How to Build a Computer System

A lot of people are intimidated when it comes to building their own computer systems.  This article will hopefully help guide the average computer user though the process or purchasing and assembling the items needed for your personal computer system.  First thing is first, you will need to establish what you will use your computer for.

Chances are (no offense) if you are reading this article, you should not attempt to build a laptop from scratch.  Laptops require a little more experience in order to construct.  Therefore this article will cover building a desktop computer from scratch.  By 'scratch' of course, I mean by assembling pre-made boards into a working system.  It would be possible to build a computer from scratch, component wise, these days - but that will involve a lot more work then it is worth, and likely require a lab / bench where each circuit board could be printed and assembled - plus a lot of specialized equipment.

Building a computer with parts will help reduce your overall cost, and you know exactly what parts you are getting, and what they are capable of, and what your upgrade limitations are for the future.  You will also be more confident repairing the computer if it needs repairing.

Computer Usage

The key to making the right choices for a computer, is to first decide what you want or need your computer for.  If you plan on gaming, then you want to invest in pretty much every aspect of your computer, but most importantly your graphics card.  If you need to multitask, and run several programs at once, then muti-core processors, like your Intel i7 might be a good idea.  If you are into multi-media, then ram and hard drive space would likely be your priority.

I will provide basic information at each step, giving examples of different products which are better for different applications.

Processor

Possibly one of the easiest choices is what type of processor you will be using.  The processor, or CPU is the main component of any computer system.  Without this device the computer does not function.  Traditionally, there are 2 main manufactures of CPU's.  AMD and Intel.

These days AMD Processors are regarded as more geared more towards 'workstation' applications, while Intel is quickly regaining ground in the gaming industry.  AMD is also generally cheaper then Intel, which can be helpful to people on a budget.  An example of a high end AMD CPU is the AMD Phenom II 965 Black Edition.  At the time of this posting, this is one of the best AMD CPU's available.  This CPU would indeed be very sufficient for a gaming machine.

An example of a high end Intel CPU would be the Intel® Core™ i7 CPU.  This processor has Hyper-Threading, which basically means that this processor can act like it has 8 cores.  And that means that it can handle multi-tasking and high demand tasks a lot better then a typical Quad core.  While the price tag for this processor is a tad steep, you can find Intel i7 processors for about the same price as the AMD processor mentioned above.

Keeping in mind that there are other less expensive processors out there for either brand.  But if you want a future compatable computer, these are the choices you should be considering.  The important part to keep in mind is the socket type.  Socket type is just that; the type of socket that the processor fits into on the motherboard.  For example, for the AMD pictured above, the socket type is AM3, which is a fairly common newer AMD Socket type.  This generally means that if someday youw ant to replace that processor, you have a wider range of processors to choose from.  If you choose a motherboard with the latest socket set, you will likely be able to upgrade to a much better CPU a few years down the road, without having to upgrade your whole system.

The Intel processor pictured above for example has a socket type of LGA1366.  In order to utilize this processor, you need a LGA1366 motherboard.  More common for Intel is the Socket 775, which seems to be fairly standard these days.  For gaming, the Q6800 Intel Duo Quad Core is still one of the best processors on the market.  That being said, I am thinking that Socket 775 motherboards have reached their limit, and LGA1366 motherboards will become more popular in the next few years - thusly LGA1366 processors are likely to also become more popular.

Motherboards

As I just mentioned socket type is key.  Let us look at the motherboards section on TigerDirect.com for example.  On the left you will see a listing for Sub-Categories.  This sorts the motherboards by socket type.  As we described above, you need to ensure that the motherboard has the same socket type as your CPU.  Now, just because a motherboard has the same socket, does not mean it will definately support the CPU.  In most cases it will, but it may not.  That is why when you purchase a Motherboard, ensure that the CPU you are using is listed in the motherboard's specifications.  Another factor you should keep in mind if the Front Side Bus speed.  The Front Side Bus speed can be found in the mother board specifications, and also on the CPU Specifications.  Sometimes on CPU's it will just be marked as Bus speed or FSB.

The motherboard sets the stage for basically every other aspect of the computer.

Most motherboards these days support the SATA interface.  Therefore decided such as optical drives, and hard drives are generally going to be SATA.  That being said, some older motherboards will still use ATA or IDE interfaces, which require the larger ribbon cables.  To simplify things, ensure your motherboard has many SATA connections.

RAM

Your memory will be the next most complex aspect of building a computer.  Now, whenever you are touching the board components of a computer, always be sure to ground yourself before touching them, and its best to keep yourself grounded while touching them too.  This is especially true with RAM.

