Building your own computer (Part 1 – The Basics)

I just finished building myself a new computer to use for gaming, and yes, it’s not a Mac for once. Windows 8 is actually a great operating system, but more on that later. A number of people have asked me for tips for building their own computer. So here we go, I’ll break it down into the different components you’ll need, but it’s a very broad guide, not a review of the best brands and models out there.

In most cases, I use computer gaming as a benchmark for the middle ground of building a computer. Gaming machines don’t need to be as specialized as workstations used for things like video production, but also need more power than a machine that just checking email and surfing the web.

Before you get started…

One of the first things you should do is figure out what you want to do with the computer. Are you building a gaming computer, a workstation, or just something to surf the web and check emails on? This can greatly impact how much you spend and what kind of pieces you decide on. Different tasks on a computer will tax different components of your computer, so you will want to invest more in some areas, and less in others, depending on what you want to do. 

Secondly, set a budget, and stick to it when you’re deciding on parts. It’s very easy to get carried away and spend far more than you need to, or even wish to. If you’re looking to build a moderately power PC to do gaming on, you shouldn’t need to spend any more than $1000 for all the pieces together. That will be able to play anything you can currently throw at it.

It’s also a good idea to look at future proofing your computer. While older components may look like a great cost savings, you’ll be kicking yourself when within a year you’re already thinking of upgrading the parts. As a rule, try not to go more than 1 generation back on a component, especially when you’re looking at Motherboards and Processors.

The Processor

In most cases, the first thing you should decide on is the processor you are going to put in your computer. There are two major brands in the PC processor business – AMD and Intel, and each have their different strengths. AMD focuses more on cheaper chips and often have more cores than the equally priced Intel processors. Intel on the other hand focuses (and in my opinion succeeds) on performance and being the best quality  processors, but you pay a premium for that.

As far as features go, keep in mind what you’re trying to do. Most computer games are not great at threading their processes through multiple cores, so you don’t need to go all out with more cores than you can count, or Intel’s Hyper-threading technology. So here’s how I like to break it down for Intel processors (You can substitute the equivalent models for AMD):

  • i3 – Ideal for light usage without much multitasking (Email and Web)
  • i5 – Great for gaming and general use computers
  • i7 – Mostly needed on production heavy machines (Video, 3D, or you just like power)

Motherboards

Motherboards are much less tricky than processors to decide on. For the most part, get the most recent chipset available to you based on the processor you pick out. Make sure the socket also matches your processor.

Research is your best friend with motherboards as there are hundreds of different features they can support. If you’re going to be running graphics intensive programs, see if the board will support Nvidia’s SLI or ATI’s Crossfire technology which let you run multiple cards as one. Also if you plan on over clocking the computer, check to see if it is easily done on that board.

The biggest thing I like to check on a board is honestly the inputs it has available. Many hardcore PC builders will think of this like deciding what car you’re going to buy based on the cup holders when you should be looking at the engine, and that’s actually a pretty accurate analogy.

While you won’t get performance boosts by having a couple more USB ports or Digital Audio connections, it will save you a lot of hassles should you ever need them all. To me these conveniences are much more important than pushing that extra .1 GHz out of your CPU.

Cases

I like to think of the PC as a human being when describing what that parts do. The processor is the brain, the power supply acts as the heart, and the motherboard being the central nervous system. Using this metaphor, the case of your computer is much like it’s body, and the body is very important.

Many people only really think about 2 things when it comes to a case – looks and price. While it is important to like the looks of your case, and that it’s in your price range, there is another aspect that is far more important – cooling.

If you get a case that’s too small or closed in, you can seriously hurt the performance of your computer. Heat is the enemy of your computer. Make sure you get a case that’s big enough to hold the components you want to put in. As well, ventilation is key in making sure your computer will last you as long as possible.

I personally like to load up my case with fans including a front and side intake, as well as rear and top exhaust fans. This allows air to flow through the whole computer making sure your components stay nice and chilly.

To be continued…

That’s all for the first installment here, I’ll be going into a bit more detail on components in the next post. There’s really not much more exciting than a good power supply discussion is there?



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