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8 things you need to know to build your own computer

By / 07.31.13
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how to build a computer

Chance Reecher, Flickr


You may have heard that building a PC is cheaper than buying one, and that's generally true. But what you should buy, and why, varies greatly depending on what you're going to be using it for. Here's what to do and what to get once you've made the decision to to build your own computer.

computer screen

Computer screen image by Shutterstock


This is the first question you need to answer. If you want, say, a computer plugged into your TV to stream Netflix, browse the web, maybe laugh at YouTube videos, you won't be needing a complex machine. If you want to play the latest games at the highest setting, you'll need to shell out for high-end parts.

And remember, you'll need to install an operating system, as well. What OS you choose will depend heavily on what your needs are.

hard drive

Hard drive image by Shutterstock


Here's what you need for a computer:

The Motherboard: As you might have guessed from the name, this is where all the parts are assembled into a working computer. Different motherboards have different capabilities, so don't cheap out here if you're building a high end system. Also, any ports on your final computer will be on the motherboard already, so check carefully before buying one.

The CPU: Your computer's primary brain, the Central Processing Unit. CPUs are clocked, these days, in gigahertz (GHz). Essentially that tells you how fast the CPU can operate: The faster, the better the performance, as a rule of thumb.

RAM: AKA Random Access Memory. The best way to think about this stuff is as your computer's short-term memory. If you have a program open, for the most part it's storing information in the RAM instead of pulling it off the storage you've got set up. Hence, the more RAM you have, the more programs you'll be able to run at once. RAM is generally slotted into the motherboard, so make sure that has all the RAM you need.

Storage: This can be the classic spinning hard drive or the increasingly common solid state drive, or SSD. Both have advantages and drawbacks: Hard drives have more storage but are more likely to break down and slower to access information, while SSDs are lighting quick but get expensive the more room you need. As a rule, err towards small-sized SSDs for tiny computers, and a mix of SSDs and hard drives for bigger ones.

Graphics Card: While most motherboards will include graphics hardware in the first place, an independent graphics card can be a good investment. If you're building a computer for high-end gaming, it'll be a necessity.

Optical Drive: You can buy a Blu-Ray drive for your computer for dirt and it's simple to hook up. Do it: You never know when you'll need it and you can always take it out later.

Power Supply: The other parts you use determine your power demand. Smaller supplies have a distinct advantage in that they're quieter, however.

Wi-Fi Card: You need wireless on your computer, so invest accordingly.

Case: Yep, you have to buy the case to mount this stuff. These range from the bland biege boxes your dad used to file reports in the '90s to elaborate neon monstrosities, but the differences tend to be purely cosmetic.

motherboard

Motherboard image by Shutterstock


When buying, start with the motherboard. The motherboard you choose will lock in what processor you use (and what brand of processor you use, so check the packaging), what ports you have, how much RAM you can plug in, and how many hard drives you can connect. It's better to buy a little more than you think you may need, as it gives you room to expand or change your design.

If you're building a home theater PC, for example, you'll definitely want at least one HDMI Out port. If you're building a computer to edit video or do hardcore photo editing or visual work, you'll want several USB ports.

Next, choose a CPU. Remember, the faster the clock, the better the processor, at least as a rule of thumb. That doesn't mean, however, that a “slow” processor is a bad one; if you're just using your computer for basic tasks, a “slow” processor is probably all you really need. Still, it makes sense to buy a few steps up in terms of speed, just to future-proof your device; today's low-end processor is tomorrow's fly-blown turd.

Graphics cards will depend heavily on what you're using it for: You won't need anything elaborate to, for example, stream video. Still, graphics cards can substantially speed up your computer, and if you're using it for anything beyond simple tasks, you should probably have one connected.

Also, buy a grounding bracelet (a tool with a long coiled cable that ends in an alligator clip) and an anti-static mat. If the people at the shop you're at have no idea what those are, leave immediately: They will not be able to help you.

workspace

Workspace image by Shutterstock


Static electricity is your biggest enemy. One static discharge, and your components are completely fried and it's back to the computer store with you, bunky. So, remove any elements that collect static, like metal or carpet, from your workspace. Wear rubber soled shoes, and try to assemble your components on an anti-static mat, or at least a piece of vinyl.

Finally, make sure there's something to ground your bracelet WITH. Even something as basic as a metal bookcase will work.

motherboard image

Motherboard image by Shutterstock


Believe it or not, this part of the job is about as idiot-proof as it gets. Start by putting the grounding bracelet on your non-dominant hand, and clipping it to your ground. Then lay out your motherboard and CPU on your mat. There will be an indicator in the corner of the CPU that corresponds to the slot on the motherboard. Drop it in and then lock it down. The hardcore may consider soldering it, but many motherboards will include a locking method right there.

Next, mount the CPU's heat sink. Each CPU has a distinct heat sink that keeps it from overloading, and it comes with instructions to attach it. Again, this is idiot-proof: Just take your time and be careful, and use the recommended attachment method.

Once that's done, attach the RAM. The RAM will have its own slot, clearly labeled. You'll have to push it in pretty firmly, and then lock it in with the rotating plastic arms.

power cable

Power cable image by Shutterstock


This is something that will be pretty easy, especially if you're handy with wall studs. All motherboards come with a set of materials that allow you to mount it inside the case. First, there's the “faceplate,” essentially a covering for the ports on the motherboard. This literally just clicks into place on the case you bought.

Next there's mounting the motherboard, which is a little trickier. The motherboard needs to be about a quarter inch away from the case on all sides; otherwise there's a risk of short circuits, trashing your computer, and occasionally fire. The motherboard should include spacers that make this easier.

The good news is that most cases will have holes pre-drilled, so it's really just a matter of finding which holes align with the ones drilled in your motherboard. Don't overscrew: You want “snug” not “on the verge of breaking.”

Next, attach the power source, unless your case already has one, and connect it to the mother board. The power cables will have a large and small lead, and what cables go where are pretty obvious. Now would also be a good time to slot in your graphics card, if you have one.

Before you advance, look through the documentation and see what voltage your power supply needs to be. Generally it's either 110 or 220, and if it doesn't configure automatically, there will be a small switch that lets you choose. Set that now; forgetting won't end well. There may also be a power switch; don't flip it on yet, but make a note of it.

wiring

Computer wiring image by Shutterstock


Next, mount your storage and connect it to the motherboard. Again, there are pre-drilled holes; just line it up, screw it in, and connect it to your motherboard. The same is true of your optical drive. Make sure everything that needs power is connected to your power source.

This is, we can't emphasize this enough, easier than it sounds. Everything is color-coded and comes with very specific documentation. Just take your time.

Once it's done, now it's time to fire it up. Connect it to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and flip the switch.

power button

Power button image by Shutterstock


We've all booted a computer at this point, but just for the record, if everything's connected properly, you'll hear the fan start, the lights turn on, the hard drive begin to spin if you used one, and the monitor will light up. If one or more of these things don't happen, turn it off and check your wiring.

Assuming you did everything correctly, though, you will now be on the BIOS: You know the BIOS as the series of screens you see before the operating system fires up. Most of this stuff is automatic, but you may have to set the date and time.

From there, you can install your operating system. The good news? It's dirt simple: Just plug in the disc or thumbstick, and start following directions. The bad news? If you want anything like Netflix or Steam? You're probably stuck with Windows. Hey, you can't win them all.

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