Building Your First PC: What You Need to Know
You need a new PC, and you’ve decided you want to tackle a self-build. You might want to build it yourself to save money on a high-end gaming rig or make sure your machine has the specific components you’ve been drooling over for a while. You might just be keen to try out a self-build because you need a new home-office machine; you’re curious about how everything fits together and enjoy tinkering. Whatever your self-build ambitions, you’ll need to carefully consider each part of your build to avoid ending up with a mess of expensive and incompatible components.
Space and tools
First things first. Where are you going to build your machine, and do you have the tools you’ll need? Make sure you have a clean, dedicated space with a good light source to assemble your machine and that you’re equipped with a computer toolkit. You’ll also need a static mat, wrist band, a magnetic tray for holding small parts, thermal paste, some isopropyl alcohol, and lint-free wipes.
Before we look at individual PC components, let’s talk about compatibility. You’ll need to make sure that the components you select work together. Online retailers and tools like PC Part Picker can help you determine compatibility and even suggest specific components for specific needs. You can look at various “templates” for sets of compatible components while optimizing for variables like performance and affordability. You can also swap out suggested components for ones you prefer and check the compatibility with your component set. You don’t have to buy components through these tools, but they are excellent for establishing a solid set of compatible components, and then you can shop around for the best prices.
Selecting the CPU: What to Look For
The more demanding your computing needs, the more powerful the CPU you will need. You’ll be looking at the clock speed, measured in GHz, and the number of cores when selecting a CPU. Intel and AMD are the two main CPU manufacturers, and they provide a wide range of low, mid, and high-end CPUs to choose from. Be sure to pick your CPU carefully, as the motherboard and socket must be purchased to match the CPU pin set.
You’ll Need a Heatsink, Fan, or Cooler
The CPU generates heat and needs constant cooling. A heatsink and fan are ideal for most PC setups, and often your CPU will come with a heatsink. A larger heatsink cooler with high-performance fans or a liquid all-in-one (AIO) cooler with radiator and fans would typically be necessary if you will be overclocking. For cooling setups, consider investing in a larger PC case. The additional size will allow for more fans to be added, while the additional volume will aid in circulating air and removing heat from the system.
Select Your RAM: Make Your PC Build Run Fast
Random Access Memory (RAM) is a temporary memory used to run your applications. Depending on your usage, you might want to install more RAM if you’re a heavy PC gamer, do photo/video editing, or if you enjoy multitasking: having multiple programs open, multiple browser tabs, etc.
Remember that insufficient RAM will make your computer run slowly: memory will need to be constantly reallocated from other programs. Windows 10 recommends at least 4GB of RAM. High-end gaming rigs would usually have at least 32 or 64GB of RAM, but you can get away with a pair of 8GB chips for most gaming needs.
Select Your Hard Drive: The Key to More Space
The hard drive is used to store your programs, software, apps, and data. It can come as a standard HDD (Hard Disk Drive) or an SSD (Solid State Drive). SSDs are rapidly becoming the preferred option due to performance and the fact that they have dropped in price recently. The SSD contains no moving parts and can retrieve data extremely rapidly. If you’re looking to load and offload programs constantly, transfer files, or hate slow boot times, SSD would be the way to go.
The Hard Drive Size Matters
As for your hard drive size, 512GB will get you by for most home-office uses, but if you’re planning on doing anything intensive like gaming or video editing, you need at least 1TB. For a price vs. performance sweet spot, your 1TB and 2TB SSDs win out. If you’re happy to spend silly money, you can go up to 8TB and even beyond! Something to remember is that you can have multiple SSDs and HDDs. You’re only limited to the number of M.2 slots and SATA ports on the motherboard.
Select a Motherboard: Get Your Components Connected
All the components you’ll be buying need to slot into your motherboard, which provides the substrate and communication fabric for the components to talk to each other. You’ll need to make sure your CPU fits into your motherboard CPU socket, either an LGA or AM socket. You’ll notice AM or LGA followed by a series of numbers as part of the motherboard name. This should correlate to the type of chip the motherboard supports. To be 100% sure, check for compatibility using an online tool or with your retailer.
You also need to make sure your PC case or tower can accommodate your motherboard as motherboards come in various sizes.
Mind-blowing graphics are what you want if you’re building your dream gaming rig, so you’ll need to invest in a dedicated GPU and make sure your monitor can keep up.
Graphics Processing Units or GPUs are video cards used to optimally process your computer graphics.
Consider Your Video Card GPU
It is important to consider the following when choosing a graphics card with GPU:
- GPU Memory – the GPU needs a working memory to generate computer graphics. 4GB is the bare minimum you need for gaming at 1080p resolutions. 8GB is standard for 4K resolutions.
- The Form – The Video Card and GPU can come in a range of sizes that need to be checked for compatibility with your motherboard. Some cards can take up two or more slots, especially expensive units that come with big fan shrouds.
- Power – Nothing but the very basic of basic GPUs will run off 75W from the motherboard. You almost always need to add supplemental power from the PSU – usually 1, 2 or sometimes even three 6 or 8-pin connectors. Gaming GPUs draw anything from 150-350W, so depending on the GPU, you need to consider the capacity of the PSU to deliver that kind of power. If you’re going for a very high-end GPU, you’ll need at least a 700W power supply to be safe. Check the specific optimal power requirements of your GPU to ensure your PSU is compatible.
Consider the Quality of your Monitor
A video card can perform only as well as your monitor. It’s important to consider your resolution, refresh rate, and connectors, limiting your video card’s performance if the monitor does not support these.
- Resolution – Most cards support 1080p resolution (full HD), while a high-end graphics card can support resolutions as large as 4k (ultra HD) displays.
- Refresh Rate – If your monitor stops at 60hz, there’s little point in investing in a high refreshing graphics card without replacing the monitor as well. Ideally, for gaming, get a monitor that supports a variable refresh rate technology such as Freesync (AMD) or G-Sync (nVidia). These types of monitors can match the display refresh rate to the current game refresh rate, which makes for a smoother experience. The latest high-end AMD cards can also handle 4K at playable frame rates.
- Ports – Port types can include: DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. You’ll need to make sure you buy a compatible video card to prevent having to buy extra adapters.
Select Your PC Case
The PC case houses all your PC components and comes in a wide range of sizes. You may find that your case comes pre-installed with LEDs and fans and includes some connectors.
A high-end motherboard takes up 2-3 slots in your case and can be quite long, so you need to make sure there’s enough clearance behind it. A normal mid-tower ATX case will usually handle everything.
Select Your Power Supply Unit
The Power Supply Unit (PSU) provides power to your motherboard and other PC components. It’s essential to consider the power requirements of your components when selecting a PSU.
How Much Power Do You Need?
High-grade components will require a higher wattage input, but it would be unwise to buy a high-rated PSU just because it has a higher power rating. If you’re looking at a high-end gaming setup, you should probably consider nothing below a 750W PSU.
Select an Operating System
Your operating system provides the intelligence to run your machine’s programs and allows the hardware components and peripherals to talk to each other. Linux and Microsoft Windows 10 are the most popular choices.
Linux is open-source and can be installed with a GUI (graphical interface) just like Windows. Many versions exist, and of these, many are free. Linux is often the choice of software developers when building a dev box.
Currently, Windows 10 is the world’s most popular operating system. Certain applications are built exclusively for Windows with little support for Linux. You’ll need to pay for your Windows license, though, and make a USB key to install it.