How To Build A Custom Computer

Building a Custom Computer - Why do you want to?

Before we get into the technical aspect of assembling a custom computer, you need to ask yourself what the main purpose of the computer is going to be.  Are you interested in a powerhouse gaming station or do you merely play Farmville all day long?  Perhaps you just want to be able to run the new operating system Windows 7.  Whatever your needs are, you need to list them out beforehand.  This will make the job of selecting parts a lot easier.  For instance, a gaming computer will require a more robust(and also expensive) video card(s) whereas a computer used simply for word processing, email, and internet use can get by with a lower end video card.  Don't worry, we'll go over both low and high end specs when choosing our parts.  We'll configure a basic system for the tutorial with added notes for higher end parts geared towards a gamer. 

Custom computer
Custom computer

Building a Custom Computer - The Bare Necessities

If you have never built a computer before, or even opened up a computer case to have a look inside, you may not even know what parts are required. Here is a list of parts that will be needed in order to assemble the most basic of computers:

  • computer case - this is the housing, all other parts connect to the case
  • power supply - this is what plugs into your wall socket on the outside. On the inside, it feeds power to all of the other components in the computer.
  • motherboard - this is the main board inside of the computer. This holds the processor, memory, and controllers for your hard drives and optical drives(CD, DVD). The motherboard also supplies the system bus which allows all the other pieces of your computer to communicate. The majority of your connection ports such as USB, are directly connected to the motherboard as well.
  • processor - the "brains" of the computer. This attaches to the motherboard and should also have a heat sink and fan attached to it.
  • memory/RAM - this is your temporary storage. The RAM stores information for processing.
  • hard disk drive - this is your permanent storage. This is where the operating system and all of your other applications and data will be stored.
  • sound card * - This is the device that outputs sound to your speakers. This is separate from a system speaker which produces beeps during start up.
  • video card * - This is the device that outputs video to your monitor or display screen.
  • NIC(network interface card) * - This is your connection to the internet. Whether you decide to go wireless or wired, they both perform the same function.

There are many other parts that can be added such as SCSI controller cards, memory card readers, fire wire ports, etc.., but the above list will get you up and running. The parts noted with an * (asterisk) are parts that are sometimes built directly into the motherboard and do not require an additional card to be purchased. These all in one motherboards have their pros and cons. The pro is that they are cheaper than buying the parts separately and are easier to install. The con being that if one component fails, you are looking at replacing the whole motherboard as opposed to a single component. The built in components are also generally on the lower end of the spectrum as far as performance is concerned. I have never been a big fan of on board components, but if you are looking at a budget system, it may be a good fit for you.  The other main benefit of separate components is the ability to upgrade.  If a new video or sound card comes out that you want, it is much easier to replace than to swap out the whole motherboard.

MSI ATX Motherboard
MSI ATX Motherboard

Building a Custom Computer - Picking Out the Motherboard, Processor, Hard Drive, and RAM

When I buy a motherboard, processor and RAM, I like to look for package deals. You can save quite a bit of money buying a combo as opposed to piecing them out separately. Just make sure you are still getting the specs you want, don't sacrifice performance here to save a couple of bucks. It is a good idea to choose your motherboard first and build the rest of the system around it. The reason for this is the motherboard will have specifications as to exactly what type of processor and memory you need to use.

This is also the time you want to start thinking of which processor you want to buy. I used to only purchase Intel processors, but the latest system I built I went with an AMD to save a few bucks and have been quite pleased with it's performance. Just like there are Apple and Microsoft die hard fans, the same can be said about Intel and AMD. At one point in time I would have told you to spend the extra money on a Pentium when AMD was still in it's infancy, but these days the processors are so fast the majority of you will never even fully max out it's power. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you get a processor that fits the motherboard. I can't stress that enough! Take a look at this CPU socket chart on Wikipedia and scroll down until you find your processor. For example, let's say we want an Intel Core 2 Duo, we find it on the chart and see that it requires a socket 775. That means your motherboard must support a socket 775 processor. Once you have those two picked out, it's a matter of reading the memory requirements for the motherboard and choosing RAM that matches that as well.

The other nice thing about purchasing a motherboard, cpu, and memory bundle is the retailer takes care of all that for you.  They will even sometimes ship them out pre assembled saving you an extra step later on.

Building a Custom Computer - Picking Out the Case and Power Supply

Once you have the main guts all picked out, it's time to find a case for it to fit in.  One thing I didn't mention about the motherboard is they all fit into a form factor.  The form factor are a set of specs motherboards and cases follow to ensure that they are compatible with each other.  In simple terms, it means the screw holes on the motherboard line up with the screw holes on the computer case.  Some of the different form factors are AT, mini or micro AT, and ATX being the most popular.  Here is anther Wikipedia Link showing the different form factors for computers

A lot of cases also come bundled with a power supply.  For a general purpose computer the stock power supply will normally suffice.  If however you are looking to build a gaming computer with high end video cards, you might want to check the specs and plan accordingly.  Running two or more video cards in your system will require more power.

PCI Express Video Card
PCI Express Video Card

Building a Custom Computer - Picking Out the Video, Sound, and Network Card

If you chose an all in one motherboard with these components built on board, you can skip to the next section. If not, you need to make some more decisions. Audio and video are the two biggest differences between a gaming pc and a standard home computer. The name brand over the counter computers at your local electronics super store usually skimp out when it comes to audio and video. The latest video cards usually run in the $200-$300 range which for me is usually over kill (hardware comes out much faster than software developers can keep up with it). I have found you can get great performance out of last years model and save quite a chunk of change while doing so.

