So you’ve decided to build your own computer, or perhaps you just want to know how difficult it is. Well, if you have ever worked with Legos or an erector set or anything else that involves inserting parts into other parts, you’re on the right track. There are a couple parts that might trip you up, but for the most part, you’ll find that assembling prefab furniture from Ikea is more difficult than assembling a computer.
Why should I build my own computer when I can just go buy one premade? Isn’t that easier and faster and it comes with a warranty and everything!
If you are not going to be using this computer for gaming or other high end purposes and will just be using it for general web/email usage, then perhaps you would be better off buying a retail system. At the $400-600 price point, prefab retail systems are less expensive, or at best comparable to what you might pay building it yourself, especially when you consider what is colloquially referred to as the “Microsoft Tax”, AKA the $99 that buys you Windows Home Premium. Between that, a case, a DVD drive, and a hard drive, this comprises around $200-300 worth of your total cost and to be honest, you’re probably not going to fill the rest of that in for $100-300. In these situations, retail is better.
HOWEVER, if you plan on doing something a little more high end like gaming and you want something a little beefier, building a system yourself can save a lot of money. Fact: Any retail system that you would spend $750 or more on will almost certainly be cheaper if you build it yourself. The higher the system costs retail, the more you could be saving by building it yourself. A $6000 Alienware computer can likely be built for half that cost if you constructed it yourself. For any retail system, especially if you were planning to pay over $1000, you could build the same thing for less, or a better thing for the same price. If you’re cost conscious and/or you just want to “get your hands dirty” so to speak (a horrible misnomer; your hands won’t get dirty at all), building a computer can be fun. The best part is that whenever your friends mention their Dell or their HP, you can always add in “Oh, I built my own” and they’ll think you’re totally cool.
Well, maybe they won’t, but you’ll know you are. Screw them. They’re just jealous.
Glossary – Basic
Here are some basic terms you may have heard of. You’ll want to know what these are before continuing.
Tower/Case: The term for the physical box your parts will be housed in.
Power Supply/PSU: This is what will be connected to an outlet, and will connect to your various components within your case.
Motherboard/MB: The main piece that your computer is built around. This is both the least noteworthy piece and the piece that everything else depends on to work.
Hard Drive/HD: This is where your Operating System (OS), programs, and data are all stored.
Memory/RAM: Not to be confused with your Hard Drive, this is where the computer stores information on programs that are currently running.
Processor/CPU: Considered the “brains” of the computer, this little chip controls almost everything your computer does. It performs calculations and outputs data and tells that data where to go and how to get where it needs to be.
Video Card/GPU: This takes care of everything you see on your monitor. It is called a GPU because, like the CPU, it has a chip on it that is responsible for calculations of its own, except that it primarily deals with what you’re seeing, whereas the CPU deals with what’s going on behind the scenes. There’s more to it than this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Optical Drive: This revers to CD-ROM/CD-RW, DVD-ROM/DVD-RW, and Blu-Ray/Blu-Ray burners. Optical drive is the catch-all term for these drives because they work with a laser to read data off of disks.
Glossary – Advanced
These are some helpful terms to be aware of. You may have heard of some of them or may not, and are free to refer back to this list if needed.
IDE: An older type of data connection used for HD and Optical Drives.
SATA: A newer, faster data connection used for most HD and optical drives in the past several years and today.
ATX: Refers to a type of case, as well as a type of power supply and a type of motherboard. This is what most people commonly use. A less common alternative is ITX. There are others as well.
DDR2 SDRAM/DDR3 SDRAM: Types of memory. SDRAM indicates it is memory for a desktop computer (As opposed to DIMM, which is for laptops) and DDR2/DDR3 indicate the type of memory it is.
Socket: Refers to the type of processor you are using, or the type of processor your motherboard is compatible with.
Pin: May refer to the number of holes or the number of prongs on a plug. For example, a 4-pin plug is a plug that has either 4 prongs or 4 receptacles.
Molex: A 4-pin power connection, used for fans and other devices
Here are some of the main plugs you will want to recognize:
The one on the left is a mini-tower or micro-tower; you do not want these, as they may be too small to accommodate everything properly. The middle one is a mid size tower and the one on the right is a full tower. Between a mid or a full, it is a matter of personal preference. I like Full Towers better, but a mid or full tower will work fine for your build.
2) A Processor. Good gaming processors are:
Intel Core i5 (Good), Intel Core i7 (Better)
AMD Athlon (Good), AMD Phenom (Better)
AMD are less expensive than Intel and are comparable in performance at lower prices. Higher end Intel processors, particularly the Core i7 960 and 980X are significantly more expensive but are also significantly better. Xeons are higher end chips as well but can require different considerations (Most notably the fact that they are usually for servers) that we will not worry ourselves about. Here is a comparison of different processors,in case you want to know “What’s better; X or Y?”
