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Best Of Tom’s Hardware: How To Build A PC

Best Of Tom’s Hardware: How To Build A PC
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The editorial team here at Tom’s Hardware has supported new PC builders since 1997 with tips, tricks, and sage advice. Our most complete builder’s guide was published back in 2006. Today’s updates add the best of what’s new to what’s tried-and-true.

Even though the computer industry's primary constant is change, there are several "constant constants" to aid builders in component selection. Tom's Hardware Guide has been a primary resource, covering the latest technologies for over thirteen years. Our community members have answered individual hardware questions for nearly as long, both sources working to prevent common mistakes that might ruin a well-intentioned PC project.

Before you start picking parts, a builder should clearly understand the machine's intended function. General purpose systems that deal with tasks like 2D games, Internet browsing, and document creation will obviously have modest hardware requirements. In contrast, high-end 3D gaming systems require better graphics, better cooling, and a larger power supply. Special applications, like 3D model creation and home theater PC use, should also be considered. These tasks require specialized hardware.

Best Case Scenario

When it comes to cases, size is often proportional to capability. For example, it’s often difficult to stick two dual-slot graphics cards into a case that only had two slots, even if clever marketing departments might try to get you to believe otherwise. In resistance to tricky marketing, let's take a look at a few case sizes and see where they best fit.

Traditional ATX Form Factor Case Sizes
Typical AttributesFull TowerMid TowerMini TowerSFF CubeDesktop
Height21-24 inches17-19 inches12-14 inches7-9 inches3-7 inches
Width6-8 inches6-8 inches6-8 inches8-9 inches14-17 inches
5.25" bays4-93-61-21-21-3
3.5" internal bays6-122-61-21-22-4
Card slotsSevenSevenFourTwo2-7
Power supplyPS/2 or largerPS/2PS/2 or SFXSFX or TFXVarious


Remember that these are typical attributes, and not all cases are typical. For example most current full-sized “gaming” cases fall between the mid-tower and full-tower dimensions listed above.

Full Towers traditionally are tall enough to hold two power supplies, though most early examples had a second hard drive rack where one might expect to find the top power supply. While these have space for up to twice as many drives, the average user (and even most power users) simply won't use the space. A better excuse for the home user to select such a large case is that the upper bays are easier to reach when the unit is positioned on the floor. Cooler Master’s HAF 932 is a good example of a full tower in gaming motif.

ATX Mid-Towers are usually capable of holding full-sized motherboards, full-sized power supplies, several optical drives, such as DVD burners, and multiple hard drives. Well-designed units are well-suited for gaming and video enthusiasts, simply because they support a greater number of expansion cards and hard drives than smaller units. A comparison of current products to our 2006 Gaming Case Showdown would show that good ideas stand the test of time.

Micro ATX Mini-Towers are nearly as versatile as mid-towers in most applications, including office use, where they present a less imposing profile. Mini-Towers typically support 1-2 optical drives and 1-2 hard drives, and microATX supports a maximum of four expansion slots. All of these limitations are acceptable for most users. A recent focus on portable gaming machines has even brought SLI and CrossFire to this somewhat-compact format.

Small Form Factor (originally known as Shuttle Form Factor) cubes typically support a maximum of two expansion cards and only the smallest power supplies. Relying mostly on onboard devices, these space-saving enclosures are best suited to traditional office roles, though several have been designed for home theater use by mimicking the appearance of miniature hi-fi audio systems.

A variation based on SFF aesthetics is the MicroATX cube. Often chosen for portable game machines, the small dimensions again mean restrictions on any attempt at an ultimate performance build. There are still microATX slot limitations, overclocking is compromised by an inability to fit oversized CPU coolers, high-capacity power supplies are a tight squeeze even when they do fit, and extended-length power units are usually out of the question.

Formerly used to raise small CRT monitors up to eye level on flat desks, horizontal Desktop cases are now best suited to home theater systems. These come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and motherboard form factors to match most home theater rack components. Watch out for custom-sized power supplies that may not be upgradeable, horizontal card slots that might require a motherboard with slots to match specific riser types and locations, and half-height slots that severely restrict card selection.

Further selection criteria can be found in a variety of online case selection articles. Once you've got an idea of what size you need, Tom's Hardware Guide Case Reviews can point out the good and bad concerning specific models.

