August 6, 2011
Building a Computer
Table of Contents
If you've never done it before, the idea of building a computer from the ground up can seem very intimidating—but it's one of the most satisfying projects a tech enthusiast can take on. Being more of a software gal than a hardware geek myself, I was the only Life hacker editor who had never built a PC from scratch. So when I needed a new PC late last year, I took the plunge and built my custom system. I'm so glad I did—the project turned out to be one of my proudest accomplishments of 2010. If you've cracked open your PC before to install a new hard drive or TV capture card, but you've never built a whole new system from the ground up, it's not as difficult as you might think. Here are my notes for first-timers who want to build instead of buy their next computer.
Why Build Instead of Buy
"But computers are so cheap these days," you say. "Why waste the time and energy building your own system when you can get a great machine fully assembled and shipped to your door?" That's a great question. Building your own PC will not save you time. It might save you money, but that's not even the best reason to do it. For me, it was a fantastic hands-on educational experience. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction every single day when I press the power button on my tower, watch it light up, and know that I plugged in the wire that goes from that light to the motherboard. Building your PC takes the mystery out of what's going on inside that black box you spend hours on per day. There are other good reasons to build instead of buy, too. With your own build you can customize your system just how you like and make your perfect media center or gaming machine. You can save money if you already have some parts. Upgrading your PC in the future becomes easier and cheaper since your parts aren't tied to a particular manufacturer. With a custom build you can do fun stuff like overclock your CPU and get more bang for your buck, or install OS X where it was never intended to run. In short, building your own PC makes you feel like a badass.
What You're Getting Into
Don't get me wrong, though: building a PC (for the first time especially) takes research, time, gumption, patience, and a willingness to deal with several WTF moments. If you've never cracked a PC's case and installed parts, like a new hard drive or a video card, start there first. If you've got that experience under your belt, you might think that building a new PC is just a matter of snapping together a few parts. It is, but building from the ground up takes much more than an hour or two. My build took two full days, one online order, one returned motherboard, two trips to Fry's, one condescending sneer from a sales associate when I asked a newb question, and one trip to Radio Shack. If that sounds like a lot, well, it was, and there were moments in the process when I wished I'd just bought a Dell. But when it finally all came together, all the sweat makes the results even sweeter.
Where to Start: Researching and Buying Your Parts
You scared off yet? No? Good. Let's get down to it. There are a gadzillion articles on the internet about building your own PC, but many are way out of date, or just don't get specific about what exactly you should buy. When I had to start researching what parts to purchase, of course I turned to savvy Life hacker readers to help me out. Several readers mentioned Ars Technica's excellent system buyer's guide, which breaks down exactly what parts you'd want for one of three levels of computer: a "budget box," a "hot rod," or a "God box." The 2008 guide published last fall; make sure you use the most recent one when you start your research. I started by plugging parts from Ars' "hot rod" system list into Newegg to get a...