Dual Core processors are basically two processors in one*. Quad Processors are essentially four processors in one*, and Hexacore processors are essentially six processors in one*.
*: this is not exactly true, there are technical reasons that explain why in more detail, but I won’t try to bore or confuse you with them here.
I usually recommend no less than a Quad Core for a good gaming rig, and a Hexacore for a superior rig. Hexacore i7 processors are better than a Phenom II X6. They cost more and they are better, but if you can’t afford an i7 and still want a Hexacore, a Phenom II X6 will be fine too. You get what you pay for.
3) A motherboard. Make a note of the socket type your processor is and find a motherboard that has the same socket type. For example, if you have an AM3 processor, you will want a motherboard that is socket AM3.
4) A Video Card. I would not recommend spending less than $150 on a video card. $150-200 will get you a good card if you’re on a budget but want a good rig. The Radeon 5770 and GTX 460 fall into this category. If you want better performance, you’ll want to step up to a GeForce GTX 470/480 or a Radeon 5800 or 5900 series. Don’t cut costs here and go with a GT/GTS or a Radeon 5600 series; the step down into these cards will save you a little money and hurt you a lot in terms of performance. Some motherboards will come with integrated graphics. This is fine and good if your GPU dies or if you need to do something that required removing your GPU, but they are terrible for gaming. You don’t have to take my word on it; if you hate yourself enough to see how bad integrated graphics are for games, I won’t stop you. Along with your CPU, this is one of your more important pieces; if you have to cut corners somewhere, this is not the place to do it.
5) A Hard Drive. Just about any size hard drive will be fine. SATA hard drives are best (And that’s what most of them will be unless you specifically go looking for an IDE drive). The thing about hard drives is that for a few more bucks you can get a slightly bigger HD. They can start around 40-50 bucks for a 300-500 GB hard drive and for a few bucks you can upgrade to another hundred or so… get whatever size you think you’ll need.
5B) SSD and RPM: A SSD, or Solid State HD is a hard drive that does not contain moving parts (unlike a standard hard drive, which contains rotating pieces of metal and a device to read/write data onto and from it). The advantage of a SSD is that they are not prone to shock (e.g. being dropped or bumped) like traditional hard drives are. They are also faster, do not require defragmenting, and have many other perks. The downside is that they are smaller in size (bytes, not physically) and cost more money. Traditional (non SSD) hard drives typically operate at 7,200 RPM. 10,000 RPM drives spin faster (and therefore read/write faster) and not unlike SSD, cost more money than a 7,200 RPM drive will.
If you don’t know what the difference is, a 7,200 RPM standard SATA drive will be fine for you. Technophiles may be interested in getting a 10K or a SSD if they have a little extra cash.
6) An Optical Drive. Most PC games come on DVD-ROMs so a DVD-reader is practically a must. DVD-RW drives don’t cost much more and are usualyl what I’d recommend getting, just because you never know if you’ll want to burn disks. If you want to shell out a little more, a Blu-ray drive or burner may be an option.
7) A Power Supply. This is what powers the entire system and you definitely don’t want to skimp in this area. You don’t need some mammoth 1500W power supply if you’re only running a 5770 and an i5, but don’t be a cheapass and try to throw a 350W in there either. When Power Supplies die, they tend to take other things with them; motherboard, hard drive, etc. Many retailers will put inferior power supplies in their systems to cut costs. Don’t do this. A good power supply should last you a long time. Don’t be afraid of the high wattages and think they’re going to cause your power bill to go sky high either; it doesn’t work that way.
8) An Operating System. Windows 7 64-bit Home Premium OEM is what I would recommend for most people.
9) A Mouse, a keyboard, and a monitor. The monitor should be a good size and compatible with your video card. The monitor and mouse should be ones that look visually appealing to you and are comfortable to use. You’re going to waste several hours of your life using them, so you should certainly pick something you like here.
10) Optional stuff: Joystick, Gamepad, Card Reader (if you have a digital camera), Floppy Drive (if you think you’ll need it), Printer/Scanner… None of this is mandatory, but I’m only mentioning it in case you want to buy it all at once.
Now you can just go out and buy a bunch of parts, and they might all work with each other… or they might not.
Here’s what you need to know about compatibility, before you buy:
CPU: Must be compatible with motherboard. Intel chips will be LGA#### and AMD chips will be AM# (where # is a number).
