Build Your Own Computer Part 3: Choosing the Parts

So you’re interested in building your own computer. And you’ve already read through Part 1 (The Basics) and Part 2 (Understanding the Options).

Those posts covered these topics: Timestamp (this article is up to date as of July 2011), Am I Qualified (Yes), Reasons to Build It Yourself, List the Parts, and Understand the Parts.

So we know, generally speaking, what’s going into our computer. More than that, we know what our options are at each step and about what they’ll cost us. Now’s the time to start making decisions.

Make a Budget and Select Your Parts

This is where some research is required. We got started in Part 2, but now we have to decide which parts we want exactly, and we need to obtain them.

For the latter, I’ll recommend newegg.com. You can also find computer parts on sites like Amazon. And of course, you can always go to the store and pick something out. Saves on shipping, but the selection won’t be as good.

For the former — deciding which parts we want — I can offer some rules of thumb in picking out parts and making a budget.

A. Divide and Conquer.

Divide your computer’s features up into three parts: Mandatory, Would Like, and Wouldn’t Mind.  If something is in the Mandatory pile, it means that, if you don’t get that item, it’s not really worth building the computer in the first place. Would Likes are features you want to end up with, contingent on price. Wouldn’t Minds are things you might snag if you find a good deal on them, but will let go otherwise.

An easy example is RAM amount.  If I’m on a medium-small budget, I’ll say to myself, OK: 4 GB is Mandatory, I Would Like either 4 or 6 gigs, and 6-8 is more in the Wouldn’t Mind category.
Another example: Hard drive space. Mandatory might be 512 gigs, but I Would Like a terabyte if it’s not too much more money. And if I saw a great deal on a 2 TB drive, I Wouldn’t Mind grabbing it.

Once you have this baseline, add up the projected costs of all the Mandatory items: how much would the bare minimum cost you? Now add $30 or $50 for shipping and miscellaneous costs.

Depending on how rich you are, my advice is to base your budget off of this number. This is your baseline. Meanwhile, doing the above exercise should have given you a feel for how much you wanted each extra feature. So decide how much budgetary room you have to play with, and start figuring out which extras are worth incorporating.  If you have the wiggle room, keep an eye out for those Would Likes and Wouldn’t Minds when you’re shopping — if they’re available for a good price, you can snatch them; if not, stick with the Mandatory.

If you go in expecting to buy all of your Would Likes, you’ll probably end up splurging on a bunch of Wouldn’t Minds as well. At this stage, it’s important to spell out what you need, and what is extraneous. If your total Mandatory price is well below what you can afford, then you can always start incorporating higher-end gear.

B. Choose parts in order.

Some computer parts should definitely be chosen before others. Though this isn’t true for every part, many choices have dependencies on previous choices. Therefore, I’m going to give you one particular topological sort of the parts you must choose:

  1. Operating System. Although most modern operating systems run on most modern hardware, you should check and make sure all parts you choose are compatible, especially if you want to run Mac OS X.
  2. Processor. A lot of the speed and characteristics of your computer are wrapped up in this guy. And the brand and socket choice will have a big impact on the rest of your build.
  3. RAM approximate amount and speed. You’ll need to know how much you want (now and in the future) before picking a motherboard.
  4. Video card (if any). This choice makes a big difference in budget, power supply, and possibly motherboard choice.
  5. Hard drive/DVD drive/etc. Hard drives and DVD burners (or Blu-Ray burners) are pretty much all compatible with all motherboards as long as it’s (possibly) IDE or (hopefully) SATA. But you need to figure out where a solid-state drive falls on your list of desired features, if anywhere. Now is also the time to decide what else, if anything, you will want to add on to your build: sound card, network card, etc.
  6. Think about any improvements/upgrades you may make in the future! Your choice of motherboard depends on it!
  7. Motherboard. When in doubt, better is probably better. How do you choose? It has to fit the above components — all of them. You can see motherboard options on most manufacturer’s websites, often sorted by socket type; do some research and pick a good board from a good brand that supports your previous choices. Double-check that it has onboard video (if you don’t have a graphics card), audio, and LAN (ethernet ports).
  8. Power supply. Figure out how much power the above components will require (many online power calculators are available) and get something a bit above and beyond that, from a good brand.
  9. Case (tower). Odds are that your motherboard is ATX or micro ATX, so your case will be too. Your power supply must fit the case as well, but usually it does. If you chose an intense CPU and graphics card, get a higher-performance case with fans and good airflow for cooling. If you’re getting a big graphics card, make sure it fits in the case (again, usually a given, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure).
  10. Keyboard/Mouse/Monitor/Speakers/Videocam/Mic. All of these ought to be compatible with all motherboards or you’re doing something weird.
  11. Screws, wires, etc. If you didn’t get enough included, you’ll have to get some. Especially true if you bought things used.
  12. An external hard drive if you don’t have one. If you don’t do this, someday your computer will crash and you’ll be in deep.

