Is this a how to? Or is this a personal memo for next time I upgrade/build a PC? Call it what you will – this is a brief outline of the pitfalls for the novice PC builder.
FYI this was written in May 2009. I include that fact because if you google you will find stuff dating back to 2002 which is immensely unhelpful, given the rate at which PCs improve.
PC Wizard – it’s like My Computer, but cleverer. And it’s free.
Tom’s Hardware – reviews, forums and tips
Build Your Own PC – a guide (no, really).
Take photos! If you take apart your PC, or even open it, take photos before you disconnect things! My blurry iPhone images were a lifesaver, especially front panel LED connectors etc.
Mains electricity – this will kill you. Always disconnect the PC from the mains before opening the case, and if you are testing the motherboard with the case open ideally have the PC connected via a circuit breaker and try not to do stupid things like dropping tools into the case and potentially electrocuting yourself.
Static electricity – this will kill components. Don’t work on carpet, don’t wear wool, ideally don’t wear shoes (though bear in mind some shoes will reduce the chance of mains electricity killing you – so don’t electrocute yourself if you are barefoot). Work on a table or non-carpet floor, try and ground yourself periodically and ideally wear an anti-static wrist strap. Never put components directly onto metal (the case for example), especially the motherboard, as it will short and kill itself.
AKA case – size matters – cases are made to fit various size motherboards. In addition you can get slim cases; bear in mind these involve more cleverer cooling and smaller components. I personally went for the bigger-than-my-garden-shed case option.
Cases bite – they can have sharp edges and draw blood.
Power Supply Unit. Don’t ask the boys in PC World for one, they’ll give you a power lead. Mains goes in one end, lots of wires come out the other. These wires can be ATA (white 4-pin male plug, old) or SATA (black thin multi-contact male plug, new). The smaller version of the white ATA are ATA plugs for floppies. You can get cheap adaptors if you have a SATA drive and an ATA PSU – you want the adaptor to have a female ATA and a male SATA. Also called Molex adaptors.
PSUs have a range of wattages – if you pick too low a wattage some of your components might not work – e.g. I suspect some of my USBs stopped working when I installed a new graphics card on my old machine. If you plan to run loads of drives, you want 500W or more. If you’re only running a normal machine, I believe 400-450W is better. Quality apparently matters so a 450W good make is better than a 500W generic, as the generic may not produce 500W, and may be less reliable long term.
Don’t tamper with the PSU; see above re: mains electricity and death.
AKA mobo (oh yeah, I’m down with the lingo). A large circuit board that is the nervous system of the computer. These come in various sizes, the most important being ATX (big) and Micro-ATX (smaller, obviously). This is why case size matters – you can’t fit an ATX into a case made only for Micro-ATX. Many cases are made for both.
When putting the motherboard into the case it MUST be lifted from the metal case by little pillars – either the case will have small 1cm wide bubbles in the metal that the screw holes are in, or the case will come with little spacers you screw in first, and then you screw the motherboard onto the spacers. If you place the motherboard directly onto flat metal it will short and die.
The big important connectors get their own sections below, but the smaller ones will be mentioned here. The front panel of your case (with it’s power switch, LEDs, reset buttons, audio sockets and USBs) will have trailing wires, these attach to the motherboard, in the lower right (if you have the I/O panel on the left side). USBs and audio can attach in more random places also.
When buying a motherboard don’t bother with warranty repaired unless it has all the parts, and if you get OEM try and get a manual. A newbie getting a motherboard with no I/O shield, no manual and no bloody cables is an unnecessary learning curve. The I/O shield is the metal plate that goes in the back of your case where the keyboard, mouse, USB ports etc. all stick through. It is necessary to prevent dust getting into the case and to prevent small creatures, fingers or kitkats getting in there. It’s a bloody pain trying to buy one separate to the motherboard – try ebay if the company that makes the board is being difficult. Manuals are usually available on the company site.
AKA RAM, sort of. Type matters – SIMM and DIMM refer to whether the contacts are on one side (SIMM) or two (DIMM) but tbh you can’t really get SIMM nowadays. Then there is DDR, DDR2, DDR3 and so on. DDR is oldest and slowest, DDR3 is newest and fastest. A DDR stick of memory won’t fit in a DDR2 or DDR3 slot etc. A motherboard will either have one or more types of slots possible – the more slots the more expensive. Only DDR is a mistake in 2009 – yes the mobo will be cheaper but the memory will be more expensive and harder to get because DDR is not produced as much now DDR2 is mainstream. If you want forward compatibility, get a mobo that has DDR2 and DDR3 slots – you can use DDR2 now until DDR3 becomes cheaper.
Motherboard: Processor (aka CPU, Central Processing Unit)
Different sockets for these too. LGA775 (Intel) AM2, AM2+ and AM3 (AMD) are the most common modern socket, and older motherboards make have Socket 478 or others. The socket on the board affects what processor you can have. Motherboards should list which processors they accept in their specs. Pick your processor, then find a motherboard that supports it.
Processors – Intel vs AMD is generally up to you. Some say AMD are not as good for gaming, but unless you’re a hardcore gamer (in which case you wouldn’t be reading this page…) you won’t notice. Intel processors have various numbers of cores (dual core is suitably good now, quad core is overkill) and both Intel and AMD have a speed in GHz, but bear in mind that the speed doesn’t really equal performance betweem the processor species. e.g. a 2.9GHz Intel is better than a 2.5GHz Intel, but a 2.9GHz AMD isn’t necessarily better than a 2.5GHz Intel. So pick a species based mostly on whether you like the colour, then get the most speed you can. Buffer is good too – more buffer = more coping ability of the processor.
The CPU will get super hot and die if you turn it on for more than a few seconds without having the heat sink attached and the CPU fan powered.
Motherboard: Expansion slots (for graphics cards primarily)
A motherboard either has integrated graphics or doesn’t. You can tell by whether the motherboard has a socket for the monitor at the back as part of the I/O array; no socket means no onboard integrated graphics.
Girl games – Sims 2, Spore, EVE (ok, some aren’t very girly) – you won’t need a hardcore gaming PC but it’s unlikely integrated graphics will cope with most of these. You’ll get crap frame-rates and the black “I can’t deal with this” blocks will occur. Worst case, things will fry (EVE fried my laptop).
Graphic cards use a slot in the motherboard. This can be an AGP slot or a PCI slot. PCI Express x16 is the current best, with 2.0 being the best readily available of that range. PCI-e x1, x2, x4, x8 will all fit in a PCI-e x16 slot, but AGP won’t. Graphics cards have a memory (512GB adequate, 1GB if you like your games a lot), and a clockspeed and memory clockspeed (faster is better and don’t sacrifice speed just to get a GB – a fast smaller memory may well be better than a slow huge one).