Intro: Understanding a Custom Built PC
Building computers has become a very popular hobby among tech nerds in recent years. For experienced builders, it's easy, cheap compared to the price of prebuilt systems, and also a lot of fun. The biggest barrier to entry for many people outside of the community trying to get in is the fact that the idea of actually building a computer is very overwhelming, which is completely understandable. At first glance, computers seem like these big, complicated machines that only the nerdiest of nerds would know how to put together. Heck, when I was first getting started, I was convinced that building a car from scratch might be easier.
The truth is that building computers isn't easy, but they also aren't that hard to understand and put together with a bit of knowledge, which is exactly why I'm writing this now. By the time you get through this, you should have at least a basic understanding about the hardware inside of computers and how to buy parts that will work with each other. I'll provide a few good links that will show you how to put those parts together (since explaining over pure text and images would be extremely difficult) in order to craft yourself a beast of a PC!
Step 1: Understanding All of the Parts
Remember how I said that understanding computers isn't easy, but it also isn't very hard? Well this first part is going to serve as a perfect example of that grey area between "easy to understand" and "hard to understand". Things will be hard to understand at first because of how many parts there are, but once you really take a second to step back and see how they operate in a PC, everything really starts to fall into place.
So, let's get into it. Here's a list of all of the hardware and tools that's absolutely mandatory to build a working PC:
- Central Processing Unit (CPU)
- CPU Cooler and Fans
- Graphical Processing Unit (GPU // Graphics Card)
- Random Access Memory (RAM)
- Hard Drive
- Phillip's Head Screw Driver
Now that you've seen this list of parts, you probably have a lot of questions. "What does this do? What does that do? What do I stick into where? What do you mean a screw driver is the only tool I need?" First of all, don't start sticking anything into anything else yet. We'll get to the fun stuff soon, trust me. And yes, the only tool that you need to build a computer is a screw driver, preferably one that has a magnetic tip to help with screwing things in. Are you starting to see how uncomplicated building PCs could be?
First off, I'll talk about the PC case. It's the housing and general foundation of the whole build that holds everything together. Think of a PC like a body. Of course, you've got everything inside that's important, but it's the bones and the skin that makes sure everything stays in place. This is the main purpose of the case, but it's also responsible for making sure that proper airflow gets in and out of the system (kind of like food going in and out of your "system"). I'll get into that in a bit more depth when I talk about the cooler and fans.
Next, I'll discuss the motherboard. If the case was like the "skin" and "skeleton" of the PC, then think of the motherboard as the central nervous system. It's what physically connects everything to everything else and allows them to synchronize and function. The CPU, GPU, and RAM will all be directly connected into the motherboard when it comes time to build, with everything else being connected via wires.
Every body has to have a brain, and that's exactly what the CPU is to the PC. It takes in most of the information that you give it, processes it, and either does something with it itself or has another component do it for it. For example, the CPU is fully capable of loading graphics in a game, but the GPU, which I will get into later on, can do it much better. Instead of taking on the graphics load, it passes it on to the GPU so it can work on other things both in-game and in the background more efficiently. The CPU also has the ability to be overclocked, making it run faster in exchange for extra heat output. This is where the CPU cooler becomes very helpful.
THE CPU COOLER AND FANS
The CPU is hands-down the hardest working part in all of the computer. Of course, all of this hard working takes energy, and energy produces heat. The only way to keep your CPU from physically melting under load is to put a CPU cooler right on top of it. There are two types of CPU coolers: air and water. Air coolers are the most popular and mainstream, especially among new builders. This is because they're cheaper, easier to install, do a great job of cooling stock CPUs, and don't run the risk of leaking like water coolers do. Liquid CPU coolers are most popular among people who overclock or plan to overclock their CPU. The water will allow people to overclock their processors further than they'd be able to with air coolers without having to worry too much about heat. Of course, they do run the risk of leaking, so if you install one of these in your system, make sure you're checking for leaks at least once a day so you can prevent as much damage as possible.
