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Some Simple Advice From A Novice Noob Builder

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May 21, 2012 9:01:54 PM

This past weekend I built my first PC, a home gaming rig. If I can do it, anyone can do it. I've been using Macs and OSX for a number of years. In my opinion Apple has been ignoring its pro desktop market, so I investigated building my own rig and decided to take the plunge. Happy I did so, it was a cool project.

I bought the parts locally on a Saturday afternoon, and by Saturday evening my newly-built rig was loading Windows 7. I really mean it when I say if I can do it, you can do it. I've never built a computer before. I haven't used a PC or Windows in years. I built this machine from scratch using parts from a local electronics store, and did it by myself, at home, with just a few simple tools. So I'd like to share a few of my tips and observations for other novice builders. If you have experience building PCs, I'd move along because this post is for serious noobs like me.

1. Plan

Most important part of this process, in my opinion. Identify every single part you need to purchase. That's what I did. Start with processor and motherboard -- it seems to me everything flows from this initial decision. Then after you have some initial ideas, write down the name and part number of every single part for your new computer, including CPU, aftermarket CPU fan/cooling, motherboard, RAM, case, power supply, HDD/SSD, GPU, even cables.

Then, crosscheck. Make sure everything is compatible. Do it twice. Go to your chosen motherboard vendor's website and download any and all motherboard documentation, including approved parts/vendor lists and especially the RAM compatability list. After you have this information, print it out and staple it together. Having this list readily accessible saved me a lot of time and trouble. Then keep revisiting the item list as you move into the purchase and build phase.


2. Don't Overspend

As you read forums, you'll see lots of experienced builders saying to not waste money on the bleeding edge, because it's likely the vastly increased costs won't justify what may be minimal gains in performance. During my first plan, I ignored this advice and was going to buy the best of everything, period. But then I took my part list, investigated further, and it turns out the experienced builders were absolutely right. In my case, I was going to buy the fastest Intel CPU available. But then I looked at the enormous cost (which was more than double a more affordable solution), compared with a minimal performance gain for my use, and I rethought my entire plan. I quickly discovered if you are buying a bleeding edge processor, it also means you may have to pay more for a motherboard to seat it, and on and on it goes. Even more money. I ended up dialing back just a little -- and easily cut costs in half for a PC that is almost as powerful.

So my advice here is: listen to experienced builders and enthusiasts when they tell you not to waste money, or they caution you the price is not worth the minimal performance gain, or you are advised another part is the the best value for performance dollar. These people are absolutely right, and they saved me quite a bit.


3. Bring Your Parts List To Your Local Electronics Store, and Look

If this is your first time, I found this step especially valuable. Don't just throw a list together in 10 minutes and start ordering online. If this is your first PC build, you are making a mistake if you do this. Go to the store and take a half hour to simply look and observe. This step was actually enjoyable, looking at all the stuff and even talking with a couple knowledgeable folks. Not too many people go down the motherboard isle, it looks like aliens to 99% of the population, but this is where you will find enthusiasts. I was able to lay my eyes and hands directly on the motherboard and case I had been considering. Let me know exactly what I was getting into. Turns out in my initial plan, I was *vastly* overspending on both the case and mobo. Especially the case, because my initial choice was a gargantuan case with a massive number of bays and slots that would have been *laughable* overkill. Same thing for my motherboard: total overkill, with all kinds of slots I would never fill and monitoring capabilities I simply won't use.

Can't tell you how pleased I am I went to the store and simply looked. This wasn't a waste of time. It *saved* me time and money.


4. Don't Skimp On Your Case or Power Supply

After visiting the store, I soon realized there are some cheap, junky cases and power supplies out there. I saw several cases with bad wiring, hard-to-reach slots and panels, and horrid layouts and build quality. Don't buy one of these cheapo cases. It will make your first build and life miserable for months and years to come. Go with a quality name brand that has plenty of room, good wiring, solid fans, good construction. A few more dollars here is *really* worth it for first-timers. The last thing you want to do on your first build is to fix and rewire shoddy case workmanship, or try and work around bad case layout -- this will save you hours of work and frustration.

Power supply, didn't realize how important it was until I got into the build. Frankly I got lucky, as a helpful store employee told me my original power supply was too small for my parts and intended use. I would suggest you buy more PSU than you think you need, especially for upgrading in the future. Let me tell you, when you get to the end of your build and it's time to plug everything in, it is a *major* relief to know you have plenty of lines, or "rails," with sufficient juice to power up everything you need, including motherboard, cpu, sata drives, fans, and video card.

It would have really sucked if I had the wrong PSU for my rig -- underpowered with insufficient rails. I would have sat there for a long while, not knowing what to do, wondering how to jury rig the damn thing, hating life. Pro-tip: read your motherboard manual beforehand, it's likely to advise you on the type of power supply you need, in my case an ATX12V-compliant PSU. This made life very, very easy, with a nice amount of rails to spare if I decide to add or upgrade my new rig.


5. Watch Multiple Online How-Tos For Installing Motherboard, CPU and CPU Cooling

This saved me making a couple of rookie mistakes. Look for videos about your particular motherboard, CPU, and CPU cooling parts. Pay attention when experienced builders warn you about orienting your mobo and CPU, overtightening, too much paste, etc.


6. Read Your Motherboard Manual

Critically important step for first-timers. Read it from front page to last -- and read it before you start building. This not only helped me understand the motherboard, but also how to proceed in the build. If you don't read the manual, you'll be missing out on some important information.


7. Wiring Diagrams Are Your Friend

You'll want three things close by when wiring up your new rig: wiring diagrams contained in your motherboard manual, plug and wiring information for your power supply, and any case wiring instructions. For several connections, you are going to have to pay attention to hots and grounds, to ensure you are plugging things in the way they need to go. This is an important step, and will ensure critical functions work (even things we take for granted like led lights, power on/off, reset button, etc.). Make sure you properly orient the diagram to your motherboard, case, and PSU, sometimes the diagrams will be oriented differently. Just read thrice, plug in once.


8. GPU: Do It Last

Some may disagree, but when I built my rig, I left out the graphics card for my first boot-up. Instead I used the onboard graphics from the motherboard, plugged in a monitor, and booted up the system. I wanted to ensure everything was in working order before installing the graphics card. I even fine-tuned my motherboard BIOS and installed Windows 7 before installing the graphics card. If there had been a problem, graphics cards today are so big it would have been difficult to check several important connections. Also, waiting to install the aftermarket GPU means there's one less thing to troubleshoot. If you build your new rig and it doesn't boot, guaranteed the first thing you will ask is, "is it the video card"? Then you'll be pulling the damn thing out, plugging into the mobo, and wondering why you didn't do that in the first place.
May 23, 2012 1:52:01 AM

I must say, this is an incredibly helpful guide. I'm contemplating my first build at the moment, and this is reassuring me that I do have the technical prowess to go through with this. Thank you for taking the time to write out such valuable information! :D 
May 24, 2012 5:43:49 AM

Do it. Even if it goes horribly wrong, you'll learn from it and you can always ask some pros for help.
!