Build Your Own PC
- How to Build Your Own PC
Computing has changed a lot in the last decade. For many, smartphones have become the go-to method of playing games, staying in touch with friends, and browsing the Web for answers to spur-of-the-moment trivia questions and viewing cat pictures. When you need something more powerful, or with a bigger screen, you might reach for a tablet. And if actual, real work calls, the laptop you'd use is probably svelte, light, and stylish. Traditional bulky desktops are increasingly rare, and when you see them, they're usually all-in-ones, or decked out with designs that are meant to be noticed. Let's face it, no one really builds their own desktop PC anymore, right? Wrong, actually. DIY may not be all it used to be, but it's still a thriving sector of the PC industry, and one that any serious computer user—we mean the type of person who cares more about what a computer can do than how small an envelope it can slide into—should be aware of. Because, if you want the strongest, most adaptable, most upgradeable, and most personal computer you can possibly get, there's no way around it: You need to build it yourself. By researching each individual component's capabilities and limitations, you can tailor your purchases to your exact needs now and in the future. And if your requirements or your mood change tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year, you can easily pull out and replace as few as one of the pieces, and your computer is perfect for you yet again. Nothing else gives you this much control or satisfaction. Yes, you'll have to sacrifice some—maybe a lot—of portability, but the result will be something you can totally and deeply call your own as you never will be able to with an unchangeable system designed and manufactured entirely by someone else. Building your own PC is not necessarily an inexpensive or quick proposition. But if you're willing to devote the time and resources to the project, you will end up with the best possible computer on Earth for you—and that will make everything else worthwhile. Shopping for Parts The most difficult and time-consuming part of the PC-building process happens long before you start looking for the screwdriver. You can't even start thinking about assembling the individual components until you buy them—and that means doing a lot of investigating into the options (of which there are thousands) and, believe it or not, some serious soul-searching. The first, and most important, thing to consider is: What do you want your PC to do? Are you looking for a really inexpensive system to put in the kids' room? Do you want a squat, console-like desktop that will fit right next to the TV that you can use for streaming media, or maybe as a Steam Machine? Is a dedicated work PC for your home office the goal? Or do you want the biggest, baddest build that can play the hottest new games without breaking a sweat? We can't answer this question for you. But once you've reached a decision, you'll have a better idea of what you need to buy and how much money you'll have to spend. And then you can get on to the actual shopping. For research and shopping, we highly recommend using Newegg.com. It has a dizzyingly wide selection of components in every conceivable category and one of the Internet's most powerful search engines for narrowing down your precise needs. But feel free to use your favorite tool (or brick-and-mortar store). The nuances of what components do, and how to best get them to serve your needs, is beyond the scope of this story. But the descriptions below of their functions and what you need to look for when shopping should give you a solid of idea of where to start in collecting all the parts you'll need for your PC. Processor
If you're building a gaming PC on a budget, you'll probably want to start off by choosing a video card (see below). But everyone else can start with the central processing unit (CPU), or processor, the "brain" of the computer that, well, processes all the instructions it receives from the software you run and the other components you have installed. Because of the considerable difference it will make in how well you run every program on your PC, paying particular attention to its capabilities is crucial. Here's what to look for:
- Number of cores. Back when every CPU only contained one processing unit, or core, clock speed was the easiest way to measure performance. But practically every processor today is a multicore CPU, and the more cores a chip has, the more it can accomplish at once (if it's supported by the software). Most common are two- (dual-) and four- (quad-)core CPUs, though six- and eight-core CPUs are becoming more visible on the market.
- Number of threads. Most processors today, particularly from Intel, can simultaneously operate two processing threads per core (Intel calls this technology hyperthreading), effectively doubling your core count. Because not every processor supports this, check that yours does if you expect to be running a lot of multithreaded applications.
- Clock speed (operating frequency). This is the frequency at which each core in a CPU runs, or the number of cycles it is able to execute per second. The higher the number, the faster CPU will generally be per core. These days, clock speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), or billions of cycles per second.
- Cache (L2 or L3). A processor uses memory installed in the chip itself to store and speed up operations before utilizing external system RAM. This on-board memory is stored in one or more caches, which are identified L2 or L3. More powerful processors will be equipped with larger caches.
- Socket type. CPUs come in different sizes, are identified by the kind of socket they plug into. (For example, Intel's most powerful current chips use the third revision of the LGA 2011 socket.) You'll need this information to determine what motherboard to buy (see the next section).
- Manufacturing technology. Every year or two, processors get thinner and more power-efficient. Knowing a chip's manufacturing technology (measured in nanometers, or nm) will give you some insight into its capabilities, but is not strictly necessary.
