Intro to Computer DIY

Introduction to Computer DIY (version 1.01)
by John Yeah
updated 10/01/2008

• This article is aimed at people who are interested in building their own PC computers, but don’t know where to start and need a general direction. This is by no means definitive, but I’ve organized suggestions and advices based on my own experiences.

I’ll start by breaking down DIY into different stages.
1. Determining the purpose and use of the computer.
2. Know what components you need to get.
3. Setting up a budget.
4. Know what components are available to you and where you can get them.
5. Select the parts and ask for second opinions.
6. Buy, assemble, and troubleshoot (if necessary).
7. Update, stress test, and overclock (optional).
8. “If it works, leave it alone.”

Computer DIY today is simpler than most would imagine. Think of it as connecting your DVD-player to your TV and getting it to work, it’s nothing more than fitting the right cables at the right places. If that’s already too much for you, then computer DIY is not for you and you’re probably better off buying a DELL or HP. All you need for DIY is a little bit of research, patience, and caution.

Before I start on the DIY section, I’d like to mention that this article would also apply to people who are considering buying a laptop or a system directly from an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer). Points 1, 3, 7 and 8 are general guidelines that aren’t just limited to DIY. Without further ado, I’ll get straight to the points.

1. Determining the purpose and use of the computer.

First things first, you want to know why and what you’re buying your computer for. Different purposes mean different selections of components which also mean different budgets. By budget, I mean the money you’re willing to spend so that your computer can handle whatever it is you want it to do. Below are a few basic categories I would divide the uses into.
a. Everyday general use: checking e-mail, instant messaging, writing office documents, surfing the web, watching DVD movies.
b. Multimedia applications: watching HD movies (Blu-ray or HD-DVD), playing games like Team Fortress 2 or other games that don’t require top of the line hardware to run smoothly.
c. Enthusiast gaming: playing demanding titles like Crysis and all other games at the best graphics settings available.

2. Knowing what components you need to build the computer.
Without including the peripherals such as a monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and others of the sort, there’re a couple basic parts you need to build a system. I won’t go into the details of what each part is for, since you can wiki them up easily.
a. Computer Case
b. Power Supply
c. Processor (CPU) with a fan and heatsink (most heatsinks already come with thermal paste)
d. Motherboard
i. Network card (LAN)
ii. Sound card
e. Random Access Memory (RAM)
f. Hard drive (HDD)
g. DVD drive
h. Video card (GPU)
i. Operating system (it’s a software, I know, but you can’t use a computer without one)
Parts d.i. and d.ii. are generally optional components you can get on the side given that they’re almost always integrated with the motherboard nowadays.

3. Setting up a budget.

People are willing to spend different budgets for different purposes. Here, I’m only giving an average estimate that people spend on varying needs.
a. Everyday general use: <$500
b. Multimedia applications: $550 to $1500
c. Enthusiast gaming: >$1000
How much you spend really depends on your approach of building the computer. Some people aim for the best parts in each category (in terms of quality), while others aim for the best cost versus performance ratio (c/p) without sacrificing too much reliability. If you order your computer parts online, don’t forget to include tax and shipping into the cost.

4. Know what components are available to you and where you can get them.
It’s rather common that you won’t be able to get everything you want depending on where you live and whether or not what you want is in stock. Here in the U.S., options are usually widely available. I personally use Newegg, Frys, Bestbuy and even Circuit City to check availability of parts I want and their prices.

5. Select the parts and ask for second opinions.

If you have no idea what components to start with, ask other people who already have experience and ask them to pick the parts for you first. Once you have a selection of things you need, go ahead and ask for more advices and suggestions for your build so that it best fits your need (without breaking the bank).

Below are questions you want to ask yourself when you choose what components to buy. In addition, always ask yourself this question for each component: Is this reliable?
a. Computer Case:
i. Does the form factor have enough space for all the parts I buy?
ii. Does the case have good air ventilation?
b. Power Supply:
i. Does the unit provide reliable and sufficient power to run my system?
ii. Do I have enough power connectors of the right kind for all my devices?
c. Processor (CPU) with a fan and heatsink:
i. Does the CPU provide enough processing power to run the applications I want to run?
ii. How hot does the CPU run? Do I need an aftermarket cooler?
d. Motherboard:
i. Does it have the right socket for my CPU? Does it support it?
ii. Does it support the RAM I’m going to use?
iii. Does it have enough SATA or IDE (a legacy standard which is phasing out from the new devices) slots and PCI-E or PCI slots for all my internal devices?
iv. Will it support my video card? PCI-E or AGP (a legacy standard which is phasing out as well)?
v. Is it reliable? Can it overclock?
e. RAM:
i. What size do I need to run my all my programs smoothly?
ii. What memory standard is it? I.e. DDR2-800. What timing and voltages does it run at?
f. Hard drive (HDD):
i. Which connection does it use? SATA or IDE?
ii. Is the capacity enough to store all my applications and files? How fast is it able to handle data transfers?
iii. Is it reliable?
g. DVD drive:
i. Which connection does it use? SATA or IDE?
ii. What media can it read or store (usually DVD drives refer to only read, while burners can do both)? Regular DVD’s and or Blu-ray discs?
h. Video card (GPU):
i. Can the GPU run my applications at the monitor’s resolution smoothly?
ii. How much power does it consume?
i. Operating system (OS):
i. Do I want Windows XP or Vista or Linux for the applications I’m running? Do I need 32-bit or 64-bit?

