This article is part 2 of a 3 part series on building your own PC. Part 1
Welcome back folks to the three week summary of my obsession with building PCs. Last week I spoke about why you should go DIY and build your next desktop computer. This week, we’ll talk more concrete and go into what you need to buy, and what considerations you might want to take when you’re doing so.
I should say that my philiosophy behind building my own rigs has been, “Building the best computer possible for the least amount money.” So, everything I write will be coming from that standpoint.
Before we jump right into the shopping list, there are two things to consider before compiling said list:
1. What you’re using this computer for
What are going to do with this computer? Is it just a general office/web browsing computer that you’re going to use for office work and maybe some light gaming? Perhaps you’ll edit some home videos for YouTube? You won’t need too much horsepower then. Will you be using it for production work? So editing, motion graphics, and design? Or, are you going building a monster gaming rig? As far as budget goes, that’s entirely up to you. Of course, the fact remains that the more you spend, the more powerful your system will be, but there are certain break points, where you’ll hit good bang for your buck. A basic gaming rig can be built for about $400. $700-800 is about the next tier up. Finally, there’s the $1000+ bracket, which I honestly don’t know too much about, because I’ve never spent that much on a PC, nor felt the need to do so.
Note: Each section will contain a list called “_____ Compatibility notes” which will outline specs that will be helpful in making sure your components are compatibile with each other.
And now, the list:
Now that you’ve established your main uses for the computer, you can choose what CPU you’re going with. CPU stands for Central Processing Unit. It is basically the brains of the computer. They come in a variety of different flavors, speeds, and number of cores these days. You’ll see Intel Core 2 Duo or Intel Core i7 or AMD FX Series or AMD A-Series all rated at different clock speeds, which are usually are measured in GHz (Gigahertz). Higher gigahertz doesn’t necessarily translate into real-world performance though, as a quad core processor at 2.2 GHz might perform better than a dual core at 2.8 GHz in certain applications and vice versa. But, at the base level, the higher the GHz, the faster the CPU.
The big question that gets asked these days is which manufacturer should I go with, AMD or Intel? Well, if you’re doing mostly office work, whichever you can get for the cheapest. For gaming, the AMDs will usually grant greater bang for the buck. If you’re doing heavy graphics work/editing, you’re going to want to go with the fastest Intel CPU you can afford, as much of Adobe’s (creators of Photoshop and Premiere) code is optimized for use with Intel chips. Otherwise, get as many cores at as fast a clock speed that you can afford.
Now, CPUs generate a lot of heat, so they need a way to get rid of it quickly. This is where a heatsink/fan (HSF) comes in. The heatsink is a piece of metal, usually aluminum, that sits on top of the CPU, drawing heat away from the CPU, so it can be dissipated by the fan that sits on top of the heatsink. Usually when you buy a CPU, it will either come in a retail box, which comes with a heatsink/fan, or it will come OEM/bare chip, in which case you will have to buy a separate heatsink/fan. For simplicity’s sake, you should probably get a retail boxed CPU. You can actually opt for a more powerful heatsink/fan or watercooling if you plan to overclock your system. Overclocking is the practice of setting a CPU to run faster than its marketed speed. Aftermarket heatsinks are usually divided by kind of socket type your CPU has. For example, if your AMD CPU fits an FM2 socket, you’ll be looking for an FM2 heatsink/fan. Now, watercooling is the next level of cooling and is probably outside the scope of this article.
CPU Compatibility notes:
1. Socket Type (LGA 1150, FM2, AM3, etc.)
2. Speed (GHz)
3. Core type (Haswell, Llano, etc.)
Now that you know what kind of CPU you’re going to buy, you can go after the motherboard. The motherboard is the circuitboard that all the other components (including the CPU) are plugged into to make them all work together. The motherboard is kind of like the central/peripheral nervous system of the computer. Motherboards are usually divided into what kind of CPUs they’re compatibile with. AMD motherboards work with AMD CPUs and Intel motherboards work with Intel chips. Each motherboard type is further divided into what kind of socket types of CPU they accept. Socket type basically refers to the shape of the socket on the motherboard that a CPU plugs into. Current AMD sockets include AM3, FM2, and AM2+. On the Intel side, there’s LGA 1150, LGA 1155, and LGA 1156.
Chipset refers to a chip on the motherboard that basically controls the way all the components on a board interact. Think of this as the pituitary gland of the computer. Once you figure our CPU/Socket match, your CPU/motherboard compatibility problems will be pretty much solved. There is a possible issue, though, where some older chipsets won’t accept newer chips, so that’s something look out for.
Otherwise, your main concern with the chipset is whether or not it’s good for overclocking. If that doesn’t matter to you, don’t worry too much about the chipset besides its compatibility.
Type of RAM
Different motherboards accept different types of RAM. Most desktop memory these days comes in the form of 240-pin DIMM modules, known colloquially as “sticks.” Which kind of RAM your motherboard accepts will be listed in the specs and will usually say something like, “ 4 x DDR3 1066/1333/1600/1866, Max 32GB” This means it accepts 4 sticks of DDR3 1066, and can handle a maximum of 32GB of RAM. You don’t need to know what DDR3 or 1066 means quite yet, just make note of it.
You should be aware of what drive connectors, and how many connectors, your motherboard has, these are the sockets on the board that your hard drives and optical drives (bluray/dvd) plug into. Nowadays, these will usually be SATA (Serial ATA), as opposed to the IDE (PATA) connectors from a few years ago. SATA connectors are rated by speed, usually 3GB/s and 6GB/s. The faster the better. Also, the more connectors the better.
