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The complete DIY Guide for Homebuilt PC's

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February 14, 2007 2:46:57 PM

This post is meant to be a basic introduction to homebuilt PC's and even a refresher to those of use who haven't done it in a while. The points covered will be basic; yet if anyone can think of something specific that would help or if I just missed something entirely let me know and I'll edit the post. Now as far as prices are concerned this post will include peripherals and software in the price tag because not everyone has a second PC to salvage parts from.

1. Use & Budget

These 2 items often go overlooked when people consider building or buying a PC. These 2 items are the most important things to consider in building or buying a PC. You can’t be looking to build a CAD workstation on a $500 budget and vice-versa you wouldn’t want to spend $5k on a PC that is just going to surf the net. So before you go laying out components, first determine the PC’s primary function (gaming, surfing the net, ect.) and then look at your budget to see if you can afford the system you want. Now for the purposes of this topic I’m going to describe the whole build from the Tower, to the peripherals, to software.

For a budget/use breakdown I think that 90% of PC's out there fall into these 3 categories:

A. Low-end, average user homebuilt PC (mostly for us broke college kids :roll: )
Use: Net surfing, word processing, light gaming.
Cost: around $1200

B. $2000-$3000 systems (typical homebuilt PC). Mainly used for gaming, net surfing, and light graphics work. A true workhorse PC.

C. $4000 and up systems (cutting edge or better). These PC's are an exclusive breed that have the latest and greatest in both hardware and software. No expense spared. Primary use is graphic design or just for bragging rights.

In the following points I will also list what parts would be expected to be seen in PC's of the above mentioned categories.

For more info:

http://www.tomshardware.com/2006/11/20/how_to_build_par...
http://www.tomshardware.com/2006/12/04/choosing-the-rig...
http://www.tomshardware.com/2006/12/14/how-to-build-a-p...

2. CPU

This is the heart and soul of your machine. The CPU is the greatest determining factor of how well your PC runs. The CPU will also probably be the 2nd to last or last component you upgrade in your PC so chose well. Most good CPU’s can be found in the range of $50-$300. If your budget is a limiting factor, it’s best to buy a good CPU to start and upgrade the other stuff later. Also, one should consider a CPU’s overclocking capabilities. Now I know some of the noobs out there are going “What’s OC’ing SPARTAN-117?” OC’ing is a way of achieving a free performance gain. To put this in perspective, one can buy an E6400 on Newegg for $222 and OC it to well over 3ghz and give a $1200 C2Q a run for its money. In this case the buyer stands to save about $800 by OC’ing the cheaper CPU. However, OC’ing requires better cooling and we’ll talk about that later on.

The following CPU's are ones you would expect to see in systems in the following price ranges:

A. $1000 or less systems

AMD 64 Athlon 3000+ or Intel Celeron D 331
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...

B. $2000-$3000 systems

AMD 64 X2 Athlon 4200+ or Intel Core 2 Duo E6400
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...

C. $4000 or more systems

AMD 64 FX-62 or Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...

For more info:

http://www.newegg.com/ProductSort/CategoryIntelligence....
http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/THGC-CPU-Buyers...

3. Motherboard

This is the backbone of your machine. The mobo is what connects the CPU, VGA, RAM, HDD, FDD, DVDD, and all other components together and allows the system to function. The mobo will also be 2nd to last or the last component you upgrade so choose well to start. There really isn’t a middle of the road for mobo’s; they are mostly in dollar ranges. A good mobo, one that leaves room for upgrades and has plenty of features, will run about $100. A nice mobo will run about $150-$180 and a killer one will run for $200-$300. The main determining factor of a mobo is the Northbridge chipset it has. The better the chipset, the more features it has, generally. Also, if you OC, you may want to consider better cooling for your mobo’s chipset.

The following are the type of motherboard you would expect to see in a system in the following price ranges:

A. $1000 or less systems

Generally have an integrated graphics card and have limited upgradability.

B. $2000-$3000 systems

ASUS M2N-SLI Deluxe nForce 570 SLI MCP or ASUS P5N-E SLI nForce 650i
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...

C. $4000 or more systems

ASUS Crosshair nForce 590 SLI MCP or ASUS Commando P965
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...

