Choosing the Right PC Parts: Tips for First-Time Computer Builders

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There’s lots of reasons to build your own computer but the main 2 are so you can give it the performance you want it to have and to save money. But building a rig for the first time can be an intimidating prospect. All those parts! All that electricity flying around! All those weird terms like “form factor” and “SSD” and “PCI Express 3.0 x16” that have increasingly occupied your mind ever since you first floated the idea of upgrading your computer! You start to wonder why you tried this and didn’t just go to a computer recycling site instead. It’s a lot to think about – and a lot to buy. Here’s a short guide on how to get started and keep things as simple and stress-free as possible.
Understand what you need.
A computer requires several pieces to turn on, boot up, and operate properly; and every computer you’ve ever used has all of these hardware components: a motherboard, a case, a power supply, a processor, memory, a hard drive, a monitor, input devices (mouse/keyboard), and an operating system. If you plan on doing any modern gaming on your new build, you’ll also want to invest in a graphics card – or two. That’s a lot of pieces and parts to keep track of, but don’t get overwhelmed. Make a list and shop through it, item by item, just like you would at the grocery store.

Pick a budget and stick to it.

One thing that scares away a lot of would-be system builders is the cost. Yes, computers can be expensive, but you can absolutely build yourself a decent rig that fits your current budget while saving money in the long run. Even a $400 self-built machine will often out-perform and out-last a pre-built machine from an online retailer or electronics store that costs $100 more.

Start with a dollar figure and determine what you want, parts-wise, and remember to budget in an operating system. To save money, consider migrating your old, operational peripherals over to the new build – you shouldn’t need a new monitor, keyboard, mouse, and sound system unless the ones you have desperately need replacement. If you want an optical drive in your new computer, check the viability of pulling the drive from your current rig and using it in the new one. You should focus your efforts (and your wallet) on the guts of the computer first and foremost. The Logical Increments chart can be a big help in this regard.
Shop around for the best deals once you’ve picked out your parts. Just because you found a great power supply on Newegg doesn’t mean you need to order it from there, especially if Amazon has the same thing for five bucks less and free shipping. You might even come in under budget if you’re diligent enough.

Start with the motherboard and pay attention to compatibility.

An easy mistake to make is buying components that don’t play nice together. Industry-wide standardization has improved dramatically over the years with the advent of USB, SATA, and PCI-e, and has made it harder than ever to buy a part or peripheral that doesn’t work with any given motherboard, but the potential for incompatibility is still out there if you’re not careful. This is why starting with the motherboard as the first piece you research is so critical. Literally every other piece of hardware, from the case to the graphics card, is subject to the motherboard’s specifications. Decide on your mobo first and decide on everything else afterward. You risk filling out RMA forms and making several trips to the post office otherwise.

Don’t try to put an Intel processor in an AMD motherboard. Don’t try to fit that full ATX motherboard into a Micro-ATX minitower case. Don’t buy 184-pin memory modules when the motherboard has 240-pin slots, and don’t buy 32 gigs of RAM if the motherboard supports a maximum of 16. If you’re not buying a graphics card, make sure your motherboard has its own video outputs. If the motherboard has a 24-pin ATX power connector and and 8-pin CPU power connector, make sure your power supply can plug into both. Compatibility-focused hardware shopping comes down to common sense, attention to detail, and familiarity with your motherboard whether it’s your first build or your fiftieth.

Are you unsure if your preferred RAM will work with that motherboard you had your eye on, even after looking at hardware specs? Ask around! There are plenty of forums out there on the Internet dedicated to helping new and seasoned builders with making good decisions on their hardware. Anandtech and Tom’s Hardware are two great places to start.

Get a good power supply unit (PSU).
The power supply unit is usually under-appreciated and overlooked by first-time buyers. Low-quality power supplies are less efficient, which means that they convert more electricity into heat, and more heat is not good for your other components. Low-quality power supplies also deliver less stable power (“dirty” electricity with high ripple), which can damage your other components over time. They can also explode (literally explode, with a bang, smoke and possibly flames), potentially taking out your other components.
Quality PSUs have higher efficiency, lower temperatures, and deliver “cleaner” electricity. When quality PSUs fail, they fail safely, without damaging your other components. So even though power supplies are not an exciting component to buy, and they do not contribute to making your games look better, it is still in your best interest to make sure that you pick a quality PSU for your new PC.
Keep your boxes and receipts.
Alright! All your parts have arrived in the mail! You’ve done your homework and made smart purchases, but there’s a chance something might go wrong – a hard drive that fails on you well ahead of the warranty expiration, a motherboard that won’t POST, and so forth. Hang on to all your packaging and documentation for at least a few months in case you need to ship something back for a replacement or refund, and be aware that many retailers and manufacturers require you ship to them in the original box. There’s a great chance you won’t have to worry about these types of problems, but be prepared just in case. And speaking of “in case,” use the box that your computer case was shipped in as storage – you should be able to stick all the boxes from all your parts in there.
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