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Building your own computer is not as hard as you might think

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By Joshua Vissers

It’s been a long time since I was last accused of being any kind of computer geek. I haven’t taken the case off of a computer in almost a decade, and I haven’t reinstalled Windows on my laptop since I bought it almost four years ago. I’ve been console gaming and enjoying it as a cheaper alternative to building and maintaining a computer for gaming. However, consoles and games cost a lot to keep up with, and computer parts have come a long way down in price. Now I’m ready to set aside my consoles and get back into computer gaming. I enlisted The Collegiate’s Web Editor, Chris Powers, to help me in the endeavor, since I’ve been out of touch with the parts market, and together we’ve put together this guide to help you through the process, too. This won’t be for everybody, but if you’re willing to deal with a few difficulties, you can come away with a custom machine at an exceptional cost.

Tips and Tricks

  • Build what you can afford with an eye for the future. Keep expansion slots and CPU/RAM upgradeability in mind when you’re putting your build together. Knowing what you need now and what’s an easy upgrade later helps.
  • Unless you’re looking for extreme performance or running Crysis, there’s not a lot of difference between the name brands of things like RAM or video cards. Oftentimes the cheaper ones are nearly as good as the premium ones.
  • Don’t skimp on your power supply. Since most power supplies are rated at peak wattage not average wattage, it’s important to get one that’s rated for at least 30-40% more than PCPartPicker rates your build, or you’ll overwork the supply and burn it out.
  • Do your homework. Even though PCPartPicker does a lot of the work for you, you’ll still want to keep an eye on things like, “Will my CPU heatsink fit in my case?” Also, not all chipsets are created equal.
  • Make sure you have everything you need. Most motherboards have built-in sound and wired networking adapters, but don’t have on-board video or wireless.
  • If your computer will be kept in your bedroom, look for parts that are labeled quiet or silent. They may be a bit pricier, but will keep you from getting headaches from the loud fans.
  • If you’re not sure how to do something, check your instruction manuals, manufacturers’ websites or look for how-to videos on YouTube.
  • Once you’re done, your motherboard box works really well for keeping all of your instruction manuals, static bags and extra parts that you may need the next time you upgrade your PC.
  • When possible, use freeware, student discounts or versions to help save money. GRCC’s online bookstore offers discounted software, including Windows and Adobe products. Computer App department students have access to lots of free Microsoft products, just check with your instructor to see if you qualify for the Microsoft Developer’s Network Academic Alliance (MSDNAA).

Make a Plan

Planning your computer is the most important step of the whole process. Keep in mind what you plan on using the computer for. You’ll need to invest more money into a computer used for extensive gaming, but if your main purpose will be surfing the web, watching movies or doing homework, you can probably get away spending less than $400, especially if you already own a flat screen TV that can be used as a monitor.

The software you want to run will essentially dictate what hardware you need, so always start with that. An OS (Operating System) like Windows is an absolute must. If you plan on running editing software or video games, look up the recommended system requirements and be sure you meet those with your build. We’ve also assembled some basic builds on pcpartpicker.com that you can work with. PcPartPicker is a very useful site, giving you comparisons for performance and cost, a template for building your computer, and it tracks pricing, sales and rebates.

Once you’ve decided on the hardware requirements you want to meet, you can get down to business picking parts. Parts no computer can do without are the case, power supply, motherboard, CPU (Central Processing Unit), hard drive, and RAM (Random-Access Memory).

You’ll also want to make sure you get some kind of networking card, which may be built into your motherboard, but often isn’t. If you’re a gamer, you’ll also likely want a video card, sometimes known as a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit). Be sure to choose your motherboard and CPU together, because not all processors and motherboards are compatible, and you won’t be happy if you try to put them together only to realize they don’t fit together, much less work together. PcPartPicker offers compatibility warnings, but double-check the specifications on the manufacturer’s website to be sure.

It’s also important to look into the future. Hopefully you won’t be replacing this computer all at once down the road. Instead, the idea is to update pieces of it when they become outdated, or when you want to upgrade to meet the requirements of new software. Buy a motherboard with extra slots for expansion cards and RAM, and rather than buying four 2GB sticks of RAM, buy two 4GB sticks to keep slots free for more to be added later. The solid state hard drive I wanted ended up being a little too expensive for me, so I backed down my build a little and I’m planning to save up to get the new drive next year. Also, if you’re not in a hurry to build right away, you can bide your time and sale shop the internet for the parts you want. Many sites have monthly sales and specials and taking your time buying can save you a lot of money.

I plan on doing some moderate gaming (Minecraft with HD textures) and quite a bit of multitasking (doing homework and watching Youtube videos at the same time). Chris helped me pick out an AMD processor, an MSI motherboard and video card, 8GB of RAM, and a one terabyte hard drive. I also picked up a bigger cooling fan, a USB (Universal Serial Bus) wireless card and wireless keyboard for next to my recliner, because there’s no going back to playing video games in an office chair. I don’t need a monitor because I have a TV with a compatible input and I don’t need speakers because I plan on using headphones. All of the parts we chose through pcpartpicker ended up shipping from Newegg.com, a popular parts site and my personal favorite.