Motherboard: Must match CPU socket type (above)
Hard Drive and Optical Drive: Will either be IDE/EIDE or will be SATA 1.5/3.0/6.0. Motherboard should have at least one IDE bus if it is an IDE drive (older, slower). Newer drives are SATA 3.0 or SATA 6.0 (6.0 is faster) and most motherboards will support SATA 3.0 or better.
Video Card: Will be PCI-E X16. Verify that motherboard has at least one PCI-Express X16 slot (almost all boards will, some will have two or more). Some boards will also have PCI-E X1 or PCI slots; these will not be compatible.
RAM type: RAM will likely be 240-pin DDR2 SDRAM (DDR2 for short) or 240-pin DDR3 SDRAM (DDR3 for short), make sure motherboard supports the correct type of RAM. DDR3 is newer and faster than DDR2.
RAM speed: Will be indicated by DDR2-800, DDR2-1066, DDR3-1066, DDR3-1333, DDR3-1600, DDR3-1800, etc… higher is faster. Make sure the motherboard supports the RAM speed. If it does not, the RAM will still work, but will operate at the slower speed.
Ex.1: DDR3-1333 RAM in a motherboard that supports up to DDR3-1600 will operate at 1333 MHz.
Ex.2: DDR3-1600 RAM in a motherboard that supports up to DDR3-1333 will operate at 1333 MHz.
Ex.3: DDR2-1066 RAM in a motherboard that supports DDR3-1066 will not work at all.
Power Supply: Most motherboards you will get will say ATX or Mini-ATX, so you will want an ATX Power Supply. Better video cards require a higher wattage. There are CPU wattage calculators to tell you what to get, or you can check the manufacturer’s site for the video card, as this will usually be the most power intensive thing. Quick guide (And this is not a hard and fast “Do it this way and only this way”, it’s just a frienly suggestion if you CBA to look it up)
Radeon 57XX/GTX 460: 500W or better PSU, 650W+ recommended
Radeon 58XX/GTX 470: 650W or better PSU, 750W+ recommended
Radeon 59XX/GTX 480: 750W or better PSU, 850W+ recommended
SLI/Crossfire (Using two cards): Add 200-300 Watts to the PSU.
These are all rounded up a bit, because it’s better to have a PSU with a high wattage operating at a lower percentage of capacity than a lower wattage operating near peak capacity. For example if your system requires 500W of power and you have a 550W PSU, your system is operating at 90% capacity. If you had a 750W PSU, it would only be operating at 66% capacity. This is all getting into technical stuff and I don’t want to go to much farther and confuse you now though
Part 1: Your case
The first thing you’re going to want to do is open your box for your case and take it out. Remove anything extra inside it that is loose.
Please note that I am assuming you have a standard mid-tower or full tower case. If your case is oddly shaped, your installation instructions may vary wildly. If you have no idea what I just said, then it probably doesn’t apply to you, so don’t worry
As you look at your case from the REAR, you will want to take the RIGHT side panel off. There will be two to three screws holding it in place. Unscrew them, remove the side panel, and set it aside.
Place the case on your work surface, with the open portion of the case facing upwards (towards you).
You’re done part 1!
Part 2: Installing your Motherboard, Processor, Heatsink/Fan
Now the real fun begins. Don’t forget to ground yourself by touching your fingers to a piece of metal. If you should have to get up again, don’t forget to do this again, as mentioned in the introduction.
This is probably one of the more difficult portions of the build, so I will refer you to a video: Click here
There are three main things that you want to take away from this video:
1) As mentioned, your case will come with a faceplate in the rear that, in most cases, will likely not fit your motherboard. Remove it as demonstrated in the video and replace it with the faceplate for your motherboard, being sure to place it right side up. If you have any question as to whether you have it upside down, place your motherboard in the case in such a way as to be able to see where it needs to go.
2) Make sure the standoffs/risers are placed appropriately in your case. A standard ATX motherboard will likely have 8-10 of them. Take a look at your motherboard and make a note of exactly how many screw holes there are. Install the standoffs/risers into the case in the appropriate spots, keeping in mind that the motherboard will be positioned in the case in such a way that the ports will be where the faceplate is.
3) Once the faceplate and standoffs/risers are in place, place the motherboard in the case, being sure to slide it properly into the faceplate, and lining it up with the standoffs/risers. Once it is lined up, begin screwing it into place. Start by screwing in two opposite corners loosely, then work your way around. Once all of the screws are loosely connected, tighten them one at a time. Do not overtighten, but ensure your motherboard will fit snugly.
Processor and Heatsink
This will vary depending on the type of CPU and heatsink you have, and again I will refer to videos.
