The Bewildering Experience of PC Building
Or, A Friendly Guide to Building Your First Custom PC
So you think you might want to build your own PC? Fear not! It’s not as daunting as it may seem, even though the options have proliferated to crazy extremes these days. In this article, I’ll offer a few tips and general guidance to help you on your way.
Things have changed a lot since I got my first IBM-compatible PC thanks to my generous uncle back in 1992. I was just an incipient teenager at the time, but I had some coding under my belt already thanks to the Commodore 64 that my dad let me co-opt a few years prior. Words cannot express the excitement I had at getting that 386SX with its reasonably peppy 25MHz Turbo processor, 2MB of RAM, and as I recall, a 40MB hard drive. Yes, I didn’t type those wrong — all Mega, no Giga. :)
Anyways, it came all nicely assembled for me, but in the following years, I began to tinker, adding a 14400 baud modem so that I could connect to the local BBS and ultimately start running my own. It’s hard to imagine, but you actually had to move physical jumpers around and flip some little switches to the right combinations of on/off on the cards to get things working. Plug-n-play and USB was a thing of the future for sure.
Between then and, say, the mid-2000s, I modified and built a good few PCs, sometimes for myself, sometimes for others. I think 2005 was the last time in that era that I built a PC. After that, I gave in to buying pre-built, mostly laptops. And around 2008, I switched to Mac and used them almost exclusively, minus a brief affair with a Lenovo X1 Carbon in 2015, until just a week or so ago.
In the last few years, though, I started building PCs for my boys. First I built a Minecraft server, then a desktop for one boy, and then another, finally re-purposing the Minecraft server for one of the boys to use. So far, only 3 boys are old enough, but another one is on his way! These were all more or less budget PCs. I mean, they did want them for gaming mostly, so they’re not bottom of the barrel — say in the $4–600 range. You can get a surprisingly decent PC for that, especially if you build it. Still, nothing fancy in these per se.
Ever since I started working at my new job back in March, I’ve been toying with the idea of going back to PC — because about 50% of what we do requires Windows. While Parallels is nice and kind of good enough, it’s still a little clunky and certainly nowhere near as fast, even on a great Mac, as what you can build on bare metal PC today. I’d spec out a build, even add the components to my Amazon cart, then chicken out and decide to stick with Mac. This happened a few times over the intervening months.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I finally decided to take the plunge. Thankfully there are plenty of guides out there, like this one, which inspired this build. I searched for “fastest custom PC build,” for instance. In the past, I’ve used like “good budget PC build” and the like. There are many people out there offering lists to suit all sorts of needs, which makes building your own far less nerve wracking if you’re not totally into it/up on all the current component specs and what’s compatible and what’s not.
Building Your Own — Some General Guidance
My approach is generally to start with someone else’s list — they usually know more about component compatibility than I do, but I rarely take the list as-is. That’s where you stray into gambling a bit with compatibility. But generally, these are the main components and my approach:
- Motherboard — start with the motherboard, or if you have a specific component in mind, find what motherboards it works with. Then use that mobo as a baseline. Find the hardware compatibility list; I think all major manufacturers publish these. You can use that to help narrow down other things like CPU, RAM, etc. ASUS is my go-to, but plenty of other good choices out there.
- Case — mobo also in part determines your case. You find the form factor of your mobo, then you can search to find a case that fits it. I personally avoid the bottom cheapest, but there are plenty of good budget options. Some come with power supplies, but most don’t these days. With the case, consider your fans. Many of them come with enough built-in, but especially if you’re going high-power, you need to ensure adequate ventilation. If you plan to overclock or run a latest-gen, consider a liquid cooler. There are plenty of self-contained liquid coolers that are “easy” to install — they sound more daunting than they are. Most CPUs in the old days included fans sufficient to the task, and many I bought recently as well, though the 7900X surprisingly did not. Check to see what’s in the box. You definitely need something for the CPU!
- Power Supply — As far as I can tell, power supplies pretty much all fit standard form factor unless you get some oddball case/tiny all-in-one type case, pretty much any PSU will be fine. But probably the case features tell you what fits, so go with that. How much wattage you need is determined by all the components together. There are some calculators out there. But if you’re going off a list, it’s probably good to use that as a guide and only change if you significantly upgrade or downgrade components or add them. In general, it’s better to be overpowered, but you don’t want to go crazy because that’s just wasting energy. I really like the new “component” PSUs that let you only attach and use the cables you need. Saves a lot of unnecessary cables in the case. But they are more expensive.