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Top Comments
  • 17 Hide
    pipes990 , May 6, 2010 7:40 AM
    I only started working on computers a couple years ago when I started making mods to my HP desktop(Since I have realized how poorly I was spending my money on HP's crap). I did my first build a year ago and Tom's Hardware has been a great resource.

    Good time to thank the MANY very smart people on the forum who are always helpful. And thanks to Tom's for a great resource.
  • 11 Hide
    Crashman , May 6, 2010 7:31 AM
    dreamphantom_1977umm.... You forgot to mention super towers in the case section. Like my armor+ case which has 10 expansion slots. I think it's a really important part that should have been included, considering the pcie craze going on right now, and considering the extra space and cooling they offer. Other then that nice article. http://www.newegg.com/Product/Prod [...] -_-ProductGo ahead count them (below)

    No, no forgetfulness, there is no such thing as a supertower. There is such as thing as an Ultra ATX full tower, but Ultra ATX was never recognized as an actual standard. Oh, and there's this:
    http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/281278-28-case-choice#t2106367
    And this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra_ATX
    Which links back to this:
    http://www.tomshardware.com/news/ces-foxconn-x48-shimano,4677.html

    All of which are inconsequential to first time builders. I'm sure someone, somewhere has a 12-slot case, but that's still not an industry standard unless it's adopted by the industry.
Other Comments
  • 2 Hide
    Crashman , May 6, 2010 6:00 AM
    The editorial team here at Tom’s Hardware has supported new PC builders since 1997 with tips, tricks, and sage advice. Our most complete builder’s guide was published back in 2006. Today’s updates add the best of what’s new to what’s tried-and-true.

    Best Of Tom’s Hardware: How To Build A PC : Read more
  • 3 Hide
    tacoslave , May 6, 2010 6:14 AM
    Ah i still remember when the original came out... good times
  • 11 Hide
    Crashman , May 6, 2010 7:31 AM
    dreamphantom_1977umm.... You forgot to mention super towers in the case section. Like my armor+ case which has 10 expansion slots. I think it's a really important part that should have been included, considering the pcie craze going on right now, and considering the extra space and cooling they offer. Other then that nice article. http://www.newegg.com/Product/Prod [...] -_-ProductGo ahead count them (below)

    No, no forgetfulness, there is no such thing as a supertower. There is such as thing as an Ultra ATX full tower, but Ultra ATX was never recognized as an actual standard. Oh, and there's this:
    http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/281278-28-case-choice#t2106367
    And this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra_ATX
    Which links back to this:
    http://www.tomshardware.com/news/ces-foxconn-x48-shimano,4677.html

    All of which are inconsequential to first time builders. I'm sure someone, somewhere has a 12-slot case, but that's still not an industry standard unless it's adopted by the industry.
  • 17 Hide
    pipes990 , May 6, 2010 7:40 AM
    I only started working on computers a couple years ago when I started making mods to my HP desktop(Since I have realized how poorly I was spending my money on HP's crap). I did my first build a year ago and Tom's Hardware has been a great resource.

    Good time to thank the MANY very smart people on the forum who are always helpful. And thanks to Tom's for a great resource.
  • 9 Hide
    Stardude82 , May 6, 2010 7:51 AM
    I think there needs to be some discussion about OSes. Noobs going "I installed 16GB of RAM and quad 5850 but I only see 2 GB of RAM!" make me sad. You hinted at 32 v. 64 bit, but didn't say why. Also, they can be a big part of the price($90). For a low end box, its almost always better just to find a good deal on a refurb and call a day. Linux is great and everything, but...

    Avoiding sales tax is a big reason why people use online stores. Of course, we all pay our state what we owe on our own right...

  • 0 Hide
    meowkitty77 , May 6, 2010 8:51 AM
    I never formally learned how to build computers, rather through tinkering and work with skilled people, but this guide is pretty much exactly what I do. I usually put the the power supply in last though, just to make the cable management easier. Good guide for beginners, do want.
  • 0 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , May 6, 2010 9:36 AM
    I could be wrong, but are you sure the links on the first page to a 1996 case comparison is really from 1996 ? I just can't imagine a silverstone chassis being tested before silverstone existed as a company ...
  • 1 Hide
    tecmo34 , May 6, 2010 11:30 AM
    Here is a very similar guide I created late last year for the Homebuilt Systems forum... Step-by-Step Guide to Building a PC

    It is a little more up-to-date but due to the limitation of number of pictures per post, not as detailed as I wanted it.
  • 0 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , May 6, 2010 12:10 PM
    Crashie, imo you should add a bit more into for your harddrive page. I would definetly include the fact that raid excludes smart status from being read, and that it is much harder to find out which drive is broken in raid than in ahci mode. Also the fact that many desktop drives don't properly support raid would be wise to include (error handling taking too long, and the controller thus dropping the drive). And as a last thing on raid, I would have expected you to mention that if the user is going with windows 7 or certain linux distributions, they can choose to make windows perform raid 0 or 1 (raid 5 on 2008r2), thus retaining compatibility with desktop drive firmware and smart notifications.