Ignore step 6 if your heatsink has thermal paste at the bottom of it. Look at the bottom and if there is a piece of plastic there (on the the pre-applied thermal paste), REMOVE IT FIRST. Other than that, follow the video. Don’t forget to plug the fan into the motherboard.
Note that the thermal grease is typically already on the heatsink. If you purchased a heatsink without this, be sure to apply the thermal grease/paste (sold separately). Make sure that all four posts click into place. If they do not, you may fry your processor when you turn it on (usually it will just realize automatically that it has no heatsink and shut itself off but you don’t want to risk it).
In either case, don’t forget the following:
1) Make sure heat sink is secure
2) Make sure thermal grease/paste is applied
3) Make sure the fan is connected to the motherboard
4) Don’t EVER force a processor in. If it seems like it isn’t going in, you may have it facing the wrong way. Ensure you line up the golden triangle indicating pin 1 to the proper place on the motherboard.
Part 3: Power Supply
Depending on your case, your power supply will either go at the TOP or the BOTTOM of the case. Looking at the back, you should be able to locate a large hole; that’s where it goes. Note that there are four screw holes on the power supply and that they are not a perfect rectangle. You should be able to line the four screw holes up with the case.
The rear of your PSU may look different, but note how the PSU can only fit in two different ways, and the screws will only work one way. Put your power supply in place, screw it in, and tighten firmly (again, don’t overtighten, but be sure it won’t fall out). Move the cables out of the way (you can hang them over the side of the case if you like.
Part 4: Installing RAM
This part is terribly easy. You will notice on your board that there are a series of RAM slots (usually four or six). If you only have one stick, then you can install it in any slot. If you have two and your motherboard supports dual channel memory (most should), install them in either slot 1 and 3 or slot 2 and 4 (These are also called memory banks). If you have three sticks and your motherboard supports triple channel RAM (less frequent, high end motherboards will do this), install RAM into banks 1, 3, 5 or banks 2, 4, 6. The RAM can only fit one way since the notch is not in the middle of the receptacle, so don’t force it if you have it the wrong way. It should click into place twice, with the snaps on either side of each stick.
Part 5A: Hard Drive
Depending on your case, there are a number of ways to do this.
If you have a screwless case, you will attach two rails (included with case) to the sides of the hard drive and slide the HD into place in one of the hard drive bays (usually around the bottom). Ensure that the power and data connections are facing out so that you can plug them in. Once it snaps in, you’re done.
If you do not have a screwless case, you will have to physically screw in the hard drive. This may require flipping the case upright and removing the other side of the case so that you can reach the other side of the HD. Ensure that the HD is secured in place, and of course ensure that the data and power connections are facing the interior of the case.
Part 5B: Optical Drive
Again, depending on your case, there are a number of ways to do this.
Firstly, you -may- have to remove the front panel of your case. Looking inside your case, you may notice that the front is held on by screws, by pegs, or both. Pegs should snap in and out but any screws will have to be removed. If it seems like you’re yanking on the front and it’s not coming off, you should ensure you haven’t missed any screws.
Secondly, you -may- have to remove a metal plate, like this one. If there is not already an open spot to put the drive (or if you just want it somewhere else), the metal plate may either pop right out, or you may have to twist it back and forth to break it off. You may keep or dispose of it as you wish.
If you have a screwless case, attatch the rails to your optical drive, with the tabs facing the front of the case. Slide it in until it clicks and you’re done.
If you do not have a screwless case, slide the drive in and screw both sides in (you probably still have the other side off from installing the HD).
You may now reattach the face plate. Leave the back end off for now, if it is off already. We’ll come back to it later. Set it aside if it is off and place the computer down again.
Part 6: Video Card
Your case should have one or more PCI-Express ports. If you don’t know what to look for, click here. The top port is a PCI-Express X16 port (where your video card will go). The second and third are PCI ports and the bottom is a PCI-Express X1 port.
Your video card can be connected to any of the PCI-E X16 ports. Remove two of the rear plates behind the PCI-E port and the one under it (since your card should take up two rear ports). There may be a little slider that you may want to move, if it’s there.
Figure 1 – Note that slots 2 and 4 have a white slider that is in the way.
Figure 2 – Note that these slots just have a tab, not a slider.
If there is a sliding tab, slide it back. If it’s just a tab, it should be fine. Snap your card into place by sliding it straight downward, and then close the sliding tab if you just moved it (non sliding tabs will just snap into place).
Screw your card into place in both screwholes.
If you are setting up SLI/Crossfire, connect your second or third card and bridge them using the included connectors on the top of the cards.