C. Example.

I’ll give you a quick example of a hypothetical build. Meet Karen: a college kid on a medium small budget who wants a desktop to run quicker than her laptop and to play Starcraft II on high graphics settings. She’ll be dual-booting Windows 7 and Ubuntu 11.04, since she’s a CS major and wants to practice her Linux skills. She wants to be able to upgrade and continue using this desktop when she graduates in a year or two; luckily, she’s saved up a good chunk of cash from her summer job as an intern at Initech.

Karen figures she needs these Mandatory specs: 4 GB of RAM, a three-core, 2.8+ GHz processor, a solid graphics card (but not too good, because her monitor is old and has a low resolution), and a 512 GB hard drive. She’ll be reusing old speakers, a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Of course, Karen already has an external hard drive for backups. She figures this minimum-spec setup will cost her in the neighborhood of $450-$500 with a middling graphics card and motherboard.

That’s comfortable for Karen (Initech pays well), so she’s able to go to her Would Like list on some parts. She figures that spending a bit more on a motherboard gives her possibilities for more, faster RAM later on; she also feels that having a faster processor is always a nice thing. She’s noticed that another $20-30 in these categories can give her a significant boost, so she’ll probably upgrade a bit there. She also decides to keep an eye out, as she’s researching and shopping, for good deals on graphics cards, RAM, and hard drives in the Would Like category.

Karen ends up getting the following parts:

Operating System: Windows 7 student edition (cheap), and Ubuntu 11.04 (free).
Cost: $15

Processor: Athlon II X3 450. Karen Wouldn’t Mind a Phenom II of some sort, but this Athlon II is a triple-core, 3.2 GHz processor — looks pretty good. Plus, it has an excellent rating and tons of good reviews on Newegg.
Cost: $80

RAM: Kingston 4 GB 1333. Good price, trusted brand, no bad reviews. Good buy.
Cost: $35

Graphics Card: Radeon 5770. This card is a little better than what Karen needs, but will be necessary to keep up with any newer games. She’s picked it out after checking reviews on Tom’s Hardware and searching around to be sure it has the right specs for her needs.
Cost: $125

Hard Drive: Samsung 1 TB 7200rpm. Plenty good enough for Karen — her music library is up to 60 gigs (mainly power metal), but she doesn’t store much video. Still, with dual-booting and school stuff, a terabyte could be useful, and she’s noticed it’s not much more $$ than a 512 GB. With a little extra budget room, she decides to go for it.
Cost: $55

DVD burner: LG burner. Standard stuff. Newegg says it’s good, so Karen grabs it.
Cost: $20

Motherboard: Asus M4A87TD EVO. Karen, after having picked out her other hardware, found this mobo by searching Newegg for the specs she needed. This one is a little more intense than she requires right now, but it will allow her to upgrade later on, since it supports fast RAM/processors and has extra RAM slots.
Cost: $100

Power supply: APEX 500-Watt. Plenty of power even in case of adding another hard drive or similar upgrades, cheap, and 5-star reviews. Good deal.
Cost: $40

Case: NZXT Gamma. It only has one fan, but room for 5 more. Lots of good reviews, so there you go.
Cost: $35.

Keyboard/Mouse/Monitor/Speakers: Karen’s already got em all, scrounged from the previous system. She decides against a webcam — for now.

Screws/Miscellaneous: Karen decides to get a good case fan for $10, since she’s running a graphics card (they generate some heat), and is thinking of overclocking her processor at some point.  She figures she’ll also spend up to $50 for shipping, screws, or anything else that might come up.
Cost: $60.

TOTAL COST:  $575. Not bad at all. This would be a savings of at least $100+ compared to ordering a similar-spec computer online. Then again, Karen still has to put it together correctly, install her software, and keep it working! (Luckily, she’s already made 4 hypothetical computers before this one.)

This is just a quick example of picking out compatible parts to meet certain needs. Lots of forums and such will have tons of example builds; do a search if you’d like more ideas.

Double Check and Buy!

Do one last check to be sure everything is compatible! Here’s a checklist of some important considerations; this list doesn’t cover everything, but hits the big points.

  • Motherboard socket is compatible with the CPU (processor) socket.
  • RAM is compatible with both motherboard and processor.
  • There are enough RAM slots on the motherboard and it supports enough total RAM.
  • If you’re getting a graphics card: motherboard has the compatible PCI-Express slot.
  • Motherboard has enough SATA and/or IDE ports to support hard drive, DVD burner, and any other add-ons.
  • Power supply has enough Watts, and enough power on the 12-volt rail, to support all of your components.
  • PSU (power supply), motherboard, and case all have the same form factor (usually ATX or micro ATX). Note that ATX and micro ATX are often compatible with each other, but not necessarily 100% of the time.
  • The entire motherboard setup will fit in the case, especially the graphics card if you have one.

Once you’re sure everything is compatible — start buying!  Then you can move on to…

The Final Step: Assembly

And that will be the subject of the final part of our series! Don’t worry, it’ll be easy. Trust me, I asked Karen for help.

Video link of the day: Lois’ rainy day fund.

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