So you’ve decided to take the plunge and assemble your own desktop PC. Maybe you’re ready to take your PC gaming to the next level, build a tiny entertainment machine, or just save some money by assembling your own budget machine. Whatever your intentions, our five part guide is here to help you.
Before you can get to building, you need a plan. The old adage “measure twice, cut once” is in full effect here: you’ll want to carefully select your PC components to make sure they’re all compatible with each other, and with what you want to achieve. So this entire article will be about selecting your parts, before you ever spend a dollar or touch a screwdriver.
The pros of a home-built PC are many, but it’s a good idea to make sure it’s right for you. You don’t want to get in too deep and regret your decision.
For example, building a PC can be cheaper than buying a prebuilt one—but it isn’t always! If you’re just looking for a general purpose computer, buying an off-the-shelf Dell is going to be way cheaper than building one yourself. You just can’t compete with the prices they get on bulk parts. Not to mention they come with warranties—if you’re the type of person who needs outside help when something goes wrong, you’ll probably be better off with a PC from a store who offers service.
However, if you’re a moderately knowledgeable user looking for a more powerful PC (for gaming or video editing) or a more specialized PC (like a compact home theater PC), you are much more likely to save money by building. “Gaming” PCs from companies like Alienware have big markups, and you can save a lot of money by building the machine yourself.
Building your own PC has other advantages, too. You can upgrade it at any time to keep it current without buying a new machine (since there’s less likelihood of proprietary or soldered-on parts), or even overclock it to access some extra power.
But the reason I love doing it, and the reason most enthusiasts swear by it, is that there’s a satisfaction in personally selecting and handling each individual part that goes into your computer. It’s fun (for people like me, anyway) in the same way that working on your own car is fun. And, since you don’t need years of practice to do it, it’s a whole lot easier.
If the length of this guide or the complexity of the components seem intimidating, don’t worry. It’s kind of like assembling flat-pack furniture or a set of LEGO with instructions. Everything fits together in a very specific way. If you follow this guide, you’ll be just fine.
There are six components that you’ll absolutely have to use in order to assemble a working PC. They include:
Those are just the pieces you’ll need to get a computer up and running. For more complex builds, you can add any or all of the components:
Want to get crazy? There are all sorts of add-ons that you can use, including entirely cosmetic stuff, like lights and cable sleeves. Check out this article if you’re looking for a deep dive.
Also, for the assembly of the PC and installing Windows (covered in the following articles in this series), you’ll need:
With all that in mind, let’s talk about where to buy your parts, and how to go about selecting them.
If you’re looking to secure your parts at retail, it will be tough these days: since computer supply stores like CompUSA went out of business, there aren’t many places you can go in the US to find all the parts above in the same store. Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, and Micro Center are more or less the only national chains still going (and they’re not even available in all areas). You might be able to find more general parts like graphics cards and storage drives in office supply stores, like Staples and OfficeMax, but you won’t be able to buy the whole build there.
If you want computer parts, the best place to look is online. And generally speaking, the best places to look online are Amazon and Newegg (again, in the United States). With millions of parts in stock, they’ll generally have the best prices and selection between them. You might be able to find deals on smaller sites, though—it wouldn’t hurt to look around a bit.
The best way to shop, in our opinion, is to use the following process:
Logical Increments and PCPartPicker are great tools, but they aren’t the only places to do research and make your selections. Here are our favorite free tools for PC builders.
So now you know the basics of what goes into a computer and where to start your shopping. Let’s talk about how to select the right parts for the job.
Here’s where a lot of people get tripped up. How powerful does a full-sized desktop need to be? Should you buy an Intel processor or an AMD one? Do you need a graphics card, or will the CPU’s on-board graphics be okay? How many watts do you need in a power supply?
Let’s break it down piece by piece. Understand that you generally want components that have been released in the last year or two, because going back further tends to trade price for efficiency and future-proofing. And generally speaking, the more expensive a part is, the more powerful it will be.
