The following is a handy guide you can use to help you build your own computer from components. It was written as a guide for people taking a computer-building workshop during a June 2017 conference, so if it sounds like it was written for an audience of people about to build their own computer, that’s because it was. Still, I hope it will come in handy for you, too!
One thing you may want to keep in mind is that this guide was written at the end of April 2017, so if you read this months or years from now, any specific hardware suggestions I make will be obsolete. However, the main ideas in this guide should be valid for years to come. And if they aren’t, email me and I’ll fix it up.
In this workshop, I will show you how to build your own desktop computer. If you bring your own parts, I’ll help you to assemble it and get it running.
If you wish to observe the process, you don’t have to bring any materials at all. I will construct a computer of my own as a demonstration and you can use this as a guide for the later construction of your own computer.
If you have an old desktop computer that you’d like to “beef up” a bit, bring it. I can’t guarantee that we’ll be able to get it running as good as new, but I may have some suggestions for upgrading it into something a little faster.
If you’re planning on building your own computer, you’ll have to bring the parts for whatever computer you’d like to make. The rest of this guide will consist of information that you can use to figure out what parts you need.
What are the parts of a computer?
In order to get the right parts of a computer, you’ll need to know what these parts are in the first place and what they’re used for. Because some parts are more important than others, I will make a distinction between the ones you’ll need and the ones you won’t. If the terms I use don’t make sense, don’t worry – there’s more information later.
- Case (necessary): The computer case is the box that the computer fits into. These come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but I would recommend a large case because they’re easier to work with. Look for an “ATX Mid-Tower” or “ATX Full-Tower” case. Cooling fans are included with cases, so it’s not necessary to purchase extras.
- Motherboard (necessary): A computer motherboard is the (usually green) piece of plastic that most of the other parts fit into. Most will be fine for your purposes. I recommend that a motherboard have built in “USB 3.0 headers”, which means that they support very fast USB connections.
- Power supply (necessary): This square box with a fan in it provides the power for your computer components. I recommend a supply that provides at least 450 W of power. Modular power supplies are nice to have, but are, by no means, required. A handy tip: Buy a good power supply if you want your computer to last.
- CPU (necessary): The Central Processing Unit is the brain of your computer and determines what the other components will be. There are many, many different types of CPU out there, made by either AMD or Intel. CPUs range from very new and fast to slow and outdated. The site http://cpu.userbenchmark.com gives a good comparison of CPUs at a variety of price points. CPUs require a CPU cooler and thermal compound, but these are usually included with the CPU package.
- RAM (necessary): Also just referred to as “memory”, RAM provides the “thinking space” of your computer. If you have a lot of RAM, your computer can keep a lot in its mind and works quickly. With a smaller amount of RAM, your computer will have to save whatever it was doing to the hard drive before moving to the next task. Though you’d think this would mean that the more RAM you have, the better, it’s rarely the case that your computer needs a huge amount of it at a time. RAM comes in two popular flavors, DDR3 and DDR4, with DDR4 being somewhat faster than DDR3. In practice, I haven’t noticed a huge difference between the two, so use whatever fits your budget better. My recommendation is to get 8 GB of RAM or more for your computer.
- Hard drive (necessary): This stores the information on your computer. Hard drives come in various flavors, with HDD referring to drives that store memory on a spinning disc, SSD referring to drives that store memory on chips, and hybrid drives a combination of the two. SSD drives are faster than HDD drives, but not so much that most people would probably notice. Whatever kind of drive you get, make sure it has a capacity of at least 500 GB.
- Video card / graphics card (optional): If you plan on running graphics-intensive programs (games, video editors, etc.) you’ll need a video card to make this process faster. For most people, this is not a necessary part of a computer build.
- Optical drive (optional): If you want to play CDs or burn CD ROMs or DVDs, you’ll need one of these. While these used to be a vital part of a computer build, they are now rarely used. No computer I’ve had since 2011 has had one and I’ve never missed it.
- Peripherals (necessary, but you probably already have them): These parts include things like monitors, keyboards, mice, speakers, and wireless dongles – if you already have them on your current computer, you can reuse them without any trouble. Just about the only thing that you may not already have is a wireless dongle, as your computer may have it built into the motherboard. If this is the case, you can pretty much buy whichever USB wireless dongle you’d like.
- Operating system (necessary): A computer’s operating system is the program that allows you to interact with the computer and make things happen. The Microsoft Windows operating system is by far the most popular, followed by Apple’s macOS/OS X, and then Linux. Linux will be provided to you in this workshop as it is the most flexible of the operating systems and software is free. If you prefer to use Microsoft Windows, you will have to purchase that on your own. The OS X operating system is difficult to make work on a homebuilt computer and I strongly recommend not using it.
So, how do I figure out which parts I want?
