If you’ve decided to build your own computer but are not sure where to begin, you’ve come to a pretty decent article (among many) that aims to put you in the right direction. You will save hundreds of dollars of your hard earned money, learn something new about the standards and design of computer hardware, and will understand better the ripoff that surrounds purchasing a desktop computer from a brand name manufacturer. I’ve written this article to be simple, for those who have never thought of doing such a thing for themselves before, but have the willpower to try!
I built my first computer in middle school after reading a few articles about doing so and seeing the end result from a friend, Rob. At the early age of 14, I had successfully researched, procured parts, and assembled a machine that ran quite well for most of my time in high school. My second machine, built in my senior year of high school, got me through college entirely without a hitch. Both of these machines still run to this day without fault. Impressive? Absolutely. Am I surprised? Not for a minute. I know what went into those machines and why they continue to run so well.
What is most revealing about this story is the fact that there have been many manufactured computers that have come and gone in their life cycle during the last 8 years. Think of all the Dell and Hewlett Packard’s that lasted just beyond the crest of their warranty expiry, only to be trashed (by frustrated or continually optimistic rich people) with hardware that probably would otherwise still be operational if only for a few minor changes in design, efficiency, airflow, and procurement research.
The beginning of a computer starts with a basic understanding of what each component does, so that you can better decide what you want to buy that will suit your needs the best. I’ve made a table below that outlines the basics, enough for you to wrap your head around it all so you can start researching on your own.
||This is the box that your selected components will mount into. Cases come in different sizes, some small and some large. The larger size is referred to as ATX, the smaller is commonly referred to as ITX. This sizing information will coincide with the selection of your motherboard and possibly other components for your computer.
|Case Fans ($10-$20)
||Cases often come with a few fans that are preinstalled, but sometimes it’s a good idea to buy a few more to ensure that your computer has adequate airflow. Generally, the front of the case intakes air and the rear of the case exhausts hot air from components. The most common size of case fan is 120mm.
|Power Supply ($50-$100)
||Power supplies for computers are relatively standardized, they take regulated power from an outlet and transfer it into usable and stable power for components in your computer. Many power supplies look like a box with a bundle of thick wires coming out the side. They range in voltage from 300w to as much as 1200w (1.2kw). This range is dependent upon the components you choose but is not required to be a specific choice, the power supply will regulate its output based on the component load.
|Optical Drive ($15)
||These are becoming obsolete, but are often still desirable due to their use of reading CD’s, DVD’s, and Blu Ray discs. Optical drives are very inexpensive and are generally recommended in a desktop computer. Often times, the operating system software (explained below) still comes loaded on a DVD that you must read to offload the data onto your hard disk.
|Memory Reader ($20)
||Used to read common types of memory cards often found in your camera or cell phone. SD cards are the most commonly used due to their size and read/write performance. A must have for every computer build, in my opinion.
||The brain of your computer and often the smallest component. This chip looks like a small square with hundreds of tiny pins on the back that mount to the motherboard. There are two big manufacturers of processors that dominate the market: AMD and Intel. Both are excellent choices and are dependent on the user need for performance or value. As of late, AMD has been the value oriented choice and Intel has been the performance market leader.
|CPU Cooler ($30)
||Think of it as the air conditioning for your processor. Generally it is a copper pad, with a heatsink attached to it, and a fan that pulls cold air across the fins of the heatsink. I would never recommend using the stock heatsink and fan that comes with the processor. For about $30 you can purchase a significantly larger and better designed cooler unit for your processor.
||The backbone of your computer, or nervous system; the motherboard controls all routing information between every major component including the processor. It takes power from the power supply and routes it to the major components including the CPU, RAM, connectivity ports, and more. I believe that the best motherboards are manufactured by a company called Gigabyte.
||The eyes of your computer, all visual data requested by the processor is delivered to the graphics ports on the back of your computer. This card is sometimes integrated into the motherboard, but for the purposes of making your own computer, you’ll almost always want to purchase a dedicated card for this purpose. Graphics cards make or break the performance of a computer today and are generally the most expensive component. There are two major players in video graphics cards: Nvidia and AMD (formerly ATI).
||RAM is the temporary memory of your computer, operational when the computer is in a powered on state. A good analogy of RAM is the free space on top of your desk, used to allow your brain (or CPU) time to process and work through information. The bigger the bank of RAM you have, the more intensive the tasks your computer can handle at a given period of time. Good RAM is produced by many companies, I often purchase G.Skill branded RAM. RAM comes in smaller sizes and is generally more expensive due to it’s fast read/write capabilities.
||This is the primary storage of your computer, it keeps information even when the computer is off. SSD stands for Solid State Drive. These are the latest in computer storage and have become cheap enough to attain for any level of budget. They are different from a classical hard disk because they do not have moving parts. They are flash based memory. Hard disks are now obsolete in my opinion.
|OS Software ($120)
||This is the software that loads onto your computer, the most popular is Microsoft Windows.
Now that we’ve explored the different types of components, let’s set a budget. They range in price, starting from $350 (some say you can build for less) to as much as $3,000+. If you aren’t sure what budget to set but don’t want to spend too much, a good price point is around $800. This is the price point that I believe you will see the most bang for your buck, including longevity of components. Often times the higher price is commanded due to the reliability of the components rather than their performance. When you buy from a name brand, you get neither.
The best places to purchase these components is Newegg or Amazon, due to quick shipping, and decent exchange policies in the rare case of a faulty component. To end this article, I would recommend you go ahead and shop around for a bit to see what’s on the market at Newegg. It’s okay if you aren’t entirely sure what to look for, just start by looking at computer cases or motherboards. Take notice of the specifications of these components and try to cross reference the denotation of sizing standards I mentioned in the chart above.
Continue to part two, where we discuss more in depth the choice of components.