Staying on the topic of cooling in a system, fans are very important. Though the CPU is generating the most heat inside of the system, it's not the only thing generating heat. You need to make sure that you have a steady flow of cool air coming in and hot air going out. Try to make sure that you have an equal amount of air flowing through your system. In other words, if you install two fans for cool air intake, make sure you also install two fans for hot air exhaust. If you have more intake fans than your do exhaust fans, you create an environment of positive air pressure inside your case. This option isn't bad as it allows a lot of cool air in, but lacks of exhaust fans to bring hot air out. On the flip side, if you have more exhaust fans than you do intake fans, you create an environment of negative air pressure inside your case, which is, as the name implies, very negative. While you are kicking a lot of hot air out of your system, the negative environment inside of your case creates a vacuum effect of sorts, forcing any cool air around the case into any holes it can find, which attracts a lot of dust. An even distribution of air allows you to better control what comes in and goes out of your system.
THE GRAPHICS CARD
For hardcore PC gamers, the GPU is the MVP of the system. It's what they spend the most money on and if they're talking about their system, will be the first spec that they list off. It does exactly as the name implies that it does, it processes graphics so that your games can look good and run smooth. It's almost a whole computer system in and of itself. The flat part of the card on the opposite side of the fans is its motherboard, the actual Graphical Processing Unit itself is its CPU, it has a cooling system, and it has RAM. It's a very powerful piece of hardware that does a lot for your system.
The system RAM works alongside everything in the system. While some components may only "talk" to one other component, the RAM talks to everyone. When you launch a program from your hard drive, the RAM stores the information and allows the CPU to process it and follow the program's instructions. Games work in a very similar way, where you launch a program from your hard drive, and have the RAM store the information for both the CPU and GPU to process. Many open-world games such as Skyrim, Fallout, and Grand Theft Auto take up a lot of RAM usage as you load new parts of the maps and give RAM more information to hold for the CPU and GPU. The more RAM you have, the better, but going overkill on it is just a waste of money. Normal computer users and casual gamers only need 8GB, while hardcore gamers and content creators are better off with 16 to 32GB.
THE HARD DRIVE
Oh c'mon...you know what this one does.
Step 2: Researching the Parts
For new builders, researching parts to buy is often the hardest part. You need to make sure you do plenty of research into different parts before you commit to buying them. I know you're here to learn about the parts of a PC and how to put them together, but I can't go over every everything that's out there, it'd be impossible. Lucky for you, the PC building community on the internet is HUGE, meaning that almost any piece of PC hardware that is on the market has a review or even a full build guide that includes it. Personally, I learn best through videos, so as we go along I'll provide you with links to the YouTube channels and videos that helped to teach me what I know today about parts and about building in general.
RESEARCHING THE CASE
The case of a PC is often one of the most overlooked components of the whole build. Most new builders think "Oh, I just need something that's functional and will hold things that I need." Don't get me wrong, that can work, especially if you're building on a tight budget, but you want to make sure you're getting something that you know you'll be able to use and enjoy for a while. You don't want to put a PC together, just to end up hating the thing because it has an ugly case. Trust me, I know from personal experience. But you also don't want to throw a couple of hundred bucks into one that has a whole bunch of cool switches and gadgets that you might not even use.
I mentioned earlier that I'd be linking you YouTube channels of videos of people who have taught me what I know, and by far the best source for good case reviews on YouTube (and probably on the entire internet) is a channel named Hardware Canucks. Though cases aren't the only things they cover, it's definitely what they specialize in. If there's a case that you think would be good for your PC, they've more than likely reviewed it and if they haven't yet, they will. You can Click Here to watch the review that they did on the case that I currently have. Again, make sure you do good research into a case that you want before you buy it. If you see or hear about too many red flags, just don't go with it. There are plenty of options out there, and I guarantee that you'll find one that's perfect for you.
RESEARCHING THE MOTHERBOARD
While the case of the PC is often where people under spend, the motherboard tends to be where people over spend. It's very easy to get trapped by all of the cool features that a motherboard have have like a bunch of USB slots, a built-in wireless card, RGB lighting, and more which could cost you upwards of $200 or $300. Are those boards nice? Yes. Will you enjoy them? Yes. But, if you're building on a budget, getting a board like that will really limit your options for other things that you can put inside of the PC. Similar to the case, you also don't want to cheap out on the board. While motherboards tend to be very reliable and sturdy, things can and will go wrong in some cases. I'd recommend spending $50 minimum on the board, while capping yourself at $150. That $100 domain tends to be the sweet spot for boards that are reliable, good on features, and won't break your bank.