Let’s start with the brain of your computer: the CPU. This will determine which other parts are compatible, so it’s a good place to begin.
AMD or Intel? The first question you’ll have to answer is: which brand? These two processor manufacturers have been duking it out for decades. It generally shakes out like this: Intel sells more and has more raw power available at the high end of the market, while AMD competes on price and power efficiency. For example, Intel’s latest Core X series processors offer ludicrous amounts of speed and cores for those who can spend well above $500 on processors alone, while AMD’s Ryzen series competes on frugality, with savings of several hundred dollars at the same general performance level.
Generally speaking, Intel processors fare better in gaming and high-end media applications due to their raw power and popularity, but if you’re on a budget, AMD’s general price advantage may be worth choosing the less popular option.
AMD also offers designs that have much more powerful integrated graphics than Intel, referred to as “APU” models. These APU designs can handle light 3D gaming, whereas Intel’s integrated graphics aren’t generally enough to hack it. They’re also great for applications like home theater PCs.
Which Model? Once you decide which brand to go with, it’s time to narrow down your processor selection. You might recall that computers used to be advertised based on their processor speed, expressed in megahertz and gigahertz. Those figures are still around, but thanks to advancements in processor design, it’s hard to express exactly how powerful a processor is based on a single factor like its clock speed. There are other factors, like how many cores it has, what kind of cache it has, power consumption, and integrated graphics performance (if you aren’t using a dedicated graphics card). In layman’s terms: more cache and more cores means better multitasking performance, more pure speed in each core means better single-task performance, like rendering a big image in Photoshop.
Intel’s current product line includes four main desktop CPU lines: Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, and the top-line Core i9. There are multiple processors in each line, generally going from least to most expensive and least to most powerful. So for the latest models, the fastest Core i3 processor will be a little slower than the slowest Core i5 model. (Again, there’s a lot of variation in composition and architecture, so that may not be true in every single case.)
New models come out on a yearly basis, and may or may not need a new motherboard socket depending on the improvements. The “sweet spot” of value and performance is in the Core i5 series; anything less is generally for a budget build, anything more is for an enthusiast build. It’s definitely possible to build a powerful gaming PC with a Core i5 instead of a pricier Core i7. Some models have more cores, some have faster cores—gamers and media production pros will want at least a quad-core design, with as much speed as they can get.
AMD’s lineup for desktops is more split. The latest conventional designs are called the “Ryzen,” available in 3, 5, and 7 models. Processor cores increase as you go up the line and get more expensive CPUs. The top-of-the-line AMD chips are called Ryzen Threadripper, with up to 32 cores. The sweet spot for AMD is in Ryzen 5, either the 4- ore 6-core chips.
AMD’s APU models, for more general, less powerful computers, include decent on-board graphics as well. AMD releases new CPUs and socket designs at less frequent intervals. Ryzen, Ryzen Threadripper, and APU chips all use different processor sockets.
If you really want to know which processor is faster in a direct comparison, you’ll need to go look at some benchmarks. This list has a huge selection of current and slightly older processors, ranked by benchmark speed with pricing info.
Next, it’s time to select a motherboard, the piece that all your other pieces will plug into. It’s easier than it sounds, though.
Which Socket? You need to choose a CPU and a motherboard that will fit each other, obviously, since both Intel and AMD have developed multiple CPU socket designs for different classes of processors. So, can quickly narrow down your selection here by looking for motherboards that are compatible with your processor choice. Check the socket on your chosen CPU—for example, Intel’s LGA 1151 socket—and then narrow down your Newegg search to motherboards that contain that socket.
What Size? The motherboard you choose needs to be compatible with the case you’re using. We’ll talk about this a bit more in the case section below, but the basics are: ATX are standard size tower computers, microATX boards are for slightly smaller towers, and Mini-ITX boards are for more compact builds. These sizes don’t necessarily correspond to power—you can have a very budget ATX build, or a very powerful Mini-ITX gaming machine—but your expansion options will be more limited on smaller boards, and they’ll be a bit tougher to build with.
