Beginner’s Guide to Building a Custom Desktop Computer

Building your own custom desktop computer is a task that even a non-tech savvy person can accomplish. It’s not as scary as it sounds as long as you follow the steps and ask questions when you need to. The advantage of making your own computer is that you get to choose everything. From how the case looks to what video card to include and what your budget is, you are in complete control. This is a great opportunity for both advanced computer users looking to build a crazy gaming computer or just the basic office user that wants to save a few dollars.

The first step is to do your research and order your parts. Here are the relevant components for a basic computer build:

– Optical Drive/DVD drive
– Hard drive
– Case
– Power Supply (PSU)
– Processor (CPU)
– Motherboard
– RAM (Memory)
– Operating System

These are the core components of a computer. However, you can very easily add to the core by purchasing additional parts like a video card or a wireless internet card. As a base, that’s all you will need.

I recommend starting by choosing a processor. The processor is basically the engine of the computer and will determine what sort of motherboard you will purchase. For example, if you are purchasing an Intel E8400 Wolfdale processor, you will need to purchase a motherboard with a LGA 775 slot to accommodate the processor. You can visit to see a performance and price per performance rating for today’s processors. Generally, you cannot compare the speed rating of two CPUs. That means that just because one processor boasts 3.2 Ghz, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is faster than another processor running at 2.9 Ghz.

Once your CPU is selected, it’s time to choose a motherboard. You need to be mindful of the following compatibilities:

– CPU socket type.
– Number and type of RAM slots
– Number of SATA Connectors (one for each hard drive and optical drive you will plug in. Leave room for expansion!).
– Number of PCI slots for additional cards (USB cards, modems, wireless network cards, HUBs…)
– Number of USB ports built in.
– Presence of on-board video card.

The CPU socket type is determined by the type of processor you purchase. As of this writing, you will be purchasing type DDR3 RAM. You will get at least 2 RAM slots but can upgrade to 4 or more if you anticipate needing that many. RAM sticks offer different capacities so you can mix and match. For example, you can purchase one stick of 4GB or purchase 2 sticks of 2GB to reach a total of 4GB of RAM.

The number of SATA connectors will limit how many drives can be installed inside the computer. Typically, 4 will suffice for most users. The number of PCI slots depends entirely on whether you plan to use them or if you will even need them. Plan one slot for each type of card you will add. Finally, consider how many USB slots will be built in and whether that is enough for all your devices (mouse, keyboard, printer, camera, microphone, cell phone…)

Most basic users can get a motherboard with an on-board video card. This will be sufficient for basic computer use and viewing of most videos. However, if you are planning to make video intensive use of your computer such as playing 3d video games or editing movies or pictures, then you will definitely need a stand alone video card instead of a on-board card. Video card (GPU) benchmarks are available in the same fashion as CPU benchmarks.

Your drive choices will be pretty simple. Grab a SATA (connection type) DVD burner and a hard drive that suits your size and speed needs. Typically, you will want a 7200RPM (rotation per minute) hard drive or better and as much space in gigabytes as you anticipate using. If you have a lot of pictures or video, upgrade to a 500GB or higher hard drive. Once that drive fills up, you can easily add a second internal drive or expand the computer with an external USB hard drive.

Your biggest consideration when choosing the computer case will be aesthetic. Find a case that you think looks good and has a solid build (with good reviews) and add it to your cart. The last hardware item will be the power supply unit. While some cases come with one, most do not. You will need an appropriate wattage to support your machine (300+ for basic machines, 500+ for high performance machines). Additionally, you will need enough connectors (RAILS) to power all your devices. At the very least, you will need two SATA power cables (one for each drive).

Just to be safe, add an order of thermal paste/thermal compound for your CPU.

Once you have received all your parts, it’s time to get started. The first step to assembling your new computer is to open the case and lay it down on your work bench. This is done by removing the big screws on the back that hold the side panel in place. You can ignore the side panel until you are done assembling the machine. If you ordered a case without a power supply unit, go ahead and unpack your PSU and place it in the case and use the four screws to hold it in place.

The next step is to unpack the motherboard and install the MOUNTING SCREW HOLDERS in the case. Generally, these are golden pegs that you will place in the case to support the motherboard. Your machine will not power up if you do not follow this step! Correspond the screw holders to the holes on the motherboard where the screws will go. Once your screw holders are all in place, remove the rear connector panel that comes with the case and replace it with the one specific to your motherboard. Slide the motherboard into place through the rear panel and on top of the screw holders and screw the motherboard to the case.

Remove the processor slot cover and unlock the slot by moving the lever. Open your CPU and follow the instructions provided to install the processor and the fan that came with it. Once your processor is properly seated and locked, you should add a layer of thermal paste between the processor and the fan. Seat the fan and lock it in place according to the instructions and connect the power cable to the motherboard (there will only be one slot where it can fit).

Unpack your DVD drive and your hard drive and slide them into place. You will be able to screw the drives in place through the side of the mounting brackets. Once the drives are installed, proceed to place the RAM sticks into their slots. They only fit one way and inserting them will cause the latches at either end to lock the RAM in place automatically.

Take two SATA cables and connect each one to each drive and to the motherboard. Now, connect the power supply to the motherboard in two spots: find the rail with the 2×2 connector and plug that in to the appropriate 2×2 slot on the motherboard. Then, take the 2×12 Rail and plug it into the appropriate spot on the motherboard. Find two SATA rails and connect them to both drives. Finally, open the motherboard instruction manual and find out where the front panel connectors are. This is where you will connect the thin cables that are coming from the front of the case. They control the power and reset buttons as well as the lights on the front of the computer case.

Once all is said and done, connect any case fans to the appropriate power supply rails and then replace the computer’s side panel and screw it in place. Plug the computer into the wall socket and connect your screen, mouse and keyboard. Say a quick prayer and press the power button. If all of your components work and you followed these instructions correctly, your machine will now be powering up! Visit the bios to configure basic system settings and then insert your operating system CD into the DVD drive and proceed to install the OS of your choice.

Despite the length of these instructions, building your own computer can be a pretty quick affair. It takes an experience computer builder about 30 minutes to go from a bunch of boxes full of parts to a newly built custom desktop computer. Don’t let the mass of wires intimidate you. They only fit in one spot and once you figure out what goes where, you will be very comfortable working with your new computer.

Keep in mind that building your own computer means that you are in charge of maintaining the machine. The parts you purchased will have individual warranties so keep your receipts and keep their packaging. If you have any issues or questions, visit an online computer repair community to receive help troubleshooting your issues.

Written by Karim Salmi with VitalTech Computer Repair Rockville Maryland.

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