Building a New Computer – Part 1: Choosing Hardware

I recently decided to build myself a new desktop computer for my house, and after talking about it with a number of friends, I realized that most people have no idea what goes into building a computer yourself… so this series will explain the basics of building your own custom PC.

My primary goal with the new computer was to have a quad core machine with lots of memory, and two DVI ports so I can run dual monitors. I didn’t have a huge budget, so the configuration I chose was the best I could find for the money I had.

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Why Should I Build a Computer Anyway?

Sure, building your own computer is something of a rite of passage for geeks… but that isn’t reason enough to build your own computer. Here’s a few reasons for you to ponder:

  • You can more easily upgrade a custom-built computer.
  • By hand-picking the components, you’ll end up with a much faster computer than buying a low-end Dell, which uses somewhat inferior components in order to keep the costs down.
  • You can overclock the computer to get a lot more speed than the components are spec’d for.

If you think you’ll be able to build yourself a cheaper computer than a low-end Dell, you are mistaken. If you are looking for absolute budget deals, buy a Dell. Otherwise, building a computer is a good option.

Pick Your Price Point

The first thing you need to do is figure out how much you are willing to spend… whether $500 or $5000.

You should be able to build a very fast computer for less than $1000, just keep in mind that the very latest components are going to be way more expensive than they are worth. If you choose the next edition down for any component, you’ll probably save a ton of money.

What Parts Do I Need?

Building your own computer gives you infinite possibilities in the components that you choose… want three hard drives? No problem! But what are the bare minimum parts you need for a computer?

  • Case with a Power Supply
  • Motherboard – Note: some motherboards come with integrated video, most have integrated sound and network.
  • Processor
  • Memory (RAM)
  • Hard Drive
  • Video Card

Optional parts:

  • DVD/CD drive – Not technically necessary, but important for installing the OS.
  • LCD Monitor – If you don’t already have one.
  • Keyboard/Mouse – If you don’t already have them.
  • Speakers – If you don’t already have them, and want sound.
  • Etc – There are many other optional components you could add, but we won’t cover them all.

The big question: AMD or Intel?

The biggest choice you have when building a computer is the processor… do you want to use AMD or Intel? There’s no right answer, but your choice will dictate the motherboards that you can use.

If you are completely unsure, choosing one of the Intel Core 2 CPUs is probably a decent choice. You can always check the CPU charts at Tom’s Hardware for benchmark comparisons between chips.

Once you’ve chosen the processor, you’ll need to examine the specs to figure out what type of motherboard you’ll need. For instance, if you look at the processor I chose, you’ll see that it has an LGA 775 socket type, and runs at 1066MHz bus:

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Using this information, most sites allow you to do a power search by those characteristics:

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This will help you make sure that your motherboard is going to match the processor that you chose. You can further refine by other specs, such as whether the board has integrated video, RAID, etc. (Note that if you plan to buy a separate video card you shouldn’t get a board with integrated video on it)

You also want to make sure that you choose a motherboard that will fit in the case. For instance, if your case is ATX, you’ll need an ATX motherboard:

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What about my Graphics Card?

Choosing a video card hinges on the following question: Do you play PC video games?

If you do, then you should spend the money to get a good card. If you don’t, then you can pretty much pick up any $50 ATI or NVIDIA DVI video card and it will work perfectly fine for your needs. Just make sure that your motherboard has the correct slot… if you buy a PCI Express x16 card, your motherboard should have that slot (most do).

If you are a gamer, you should think about getting an NVIDIA 8800 GTS card, which is going to be blazing fast. You should note that many of the higher end video cards will require a separate power connector, so you should make sure that your power supply has the right connector.

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I don’t usually play video games on my PC, so I decided to use an NVIDIA 7600 GT video card that I got from my brother. Even though it’s a slightly older card, it’s still blazing fast and more than meets my needs.

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Note: If you are really not worried at all about video card performance, you could get a motherboard with integrated video, but it will be a lot slower.

How Much Memory Should I Get?

If you are going to run a 32-bit version of Windows or Linux, you should probably only get 3GB of memory since the system is not going to support more than 3.2GB of memory. If you want to use more memory, I’d recommend switching to 64-bit Windows Vista.

When buying memory, make sure that you buy memory that matches the memory standard… if the board only accepts DDR2 1066, 4×240 pin memory, make sure that you get memory that matches.

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Note that sometimes the quick specs don’t tell the full story… for instance the motherboard that I bought supports DDR2 800 as well as DDR2 1066 memory, so I ended up getting the cheaper memory since I’m on a budget here… having more memory is more important than memory speed.

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I wouldn’t advise wasting your money on the absolute fastest memory unless you plan to overclock the system.

What About DVD and Hard Drives?

There’s one very simple rule: Make sure you buy only SATA drives, for both hard drives and DVD drives. The SATA bus runs at 3.0Gb/second, which makes it much faster than the ancient IDE bus. This will also protect you for the future… someday there won’t be IDE ports on motherboards.

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Your hard drive is the most likely component to have a failure, so the key things you want to look at are: good reviews from other buyers, and a good warranty. I recently had a hard drive come in the mail DOA… so being able to return it easily is very important.

Should I Get an Expensive Case?

When looking up cases you’ll quickly notice that some of them are very expensive, and some of them are very cheap. The more expensive cases will usually run quieter or cooler than the cheap ones, and they will give you easier access to the components. You’ll also find that the cheap cases come with cheap power supplies… which will not last as long and you’ll end up replacing them.

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If you are building a computer for your basement, you don’t plan to open it often, and don’t really care what it looks like, you can get by with a fairly cheap case, but you might want to buy a decent power supply.

If you are building a computer for your bedroom that you’ll leave on… you should probably spend the money on a decent case that dampens the sound coming from the computer.

Make Sure to Get Feedback

Once you’ve picked out your components, you should get feedback from other people. Obviously checking the reviews for each component is necessary, but you want to get some opinions on the overall configuration.

One great place to do that is on our forums… I posted my configuration there and got some valuable feedback from our great forum users.

Final Configuration

Here’s the hardware that I chose, note that the prices were as of the time I bought them. I’m not necessarily recommending this exact configuration, if I had to choose the parts again I would have bought a better case / power supply.

Update: These particular parts are somewhat out of date now, considering this article was written quite a while ago. Make sure to shop around.

Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 2.4GHz LGA 775 $219
Motherboard ASUS P5K-E LGA 775 Intel P35 ATX Motherboard $139
Memory mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) $88
Hard Drive Samsung 750GB 7200 RPM 32MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s $120
Case XION II XON-101 Black Steel ATX Mid Tower 450W Power Supply $70
Video Card NVIDIA 7600GT 256MB PCI Express x16 (This link is to a similar card) $73
DVD LITE-ON 2MB Cache SATA DVD Burner with LightScribe $30
Total Price: $739

Note: the video card in the list isn’t the exact card I used, and I didn’t have to pay for mine since it was a gift… but I figured I’d include it so you’d get the whole picture.

Here’s all the parts stacked up on my table at home:

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You can also read the rest of the series:

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Lowell Heddings, better known online as the How-To Geek, spends all his free time bringing you fresh geekery on a daily basis. You can follow him on if you'd like.