What Features? Then, narrow down your search by motherboards that support all the other stuff you want—this generally means at least one PCI-Express slot for a graphics card, enough SATA ports for all your hard drives and DVD drives, supports the amount of RAM you want, and so on. You can find all that information on the specifications page.
You’ll also want to check the back panel, the part of the motherboard where most of your accessories will plug in. If you already have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, you want to make sure that the motherboard supports them. Most of them will, one way or another, but if for example you have an older monitor without an HDMI port and you don’t plan on adding a graphics card, you’ll either need a motherboard with a DVI or VGA video port, or an adapter.
Which brings us to the final part of the motherboard: the extras. As mentioned, most motherboards have support for low-power on-board graphics, as well as basic sound processing (the little headphone jack you plug your speakers into) and an Ethernet port for networking. But some advanced models have support for surround sound output, large arrays of USB 3.0 ports, and even on-board Wi-Fi so you don’t need a separate adapter. Choose with extras you want (if any), and pick the motherboard that has them.
Lastly, the motherboard’s cable inputs for power need to match the cables on the power supply, for both the main power connector on the side and the CPU power connector on top. You can check these values in “pins”: if your power supply has a 12-pin rail and your motherboard has a 12-pin connector, they’re compatible. Depending on the CPU socket, the CPU’s power connector may have four, six, or eight pins, so make sure your power supply has one of these rails available.
Recommend brands: ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI, and AsRock are all great brands to look for here.
Memory is deceptively important: it’s the easiest way to turn a slow computer into a fast one. Make sure you get enough.
How Much? For basic modern computing, I suggest at least 8GB, which you can generally get in a 4GBx2 stick setup for under $100. Gamers, media creators, and virtual machine users will want more—the next efficient step up is to 16GB. If you’re building a massive system that will do multitasking all day long and handle gigantic games at 4K visual quality, you want every last bit of RAM you can possibly cram into your case (which is usually 32GB or 64GB on today’s high-end motherboards.)
Which Type? You need to check your motherboard to see which generation of RAM it supports: DDR3 and DDR4 are the two existing standards right now, and RAM is not backwards compatible. The number of slots for RAM on the motherboard and their individual maximum capacity determines how much RAM you can have in total.
What Speed? You’ll also need to choose a RAM speed, which doesn’t really produce noticeable performance differences in most builds. But you might as well buy RAM modules that are as fast as your motherboard can handle.
Recommended brands: G-Skill, Corsair, and Crucial are all solid picks.
Here’s a tip for buying storage: get an SSD. No, seriously, get an SSD. A few years ago, solid-state drives were considered something of a luxury, but the speed and efficiency increases are incredible. Now, SSDs are cheap enough that they’re becoming standard. Even if you need to store a ton of files, it’s such an improvement that I’d recommend buying a smaller, cheaper SSD just for your operating system and programs, and using a secondary hard drive for all your large personal files (music movies, etc.).
Pretty much every new motherboard and power supply will be compatible with current hard drives, solid state drives, and DVD drives. They all use the same SATA cables and data ports. As long as you don’t have more drives than you do SATA ports, you’re fine. They also use SATA power rails from the power supply, which should include enough plugs for at least two drives.
Recommended brands: Samsung and SanDisk for SSDs, Western Digital, Seagate, and HGST for hard drives
Cases are generally just boxes to shove your parts into (ahem), but there’s a lot of variety to them.
What Size? PC cases are referred to in general terms like “full tower” and “mid-tower,” and these will tell you the size and shape of the case—when you think of a normal desktop PC, you probably think of a mid-tower. But PCs also come as bigger and smaller towers, as cubes, or super compact slim designs for your media cabinet.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the motherboard size. Motherboards come in several different sizes, but the main ones for consumer class PCs are the full-sized ATX, the smaller Mini-ATX and Micro-ATX, and the positively tiny Mini-ITX. Larger cases will include mounting options for smaller motherboards; so an ATX-sized case can fit a Mini-ITX motherboard, but a Mini-ITX case cannot fit an ATX motherboard.
