This guide aims to give a comprehensive walk through of the process of building a PC. While it is for beginners, the guide assumes you have a very basic amount of technical savvy. As such, it will use pieces of jargon in certain parts. While I have made every attempt to delineate particularly uncommon jargon, do have a Google page open ready to search. The guide is split into three sections. The first section, titled “The Parts”, gives a brief overview of the main parts of a PC. The second section, titled “Choosing Your Parts”, gets more in-depth with what you should be looking at when purchasing each component. The third section, titled “Assembly”, gives a walk through of building your PC, as well as giving some best practice tips.
CPU (Central Processing Unit)
Some describe the CPU as the engine of the PC. It’s not an inaccurate analogy by any means. The CPU deals with the raw calculations of your computer. Any process/game/program running on your computer will be sending data through the CPU to be processed and sent elsewhere. The speed of your CPU is typically measured in GHz (Gigahertz), the higher this clock speed, the better your CPU is able to perform. Other factors such as number of execution cores (dual core, quad core, hex core) and underlying architecture play parts in how well your CPU performs too.
As the name suggests, the motherboard is quite possibly the largest (electrical) part in the PC. The motherboard pretty much connects everything to everything else. There are many different attributes that must be considered when choosing a good motherboard, these will be discussed at length later on in the guide.
Main Memory (Random Access Memory)
This component goes by many names: RAM, Random Access Memory, Main Memory, System Memory or, simply, Memory. For the purposes of this guide, this component will be referred to as RAM. RAM is a type of volatile memory storage. Volatile, in this sense, refers to the fact that the memory within the RAM can very easily change states. RAM is the “working memory” of the computer, where temporary files are created and stored for the operation of the programs on the computer. To retain whatever is within it, RAM must always have power running to it, meaning that it loses everything in it as soon as you shut the computer down. As an aside, this is why a computer in sleep mode still uses power. The frozen system session is kept on the RAM (giving you that ultra quick “wake up” when starting up again), with the power supply giving a trickle of electricity to the RAM to keep it there. The main measurements for RAM are in its storage capacity (GB, higher is better), its speed (MHz, higher is better), and its latency to access data (ms, lower is better).
Hard Drive (HDD) / Solid State Drive (SSD)
These two components, while hugely different in their execution, are philosophically the same. They are both the main data storage device of your PC. HDD’s use rotating magnetic disks read by mechanical arms to retrieve and store data on the drive. SSD’s use NAND flash memory, similar to that in pen drives.
The main advantages of a HDD is the incredibly low price-per-GB (a common term to denote HDD pricing). A 2 terabyte (TB, aka 2000 GB) can cost as low as £70. Furthermore, the technology behind HDD’s are so well known now, that even standard consumer grade drives have very good MTBF (mean time between failure) stats. Provided it’s well looked after, your HDD can serve you faithfully for many years.
The main advantages of a SSD is its unbelievable speed. Most consumer grade SSD’s now boast around 500 MB/s (megabytes per second) read rate, and write rates range between 300 and 500 MB/s (this depends on the type of chip that controls the data flow in and out of the device). Their seek times (the time it takes for the drive to find a piece of data) are under 1 ms. These rates are orders of magnitude faster than that of a HDD, and it’s all down to its use of NAND flash memory rather than a rotating disk. Because of it not having any moving parts what-so-ever, the SSD also boasts completely silent and cooler operation.
It’s largest pit-fall, however, is it’s price. The £70 that got you the 2TB HDD discussed above will only get you a £120 GB SSD. While prices are definitely falling for the SSD, they still have a long way to go before they can match a HDD. This is due to their being a relatively new technology compared to the HDD, and thus the manufacturing processes for ultra-dense NAND flash are still being ironed out. Lastly, SSD’s quite literally “wear out”. The cells in NAND flash memory only have a limited amount of times they can be written to. Once that limit is reached, they quite literally “die”, or become unreadable. This may seem disturbing, however a 120GB SSD that see’s 20GB of daily writes (we will call this a liberal estimation of data write), they will still last you about 11 years. Put in this context, a SSD will certainly last you long enough before you look into changing it.
Graphics Card (GPU)
This is the visual adapter of your PC. It sends visual data to your monitor so you can see what you’re doing on your PC. Graphics cards are possibly the most illustrious component of a PC, they see the most media attention and (due to consumer and corporate demand) are the most aggressively researched and advanced in power and capability. Graphics cards (or more appropriately, graphics adapters) can vary to an onboard processing chip found on the motherboard, or as part of the CPU, right up to monstrously sized PCI-Express adapters requiring their own (often multiple) power cables directly from the Power Supply. These larger adapters are what are typically found in a gaming system or high performance computing applications where massively parallel processing capability is required (games or scientific calculations respectively).
Power Supply Unit (PSU)
The power supply is probably the most unromantic and unexciting part of your PC. However, much like the motherboard, it can give a lifetime of misery and worry if not chosen right. Like the name suggests, the power supply supplies the power to your PC components. Power supplies are typically measured in W (watts) as a benchmark of their overall capacity to provide power. This measurement can range as low as 300W for the most basic of machines, to 1500W for multiple CPU and multiple GPU setups. Power supplies have three main voltages, 3v, 5v and 12v. 5v is what powers your hard drives, optical drives and some fans. 12v is what powers your CPU, motherboard and graphics card. Therefore, the 12v capability of a PSU is very important when considering what to purchase. Other factors come into it; these will be discussed at length later on.
This component encompasses your DVD and Blu-Ray drives (or HD-DVD drives for those of you who like being on the losing team). They are cuboid in shape and fit into one of the 5.25” slots in the front of your machine. They mainly have two connections, one to the PSU for power and one to the motherboard for data. There’s not much to talk about optical drives, especially DVD drives as they are so well researched and cheaply made that even the cheapest DVD drive can give exceptional functionality in reading and writing to different formats. Blu-Ray drives are more expensive than standard DVD drives, due to the more advanced lense and laser technology required to read Blu-Ray disks. Due to the prevalence of higher capacity pen drives, and the increasing ubiquity of digitally downloaded software, disk drives are beginning to move into irrelevance.