- CPU — you generally choose between Intel and AMD, and this has to match your motherboard. So if you have a specific motherboard, it’s already decided which manufacturer. If your coming at it from the other direction, Intel is (still) generally considered more premium than AMD, in performance, compatibility, and price. But you can build a great system with AMD for sure — I’ve done both over the years.
A note about cores: generally, more cores is better if you run apps that are built for them. CAD, video rendering, AR, etc. are all generally better at using more cores. Games and many common end-user apps still aren’t great with multi-core. The trade-off is that, as a rule, as you add cores, your high-end speed per core goes down. There are some mitigations to this, but it’s still basically true, so unless you know you can use a lot of them, you’re probably better off sticking with 2–4 cores. It’s hard to go wrong in this range for most people. I run some apps that can take advantage of them, and I expect things to improve in this way as time goes on, so I went for a higher count in this build, not to mention the 7900X is no slouch for single-core performance.
- RAM — a decent way to pick this (and be safe) is to find the compatibility list for your motherboard. Find the section with the biggest list (they are often broken down by RAM speed), and pick a name brand in there like Kingston, Corsair, etc. The bigger section indicates more or less where the market is right now, so it’ll be affordable and well-tested and fast enough. How much you need depends on your use cases. If you’re running a lot of VMs, go 32GB or higher. Otherwise, I’d go 16GB. If you go lower, be sure to get fewer sticks in case you wanna upgrade later.
- Hard Drive— I wouldn’t pick anything “slower” than SSD for a hard drive these days, but ever since M.2 NVMe drives have come out, I go for them. They are currently the fastest consumer options, and Samsung’s Evo and Pro are generally the best. If you have a need for oodles of space, you can get one of these for your boot drive and then get a few TB SSDs for storage. Or just buy an external storage solution. I only have less than a TB of all the data I care about, so I just stick most of it on the cloud and keep a local backup as well, rather than on my actual computers. The mobo I picked below has support for the new Intel Optane drives as well as their crazy VROC. But for now, I just put two Samsung Pro 960 M.2 drives in RAID 0, which is insanely fast in itself.
- Video Card — if your mobo doesn’t have one integrated, or you plan to do a decent amount of gaming, definitely get a separate video card. If you plan to do a TON of gaming, consider getting 2 of them and using SLI. I’ve personally never done that. My boys seem to do fine with 3–4GB cards that are not top of the line. I’d find something thereabouts in say the $1–200 range, if you want to game but not hardcore. Also ensure the outputs on the card match your monitor’s inputs. This usually isn’t a problem unless you have a really old monitor or a really new one. This one gave me the most heartburn because I bought the latest LG UltraFine 5K display for my Mac, which only has USB-C Thunderbolt input!
- Monitor — unless you have a strong requirement to have great experience on both Mac and Windows (like me), almost any of the recent monitors will be lovely. If you’re doing a lot of gaming, look for the “sync” options and make sure it matches your CPU architecture (manufacturer). It’s easy to get sucked into worrying about the monitor, but I’d say, if you’re buying new and can afford it, get a 27" UHD monitor. Find one you think looks nice or matches your sync needs, and that’s it. My boys use old 19" Dell’s that I bought used from my company for $25 a pop, and they’re good enough. I still have an old 19" Sony from 2005 with our Mac Mini. As for curved/not curved, I might get curved if I were just running one. They say it feels “more immersive.” I run at least 2, so I stick with flat. In addition to my UltraFine, I tried a few different monitors recently and landed on the LG 27" 27UD68 4K UHD. At 4K, it’s very comparable to the UltraFine, and it has great color matching and brightness as well as a usable on-screen menu. Windows 10 looks great on it, and it’s reasonably priced.
- Keyboard — this is another one that you can just buy cheap if you really don’t care. I absolutely love my Microsoft Ergonomic Sculpt keyboard.
