Building Your Own PC - Gathering The Components
By Chuck Lunsford
Let’s get down to business. The first thing you’re going to have to do is open the wallet / purse / credit card to make some purchases. Then get ready, brew some coffee and let’s get started.
Building your own PC
STEP 1: Purchase/Collect the Components
Often this is the one step that takes the most time and consideration. Which parts do I buy? Which are best?
There are many good places to buy computer parts. Most towns have smaller stores that sell and repair computer equipment. These may be an office suite in a strip mall. Regardless of location, such stores are often cheaper and can provide individual attention. The hardware they sell is often retail packaged from the manufacturer. They may also sell OEM hardware, which usually comes wrapped in nothing but a static bag and is accompanied with very little documentation. You will need to be the judge on this type of hardware. If you feel you need the documentation, you should not buy OEM hardware. Also, not to stereotype certain businesses, but I have to tell you this so you'll be informed: the smaller mom-and-pop computer stores are sometimes a little more questionable as to their knowledge base. This is not always the case, but since they are a smaller business and don't have the large sale volumes of the larger retail stores, they are often under more pressure to make the sale just to stay solvent. Be aware of this when you walk in. Do your research.
The bottom line here is to know your stuff. The PC sales industry is occupied by many who WILL take advantage of your lack of knowledge to make a sale.
Now, let us go through each type of hardware:
Case: Make sure you buy a case which will fit into the space you intend to place it. This is where you decide between a desktop or a tower case. Allow room for expandability; spare drive bays, ample room to work inside. Make sure it has a power supply. Is the case clean? Pay attention to the form factor: AT or ATX. All newer motherboards are using the ATX form factor, so if you have an old case lying around, chances are a new board won't fit in it. If you do a lot of upgrading, you should get a case that is designed with this in mind, such as easily removed motherboard mounting plates, drive racks, etc. Try to have the buttons such as power and reset recessed, so that if you keep the case under the desk you won't accidentally kick the thing and reset it. Also, check the sturdiness of the case. Pay attention to how the case comes apart. Depending on the design, the screw less type is very user friendly.
If you will be running a high-end processor in the case; then pay attention to the cooling aspects of the box. It’s nice when cases come with case fans included, but if they do not, you should make sure the case is designed to allow them. You should have an unobstructed air hole in the front of the case for a front-mounted case fan, with some method of air flow from the rear of the case as well. Many power supplies also aid in cooling by having bottom-mounted fans that suck air from the inside of the case and blow it out the back through the power unit. Don’t go cheap on your fans either. Fans are your best friend fighting heat. You get what you pay for.
Motherboard: Almost everyone knows that the motherboard is the most important component of your computer. At one point or another, every other component connects to the motherboard. Keep in mind that your motherboard choice controls your future upgrade paths. Want to upgrade you RAM? You first have to check and see what type your motherboard will take, and how much it will support. Want that new video card? Your motherboard will need a PCI express slot. Get the point? If you choose the wrong motherboard in the beginning, you may find yourself having to buy a different one down the road to support some other upgrade. Today's motherboards are a lot more sophisticated than the one's in the 486 days. Some boards go all the way, offering built on SCSI or Sata controllers, 10/100/1000 Ethernet support, onboard video and sound, etc. Buying a motherboard is a tradeoff - you need to know what you want and then pick that board which has the best combination of features for you. Bear in mind the old adage - sometimes it is better to buy what you will eventually end up with anyway.
There are really three levels of motherboards. Of course this is a generalization, but it’s accurate enough.
• Bare-bone boards. These are the types of boards you usually get if you are not into PC hardware and don't want to deal with frustrations. You just want to build it and turn it on. These boards have built in sound and video, and sometimes other features too. They don't usually over clock well and don't have a wide range of CPU support. These boards are comparatively inexpensive. Many times, pre-built PCs come with these types of boards, and this is one of the reasons you should be following this tutorial. If you’re going to bother building your own PC, get a board that’s worth your time. This isn’t it.
Secondly, we have the level of board most commonly used. These boards come with a single CPU slot, EIDE or Sata controller, etc. Most don't have built in video, although more of them have built-in sound. This is fine, as long as it is easily disabled. They support a wide range of processors, and with more voltage and multiplier settings, they are more over clocking friendly. Some of these boards offer RAID capability. With the proper amount of PCI slots, these boards are great.
Thirdly, you have the best which most of us cannot afford. These are the dual processor boards, often with built on NIC, Sata, SCSI, a bunch load of PCI slots. PCI slots are a necessity because if you add additional cards to your system most of them will be PCI cards.
Some things you want to bear in mind:
• Board Layout: A lot of people don't consider where everything is placed on the motherboard, but it is important. Is there a big capacitor right near the CPU slot, blocking where your CPU fan will go? Is there a bunch of crap that will block your full-length PCI card from fitting? Are the memory slows in a position where you’d need to remove the floppy drive to get at I them? You need to know roughly what you will be plugging into this board and know if anything will get in the way. This also depends to a degree on the size of the case you are using. Trying to cram a larger board, like an Asus or Gigabyte board, into a mini-tower is asking for trouble.