The case is what houses all your components together. They come in myriad sizes (form factors), ranging from Mini ITX for a tiny desktop footprint right up to E-ATX or larger for server setups. The main point to consider about cases is that it’s much harder to choose a case simply based on looking at numbers (like you would with CPU, RAM, GPU etc). Because the case doesn’t have a clock speed or a storage capacity, you must refer to the reviews found on many credible websites or magazines to determine how well the case performs in terms of keeping your parts nice and cool. Some cases can be massive with a huge amount of fans but can under-perform due to these fans being placed un-strategically while a smaller, more thoughtfully designed case can keep your parts much cooler. Other considerations for a case can include how well (or, if at all) the case can accommodate water cooling equipment if you’re looking into a water cooled machine. Also, aesthetic value is the other big factor, do you want an aggressively styled, boy racer lit case or a sleek, subtle case that says more about your sophistication rather than your ego?
Sound adapters are self-explanatory, they handle the sound of your PC. They range from fairly basic on-board motherboard adapters, to discrete add-in cards for professional use. You may wonder why I’ve come to this so late in this list. It’s because on-board sound adapters are fast coming to a level of quality where it becomes unnecessary for the average consumer to buy a discrete sound card. If you’re an audiophile that will be able to really get the most out of a discrete card then I would say to invest in one; however if you’re just an average gamer who isn’t into the very best in sound quality then sticking with on-board sound will be just fine. It saves you time and expense during installation. In this case, the discrete sound card is fast moving from an essential part to a PC, to a high end niche that audiophiles and individuals in the music industry will only get the most out of.
The heatsink is a part to be considered primarily if you’re interested in overclocking. This component sits on your CPU and removes the heat away from it, and dissipates it into the case, to then be blown out by your case fans. Heatsinks come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and are typically measured by the amount of heat (measured in watts) it can dissipate. If you’re not looking into overclocking, the stock heatsinks given to you as part of buying a CPU by Intel or AMD will suffice. Even so, an after market heatsink on a non-overclocked chip can contribute to a longer lasting machine, as it will be kept cooler.
Choosing Your Parts
The previous section sought to deal with detailing what the parts are in a PC build. This section will focus on what you need to consider when looking at each of these parts. Obviously, budget is a big thing. Always try to have a solid budget. For instance, a definite £700 is always better than a variable £600 – £800 ballpark. It just means you have a solid goal to work to. The next question you want to ask is what you’re going to be using the PC for. This can be simple office work, 3D modelling or other professional application use, gaming, or high-performance computing applications such as Folding@Home.
The next thing to consider is the price of the operating system you’re going to be using. You should subtract from your budget however much the OS is going to cost you. It may be that you’re transferring a license across from an old PC to your new one, which is fine, your full budget can go to parts!
If you’re not doing a completely new build, but a “major upgrade” – more than half of your components are getting upgraded, with a few old ones staying in – then be sure to pay extra attention to your new parts and their compatibilities with your old things. This goes particularly for a motherboard. If you, for instance, have an old PCI card that you’re wanting to keep for whatever reason, then you need to make sure an upgraded motherboard has a PCI slot for you. There are some parts that are “safe bets” for transferring into a new build (optimising your budget for your upgrades):
- An optical drive: The vast majority of these now use SATA data and power connections, something all modern motherboards and power supplies accommodate easily; so long as it works and you’re happy with it, there’ll be no need to spend on a new one
- A case: It may be that your case needs changing because you’re unhappy with the aesthetic or its performance; however if you have no real objections to your case, and it will fit your upgrades without issue, a new case really doesn’t need to be a line item on your upgrade list
- Fans: This is simple enough, just unplug and unscrew them from one case, then fit them into a new case (if you’re getting a new case)
Other components require more serious contemplation if you’re considering transferring them:
- PSU: You have to be very confident about your PSU if you’re to consider moving it from one build to another; factor in how long it’s already been running at what percentage load (capacitor ageing), and what your new build will require of it
These days, CPU’s are well capable, even at the lower end. For simple office work, or a internet browsing/email answering machine, a cheap little dual-core processor will do the trick. At the low end, AMD’s chips are a lot cheaper then Intel’s offerings, however they are slower. A visible difference, however, will be negligible.
For gaming, most games are now multi-threaded, but not massively so. Most PC games will now comfortably utilise a quad core processor optimally. So, when talking in the realms of reason, a quad core Intel I5 processor, or a quad core AMD processor, will suffice. If you really want, you could move up to an Intel I7 processor. However the only real benefit an I7 confers over an I5 is the ability to have two processing threads per core. This confers no tangible advantage to games, who will not make much use of the extra processing threads. The same goes for AMD’s six-core, or eight-core processors.
For professional applications such as 3D modelling and the Adobe suites, an Intel I7 is recommended. The vast majority of these software suites are multi-threaded, meaning that a hyper-threading capable I7 processor will be fully utilised by these applications. If you’re on a budget, however, and the I7 will not fit into it, you will still get good performance out of an I5. Since maximum processing efficiency per clock cycle is the name of the game here, Intel is recommended strongly in this context, as Intel’s underlying architecture for their processors are far more efficient than AMD. The same advice applies to those looking to building a high performance computing machine for something like Folding@Home.