To be honest, this can be very difficult. CPUs and RAM require specific motherboards, depending on the variety you choose. Some cases won’t be big enough to fit some motherboards. And depending on how much power you need, some power supplies may not be powerful enough to do the job. This can make the task of choosing computer parts seem nearly impossible.
Fortunately, there’s a handy tool that makes this job much easier. If you head over to pcpartpicker.com, all you have to do is choose the parts that you like – if some of them aren’t compatible with the other parts, it’ll give you a warning that you might want to try something else. My advice to you is to head over there, pick a CPU that you like, and then build from there. Some suggestions (note: These suggestions are current as of April 2017 – in six months it may be different):
For CPU, the Intel Core series processors (i3, i5, i7) are quite good, as are the AMD Ryzen series of processors. Don’t go too overboard on price, though – if you pay more than $200, make sure you really need a powerful computer.
CPU Cooler: The one that comes with the CPU will be fine. In some rare cases the CPU won’t come with a cooler – pcpartpicker will let you know when this happens.
Motherboard: Pick one that can accommodate up to 16 GB of DDR4 RAM and has USB 3.0 headers installed.
Memory: I always like being a little overpowered, so I have 16 GB of RAM installed. You can almost certainly get by with 8 GB. Make sure the memory type matches the motherboard – don’t worry, if you try to put DDR4 memory into a motherboard that takes only DDR3 memory, it’ll warn you about it.
Storage: For your hard drive, pick whatever you think you’ll need as far as amount of storage, with 500 GB minimum. Unless you need a very fast computer, you don’t need to spring for the SSD.
Video card: I honestly don’t have any experience with buying one, as modern CPUs have built-in graphics capability. Unless you want to work with image/video processing or want to do some serious gaming, skip it.
Case: Go with an ATX mid-tower or ATX full-tower. You’ll likely find that these cases are enormous, but they’ll also give you a lot of room in which to work and are reusable from build to build. I’ve been very happy with the Corsair cases I’ve used, but it’s really not all that important which you pick.
Power supply: Don’t get more power supply than you need – it’s silly to use a 1500 W power supply to run a basic computer. I’ve never needed more than a 450 W power supply. Thankfully, pcpartpicker lets you know how much power your build will require – get 100 W more than that and you should be in good shape.
Optical drive: They’re cheap, so if you think you might use it, go ahead and pick one up. If you haven’t used yours in a while, you can skip it and save $20.
Wi-Fi: You can get these as either a dongle (fits into a USB port) or as a separate card that fits into your computer case. Because Wi-Fi setups tend to be finicky and you probably don’t want to open your computer any more than you have to, go with a Wi-Fi dongle that plugs into either a USB 2.0 or 3.0 port.
Monitor, mouse, keyboard, speakers, etc.: If you want to make this a second computer for your home, you’ll need to buy these. My rule of thumb is that I always buy the second cheapest monitor and speakers and the cheapest mouse and keyboard. If you find that sound is important or that you want great video, you can research these components separately to meet your needs.
Other stuff: To keep static charge from trashing your new computer, pick up an anti-static wrist wrap. Though rare, static electricity has been known to fry computer chips, so it’s better to wear one of these cheap bits of gear than to not have anything at all.
Once you figure out the parts that work for you, it’s just a matter of heading off and purchasing the ones you want. Again, pcpartpicker is a good resource, as they tell you the best deals available from major computer vendors.
For your entertainment value, I’ve included some PC builds that I consider to be good for various purposes:
The most expensive computer you can purchase (https://pcpartpicker.com/list/fBpDNN), $23,900: This is literally the most expensive computer build I could come up with. When Skynet rises up to destroy humanity, this is the hardware on which it will run.
An awesome computer for somebody with money to burn (https://pcpartpicker.com/list/mgh2NN), $1500: This computer will do everything but wash your car. Though very cool, it’s also overkill for nearly everybody.
A moderately beefy build (https://pcpartpicker.com/list/yq7Md6), $770: This computer is for those of you who want a fairly powerful computer on a budget.
The good enough computer for the budget-conscious (https://pcpartpicker.com/list/TzRnJV), $310: If you want a computer that isn’t quite the state-of-the-art but will probably get the job done, this is what you want.
El Crapola (https://pcpartpicker.com/list/ybfVTH), $150: This is the computer that you handed down to your grandma so she could play Hearts online. It’ll run, but you’ll feel as if time had stopped.
Play around with the possibilities and see what you come up with. If you’d like to email your potential build to me (the URL on pcpartpicker can be found at the top left of your build), I’ll be happy to have a look and tell you what I think.
Making your own computer is a moderate investment, and I can’t guarantee that any potential build (even the ones above!) will work until the parts are actually put together in the box. Fortunately, if things go wrong, you can always return the parts if you’ve saved your receipts and the original packaging.