How to Build a PC

There are plenty of great pre-built PCs on the market, but there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of using one that you create yourself. While the process of assembling a computer isn’t difficult, it’s daunting the first time you do it. For those embarking on their first build, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide to building a PC.

Before we start, know that this is a guide exclusively dedicated to assembly. That means you’ll need to pick out your parts first. Our list of recommended cases, CPUs,GPUs, motherboards, SSDs, power supplies and RAM, along with our buying guides can help you choose key components.

The other thing to know is that no two builds are identical. The order we’re going in here is based partly on preference and also based on the needs of the build. For instance, if you have a large aftermarket cooler that blocks the DIMM slots, you may have to go in a different order than we did, or backtrack and pull out a part here or there to to make room for a particularly bulky part or cramped case. More advanced options like liquid cooling and RGB lighting, as well as high-end CPU platforms like Intel's Core X and AMD's Threadripper also aren’t covered in this guide.

Be Prepared

Before you start building a PC, you need to get your workspace ready. Make sure that you have all of your parts and tools at the ready. At the very least, you’ll want:

  • Phillips-head screwdrivers (#1 and #2 should do the trick)
  • Zip ties and/or twist ties for cable management
  • Flashlight (it can get dark in the corners of a PC case)
  • Thermal paste (although stock coolers usually have this pre-applied)
  • Something to hold your screws
  • Band-aids (just in case)

Some builders swear by anti-static equipment, including mats or wrist straps. But as long as you don’t live in a particularly dry environment, you’re not building on a metal surface (opt for wood or plastic) and you aren't rubbing your socks on a carpet while building, you should be able to avoid shorting out your PC or parts. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with playing things safe. So if you’re worried about static, take the appropriate precautions.

Connect Components to the Motherboard

While some prefer to mount the motherboard in the case before they do anything else, it’s easier with many builds to connect key components like the CPU and the RAM, without leaning over inside the chassis.

The CPU

Whether you’re going with an Intel or and AMD build, the first step is to release the tension lever on the CPU so that you can drop the processor into the socket. (The big difference here is that on Intel builds the pins are on the socket while in AMD’s case, the pins are on the CPU.)

The arrow/triangle on the top of the CPU needs to line up with one on the socket or the socket cover. Don’t attempt to install a CPU with the arrow facing the wrong direction, or you could damage your chip, your board, or both! Once your CPU and socket are properly aligned, you can drop the chip in place, and it  will settle into the socket under its own weight. If it doesn't, pick up the CPU and re-seat it. Don't force the processor into the socket or you'll almost certainly damage something. Once you've got the CPU settled correctly in the socket, press the tension lever back down (on Intel motherboards like the one in the image above, this will also include a metal plate that holds the CPU in).

Note that the above instructions pertain to the mainstream platforms for AMD (the AM4 socket) and Intel (socket LGA 1151). Enthusiast platforms like Intel’s Core X (LGA 2066/R4) and AMD’s Threadripper (TR4) have different/more complex CPU installations, with the Intel chips involving two levers and Threadripper requiring Torx screws and a slide-in plastic bracket. The Threadripper CPU install process in particular is tricky and, given the price of chips and X399 motherboards, we would not recommend Threadripper as your first PC build platform.

Once the cooler is installed, plug the fan connector into its header on the motherboard. This is usually somewhere close to the CPU socket and labeled something like "CPU_FAN." 

The Cooler

Many processors come with coolers in the box. If you’re not doing any heavy overclocking, those may be good enough, though lots of builders also like to buy more powerful (and often quieter) aftermarket coolers.

If you are using a stock cooler, those already have thermal paste applied. With aftermarket coolers, you’ll generally need to apply your own thermal paste. You don’t need much--just a pea-sized amount applied to the center of the CPU will spread when you put the cooler on. Again, serious overclockers and PC build veterans will have techniques for evenly spreading thermal compound. But for novice builders and those not looking to achieve the maximum possible overclock speeds, dropping a small amount in the center and letting the CPU cooler spread the thermal paste works just fine. Just make sure you don't add too much paste; you definitely don't want it squirting out the sides onto the socket and surrounding PCB.

