After several years of using prebuilt desktops and laptops, and three years of not having a desktop at all, I finally decided to build a PC for the first time. Verdict? It was unnecessarily intimidating, and I’m so glad I did it. My biggest concern was that I would throw everything together and it wouldn’t boot up, and I’d sit there for days wondering which component was faulty and in need of returning/replacement. Luckily, that wasn’t the case, and I barely had to troubleshoot anything. Everything worked flawlessly, except for a few cases of rookie building error entirely my own fault. Now, I’m sitting on a PC of my own creation, and fully satisfied with my investment, and no longer anxious about getting my hands “dirty” with electronic components. I will never buy prebuilt again, nor allow my friends and family to do so.
For anyone thinking about building their own first PC, here’s an account of my experience.
Step 1: Researching and Purchasing the Components
To build a desktop, you basically need the following hardware: A motherboard, a PSU (power supply) a CPU (processor), a CPU cooler/heat sink, a GPU (video card), RAM (memory sticks), a hard drive, and a case (tower) in which to throw it all. Optionally, you might want to add an optical drive (DVD or Blu-ray), an audio card, and your operating system (don’t forget to budget for your legitimate Windows copy). And you’ll definitely want to make sure that all the parts you buy are compatible with one another. After you’ve set your sights on compatible parts, start deal hunting. I used the website PCPartPicker to check that my chosen components were compatible, and to find the lowest prices from various online vendors. I also checked the buildapcsales Reddit daily, to see if any of my chosen parts (or even better) were discounted somewhere.
After shopping around for two weeks, waiting for sales, I finally had all my parts before me, still in the boxes. Here was the shopping list for my build. You’ll notice a lot more than the “necessities,” such as the peripherals (monitor, keyboard, mouse, cam), the case speaker (most cases don’t come with one, so you need to buy one separate if you want to hear boot-up beeps), the thermal paste and the CPU cooler (I didn’t want to use the stock stuff that comes with the CPU as I intend to ride my rig hard), and the SSD for storage.
CPU: Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5 GHz Quad-Core Processor
CPU Cooler: Phanteks U-Type Dual Tower Heat-Sink CPU Cooler PH-TC12DX_BK
Motherboard: ASRock Z97 Extreme3 ATX LGA1150 Motherboard
Memory: Team Dark 16GB (2x8GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600
Storage: Kingston Digital 120GB SSDNow V300 SATA 3 2.5 Solid State Drive
Video Card: ASUS GeForce GTX 980 STRIX
Audio Card: Creative Sound Blaster Audigy PCIe RX 7.1 Sound Card
Power Supply: XFX Pro Series 750W Power Supply Unit Modular
Optical Drive: LG WH16NS40 Super Multi Blue Internal SATA 16x Blu-ray Disc Rewriter
Case: Phanteks Enthoo Pro ATX Full Tower Case
Case Speaker: APEVIA Case Speaker
Thermal Paste: Arctic Silver 5 High-Density Polysynthetic Silver Thermal Compound
Monitor: ASUS PB258Q LED monitor, 25 in.
Keyboard: Rosewill Mechanical Gaming Keyboard with Cherry MX Blue Switches
Mouse: Redragon M901 PERDITION 16400 DPI High-Precision Programmable Laser Gaming Mouse
Camera: Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920, 1080p Widescreen Video Calling and Recording
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 10 Home Flash Drive
I had an old desktop in my closet, three years old, that I raided for parts before I went shopping. All I was able to salvage was the 1TB hard drive, which saved me from having to buy a new one, and the DVD drive (although I chose to spring for a BD drive anyway). I also had 2.1 speakers and an old 19-inch monitor, but chose to get the 25-inch 1440p to take advantage of my very pricey video card. Now I’m using both monitors, as you see above. I bought the SSD specifically to store my operating system and programs, as SSDs are much faster than regular hard drives. You do not need one, though. They’re quite pricey by comparison. Also, motherboards do have on-board audio, so you don’t need an audio card unless you value quality sound.
My build is meant for heavy-duty gaming and multimedia production (video, audio, image editing, coding, etc.). It’s not the highest of the high-end, but I suspect it should last me a few years before I start to experience some sluggishness. You’ll build and spend to your needs, obviously. Do research into what parts will meet your needs. When you’ve got all your parts, it’s time to get to work. I began my project at about 11 p.m., as soon as I got home from work and found the last of my Amazon purchases waiting for me.
Step 2: Breadboarding
I learned about breadboarding from the Tom’s Hardware forum. Breadboarding is when you put your components together, piece by piece, to make sure individual components work. I did this without the case, so that if anything was faulty, I wouldn’t have to take it all apart again. Here’s what I did:
1. I unboxed the motherboard, CPU, CPU cooler, and thermal paste. Before handling any components, I grounded myself by touching something metal to discharge any static electricity I’d built up. I performed this build on the carpeted floor of my bedroom, so I touched my chassis often, to be safe, though I never did build a charge.
