Samuel Sulcer assembling the components while building a computer (Courtesy: Wikicommons)

So you want to build your first computer? A technical guide

So, you are thinking about building your own computer. The biggest issues for first time builders is where and how to start. Well, building your own computer isn’t some convoluted feat accomplished only by tech-savvy geeks anymore. Actually, the huge variety of resources available to computer builders of any skill level is astounding. There are thousands of videos, recommendations and guides available for every step of the build process. You need only to look. I won’t tell you that it’s easy, but trust me, if you have a question or problem somewhere along the way, you are not alone. Google is your best friend.

Before I start in on the nitty-gritty details of the build process, I want to tackle one of the most common misconceptions about building your own computer. A custom-built computer is not necessarily a “gaming” computer. Sure, 99 percent of the time when someone is boasting about their monster, custom-built PC running three games at 4k all at the same time, they definitely built it to game. But that’s just one possible direction you can take in the design of your computer. Custom-built computers are not just for gamers. Far from it, actually. You could build a small, affordable PC that tucks behind your TV and use it as a home theater and cable box replacement instead. I did this and highly recommend it. That’s what makes building your own computer worth it. You design the computer that fits your needs. Unlike a pre-built, off-the-shelf computer, you have ultimate control over all the hardware decisions. Your choices are not limited to only the processing and graphical capabilities, but the aesthetic personal choices of case design, lighting and size as well.

Building a computer begins with deciding on your parts list. There are a lot of factors that weigh in when deciding what parts you want in your build, and this can be a bit overwhelming for those new to computer building. Luckily for all of us, there exists a patron saint of computer builders everywhere, PCPartPicker.com. This website was designed to make building your own computer as easy and straightforward as possible. PCPartPicker provides computer part selection, compatibility and pricing guidance for do-it-yourself computer builders. The best part about the site is the fantastically helpful system build guide. 

This list shows you all of the components you will need before you start building.

This system build outline gives direction to your build by listing all of the components required to build a computer. That would be immensely helpful on its own, but the major appeal of this website is how dead easy it makes comparison shopping. When you are looking for a particular part, say a video card, you get a listing of not only all available graphics cards currently on the market, with reviews and hardware specs, but also a price comparison of all retailers that have that graphics card available. They go one step further, and, as an experienced builder, this is my favorite feature, they have a compatibility filter that prevents you from picking parts that don’t work together. This keeps newbie builders from making the classic mistakes of mismatching a CPU and motherboard, or picking an underpowered power supply.

Now, because you can pick from every possible part available, it’s hard not to suddenly end up with a total bill way over your price range. So, it’s important to set a budget for yourself and stick to it. Fortunately, budgets for custom computers can range anywhere from $350 to $6,000, so there is a lot of wiggle room for builders on any budget. Not sure where to start? Well, PCPartPicker has a couple of staff-designed build guides that offer a great starting point for builds ranging from modest home office to enthusiast gaming builds. If you prefer to try your hand at selecting your parts yourself, it is important for you to allocate your funds so that you get the most bang for your buck. The core components of any build are the CPU, the motherboard and the graphics card (GPU). I always recommend starting here because it defines how powerful the computer you want to make will be. Since these are the most expensive parts, it also helps to know how much room you have left in your budget.

So, you made your parts list, edited it to fit your budget and your parts have arrived. All that’s left to do is assemble your new computer. For inexperienced builders, it is an intimidating ordeal. But I promise you, assembling a computer is fairly simple, so long as you read carefully and follow the manuals provided to you. If you are still apprehensive, don’t sweat it. There are amazing guides for every step of the assembly process. One of my favorite, and most detailed, guides is the Wiki-How article on how to build a computer. I highly recommend it (with the build process starting in “Part 2”). Once everything is fit snugly in place and wired up, you are ready to attempt your first boot. If you did everything right, your computer should start right up. That feeling is incredibly satisfying. It feels like an accomplishment, rather than just plugging in a cable in and pushing a button on a pre-built computer.

Unfortunately, a quick start-up isn’t always the case, as even veteran builders run into issues every now and again. More than likely, it’s just some small step skipped or some component not wired up just right. If that happens, don’t fret it. Just like everything else, there are guides and support to help you get your machine booted up and purring like a kitten. Tom’s Hardware (A PC builder forum) has an amazing troubleshooting checklist.

To those of you who are ready and willing to give building your own computer a shot, good luck! I will pass along some of my hard-learned tips.

  1. You do not need a $300 motherboard. Unless you know exactly what you want out of it and understand what you are spending your money on, I recommend keeping it under $150.
  2. Remember to keep the operating system in mind when budgeting your parts list. Expect to pay $100 for Windows 10 Home.
  3. 16 GB of ram is the most I would recommend on any build under $2500.
  4. The cheapest way to get a noticeable speed increase for your machine is to buy a solid-state drive and install your operating system on it. Large capacity models are expensive, so I recommend buying a 120-256GB SSD, as well as a 1TB hard drive to store all of your other data.
  5. Power supply: Make sure it’s good quality because a crappy one can fry an entire system. You do not need a 900 watt power supply; you can see the projected wattage breakdown on PCPartPicker for your system. Semi-modular power supplies offer good cable management options while also being cost-effective.
  6. CPU Cooler: Most CPUs come with stock coolers and for builds that are used for day-to-day tasks and internet surfing that’s just fine. For gaming builds or hardcore rendering and video editing, I would recommend investing in an aftermarket CPU cooler. This is opposed to liquid cooling options, unless you are very experienced with a closed loop pre-built liquid cooler.
  7. Ratings are key to quality. If it has a lot of ratings, it’s probably for a good reason. Saving a couple of bucks might bite you in the ass and leave you with an incomplete system if it doesn’t work.
  8. Ninite.com is a great way to install lots of great software on fresh builds all at once, while also preventing any of the normal bloatware.

For those of you whose questions I was not able to answer, the PC enthusiast communities on Reddit are an amazing way to ask questions and even save money. Here are some I highly recommend checking out:

https://www.reddit.com/r/pcmasterrace/

https://www.reddit.com/r/buildapc/

https://www.reddit.com/r/hardwareswap/

https://www.reddit.com/r/buildapcsales/

Contact CU Independent guest writer Chris Koehler at koehler@colorado.edu.

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The CU Independent, or CUI for short, is the student news outlet for the University of Colorado at Boulder. We cover news, sports, politics, opinion, arts and entertainment and more. Our mission is to provide news and commentary that's for students and by students — about the things we care about.

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