Stock coolers for Intel processors use push pins that go through holes in the motherboard. We recommend pushing opposite corners in to evenly spread the thermal paste, and to keep from putting uneven pressure on one side of the CPU. AMD stock coolers have metal arms that snap into notches on a plastic bracket on either side of the socket. Aftermarket coolers mount in various ways, so be sure to consult the instruction manual, as mounting aftermarket coolers can be surprisingly complicated, often involving a large backplate that has to be mounted behind the motherboard.

Memory

Installing RAM is a snap--literally. First, make sure that the latches for each memory slot are open. Some boards have latches on both sides of a RAM slot, while others--often budget boards--have a latch on one side, with the other end fixed in place. Once your latches are opened, look at each DIMM and position it over the slot such that the small divot on the bottom of the RAM stick is aligned with the matching bump on the board. Finally, push down on the DIMM on each edge until it snaps into place, causing the latches to close on their own. The process requires a bit of force, but if you’re having trouble, make sure that you’re not putting the module in backwards.

If you’re installing two RAM sticks in a board that has four slots, check the motherboard manual to make sure you’re installing your DIMMs in the right slots. If you put them in the wrong slots you may not get the best performance possible, or one of the sticks may not be recognized by the motherboard/operating system.

M.2 SSD

If you’re using an M.2 SSD, now is as good a time as any to install it, because later on other parts may get in the way.

If it’s already installed, remove the screw located across from the M.2 slot and slide the SSD in at an angle. Make sure the notch lines up with the slot, similar to RAM installation. If the notch doesn’t line up, your drive may not be compatible with that slot. Slowly lay the SSD flat and secure the mounting screw. This tiny screw is easy to drop, which is another reason to install M.2 drives before putting your motherboard into the case.

Putting the Motherboard in the Case

Now that we’ve built the core platform (minus the graphics card, which we’ll do later), we’re going to install the CPU and RAM-equipped motherboard in the case. If you haven’t yet, remove the side panels on your chassis. Most cases have thumb screws holding their panels in place, which makes it easy to remove them.

Standoffs


First, gather the standoffs that came with your case and find the proper place to install them. They’re likely marked on the case based on the size of the motherboard you chose. Many cases have standoffs preinstalled, so you may be able to skip this step.

I/O Shield

The I/O shield, which covers the area around your rear ports, comes with your motherboard. Some premium boards ship with this shield pre-attached, but most don’t. So you’ll need to fit the shield into the chassis before you install the motherboard itself, making sure it's the right-side up so that your motherboard ports will fit through the holes once both are installed. You’ll have to use some force to snap all four corners into place. Be careful of sharp edges (that’s why you have the band-aids) as well as metal bits that can block the ports--especially if you have a budget motherboard.

The Motherboard

Now, it’s time to put the motherboard in. Make sure the holes on the motherboard line up with the standoffs you installed and that the ports line up with the cutouts on the I/O shield. Once the board is in, put the screws into the standoffs to anchor the motherboard in place.


Adding the Power Supply and Traditional/SATA Storage

Now for a few parts that aren’t attached directly to the motherboard.

Power Supply



The PSU is usually mounted to the back at the case. Sometimes you’ll find it at the top, but it’s usually mounted at the bottom, where it can pull in cool air from under the chassis. Once you put it in place, it’s generally as simple as screwing it into place with four screws at the back of the case. Then, plug in the 24-pin power connector and supplemental/CPU power connector into the motherboard.

SATA Storage



We added M.2 storage earlier, so now it’s time for SATA drives, which could be a 2.5 inch SSD or hard drive, or a traditional 3.5-inch hard drive. Connect the SATA data cable to the motherboard and your drive or drives, then connect the SATA power connector from the PSU to your drive(s). Mount the hard drive or SSD in the appropriate bracket and screw or snap it into place. Note that bracket/drive mounting methods and placement vary by chassis model.