    As I have time to read more pages (@ work, can't read it all at once) I might have more comments.
  • 1 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , May 6, 2010 12:34 PM
    Articlebut plugging connectors and inserting screws shouldn't take more than a couple hours, even for the most inexperienced builder.


    Some more complex builds take more than two hours, and mine almost always take more. I'm very thorough when it comes to cable management, and that takes time. Aestetics are as important as product selection. A customer is only happy if it looks expensive. No matter the price.

    ArticleReducing drop distance is as easy as moving work away from the edge of a desk, and reducing damage from parts getting knocked to the floor is as simple as leaving them in the box until they're ready to be installed.


    I almost always assemble new systems on a carpet on the floor. This way there's plenty of room, the surfaces of a chassis won't be scratched, and things can't drop futher than I lift them. And it is a very easy and cheap way of avoiding visual or functional damage.

    Gotten to the part about installation. Somehow I find a noise & cooling section missing? Why isn't there one? I know you're no expert on liquid cooling, but you know enough to tell people that small selfcontained liquid systems are good for tight places like mediacentres, but doesn't cool better than equally cheap air cooling and the pumps aren't more quiet than ordinary fans. Ignoring this topic isn't fair.
    Also there's no mention of noise - bigger chassis = less noise (longer path for the internal noise), rubber washers etc help too. Especially on low grade chassis. You can often get away with using a cheapass chassis if you use washers and quiet fans.
  • -4 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , May 6, 2010 1:06 PM
    I seriously dislike the images of the tim .... really. imo it should look more like it did on my photo below (my current gaming rig at home with arctic matrix)




    Edit: The layer is so thin, that in a proper resolution picture you can still make out the writings on the cpu below it. My phone is not a very good camera though.

    Oh - and I would advice people to install the ram modules before the montherboards goes into the system since harddrive cages sometimes obstruct clearance. And also check the system header before, as the text is hard to read later.
  • -6 Hide
    SneakySnake , May 6, 2010 1:16 PM
    neiroatopelccI seriously dislike the images of the tim .... really. imo it should look more like it did on my photo below (my current gaming rig at home with arctic matrix)Edit: The layer is so thin, that in a proper resolution picture you can still make out the writings on the cpu below it. My phone is not a very good camera though. Oh - and I would advice people to install the ram modules before the montherboards goes into the system since harddrive cages sometimes obstruct clearance. And also check the system header before, as the text is hard to read later.


    If you can still see the writing on the CPU through the thermal paste you most definitely do not have enough on
  • 2 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , May 6, 2010 1:37 PM
    Having now read it all, here are some simple troubleshooting advice I think might be useful:

    a) If the floppy drive light keeps lighting up, the data cable is reversed

    b) If at system powerup the system shuts down again immidiately (notice the cpu fan just spinning very briefly, and then stopping) there is a problem with power.

    b1) If the system can't be powered again before the power plug has been removed and reinserted, the psu has detected a fault and shut down. Usually a shortcircuit. Most commonly by the floppy power connector (also used for some front displays) or a modded fan plug being defective (using 5v as ground instead of ground, resulting in 7v to the fan)

    b2) If the system can power up and do the same over and over, the motherboard is doing the shutdown. Check all cables, and eventually unplug anything non critical.

    c) If the system doesn't display anything onscreen, check motherobard.
    c1) If it's an earlier system, ide cables might be reversed and prevent the motherboard from posting.
    c2) If the graphics card isn't recognized it, the computer should beep in a regular interval (check to make sure internal speaker is attached if none is on the motherboard)
    c3) If the memory isn't recognized, the system should beep in a nonlinear fashion.
    c4) Try removing the memory modules and booting. If the system doesn't beep at you, there might be a hardware defect in power supply or motherboard (assuming atx and esp plugs are in place)

    d) If you can't enter bios try holding the applicable key (usually del, f2 or f10) pressed even before you power the system.