The first thing you need to get right with the motherboard is the CPU socket it has. Please ensure that the selection of motherboards you are viewing on whatever online shopping site you use are of the same socket type as the processor you are looking for. Motherboards can differ largely in their performance and reliability. They can’t be measured particularly well in terms of numbers, as there is no one defining metric that makes a good motherboard. A good place to start is looking at what kind of data transfer standards it supports. USB 3 and SATA 3 are fast becoming the de-facto standards for all motherboards. However some cheaper ones will not support these, opting for the cheaper USB 2 and SATA 2. If you’re looking at a SSD for your system, then SATA 3 is a must. If you have USB 3.1 peripherals you want to make the most of, then you’re going to want USB 3.1 capability from your motherboard.
Another thing to take a look at is how the motherboard configures its PCI-Express (PCIE) slots. PCIE slots are important, particularly the largest x16 slots. These are the slots your graphics card (for those of you looking into gaming or other performance use cases) uses. Every modern motherboard will include at least one x16 PCIE slot. However if you’re looking into a multi-GPU setup, such as a higher end gaming rig, a second slot is required. Despite the manufacturer stating that the board has two x16 slots, the second of these slots may only be operating at x8 (or even x4) speeds. As such, you will see a crippling performance drop in the performance of that card, lending little validation to your decision to use a multi-GPU rig. A x8 slot hiding as a x16 slot is not necessarily the end of the world, as you’ll only see a 5% drop in performance, but avoid a x4 slot at all costs. Only the high end motherboards will have two full fledged x16 slots.
Manufacturer can often denote very clearly the reliability of the board. You’re going to want a well engineered board, with sufficiently implemented power phases for the CPU, and sensibly placed ports.
My personal recommendation is to look at boards by either ASUS or Gigabyte. They tend to be the “big two” in motherboard manufacture. This isn’t to say any other maker is to be dismissed out of hand, but ASUS and Gigabyte are the most popular for a reason.
For the purposes of expediency, DDR3 RAM will be discussed here, as DDR2 is all but dead. DDR3 manufacturing is very cheap, now, making sure supply and demand are healthily balanced.
The minimum recommended amount of RAM for any machine, from the simplest to the most powerful, is 4GB of 1333 MHz RAM. Before you’ve opened anything, Windows will be using roughly 1.5 GB of RAM, leaving you with a spacious 2.5GB to keep open many basic applications without having to worry about thrashing.
If you’re gaming, then 8GB is the recommended amount. Most modern games will now very easily take up between 2 and 4 GB of RAM. You want to make sure you’re not going to be paging over to your main system disk drive, as that can cause serious performance implications. It is also highly recommended that you move up to the next speed tier of 1600 MHz. This increases the memory bandwidth, allowing for more data to flow to the CPU, which has obvious benefits for something like a game. You may go higher than 1600 MHz, speeds go well into the 2000 MHz ranges.
However, you start to be hit very severely by the diminishing returns curve for price/performance after 1600 MHz. When building a gaming rig, be sure to not fill all the RAM slots on the motherboard. Only fill the ones that the manual instructs you to fill first (these are usually coloured differently to the other slots). This ensures the RAM is operating in dual / triple / quad channel mode, which simply allows the RAM to have maximum bandwidth between itself and the CPU. For the purposes of gaming, this is a highly beneficial thing.
If you’re looking at professional applications like 3D modelling and the Adobe suites, then a similar set of rules to gaming apply. The only difference being that, unlike games, these applications do not require maximum bandwidth to the CPU to operate well (even though every little does help). They do, however, require copious amounts of space, due to the uncompressed working files of these applications being very large. In this case, filling all the RAM slots of a motherboard for the sake of maximum memory capacity over the performance benefit of dual / triple / quad channel is sensible. That being said, more expensive, ultra-dense RAM modules are now being manufactured, offering 8GB per module. So, even on a dual channel motherboard (mid-range setup such as an Intel I5 or a quad core AMD), you could get 16GB of memory (a healthy amount for this use case) still benefiting from dual channel performance. Look at these modules, and consider for yourself what you would rather choose based on your own use case.
HDD manufacturers are so well versed in HDD production, that, as a general rule, you don’t particularly need to worry about build quality. For a desktop rig, you will most likely be looking for a 3.5″ drive. For gaming, you won’t be wanting to go any less than 1TB. Drives of this capacity hit nicely on the price/performance curve. Storage options go up to 4TB in consumer use cases. However, you will be into the hundreds of pounds/dollars for the higher end drives. Another metric to observe is the speed of the rotation. The most common rotation speed is 7200RPM, and that is the recommended one. If you’re just looking for a hard disk for a standard office box, then the 5400RPM “eco-friendly” drives may be a better choice due to their quieter nature. If you’re wanting the ultimate in performance, there are 10000RPM drives. These are exponentially more expensive than a standard 7200RPM drive of the same capacity, and are not recommended unless you have more money than sense.Their performance benefit can be seen, but is not worth what you pay. On a less urgent note, the last metric to observe is the size of the cache the HDD has. This can range from 8MB to 64MB. This cache acts as a buffer between the disk itself, and the bus to memory. The larger the cache, the less of an impact interruptions of the disk read will have. Tests by the major tech sites have revealed that drives with larger caches tend to have better read and write performance over those with smaller caches. Recommended manufacturers are Seagate and Western Digital. Lastly, HDD drives can either come in SATA 2 or the newer SATA 3 flavours. For the sake of simplicity, choose a SATA 3 drive, even if you’re using a SATA 2 motherboard.
When looking at a SSD, you must be careful. Many drives have an advertised performance that is only applicable in a “best case scenario” in regards to data transfer. For example, drives using the SandForce controller achieve their high advertised speeds through using data compression algorithms to physically reduce the amount of data getting transferred, thus completing a larger job quicker. That only works for compressible data, and many common data types are not compressible. Benchmarking tests reveal the data transfer rate for incompressible data to drop drastically below the advertised speeds. That is not to say drives utilising the SandForce controller are to be avoided, but is simply an example of why one must be wary when choosing a SSD. It really does become beneficial to look up a benchmarking comparison test of SSD’s to work out the best one, as there are many different controller types on the market today, each one working on it’s own methods to maximise data transfer.