Also, if you’re planning to use RAID (Rapid Array of Inexpensive Disks, basically several hard drives configured to operate as one, more later) storage, making sure the motherboard is JBOD capable would be good.
Expansion slots allow for the use of expansion cards, like video cards, firewire cards, and wireless networking cards. How many and what kind are there? Usually there are two types. PCI-e(PCI Express) and PCI. PCI-e slots are usually for cards that require a high rate of data transfer, like video cards. PCIe is itself split into different speeds, the most common being PCIe and PCIe 2.0. PCI Express 2.0 is the faster and more recent of two, and is used almostly exclusively for video cards. So, when you choose your video card, make sure the motherboard can handle it. Additionally, motherboards may have two PCIe 2.0 slots if you want to run dual graphics cards, either known as Crossfire or SLI capability, depending on whether you’re using ATI or nVidia graphics cards, respectively.
These days, most motheboards come with onboard audio. And it really doesn’t sound half bad, anymore. Nor does it bog down the CPU like it used to. If, however, you have audiophile leanings, you might want to invest in a Soundcard like the Creative Soundblaster series, that will plug into one of the aforementioned PCI expansion slots.
Some motherboards come with onboard or integrated video processing. This eliminates the need for purchasing a video card for some users. You’ll see integrated video marketed as “Intel HD Graphics” or “Intel Extreme Graphics” or something similar. This should be fine if all you plan to do is office work, web browsing, and emailing on your machine. If you plan to do any gaming, however, you should really opt for a discrete video solution.
Motherboard Compatibility notes:
1. Socket type
2. RAM type
3. PCIe slot speed
4. Drive connector types/number
RAM stands for Random Access Memory. This is where the computer stores all the data it is currently, actively using. Think of this as the computer’s short-term memory. RAM is what people refer to when they ask you how much memory your computer has. The more RAM you have, the quicker your computer will be able to do things like switch between tasks/programs, work with large video files, and launch games. How much ram do you need? Well, it depends on what you’re doing and what OS, you’ll be running. Generally, however, if you’re just doing office work, you should be good with 4GB. Gaming and some design work? Up it to at least 8GB. Working with HD video editing? 16GB or more.
In terms of compatibility, like I said, your motherboard will be judge of that. The motherboard specs should outline the maximum amount of memory it can handle, which is usually either 16GB or 32GB these days. Also, the specs will let you know how fast and what type of RAM the motherboard uses. This is where the DDR acronym comes into play. DDR stands for Double Data Rate. Most motherboards these days run on DDR3, which is the latest version in widespread use. This is important because DDR2 RAM is incompatible with a DDR3 motherboard, and vice versa. For the most part, DDR2 has been phased out, so it shouldn’t be a problem, unless you’re building a legacy system.
Now, usually, when looking at compatible RAM on a motherboard spec list, you might see a list of compatible speeds, like DDR3 1066/1333/1600/1866/2133. This number refers to the number of transfers a second (MT/s). If you look at specs while buying RAM, however, you might see two numbers, for example DDR3 1066 (PC-8500). That second number is roughly the max transfer speed in MB/s, but you can mostly ignore that, because you already know that the RAM is DDR 1066, and that is on the list of compatible speeds with the motherboard. Usually, you’ll want to buy the fastest RAM the motherboard can possibly handle, in our case, it’s DDR3 2133.
Another note, computers usually don’t like hybrid RAM systems, meaning they don’t play well if you have multiple sticks at different speeds. If this does happen, the computer will clock all the other RAM down to match speeds with the slowest stick, which means buying all that super fast memory will be a waste. So, try to buy everything at the same speed.
RAM Compatibility Notes
1. DDR version
2. Speed (1066/1333/1600/1866/2133)
Storage configuration is one of the most customizable areas of DIY computing. You can taylor how much hard drive space you have, and how it works, to suit your needs. If you’re going to, again, doing mainly office work on your computer, you might be fine with a single, fast, hard disk drive, something that spins at 7200rpm with an 8MB or greater cache. If you’re gaming, however, you might appreciate the speed of two hard drives, with your operating system running on an SSD (solid state drive) and a secondary hard disk drive for file storage. If you’re editing, speed is even more important. Maybe you’d have your OS and important programs running off an SSD, and then your file storage/scratch disks might be a RAID array. As mentioned before, RAID stands for Rapid Array of Inexpensive Disks, which is where you can take several hard drives, and configure them so that they operate as one large one. They can be configured to act like one hard drive to speed up what you’re working on (so several hard drives are working as one on a particular task) or as a backup (mirroring).
It really is up to you, how much you’re willing to spend, and how much storage you need. I, for example, have about 1.5 TB of storage on my laptop, and I’ve only really used up 40% of it, over the past 10 months. I do some gaming, so, I’m planning to switch to a SSD to run my OS, and larger (1TB) hard disk drive for storage, just for some extra speed launching games.
What exactly is the difference between solid state drives and hard disk drives? As opposed to the traditional hard disk drive, where a moving magnetic head writes data on a spinning disk, SSDs are made of memory chips similar to the ones you find on RAM sticks. However, they are non-volatile, meaning the retain data after the computer is shut off, much like USB thumb drives, but much faster. As a result, SSDs are faster, quieter, and more durable due to the lack of moving parts. A computer that boots off an SSD may go from off to completely usable in seconds as opposed to minutes. The problem is that SSDs are much more expensive per gigabyte that a hard disk drive, and they don’t come in capacities as large.