- Pointing Device (Mouse) — As with keyboard, almost any old mouse will do. But quite some time ago, I developed sensitivity to repeated motion injury (“carpal tunnel syndrome”). I find that using a mouse for a long time is the worst for me, so I’ve taken to using desktop trackpads. I’m currently using and loving the Apple Magic Trackpad 2. I still use a wrist rest with it — which is mandatory if I use a mouse. I previously used the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic mouse. It’s okay — good ergonomics, but I just didn’t really like it. I like the Apple Magic Mouse 2, as well, but prefer the trackpad for ergo reasons. I’m also trying the Logitech MX Ergo. If you go with the Magic Trackpad 2, you will want these drivers. They are a bit buggy, but make it very usable on Windows, and the creators tell me they’re working on a great vNext.
So that’s it, generally speaking, in terms of how I approach this. Because I have Prime, I prefer trying to get everything on Amazon, but NewEgg is another great source for PC components, if Amazon doesn’t have what I want. Unless you have a Fry’s nearby, online is probably the best option. In the old days, I’d go to a local PC store. Those still exist, but your options will be more limited. On the plus side, you can probably consult with one of them and get support/help, so it’s something to consider. For me, I’m comfortable enough with building, and Amazon makes returns super simple if something doesn’t work out.
Building the Thing
YouTube is your friend. Google is your friend. It’s amazing just how much is out there. It can also be overwhelming, especially if you end up on say Tom’s Hardware forums. Those folks are serious about this stuff! :) But you can probably find some great walkthroughs on YouTube if you’re new to custom builds.
For myself, my best buddy is the motherboard manual. Ultimately everything goes through her, which is why she’s the mother. :) And every one that I have bought has a decent step-by-step guide of how to assemble your PC with it. And when something isn’t clear, it’s off to Google/YouTube.
I seriously can’t recommend reading this manual enough. Don’t wing it unless you’re a master, in which case, why are you reading this?? I also look to the case manual for how it recommends putting stuff in, especially if you’re augmenting with a liquid cooler or extra fans. But even so, it can save you some headache if you look at it.
Do you need the anti-static pad/wrist strap? I had experienced PC builders laugh them off, so I never used them. Until recently. Better to be safe than sorry, but if you don’t have them, at least ensure you discharge by touching something grounded first. I’ve never had a problem with killing my components due to static, but your mileage may vary. They don’t make these things for nothing.
In general, try to hold your components from the sides, not touching the bits on top or bottom — especially the connector bits. But don’t freak out if you accidentally do. I’ve done it many times, and so far nothing has exploded.
Put the power supply in first, unless your case manual says otherwise. It’s usually somewhat obvious, but I’ve had to remove/turn these before, so look at your case manual and/or match the PSU fan grill to the same on your case.
Next, see if your mobo has a dust protector. Be sure to put it in first, before the mobo. And make sure its cutouts align to all the ports on the mobo. This has caused me some pain as it can be a bit finicky, in my experience. If you’re following the manual, it will tell you to do this. ;)
Then the mobo. One thing to watch out for is that there are enough “standouts” for your motherboard. Many times there are, but you should check. These are little screws that themselves have screw holes. They live under your motherboard in your case and provide both the platform for your mobo as well as the screw holes for fastening it. Just hold the mobo roughly where it goes and ensure all of the holes on the board align with standouts on the case. If not, add/move as needed.
Once I have the PSU and mobo in place, I usually install the CPU next. Again, read your CPU and/or mobo manual. The last thing you wanna do is bend the pins on this or damage your mobo, but usually it only goes in “one way” unless you force it to go the wrong way. DO NOT touch the bottom side of the CPU, or the bits it connects to on the mobo. Most mobos have a plastic guard you have to remove first, in my experience, to protect where the CPU plugs in.
If the CPU has a fan, this is a good time to install it. Use the thermal compound. Be careful and only put just enough, spreading it evenly. The fan heat sink will be pressed firmly against the CPU back, and stuff will squeeze out if you put too much. If that happens, clean as best you can with a cloth. Don’t use anything like a q-tip that will leave fibers, unless you’re careful to remove any of those. One thing to note, if you bought a CPU liquid cooler, it may have pre-applied compound like the Corsair one below. You should not apply more in that case.