2. I read all manuals, and followed the instructions to the letter. I first put my CPU in my motherboard, then installed my CPU cooler’s mounting brackets. I then “tinted” the metallic surface of my cooler’s heat sink (following the Arctic Silver instructions here for my specific processor) before applying a line of thermal paste to my CPU, and securing the cooler to it. Then I plugged the power supply of the cooler’s fans into the appropriate pins on the motherboard.
3. I installed the case speaker to the appropriate pins, so I could hear the beeps.
4. I unboxed the PSU (power supply unit), and plugged the appropriate power cables into the motherboard, then plugged the PSU into my surge protector. You can apparently short the power switch with a screwdriver or paperclip but I couldn’t pull this off, so I simply plugged my case’s power button into the appropriate pins and used that to turn on my motherboard instead. Here, also, was my first rookie mistake. I turned on the PSU, expecting to hear the long, singular “no memory” beeps, but the fan spun up for a quarter of a second, and then died again. Over and over. At this point, I was sweating. Was the board bad? Then I realized I’d neglected to plug in the 8-pin connector, which provides power to the CPU. I’d only plugged in the 24-pin connector, thinking this was all I needed. Lesson learned.
5. With all connections appropriate now, I listened for the long, single beeps from the case speaker, which is the motherboard’s way of telling you there’s no memory detected. So far, so good. I turned off the PSU so I could safely add the next component.
6. I inserted my RAM sticks, following instructions as appropriate to ensure I used the appropriate slots. I ran into the problem of my massive heat sink making the first slot inaccessible to my rather large RAM. This turned out to be a common issue, so I stuck the RAM into slots 2 and 4 instead of 1 and 3. No problem. Then, I turned everything on again, and listened for the one long and 2-3 short “no video card” beeps. Success! So far, I’ve determined my motherboard, PSU, CPU, heat sink, and RAM were good-to-go.
7. Now, you can carry on like this, plugging in your video card, plugging your card into your monitor, and so on. You don’t need a case at all to build your entire computer. But I decided to stop the breadboarding process after I found my RAM was good. I was eager to put everything in the case and hope for the best.
Step 3: Put It All Together
1. First, I disconnected everything from the breadboard configuration. Then I took apart my case (per instructions) to give myself room to maneuver. The case I ordered (a full tower) was massive, and so perfect for a rookie builder, as managing cables was simple and forgiving. I followed the case’s instructions to install the motherboard, not forgetting about the standoffs, which prevent the board from touching the case and shorting out. My case came with standoffs already installed.
2. I next installed my PSU. At this point I did not plug anything into the PSU, so none of the cables would get in my way.
3. I then installed my video card, my audio card, my SSD, my optical drive, and my hard drive, and got to work plugging all the appropriate cables into the motherboard and the PSU. I ran all the cables through the provided openings behind the motherboard tray, which left everything looking nice and clean to the outside observer. I plugged all the case features into the motherboard.
4. With everything installed, I double-checked all my connections, plugged my monitor into my video card, hit the power button, and prayed to Cthulhu that I didn’t botch anything. To my astonishment, the monitor flickered to life, and the Windows 7 login screen appeared! Woah! Apparently, I had Windows 7 installed on the old hard drive I salved from my previous desktop, and the motherboard booted from there. It all worked! I threw the case covers back on, and proceeded to set up the software and peripherals.
Step 4: The End Game
My case is so massive it doesn’t fit under my desk, so it’s sitting between my desk and bed. Building the rig took about 3.5-4 hours. Getting the software setup took another 1-1.5 hours, because at this point I made my second rookie mistake. I plugged in my Windows 10 flash drive into a USB port, and accessed the BIOS to tell my motherboard to boot from it. Then, during the installation process, I created a 35GB partition on my SSD and installed Windows to it. Installation went flawlessly, but then I realized I couldn’t access the other 85GB of my SSD. In retrospect, I probably needed to make two partitions, one to hold the operating system and the other for the rest of the drive. But I only created one, thinking the remaining drive would be automatically available. So, I decided to reinstall Windows 10, but this time not mess around with partitions. I erased all partitions and formatted the drives, and then Windows 10 couldn’t use them anymore! It took me about 30 frustrating minutes playing around in the BIOS, trying to figure out how to make my drives bootable again. Finally, the Internet led me to my solution, and I installed Windows 10.
A third rookie mistake occurred two days later, when I realized the front case fan wasn’t spinning. I could’ve swore I’d plugged in both the front and back fans, but upon opening the case I found the front fan cable just dangling there. Woops. I plugged it into the motherboard, and now everything works perfectly.
If you want a desktop, and want it your way, don’t be afraid of building your own. It wasn’t as difficult as I expected it to be, and instructions are generally clear to anyone willing to read them. I did get frustrated trying to figure out how to remove my case’s front and top covers, as the manual neglected to mention that they simply popped off. But a quick YouTube video revealed this secret to me, and I carried on. Now, I just need to save up a crap ton of money for Blu-ray playback software, since Windows doesn’t have native BD playing. Damn it. I guess I’ll keep using my PS4 to watch my movies, for now.
Since I know now how to build a PC from scratch, upgrading individual parts as necessary will be nothing by comparison.