How do I Build a Computer?

R. Kayne

If you plan to build a computer you're not alone! It's a surefire way to get exactly what you want at a great value, and it's very rewarding.

RAM is required for even a basic computer.
RAM is required for even a basic computer.

Ready-made systems often have outmoded limitations discovered too late: motherboards incompatible with newer, faster processors; too few PCI slots, inadequate memory thresholds, slow bus speeds, or other downsides. In fact it often seems these systems contain one or more components that are already obsolete.

A dual core CPU mounted to a motherboard.
A dual core CPU mounted to a motherboard.

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One way around the problem is to have your local dealer build a computer "to spec" — tell them exactly what you want for each component by brand and model number. However, once you know that, you can put it together yourself!.

A computer motherboard.
A computer motherboard.

It's easier today to build a computer than ever before. The internet has made learning about components nothing more than an investment in time spent pleasantly surfing from site to site. Also, motherboards have integrated many elements that had to be purchased separately in the past; this saves time, money and frustration in setting up devices that required their own IRQs, DMAs, or memory addresses. These devices are now handled by the BIOS. Integrated sound is standard (but can be disabled if you prefer to use a sound card) and optional built-in video makes life even easier for non-gamers happy with standard quality graphics.

A heatsink is the part of a computer designed to move heat away from a computer's central processing unit.
A heatsink is the part of a computer designed to move heat away from a computer's central processing unit.

Some CPUs come bundled with heatsink, fan and motherboard where the latter is virtually "thrown in" with the cost of the processor. These boards are usually the equivalent of 'last year's model' lacking in one or more newer features. However this may not matter for your particular needs and if so, it's a great way to save money. If, however, you are looking for cutting edge products, they won't be given away so scrutinize package deals.

A sound card can be installed to produce higher quality audio.
A sound card can be installed to produce higher quality audio.

A bare bones system is intended to make it easier to build a computer. It consists of a motherboard installed in a case with built-in power supply, CPU, heatsink and fan. You'll still need to add RAM, hard drives, CDRW, and so on. However, the same advice applies as before — make sure everything included is satisfactory.

A hard drive.
A hard drive.

Computer cases also vary. Many have front ports for USB, IEEE and audio. For front port accessibility your motherboard will need to provide for it by featuring internal cables that connect to those ports. Cases should also have multiple fans and some are equipped with a window and internal cold cathode lights. These lights are purely decorative and a favorite of modders, but can also come in handy when working inside the case — something you might do often once you build a computer.

All parts must be placed in the appropriate order for a computer to function.
All parts must be placed in the appropriate order for a computer to function.

A power supply unit (PSU) can be included or purchased separately. A 350-watt unit is considered minimal. If you'll be powering multiple hard drives, CDROMs, a fast processor, DVD player, or souped up VGA card, you'll want more juice. Gamers and enthusiasts normally purchase PSUs of 450+ watts. The case should be big enough to accommodate the motherboard you have in mind and all devices with room to expand.

Ports for the Recommended Standard 232 (RS-232) cable are still found on many computers.
Ports for the Recommended Standard 232 (RS-232) cable are still found on many computers.

There are many resources online for familiarizing yourself with the various components inside a computer. Beginners might want to start searching the internet to learn general information about each component in a system and how the different parts function together. Many sites are written in "plain speak" and serve as a good overview.

A computer should include inputs, such as a USB port.
A computer should include inputs, such as a USB port.

At the opposite end of the spectrum for enthusiasts who already have a good grasp of the basics, a great source for gathering technical information and reviews on cutting edge products is Tom's Hardware Guide.

And for the great majority in the middle, PC Mechanic's Build Your Own PC is a great place to start. It offers not only an outstanding step-by-step tutor for the actual build, but by clicking on the component categories at the top you will be given valuable tips for the research -- what considerations you'll want to weigh for each part as you shop.

Consulting other sites by using a search engine is also a good idea and look in newsgroups and online forums for people who already own the part you are considering to see if they are happy with it. There is no such thing as too much knowledge.

As you explore products consider keeping a notebook of those you are interested in, with model number, capabilities, price and outlet. You can also create a bookmark folder to save pages with items you are considering. As you move through the process of you will likely revise some of your choices. When you have the final list, you're ready to build a computer that is bound to make you very happy. Although it may be a challenging project, chances are you will never buy a prepackaged system again!

A VGA cable.
A VGA cable.

Discussion Comments

anon17389

Sounds like you had a bad experience, but in most cases software is free to try before buying. Also, it's good to stick with software that is reviewed and recommended by a trusted third party, such as MajorGeeks, PCWorld, ZDNet, etc.

anon17001

Watch out for software people that sell bad software. They are out there, and just waiting for you. Beware.

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