Part 7 – Plugging it all in
Older hard drives and optical drives may use an IDE connection instead. Difference If this is the case for you, note that your motherboard may have an IDE_1 and IDE_2 or PRI-IDE and SEC-IDE. Hard Drive should go into 1/Pri and optical should go into 2/Sec. This isn’t mandatory to do it this way, but it’s good form to do so. This will not apply to 99% of people building a new computer though; everything has been using SATA primarily for years.
Connect the power cables (SATA on left, molex on right) from your power supply to your HD and Optical Drive. SATA drives will use SATA power cables, IDE drives will use molex.
Any fans in your case will likely use molex as well. Feel free to connect them now.
Your Video card will need power as well. It may take a 6-pin or an 8-pin connection. Your power supply may supply 6 pin and 8 pin plugs or they may look like this in which case they work for both. Ensure all power connections on all video cards are plugged in, and that you use the correct plug.
You have two more power plugs to go. One is a four pin plug that will connect to the motherboard like this. Depending on your motherboard or your power supply, this may be an 8 pin plug and connector. It’s physically designed in such a way that it only goes in one way, so you can’t possibly put it in any other way unless you try to jam it in there or something. Another is a 24-pin (it may be 20 pin with an extra 4 pin breakaway for older 20 pin motherboards) plug that also goes to the motherboard, like this.
Now, we move on to connecting the case to the motherboard, this is the last semi-difficult part. Depending on whether or not it is printed on your board, you may have to refer to your manual for this.
There will be a bundle of wires coming from the front of the case. There should also be a place on the motherboard that looks like this. In this picture, the proper layout is diagrammed on the board. If you have no such diagram, refer to your manual for a diagram such as this. Typically, the white wire is the – and the colored wire is the +. Some cases may use black instead of white. Make a note of the color that all the wires share and you should be able to logically deduce which is – or GND (Ground). and which is +. Some motherboards may come with something like this which will make life a little easier; all the plugs plug into it and then it plugs in to the case.
If your case has any USB or audio ports, connect them to the motherboard as well (example). they will have a 5×2 plug with only 9 wires, so the correct orientation should be obvious. Plugs usually go near the bottom of the board. Same for audio.
Part 8 – Cable management
Your case layout will dictate how easy or difficult this will be, and this is optional, but recommended. Running cables BEHIND things instead of leaving them dangle in teh case is recommended wherever possible, because cables restrict airflow, which cuases your case to run hotter than it should. Try to work with the case to keep the cables out of the way by placing them behind the metal fixtures inside the case wherever feasible. It’s not always possible, so don’t sweat it if you can’t do it, but try not to just have everything a giant mess.
Part 9 – Putting it back together
Ensure everything is snugly and securely plugged in. If there are any fans on the side panel, connect them to the molex connections and close the case. Close the other side as well, it it was open. Screw the latter panel back on (the one that was on the bottom when the case was laying down) but not the first one yet; in case something doesn’t work, you’ll not want to have to unscrew it again.
Part 10: Wrapup
Plug the power connector into the back of the power supply, connect your keyboard and mouse and monitor and turn it on. Put your Windows install DVD in the optical drive. You may have to restart with the disk in the drive to get it to boot to the DVD.
Assuming Windows’ installer loads properly, sees your OS, and your keyboard and mouse are working (and your monitor obviously), you should be golden. Don’t forget to install any drivers once Windows is installed.
Part 11: It didn’t work!
Assuming you followed all steps properly, you shouldn’t be here. Here’s a couple quick troubleshooting steps though:
Ensure your computer’s PSU is plugged in to a surge protector which is WORKING and TURNED ON and PLUGGED IN.
Ensure you plugged the case into the motherboard properly, and that you plugged the PSU into the motherboard properly.
Powers on, then shuts back off
Ensure your CPU fan is connected to the motherboard properly, and that it is firmly secured.
Power, no video
Ensure your monitor is plugged in, both to power and to the video card.
Ensure your monitor is turned on.
Try plugging the monitor into a different port on the video card (Video card should autodetect port, you should not have to do this)
Power, Video, system is beeping at me
If the system says no RAM is installed, ensure the RAM is seated properly. Shut it off, remove and reinstall the RAM. Make sure you hear it click into place.
If the system says there is no boot device, this is normal at first. You haven’t installed Windows yet, dummy Insert the Windows DVD if you haven’t and restart.
My glowy fans aren’t glowy!
Ensure you plugged them in. Are they spinning? You may not have gotten an LED fan if they are spinning but not lit. If it is not spinning, you may have forgotten to plug it in.
My problem isn’t listed here!
Allakhazam has a computer and tech forum that may be able to help you. Feel free to send me a PM as well; I’m not your personal tech support 24/7, but I’ll do my best to answer what questions I am able.
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