose is, of course, critical to its performance. You want to make sure that the one you select is going to be able to handle the kinds of tasks you’ll be performing. And by the same token, you might want to avoid an overpowered processor if your computer use is not going to require it. Here are some of the main things you’ll want to consider when choosing a processor:

  • Brand: There are two major brands when it comes to processors: Intel and AMD. AMD’s processors are typically more budget friendly, but they are also usually not up to the performance level of Intel chips. The highest end Intel chips are the ones you will shoot for if you need your PC to be blazing fast and take on complex video and 3D graphics editing.

For a budget PC or even a mid-range one, AMD might be a good choice that will offer an attractive price for performance that will suit your needs.

A third manufacturer, Via, is another option. However, Via chips are much lower performance and should only be considered for minimal computing needs.

  • Socket type: We already covered, in the section on motherboards, that a processor needs to be matched to the socket on your motherboard. In addition to this, you will want to make sure you avoid buying a processor that has been made for a socket that is being or has been discontinued. Keep in mind that the current Intel sockets are LGA 1150 and LGA 2011. The current sockets for AMD are AM3+ and FM2.

  • Benchmarks: Measuring the performance of processors has changed over time. Not too long ago, the operating frequency, measured in gigahertz, was the measure that most people used to judge performance. Then, the number of processing cores came to be the major consideration that most would decide on. The importance of those specifications in reflecting the quality of a processor, however, has been reduced in the past few years, and really a better way to evaluate performance is to look at benchmark scores from testing procedures.

If you visit Anandtech’s benchmarking site, you can get comparison ratings for processors you are considering and overall rankings. If you’d like a quick view of benchmark ratings for current processors, you can also take a look at this article from diyallday.com

Power Supply

The power supply unit (PSU) for a PC can vary greatly in terms of the wattage it will deliver to your system. Now, it is easy to think purely in terms of “more power = better”, but that is not quite right in this case. You will want to make sure you buy a good product from a reputable manufacturer that offers a warranty. So resist the temptation to go with a generic unit claiming high output.

There are a few indicators you will want to look for in your purchase:

  • Weight: better products will typically weigh more because their higher quality components are heavy.

  • Fit: Make sure that the PSU is going to fit in to your case. The unit will be named according to the same conventions used with motherboards and cases (ATX, Micro ATX, etc.). You also want to look to make sure that the connection, represented as the number of pins it uses, matches the connection for your case.

  • Power output: Putting quality over quantity, you will do well to determine how much power you are actually going to require for your computing needs. You can use a power requirement calculation tool available from a number of Websites that will help you understand the output you’ll need.

  • Efficiency rating: A unit with a good efficiency rating indicates a quality product that runs more smoothly. Look for ones that have an 80 plus quality rating.

  • Cooling: Better power units will employ larger heatsinks, again adding weight to a unit. They will also include larger fans that make less noise than smaller alternatives.

Packages and Barebones kit

For any/all of the components described above, you might consider purchasing a packaged deal from an electronics retailer. TigerDirect.com, for example, offers a range of options for kits that include a case, motherboard, processor and PSU, all for one price. These packaged deals come in configurations that cover the complete spectrum of computing needs, from low-resource, ultra-economical PCs to hardcore gaming machines.

Some kits also include additional components, such as RAM, hard drives, optical drives etc. However, especially when the package bundles in a greater number of components, you will want to make sure that all of the included pieces are of decent quality. So make sure you pay attention to the specs and evaluate them against the guidelines you are learning.

RAM

This guide briefly covered RAM in the section on motherboards, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind when you are purchasing RAM units for your computer.

  1. Match it exactly: Your motherboard will indicate the type of RAM that it supports, and you want to purchase that kind exactly. Thus, if your PC needs DDR3-1033 make sure that is the type you get, as the computer cannot support others.

  1. Go for value: RAM is generally the type of product where you will  simply want to look for the best value you can get from a reputable seller.

  1. Don’t overdo it: Your motherboard will only take so much ram, and the manufacturer will indicate how much that is. Of course, in picking your board, you will want to make sure to get one that allows an amount of RAM that will meet your needs. 4GB is sufficient for less intensive units, but for more demanding uses, you will probably want a PC that supports 8, at a minimum

Hard Drive

Whereas RAM functions as a computer’s short-term memory, your hard drive serves as the longer-term semi-permanent storage location for data. Since our everyday computer uses often demand a lot of storage (e.g. massive music and video collections, game files exceeding 10 GB), we need lots of space to hold everything. Fortunately, current drives are highly capable of storing massive amounts of data.

Drives with the capability to store one, two, and even three terabytes of data are common, and for many, one drive of this size should be sufficient for data storage.

All other factors being equal, it is often a good idea to go for hard drives that hold more data, as the price difference is much lower than expanding with another hard drive. When considering different hard drives for purchase, here are a few factors to consider:

  • Connection: You need to make sure that the drive you are considering will fit the connectors in your PC. The current standard that your PC will almost certainly use is an SATA connection.