• Slots - If we had our way, we'd have a motherboard with 20 PCI slots so we could run everything in the world. Unfortunately, this doesn't exist. So, you need to pay attention to how many PCI slots a motherboard has. For most of us the standard 3 to 5 PCI slots will be fine. Be careful, you can easily fill all your slots. Make sure the board has an AGP or PCI Express slot for video card upgrades.
• Manuals - Believe me, you'll regret it if you don't think ahead and get a board with a good manual. If you purchase a no-name board, you'll probably get stuck with a manual that was written in Taiwanese or English you think a third grader would write. A lot of times, you'll find a pile of addendums added to the manual. They couldn't get it right the first time?! Make sure to look at the manual for your board and make sure you can understand it. Another thing to keep in mind is that the better known manufacturers often have nice web sites, and you can get support info there, too. If you don’t know who the manufacturer is, or their website is utterly useless, think twice about using the board.
• Form Factor - Unless you would die without that older server case you are using, I would recommend going with the ATX 24 form factor. ATX 24 integrates all of the connectors, whereas with ATX, you have to plug all of that crap in. The chipset is the hub of your motherboard. You need to pay strong attention to what chipset a motherboard has before you purchase it. The chipset is fully responsible for what hardware your motherboard will support now and in the future. It controls everything. If your motherboard won't support Sata, RAID,PCI SLI etc. blame the chipset. There are many chipsets out there, and this tutorial is not the place to address them all. But, doing your research on this site and others, as well as observing the specs of the chipset itself before you buy it, will be beneficial.
• Hardware Support - This one is really a no-brainer, but bears mentioning anyway due to its obvious importance. Pay attention to the specs to make sure that the board will support the hardware you would like to use. If possible, allow room for expandability beyond what you will be using as this will ensure you can use the board for awhile. If there are embedded components such as sound or video, this is fine as long we you are able to disable it easily. Unless you like all-in-one, you’ll find you want to eventually put something better in there and you don’t want it conflicting with the built-in components. Onboard features should be able to be disabled in the BIOS.
• Reviews - Finally, before purchasing any motherboard, find out what others think of it.
Processor: Processors come in three basic levels:
• Low End - This group is made up of the people that may be starting just starting their own business, and need a computer to print letters, invoices, and other business related things. Most standard business software will run just fine on these processors. Here, we are talking about anything from 800MHz to 2GHz processors. This can include the Pentium processors, Pentium 3’s, AMD A slot.
• Average - This group of processors encompasses the bulk of the chips being sold right now. These processors zip at business software, but, depending on the speed and other things, also zip reasonably well at image editing or gaming. These include the Pentium 4’s and the AMD Athlons, and most processors ranging from the 2GHz range up to over 3 gigahertz.
• High End - This group is the usually the company that's very competitive, on the leading edge of profitability, needs a high end processor for CAD, or just has a lot of money to burn. If you're in this group, you should be looking at Intel Pentium 4 Duo processors, or an AMD FX, X2 Dual core processor ranging upwards of 3 Ghz. These processors are the top of the line. These have the most onboard memory, and they are the best at crunching numbers that are needed for CAD and other CPU intensive programs.
Which CPU you need for a new system is a matter of personal choice. And, on this note, keep in mind that all processors need cooling. Most retail-boxed processors come with fans included or already attached. But, if not, or if you’re getting an OEM processor, make sure to get a good fan. Make sure the fan is of the ball bearing variety and not one of those cheap sleeve bearing fans. Make sure it is rated for your processor, as some fans look fine when you look at them, but wouldn’t help a high speed processor do anything but bake itself to death. Also, and this is not usually an issue, it is nice when the fan gets it power from the CPU_FAN power 3-pin plug on the motherboard rather than take up a plug from your power supply.
Memory: Memory is a big part of your machine, so get the good stuff. A lot of people get really confused when it comes to memory, and it’s really not necessary. Some memory manufacturers will help you find compatible memory for your motherboard on their websites. One such company is Crucial Technology. In most cases, standard non-parity, non-ECC memory will work just fine. Most boards today are still using DDR or DDR2, although DDR-DRAM has really caught on and is a lot faster. In short, though, memory is not a huge issue, just buy what your motherboard requires. Read your manual or read up on the motherboard manufactures web site. And, with today’s prices, buy lots of it. Operating systems themselves require large amounts of memory. Windows XP Home’s bare minimum requirement is 128MB of RAM and . Windows XP Pro’s bare minimum requirement is 256MB of RAM. So, give yourself ample breathing room and don’t try to save a few measly bucks by skimping on the memory.
Video Card: There are just tons of video cards out there to choose from, all saying they're the best and sporting snazzy graphics on the boxes to grab your attention in the store. Let me give you some general pointers: Where it used to be we all used 32 MB cards and thought you were a gaming nerd if using a 64MB card, all graphics cards today have a lot more- usually 128MB or higher. Get it. It won't cost that much. Likewise, PCI Express is now the new standard, so unless you're using a relic motherboard without an AGP slot, get an PCI Express video card. As for power, consider what you'll be doing with the PC. If you're doing mostly business and internet and the occasional game, then you don't need a super-duper gaming card. A card with decent 3D and good 2D power is better for you. Most video cards on the market today are pretty decent at 3D and kick-butt at 2D. Watch the reviews to get viewpoints on different manufacturers. Some cards come with TV-out channels, video-in, or even TV tuners. These is great stuff, and if you can afford it, go for it. I would say, in general, though, that do-everything cards usually sacrifice performance tweaks, so if you’re trying to build an all-around kick-butt system here that pumps pixels so hard you’ll drool, get a card that does that with authority and don’t worry about the TV.