FAQ’s:

http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/FAQ-Rev-02-26-0...

4. RAM


This is the “hub” of your PC. All program code and data are stored in the RAM until its written to the HDD or its accessed by the CPU. Most users can get away with 512mb of RAM however; with the advent of Windows Vista, any PC will need at least 1gb of RAM to be upgradeable and 2gb to “future-proof”. Most mainstream homebuilt PC’s have 2gb of RAM in them and many users consider this to be standard. 2gb of RAM today will run about $200-$250. Unless you use a 64-bit OS, 2gb of RAM is all you need. RAM isn’t necessarily an upgradeable part, rather you just add more later on if you can’t afford what you want at that time or if you need more RAM. Also take note of your RAM’s CAS Latency as this will help with OC’ing.

The RAM listed below is typical for any PC regardless of price:

CORSAIR XMS2 DDR2-800
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1682...

FAQ’s:

http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/FAQ-read-postin...

5. VGA (video card)

This is the part of your machine that makes it a “bad-ass”. The VGA is what allows you to “see” inside of your PC and know what’s going on. It also allows you to play video games and do graphics design work. The VGA also is the most expensive part of a PC. For single card setups a good VGA will range anywhere from $250-$500, for SLI or Crossfire systems you’re looking at spending anywhere from $700-$1500 for a pair of VGA’s. The VGA is the most likely candidate for upgrade due to the fact that every 6-8 months new VGA’s come out and prices go down. So don’t worry if you cheap out on the VGA when you build, because more than likely you will upgrade it in a year or so. VGA’s don’t OC well yet you will definitely want better cooling for it due to it’s a) cost of replacing a fried VGA, b) stock coolers are LOUD and c) stock coolers run HOT.

The following VGA's are typical of these price ranges:

A. $1000 or less systems

VGA is usually integrated onto the motherboard.

B. $2000-$3000 systems (possible SLI setup)

ATI Radeon X1950PRO or BFG GeForce 8800GTS
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...

C. $4000 or more systems (Crossfire or SLI setup)

ATI Radeon X1950 Crossfire or BFG GeForce 8800GTX
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...
http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E1681...

For more info:

http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/Pixelshaders-ft...
http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/Short-List-Gami...

6. PSU (power supply)

This is what makes your PC go. The PSU supplies power to all the components in the system. The PSU is often the most overlooked component due to the fact that most people don’t understand them or they don’t know who makes a good PSU. A good PSU will range between $75-$200 depending on who makes it. 2 rules of thumb when buying a PSU: a) if people say that a particular PSU weighs a ton then its probably better than your average PSU and b) if a PSU is particularly expensive then it’s probably better than your average PSU. A PSU will be a limiting factor in the upgrade realm, so buy as big as you can to leave room for down the road. I’m not technically apt in PSU’s so I’ll link some stuff for you all to read to avoid confusing you and myself.

For more info:

http://www.xoxide.com/buy-computer-power-supplies.html
http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/PSU-101-ftopict...
http://www.extreme.outervision.com/psucalculator.jsp

7. Case


This is what you will put all your stuff in. When doing component selection, keep in mind what you’re going to be putting it in. These days an ATX Mid-Tower will suffice for all needs. Most good cases today range between $50-$120.

For more info:

http://www.newegg.com/ProductSort/CategoryIntelligence....

8. Sound Card

With the advent of onboard audio this isn’t really required yet it makes listening to music and in game audio a lot better. In this field Creative Labs is the real stand out for both cost and quality. A good sound card from them ranges between $40-$80.

9. HDD (hard drive)

This is the storage for your PC. You only need one HDD to get your PC up and running however if you’re concerned with data safety 2 or more HDD’s are recommended. A 160gb HDD runs for $60 and a 320gb HDD runs for about $120. HDD’s are somewhat like RAM; add more when you need it.

For more info:

http://www.newegg.com/ProductSort/CategoryIntelligenceA...