Next, install the RAM. This can only go one way. (BTW, that’s a general rule with most of the install. The biggest exception are the LED/switch headers that connect to the case.) You may need to be firm, but if it’s not going, be sure to not force it. Many have locking mechanisms on the ends of the slots, so be sure to press them open first. The locks should self-close/snap into place as you push the sticks in.
I usually install the hard drives next. If you have the M.2, it’s super simple. Most of them have a screw on the mobo that you need to unscrew, then insert the M.2 at a slight 30–45 degree angle (again, a notch in the connector only lets this go in one way). Push it down and screw the mobo screw back in over the edge. Do not over tighten (also, a general rule with PC installs!). If you have an SSD, read your case manual for how to mount, then connect the cables as your mobo manual directs you.
Now is a good time to attach all the cables. The mobo usually needs the biggest power connector. It usually has 1–4 CPU power connectors. These all only go one way — let the shapes of the plastic connectors guide you. The CPU fan plugs into the CPU fan connector on the mobo. The case fans, the same. Read the manual for your mobo and case to match up the various LED/switch/USB/audio connectors. This is the most error prone part in my experience. Look at the labels and+/- signs printed on them and try your best to match them. If they don’t work once you power up, try the other way. It won’t hurt anything (in my experience). Attach the SATA cables if you’re using SSD, and attach the SSD power to the corresponding power on the PSU. Just find the connectors that match (but they’re often labeled as well). Be firm but don’t force anything. Most of the connectors require some force, but just be careful to ensure the pins are aligning and the connector plastic shapes match up.
Finally, insert the video card into the first PCI Express slot. Its connectors should match the slot. If you have a monster card, attach the power cable from the PSU to the power connector on the card.
Now you’re ready to test! Attach your keyboard, mouse, monitor and power. Ensure you didn’t leave any loose screws, clothing, etc. in the case. Turn it on. Flip the switch on the back of the PSU. You may need to press the power button on the case and/or the mobo itself, if it has one. If it powers up and shows you something like “no boot drive,” then you’re probably good to go! If not, go back through your mobo manual steps and make sure it’s all done right/connected. If it still doesn’t work, off to the PC builder forums!
The next step is to install an operating system. Most likely you’ll be installing Windows. You need to have a bootable USB drive with Windows on it (unless you installed an optical, i.e., DVD/BD/CD drive, then you can use that). I rarely add optical drives to my builds these days, so I go for USB and use Rufus to create a bootable drive. You will need an ISO image of Windows. I get mine through a Microsoft developer program. Or you can try this approach. Or you can buy it all premade for ya. Whatever route you choose, you will need a valid license of Windows.
Once you have a bootable USB stick, you stick it in the port on the back of your case into the mobo. You probably could stick it in the front if your case has those, and you connected them right, but I prefer to use the built-in ones just to avoid any complications and maximize speed. If your mobo has both USB 2 and 3 ports, be sure to plug into USB 3 for faster install. Usually these are blue. I believe that most mobos these days come configured to try booting from USB if no boot drive is found on your hard drives, but if it doesn’t find it, you may have to go into your BIOS settings — consult your mobo manual in that case. It’s usually fairly easy to configure the boot devices in BIOS.
Oh, I forgot, assuming you do have another computer, I always download the latest drivers for, at least, my mobo and put them on my USB. Especially if you don’t have an optical drive, you will want to do this. Your network card may or may not work (probably not) without them, so you won’t be able to download from the new build until you get at least that installed. And that’s the next step after installing Windows — install your drivers. I know that ASUS these days has an EZ Update utility that helps update/keep your drivers up to date. You’re still gonna have to install and get network going to use that, but I definitely recommend it. I assume most major mobo vendors have something similar these days. Anyhoo, at a minimum, get/install:
- Anything that says “chipset.”
- Anything that says “network.”
Do it in that order. You probably have to reboot during the process. Pretty much all drivers want to reboot. It’s annoying, but I normally just deal with it. You may be able to get away installing several things at once, but I generally avoid that, especially at this stage. Once you get your network running, you can install and use any “EZ Update” utility your mobo comes with. If all this sounds complicated, then maybe getting an optical drive is the best advice because mobos come with a CD/DVD usually with them on it for you. That will get you going.
If you bought a separate video card (or any other add on components, except for CPU, RAM, and usually hard drives), you will probably need to download the drivers for them and install as well. Your video card should run without, but it won’t be as awesome without — definitely get them. (FWIW, I prefer nVidia cards, in the same way I generally prefer Intel CPUs.)