Inserting the Graphics Card

This is an optional step. If you’re using an Intel or AMD CPU with integrated graphics and don’t plan on serious gaming, you may not need or want a discrete graphics card. Many AMD CPUs, as well as high-end Intel models, don’t have on-board graphics, though, and will require a graphics card in order to connect and output to your monitor.

To install the GPU, you'll likely have to remove some slot covers on the back of the case, so that the HDMI, DVI and other ports show through, letting you can connect your monitor(s) later.

Connect the GPU into the PCIe X16 slot on the motherboard (it’s the long one, and you’ll want to use the topmost one if there’s more than one on your motherbaord). If necessary, plug the PCIe power connectors from the power supply into the card. (You may not need to do this on lower-end cards).

Add a Wi-Fi Card (if necessary)

Most motherboards come with an Ethernet port on them and many also have Wi-Fi built-in. However, if you need wireless access and your computer doesn’t come with a Wi-Fi card, you’ll need to install one in one of the PCIe slots, a short M.2 slot, or attach a USB Wi-Fi dongle. If you’re gaming, an Ethernet connection is probably your best bet for reliable connectivity.

The Last of the Cable Connections

OK, just a few more cables to go until we try turning the PC on. Make sure the connectors for any fans are plugged into the motherboard fan headers. Then, attach the front-panel audio cable, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 case connectors to those headers. You’ll want to consult your motherboard manual for this, because their location varies by motherboard model.

Lastly, there are the tiny front-panel connectors, including power, reset, HDD activity light, etc. Those need to go to the appropriate pins on the motherboard (usually in the bottom-right corner if your motherboard is mounted in the traditional orientation. You’ll need to consult your motherboard manual to see where each should go, as this also can differ based on board make and model.

Double check that you’re using the right headers. These things are small (and so are their labels), so it’s easy to mess them up if you’re not paying close attention.

Turn the Computer On

Once all that's done, it's a good idea to double check to make sure there are no extra fan headers or power cables still waiting to be routed to the right connector. Then plug the PC in, plug in and connect your monitor (to one of the ports on the graphics card, if you've installed on) and your keyboard and mouse.

Hit the power button on your monitor, then turn the power supply switch on (on the back of the power supply) and then press your PC's power button. If everything is working, the PC should turn on and run its POST (power-on self test). Since your operating system isn’t installed yet, you may get an error message about a missing boot drive, or you may get sent straight to the UEFI/BIOS.

Cable Management

This is where you make your case pretty and ensure better air flow. We’re doing this after we know that the system boots properly, because we’d hate to tear apart all of the careful wiring and cut a bunch of zip ties just to have to re-seat a component or reroute a cable. You could of course install your operating system before this step. And clean cable routing is of course less important if you don’t have a case with a window. But we like things neat and pretty, so it’s time to shut the system down, unplug the power cable and clean things up.

Routing some cables through the back of the case during the build process is a good first step toward a clean build. But this is where we’ll shove any extra cable slack through the back panel, break out the zip ties to neaten things up and then, put the side panels back on. You could spend hours making your cable routing as perfect as possible. But just spending 15 minutes making an effort to clean up your cables can make a huge visual difference in what your final build looks like.

Install an Operating System, Drivers and Updates

Preferably before the build process, you'll want to make a USB install drive for either Windows 10 or the Linux build of your choice. For Windows 10, simply navigate to Microsoft’s Download page and click the “Download Tool Now” button. You’ll download and run the Media Creation tool which will turn any 8GB or larger USB drive into a Windows install disk. If you don’t already have a Windows 10 key, you can get one cheap or for free.

Plug the USB drive into your new computer, power on and you should boot into your operating system installer, which will step you through the process. If the system doesn’t access your drive, you may need to navigate to the BIOS and make sure your USB key is available as a boot device and that it's placed in the boot order before your internal drive or drives.

Once you've installed your operating system, when you first connect to the internet, Windows 10 is pretty good these days at getting device drivers. However, you should still go to the manufacturers’ product pages for your parts to make sure you have or get the latest updates.