Everything Else: In addition to size, there’s material (steel, plastic, aluminum, acrylic), number of storage and expansion drive bays, mounts for fans and cooling systems, and so on. Aesthetically, most modern cases are either minimalist—basically looking like a tiny, expensive refrigerator—or “gamer,” with lots of integrated LEDs and side panel windows so you can see the guts of your masterpiece.
Cases also have standardized mounting areas for the power supply. Most cases will accept a standard ATX power supply, but small Mini-ITX cases may need a Mini-ITX power supply (though some gaming-branded ITX cases still take a full-sized version). Many smaller cases will even come with their own power supplies to avoid this hassle.
Other factors you’ll want to pay attention to are cable management holes, fan and power supply placement for airflow, front panel features like USB 3.0 ports and headphone jacks, and of course your general eye for what you want your computer to look like.
Lastly, if you’re going to add a discrete graphics card or CPU cooler to your build, you need to make sure they can fit in the physical dimensions of your case. Some extremely powerful and expensive power supplies might need extra room, so check both the specifications of the GPU itself and the specs of the case to make sure they’re compatible. Likewise, a big, boxy CPU cooler might be too physically tall to fit into a smaller case—check the specs for its clearance in inches or millimeters. If you’re going for a liquid cooling system with a radiator, you may need to make sure it has adequate space around the case fan mounts, too.
Once you narrow down your selection by size and features, I recommend checking out online reviews of cases that you find on retailer sites. Review sites like Tom’s Hardware, PC Gamer, and AnandTech are great places to dig deep into the more esoteric features, but you can find very in-depth reviews with a bit of YouTube searching, too. At the end of the day, what makes a case great isn’t always the features you find on a spec sheet—some cases are just much easier and more enjoyable to build in, while others are difficult and frustrating.
Recommended brands: it’s hard to find a “bad” case these days—most manufacturers seem to have the building and ergonomics down to a science. I prefer cases from Fractal Design and Antec, but Corsair, NZXT, and Cooler Master are all popular brands with lots of cases. But they aren’t the only ones, so feel free to shop around.
Your power supply supplies electricity to every component of your PC, so you want one powerful enough for your build—and reliable enough for safe, efficient operation. Power supply selection is a lot more important than it seems on the surface.
How Many Watts? Obviously, you don’t want the total electricity used by those components to be more than it can convert. The biggest draws here will be your motherboard, CPU, and graphics card. Other components, like the case fans and the storage drives, use so little electricity that you can usually fit them into the margins of your calculations.
The total power draw of your combined components determines how much capacity your power supply needs, in watts. For example, the NVIDIA GTX 1080 TI, a very powerful graphics card, requests a power supply of at least 600 watts in its specifications (and both an 8-pin and 6-pin power rail—see the graphics card compatibility section). The GT 950, a much less powerful card, needs only 150 watts.
If you’re not sure exactly how much power you need for your system, use this handy calculator. Just put in the specifications of the components you’ve selected and it will tell you how many watts your power supply will need. Again, you’ll still need to make sure that the power supply’s rails match the sockets on your motherboard, graphics card (if you have one), SATA drives, and other components.
Modular, Semi-Modular or Fixed: Some power supplies have their cables (or “rails”) permanently attached, so you just have to stuff the excess wherever you can—even if you aren’t using certain rails at all. A modular or semi-modular power supply, on the other hand, allows all or some of the power rails to be unplugged from the supply itself. This is an extremely handy upgrade, especially if you’ll be working on a case with cramped quarters or a lot of components. If you budget will stretch, go for the upgrade over a non-modular model.
Efficiency and Quality: When you shop for a power supply, you’ll often see a little badge indicating how efficient it is. It’ll usually say something like 80 Plus, 80 Plus Bronze, 80 Plus Silver, 80 Plus Gold, or 80 Plus Platinum. The higher the badge, the more efficient the power supply will be, the less noise it’ll produce, and the less you’ll pay in wasted electricity.