- Cooler. Most processors come with a fan rated for their specific speed and estimated heat output; unless you're planning to overclock your computer or otherwise put it through particularly traumatic paces, you probably don't need to buy another fan or liquid cooling system. (And for that reason, we're not going to dwell on the question here.) But if you do decide to buy a separate one, or if you choose a high-end CPU that doesn't come with its own fan, make sure that the cooler you get is designed for the family of processor you have or are planning to buy.
If the CPU is a computer's brain, the motherboard is its nervous system. Most of your other components will plug into the motherboard, so the one that you use for your build needs to be exactly what you need now, and what you expect to need from it in the future. Here's what to look for:
- Socket type. A motherboard's socket type must, must, must match that of the CPU you plan to use in it.
- Form factor. Motherboards come in a range of sizes, or form factors, from the tiny Mini ITX to the enormous Extended ATX. For most full-size desktop builds you'll probably want either regular ATX or the somewhat smaller Micro ATX. The form factor you get will dramatically affect both the number of other components you're able to install and what kind of case you're able to install them in (see that section below for more details).
- Memory. Be on the lookout for several different attributes of how your motherboard deals with memory. You need to know the memory type and standard, which are usually listed together. For example, if your motherboard supports DDR4 2133 memory, buy that. (Many motherboard manufacturers certify certain brands of memory for use with their boards; look up the motherboard on the Web to find out what's officially supported.) The number of memory slots tells you how many individual modules, or DIMMs, you can buy; you'll also be informed of the maximum memory supported, or the total amount of all the individual DIMMs taken together (such as 32 or 64GB). You may also see motherboards labeled as tri- or quad-channel, which signifies that you can expect a noticeable performance benefit if you fill the correct number of RAM slots. Note: Many times a motherboard will be listed as supporting a number of memory types with the designation "O.C." after them—this refers to memory that is overclocked. If you don't plan on overclocking your memory (which we don't recommend, unless you're an expert or fearless tweaker), you may safely ignore these numbers.
- Expansion slots. The most common motherboard form factors, ATX and Micro ATX, will have between four and seven PCI Express (PCIe) slots, for adding expansion cards. These may use either the current top-end standard, PCIe 3.0, or the older (and slower) 2.0, with designations based on the size of the slots and the number of PCIe lanes they use. The longest slots are x16, though some that look identical may run at x8 or x4; in addition, there are visibly smaller x1 slots. On a Mini ITX motherboard, however, you should only expect one x16 slot.
- Storage. SATA remains the most common interface for connecting internal storage devices to your motherboard. The newest version of the standard, SATA 3, supports data transfer rates of up to 6Gbps. You may also find some other interfaces; M.2, in which a flash-based storage module plugs directly into a thin slot on your motherboard, is becoming increasingly popular, for example. Regardless, you'll want to have enough of the right kind of ports for whatever storage you want to buy. (Learn more about that in the Storage section, below.)
- Onboard technologies. Just about every motherboard will feature onboard stereo sound and Ethernet, most will include integrated Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth, and many will also include ports for taking advantage of processors' integrated video capabilities. (You won't find the last on motherboards for higher-end processors, which are designed for use with discrete video cards, and you may ignore these ports on lower-end or midrange motherboards if you plan on installing a standalone video card.) It's worth checking the specs so that you don't forego something you really want.
- Video card support. Think you may want to concoct an ultra-powerful gaming machine with more than one graphics card? Even if you have enough slots to hold multiple cards, you're out of luck if your motherboard isn't designed for use with either Nvidia's SLI technology or AMD's CrossFireX, so verify that first.
- Type. Memory will only be useful to you if the motherboard supports it; read that section for more information. Each new standard offers some additional speed and features, but not in all situations, so don't feel as if DDR4 RAM, rather than DDR3, is an automatic must for you if you're building from scratch. Just remember that RAM is not backward-compatible, so DDR4 will not work in a DDR3 slot. The higher the number in a memory's standard, such as DDR4 2666, the faster it generally is. Faster memory designed for the same slot type will work in a slower slot, but save yourself some money and don't leave any performance on the table you don't have to.
- Capacity. DIMMs for each memory type come in a variety of capacities, so you can buy what you need and can afford. It's best to buy at least one chip for each memory channel (three for triple-channel, four for quad-channel), and memory often comes in "kits" to make that easier; and we don't recommend mixing and matching capacities within any one build. If you see a capacity listed as something like "8GB (2 x 4GB)," this means the total amount of RAM is divided up between a number of chips (in this case, two DIMMs of 4GB each, for a total of 8GB).
- Memory timings. Most memory specs include a series of four numbers, separated by hyphens, that provide an at-a-glance way to tell how speedy the memory is. The first number, CAS latency (the amount of time between when the memory controller requests data and when it's available) is the most significant, and may be listed by itself. The lower the numbers, the faster you can expect the memory to be.