Removable Storage: All PC’s have some form of removable storage, even if it’s only a floppy disk drive. In the case of a floppy, there’s really nothing much to know about them. Just buy one that looks alright and works. A lot of PCs now boast more advanced media such as ZIP drives or maybe an LS-120. These can be useful, given that 1.44MB for a floppy is really barely anything. Plus, they are slow. Beyond these drives, though, the Multi Format-RW drives are the real craze right now…and for good reason. If you want a drive where you can perform backups and share data with friends without really worrying about capacity issues, invest in a Multi Format-RW burner.
Hard Drive: Make sure it looks good. Always buy new, in my opinion. And make sure it has a manual, or at the very least, a jumper diagram imprinted on the drive itself. For price and compatibility, With IDE, though, make sure the drive is UDMA. Most likely, your motherboard supports ATA-33,66 or 100. Get a drive with a decent rotation speed. 5400 RPM drives are slow. 7200 RPM is better, and higher RPM drives even better. The really fast drives, though, may require a hard drive cooler, so unless you are willing to mess with that, get a drive with a good balance of speed and temperature. Also, get the largest drive you can afford. You’ll be surprised how fast you can fill up a hard drive, depending on what you do with your PC. Large volume drives are dirt cheap now so buy big.
Sound Card: An absolute necessity in today's PC world. There are tons of available cards out there, but I recommend the name brand again. I've tried some of the various cheaper clones and had my share of driver issues with them. Read the reviews, as there are a lot of sound cards out there with special features. Some cards boast special sound algorithms that are supposed to enhance the sound. Some of these suck, but others really improve the sound. Some cards, like the upper-end Creative Labs cards, have extensions with all sorts of inputs and things that attach to the sound card and expand the capabilities. These are not usually important unless you’re into sound mixing or audio-video editing. Make sure the card has 7.1 surround, because this really makes the PC sound great if you have enough speakers.
CD-ROM/DVD: Make sure it has a driver installation disk (almost all retail units do). You will need to get this drive working so that you can install the operating system. These drives are very inexpensive now, get a fast one: 56X is standard. Make sure it is ATAPI compatible IDE. Some drives look like IDE drives, although they really use a proprietary interface, such as that used on some older Creative multimedia kits. If you're buying new, you won't find this in the stores anymore, so don't worry. If you want more than a simple CD-ROM, get yourself a DVD player. These drives are not much more than a regular CD-ROM and are backward-compatible with CD-ROMS, so they serve both purposes. Then, with a good DVD software player like PowerDVD or WinDVD you can watch movies or use DVD software on your PC.
Keyboard & Mouse: Rather self-explanatory. Make sure the keyboard connector fits into the plug on the motherboard, otherwise you may need an adapter. Most new boards use a PS/2 connector for the keyboard. Make sure the mouse works. And choose the right kind for your system: serial or PS/2.
Drive cables: Make sure you have all cables for connecting the hard drive, floppy drive, and CD-ROM to the I/O on the motherboard or I/O card. These cables usually are supplied with the motherboard or drive itself, but not always, and sometimes not in the quantity you need. Make sure they are long enough. Inspect for damage, such as ripped wires or something. Also, keep in mind that ATA/66-100 drives must have an 80-wire IDE cable. It's the same width as the norm, but each wire is thinner, so they cram more wires into the cable. If you’re paying special attention to cooling issues, you may choose to get rounded data cables. These are nice as they tidy up the inside of your case and allow cleaner air flow than would a case crammed with a bunch of wide, gray ribbon cables that often get in the way. The newer drives have started manufacturing rounded cables as seen standard with the Sata drive cables.
Audio Cable: Usually supplied with the Optical drive, it connects your Optical drive to your sound card directly.
Make sure you have enough screws. Usually an ample amount is supplied with your case. Make sure the screws are the right size. There are different sizes used for connecting cards than for connecting drives, and if you try using a large screw on the drive, you'll crack the drive.
System Load Disk: Make sure you have a system load disk. This would be the Microsoft Windows Xp Home, Pro, Vista, or Linux: Red hat, Ubuntu, Ect. There are many more operating systems so please keep an open mind and do the research.
That was a brief overview of the hardware scene for you and hopefully it serves as some advice for collecting parts to build your PC. There is no way we can cover all brands or make any solid recommendations as to manufacturer in this tutorial, so much of that research would need to be done separately.
Keep an eye open for the next part of this tutorial coming soon.
Chuck Lunsford is an owner and developer of CCSPartner.com. He offers advice on how to get design and build your own personal computer. Visit his website and learn more about designing a computer
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