As for the sound card, you can just get the basic model for regular computing or if you want a better gaming experience or plan to watch movies on your new computer, you can always go with a better sound card that supports the latest technologies such as ambient sound or 7.1 surround sound. Every computer I have ever built has used a sound card from Creative Labs. They've been around a long time and I have always had great results from their products. For video cards, I've always been impartial to the nVidia chip set.

The network card is really up to you.  I like the freedom of wireless on my computer's and wireless PCI cards are much cheaper than the one for my XBox, so I keep the cable modem close enough to the XBox and hard wire it.  But if you have security concerns or this is your only computer that you have in the home, a wired connection is fine.  This is also a component you can add as an external USB device if you so choose.

RAM
RAM
Motherboard with processor and RAM
Motherboard with processor and RAM

Building a Custom Computer - Putting It All Together

The first thing you need to do is open the side panel of the computer case, depending on which one you purchased, it is probably held on with a thumbscrew or two or a couple of tabs. I like to install the power supply first because it is rather bulky and you want to make sure you do not damage any other parts while installing it. The power supply will either slide in from the back or the front depending on your case. The fan on the power supply should be pointing out the case, this is also where the power button is located and where power cord plugs into. Once installed, just move all the cables out of the way for now as best you can.

Now you want to open the bag of screws that came with your case and locate the hex shaped brass screws. They should have a male threaded end and a female threaded end. These are the riser screws that will keep your motherboard off the side of the case. Some cases can accommodate different form factors, so it is easiest to just look at the holes in the motherboard and find the matching holes on the side of the case. Screw the riser screws into the case with the male end.

* Make sure to keep yourself grounded during assembly by wearing an anti static wrist strap! *

ATTENTION: Read all documentation for the processor and heat sink fan combo FIRST! Some heat sinks attach to the processor before it gets installed onto the motherboard.

Open the package for your processor. Find the notched corner of the processor and the notched corner of the socket on the motherboard. If there is a latch on the board, make sure to open it. Carefully line up the processor with the socket keeping the notched corners the same and gently press down on the processor. Secure the latch to hold it in place. Follow the instructions that came with the heat sink and fan combo to attach them to the processor.  Put a small dab on the processor and spread it around a bit, then attach the heat sink and fan combo.  Once the processor and fan are secured, you can plug the power cords into the motherboard (check with the motherboard manual if you can't find them).

ATTENTION: Read all documentation for the processor and heat sink fan combo FIRST! Some heat sinks attach to the processor before it gets installed onto the motherboard.

Once you have all the screws fastened, you need to remove the port backing from the back of the case. Now lay down the motherboard on top of the riser screws with the ports on the board facing out the back of the case. Find the flat head screws that came with your motherboard and attach it to the case via the riser screws. Before screwing it down, double check that each hole has a riser screw under neath it.

Find the RAM slots on your motherboard and locate the notch. There is a matching notch on your memory sticks. On most motherboards, the RAM fits in at an angle and then snaps up into place. Check the motherboard manual for your specific board.

Next step I like to attach my hard disk drive and any optical drives such as CD or DVD. For the optical drive, most cases have a plastic piece that pops out and the drive slides in from the front of the case. Then it is held in place by two screws on either side of the drive. The hard drive will slide into place from within the case and is attached with the same two screws per side as an optical drive. If your case uses drive rails or cages, it will say so in the documentation.

Next up is the video card. These days it will more than likely be a PCI Express card. Locate the PCI Express slot on your motherboard(check the manual) and remove the metal backing from the back of the case. Put the back end of the card into the slot at an angle, making sure it will fasten correctly to the case and then press down on the card to insert it. Use the screw from the metal backing you removed to attach the card to the case. Follow this same procedure for any other cards you might have such as sound and network.

SATA Power and data cables
SATA Power and data cables
IDE Ribbon Cable
IDE Ribbon Cable

Building a Custom Computer - Plugging in the Wires

Now that you have all the hardware installed, the last step is to connect all the cables.  Depending on the hard drive you chose, you either have an IDE or SATA cable, plug one end into the drive and the other into the motherboard.  If it is an IDE cable, there should be another connector on it for your optical drive.  If the drive is a SATA, you will need the IDE cable for the optical drive.  Now plug the power cord from the power supply into the hard drive and optical drive (the red, yellow, and black cables with the palstic ends).  Again, if your hard drive is SATA, you need to find the right connector.  If the power supply doesn't have a SATA power connector, there should be an adapter that shipped with your hard drive.

Now you want to connect the power to the motherboard and fans.  There should be only one connector that fits the motherboard and the fan connectors are the smaller ones.  Once that is done, all that is left to do is to connect the case wires for status lights and system speaker to the motherboard.  In the manual for the motherboard, there will be a diagram that shows you where to plug these cords into.  There is normally a group of pins in the corner or along the edge of the board.  There is also very small print that can be hard to read, but you should be fine following the diagram from the manual.  If the case has any front side connectors such as USB, you can plug those in now as well.

That's It!

You've just completed building a computer.  All that is left to do is install your operating system of choice and enjoy!

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