- Other specs. Error Checking and Correction (ECC) memory is intended for high-performance systems such as workstations and servers; you will need a motherboard that specifically supports this type of memory if you want to use it (and most ordinary users won't need to). Voltage numbers give you specific information about how the memory uses power, with higher voltages typically meaning speedier RAM—but this is something only overclockers will really need to know.
- Processing cores. Like your CPU, your graphics processing unit (or GPU) has contains multiple processing cores exclusively for churning out graphics. The more of them your video card has, the better a performer it's likely to be (and the more it's likely to cost). AMD calls its versions "stream processors" and Nvidia has named its own "CUDA cores"—note that although you can't directly compare the two types, the numbers of cores are good indicators of relative power within each company's chipset families.
- Clock rates. As with your CPU, this is the speed at which the graphics processing unit, or GPU, runs. It's not unusual to see cards with fewer processing cores and faster clock speeds, or vice versa, so try to find the best blend for the amount of money you have to spend.
- Memory. Video memory (VRAM) serves a function for video cards that's similar to what ordinary RAM does for the rest of your computer: It stores the data until it's needed for processing. This matters less if you're playing at lower resolutions, where there aren't as many pixels and other visual effects to be wrangled, but, as a rule of thumb—as with RAM—more tends to be better. (You'll see 4GB or more on the highest-end video cards.) Also pay attention to the memory clock speed, which can also function into performance.
- Ports. A video card isn't worth much if it's not hooked up to at least one monitor. Look at the list of its ports to determine whether your card outputs to DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort; if you'll be using your computer with a monitor you already own, you'll want to know ahead of time whether you'll need to buy an adapter. Another good idea is verifying how many monitors the card can drive at once: It may not be the same as the card's number of output ports.
- Power requirements. Video cards are among the most power-hungry PC components you can buy, so know what you need to get from your power supply. Usually there will be a minimum value you should respect, and you'll also be told the specific number of PCIe power connectors (six- or eight-pin) you'll need in order to get the card to work, as well as the number of amps needed from the power supply (see that section below for more information about this).
- Hard drive or SSD? The average price of solid-state drives (SSDs), which store data on flash memory, has dropped a lot in recent years, making them a better choice than ever to add to your computer if speed in booting up and accessing files is what you crave. But by and large, they're still punishingly expensive on a cost-per-gigabyte basis compared with traditional, slower mechanical hard drives: It's not hard to track down a 3TB hard drive that costs $100 or less, whereas consumer-oriented SSDs top out at about 1TB—and those will run you $350 at an absolute minimum. Because of this, the classic advice is still the best: Pair a lower-capacity solid-state drive (256GB or so is a good compromise), for installing Windows and your most important programs, with one or more spinning hard drives for housing all your data. Another option may be a hybrid drive, which stores most of your data on an inexpensive hard drive but uses a tiny amount of flash memory for things you use most frequently; this can save you a lot of money, but because of how the underlying technology functions, the performance will not always match what you get from a true hard drive–SSD pairing.
- Interface. Serial ATA (SATA) connections are still common, especially for hard drives, and your motherboard will undoubtedly have plenty. But for major speed advantages, you can also buy newer SSDs on PCIe cards that install directly into your motherboard's expansion slots and use that much faster bus. Other interfaces, such as mSATA and M.2 are less common, but you may want to take a page from space-saving smaller systems and consider M.2 (which plugs directly into a motherboard port) for use as a boot drive. Just be certain your motherboard supports whatever standard you intended to use.
- Form factor. This refers to the size of the drive, with hard drives coming in 3.5- or 2.5-inch varieties, and SSDs coming in 2.5- or 1.8-inch models. For desktop computers, form factor doesn't always matter much, though you'll need to have the right kind of space in your case for whatever drive you choose.
- Hard drive specs. A couple of extra details may appear on hard drive listings that you won't see when researching SSDs. Most consumer hard drives spin at either 7,200 or 10,000rpm, with the speedier drives costing more and using more energy. You can also select the amount of cache memory your hard drive uses (up to 128MB) to boost performance. This information is useful for detail-oriented purists, but is of limited use if you don't plan to use your hard drive as your boot drive (which, as mentioned above, we don't recommend).
- Is optical optional? Now that most software is purchased and delivered digitally, an optical drive may not be a necessity for you, particularly if you don't plan to install a lot of older programs. If you don't want an optical drive, you'll need another strategy for installing the operating system; use another computer to create an installation USB key, for example. If you do want a drive, it may be worth it to splurge a bit on a Blu-ray burner (they cost around $100, or about five times what you'd pay for a DVD burner), so you can watch high-definition movies you may have hanging around.