  • RPMs: Hard drives run at different speeds, measured in rotation per minute. Enterprise storage applications use high-RPM drives. However, for most personal applications, 7200 RPMs will suffice.

  • Cache size: acting as a buffer between the CPU, memory, and hard drive, a hard drive’s cache ranges from 2 to 16 GB. The higher the cache size the better the performance. However, a larger cache size will also command a higher price.

  • Solid-state or hard-drive: An alternative to the traditional hard drive, the solid-state drive is growing in popularity. These drives use flash storage technology and offer several benefits over regular hard drives: they are quiter, consume less power, and at the high end, they operate more quickly. They also do not require defragmentation, cutting down on maintenance time. The trade off is that these drives are currently more expensive and come in much smaller sizes.

Graphics Card

One of the most popular expansion cards, particularly for those who play games on the PC, is the graphics card. In many ways this card operates like the computer’s motherboard, containing its own processing unit and RAM. However, in this card, these components are dedicated specifically to processing graphics.

As these cards range widely in price, you will do well to consider your goals for PC use before you make a purchase. If you use your computer primarily to do common tasks like web surfing, email, simple photo manipulation, document creation, etc. you can most likely do without a dedicated graphics card, as the integrated graphics capabilities will have you covered for your needs.

If you play some casual games on your computer and don’t care about getting the highest resolution possible, a card of mid-range quality should be enough to suit you. However, if you are engaged in intensive video editing and hardcore gaming at high resolutions, you will likely need a video card that is at the high end.

Optical Drives

The DVD or Blu-ray drive in your PC is referred to as the optical drive. Ultimately, selecting this component is fairly straight forward, requiring just a few considerations:

  • DVD or Blu-ray: If you want to be able to watch video in high definition, you might want to consider a blu-ray drive. Using blu-ray disks will lessen the PC’s internal storage requirement in comparison to downloadable content, and it will process more reliably than streaming media available from most sites. Otherwise you can opt for a DVD drive, which will generally come at a much lower cost.

  • Read-only or read-and-write: You will want to decide between a writable drive, which will allow you to create multimedia and data discs, or a read-only drive, which you will use only for accessing files and playing media.

  • Compatibility: If you do opt for a blu-ray drive, you will need an HD-capable graphics card and monitor to support it.

Additional components

Depending on the use you are planning, you might need to purchase some additional components for your computer. If you are planning to record professional audio or get high quality audio playback, you might want to consider a dedicated sound card.

If you need to attach more peripherals that the ones that are included with the motherboard, you will need cards for those items as well. Also, depending on the case you purchased, you might also consider buying a multi-card reader for additional, removable storage.

Peripherals

Certainly, you already know that you can’t do anything with your computer unless you have certain peripherals to attach to it. The following are some of the major ones you’ll need.

  • Monitor: If you want a great computing experience, it’s important not to skimp on the monitor, as this is the component you will actually be looking at and interacting with. You might want to reference a buying guide specific to monitors to make sure you get a component that will serve you well and deliver visuals you will like.

  • Keyboard and mouse: the keyboard and mouse you use might be more or less important to you, based on your needs. If you are going to do a lot of typing, you will certainly want a quality keyboard that is comfortable and responsive. Also, if you prefer using keyboard shortcuts (rather than the mouse) for a lot of interaction with the PC, you might want a model that integrates a lot of functions directly in to the keyboard. In general, you will want to stick with trusted brands like logitech and Microsoft to make sure you buy a decent product.

  • Speakers: Speakers range widely in quality and price. At the very lowest range, they can cost around $10. And at the highest end, the cost can easily exceed $300. You will want to consider what you want out of your speakers as you make your buying decision, and it might help to consult a buying guide.

  • Printer: As mobile computing makes it easier to operate without paper, you might be pondering whether you need a printer or not. If you do purchase one, there are some special considerations to keep in mind, not only in terms of performance but also economics.

Specifically, the cost of ink can get expensive, and some models will be more efficient than others. Also think about whether you will want scanning and fax capabilities built in to your printer.

Networking equipment – Unless you don’t need a wireless network at home, the components you use for this network are extremely important. They can also be very confusing. Really networking equipment is an area of computing that is too large to cover within the scope of this article. So if you would like some detailed guidance on networking concepts, you might consider taking an online course that covers the basics of computer networking.

Putting everything together

With regard to most components, the actual assembly of your PC will be a pretty simple and straight forward process. Here, we will take a look at the steps in the order you will want to go about them. For additional guidance, you might want to take a look at this wikibooks guide on the PC assembly process. Certainly, you will want to take a look at the safety precautions described there.

Make sure you set up a clean, level, and roomy workspace for building your PC. You will also want to gather the essential tools before you begin. At a minimum, you’ll want to have: a phillips-head screwdriver, anti-static wrist strap, and needle-nose pliers.