Consumer SSD’s are 2.5″ drives. There are 3.5″ versions available, however these are very uncommon. You will want your SSD to be SATA 3 capable, as the incredibly high transfer speed of the SSD will fully saturate the transfer capabilities of SATA 2; most even come close to saturating SATA 3. Even if you’re on a SATA 2 board, for the sake of “future proofing”, go for a SATA 3 drive. With a BIOS update to your motherboard, the vast majority will have forward compatibility with SATA 3 going into a SATA 2 connection. As far as capacity goes, the recommendation varies. If you’re planning on just having an office box that will have nothing more than a collection of documents and Microsoft Office installed, then a 120GB SSD is recommended. Remember, a fully up-to-date Windows is between 20 and 30 GB. Microsoft Office can be up to 2GB. It pays to be vigilant of space used, as you’re significantly more limited than you are with a cheap 500GB HDD. For a gaming rig that plans to use a larger capacity HDD as the storage for games, then the same recommendation of 120GB is given. However, if you have the money, a 250GB SSD may be prudent if you have one or two games you play very frequently and wish to have super-fast load times on.
A final note on SSD’s, the issue of SLC, MLC, and TLC. These stand for “Single Layer Cell”, “Multi Layer Cell”, and “Triple Level Cell”, respectively. This issue essentially revolves around the longevity of a SSD. A “cell” is the smallest storage unit of a SSD. A SSD drive that uses SLC technology writes one bit of data to one cell, meaning that one cell contains two potential values. A SSD that uses MLC technology writes two bits of data to one cell, meaning it can have four potential values. A SSD that uses TLC technology writes three bits of data to a cell, meaning it can have six potential values. Knowing what we know about how cells “wear out” (discussed in the “the parts” section), SLC has the most longevity, with TLC having the least longevity. However, MLC and TLC based memory has been the primary driving factor in the rapid drop in cost of SSD’s. When looking at a consumer level device, you’re almost always going to be looking at a MLC drive. Some manufacturers use TLC in their lower end SSD’s, reserving MLC for the higher end. MLC drives will last longer than TLC drives. This means that I recommend gamers and other users that will be using the SSD for heavy writes (large files such as games, etc) use a MLC drive. Simple office box users will be fine with a TLC drive, as your light use won’t be enough to bring any negative effects out of the disadvantages posed by TLC.
For gaming rigs, the graphics capability is probably the most important aspect of the rig. For other kinds of PC’s, it’s a little less important. This section will mainly address gamers, however this initial part will address office users, and professional graphics users, as their options tend to be much more “set in stone”. For office users who will have very little use for graphical capability above being able to render Windows and browse the web, you will be fine with the integrated graphics processor within the main CPU. Almost all modern AMD and Intel chips have an integrated graphics processor, with the monitor connections coming out of the motherboard. You have no need of anything extra to this, so save yourself some money. For professional users, your use cases will extend out to AMD/Nvidia’s professional line of graphics processors (namely the FirePro, and Quadro series, respectively). Both AMD and Nvidia make their professional product lines easy to understand, with specific product lines for 3D modelling, multi-monitor setups, 2D graphics, etc. If you’re a professional but not wanting to get a professional level graphics processor, then a mid-range consumer graphics processor will suffice. For Nvidia, you will want to be looking at the x50 or x60 (where “x” is the number assigned to a specific generation of product) cards. For AMD, you will want to be looking at the x600 or x700 (where “x” is the number assigned to a specific generation of product) cards. This will provide you with enough graphics compute power, without totally breaking the bank.
For gamers, there are many things to consider when choosing a GPU. Thankfully, both AMD and Nvidia offer a wide range of GPUs to satisfy every price point, so whatever your budget is, you’ll be covered. Graphics cards can vary quite a lot in physical dimensions. Most are two standard PCI-E slots wide (some are three, other lower end ones are one), and will never deviate from the standard height for an add-in card. The big differentiator comes in its length. As a general rule, AMD cards tend to be longer than Nvidia equivalents. Another general rule is, the more powerful the card, the longer it tends to be. This obviously has implications for the kind of case you’re going to buy. Do check beforehand that your case can support the length of whatever graphics card you plan on buying. If you’re planning on doing a multi-GPU setup, do ensure that your PSU (discussed below) will be capable enough to handle the power requirements of both cards. Also make sure your motherboard supports multi-GPU configurations.
Toms Hardware do a great monthly segment giving you their opinion on what’s best for a given price point based on performance. Do make sure when using these articles that you’re on the most recent month. Usually, AMD cards tend to be slightly cheaper than Nvidia equivalents, making AMD cards more attractive from a price/performance perspective. Nvidia cards offer the benefits of certain technologies, such as CUDA and Physx. CUDA is Nvidia’s proprietary application programming interface for high performance applications to make maximum use of the massively parallel processing capability of a graphics processor. If you’re going to be using CUDA, then a Nvidia card is for you. PhysX is a proprietary rendering API that give games that utilise it increased realism. While PhysX is technically impressive, it is my opinion that it should never really be factored into a purchasing decision. It is, at best, an aside to the main purchasing decision that should be based on price, performance, and power consumption.
A number of factors come into deciding the right PSU. Namely, the overall power requirement of your build will be the primary factor, but size of case, and sound requirements. All ATX certified PSU’s have a standard height and width in order to be standard across a wide range of cases, however their length differs. Many larger wattage PSU’s tend to be considerably longer than smaller wattage ones, and so you must check the specifications of your case as to the maximum length of PSU is recommended for your case. It is recommended you stay with PSU’s that have single-rail 12V configurations. Many manufacturers spread the load of the 12V output onto multiple rails. This runs the risk of one failing and causing your whole computer to fail. PSU’s that put the whole load onto one singularly powerful rail are, generally, more reliable. They are also more convenient to work with, when plugging your graphics card in, as you are not having to consult the manual to see which sockets are correct.
