Build Your Own Computer Part 1 – The Basics

Building your own computer is a piece of cake, and can be really useful besides. But it can be tough to figure out where to start. Processors? Motherboards? RAM? This post is the first of a series that will guide you through the steps to take if you’re interested in building your own computer. We’ll go from understanding the different parts of the computer, to selecting and ordering parts, all the way to installation and setup.

In Part 1, we’ll look at exactly what parts are required and what they do.

Part 2 goes a little more in-depth on the technical aspects and options available.

Part 3 offers a guide on how to pick out your parts, once you know your choices.

Part 4 is a guide on how to actually put the thing together.

This is what we're going for

Intro: Sign of the Times

Hardware changes fast. Really fast. This article was written in March 2011. (I built my computer in June 2010.) [UPDATE: This article is up to date as of July 2011.] Many do-it-yourself resources on the Web are older than these dates by months or years. Those resources, no matter how technically detailed, are obsolete and likely useless. If you are reading this article and it is 2013, then this article is obsolete and likely useless. It was written according to 2011 standards. That means certain things (and if you don’t know what these terms mean, don’t worry: by the end of the series, you will!). Among them:

  • Computers are 64-bit now. If you build a computer, you will build it on a 64-bit architecture and you will use a 64-bit operating system. (What is the difference between 64-bit and 32-bit? Simple. At the most basic level, a computer operates on numbers, which are represented by zeros and ones (bits). In the mid-2000s, a standard computer used chunks that were 32 bits long. Nowadays, the chunks are twice as long, and computers are twice as good.)
  • Hard drives: for most users, hard drives are still hard disks rather than solid state. For hard disks, space is cheap, and we are on the order of hundreds of gigabytes (GB) up to a terabyte (TB) or two. A terabyte is a thousand GBs. If you build a computer, you will get a hard disk drive holding at least 512 GB, possibly a TB or two. You may get a solid state disk,, but most people don’t. If you do get a solid state, it will probably be a 64-128 gig and you’ll just use it to store your operating system and some applications, so they load faster.
  • RAM. You will probably want 4 gigabytes of RAM, because most current users rarely exceed that amount. More than 8 GB is still very rare except for people who edit video for a living. DDR3 RAM is the current standard version of RAM, and DDR4 isn’t expected for a while yet, so you’ll be using DDR3. It’s also very cheap nowadays.
  • CD drives are gone. You will get a DVD-RW drive and you may get a Blu-Ray drive too.
  • Processor speed is staying steady in the ballpark of 3 GHz and an entry-level processor has at least 3 cores. But operating systems and applications haven’t done a great job of utilizing many cores yet, so more than 4 cores is not that necessary for most users.

Why do I bring this all up? Because it’s hard for a beginner to know these things, whereas experienced users don’t have to think about it. But you may find yourself crawling the web and run into a forum discussion on whether it’s better to install a 64-bit or 32-bit system. Then you notice it’s dated the middle of 2007. So forget it. I recently saw a build-your-own computer tutorial (not dated) where the author had managed to snag 4 gigs of DDR2 RAM for $429. That’s more than my entire homebuilt computer cost, and it has 4 gigs in it! So … times change. Fast. Be aware of this.

And with that out of the way…let’s build a computer!

Am I Qualified?

Short answer: Yes. This it what you will need to be able to do.

  • Plug together compatible ports and parts with a satisfying click. This is the fun part. It is easier than Legos because there are fewer pieces.
  • Tighten and loosen screws using a screwdriver. If you’ve never done this before, trust me, it’s easy.
  • Be willing to learn a thing or two about different types of parts in order to choose your components. This takes the most work, but it’s interesting.
  • Have $500-$1500 you are willing to spend. $500 will get you a nice, up-to-date machine. $1500 will get you a gaming monster. Over $1000 is probably overkill.
  • Have time to research, time to order or go buy parts, and a free weekend to do the install and setup.

Works like a charm

Why Build My Own?

There’s a lot of possible pros and cons. Let’s take a look.

Claim: I’ll get the computer best suited to my needs.
Verdict: True. Just about any online PC vendor will give you some options on various parts; some allow extensive customization and choice of components. But building your own computer gives you complete control over every aspect of the system. In fact, just going through this process will force you to clarify your needs and priorities with regard to your computer. Meanwhile, you can also select your parts with an eye for what upgrades you might want to make in the future.

Claim: It will be cheaper to build my own than buy new.
Verdict: Probably. But this isn’t clear-cut. For example, it makes a big difference whether you’re planning to install a version of Linux for free or Windows 7 Home Premium for $120. Likewise, buying a new monitor versus reusing an old one could be a 100-dollar swing. Getting the hardware and putting it together yourself should be cheaper, but don’t discount (get it?) things like shipping costs, miscellaneous supplies (screws etc), and a somewhat significant time investment. Plus, you don’t get a warranty (though each part should have one), and odds are your workmanship is not quite as high-quality and reliable if you’re a beginner. On the other hand, you will be able to continue upgrading and replacing particular parts as needed (for a while — see below), rather than replacing the whole system.
Bottom line: Saving money should not be the only reason to embark on this project, but it ought to be a plus.

