Tips & Techniques For Building Your Own PC PT.1

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First things first. What do you need to build a computer? Believe me, it's not as complicated as it seems. Let's start with the case. The variety is staggering, with hundreds of styles, shapes and sizes available. We recommend that you look closely at the features. Some gorgeous PC cases are nightmares to work with, or are cheaply built. Get the best case you can afford, we recommend you ask for "tool-less" case design, which enables you to click---open, click---closed. Most cases and motherboards use the ATX Formfactor, standardizing the sizes of the components and all of the power connections. Speaking of power: Although many PC cases are sold with a pre-installed power supply, check it carefully---your power requirements may exceed the capacity of the pre-installed unit. How do you know? Here's a quick guide:

Component                                                                Wattage Required
Motherboard                                                                        15-30
Low-End CPU                                                                     20-50
Mid To High-End CPU                                                       40-100
RAM                                                                              7 per 128MB
PCI Add-In Card                                                                     5
Low To Mid-Range Graphics                                               20-60
High-End Graphics                                                              60-100
IDE Hard Drive                                                                   10-30
Optical Drives                                                                      10-25

Do the math. You may need to purchase a higher-output power supply for your new PC. Once you've selected a case and power supply, be sure that you have the following items:

• A set of screwdrivers (small, large, slot, Phillips), or a PC Tool Kit
• An anti-static wrist strap
• Needle-nosed pliers
• CPU (processor)
• CPU cooling fan and heat sink
• Sound Card
• Motherboard
• One or more hard drives
• Graphics card
• One or more RAM DIMMs (Memory modules)
• An operating system

That's basically it. And these days, anyone can build or upgrade a computer. It's really very simple and it can save you hundreds of dollars. Why build or upgrade your own PC? If you're short on hard-disk space Add a new drive. Getting creamed in the latest games because they run so slowly? Time for a new graphics board. But maybe you need a whole new system. With just a little more technical know-how than a typical upgrade requires, you can build a PC yourself from handpicked parts. Obviously, determining which parts to use---and getting the RIGHT parts---is critical to successfully building the perfect PC. To get you started on the right track, we've assembled a guide to the main components in a PC, including recommendations for each part (based on what you intend to do with your machine).

Building Your Own System
1. Before you dive in…
Before you start the job, you have to take inventory of your parts. It does little good to begin your build when you don't have everything you need. Once you've determined you have everything you need, it's time to start! Make sure you have plenty of working room and a few hours to proceed with minimal interruption. Please note that carpeting represents some real dangers to your computer. The carpeted surface has the potential to create static electricity that can fry your components. An inexpensive antistatic wrist strap (they are often priced at less than 6 bucks) is the perfect preventive measure if you have no alternative to working on carpet. Remember, a bare floor is always the best place to build your system. Now, grab hold of a good set of screwdrivers, a pair of needle-nose pliers, and an antistatic wrist strap, and make sure you're wearing your antistatic wrist strap (it does you no good at all if you don't wear it!) Finally, download the latest drivers from the vendors' Web sites for each component you'll be installing, and copy them to a CD to avoid headaches later on; the drivers that come in product boxes are often several versions out of date.

2. Dive in!…Installing the Motherboard
Here comes the fun part! Installing the motherboard. First, take the board out of its packaging and put it on top of the antistatic bag it came in. Remember, you always want to safeguard your components from potentially hazardous static electricity. Before you secure the mobo onto the PC case, you should install the processor, heat sink and the memory modules on it. If you aren't sure which socket is which, or what goes where, consult your motherboard's user manual for guidance. User manuals are extremely helpful, easy to read and include illustrations. First, lift the lever on the processor socket so you can install the CPU. Carefully line up the pins and place the chip in its socket; it will fit only when oriented the proper way. An arrow or a missing pin on one corner of the chip will show you how to line things up. Lower the lever to lock the CPU into place.

Next, follow the manufacturer's directions to install the heat sink and the fan that will cool the processor. If you bought an OEM CPU and a separate heat sink, you may need to spread a thin layer of the thermal grease that came with the heat sink over the chip to ensure proper transfer of heat (some heat sinks come with this grease already applied). Attaching the clip that holds the heat sink in place may require a fair amount of force. Again, the instructions that came with the heat sink will show you how to know whether you've fitted it correctly. Plug the fan's power connector into the proper connector on the motherboard.

TECHNIQUE: This part can get a little tricky. But stick with it and you will have no trouble at all. In order to install the memory modules, insert them into the proper sockets and push down firmly but evenly until the clips on both sides of the socket pop into place. If your motherboard supports dual-channel memory, consult the user manual to determine which pairs of RAM sockets you should use. The motherboard and the CPU are the brain and nerve center of your PC, so selecting these components might just be the most important decision you'll make.

TIP: Choose the processor first: Despite running at slower clock speeds than their Intel-based rivals, AMD-based systems have maintained a significant performance lead in documented benchmark testing for a while now. At the high end, Athlon 64 FX CPUs are the fastest around. There are positive and negatives to each CPU, so do a thorough investigation before making your buying decision. Remember, an informed buyer has a much higher probability of being a satisfied one.