Below is a table recommending the wattage of your prospective PSU based on your needs. All numbers are in watts. Please remember that the table represents a ballpark estimate of the kind of PSU you’ll be looking for. You should, as a responsible system builder, be looking into the specific power requirements of your parts and making a decision based on hard data.
Table representing the wattage of the PSU required based on CPU and GPU
0 GPU 1 GPU 2 GPU 3 GPU
1 CPU 350 550 850 1050
2 CPU 550 750 1050 1200
– A typical 3.5″ HDD takes 20 watts of power, maximum. The figures in the table reflect the power requirements of a system with one HDD.
– PCI Express add in card slots can give up to a maximum of 75 watts of power through the connector.
– Legacy PCI slots can give up to a maximum of 25 watts of power through the connector.
– The average sound card will take no more than 20 watts of power, maximum.
– SSD’s are a non-issue. At most, they will take no more than 3 watts of power.
– An average DVD Writer drive will take no more than 20 watts of power, maximum; remember that the table above factors in one DVD writer drive to the numbers.
With usb bootable installs and iso’s there is no need for a built in optical drive as such if you still need one for the older physical copies of games you can’t go wrong with a usb external one.
The most important thing to consider when looking at a case is the size of your motherboard and the size of your PSU. If you’re not looking to have a multi-GPU configuration, and you’re not looking to have many add-in cards, then consider a Micro-ATX case (alongside a Micro-ATX motherboard). This not only will save you space in your computer area, but will look better, as you don’t have a needlessly big case. Of course, if you do have need for a larger amount of add-in cards and a multiple GPU configuration, then a larger ATX tower (with accompanying ATX board) will be better. When looking at any case, always be sure to research it by looking at official specifications and reviews of it. As a matter of importance, always check the maximum length of a PSU it can handle (to inform your choice of PSU’s), the maximum height clearance of a CPU cooler (to inform your choice of CPU coolers), and the maximum supported length of a graphics card. Aside from these things, the decision on a case is mostly aesthetic. Get one to suit your needs and tastes.
If you’re in the market for a sound card, there is a strong chance you won’t need a huge amount of advice. For the majority of users, the integrated sound processor on the motherboard will suffice. The majority of them have at least 5.1 surround capabilities, higher end boards will go to 7.1 surround, and the ones at the very top usually come with their own PCI-E based card bundled.
For gamers, the recommended manufacturer is Creative, as their products usually bundle many software features that are beneficial for gaming. For music enthusiasts or professionals, ASUS are the recommended manufacturer, as the build quality, specifications, and sound to noise ratios of their products are generally superior than that of Creative’s.
Heatsinks don’t really have many solid metrics to compare them by. They have claimed thermal dissipation capabilities (measured in watts, as in the amount of heat, in watts, that the cooler can dissipate from the CPU), however these are often very generalized and offer no real insight into real world capabilities. As such, when deciding on a heatsink, you will want to check review sites for whatever you have interest in. To want an after market CPU cooler, you will most likely have decided to overclock your CPU. By this assumption, I am going to assume you have a level of tech-savvy above the group of people I am writing this for. As such, I will assume you know what to look for in a cooler.
Despite this, I will give some basic tips for anyone out of the loop regarding coolers. They come in all shapes and sizes, quite literally. The primary consideration is the size of the cooler in relation to your case. The larger the case, the larger you can afford your cooler to be. As I mentioned in the “Cases” part of this section, you will want to research the maximum height clearance your case allows for a cooler, and work within those confines when making a decision. Even Micro-ATX cases allow coolers with heights of over 120mm, so you will have a wide selection. Only the more restrictive cases, such as Mini-ITX based form factors will start to severely limit your options from a height clearance standpoint.
As well as height, you must also consider width. Traditional heatsinks will have running up the copper pipes thin blades of aluminum. This is to draw the heat away from the copper pipes and dissipate it out over a large surface area. These aluminum fins can often contribute quite significantly to the width of the heatsink. Also add to whatever width that may amount to, 25mm. That is the thickness of a standard case fan. As you can see, a heatsink starts to get quite wide, quite fast. The biggest consequence of this, is how much it is going to impose over onto the RAM sticks. These are traditionally near to the CPU, and due to their height, you can suddenly find your heatsink being blocked by the RAM sticks, or vice versa. There are two solutions to this problem. The first one is to purchase low-profile RAM sticks. Most “performance” RAM sticks have cooling fins on them which contribute significantly to their height. The majority of manufacturers have recognised the problem this can give with regards to heatsinks, and so many manufacturers produce a “low profile” version of their “performance” line products. The majority of heatsink manufacturers take into consideration the height clearance of these low profile sticks, and make their products with the appropriate height clearances (essentially the point at which they begin to attach the aluminium fins). The second solution is to look for “slim” heatsinks. Some heatsink manufacturers have heatsinks that are deliberately made not to protrude over to the RAM sticks at all, even with a fan attached. Some questioning on forums may be in order, here.
When assembling your PC, it is recommended you have the following items:
- A set of Phillips screwdriver heads (preferably magnetic)
- A pair of needle nose pliers
- A pair of tweezers (preferably non-metallic)
- Cable ties
- A flash light (preferably head mounted)
- An elevated working space (preferably non-metallic, such as a wooden table)
- A tube of thermal paste and some isopropyl alcohol (or solvent to that effect, a more immediate choice is nail varnish remover)
Before working on anything electrical, be sure to ground yourself by rubbing an electrically grounded object for five seconds. This can include something like a radiator, or any other piece of metal. This dissipates any electrostatic charge in you, so that it doesn’t dissipate into a piece of electrical equipment and cause severe damage to it.