Lastly, you’re dealing with electricity here, so it’s imperative that you get a safe, well-built power supply. If you get a cheap, poorly-built model, you’re asking for trouble. At best, it’ll fail early and be unable to power your PC. At worst, it could harm your parts or even be a fire hazard. Instead of reading user reviews, we highly recommend going to a reputable site like JonnyGURU.com, which is known for its in-depth testing of power supplies for quality. Search for the power supply you’re interested in, and if it gives the thumbs up, you know you’re in a good spot.
Note that some cases may come with power supplies, but in most cases, they are not high quality ones we’d recommend. This is not the place to skimp, guys: buy a decent power supply.
Recommended brands: Corsair, EVGA, and Cooler Master are a few good ones, but there are many others. But just because a brand is good doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your homework—sometimes good brands can make a low quality PSU, so check those expert reviews before you buy.
This is a complicated and contentious choice, but if you’re looking to do some gaming, it’s one of the most important choices you’ll make in terms of performance.
Which Chipset Brand? Like processors, discrete graphics cards come in two primary flavors: NVIDIA and AMD (yes, the same AMD as before—they bought NVIDIA’s rival ATI years ago). NVIDIA tends to lead in pure technical power and AMD typically competes on value, although this can ebb and flow at different times. NVIDIA also has technologies like GameStream that may be worth paying extra to you.
Which Manufacturer? There’s another layer of complication here: NVIDIA and AMD don’t build their own graphics cards (most of the time), they license their GPU chips out to other companies who then construct and sell the cards under their own brands. So you can buy an NVIDIA GTX 1050 card from ASUS, EVGA, or Zotac, all using the same NVIDIA processor with very slight variations in the circuit board, RAM, cooler, monitor connections, and other parts. Start with which graphics chip you want, then figure out which manufacturer has the card with the features you need.
How Much Power? The card you get depends on what you want to do. Even if you’re looking for high-end gaming, you probably don’t need to spend as much as you think. There’s an enormous selection of cards from a ton of different companies at all different price points, but a very brief breakdown goes something like this:
Look at benchmarks, especially for the games you want to play, to see which cards are going to be best in your budget.
Lastly, make sure the card you buy can get enough power from your PC. Most mid-range and all high-end graphics cards need a dedicated electrical connection to the power supply, in addition to being mounted on the motherboard. You’ll need to make sure that your power supply has enough rails and the right connection to support it. Check the specifications: most require either a 6-pin rail, an 8-pin rail, or multiples of both. The GPU also draws electrical power at a rate that shouldn’t exceed your power supply’s capacity.
Recommended brands: You can’t go wrong with EVGA, ASUS, GIGABYTE, MSI, and XFX.
If you want to add an aftermarket cooler to your CPU—which you more or less only need if you’re planning on overclocking it—we recommend Cooler Master, Noctua, or (if you want a liquid cooler) Corsair. For compatibility, make sure it supports your CPU’s socket and that it can fit into your case—the specifications will list its height from the motherboard up.
Most of the other stuff you can buy for the inside of your PC will connect to and draw power directly from the motherboard, like PCI-E expansion slots or add-ons that use the front drive bays. Just make sure you have enough connections and space to supply them and you’re fine. The only real exception is case fans, which can plug into either the motherboard or directly to the power supply.
Your needs for each individual component will vary based on the kind of computer you want to build, and your budget. You can find help for selecting the right graphics card or RAM with a Google search (or hey, how about searching How-To Geek?), but this article is all about choosing components that are compatible with each other. So before you make your final purchases, make this last check for compatibility, checking each part against each corresponding part in sequence.
That may seem daunting, but again, a site like PCPartPicker can do most of the heavy lifting for you—then you can just double check the spec sheet and make sure everything matches up.
When you’ve finally decided that all your parts are compatible and you’re ready to buy, make your purchases and proceed to the next part of this guide. It’s time to build your PC!
Or, if you want to jump to another part in the guide, here’s the whole thing: