It’s getting increasingly difficult to function in today’s world without owning a personal computer, and it can be a little daunting to decide what you need from one – and even harder to spend the money. If computers are totally beyond your ken and you have no interest in learning more about them beyond how to use it to check your email, a tech-savvy relative or store clerk is usually all the help you’ll need. If you’re interested in saving some money, having a PC customized for you and your individual needs, and knowing the inner workings of the machine you use every day, nothing beats building your own computer from the ground up.
Consider this an entry-level crash-course about the types of things you’ll need to build your own PC – the products I use for examples here may not be the best option for you, and in some cases they may not even be compatible with one another. And though you’ll almost certainly need more guidance than I can offer here when it comes to assembly, I hope you’ll read on and be inspired to give it a shot – I promise, building a PC isn’t anywhere near as hard as it first seems.
Step One: Something to Put It In
This is almost certainly one of the easiest tasks when it comes time to building your own PC: choosing a case to put all the components in. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of options to choose from and really only a handful of limiting factors. In general, there are three main considerations when choosing your tower: is it big enough, does it ventilate well, and do I like the way it looks? If you’re building a PC to surf the internet, check your email, listen to music, and store text documents, you’re not going to need a very spacious tower and heat output probably isn’t going to be a concern – a cheap, standard computer case will be more than sufficient. If you’re a gamer, though, you’re probably going to want a heavy-duty video card (which is typically larger than normal) and a motherboard with all the bells and whistles. All those hard-working components are going to put out a lot of heat, too, so you’re going to want a case with plenty of ventilation – you might also consider a model with built-in fans or other cooling options.
Cases run the pricing gamut, from as low as $50 to as high as $200 and beyond. For good quality with plenty of ventilation and space without any excessively shiny bits, like this Lian Li case, you’ll be looking to pay between $65 and $80, roughly. If you want something really impressive though, there are plenty of fancier models usually sporting LED lights and glass faces to show off your PC’s high-end guts. As a final note, if your case doesn’t come with a sufficient power supply, be prepared to get one separately.
Step Two: The Motherboard
Every computer needs a motherboard – think of it as the foundation upon which your PC is built. Without getting too complicated, the motherboard is what allows the other components of your PC to talk to one another. High end motherboards will have more slots or “spaces” for components, and they’ll be able to handle higher quality or just plain newer gadgets. They may even have normally-separate components, such as a basic video or sound card, already built in. Motherboards vary wildly in price usually based on what chipset and video card they support: this Asus model commands a decent price largely because of its many RAM slots, while this MSI is less impressive but far more economical. There are a great many considerations when choosing your motherboard, but chiefly you want to be sure your motherboard supports your CPU, your video card, and the amount of RAM you want.
Step Three: Whoa whoa whoa…the who in the what now?
Don’t be intimidated! The motherboard is definitely the most complicated and difficult part of this endeavor, but it’s nowhere near impossible to decode all this technobabble. Let’s start with the most important piece and work our way down.
Tech guys will almost always tell you that your computer’s CPU (central processing unit) is like its brain – it’s sometimes called the processor. Appropriately, your CPU is arguably the most important part of your computer, so you’re going to want to make an educated decision when buying one. If you’re a gamer or you work in graphic design, or you plan on working your computer hard by giving it many processes to complete at a time, a higher-end CPU will serve you well. Above all, don’t let the wide variety or complex names of certain processors scare you off! While they’re highly technical, the only thing you really need to concern yourself with is the processing speed (measured in gigahertz, a bigger number is better here). You may hear terms like “dual core,” which roughly means you’re getting two processors in one unit, or “overclocked,” which means the processor has been modified to handle more instructions at once. Tech-savvy home users, especially gamers, have been overclocking their processors for years, to the point that manufacturers are now getting on board. If you choose to dabble in overclocking, make sure you invest in some extra cooling! Processors give off a lot of heat and are generally limited in processing power to prevent overheating and damaging themselves.
When you’ve chosen your CPU and a compatible motherboard, take extra care when installing your processor. It’s not difficult to see where on the motherboard the processor goes (hint: it’s the square spot), but processors are delicate components and you can easily damage them by installing the unit improperly. This is the one step in the process where I would suggest seeking out a professional, even to experienced geeks. Any computer repair place will be perfectly capable of installing your CPU on your motherboard for you, and since it’s not a time consuming thing to do they shouldn’t charge you much, if anything.