6. Buy, assemble, and troubleshoot (if necessary).
Once you’ve selected your components and asked around for other builder’s opinions, you can buy your parts. For most DIY’ers, reliable parts are extremely important as it saves you from a lot of trouble and waste of time. I cannot emphasize this more, as I have spent countless hours helping friends troubleshoot their computer problems only to realize the broken component was known to be unreliable (albeit cheap).

Now comes the part that scares many people from DIY, assembling the computer. Before you start though, check the packaging of the computer parts and make sure everything is intact (no obvious signs of damage). If you don’t have any previous experience or any knowledge of the computer parts, I would strongly suggest you find a friend that can come in person to help you. Since there’s a wide selection of components, I can only give a general order for assembling the computer to make it easier.

Things to watch out when assembling:
1. Make sure you properly ground yourself. You can do this either by wearing an antistatic wrist-strap or by touching the metal base of the computer case.
2. In addition, try not to touch any “metal” connector part on the components, keep your fingers on the green plastic PCB boards.

Here’s the order that I would suggest you put together a standard ATX (or micro ATX) form factor computer.
a. Assemble the PSU with the computer case.
b. Place the HDDS and DVD-Drives in the case.
c. Fit the motherboard on the motherboard tray of the case.
d. Put the RAM, CPU, fan and heatsink on the motherboard.
e. Fit the GPU on the motherboard.
f. Connect all the cables (including ones that connect the buttons of the case to your motherboard) and power connectors.
g. Connect your monitor, keyboard, mouse, and power cord to your computer.
h. Turn on your computer and see if POSTS (Power on self-test).
i. Insert your OS install disk into the DVD-drive and install your OS.

In case your computer does not POST properly, make sure you check all the cables and connectors and make sure each device is properly and firmly put together. This is a rather common mistake that many people make; blaming faulty parts before they realize it was their own problem.

If the computer still doesn’t boot, then chances are you might have gotten a faulty component. Different faulty components display different symptoms. What I would suggest here is to list out the specification of your entire system and describe the problem you’re experiencing when you ask other builders for a diagnosis of your problem. Once you find the faulty part RMA or replace it and then try again.

9. Update, stress test, and overclock (optional).
First thing you want to do once you have your OS installed is to update the drivers and patches for it. It prevents your computer from being exposed to potential problems caused by buggy drivers and internet threats (spyware, malware, and etc). I usually don’t install the drivers that come on the CDs bundled with the hardware; I just download the most updated drivers from the manufacturers’ pages.

With the OS updated and running, it’s time for a stress test (or burn test) of your computer. What you do here is use programs such as prime95 to load your computer up to 100% use and run it continuously for a couple hours (I’d say at least 8 hours). This is primarily used to check for problems with the hardware that aren’t detected by the simple POST. You would want to also run monitoring programs that logs your system temperature (CPU, motherboard and GPU temperatures) to make sure your system is running at an acceptable temperature. If the temperature runs above the designated range (it’s different for different components), chances are your components will break after an extended period of time. If prime95 or other programs crash during your stress test repeatedly chances are there’s something wrong with your system. Then it’s time to troubleshoot.

Once your computer passes the initial stress tests, you’re set to overclock if you so desire. Overclocking refers to changing your hardware settings so it runs faster than the original default or stock settings of the components. It is easier than it sounds as long as you have proper cooling with your computer. I’m only briefly mentioning overclocking since there’re numerous articles, guides and forums where you can find detailed information about overclocking your system.

10. “If it works, leave it alone.”
I cannot emphasize this anymore. After you’ve assembled your computer and everything works flawlessly, leave it alone. Avoid any unnecessary changes to the computer. Upgrading the components may seem simple, but often all sorts of problems arise from a perfectly working computer when people make even the smallest changes in it. It’s often more trouble than it’s worth.

• Like I’ve said before, this is by no means definitive. So any suggestions and improvements to this article is greatly welcomed and appreciated.
2 answers Last reply
More about intro computer
  1. I was going to add in the pictures for each components and assembly, but I got a bit lazy after finish typing everything up.
  2. DIY Computer

    what I want it for, to play.

    how I want it, fast.

    Go for bang for buck.
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