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How to Build a PC - A simple guide by Robert Walker

Tired of paying Dell, Lenovo, Apple, etc. hundreds more for the same PC you could build yourself but don't know where to start?  Good news!  Here's another (among hundreds) of 'How-To' guides on the internet!  

So what is this guide and why is it different? I will try my best to not use any jargon and to explain as much of any jargon I have to use as I can.  I won't get hyper-technical or super-detailed nor will I cover the specifications or details of specific hardware.  This is written to be as simple and straight-forward as possible.  I just want you to be able to build any PC you want with some basics - from here you can research any specifics you need.

Why am I qualified to write this guide?  I've been building all types of computers since I was eight years old and I've repaired and touched nearly every type of component since EEPROM.

So where to start... purpose? need? components? None of these... confidence is where we should start!


Confidence!

The single biggest factor in getting started if you've never built a PC before is just mustering the confidence to invest several hours and to lay down hundreds of dollars to buy something you might fuck up!  But don't worry... It's really hard to mess up a basic PC (if you're into extreme PCs like liquid cooling, overclocking, case modding, or hardware modding where messing up is entirely possible - this isn't the guide for you).  If you don't believe me and you don't have money that might be gone if you do mess up then you can build a low-powered micro or nano PC for <$200 just to get started.

Yes! You can build a PC if you have no experience!  Let me show you how!


The Basics

So what do you need to start?

  • A basic vocabulary and a basic idea of each component
  • A screwdriver set

Basic Vocab and Component Purpose/Analogy

  • Component - A 'piece' of the PC
  • OS - Operating System (i.e., Windows, Linux, OSX, etc.); the 'heart' of the PC
  • SSD - Solid State Drive; the storage of choice for most contemporary PCs; 'long-term memory' (e.g, "C:") (note: I will not be covering HDDs in this guide as they are quickly being phased out except for servers)
  • GPU - Graphics Processing Unit; creates the graphics that get output to your display
  • CPU - Central Processing Unit; the 'brain' of the PC
  • Motherboard - The component you will plug everything into; the 'nervous system' of the PC
  • RAM - Random Access Memory; the 'short-term memory' of the PC
  • PSU - Power Supply Unit; plugs into some components on one end and the power receptacle on the other end.
  • BIOS - Basic Input/Output System; controls the start-up process of the PC;  BIOS is becoming replaced by UEFI, but some cheaper motherboards/older motherboards still use BIOS.
  • UEFI - Unified Extensible Firmware Interface; same purpose as BIOS, but better!

Screwdriver set

Make sure you have a small and medium phillips (+) and flathead screwdrivers.  You'll mostly use the medium phillips if building a basic PC.


Choosing your Components

There are a lot of finer details in building a PC that you should investigate if you are planning on getting the 'best bang for your buck' like Front Side Bus (FSB), North Bridge and South Bridge, CPU Pin counts, PCI-E slots, M.2 slots, L2 and L3 Cache, etc. etc. - But as a simple tutorial I won't delve into those.  My suggestion?  As a first time PC builder is to look at your favorite Dell or pre-made 'custom' PC from boutique sellers (Alienware, Falcon Northwest, etc.) and see what specifications and options they provide.  Guides like these from Techspot also offer suggestions for Budget, Midrange, and High-End PCs.  Look them over and just order the parts yourself and skip all the math...


Getting Your Components

Browse around online.  Search Amazon, NewEgg, TigerDirect, MicroCenter, etc. for the best prices.  Often different sites will run different specials.  They're all the same parts - get whichever gives the best deal!


Putting it All Together AKA The Fun Part!

This is the process I usually follow when putting together my PCs - after you've done a few PCs, you'll find the process that works best for you too!

1. Unbox the motherboard and place it on top of the box it came in and the static paper it was wrapped in.  Find the slot for the CPU - it may have stickers on it.  If so, remove them.  Release the CPU clamp if it is locked.

2. Unbox the CPU.  Carefully remove the chip from its packaging (the pins are very small - don't bend or break them).  Try to only touch the CPU along the edges and avoid putting fingerprints on the smooth top or the pins underneath (don't worry if you do touch the top - you can clean it with a little bit of cleaning alcohol and a lint-free cloth).  If your CPU came with a fan and/or heatsink place it aside for now.

