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Don’t Be Intimidated: Building Your Own Computer is Easier Than You’d Think

kids-building-computer

Building your own computer is actually pretty simple. Don’t be afraid to dive right in — all you’ll need is a screwdriver, patience, and the ability to follow simple instructions.

This process is about building desktop PCs, of course. It’s nowhere near as easy to build your own laptop. If you did, you’d probably end up with a pretty bulky laptop!

Computer Building Demystified

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The process of building your own computer can look awfully technical and intimidating. Buying a variety of components and carefully combining them into a finished product seems a bit much, but it’s not as hard as it looks.

Building a computer basically involves snapping together premade components. These components are designed to make assembly easy. You won’t need to use a soldering gun — most components will just snap into place and the most you’ll need to do is use a few screws. (The most complicated thing you might have to do is apply thermal paste between a CPU and a heat sink. Even this isn’t hard if you take your time and follow instructions, but you shouldn’t have to do this as the CPUs you buy will typically come with a heat sink attached.)

Really, the process of assembling a computer just involves the willingness to take your time and follow simple instructions.

assembled-computer

Picking and Buying Components

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Before you assemble the computer, you’ll have to purchase the components you want. There are basic types of components that you’ll need to buy for any PC build, and you’ll need to ensure the components are compatible. You’ll also find many constantly updated guides online with lists of recommended components at various price ranges, designed to inform people buying computers of the best value components out there. New hardware is constantly being released and prices for current hardware are constantly declining, so such recommended components change often.

This isn’t a list of components you should buy, as that will go out-of-date quickly. Instead, this list outlines the type of components you’ll need — and why.

  • Case and Power Supply: You’ll need a box to put your computer components in — that’s the case. Cases typically come with power supplies. The power supply is the part of the computer that plugs into the electrical socket via a standard power cable. The other components inside the computer draw power from this power supply. There are different sizes of case out there, so be sure to get one that fits your components — you couldn’t use a tiny Mini-ITX case with a full-size desktop motherboard.
  • Motherboard: The motherboard is the base of your computer — the computer that everything else is connected to. The motherboard is mounted and screwed into place on the case and the power supply is connected to it. The power button on the case is connected to the motherboard so the computer can power up when you press the button on its case. Motherboards typically include networking and sound hardware, so you generally don’t need a separate network or sound card.

motherboard-with-cpu-plus-heat-sink-and-fan

  • CPU: The CPU is the part of your computer that does the calculations and most of the “work” — forgive our simplistic explanations here. CPUs typically come with heat sinks and possibly fans attached. These help cool the CPU and prevent it from becoming damaged due to heat. The CPU is inserted into the CPU socket on the motherboard.
  • RAM: The RAM is the working memory available to your computer. You can purchase RAM in sticks of different sizes and speeds and insert them into the RAM slots on the motherboard.

sticks-of-ram-on-motherboard

  • Graphics Card: Many motherboards come with built-in graphics hardware. However, if you want great 3D graphics performance, you’ll definitely want a separate graphics card. The graphics card is seated into a PCI-Express slot in the motherboard and the computer’s display is connected to the graphics card via an external cable. If you don’t plan on playing PC games, you’ll probably be fine with the graphics built into your motherboard.
  • Hard Disk: You’ll need a hard disk — ideally a solid-state drive for maximum speed — in your computer to install an operating system and boot from it. The hard disk is generally screwed into the appropriate spot in the case or inserted into a drive bay. It’s then connected to the power supply and the motherboard. DVD and Blu-Ray drives are connected in a similar way.

drives-in-hard-drive-bay

  • Display and Peripherals: Remember that you’ll need other components for your computer. The monitor, keyboard, mice, speakers, headphones, and other peripherals are all sold separately. Of course, you can use components you already have.
  • Operating System: Operating systems are also sold separately. Unless you want to use Linux or you have an unused Windows license sitting around, you’ll need to buy a boxed copy of Windows for around $100.

You’ll probably want to do a bit of research and find some up-to-date guides with the latest recommended hardware components in different price ranges. For example, the Build Your Own section of Tom’s Hardware maintains up-to-date guides with this information. Many other websites, particularly sites targeted at people building gaming PCs, offer similar guides

Assembling the Computer

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Here’s how to assemble a computer in a nutshell: Open up your case and mount the motherboard inside it, screwing it into place. Connect the power supply cable and wires coming from the case to the motherboard. Insert the CPU into the CPU slot, place the sticks of RAM into the RAM sots, and insert the graphics card into the slot designed just for it. Screw your drive into the case or insert it into a drive bay. Connect the drive to the power supply and motherboard using the appropriate cables. Plug the computer in, power it on, and install an operating system. Beware of static electricity when handling the components!

Yes, this is definitely oversimplified — be sure to actually look up an in-depth guide or video if this is your first time building a PC — but it’s the process in a nutshell, and it’s pretty simple.

The internet is full of guides that will walk you through assembling your own computer — and, better yet, you can find many video guides that will walk you through the process. Read our overview of assembling a computer for more details details. Lifehacker also has a solid guide to actually assembling a computer, and you’ll find all the in-depth guides and videos you’ll need with a quick web search.

inserting-graphics-card-into-motherboard-slot


If you’re a normal computer user, there’s no real advantage to building your own computer anymore. But PC gamers still frequently assemble their own computers, and building your own computer still feels like a rite of passage for a PC geek.

If you have a problem after assembling your computer, you’ll need to pin down which component is failing so you can RMA it. You’ll have individual warranties on the components, but you won’t have a warranty on the system as a whole.

Image Credit: Steven Brewer on Flickr, José Alejandro Carrillo Neira on Flickr, Lance Fisher on Flickr, wilde4 on Flickr, Justin Ruckman on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 04/28/14