Since about July 2016, I had been toying with the idea of building my own gaming PC. I had never had a nice gaming computer before—let alone a desktop—so I felt it was time to kick off a PC building quest.
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Over the next several months, I started to build up some inventory. At first, I chose a case. Then I used PCPartPicker to layout the entire design. Ultimately, I ended up adding all the parts to an Amazon wishlist and began checking parts off every couple of weeks.
Originally, I went for a high end build. About halfway through the process, I started to get tired of waiting. At that point, I was considering downgrading some of the parts just so I could have a working PC.
Thankfully it was the holiday season, so I had to refrain from dropping money on myself. By the end of the process, I decided to reward myself by purchasing an even better GPU. The following table lists all of the specs for the build:
Today, I have a complete build that satisfies all of my gaming needs. I even have new perks like fast boot times and overclocking potential. As a result, I’ve made a vow to share this experience with you, so that you can start the PC building journey. By the end of this guide, I hope you’ll feel a bit more comfortable diving into the realm of PC building.
Step #1: Field Your PC Building Options
Building a PC shouldn’t have to be hard. Each component is designed to slide, snap, or lock in a particular way to the build. In essence, this makes PC building easier than playing with Legos. However, Legos aren’t $300 a pop nor are they fragile. That said, building a PC today is pretty low risk, and you have plenty of options to mitigate that risk. In this section, we’ll cover your options.
The Pre-built/All-in-One Solution
Alright, hear me out. Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to go through all of the trouble to build your own PC. I realize this guide is about PC building, but it’s not always the best option. You have to ask yourself “what tasks do I want my PC fulfill?” If your answer is limited to web browsing and word processing, it’s probably easier to forget about building your own PC.
However, if you want your PC to be able to handle graphics rendering for gaming, video editing, and 3D modeling, then you might want to consider building your own PC. That’s because you’re going to be saving quite a bit of money by purchasing components directly rather than paying out for a pre-built PC from a company like Alienware.
For reference, my build totaled about $1600. A similar build from Alienware runs right around $1900, so you’re saving yourself about $300. Of course, here you trade cost for customer support. If your PC breaks, it’s up to you to determine which component broke and how to replace it.
That said, you’re probably here because you’ve already decided to build your own PC. Let’s take a look at your other options.
The Peer Reviewed Solution
At this point, you’ve already decided to forego the pre-built solution. However, you might be new to the idea of PC building, so you’re looking to play it safe. A great way to accomplish this is by determining your price range and researching common builds.
Luckily, there are entire websites devoted to this sort of thing. My personal favorite resource is PCPartPicker which you can leverage for parts lists for complete builds. Each of these builds are accompanied with prices, links, and a whole host of community feedback. With this option, you get to keep the fun of PC building while avoiding the stress of selecting parts.
The Custom Solution
If you’re a PC renegade like me, then you don’t care what anyone has to say. You want to design the PC from the ground up because you’re interested in learning the process. You want to know what role each of the parts play in the system, so you can make informed decisions that will affect upgrades.
As a result, you take matters into you’re own hands and look into parts one by one. You might use a tool like PCPartPicker to track your build and check compatibility, but at the end of the day you make the final decisions. That’s what PC building is all about: freedom.
Step #2: Set a PC Building Budget
If you’ve decided to move ahead with the PC build, then the next step is to set a budget. Today, a top of the line computer can be built for around $1500 bucks while low end computers will run just over a third of that. Of course, we’re talking essential components.
If you want add all the bells and whistles (custom audio, liquid cooling, SLI, etc.), you could be looking at a $3000+ machine. Once you’ve set your budget, you can start thinking about performance trade offs like HDD vs. SSD or AMD vs. Intel. This will help you prioritize certain features as you start to allocate your budget.
Step #3: Select Your Components
Now, you can start to have some fun. Personally, I started my build by choosing the case. The case sets up a lot of the constraints when selecting parts since it will ultimately need to house everything. This is a good thing because it drastically narrows down the types of components you’ll need to look at.
Next, seek out a motherboard that fits your budget and case, and find out what kind of socket it has. This will determine the family of processors that it will support. In addition, you’ll want to look at all the peripherals like SATA ports and PCIe slots.
If your case has multiple USB ports, you’ll need to make sure your motherboard has enough headers to support them. You can usually find all this information in an online manual for that motherboard.
Once you have your motherboard, the rest is easy. Select a processor that matches the socket on the motherboard. Then choose a graphics card, a hard drive, some memory, and a CPU cooler.
Once you’re done, you’ll want to tally up the power usage, so you can choose the appropriate power supply. Fortunately, PCPartPicker has you covered. Just load in all of your components then read the estimated wattage value for the build.
In order to keep your system stable, you will need to choose a power supply with a power rating that is a greater than the estimated wattage. This protects your PC from bouts of extra high load during activities like gaming.
I won’t go into the details of how to pick out a graphics card or processor right now. However, if that seems like something you would be interested in, let me know. I’ll go ahead and start creating more articles to help.
Step #4: Make the Purchase
I can’t tell you how to spend your money, but I can give you some recommendations. If you’re using PCPartPicker, you’ll generally get the best deal you can. That’s because the tool cross references various bundles and deals with the major PC component sellers such as Newegg, Amazon, and OutletPC.
On top of that, you can probably find more ways to save using the browser extension Honey. Regardless, how you make your purchases is up to you.
Personally, I used Amazon because I like using wishlists that can be shared with others (you know, just in case someone wants to surprise you with a new mobo). Plus, you can’t beat that two day free shipping with Amazon prime.
Step #5: Build the PC
Alas, the moment you have all been waiting for! For this guide, I plan to share a ton of photos of my build, so you can get an idea of how things fit together. In addition, I’ll be taking this time to share some safety precautions and general tips for making the build go smoothly.
The Test Build
Every time you build a computer, you should assemble most of the parts outside of the case first. This gives you the opportunity to diagnose any issues with your parts before you move on to final assembly.
To start, you’ll want to get a hold of a static wristband. This protects all of the sensitive surface mount chips from static damage. Once you’re ready to go, you can unbox the motherboard and place it on a nonconductive surface such as the box.
Do NOT place the motherboard on top of the antistatic bag that it comes in. This bag provides a Faraday cage the protects devices which are inside of it. However, once outside, conduction is fair game. In other words, your components are not safe.
Once complete, you’ll probably want to start by placing the processor on the motherboard. Today’s motherboards come with a tension arm that latches the processor down into place over the exposed pins. Release the tension arm to expose the socket.
Next, simply line up the processor with the socket by matching the arrow on the outside of the socket with the arrow on the processor. Once in place, you can safely replace the tension arm to its original position.
Now, you’ll want to mount the CPU cooler. This is typically build specific, so read the directions for your cooler. However, in all cases you’ll want to make sure your processor will end up with thermal paste on it. Whether your cooler comes with it already applied or you have to apply it yourself, it’s critical.
In my case, I chose the Cooler Master 212 EVO which comes with a small tube of thermal paste. To begin, I had to mount a bracket behind the processor. Then, the radiator fit right over top of the processor with four screws that were tightened down using the star pattern. Finally, the power cable was attached to the motherboard on one of the CPU fan headers.
At this point, all you need to do to prove that your PC works is slot in the RAM and connect power. The RAM is relatively easy, but you’ll want to check your motherboard manual to decide which sockets to use. In addition, make sure to check the orientation beforehand as the cards can only slide into place one way.
Next, connect your power supply to the appropriate headers on your motherboard. At this point, you should be able to turn on your power supply and motherboard. If successful, you should see various lights triggering on the motherboard.
“But how do I turn on my motherboard?” Okay, you’re right. Minor detail. You see the power button doesn’t actually exist on your motherboard. It’s on your case, but we haven’t connected the case yet. As a result, you have two options: connect the switch from the case to the correct header or pull out a screwdriver.
Option one might not always be possible if the power switch cable is out of reach. Instead, you can look for the two pins that would connect to the power switch and then short them. This will launch the motherboard. If successful, your CPU cooler should be running, and you might also have some blinking lights.
If you want to take it a step further, you can connect your motherboard to a monitor to see if its looking for a boot drive. In the case that your motherboard doesn’t have integrated graphics, you can connect your graphics card. It will slide into place just like RAM. And like RAM, you’ll want to consult your motherboard’s manual for the correct slot placement.
Assuming all is well, we can go ahead and start transitioning the motherboard to the case. Go ahead and disconnect any loose parts for now (graphics card, power supply, power switch, etc.). Then lay the case on its side so that you can place the motherboard down flat.
The side with the various ports such as USB, HDMI, and audio will need to go out the back of the case. There is probably a back plate that came with the motherboard which you would use here to line up the ports.
With the motherboard in lined up, start screwing it in place. Make sure to note any sort of open spaces next to the motherboard for cable management.
Now that the motherboard is in place, you should be able to see where everything fits. The graphics card can go back onto the motherboard with the port side facing the back of the case. You might need to modify some portions of the case to get it to fit.
Next, you’ll want to put the power supply in place. In my case, it latched under the motherboard with four screws.
So now what? Everything is in place except the hard drive (and potentially the disk drive if you went this route).
Go ahead and stand the case back up and place the hard drive in the appropriate location. For me, it screwed down onto a sliding drive bay. Your design may be a little different.
All that is left is cable management. That said, cable management is almost an art. At its core, it’s just about routing cables from the power supply to the various components. However, after all this work, do you really want a messy box full of cables?
For my case, one of the sides has a clear window. I was not about to stare at a bundle of cables. Instead, I meticulously routed them in ways that kept them on the backside of the case. This way, I could manage them using zip ties on the side of the case that I’ll never see.
Of course, there are entire businesses which specialize in this part of the build. You can get custom cables of special shapes and colors to match any sort of theme. In addition, you can purchase a custom water cooling set and match the fluid color to your theme. Then you can accent the internals with some LEDs. Just make sure your power supply is ready for that kind of load. Finally, you can top it all off with a custom skin for the case.
Once you have everything how you like it, go ahead and close up the case. You’ll want to now do an official test of the system by hooking it up to a monitor and powering it up. Assuming everything is in place, you’ll boot into the bios. If you have some way of loading an operating system (USB, disc, etc.), you can do that now.
From this point forward, you’re on your own. I personally installed Windows because I love gaming too much. If I need to do some development, I might run a virtual box with Linux. No need to dual boot with how fast this machine runs!
It’s been about two weeks since I finished my build. I have been extremely impressed with the graphics card as I can play Overwatch with near max settings by default (I haven’t tried maxing them out yet). In addition, I am very really happy with the SSD as my boot times feel instant (worst case 20 seconds).
Other than that, I haven’t had a ton of time to play with it. Maybe I’ll do another blog about it later. I’ll definitely keep everyone updated if I ever decide to do any upgrades. At this time though, I’m happy with where it’s at!
If you have any questions about how you can embark on your own PC building journey, you can reach out to me in the comments. As always, please share this article if you liked it. It really helps us figure out the types of content our users want to see.
All photos are courtesy of Morgan Grifski.
I don't like to share about personal stuff too much, but I figured I'd share some early news of 2021.
Today, I'm whipping out some philosophy jargon to characterize some of the problems I see in the tech education community.