3.Flip the CPU over and inspect the pins making sure none are bent.  Also look for the 'notch' or marker indicating the correct orientation of the CPU on the motherboard.  

4. Align the CPU with the motherboard slot (double check!) and then gently place the CPU into place.  The CPU should just 'drop' in without any resistance.  Do not force it.  Lock the CPU into place using the lever or clamp on the motherboard.  It may feel like the clamp will break the CPU - but if you've aligned the CPU correctly it will not.  The clamp will be tight.

5. Find your heatsink/fan for the CPU.  Also locate a fan-port on the motherboard with screen-printed label on the motherboard called "CPU".  If you cannot find it, refer to your motherboards manual for where you should plug the CPU fan into.

6. Align the CPU fan and heatsink in such a way that it will be able to plug into the motherboard fan port, but also so that the fan cable will be out of the way of the fan blades and heatsink.

7. Most heatsinks come with thermal paste (usually a gray or white semi-liquid material on the bottom of the heatsink) - make sure yours does.  Most heatsinks or fans also have spring-loaded push-locks that hold it against the CPU and onto the motherboard.  Align these push-locks with the holes in the motherboard - then gently, but firmly, push the heatsink onto the CPU to create a seal with the thermal paste.  Then push the push-locks through the holes until they 'click' through and have a firm hold on the motherboard. If your heatsink is different than described here - consult the CPU manual for installation instructions.

8. Plug in the CPU fan to the motherboard.

 

9. Unbox your case.  Place the motherboard into the case such that the peripheral (keyboard, mouse, USB, sound, etc.) ports go out the back.  This should also align holes in the motherboard with offsets in the case 'motherboard tray'.  Put some screws in and tighten them down to a firm-hold, but not overly tight.  Take care not to push on the screws as you install them lest you slip and dig your screwdriver into the motherboard.

10. Next install your SSD and PSU into the case (don't worry about cables yet).  Some cases have 'snaps' for the SSDs, other require screws.

11. Install your RAM into the motherboard.  The RAM pieces should snap in with a firm, even push on them, just make sure the RAM locks are open (little plastic clips on the end of the RAM slots).

Installing RAM - note the plastic tabs/locks along the ends of the slot.

Installing RAM - note the plastic tabs/locks along the ends of the slot.

 

12. If you have any other components (sound cards, video cards, CD drive, etc.) - install them per the instructions they came with.

Now for the cable work:

  1. Evaluate where all of the things you need to plug in are: Fans, SSDs, motherboard, GPU, other
  2. Envision how you will route the cables around the case - try to keep them neat and ordered.
  3. Plug in your case fans to the motherboard.
  4. Plug in your case switches to the motherboard (refer to your motherboard manual and case manual for instructions - these vary from manufacturer to manufacturer).
  5. Plug your SSD into the motherboard internal ports.
  6. Plug in the PSU to the motherboard and SSD (and GPU if applicable).
  7. Double check that everything is plugged in and then close up the case!
  8. Plug in the display and connect the video cable (HDMI, DVI, or VGA)
  9. Plug the PSU into the wall and make sure the PSU switch is turned on.
Example of wire management... but not the best. &nbsp;Good enough for a beginner!

Example of wire management... but not the best.  Good enough for a beginner!


First Start AKA Fear Factor!

Double check that you've plugged everything in correctly then press the power button on the case.  Hopefully you hear the familiar hum of PC fans!  Congratulations!  You've built a PC... now the setup and software!  

If you don't get the nice hum of PC fans and a BIOS/UEFI POST screen... check over your connections again.  Is your PSU on?  Is it plugged into the wall? Did you connect the case buttons/switches to the motherboard correctly? Is all the RAM fully-seated in the motherboard?  If everything is definitely correct - it's possible you just got unlucky with a bad part.  You can request a return and replacement from reputable distributors.


The Rest...

After you have the PC started up, you will need to configure the BIOS/UEFI to boot to your CD or USB with the OS installation files on it.  This is where this guide ends....

Perhaps one day I will cover the rest of the process, but nearly everything is very simple and automated at this time (especially for Windows).  

Thanks for reading!