Claim: It will last me longer, because I can keep upgrading.
Verdict: Yes, but. There are two buts. The first is that your homebuilt PC won’t last forever. You can keep moving up and up within a particular generation of hardware, but at some point, the next generation will make your stuff obsolete, because none of the new, fast stuff will be compatible with any of your stuff. The second is that you can upgrade store-bought computers too, you just have to be pickier about them when you buy them. That being said, if you plan your build right, upgrading should be easy and fun.

Claim: I will learn a lot about hardware and develop a better understanding of what goes on inside my machine. I will also have fun.
Verdict: Yeah, yeah, ok. Let’s get on with it.

Starting Out: List the Parts

Surprisingly, a computer is not composed of very many distinct parts. In a future post, we’ll discuss the technical specifications and costs of each, but for now I’ll explain the basic point of each one and link to the Wikipedia page on it. This is because Wikipedia knows everything and is always right. Of course, I then plan to edit all those Wikipedia pages to cite this blog post as evidence.

This is the complete list. Everything mentioned below will be part of your computer. Your computer will consist of nothing except the parts mentioned below. (Probably.)

Motherboard: This is the center of everything that happens in your computer. Every signal zipping from one part of your computer to another goes through this baby. Every other component will hook up to it in one way or another. That means that your choice of motherboard will determine which types of other parts you get, since each motherboard is only compatible with certain processors, memory, etc. We’ll sort these issues out in Parts 2 and 3.

Processor: Also known as the CPU (central processing unit), this is the heavy lifter of your computer. This is where that computer magic happens: numbers are added and subtracted, information from memory is operated on and sent off to other places, etc etc.

Hard Drive: This is where you store all your stuff: documents, photos, music, games, etc. These are generally measured in GB (gigabytes) or TB (terabytes); one TB is a nice round number for a desktop computer’s hard drive to have nowadays.

RAM: RAM is data/memory that your computer can get at and use, fast. RAM is temporary data storage, usually about 2-8 GB worth. You get it in sticks like those pictured, making it easy to add or upgrade RAM later — if your motherboard has enough slots.

Images break up text blocks and make the reading experience easier.

Video card: Also called graphics cards, these are processors specifically for your screen. Most motherboards nowadays come with “onboard graphics”, so a separate video card is not necessary for everyone. If you’re planning to play games, though, you’ll need a pretty good one. Video editors may want one as well.

Power supply: Also called a Power Supply Unit (PSU), this is the part that plugs into the wall. It looks like a cute little electronic squid — one cord heading out to the wall, and then a bunch of tentacles coming out the other end. The tentacles plug in (Lego-style) to some of the other components, providing them with juice.

DVD burner: In this day and age, you’re going to get an all in one: a drive that reads and writes both CDs and DVDs. In fact, by the time you read this (i.e., day after tomorrow), it will probably be standard to get a Blu-Ray drive as well.

Case: Also known as the tower. This is the big box with the power button on it. Everything mentioned above goes inside the case. But it doesn’t usually have a whole lot of features itself; generally a fan or two and the aforementioned power button.

Keyboard/Mouse/Monitor: Did you think I’d forget these? You’d better not, or your computer will be pretty useless.

Speakers/Videocam/Mic: I’ll assume you want speakers, and you may like a webcam and microphone too.

Operating System: You’ll need one of these too. Common choices are Windows, Mac, and Linux. (Except that home-built Macs are frowned upon by Apple: wikihackintosh1, hackintosh2.) I currently have and use all three in different forms, and may someday write a blog post on which is actually the best. (Without giving it away: there’s only one right answer.) You may also want to dual-boot two different operating systems. Anyway, you’ll need an operating system install CD, DVD, or USB stick.

Screws: Yes, these too. A new case will come with them, but you may need to pick up some additional ones. Find free ones from a computer nerd if you can. Otherwise, they’re outrageously expensive at Comp USA and difficult to find elsewhere. I’m including motherboard standoffs under this heading.

Miscellaneous: You’ll probably end up buying some little connector wires or a video VGA-DMI converter or some such thing for $15 that you didn’t budget in. Such is life.

That’s it! That’s the list.

Really? OK, maybe not. Here are some optional items.

Motherboard Accessories: By this I mean things that often come standard on a motherboard, but that you may want to enhance. The big example is that of video cards as mentioned above. If you are an audiophile, you may want a sound card; but unlike the previous example, the sound card included on most motherboards is sufficient for the vast majority of users. Another is a wireless internet card. Some motherboards may have them, and almost all have ethernet ports.

Performance extras: If you’re looking for extra performance in areas such as gaming, you may also invest in things like more cooling fans or an upgraded heatsink for your processor to replace the one it came with. Perhaps you want to install a liquid cooling system. In this case, you probably either have no need for these things, or you have already built a computer before.

Next Step: Understand the Parts

Now that we know exactly what parts we need and what they do, we need to understand the technical requirements of each one — and how much each will cost. This is the center of the project — not too difficult, but it will require a separate blog post: Part II.

But we’ve already come a long way. From here on out, the process of building a computer holds no surprises for us. All we will do is select a mix of the above parts and put them together.

Youtube link of the day: Good music and zombies: great combo

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One comment on “Build Your Own Computer Part 1 – The Basics

  1. Anonymous says:

    Well written and easy to follow, with a nice touch of humor. Also, it is organized very well (which is surprising for anybody who knows the author *ahem). If I ever decide to build a computer in the near future, I know where to go.

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