    e) If the system won't accept user input (windows antique and older os installation) check that bios is set to legacy usb enabled (default is mostly auto or disabled).

    f) If system doesn't want to install, make sure your boot harddrive is set to be the first in the bios. Raid setups are categorized as scsi devices by the bios and prioritized lower than regular/legacy storage interfaces. When you change from legacy to ahci or raid (or the other way around) the boot order might get broken. Reboot into the bios again and check the right order. Some operating systems won't install if the System partition isn't on drive 0 (boot loader limitations)

    g) If the system boots but isn't stable check cpu fan that it is running, and that pushpins or latches are properly fixed. If no problem found, check bios to see if memory is running at proper timings. Sometimes xmp profiles cause the system to become instable (some bios have overclocked the chipset by default, set memory boost back from turbo to standard, or disable xmp).

    Think that's about all that can go wrong before software truely enters the picture.

    ps. sometimes with windows vista and 7 you have to remove ide and ahci drives to install on raid at all. Else the system will extract files, but be unable to create boot partition.
  • 3 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , May 6, 2010 1:40 PM
    SneakySnakeIf you can still see the writing on the CPU through the thermal paste you most definitely do not have enough on

    Absolutely wrong.
    The more you have on, the worse your thermal conductivity is. The layer has to be only thick enough to cover cracks and the slight uneven surface, that is all. The headspreader (at least for intel) is purposely slight courved to make the cooler align better, so any attempts to make it 'flat' with tim will actually reduce cooling effectivity.

  • 0 Hide
    neiroatopelcc , May 6, 2010 1:42 PM
    Btw crashie, can't you, or someone else at thg, make a similar, but slightly less dummyproof, article about how to build a ssi based system. Basicly if you need more than one processor, or you want ecc memory as an intel user, you can almost exclusively choose ssi boards.
  • 0 Hide
    Crashman , May 6, 2010 2:02 PM
    Quote:
    If you can still see the writing on the CPU through the thermal paste you most definitely do not have enough on

    You're 100% correct of course, I don't know how many times I've pulled a cooler after trying his method only to find a dry spot. Of course, the only reason I pulled the cooler is because the system started getting warmer as it settled in, rather than cooler. I have dozens of processors that aren't flat enough to use his method, and at least that many heat sinks with the same condition.

    His method only works if the mating surfaces are almost perfect. I don't advocate lapping a sink to beginners.

    And the article already explains that the stuff about the paste being "too thick" is just a myth these days, because the paste doesn't have enough viscosity to hold up as a thick layer when the mounting hardware is applied. The photo in the article shows a bunch of spikes in the paste from pulling it apart after a test fit, but if you look a little harder you can see that paste on other parts of the heat spreader is see-through thin. Applying full mounting pressure makes it see-through thin everywhere the parts fit tight. It's in the photo, you just have to look.

    Thanks for being correct!
  • 1 Hide
    huron , May 6, 2010 2:04 PM
    Love articles like these. While it's been awhile since my first build, these are perfect to send to my Dad to read for some fun.

    Love the site and the forums for all the info and resources.
  • -3 Hide
    haplo602 , May 6, 2010 2:06 PM
    why do you link to your PSU review section when it is actualy out-dated ? and the only PSUs are 500W+ ... how about reviews of some modern 350-500W PSUs for smaller systems ?
  • -5 Hide
    Pei-chen , May 6, 2010 2:19 PM
    My friend ordered a $300 high-end ASUS motherboard because you guys used it in a system builder article and he thought that means Tom's editors prefer that board over other $200ish boards. By the time he told me and I recommended a $200 Gigabyte board that has the same feature Newegg already shipped out his order.

    Tom’s is a bad place for people wanting to build their own computer. The editors usually don’t do “best bang for the buck” built but rather build to a fixed budget that often means under/over-powered PSU, tri-SLI/crossfire and other parts that sane people usually wouldn’t choose.

    BTW, the forum is a good place for people wanting to put together a decent computer. I am just ranting against the system builder series.
  • 0 Hide
    MadAdmiral , May 6, 2010 2:20 PM
    Excellent article to get a new builder started. I would love to see this done for troubleshooting though. It seems that 90% of the problems people have are solved by the same solution.
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