10. Drives (FDD & DVD)



These items are the primary way of installing programs on your PC. To play that new fangled game for your PC you’re going to need a dual layer DVD drive and to flash your BIOS properly you’ll need a Floppy drive. For a good DVD drive you’re looking at spending about $30-$50 and for a FDD you’re looking at spend about $7. Now I know some of you are going “FDD’s are obsolete.” Yes, FDD’s are obsolete, yet for $7 you get a whole lot of piece of mind. Imagine this, you get a virus that completely takes out your PC and you are unable to use your Windows disk to reformat and reinstall (highly unlikely yet still possible). Assuming that this is the only PC in the house you’re going to need to do a low level format and start from scratch. How is this done you ask, by creating a Rescue Floppy with the HDD manufacturers software you will be able to reformat the HDD. And that is only one of a hundred situations where the FDD will be a lifesaver. These items probably won’t be upgraded; rather they will be replaced when they wear out.

For more info:

http://www.newegg.com/ProductSort/CategoryIntelligence....

11. Cooling

This part of the system is component specific. Any part in the PC except the PSU has some form of aftermarket cooler available for it. Putting an aftermarket cooler on any part will increase thermal transfer and reduce the components temperature. Reduced operating temperature leads to longer component lifespan and increases the user potential for OC’ing. The more you OC the more heat a part will give off, so the better your cooling requirement needs to be. There are 2 types of cooling: air (either through a passive cooler or a HSF) and water (also known as liquid cooling). Air is the cheapest and safest cooling method of the 2, however if you can design your liquid cooling system properly you can achieve some pretty drastic temperature reductions. Regardless of which cooling method you choose you will need a good TIM (thermal interface material). Artic Silver 5 is the most popular, however there are better ones to be had. Now with so many components that can be cooled you’re looking at spend around $100-$200 (for air) to get a cooler on your CPU ($30-$80), VGA ($30-$50), Northbridge ($30), and HDD ($30) as well as about $10-$30 for a tube of TIM. The upgrade path on cooling is totally dependent on what hardware you have and how you upgrade.

For more info:

http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/DaClan-Review-T...
http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/Introduction-Wa...
http://www.tomshardware.com/howto/coolers/index.html

12. Peripherals

These are the items that you need in order to be able to interface with your PC. In order to be able to interact with your PC you will need a monitor, speakers, a keyboard, and a mouse. Another requirement if you’re in school or have an office is a printer. You can get the keyboard and mouse as a combo for about $50. Most LCD monitors out there today run between $150 and $250 in price, speakers run anywhere from $50-$300 for 5.1 surround sound systems or $50 and under for 2.1 systems. Printers, depending on the feature set you want, can be expensive. Most all in one printers are in the $100-$300 price range and that’s not counting ink. Depending on who makes the printer you could be looking at spending in excess of your printers cost in ink. It makes no sense to buy a $50 printer that requires $200 in ink. The upgrade options in this field are only limited by budget and are quite simple to perform.

For more info:

http://www.newegg.com/ProductSort/CategoryIntelligence....
http://www.newegg.com/ProductSort/CategoryIntelligence....
http://www.newegg.com/ProductSort/CategoryIntelligence....

Quote from Newegg about speakers:

” How to Choose Speakers
The key to choosing the right speakers is understanding what the specifications mean. The most basic detail is the configuration, which is expressed as 2.0, 2.1, 4.1, and so on. The first digit refers to how many speakers come with the set, and the numeral to the right of the decimal point refers to how many subwoofers come with the system. A subwoofer provides a strong bass that many standard speakers are incapable of playing.
Another factor to consider is sensitivity, which is measured in decibels (dB). Highly sensitive speakers (anything over 92 dB) can produce clear, high-volume sound without much amplifier power. Speakers with less than 88 dB are considered inefficient; sound will be distorted on these speakers without the help of a high-quality amplifier.
Frequency response is also important. Ideally, you want speakers that can reproduce the entire spectrum of audible frequencies. The lowest frequency detectable by the human ear is 20 Hz, and the highest is 20,000 Hz, or 20 kHz. If speakers cannot play something as low as 20 Hz, the only way to hear everything you are supposed to hear is by purchasing a subwoofer.
What about Watts? Unless you plan on hosting a heavy metal concert in your backyard, you will probably never blow your speakers regardless of the amplifier you use. Distortion causes blown speakers far more often than volume. To avoid blown speakers, never exceed the recommended wattage on your amplifiers. This will prevent distortion. By playing music at a comfortable listening level without distortion, your speakers will be just fine.”