TIP: Choose the motherboard after selecting the processor: The processor you choose usually determines which motherboard you select: Motherboards are designed to work with specific CPUs, indicated by the type of socket that the processor fits into. Socket A, Socket 939, and Socket 940 are designed to work with Athlon processors, while Socket 478 and the new LGA socket 775 are for Intel CPUs. Many dealers offer bundles consisting of a processor, a motherboard, and memory; these can be a good way to save some money. The system chip set (the chips that pass data between the peripherals and the CPU) is the other component that differs among motherboards; it determines which integrated components (graphics, sound, Ethernet, etc.) will be included. Though integrated graphics aren't generally as good as dedicated cards, they're usually adequate for simple tasks.

3. Placing the Motherboard into YourCase
First, a word about cases. The right one can make working with your system a dream, but picking the wrong one will come back to haunt you. Though you can find a case plus power supply for less than $50, we recommend that you invest a bit more to obtain a case that will last through many upgrades and that you'll enjoy looking at.

Case Formfactor: Most cases and motherboards use the ATX form factor--a set of design standards that specify things such as the size of the motherboard and the connectors on the power supply. It's critical that your motherboard match the form factor of your case. Be aware of other standards--for example, Shuttle-style cube-shaped systems that come with their own custom motherboard. Check carefully and note the formfactor when shopping.

Case Construction: Steel cases weigh more than aluminum ones, they cost less, and they muffle the noise from components such as hard drives better than aluminum cases do. On the other hand, aluminum boxes tend to be more stylish, and they are certainly easier to carry around.

Case Convenience: Even the best-looking case will seem ugly if installing your components becomes a pain. Look for helpful features like a removable motherboard tray, tool-less drive carriers, and multiple fan locations for cooling the system.

TIP: Does this PC case include a power supply? Cheaper cases often come with cut-rate power supplies that may not be up to the task of powering a high-end PC. Some expensive cases don't come with a power supply, which lets you choose your own. If you've added a lot of new components to your PC, you may be overtaxing your existing power supply, so look at getting a bigger, better one. Power supplies can cause problems--including random crashes or even component failure--if they are asked to produce more power than they are designed to generate. Reputable manufacturers will typically include a chart of acceptable components.

Memory: The More, The Merrier.
Because it's an easy upgrade to perform and can significantly improve performance, boosting a PC's RAM is one of the most popular hardware enhancements people undertake. This 5-minute procedure can let you keep more programs open, accelerate memory-hungry graphics programs and games dramatically, and sharpen your PC's responsiveness. The memory modules that most recent systems accept are 184-pin DDR DIMMs of varying speeds, such as DDR333 or DDR400; the number describes the RAM's clock speed. You'll sometimes see memory referred to by the bandwidth it offers, such as PC2700 (DDR333) or PC3200 (DDR400). The type you should buy depends on the motherboard and processor you choose: For best performance, opt for the fastest type of memory module that works with both. A new type of memory (called DDR2) offers even speedier performance, but this can be used only on new systems equipped with the latest Intel chip sets.

TIP: Get at least a gigabyte: Sure, you can save money by installing less, but 1GB of RAM puts you comfortably above the point at which most speed gains occur, and it should enable you to run the most demanding applications and increase the speed of your system when you keep more than one program open at a time.

TIP: Opt for dual-channel if possible: If your motherboard supports it, use dual-channel memory. This type of memory boosts performance by increasing the speed at which data can be read and written. But for it to work, you have to install matched RAM modules in pairs. Some early dual-channel boards came with only three RAM sockets. If two of those sockets are already filled, you must either upgrade with a single DIMM (and lose some performance) or replace your two existing DIMMs.

TECHNIQUE: Some PC cases have a removable motherboard tray. If yours does, remove the screws holding it in place and pull it out of the case. Note the pattern of the holes in your motherboard, and screw brass standoffs into the motherboard tray or into the PC case in the correct locations. Check the layout of the sockets on the motherboard, and confirm that the ports on your motherboard's back panel match the holes on the I/O shield that is installed in your case. If necessary, remove the old I/O shield by tapping it firmly a few times with the butt-end of a screwdriver, and then replace it with the shield that came with the new motherboard.

TECHNIQUE: Carefully position the motherboard on top of the brass standoffs, line up all the holes, and use the screws that accompanied the case to fasten down the motherboard. If you are using a removable tray in your system, slide the tray and motherboard back into the case and then secure the tray.

4. Connecting The Color-Coded Power Cables.
Obviously, making the proper connections is crucial to your successful PC system build. Fortunately, manufacturers now provide color-coded power cables to make the job easy. First, plug the large ATX power connector for your power supply into the matching port on your motherboard. Next, locate the smaller, square processor power connector ( you can't miss it - it's the one sprouting the yellow and black wires) and attach it to the motherboard. Note: your connector is usually located near the processor. Now it's time to get out your motherboard user manual and find the description about front-panel connectors. Be forewarned - you're going to be doing work now that requires attention to detail and can be quite frustrating if you don't go into it with the right attitude. Okay, now that we've warned you, attach each of the tiny leads from the power and reset switches, the hard-disk activity lights, the PC speaker, and any front-panel USB and FireWire ports to the corresponding pin on your motherboard. If you have to, don't be afraid to use your needle-nose pliers.

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