Finally, when your OS and drivers are all updated, it’s time to start using your PC! The one that you built. Install some games, stream some movies, edit some photo or video, chat on Discord--whatever it is you like to do with your PC. And remember: wWhenever you’re ready to add more features or performance, you can always upgrade.

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  • jimmysmitty
    While I don't always use one I think you should add an anti-static strap to the list of pre-requirements. Its never a bad idea to have one and I do have a couple at home in case I have to work on carpet.

    Also is that standard bubble wrap or anti-static bubble wrap?
  • islandwalker
    @jimmysmitty: From the paragraph right below the "Be Prepared" section:

    "Some builders swear by anti-static equipment, including mats or wrist straps. But as long as you don’t live in a particularly dry environment, you’re not building on a metal surface (opt for wood or plastic) and you aren't rubbing your socks on a carpet while building, you should be able to avoid shorting out your PC or parts. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with playing things safe. So if you’re worried about static, take the appropriate precautions."
  • TechyInAZ
    Solid tutorial Andrew! The only criticism I have to add is the lack of recommending the user to update the BIOS ASAP (especially for AMD users). It's super easy now that all modern motherboards can update their bios within the bios/UEFI itself (all you need is your Ethernet cable plugged in)).
  • Barty1884
    Solid tutorial, goes into enough detail to guide even the most novice builder through.

    A couple of thoughts/comments though, would be on the order of a couple of things.
    1. Installing SATA power/data before mounting the drive could work in some cases, but I'd suspect most people would be better off mounting the drive and then connecting cables.

    2. Personally, I wouldn't moved the FPanel, USB, Fans etc to pre-GPU. I can't think of many cases/boards where it's particularly easy to access all necessary headers after the GPU is installed.

    Small nitpicks though, good tutorial overall!
  • islandwalker
    @techyinaz Andrew actually had a mention of that in there and I took it out because I was on the fence about it, particularly for first-time builders. While I would personally always update the BIOS, it's also pretty easy to brick a motherboard in the BIOS update process, particularly if it's a budget board with no built-in BIOS recovery, and you aren't careful about what you're doing.

    So my general thought, particularly if you're a new builder, is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." So if there's an issue you're having that's expressly addressed by an update, go for it. But I worry that if we told everyone to update their BIOS by default, it might do more harm than good.
  • MagicWok
    You need WAY more thermal paste. Becareful of the PSU shocking the system. And you really should use a swiss army knife that might have a screwdriver.

    vulgarity removed
  • Math Geek
    i do like that RTFM is a big part of the instructions. for new builders i always suggest going page by page through the mobo manual and hooking up/plugging in whatever is on that page if you have it. makes it a lot harder to miss anything that way. especially for the front panel headers and power switches and so on. they are in so many different places and the writing is so small at times the manual is the only way many can figure it out.

    but overall a great tutorial for a new builder that gives the basics without being too specific to certain brands/set-ups.
  • pincher.lala.2014
    ty, very nice aproach.. its very similar the way i usually do, only changing that in most of cases i install "tiny front-panel connectors" bedore i lay down the board at cabinet ... very cool..
  • ingtar33
    I like to do the cable management (as much as possible) before installing anything in the case. It's usually easier that way, however it requires some knowledge of what cables go where and why, as well as a little planning. Still I think overall that's a fine instructional. Better than the monstrosity that "The Verge" did.
  • KidHorn
    Cable management for my builds is basically making sure none of the fans are hitting the cables. Too many cables barely reach so I don't have any leeway in where they go.

    Oh and those last few pins for the power button etc... are always a major PITA. If I were a skinny asian woman, it might not be that bad, but my fingers are way too fat. I wish the MoBo makers and case makers would agree on a single ribbon connection with everything in the right spot.
  • Myrmidonas
    How to build a PC? I do not build a PC. I just buy it!!!
  • bloodroses
    Anonymous said:
    You need WAY more thermal paste. Becareful of the PSU shocking the system. And you really should use a swiss army knife that might have a screwdriver.

