- It’s very satisfying to get exactly the computer you want.
- Building the computer is remarkably easy. With few exceptions, all the parts from all of the different manufacturers are designed to fit together. No knowledge of soldering or electronics is required—think Tinker Toys for grownups.
- It’s usually no more expensive than buying a pre-built computer from a manufacturer.
- You get warranties on the parts, but not on the system. If you can’t figure out which part is giving you trouble, you’ve got a problem.
- If it doesn’t work right the first time, you’re going to have some frustrating debugging to do.
- More generally, there’s no helpful person in India to call and explain your problem to. You’re on your own, baby.
- You will be tempted to buy better quality parts than you would normally order from a manufacturer—say hello to scope creep.
You should probably figure on taking 2-3 hours just to assemble the computer, particularly if this is your first time, plus some more time to install the operating system. If you like putting the pieces together, this will be happy time.
Am I the Sort of Person to Build My Own Computer?
There are really only three qualifications.
- You are the kind of person who figures out how to do stuff with your computer. People ask you for help. When you ask for help, you’re looking for some genuine technical expertise.
- You are not completely ham-handed. If you have trouble tying knots, then slotting recalcitrant plugs in small spaces will really annoy you.
- You have some basic understanding of the hardware involved, and the recklessness to fiddle with it. The rest of this page may help you to determine whether you fit this last qualification.
What Do I Need to Know?
You should not try to build your own computer without a basic understanding of the parts involved. You can learn this pretty quickly, however, and if you don’t learn it quickly, or if you find the learning process annoying, stop here.
Print this page out. Now turn off and unplug your computer. Open up the case. I’d tell you how, but cases vary widely. If your computer is tower-shaped, you’re usually trying to remove the panel on the left hand side as you face the front of the machine.
OK, so now you’ve found all the dust that’s been hiding in there. Pull out your Dustbuster and go crazy (well, not too crazy—try not to knock stuff around). If you have it, compressed air is even better—but you will get a big cloud of dust, so beware.
Don’t touch anything inside the case if you’re carrying a static charge. This is a particular problem if the air is dry. Go touch something metal that is grounded—the screws that hold wall plates for light switches and outlets or the metal portion of any plugged-in appliance.
So what are we looking at here?
- Power Supply: rectangular metal box mounted in a back corner of the case, with a whole bunch of wires coming out of it. Note that the wires lead everywhere—to the motherboard (often twice), to the drives and sometimes to an expansion card.
- Motherboard: the large green circuit board at the bottom. Among other functions, the motherboard is used to connect (almost) everything to (almost) everything else. Note that most of the connector slots in the back of your computer are actually part of the motherboard.
- CPU: You can’t see it right now. It’s mounted on the motherboard, but it’s hidden underneath a cooler, usually consisting of a fan mounted on top of a bunch of metal fins. By all means clean the fins while you’re here. But curb your curiosity—you do NOT want to remove the cooler to take a peek (unless you have and are prepared to apply some thermal paste).
- RAM: short, wide circuit boards sticking up out of mounting slots in the motherboard, usually right next to the CPU. You may find that you have more slots than RAM. The slots have little thumb tabs on either end. Push the tabs down and the RAM pops up and out. Push the RAM back in, and the tabs come up and lock against the RAM.
- Hard disks: one or more rectangular metal boxes, usually 3.5” wide, usually mounted in slots near the front of the case. Note that each hard disk has two cables attached. One leads to the power supply, and the other goes to the motherboard (the data cable).
- Optical drives: like the hard drives, but wider (5 ¼”). The front of the optical drive is exposed by the case so the tray can slide out.
- Expansion cards: there are a bunch of slots in the motherboard that point towards the back of the computer. In your computer, some, none or all of these slots may be occupied with expansion cards, which will usually protrude out the back of the computer as well. Expansion cards are used to provide capabilities not provided by the motherboard, such as graphics (or better graphics), more USB connectors, eSATA connectors, modems, network connections, better sound, you name it. Work out what you have, as it may influence what you buy for the future.
Now that you’ve got your computer open, think about fiddling with it. Except for the CPU cooler (as noted above), unplug stuff and plug it back in. Note that some of the wires have squeeze tabs to ensure a tight fit. Remove some RAM chips and slot them back in. Some force is needed to re-seat the RAM, but do make sure that you have lined things up right (there’s a little gap in the bottom of the RAM chip that forces you to put it in the right way round). Unplug, unscrew and remove a hard drive. Note that you may have to remove some more panels from your case to do this. Put it back. I wouldn’t recommend removing the motherboard in its entirety, but note that it is mounted to the case by a bunch of screws—find them.
Did that horrify you? Or was that sorta interesting?
If you’re horrified, it’s perfectly ok, but you probably shouldn’t build your own computer. But if you have been entertained, you’re probably the right person to build your own computer.
Where Do I Go From Here?
This article was originally inspired by a nice article at Tom’s Hardware, one of our go-to places for advice on computer hardware. The article provides an admirably complete overview of the process, from selecting components, to buying them, and finally putting them together. Where it omits details, it provides links to other helpful resources. It’s also well worth looking at the various “System Buyer’s Guides” at Anandtech.