1. Install the motherboard in your case – the case you purchased should contain instructions for completing this first step. If not, you might refer to the wikibooks article provided .

2. Install the CPU in the socket– The procedure for installing the processors comes second in your build, and it is the hardest step you will have to engage in. This may come as good news, as you will be getting the hard part done early on.

Now, the installation process for each particular model and manufacturer is going to be different, so you will want to refer to the instructions provided with the product. Since the method requires considerable precision, make sure you read the instructions closely and follow closely.

3. Install the RAM – Locate the memory slots on your motherboard and mount the RAM you purchased in them.

First push down the levers on the side; then place the Ram in the slot until these levers click in to place. Check to make sure one side of the Ram stick is not higher than the other.

4. Install the power supply – It should be pretty simple to place and install the power supply, as there will be a bracket for mounting it inside the case. Make sure you determine the connectors you will need, as power supplies include a a cable with multiple connection options.

5. Install the video card – If you purchased a dedicated video card, that component will be placed in the AGP or, more often, PCI express slot of your PC. This should simply require pressing the card firmly into the slot until it clicks into place. Depending on your case, there may be an additional step to mount the card. Make sure you read any instructions that came with it.

6. Install additional cards – If you purchased any additional cards that will be placed in to the available PCI Express slots, you will want to place them in, following the same process as you used for the video card.

7. Install drives – Connect your SATA hard drives and optical drive using both the serial ATA and power connection cables.

Choosing Software

Before you can do anything with your new computer, you will need software to run on it. This includes any native applications you want to run regularly. However, before you consider these individual apps, you need to choose an operating system. Here are a few options to consider as you think about which operating system to install:

Windows

Most PC builders use Microsoft Windows as their operating system of choice. As the most popular operating system worldwide, Windows is certainly the best option for many, and it runs the most commonly used applications for business and personal use. If you want an overall reliable, multipurpose system that works for a wide range of applications, Windows might be the best option for you

Currently, you can pick up a copy of Windows 8 at any PC retail store. You might consider purchasing a system builder OEM version of the software, rather than the typical retail installation version. This version comes at a lower cost. Consider, however, that the trade-off is that the product can only be used on the machine you are building, rather than additionally licensed to multiple users.

If you are unfamiliar with the Windows 8 environment, you might benefit from a course that explains the new features and walks you through the system.

Ubuntu

Another option for a great all-around OS, and one that might appeal to users looking for a cost-effective alternative, is Canonical’s Ubuntu. This system is built on the Linux kernel, which has historically been thought of as a platform that isn’t truly accessible to anyone except for those who are particularly tech-savvy.

However, Ubuntu has come a long way in its development, and it offers an interface and application set that is easy for anyone to use. One of it’s major points of attraction, of course, is that it’s 100 percent free, as is much of the software that runs on it.

Another differentiator for the Ubuntu system is that it integrates both local and online resources in to a simple, integrated interface that makes it easy to find content and applications from virtually any source. For this reason, Ubuntu is a great option for those who make heavy use of internet resources, cloud computing, and web applications.

Chromium OS

If you are looking to build a low resource computer and want a lightweight, web based operating system to go along with it, Chromium OS might be a perfect choice.

Basically, this operating system is the open source, non-branded version of the system that Google uses in its Chromebook computers. You can build a barebones, low cost computer and install Chromium OS on it to harness the power of the Web.  Using internet applications like Google Docs, Dropbox, Picasa, and others, you can cover all of the fundamental uses of a typical PC, all within a simple web browser.

SteamOS

If you are building a high-powered machine for gaming, Valve corporation is currently completing development on an operating system specifically for your purposes. Those familiar with the Steam gaming application will already be familiar with the look and feel of the interface, and this will serve as the backbone of this new operating system.

Pair the SteamOS with a high-powered computer housing a great graphics card, and you will have an outstanding home entertainment computer to hook up to your living room TV.

Ubuntu Studio

Perhaps you plan to use your new, custom built computer to serve as the backbone for creative pursuits such as audio recording, desktop publishing, animation, video editing, or graphic design. The Studio version of Ubuntu comes pre-loaded with all the applications you will need for any of these practices, and it pairs this with a low-latency kernel to boost your computer’s performance.

This means that even mid-range PCs can be used to accomplish complex creative tasks in Ubuntu Studio. However, with a high-powered computer, you can support a powerful creative studio on a shoestring budget.

Like the standard Ubuntu OS, Ubuntu Studio is completely free.

Wrap-up

Hopefully this guide helps get you started on the adventure of building your own PC. Remember as you enter in to the experience that you can take your time with it and make sure you get just the right thing for every element of your system. Rather than being intimidating, this undertaking can be quite fun, with the right approach. So enjoy it! And look forward to having a great machine that’s set up just the way you like it!