First you want to look at your motherboard to see what type of ram is can handle.  This board says it supports Dual Channel DDR2 800.

Dual-Channel DDR2 800
DDR2 is the next generation memory technology to replace the current DDR. With the highest speed up to 800MHz, DDR2 memory provides great performance for 3D graphics and other memory demanding applications.

These days, 800 is a tad low for memory, and the newest RAM style is DDR3, which everyone is upgrading to.  So you probably want a motherboard with DDR3 RAM.  But regardless,  lets find the perfect ram for that board.  So we know we need DDR2 RAM.  And it has to be (or should be) 800 MHz (it can be slower).

Alright, I found some DDR2 Dual Channel 800 MHz Ram, and look, they are 2 gig sticks (2048 mb).  So now we have 4 gigs of ram.  That is more then enough to run a modern computer for basic home use.  For gaming or heavy graphics work, you will want DDR3 RAM and upwards of 8 to 12 gigs of ram.  But 4 is still decent.

These days, I do not think it really matters what slots you put the ram in, but do try to put RAM in the first slot at least.  I know the technique used to be to place the first stick in the first slot, then the 2nd stick in the 3rd slot if it was dual channel, but I do not think it matters anymore.

Power Supplies and Cases

Cases are generally for the most part somewhat universal.  The only exception is the smaller cases, which will more obviously accomidate larger motherboards.  So generally pick a case you like.  This is my case... I like it.

Power supplies are however your most important decision.  This device takes your household 120 VAC power, and steps it down into various low voltages for your computer to use.  The power supply is often the most stressed component in a computer system, as people generally do not take wattage into account when ordering a power supply.

If you wanted to get technical,  you can add up the power draw of all your components,   add 20% to the max power draw, and figure out the minimum power rating for a power supply that you can get.  Otherwise do what I do and guess, but overestimate.  The general rule of thumb is that modern PC's running multi core processors and 64 bit programs (windows Vista/7) will require at least 500 watts max.  Sure most PC's run at about 200 or so when your using them...  But still...

If you plan on gaming, add another 100 watts (or even 200 watts) per video card.  If you are running a large amount of hard drives,  add 50 Watts per hard drive to the 500 Watts.

Once you have figured out the power you need,  try to find a power supply that has a lot of connections.  You do not want to use splices and adapters to multiply your power supply outputs.  Ideally everything in your computer will have a connection directly to the power supply.

Ultra is a pretty good company for power supplies,  This is similar to the supply I purchased.

Video and Audio

Audio wise, most motherboards come with on board sound which is good enough for normal everyday PC needs.  That being said, if you are an audio phile like myself, there are very expensive audio cards which will provide cleaner audio.  Most of the time however, your best bet will be in looking for an external audio device, which uses firewire or USB to connect to the computer via.  This removes the analogue portion of the audio paths from the internals of your computer, which can be electrically noisy and cause noise and static hiss on your inputs.

As for Video, well again, just like the CPU's there are 2 main companies.  ATI and NVIDA.   I myself am a fan of the NVIDA GeForce 9800 card, only because I have one in every computer, and it is standardized.  They are good card for the money, and preform well.    I have not had any issues with mine, and my FPS (frames per second) has been quite acceptable on the latest games, with max settings.  I would not recommend anything less then a GeForce 9600 if you are buying new.  Even for a home PC.

ATI is also a good brand, and in fact for future comptability, it is likely the better choice as the latest ATI cards have DirectX 11 support.  ATI cards are also making advances in memory and GPU Technology.

The key specs for a video card depends on your uses.  If you are planning on running an HDTV then p1080 support is key.  HDMI is also nice.  Also memory size and type is good.  Quicker speed / more memory = better preformance.  Most video cards these days fit into PCI Express x 16 slots on a motherboard.  The key will be what type of connection you will need for your monitor.  DVI?  HDMI?  VGA?  Once that is figured out, you should be able to decide on a video card.

Hard Drives and Optical Drives

For any computer you will need a DVD drive at least in order to load your operating system.  Luckily they are cheap enough that you can get a fairly decent one for little money.  Ensure that it is SATA compatable assuming your motherboard has SATA support.  Otherwise, you are golden.

Same is true with hard drives really.   Ensure it is SATA, so long as your motherboard is SATA, and ensure it is 3.5 inch.  2.5 inch drives are generally for laptops and will be more expensive.   For a desktop you want a 3.5 inch drive.

That is about it really..   Any questions, feel free to comment and ask.  Sadly because of spam comments, I have had to close commenting to registered users only, so feel free to register, it does not take long.  Your first 2 comments will be held for moderation, so I will see them and read them when I check my comments pending.

I hope you enjoyed this, and it was at least semi-helpful.