    vulgarity removed again


    As a general rule, they say to use about the size of a grain of rice for thermal compound. If you use too much, it can actually insulate the contact area, increasing temperatures. The main use for thermal compound is just to fill in the imperfection gaps between the die spreader and the heat sink. Polishing the die and heat sink also helps reduce the gaps.
  • Barty1884
    @bloodroses, pretty sure MagicWok's response was in jest - mocking the Verge's article :lol:
  • Math Geek
    i'm still old school. i still use about a pea size and then spread it manually over the whole heat spreader. so thin i can still read the part # and such on the spreader through it. was just how i learned and i'm old and refuse to learn a new way :P
  • pincher.lala.2014
    its a giant cabinet easy to deal with cables.... when i started i did not care about psus etc,, now im little better.. n using good thermal...
  • WildCard999
    The G5400, a fantastic CPU for the price! (If you can find one)
  • stdragon
    Anonymous said:

    As a general rule, they say to use about the size of a grain of rice for thermal compound. If you use too much, it can actually insulate the contact area, increasing temperatures. The main use for thermal compound is just to fill in the imperfection gaps between the die spreader and the heat sink. Polishing the die and heat sink also helps reduce the gaps.


    Exactly correct, and also exasperates the "pumping out" problem.

    Actually, I'm going to recommend NOT using paste anymore. I'm a religious convert to Innovation Cooling (IC) Graphite Thermal Pad. They come in 40x40mm (can can cut to size for GPU applications if you want). The material specs are really impressive, better than old Arctic Silver in fact. Some bench at just 1c hotter than the best paste. But who care, you never have to worry about it pumping out, drying out, causing a mess. It's solid and works really well!

    Just set it and forget it!
  • Barty1884
    Without spanning too far off-topic here:
    The thermal pads are an interesting concept, but still far away from being an outright recommendation IMO.
    Yes, they perform fairly well for a new concept, but other than junk paste, it doesn't outperform.
    Costs more ($12 or so IIRC) when some decent paste will give you 10-20 applications for 1/2 to 2/3 of the price.

    There's definitely some benefits in avoiding it spilling out from an over-application and potential for mess, but that's about it.
    Paste doesn't really 'dry out' (to the point of not doing it's job) unless a system sits unused for a very long period of time .
    On the flip side, we know how paste performs in the long run. The Graphite stuff is still relatively new, and we won't know the long-term performance of the stuff for a couple of years, I wouldn't think.

    Worth a try? Absolutely. Worth directing a new builder to it (ultimately, who a "how to build a PC" tutorial is aimed at)? Not so much, IMO.
  • stdragon
    Anonymous said:
    Without spanning too far off-topic here:
    The thermal pads are an interesting concept, but still far away from being an outright recommendation IMO.
    Yes, they perform fairly well for a new concept, but other than junk paste, it doesn't outperform.


    You might want to re-check the material specifications.

    Arctic Silver 5 - tested at 0.94 W/mk

    IC Diamond - rated at 4.5 W/mK

    Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut - rated at 12.5 W/mk

    IC Graphite Thermal Pad - rated at 35 W/mk

    Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut - rated at 73 W/mk
  • Barty1884
    Anonymous said:
    You might want to re-check the material specifications.

    Arctic Silver 5 - tested at 0.94 W/mk

    IC Diamond - rated at 4.5 W/mK

    Thermal Grizzly Kryonaut - rated at 12.5 W/mk

    IC Graphite Thermal Pad - rated at 35 W/mk

    Thermal Grizzly Conductonaut - rated at 73 W/mk


    And yet, the W/mK rating is not the limiting factor at all.

    Refer pages 8-11
    https://www.tomshardware.co.uk/thermal-paste-comparison,review-33969-8.html

    The difference between Conductonaut (2x the conductivity of the IC graphite) and Kryonaut (1/3 of the graphite) translates to, at absolute worst, a 2'C delta.

    Even between best/worst performers (that are being used for their intended purpose) you're at 5'C delta.
    Anything greater than the cheapest of the cheap paste, is going to perform very similarly, if applied correctly.

    We're completely off-topic now.
    If you want to discuss further, please PM me (or start a dedicated topic)