Always and only download from the actual manufacturer’s site. Any current-models will have the drivers and, often, other utilities and the manual, on the product page for the component/mobo. There are tons of Web sites masquerading as download hubs for drivers. Avoid them like the plagues they are. Don’t install anything not from the manufacturer, including programs that claim to help you find/install the right drivers. Just don’t. I’m not saying they’re all malware, but I sure as heck don’t trust any third party with this stuff.
Troubleshooting Your New Build
So something isn’t working/you have a question?
I’ve only had one case where I had to return a mobo to the manufacturer. That was very frustrating. The problem is, if you’ve only got those components, it can be hard to figure out what’s wrong. The mobo does show error codes, and sometimes beep codes, but it’s a pain. If you find yourself in this situation, and you think you’ve done it all right, then it’s time to visit the local PC store, or even the “Geek Squad.” Diagnosing this level of problems can be very difficult without either spare components to swap in (that you know work) or equipment to test individual components. They have that kind of stuff.
If it is an OS or driver problem, first visit the manufacturer site(s). They often have FAQs and support (although it’s typically slow/not great, in my experience). There are also tons and tons of forums — a Google search will land you on many of them. It’s not fun, but it’s part of the game.
Please note that I am not an expert — just a dilettante. So I cannot provide remote support if you’re having problems with your PC build. Consider this guide an “as-is” product, with no warranty/support policy. :)
That’s it! You’re all set to go build. Be sure to occasionally check for updates on your drivers, especially if you don’t run/use an “EZ Update” type utility. They don’t always publish them through Windows Update. If you’re having a problem with a device, the FIRST THING is always to ensure you have the latest driver for it.
My Latest Build
Here are the details of my latest build, so you know all these are compatible. Fair warning, it’s very expensive. I splurged because I work on it more than 40hrs/week and don’t like to wait on my computer. But if you want a “dream machine” build as of Nov 2017:
- ASUS PRIME X299-DELUXE Motherboard — I didn’t notice when I ordered, but it already comes with their ThunderboltEx 3 expansion card in the box! (So I returned the one I ordered…) I am pretty much thrilled with this mobo so far. It has the latest everything. Well except integrated graphics, but who’s complaining…
- Intel Core i9–7900X Processor — this is one bad boy. I thought about the 7940X, but it’s 50% more expensive and harder to find anyways.
- Corsair CMR64GX4M8X3600C18 Vengeance 64GB (8x8GB) DDR4 3600 (PC4–28800) C18 RAM — super fast and more than enough.
- Samsung 960 PRO Series 512GB PCIe NVMe M.2 Internal SSD — I actually got two of these and configured them in RAID 0 (be sure to disable CSM in BIOS). Ridiculously fast!
- Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB Video Card — not a top end, but good enough for me. As I understand, you just need a DisplayPort out on whatever card you use. You can even use the one on your mobo if it has one.
- EVGA SuperNOVA 850 T2, 80+ TITANIUM 850W Power Supply — plenty to power this setup. I got Titanium for the better efficiency/eco. I run it with eco on.
- Corsair Hydro Series H100i v2 Extreme Performance Liquid CPU Cooler — I wasn’t planning to overclock initially, but I have it running in “Extreme” mode, and it’s a bit peppier that way. Stays plenty cool for me.
- In Win 805 Black Tempered Glass Compact ATX Mid-Tower Computer Case — was looking for something nice looking with USB 3.1 support. This fits the bill. I also replaced the stock exhaust and added two bottom intakes with Thermaltake Riing 120mm fans.
- And because I’m running RAID 0 (and because it’s probably a good idea anyways since I use this for work), I bought this APC 1350VA Compact UPS Battery Backup power supply.
And here’s a video tour of what it looks like:
If you have your own tips, feel free to share them. If something is wrong above and you know better, by all means correct me. This is just what I’ve come to after building, say, 8 or so systems over the years.
Like I said, I’m no expert! And that’s the point of this post. You don’t have to be. The value, apart from the challenge and reward of doing it, is that you can get exactly what you want and get the most bang for your buck doing so. The drawback is you gotta support yourself!
Enjoy and happy building!