Once the processor is out of the way, things get much easier. The next most important piece of the puzzle is RAM – which stands for “random access memory” and is sometimes shortened to just “memory.” Don’t let this confuse you though: this isn’t where your computer stores information. It might be easiest to think of RAM as a sort of data highway to your CPU – more memory means a wider highway, which means more data gets to your processor faster. Memory is measured in gigabytes, and you can expect to pay more the higher the “gigs” are, from the lowly 512MB stick (two of these will give you a gigabyte) up to two-gig sticks sold in pairs. There are different kinds of RAM, as well – make sure the kind you’re getting is compatible with your motherboard, and that it isn’t RAM designed for laptops (it won’t fit).
Step Four: Pick a card, any card
You’re almost there! In fact, if your motherboard has a built-in video and sound card, you may be able to skip this step. While this might seem convenient, you typically want on-board video and audio if you’re only looking for the basics in each. If you’re a gamer or you use any kind of video editing or graphic design software, you’re going to want a decent video card and, depending on how serious you are about it, this can end up being the most expensive part of your new PC. Video cards essentially do all the processor’s heavy lifting when your computer needs to display video. If you’re only interested in streaming video over the internet every once in awhile and you don’t care very much about video quality, you can definitely make do with an economic model like this Sapphire Tech video card. If you want to watch high definition movies or play the latest, most realistic video games, though, you’re going to want to dish out some money on something like this monster by Diamond. Again, make sure your video card is compatible with your motherboard, and make sure your case is big enough, these things can get huge.
Thankfully, your sound card is a great deal simpler and is always going to be much cheaper. A sound card does exactly what you’d expect – it handles the processing of sound for your computer. This is a great deal less strenuous than processing video, so your sound card is going to be much more compact and less pricy. I wouldn’t spend more than the $50 you’d drop on this Creative Labs card.
The last necessity you may want to install on your motherboard is an Ethernet card or an internal modem, depending on your needs. An Ethernet card will let you connect your computer to a network router (and usually the internet by extension). If you don’t have a network, router, or external cable modem, you can find relatively cheap internal modems to connect to the internet via a phone line.
Step Five: The finishing touches
There are only three pieces left before you have a fully functional computer: an operating system, a disc drive to install it, and a hard drive to save it on. For all but a very select few PC users, there’s really only one option for an operating system: Windows. As of this writing, Windows 7 is the newest version of the software and comes in a number of different varieties based on the user’s need. Chances are if you’re building a PC it’s for home use, so “Home Premium” should have everything you need, but if you’re building a computer for work you may want to visit Microsoft’s home page to see if the business versions of the software have features that would be useful to you. As a final note: Windows 7 and its predecessor (Windows Vista) were the first operating systems to come in 32 bit and 64 bit versions. For our purposes here we’ll keep it simple: the 32 bit version will be incapable of using more than 4 gigabytes of RAM, which is more than sufficient for users that don’t need a graphical powerhouse. Gamers may want to go for the 64 bit version, since more RAM may be needed to reduce video lag in the newest games.
Disc drives are the devices that play your CDs, DVDS, and Blu-Ray discs, and they’re relatively easy to shop for. Software is generally written on DVDs today, and the technology to read (and write) DVDs has significantly dropped in price over the last ten years – this Lite-On model is cheap and will be more than sufficient to run software discs and play music CDs, and burn (or write) discs of both types if needed. If you’re interested in watching high def Blu-Ray movies (or in using Blu-Ray discs for storage), the technology exists in models like this LaCie external drive, but it’s still new and therefore a bit pricey. No modern PC should have compatibility issues with a disc drive.
The final piece of our PC puzzle is the hard drive. The hard drive is where data is stored, so your choice here mainly revolves around size – the more a drive’s storage capacity (measured in gigabytes), the more you’re going to pay. For most casual PC users, and even some gamers, this 500GB Seagate should be more than sufficient. If you plan on storing a lot of data at once, though, especially thousands of music files or a handful of video files, something like this 2 terabyte option might be more up your alley. For most users today, more than a terabyte will probably be overkill, but there’s nothing more frustrating than having a full hard drive and no room in your case for a second unit so it may be better to be safe than sorry.
So, there you have it. That’s it! You now have a complete, working personal computer for a fraction of the price. Now that you know all the working parts in these amazing machines, do you think you would ever consider building one of your own?