13. Software: Part 1


For 90% of users out there, Windows is the way of life in the PC world. Without it many users wouldn’t know what to do. However, many users fail to understand that to just surf the net and write papers will require almost $700 in Microsoft software to get what they want done, done. A legit copy of Windows XP Pro will set you back $280 and a legit copy of Office 2003 Pro will cost $360. Now many people will tell you that BitTorrent and other sources for hacked or pirated Windows stuff is okay. This is true to the extent of your PC not being connected to the Internet. If you have hacked Windows software you are ineligible for updates, Microsoft can shutdown your copy of Windows (read: your PC will not boot at all), you can face jail time and fines in excess of $200k for hacked or pirated Microsoft software, and you are ineligible to use programs such as IE7 and Windows Defender. Is it worth $700 for the legit software? Yes. It makes life so much easier.

=========================================================

We are now at the halfway point in a build. We’ve researched and selected our components, verified that it comes close to budget, made all the necessary preparations and are ready to order. In order to avoid problems, order from a reputable site such as Newegg or Zipzoomfly. This process (ordering) will take about a week to complete. When your stuff comes, verify that you have received everything that you’ve ordered. Don’t make the mistake of beginning the build only to find out that your CPU never shipped. Once you’re sure you have everything, then you can go ahead and build.

Allot yourself plenty of time to build your machine; it’s your baby after all. IMHO, it should take a noob a weekend to build the thing and get it up and running. Often the mistake made is forcing stuff together and rushing the build. These 2 mistakes lead to voided warranties and damaged hardware. For first time builders it should take about 8hrs to assemble the hardware and another 2hrs to get Windows installed and the various other programs and drivers. Note on the drivers installation: install your chipset drivers first, then your VGA drivers. Quite commonly does one install the VGA drivers and then install the chipset drivers. This sometimes results in a BSOD that requires you to reinstall Windows. Also, when assembling your hardware, don't pull off the stock cooler and replace it with your aftermarket one. This technically voids the warranty and makes it nearly impossible to return for refund or exchange. After you get Windows and the drivers installed you are ready for the next part of the build.

14. Software: Part 2


Now after getting over the shock of having spent $700 on Microsoft software, you’re probably beginning to wonder how much more you’re going to need to shell out for software. Well, the answer to that is ZERO. Below I will link all the free stuff needed to secure your PC as well as a site that is full of free legit software.

Firewall: ZoneAlarm
http://www.download.com/ZoneAlarm/3000-10435_4-10039884...

Anti-Virus: AVG
http://www.download.com/AVG-Anti-Virus-Free-Edition/300...

Spyware: Ad-Aware SE
http://www.download.com/Ad-Aware-SE-Personal-Edition/30...

Spyware install prevention: Spyware Blaster
http://www.download.com/SpywareBlaster/3000-8022_4-1019...

Spyware All in one: Windows Defender
http://www.download.com/Microsoft-Windows-Defender/3000...

Spyware All in one: Hijack This
http://www.download.com/HijackThis/3000-8022_4-10227353...

File Archive: WinRAR
http://www.download.com/WinRAR/3000-2250_4-10614813.htm...

Codecs: K-Lite Codec Pack
http://www.free-codecs.com/download/K_Lite_Codec_Pack.h...

All other miscellaneous stuff:

Download.com
http://www.download.com/

In case I missed anything here’s a post full of links for users of all types:

http://forumz.tomshardware.com/hardware/Watt-Calc-Mod-G...

Well, that wraps up this post. I hope I have made the daunting task of building a PC much easier and have smoothed out most of the bumps and shocks associated with a build. Building PC’s is supposed to be fun and hassle free and I hope I’ve made anyone’s future build go easier. Also thanks to all the forum members whose posts I’ve linked, you all have made this post easier to write and I hope your info helps someone just as much as it helped me.

Good luck to all the noobs out there and I hope everyone learns something form this post. If you all can think of anything else that needs to be added, let me know and I'll add it.

