How to build a desktop PC: A reference guide

If you’ve ever spent any time looking for recommendations on a new computer, chances are someone has told you to “just build a desktop.” There’s a reason: building your own desktop is almost always cheaper than buying one from a manufacturer.

The problem, of course, is it that you need to get your hands dirty. But building a PC in 2017 is probably not as difficult as you imagine; it’s kind of like putting together a lego set. And we’re here to help.

One disclaimer: this is not meant to be an exhaustive guide for absolute beginners. There are plenty of those on the interwebs; I like this one by Lifehacker and this one by Tom’s Hardware. Instead, this is for the tech-saavy user that already has a solid understanding of PC hardware (do you know what a PCI-E Slot is? Does DDR4 mean anything to you?), but has never taken it upon themselves to build a PC – or hasn’t done so in a while.

Before you start

One of the more daunting aspects is making sure all the components you buy actually, you know, work with eachother. So before you get started, you should head on over to PC Part Picker. It’s an excellent resource that allows you to collect your parts, view recommended builds, and see pricing from various sellers. PC Hound is another popular one.

More importantly, these sites will warn you if the components you are putting together are not compatible with one another. They are not foolproof though, so if this is your first time building a PC, I suggest you begin with one of the recommended builds, and tweak from there.

Lastly, don’t worry too much about getting the latest and greatest. Trying to extremely future-proofing your PC isn’t a very good idea; the most expensive components provide diminishing returns. You’re better off getting mid-to-high end components that offer more bang for your buck.

What you’ll need

Motherboard

Your computer’s circulatory system, this is probably the component you should spend the most time researching. For one, it’s the most annoying component to replace, since everything connects to it, and you’ll probably have to reinstall your OS if you do.

For another, because it connects to everything, your motherboard also dictates what types of components you can use. Make sure your motherboard has all the features you want, else you might have to buy additional accessories, or miss out on some features altogether. For example, many motherboards don’t include Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on board – yes, even in 2017. Companies expect you to use Ethernet or buy your own wireless card.

USB-C is another one to look out for. The new port has only recently started to be picked up by new motherboards, and many are only the slower USB 3.1 variety, not Thunderbolt 3. You also currently can’t get Thunderbolt 3 on an AMD motherboard.

Lastly, motherboards come in three general sizes: ATX, micro-ATX, and ITX. You’ll probably want an ATX case for your first build. It’s the largest – which means a larger case – but gives you the most flexibility for expansion.

CPU

You have two choices in the CPU world, Intel or AMD. Detailing the differences is beyond the scope of this piece; I recommend you check out sites like Anandtech for more.

A quick, very generalized summary: Intel still makes the fastest chips at top level configurations, but AMD’s Ryzen processors offer better bang for your buck.

Intel will provide generally provide better gaming performance, but AMD will better handling multiple threads – like simultaneous gaming and streaming – thanks to the extra cores. AMD’s Ryzen 5 will probably offer the best value and performance for the vast majority of people, while Intel’s Core i7 7700K is the your best bet for maximal gaming performance.

RAM

RAM may be one of the most important parts of your computer, but it’s one of the easiest components to pick. 16GB will handle most tasks for the vast majority of people for quite some time, and is a bit of overkill for gaming. If you want to go crazy, get 32 GB.

If you need more than that, you probably don’t need to be reading this guide anyway.

Don’t fret over RAM speed. Anything 2400 Mhz and over is unlikely to bottleneck your performance. Just get whatever seems like the best deal

One point of advice: Buy RAM in pairs. Odd numbers of RAM sticks are often inefficient.

Graphics Card

Chances are you’re planning on doing some gaming. If you’re playing at 1080p, an Nvidia 1060 or AMD RX 580 will generally let you max settings out and hit a smooth 60fps.

That said, the Nvidia 1070 is a significant upgrade and I think is the sweet spot for most gamers.

For 4K gaming at max settings, you’ll pretty much need an Nvidia 1080 or higher.

Hard Drive

If you want your PC to be as snappy as possible, install your OS on an SSD. Make sure its of the NVMe variety, and that it’s using a fast connector like an m.2 or u.2 slot. Asus has a good guide on different kinds of storage here.

If you need a lot of storage storage for movies and games, a traditional mechanical hard drive gets you the most gigs per dollar.  It’s slower, but that doesn’t matter much for some workloads like watching videos.

Power Supply

The most boring part of your build, the power supply handles all your electricity needs. The main thing to consider is whether it can draw enough energy for running your configuration. Assembling your computer on PC Part picker should tell you your system’s wattage and whether your power supply is powerful enough.

Keep in mind power supplies come in a ATX and SFX sizes. unless you’re going for a tiny build, you’ll need an ATX unit.

Cooling

As nice as liquid cooling looks, it’s absolute overkill for any first-time builder. Just get a decent cooling fan from a trusted brand like Thermaltake or Coolermaster. Get one with LED lights if you really need something pretty.

Note: Your cooler will generally come with thermal paste to transfer heat from the CPU, but double check to make sure.

Case

This is the a fun bit. There are a myriad of cases to choose from at a myriad of price ranges, fitting all sorts of aesthetics. Corsair, Thermaltake, NZXT, Cooler Master, etc make some good affordable ones.

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