- Power Supplies
- Maximum power. This is the highest amount of power the PSU is capable of directing to your components. The less complicated or intense the build, the lower a number you can get away with—for most people, 500 to 750 watts will be fine. But if you're using high-end parts, particularly energy-sucking video cards (or more than one), your power needs could raise to 1,000 watts or even more. Checking your components' power usage or thermal design power (TDP) is vital—get a power supply that's too weak, and your computer may not even turn on.
- Voltage rails. Simply put, voltage rails are like individual power circuits within your PSU, with each of the major varieties (+3.3V, +5V, and +12V) powering different kinds of components. In most cases, the most important one to pay attention to is the +12V rail, as that's what will be driving your video cards; one of these capable of supplying 34 to 40 amps should be enough for the most powerful cards you can currently buy, and is likely to be more reliable than using multiple +12V rails for the same job.
- Form factor. Like other components we've covered here, power supplies come in a variety of form factors that determine the kinds of hardware you can use with them, and under what circumstances. The most common for mainstream motherboards right now is the ATX12V, but you may also see others (such as EPS12V), and you may need to buy a smaller power supply if you're building a system too miniature to fit a full-size ATX power supply, say.
- Connectors. Power supplies come in two varieties: one in which all the cables are preattached, and another (called modular) that lets you connect only the cables you need. In either case, your PSU still has to have the right connectors, whether six- and eight-pin for video cards, SATA for newer hard drives and SSDs, or Molex for older drives and other devices. The good news is that if you don't have all the connectors you need, adapters aren't too tough to find. Still, it's easiest to verify that you have what you need ahead of time; the PCIe connectors for the video card are most likely to trip you up, so find out what your card needs so your PSU can supply power in the proper way.
- Form factor. Though a case can basically be as big or as small as you want it to be, what matters more is which form factor of motherboard it's designed for. One intended for ATX motherboards will have room for the board and the proper number of expansion slots; a Micro ATX motherboard is smaller and will have fewer slots, though the case itself may not necessarily be smaller; and smaller form factors still, such as Mini ITX, may require other adjustments to your component choices (less storage, for example, or maybe a smaller power supply). Many larger ATX cases can also be used with motherboards of other form factors; as long as yours is supported, you should be fine.
- Front-panel ports and controls. You'll definitely want to access all of your computer's features, and its front-panel ports are the way to do that. Every case will have Power and Reset buttons and an activity light, and most will also have headphone and microphone jacks and USB ports; some may even have fan or lighting controls. Just remember that you'll need to connect any front-panel ports to the motherboard, so cross-comparing those specs ahead of time is a good idea.
- Drive bays. You'll need someplace to store your hard drives and SSDs, and any other devices you may be using. Generally speaking, cases may have one or more 5.25-inch external bays for optical drives other enthusiast gadgets, and multiple bays for 3.5- or 2.5-inch hard drives and SSDs. (Some cases also have externally accessible 3.5-inch bays for easily swapping hard drives in and out.) The smallest cases, though, can have very few of these, so pay attention, or risk not being able to perform necessary upgrades later.
- Fans and filters. Cooling is one of a case's most important functions. Your case will probably come with one or more intake or exhaust fans, and have room for adding more (in several sizes, from 80mm on up) if you want them. Removable filters, which capture dust to keep your PC's interior tidy and are easy to clean, are also common on higher-end cases.
- Putting It All Together Once you've decided on and purchased your parts, it's time to do the really exciting/fun/scary thing: assembling them all. Believe it or not, this is less difficult than it may sound, especially now that tool-free cases are de rigueur and you won't need your Phillips screwdriver for installing much more than the power supply and the motherboard. But doing things in the proper order will help out a lot. What follows is the basic procedure we used while building a higher-end system for testing hardware here in PC Labs. It illustrates most of the points you'll encounter in your building, though the details will differ a bit depending on the components you buy. The basic techniques, however, seldom vary much from build to build. 1. Get Prepared Just as a chef wouldn't fire up the stove without the mise en place ready to go, neither should you. Unpack all your components, remove the packing material from them, and arrange them cleanly on a large, flat surface. The floor will absolutely work if that's all you have, but try to avoid doing it on a carpet—static electricity remains a major danger for electronics, and frying your system before you even get to use it is one shock you don't want. (If you're concerned, you can use an antistatic wrist strap or ground yourself by touching some bare metal, such as the frame of your empty computer case, before you start working with anything else.) Also, open up the main side panel of your case, because that's where your build will begin. 2. Install the Power Supply You won't need the power supply until much later in the build process, but you're better off installing it first because once the other components are in place, it becomes a lot more difficult to put the supply where it needs to go. Position the PSU in the bay with the fan pointing downward (many cases will have a vent there) and the screw holes lining up with the holes on the back of the case. Secure the power supply with the provided screws, then drape the cables over the side of the case to keep them out of the way while you work on everything else. 3. Install the Processor
- 7. Mount the Motherboard