Hope this helps and thanks to all the TGForumz guys I linked; this post couldn’t have been possible without your all’s expertise and info.
February 14, 2007 3:53:44 PM

Not to complain about your efforts but ...

Your numbers are too biased to be useful.

We spend $500-700 to build rather nice computers. That includes WindowsXP ($90), but no Windows office ($125) and no monitors. They run head and shoulders above any packaged $1500 system. They typically run 4 monitors ($900 more).

The large cost of computers are the "special" purpose items. For gamers that means a high end video card or 2 rather than the onboard video ($500-$1000). For HTPC that means 4 or 5 tuners ($250) and lots of hard drive space ($600). For an office that means several monitors.

When you give prices you should give prices that are reasonable for the whole computer. A $100 power supply + $100 case is no better than an $80 case with power supply for most users. While one can spend $400+ on a CPU a $100 CPU often does the job just as well and just as fast.

In the past we set a budget for our computers and balanced the components. Now we just buy at the sweet spot (sufficient performance) and let the total be what it is.
February 14, 2007 8:53:19 PM

My numbers for prices came off of Newegg. I'd rather have prices that represent what 90% of buyers will be looking at rather than send someone scouring the net or ebay for parts at the discounted prices you listed. Also, where did you find your stuff that cheap? At those prices they almost look like fly by night dealers. Next time you say something like that link it.
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February 14, 2007 9:03:47 PM

I was afraid of putting too many sub topics into it. But I guess it wouldn't hurt. A couple of edits are necessary.
February 14, 2007 9:57:43 PM

Some good comments for revisions. I think a few clarifications right at the beginning would be very helpful. Most people who come here are not really looking for a Dell type, off the shelf thing. They're looking for specialty items, or looking to build themselves, so they need info and direct answers.

Meh on the pricing. Prices change, that's a given. No complaints here. You can either keep it updated bi-weekly, or make the prices generic. But prices would help if they're maintained to be current.

Overall, I say GREAT INFO. A few revisions and I VOTE STICKY :!:
February 14, 2007 11:34:14 PM

Thanks for the input. I'm trying to be general and give a "crash course" in homebuilt PC's but it wouldn't hurt to make it more specific.

With the kind of time limitations I have I'd be lucky to keep prices updated on a monthly basis.
February 14, 2007 11:36:58 PM

Motherboard should always be first, then u decide on what cpu is supported by that particular mobo. Usually the manual or the manufacturer will give a range of CPU's that can be used.

Buying the CPU first represents inexperience and poor planning.

but then some of us don't care to plan our home builds.
February 14, 2007 11:59:20 PM

I'd rather find the type of cpu I wanted and then find a motherboard rather than buy a motherboard with great features that limited me on cpu choice. You have to know what type of cpu you're getting before you can choose the motherboard.
February 14, 2007 11:59:55 PM

That one was a toss up for me. I personally like the CPU to be at the top of the list then I choose the mobo and then the rest of the stuff around the mobo. Part of the logic in choosing the CPU first is to eliminate the problems of wanting a specific CPU only to find out that the board doesn't work so well with that particular CPU. Like I said though, personal preference.

Keep the comments coming guys. Thanks.
February 15, 2007 12:39:04 AM

7-Zip is by far the best compression wrapper
February 15, 2007 1:02:48 AM

Like to point out that most homebuilders will be doing more of PC replacement, so they don't have to buy all new software. This is probably why I disagree with your prices listed in the first few lines.

If you had to buy all the software, then I do think that $2000 would be a common price to build a nice computer. If you take the software out, though, you can see that the hardware doesn't really cost as much as you think.

I hate 7-Zip, much prefer WinRAR. As long as we're going with a proprietary compression method, better go with the one that is very popular and has a nice program. 7Z is not popular and any benefits it gains are within the order a few percent, given broadband connections this is insignificant. Anyone on dialup, though, is not downloading files so big that they would benefit from compression, let alone the difference of two competing compressions.
February 15, 2007 11:08:22 AM

Thanks for the tip vern. I'll have that up later today hopefully.

Didn't know about 7zip have always used WinRAR... It floats my boat just fine :|
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