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I can't but help giving a short introduction to this node. I once again find myself in the process of building my own personal computer from assorted purchased components. This is only the second time I am building a machine from "scratch", so this write-up is in no way to be considered complete, merely a guide for people who would like suggestions or additional ideas concerning the process. In other words, this guide will not provide a step-by-step approach as to how to assemble a lot of computer components into a complete PC. Proceed at your own discretion...

Why build your own PC?

Let's start by looking at some of the advantages and disadvantages of assembling a PC from scratch, as opposed to buying a complete system from a dealer:

Advantages
  • Complete control concerning components
  • Can be cheaper than buying a complete system
  • Easier service interaction
  • The joy of model building
  • (Possible simpler upgradability)
Disadvantages
  • Decision making necessary (can lead to more mistakes)
  • Can be more expensive than buying a complete system
  • Difficult service interaction
  • The horror of model building
  • (Possible separate delivery hell)

As you may have noticed, many of the advantages are countered by exact opposite disadvantages and vice versa. This requires further explination. Basically it all comes down to asking yourself a select set of questions:

The first question is of primary importance. If you dislike having to make a lot of decisions and taking responsability for them, then building a PC from "scratch" is probably not for you. The second question is more secondary. Even if your answer here is "no", building a PC might still be up your alley. I don't spend my time building anything particular (models, furtiture, etc.), but when it comes to completing my PC I have no problem asserting myself.

Back to the matter at hand. Having complete control over the components involved is a mixed blessing. It allows you to make mistakes and order components that won't actually work together, yet it also allows you to order the exact components with the best review scores available - potentially yielding the best bang for your buck at any given price range. It is of course the latter we are striving for when putting together a PC. Ordering components that fit together also gets easier with time - both in regards to experience gained and to the products themselves. Products are getting better and better at categorizing which components work with what. Trust me - things were much worse 10 years ago.

Aside from the fact that choosing the best components will give you the best bang for your buck you may end up with a more expensive PC than the complete system at your local dealer. And then again - you may not. In my experience you usually get off cheaper ordering compenents separately and collecting them partially because you are performing a service you would otherwise pay for, and because you are cutting out the middle man. Another ecomomic detail concerns the electric magnetism that each system emits. According to european law, these emissions have to be measured for each sold system and such procedures aren't cheap. This is something that only a dealer selling complete systems has to bother with. However, keep in mind that large dealers have other advantages - buying in large quantities yields lower prices and afaik only about 20% of the biggest dealers in germany actually pay to perform these emission checks. Those that do, obviously sell a series of PC's and only need to perform the emission check on one of the PC's (in the series) so the cost is easily spread.

Buying separate components can make servicing your computer a sinch, or a hellish nightmare. It really depends on how your local dealer fares with its service policy. Due to purchasing components separately, you are provided with individual and varying guarentee on each part (from the manufacturer). This is also the case with a complete system, but usually the dealer steps in as your interactive partner concerning any warrenty issues. Certain dealers must receive the complete PC if any one compenent is broken and then deal with it accordingly. Ordering separate components will allow you to only exchange what is broken and deal with the retailer or even manufacturer if the retailer is uncooperative. Something that is of utmost importance in this connection is that you are now responsible for figuring out what is wrong with your PC. No longer can you unload the entire PC and expect it back in 6-8 weeks with everything fixed. As with the previous point, the specific details vary a lot based upon the retailers and dealers involved. It should however be noted, that assembling a PC yourself usually leads to it being built with regular off-the-shelf parts. This has the tremendous advantage of being easy to upgrade. Buying a complete PC may put you in the unfortunate position of owning a system with components you yourself cannot easily obtain or upgrade.

The final issue at hand, before we get down to the actual details of how to build your own PC, concerns the same. Building the PC will take time and effort. Taking into consideration the time to get an overview of the components (after being purchased), glancing at the necessary manuals and finally assemling all the components - building the PC can take anywhere from 2 to 8 hours. I usually land somewhere between 5 and 6. Sufficed to say, an entire day spent building and installing the PC is to be expected.

Building the PC

Now were getting somewhere. Here's a short overview of how my personal PC-building experience usually unfolds:

  1. Find potential components by either observing what others are buying, or reading online tech guides1
  2. Read up on each component on the manufacturers website as well as online tech guides1
  3. for an objective perspective
  4. Research a selection of local retailers carrying the components. Price and service are of utmost importance here. The cheapest dealer may offer terrible service, so make sure to read up on past experiences from other customers. But remember, the most expensive is almost never the best - the component is identical no matter who is selling it, so stick to the cheaper retailers
  5. Purchase as many components from one supplier as possible. I usually end up with 3-4 separate retailers to avoid paying for shipping for each separate component, yet still hit a low price margin on all of them
  6. Receive and assemble components
  7. In case of faulty hardware, contact the respective dealer

Before ordering any components, it's beneficial to realise which components are necessary for creating a complete system. Here is a brief overview of the basic neccessities for building a PC from scratch. Be aware, that actual necessities vary a lot depending on what the system is to be used for and otherwise contains.

Some of the items mentioned above may be redundant, such as the graphics card or the sound card. These components are sometimes included on-board on the motherboard and are sufficient for the purposes of the customer. As mentioned before, the items above should form a complete system. The cabinet includes screws for fastening the motherboard and other devices to it, and the motherboard should come with all the cables necessary to hook the system up internally.

Once all the items have been acquired, it is a matter of assembling the pieces to form the complete puzzle. The order in which items are installed in the cabinet is usually irrelevant, except for the fact that one component may block the access of another. It's usually a good idea to start with the motherboard and take it from there. Of course, before the motherboard is to be installed, it's probably a good idea to mount the CPU on it. Once the motherboard is in place, it may be hard to access.

Component interoperability

I'd like to finish off this first draft of the write-up with a few notes on interoperability and compatibility. The motherboard is the centerpiece that strings together all other components in a PC. As such, it is also the place where most incompatibilities occur. Sometimes strange things occur in the computer world. Certain components - although completely compatible by specification - simply will not work together properly. This is afaik more of a rarity these days, but in earlier times these problems sometimes affected widely sold components. The point is, it's important to stay informed concerning all components one decides to buy. It would be redundant to list which compatibility zones to watch for as these change rapidly. Today it's IDE, SCSI, SATA, AT, ATX, BTX, DDR, DIMM, SIMM and any given CPU socket - tomorrow the standards may have changed. Ok - maybe not on a today/tomorrow basis, but the standards do change relatively fast in my opinion.

Half-way house solution

As an addendum, it should be mentioned that there is an in-between solution to building your own PC from scratch and buying a complete one from a retailer. A good deal of retailers offer you a large variety of options to choose from - essentially letting you (almost) completely customize a PC from scratch without having to assemble it yourself. This will, depending on the retailer, contain any number of advantages and disadvantages from either side of the previous comparison.

I hope that this write-up has been at all helpful or at least pointed in the right direction. Good luck with your PC building...


1 online tech guides

  • Tom's Hardware Guide @ http://www.tomshardware.com/
  • Anandtech Hardware Reviews @ http://www.anandtech.com/
  • ExtremeTech.com @ http://www.extremetech.com/
  • ArsTechnica.com @ http://arstechnica.com/
  • Many others...

Thanks to the following people for suggesting improvements to this write-up: belgand, spiregrain

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