When researching motherboards, you need to make sure that the size of the ones you're looking for is supported in your case. If the case that you've picked out is marked as "ATX" that means that it can support ATX (or full) sized motherboards and every size below it, including microATX, Mini-ATX, and Mini-ITX, all of which are mainstream motherboard sizes. So if you pick out a case that can only support up to a Mini-ATX motherboard, don't go out and buy an eATX (Extended ATX) board. You also want to make sure that when you're buying a motherboard, it's got the same CPU chipset that your CPU will have and that it's got the same generation of RAM. I'll get more into how to make sure those things are compatible when I go over the parts themselves. If you try to mix and match different components that aren't compatible, it won't work. It wouldn't be any better than someone who tries to get a heart transplant with a goat heart...they would die. Don't make your PC die.
Before, I pointed you in the direction of the Hardware Canucks YouTube channel for case reviews to check out for research. Though they specialize mostly in case reviews, they also make really solid motherboard reviews. However, for really good motherboard reviews, you should check out the following YouTube channels: Linus Tech Tips, JayzTwoCents, and Joanne Tech Lover. One of the best things you can do before you even start researching specific motherboards is to check out This Video from Jay, which is probably one of his most helpful videos, as the motherboard can often be one of the most confusing and threatening parts of the computer research and build process. Though you won't find every motherboard reviewed on each one of these channels, definitely make sure to look to them for a review on a motherboard before you commit to buying one. If you find a motherboard online that you really like that wasn't reviewed by one of these channels, don't completely discount it. There are plenty of other YouTube channels and forums that have most likely reviewed the motherboard you've got your eyes on. Just make sure to do plenty of research before you buy.
RESEARCHING THE CPU
The type of CPU that you'll want to get really depends on how you plan on using your computer once it's built.
Note: I'm only going to recommend CPUs from Intel, as I've never used any CPUs from their main competition AMD and from things that I've heard from AMD CPU users, they have a lot of problems such as unreliability, overheating, and other issues that first-time builders shouldn't have lurking in the back of their minds while building and using their new PCs.
As a person who's interested in building computers, you probably fall into one of three types of people:
The Normal User: A person who wants a computer to just work with Word documents, send E-Mails, browse the internet, etc. but also wants to build because it's cheaper than buying a whole pre-built system.
The Casual Gamer: A person who wants to cut gaming consoles out of their life by doing the majority of their gaming on the PC. They don't want to stream or make videos or anything of the sort, they just want to use it purely for gaming and other normal computer tasks.
The Hardcore Gamer // The Content Creator: A person who wants to build the ultimate machine to play games at max settings, resolutions, and frame rates; wants to record and upload or stream games; or wants to create media such as animations. They'll need some of the best of the best hardware to achieve their goals.
When it comes to picking out a CPU, depending on which one of these categories you fall under, you'll want to buy either an Intel Core i3, i5, or i7 processor. The Normal User should look into buying an i3, The Casual Gamer should invest in an i5, and The Hardcore Gamer // The Content Creator won't settle for anything less than an i7 processor. The YouTube channel Techquickie has a very good video explaining the major differences between all three types of processors that you can Watch Here. The channel also has a bunch of other cool content about computers and just technology in general that they try to explain as fast as possible (Hence, Techquickie). The people who make these videos are the same people who make the LinusTechTips videos. Speaking of which, you can check out their channel for some good processor reviews if you find one that you think fits your style.
RESEARCHING THE CPU COOLER
Deciding on the kind of CPU cooler that you want should be pretty easy. All you need to do is ask yourself three questions. "Do I want to overclock?" "Do I know how to overclock?" "Do I want to know how to overclock?" If the answer to more than one any of these questions was "no" then the liquid coolers that I was talking about earlier are not for you. They won't give you enough extra benefit to justify paying the extra money over an air cooler. If you're still kind of on the fence about it, check out This Video from Hardware Canucks that'll tell you everything you need to know about the difference between air coolers and liquid coolers. You should also look to them for good CPU cooler reviews, whether you're going with air or liquid. They always hit the nail right on the head.
RESEARCHING THE GRAPHICS CARD
As I explained before, the graphics card is often the most important part of the PC for gamers. For a new build, many will pick out a graphics card first and make the rest of the budget revolve around that. While that's a very good idea, you need to be careful planning out a build like that. If you have a $1500 cap, don't spend $1000 on the GPU alone. Many games are very GPU-based (which is why gamers see the graphics card as the most important part), but in recent years game developers have been taking better advantage of the CPU and RAM. If you only spend $500 on the combo of the motherboard, CPU, cooler, and RAM, that $1000 will never see its full potential. Certain game elements won't allow it to reach the insane frame rates that people buy that type of card for, making it almost useless. However, if you spend $500 on the motherboard, CPU, cooler, and RAM and spend maybe $200 on a graphics card, you're going to notice that games have a lot more balance. Sure, things aren't going to look quite as good or as smooth on a $200 card, but you'd be spending $700 on the entire build, where you're not expected to get the same performance as a $1500 system that's built correctly.
There are two main brands for GPUs: Nvidia and AMD. Similar to the CPUs, I'm not going to recommend that you spend money on an AMD graphics card for the same reasons behind me advising against AMD CPUs. Nvidia has different series of GPUs, with the three most modern and reliable being the 700 Series, the 900 Series, and the 10 Series. There are so many different GPUs out there, even between just these three series that one manufacturer makes. Unlike with the CPU from before and the RAM later on, I can't apply the PC builder "category" list with a lot of confidence here. It's really down to the individual, what kind of performance they want out of their PC, and how much they're able and willing to spend on it. However, a good place to start looking for good GPUs is JayzTwoCents' channel. For years, he's made some of the best GPU review videos on all of YouTube. I'd personally recommend watching This Video from him if you have no idea where to start looking for graphics cards and GPU reviews. For one, the card itself that he reviews here, the GTX 750Ti, is a very good card for new builders to use for a first build, especially those on a tight budget and you'll get to see exactly how it'll perform in games. Also, this review will get you familiar to the overall style of how many YouTubers format their GPU review videos, so that when you go out to find more you won't be so lost.
RESEARCHING THE RAM
As time has gone on, different generations of RAM have come and gone. We started with normal DDR RAM, moved on to DDR2, and most people are currently using DDR3 and DDR4 RAM. What should these numbers and generations mean to you? Nothing more than slight performance bumps as the generations move on and what kind of motherboard will support this type of RAM. RAM is often what pushes people towards one motherboard or another when looking for what to buy. Similar to how certain motherboards have certain CPU socket types, motherboards also have certain generations of RAM that they can accept. So trying to put DDR4 RAM in a DDR3 compatible motherboard is not going to work. Again, think goat hearts. Though DDR4 was quite expensive when it first dropped a few years ago, the price on it has dropped significantly, the the point where it's very competitive with DDR3. You get slightly better performance out of DDR4 motherboards and RAM for a slightly higher price on both, so depending on your budget, the newer generation could be well worth it for your build.
Unlike everything else I've given research advice on so far, RAM doesn't really need to be "reviewed", as you really need to just pick out how much RAM you want. While there are speeds to RAM, the difference between them is very minimal, so there's not much to worry about there. As I explained when I first talked about the RAM, if you're a Normal User or Casual Gamer, go with 8GB of RAM; and if you're a Hardcore Gamer or Content Creator, go with 16 to 32GB, depending on your budget.
RESEARCHING THE HARD DRIVE
Similar to the RAM, researching hard drives is very simple. Just decide how much storage you want and go with it. No matter what "category" you fall under, I wouldn't recommend getting any less than 1TB, which will run you around $50 or less. If you're a Normal User, 1TB will be absolutely fine. If you're a Casual Gamer, depending on how many games and programs you have, I'd recommend 2TB if you can afford it. If you're a Hardcore Gamer or a Content Creator, 3TB of hard drive space will probably be well worth it for the approximately $150 pricetag.
Step 3: How to Build Your PC
Giving step-by-step instructions of how to build a PC in a text format like this would be very hard for me, as a person who only has about a year of actual building experience under my belt. However, the guys over at LinusTechTips have your back! They make, in my opinion, the best Custom PC build guides on YouTube. My personal favorites from them are "ULTIMATE Build a Better $1500 Gaming PC Computer 'How To' Guide" and "How to Build the ULTIMATE 4K Gaming PC Build Guide" The latter of the two videos is the more professional and eye-appealing one, but tends to speed through things before people can get a full understanding of what's going on. The first video is about twice as long but really goes in-depth into everything that you need to do to put a PC together. Plus, the price of the PC is fairly reasonable, so there's a chance that you could end up picking the exact parts that they picked out and build the same rig. It would make for a good and easy first build project! They have plenty more full build guides on their channel, so make sure to give them a look in order to absorb as much information as you can. Though I believe that they make the build guides on YouTube, don't hesitate to look for other channels and videos in order to get a better idea of how different people build.