Initial Windows Installation
For this section you will need:
- CPU (and whatever heatsink you plan to use)
- RAM (1 stick)
- External Optical Drive (if you’re installing Windows from a disk) or USB Thumb Drive
- The HDD or SSD you’ll be installing Windows on
- GPU (you only need this if your motherboard/CPU combination does not have integrated graphics support, otherwise you can leave it out for now)
- Two appropriate SATA cables
- One appropriate visual data transfer cable (D-SUB, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, etc)
- One keyboard
- One mouse
- One monitor
Remove the motherboard from its anti-static back, and seat it on the box it came in. If you are working on a wooden or plastic surface, you may place it on the surface instead. Remove the plastic CPU socket protector from the motherboard, and install your CPU in there. Both AMD and Intel CPUs and their sockets are designed slightly asymmetrically, so there is only one way to put the CPU in the socket. Both AMD and Intel CPU’s are ZIF (Zero Insertion Force). Both types of CPU’s should just drop into the slot with no force required (at this point). If you find yourself having to use force to put the CPU in place, stop immediately, you may cause irreparable damage to both the motherboard and the CPU. Both CPU types will have a small bracket/cage that holds it in place. You will have disengaged it with some sort of small lever when removing the plastic protector. Re-engage this as required.
Next, you will want to install the heatsink you are using. Follow the instructions for heatsink installation. Stock heatsinks for both models are very easy to install, and require no extra parts or work outside of what is specified in the instructions found in the CPU packaging. If you’re using an after market cooler, follow the instructions as per your cooler. Your heatsink, unless you have chosen a completely fanless one, will have at least one fan that needs plugging in. Both AMD and Intel stock coolers use 4-pin PWM (“pulse width modulation”, allowing the computer to control fan speed on the fly in response to heat output) fan connectors. A 4-pin slot should never be far from where the CPU socket is located, and they look like this. You can’t plug them in the wrong way, so it’s a simple process. If you are using a third-party heatsink with a standard case fan blowing the air, they may possibly use a 3-pin connector. They will be dotted around the board, simply look for one and plug it in. It doesn’t matter which one it goes into at this point. The fan may also have another cable, the end of which looks like this. This is called a 4-pin Molex connector, they are used to supply low voltage power to devices such as a fan. Find the appropriate connector on your PSU and plug it in. Again, they are made in such a way that makes it impossible to plug it in wrong, simply follow the shapes.
Next, take your RAM stick. You only need one at this point as it firstly reduces the likelihood of a critical error occurring during the very sensitive period of installation. Secondly, it keeps things less messy. Install the RAM stick into one of the motherboard slots. As you are only working with one stick at the moment, any slot should be fine. However, be sure to check your motherboard manual in the RAM section to see if the manufacturer has determined a set sequence of slots that must be filled in order. Be sure to comply with any of these instructions to minimise the risk of error.
If you’re using a discrete GPU in this section, install that onto the primary PCI-E x16 slot of the motherboard. It’s usually the one nearest to the CPU and RAM array. If you’re unsure, consult your motherboard manual. Be aware that this won’t rest easy as we are not operating inside the case yet, just find a placement that has it sitting fairly stably. Ignore this part if you’re using the integrated graphics at this point. The reason why it is recommended only to use a discrete GPU out of necessity at this point is because it keeps things less messy and complicated for installation.
Next, take your main storage device and your optical drive and plug the SATA cables from them into your motherboard. Again, if you’re unsure which SATA ports on the motherboard you need to connect to, consult the manual. SATA has backwards and forwards compatibility, so you shouldn’t run into problems. Try and keep these two items near each other.
Next take your PSU and plug in appropriate connectors. You will need to plug the largest of the connectors (the 24-pin ATX power connector) into the motherboard. You won’t miss the socket, it is usually on the opposite end to where all the external ports are located. If your motherboard has a 4 or 8-pin 12v EPS socket for the CPU, be sure to plug that in. Note that this cable looks identical to the 6 or 8-pin 12v PCI-E connectors used for graphics cards. They are not the same. Be sure to use the one explicitly labelled as the EPS connector. If you’re unsure, consult your PSU’s manual. After this, plug in your storage device and optical drive. They will be using SATA power connectors, which are long, thin and have a “L” shape to them to ensure they only go in one way. Many of these connectors will be on one lead, for the sake of reducing clutter, you can put them on the same lead, there are no drawbacks to this. Lastly, if you’re using a discrete graphics card, plug in the appropriate amount of either 6 or 8-pin 12v PCI-E power connectors. If you are using a modular PSU, be sure you plug them in to the right ports. They are usually labelled, but consult your manual if you’re not sure. The same goes for all connectors.
Next, plug in your keyboard, mouse, and optical cable into the relevant ports on the motherboard (and graphics card if you’re using a discrete one for this process). Using the supplied IEC cable (informally known as a kettle lead), plug your PSU into a power outlet. Flick the switch from 0 to I, if you have one. If your motherboard has a LED to show power status, this should be lighting up now. If your motherboard is a high-end board, there will be on board “on” and “reset” buttons as can be seen here. Press the “on” button (or however it is labelled). If you do not have this, look in your motherboard manual for the layout of the front header pins. They will look something like this or this, and two of them will be for the power switch on your case. Find the pair of pins for your power switch, and short them using your screwdriver head. Do this by using the metal of the driver head to make a physical connection between the two (done by touching the two pins simultaneously). Once you have done this, either by pressing the button or doing the shorting method, your system should whir into action. Provided you’ve installed the heatsink & fan correctly, your fan should spin up. If you’ve got a conventional HDD, you will hear the platters spinning. If you have a discrete graphics card in there, you will see the fan start spinning.
If you have your monitor plugged in correctly, you should see something come up on screen, this is the motherboard’s BIOS splash screen. After a few seconds, it should disappear and tell you that no bootable media can be found. Open your optical drive and put in your Windows installation disk. If you’re using a bootable USB drive to install Windows, put this in one of the USB ports on the back of the motherboard. You will now want to reset your PC. If you have an appropriate button on the motherboard, press that. If you do not, perform the same shorting method as described above, except hold it there until the machine shuts down. Leave it for three seconds, and then turn it back on using the method shown above. This time, as soon as you turn it on, be pressing the button on the keyboard that will take you into the BIOS configuration screen. Consult the motherboard manual as to what this is. The most common ones, however, are either the delete key, F2, F8, or F12.
Once you have gotten into the BIOS configuration screen, find your way to the boot device priority section. The headings are labelled appropriately, you should not have trouble finding this section. Set whatever drive you’re using to install Windows to the “number 1” priority. This will either be your optical drive, or your USB drive. Then save changes and exit (there will be a specific option for this). Your machine should reset. Let it run through again without pressing anything, and providing you performed the last step correctly, you will see the beginning of the Windows installation screen. It is usually some text saying “loading Windows installation files” and a white progress bar.
From here, installing Windows is very easy and self explanatory. Run through the install process, following the on-screen instructions. There will be only one drive to install Windows to, so you’ll have no problems. Depending on the speed of the install media (USB drives are a lot quicker than optical drives) and the speed of the destination drive (HDDs are slower than SSDs), your installation could take as little as 10 minutes to an hour. Once Windows has been successfully installed, set your primary storage device to the “number 1” boot priority. Remove your Windows installation media. Once you have done this, Windows should boot up to the start screen. Shut down Windows.
Moving into the Case
You will want to unplug everything, as you’re going to be putting things into the case, now. Begin with the PSU’s connection to your wall outlet, and go from there. For the sake of expediency, keep the processor, your heatsink and your RAM on the motherboard, as they can all be put into the case at once. You are going to be putting the motherboard onto a number of brass stand-offs, if you think the heatsink is going to block your access to any of these (as you’ll be putting a screw into each), then remove it. I will detail later on how to clean and re-apply thermal paste. The next thing you wish to get from your motherboard box is the I/O shield. This is a thin, rectangular item that fits into the part of the case that will allow the rear ports on the motherboard to protude from the case. Your case will come with a generic I/O shield, this needs to be removed. It can require some force, as they are set in place quite securely. After you have removed the generic one, fit in your motherboard specific one. Ensure you have the orientation correct. In the case of your I/O shield having small protrusions blocking some rear ports, as seen here, you will need to use some clippers to just get rid of this. Lower end motherboard packages will have this problem more than higher end ones.
The next thing you want to do is put the PSU in place. If you have a modular PSU, remove all non-captive cables from it, this makes it a little easier. If you have a case that places the PSU at the top, have the PSU fan facing downwards (so it’s drawing air upwards from the case). If your case puts the PSU at the bottom, have it facing upwards, again so it’s drawing air from the case. The ATX form factor specification makes it very easy to get the PSU in place, simply slide it in and screw in the four screws (provided with your PSU in the box) into the back of the case. Inside, your PSU should be supported by rails, ensure it has a secure fit. Right now, do your best to ensure any captive cables are as tucked away as possible for the sake of neatness.
Note: Before this next section, if your heatsink requires you to have used their own backplate on the rear of the motherboard (many larger ones do), you will need to refit it here. The only situation where you do not need to refit this kind of heatsink at this point is if your case has a cut-out on the motherboard tray that allows you to work on it while the motherboard is fitted in the case.
You are now ready to put your motherboard in the case. Before this, ensure you have consulted the case manual for all the spots on the case back panel where a brass standoff needs to be applied. Brass standoffs and their corresponding screws will either come with your case or your motherboard. For a standard ATX board, the positioning of these standoffs will look something like this. Micro ATX cases and Mini ITX cases will have slightly different positioning. Make sure the motherboard is in the right orientation, (this can be easily done by making sure the rear ports are facing the right way), and place them onto the standoffs. It may take a little bit of work to get the rear ports to fit into their relative slots in the I/O shield. Once you can see that the standoffs are lined up with their respective holes on the motherboard, screw them all in. Some higher end motherboard packages include some non-metallic washers (O-rings) with the screws, be sure to use these as they provide extra grip on the motherboard.
Next, you will want to install your optical drive. To install the optical drive, you will require a SATA data cable and one SATA power connector from the PSU. If you’re putting your PC on the floor, use the top-most 5.25″ bay; if you’re putting it on a desk so that it’s at your height, try to use the bottom-most 5.25″ bay. Ultimately use what you’re comfortable with, and what will fit best for your system. Your case will have a front shield for each 5.25″ bay, remove the one you wish to install the drive into and then simply slide the drive into place. Some cases may use easy-clip methods of securing the drive that may need to be removed before it can be slid into place. Be sure to line the screw holes on the sides of the drive with the holes in frame, and then screw them in. There are usually two on each side, to minimise the effects of vibration, screw all four in. If your case uses an easy-clip method, re-attach these as required. Next, plug in the two cables. Find an appropriate SATA port on the motherboard to plug it into. The vast majority of optical drives are still SATA 2, since they do not have a transfer speed high enough to justify moving to SATA 3. If your motherboard has a mixture of SATA 2 and SATA 3 ports, use the SATA 2 ones. There is no way to distinguish SATA 2 from SATA 3 other than differences in colour on the ports that the manufacturer may use. Consult your motherboard manual to get the answer right for you. The power cable is very easy to plug in, much like the data cable they have a “L” shape to them, making it impossible to plug them in wrong.
Next, you will want to install the storage drive(s). The 3.5″ internal drive bays are usually below the 5.25″ optical bays. They have a chance of conflicting with particularly long graphics cards. If your graphics card is a long one (10″ or above), just ensure that the place you want your storage drive to go won’t conflict with the graphics card. Remember that while the two may fit closely together, you need to account for cables going into them, too. When you have found your bays, simply slide the drives in there. The power and data slots need to be facing into the case, and should be oriented in such a way that they are on the bottom edge of the rear face of the drive. Like this. If a SSD is part of your set up, make sure you have bought a 2.5″ to 3.5″ bracket for it, so that it will fit into a 3.5″ bay. Some SSD’s come with one, but most don’t. They are not expensive. Some cases have 2.5″ bays (more recent ones, with the boom of the SSD) especially for this use case, ensure you’re not missing any before you go ahead with the bracket. Plug in the data and power cables like you did with the optical drive. Like before, be sure to plug the drives into appropriate lots wherever possible. Most SSD’s are SATA 3, you’ll want that to go into a SATA 3 slot. Many HDD’s are SATA 3, too, but many are still SATA 2. So do what is appropriate for your build. As far as the power connections go, try and use the same SATA power cable as your optical drive, so as to save on the use of cables (and ultimately, clutter) in your case.
Next, you will want to re-install your heatsink if you had to remove it earlier. Before doing that, you will need to clean both the surface of the CPU and the contact area of the heatsink. Get some toilet paper or kitchen roll and dry-wipe the bulk of the thermal paste off both surfaces. Next, with a clean piece, wet it with your solvent (discussed above at the start of the assembly section) and begin to wipe both surfaces clear of any remaining paste. Do this separately, with two separate pieces of roll for the two surfaces. Once it is as clean as you’re going to get it, take your thermal paste out of its packaging, along with the squeegee. There are two ways to apply thermal paste. The first way is to apply a pea-sized blob in the middle of the CPU surface and allow the weight of the heatsink (when you apply it) to spread the paste out. Many recommend this technique for its relative easiness, however I do not, as it does not guarantee equal spread. The other technique, the one that I recommend, is to apply a line of paste on one of the edges of the CPU surface, kind of so it looks like a worm. Then take the squeegee and spread it down the CPU surface so that it spreads equally out according to your own hand. If you need to apply more paste, give it in tiny doses. Overdoing it is as bad as underdoing it. The end result should be a thin layer of paste that covers the whole area of the CPU surface. Here is an example, though try to get the spread as even as possible. After this is complete, refit your heatsink as you did previously.
At this point, feel free to attach all your sticks of RAM to the motherboard. Again, follow your motherboard’s guidelines regarding which slots the sticks need to go in to get maximum performance. After this, attach your graphics card. To do this, find the PCI-E x16 slot that you wish to slot it into, and remove the corresponding I/O shield on the back of the case. If your graphics card is a dual slot graphics card (it likely is), you will need to remove the one underneath it, too. To do this, you will have likely needed to remove two screws from their setting, retain these as you’ll need them again. Again, if your case is using an easy-clip system, remove it as appropriate. Then slot the graphics card into the slot. It does not take much force, but enough to get it into place. You should hear a slight click to indicate it’s all the way in. And the rear slots should line up fine. Then re apply the screws / easy-clips to secure the card. After this, you will want to plug in the PCI-E power cables to it. The vast majority of cards will require at least one 6-pin connection. Most of these will require two connectors in one of three combinations (two 6-pin, one 8-pin and one 6-pin, two 8-pin). Be sure to get the right cables (they will usually be labelled on the cable head “PCI-E”) and plug them in. If your PSU is modular, and you’re plugging these cables into the PSU as well, then be sure to consult your PSU manual to ensure you’re plugging them into the right slots (as said before, they can be easily – and dangerously – confused with the 12V EPS connector).
After the graphics card installation, connect any other add in cards (sound card, NIC, etc) you may have. As the vast majority of these cards do not require external power, it’s simply a case of removing the expansion slot shield on the case and plugging it in.
Your PC will be really taking shape now, there’s only a couple of things left to do to finish off the process. When first opening your case, you will have noticed a set of cables coming from the front panel (where the power button, reset button, headphone, microphone, and USB ports are at the front of the case). The USB header cable will look like this for USB 2.0 and this for USB 3.0. The header on the motherboard for USB 2.0 will look like this. The motherboard header for 3.0 will look like this. Simply plug these in where appropriate. You should also see a group of smaller (2-pin and 1-pin) connectors that are all differently coloured. These relate to the power switch, reset switch, power-on light, and disk drive activity light. The heads of each connector will be labelled, for instance the power on switch header will be labelled “PWR_ON”, or something to that effect. Consult your motherboard manual as to where each cable needs to plug into the header pins on the motherboard (located at the bottom right of the motherboard, usually). As a general rule, each cable will have one of its wires coloured consistently among each other. The colour is usually black, or white. This is the ground wire, that always plugs into the “-” part of each header (as opposed to the “+” part).
Now that all this is done, feel free to plug in the main power lead into the PSU again. Flick thePSU switch to 1, and press the power button on the case. Everything should all whir into action again, and since you have already installed Windows, you should just boot straight to the log-in screen.
Log in to Windows and let it “warm up”; with it being a fresh install, it shouldn’t take long. Your main components will have all come with CD’s (motherboard, graphics card, any other add in card). These CD’s contain the necessary drivers for your hardware. Begin with the motherboard CD, and install all necessary drivers. Most manufacturers include software on their CD’s that automates the process for the drivers. You will likely go through a number of restarts. Do the same thing for your graphics card and any other add in card that requires drivers. After this is done, you are ready to use your PC however you wish. Be sure to get your PC fully up to date via Windows update. Also be sure to get anti-virus software installed. I personally recommend ESET Smart Security.
Your PC is now ready to go. Enjoy your new build.
*Original guide provided by reddit user Griffolion via the reddit.com/r/pcmasterrace
*This is a work in progress as such changes and updates will be applied when and where applicable and as suggested.
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