Assembly

Once the parts arrived, it was time to snap them together. And yes, it really is that easy. Much like a puzzle, computers will only go together so many ways.

After you take the screws out of the case of a computer, most of the parts literally just snap together, but there are a few things to keep in mind. While fairly robust, these parts are sensitive to static electricity, so it’s important to keep yourself ‘grounded’. Touching the computer case is often enough to do this, but if you want to be more sure of not damaging hundreds of dollars worth of electronics, buy a bracelet specially designed to keep you from damaging parts with static discharge. Chris and I live life on the edge, so we went with the riskier option.

Also, when inserting your CPU into it’s socket on the motherboard, it requires ‘zero insertion force’, which means it should drop into place easily. Once in place, there is usually some sort of mechanism to lock it in place. DO NOT FORCE IT.  The primary reason for malfunctioning CPUs is bent connection pins.

manual_connectors Order of assembly is also important to keep in mind. Some parts will be very difficult to put into place after other parts. The hard drive is mounted in the front of the case, but depending on how your motherboard and video card sit, it could be hard to get there. Take all the parts out of their packaging (make  sure to save the instructions) and take a close look at how they will fit together. It will save you trouble later on if you plan on putting in the parts that are at the back of the case, or behind other parts, first.

While they aren’t always particularly clear, each part should have some basic instructions with it on how to plug them into the framework of the computer. Instruction manuals, especially for motherboards, often have diagrams to show where sockets and slots are located. Connections are typically labeled, although sometimes you have to look pretty closely to see them. Just proceed methodically and consult the instructions, or that one technically inclined friend who still answers your calls, when you get confused.

Once your parts are assembled and the case it back together, it’s the moment of truth. Time to plug it in and push the power button.

Software

biosWithout an OS like Windows installed, your computer will boot into BIOS (Basic Input/Output System). This used to be a cryptic, dark screen, but is usually a bit more user-friendly nowadays. You shouldn’t need to spend much time here, but it’s where you assign the drive where the computer will look for an OS(we told it to check the USB ports first) and you can overclock your computer here, too, if you’re so inclined. If you don’t have access to another computer, some motherboards will have just enough in their BIOS to get you online to download a full OS, but luckily I still have my old laptop to work with.

I decided to go with Windows 8.1, and chances are you’ll want to do the same. It’s the newest version, and if you plan on playing many video games, it’s the most likely to be able to play them. Plus, with my college email address, I was able to get the student version from journeyed.com for just over $70, when it normally costs $200. Once it’s downloaded, it walks you through making a ‘boot drive’, which I created on a USB flash drive. Once that was plugged into my new computer, I restarted it and it walked me through installing Windows.

Josh and computer by SarahDavisNow that there’s a familiar OS on my computer, things get a bit easier. There are still some other programs that I want added before I get started, like Audacity, Google Drive, Chrome (or anything other than Internet Explorer), Steam and OpenOffice (a freeware alternative to Microsoft Office) and some security software. If you know what you want, Ninite.com is a great place to get all these programs at once. It allows you to choose out what you want, then bundles them all into a single installer so you don’t have to spend time hunting them each down individually. If you’re not sure, you can probably wait on everything except security. If you’re not sure what security option to go with, Avast is a pretty safe bet, however Windows 8 and 8.1 both have Windows Defender built in, as well.

Once you’ve reached this point, you should be off and running on your own with a fully functioning computer. The first thing I looked to do was install Minecraft. With my laptop, I can crank all the video setting down and my framerate still lags, but with my new desktop, that cost me about the same amount, I can keep the settings at maximum and my framerate doesn’t even flicker. Time to build my zombie shelter!

Getting Started – Helpful Links

PCPartPicker is a one-stop-shop for putting your computer together. With its easy-to-use interface, you can make sure you’ve got all the parts you need to put together your computer. You can even share your builds with friends and, if you’re logged in, save parts lists and keep track of the parts you’ve got.

CPUBoss will help you wade through and rate your CPU possibilities. It’s difficult to keep up on all of the newest hardware, especially if you’re a first-time builder. The site offers value ratings and comparisons along with current market prices to help you choose the right processor.

GPUBoss works just like CPUBoss, except it’s for video cards. Video cards are particularly challenging to keep track of. With both AMD and NVIDIA creating a new $500 video card every few months, it can get really confusing, especially when trying to compare between brands.

NewEgg is a premier computer parts e-retailer. It offers great products at competitive prices. The customer ratings are typically from much more informed users and give insight into more technical issues than those at Amazon. Its warehouse in Memphis, Tenn., makes even free shipping fast and easy.

Ninite will help you install all the software you need to get up and running after installing your OS. It offers a list of free products that are available including browsers, security and other utilities and then downloads and installs the latest versions all at once, virtually unattended. Ninite even makes opts out of all the toolbars and other malware, keeping your new PC clean.

Can You Run It offers system requirements for just about any game you’ll want to play. Use its lists to help you choose your hardware, or let its automated detection show you if your system is up to par on a game you want to buy.