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July 13, 2009

How to Choose Components for Building a Computer

Have you seen powerful machines that would do anything you would expect a super computer to do? Have you wanted to play excellent games but your computer restarts every time you run it? Well it's time you make a computer. Computer companies sell some but are more expensive and less powerful. By making your own you will save money, get a new and valuable skill and impress people (with the needs of a faster computer and all) along with a more powerful machine than what computer companies make that you can easily upgrade and repair.


1. Outline the benefits you're seeking from building your own computer. Different configurations suit different purposes. The cost implications of choosing between these uses are huge. A cheap work computer might cost only two or three hundred. A server can reach tens of thousands. Take the advice of experienced users in your field. Spend no more than is required for your usage. Ignore salesmen or others who implore you to waste money on unneeded upgrades.

* Basic System. Nothing special, just some good parts from solid brands.

* Home System. Mainly more RAM and a dual-core processor so everyone can multi-task.

* A Gamer's Rig. You'll need a killer ATI or nVidia graphics card from a well-trusted vendor, a dual-core processor or quad-core processor (some software is catered to a certain CPU set up, in general though the more cores the better.), speedy RAM (good quality RAM is very important), and if you want load times to be faster, a good SATA hard drive.

* Music Sound Mixing/Producing. Choose a well-received, non-integrated sound card, such as from the X-Fi or Audigy series, a decent amount of RAM, and a decent processor.

* Video Editing Suite. Choose a graphics card good enough at rendering what you need done (these cards may not be the same as gaming cards. ATI has a RAGE series targeted at the professional render market that are more suited to these tasks; nVidia has its Quadro range). A quad-core processor is suggested for multithreated codecs. A large hard drive will be needed, and multiple terabytes if you do lots of video editing, hence RAID HDD setups are common.

* Server System. Not very much is needed if it's a dedicated system. An old computer or a basic system with more hard drives will do well. If your server is going to be performing complex tasks (such as using the PHP programming language or hosting a game), it will need as strong of a processor and as much RAM as possible, and a Gigabit Ethernet port assuming communcation to other computers via LAN. The speed and type of RAM do not matter. You will need at least one large hard drive. One TB (terabyte) hard drive would be a great choice. The speed of the hard drive does not matter much, either. Multiple drives is a good upgrade, however, for when you are hosting multiple large-scale sites, for one hard drive can be spinning when the other isn't.

2. Select your motherboard and your CPU (central processing unit) at the same time. The exchange between the CPU and motherboard is named the socket. Sockets are specific not only to the CPU brand, but also to the class and architecture of the CPU. Socket information is readily available on any CPU spec sheet. In addition to selecting the correct socket, advanced builders often do research into the best chipset avaliable. Often there is not much of a choice of chipsets once a CPU has been selected (you can always change your mind! Be sure to decide on all your parts before purchasing any of them!). Mainstream CPUs are either AMD or Intel. Motherboards openly advertise which CPU they support and the sockets supported. Motherboards also lean toward supporting one graphics manufacturer or another, this can be a bit tricky to judge b/c either manufacturer should work. SLI motherboards cater to nVidia (GeForce) cards, while Crossfire motherboards cater to ATI (Radeon) cards.

3. Select your case. It is preferred that you get an aluminum case because it dissipates heat. Most come with a fan and power supply. Look for a case with either dual 80mm fans or a single 120mm fan. If yours doesn't come with a power supply or if your current one isn't good then get one. If you have extreme graphics cards then get a power supply with extra electrical attachments for peripherals.

* Each case and mother board has a form factor which is the size of the case and motherboard. The form factors of both must match in order for them to fit. Make sure that there are matching or higher number of card slots on the case than there are the motherboard; if there are more card slots on your motherboard than your case then you are limiting performance.
* Cases come in several sizes. SFF (Small Form Factor) cases are portable small and are the only cases with integrated motherboards. There are other sizes ranging from mini to full tower. If you choose to get small cases then don't put really powerful equipment in it, or it will overheat.
4. Select RAM (Random Access Memory). This must match your motherboards clock speed (Intel motherboards range from 667MHz on the low end to 1333MHz on the high end, while AMD motherboards clock 533MHz to 667MHz). DDR2 is the most common, and DDR3 has recently been released. A Vista system should have at least 1GB of RAM, and 2GB is preferred. 4 to 8 GB is the typical limit of RAM a motherboard can address.
5. Select hard drives. This is where information on your computer is stored. Most computers at least hold 80GB, but at Newegg.com (link below) you can install a SATA 500GB hard drive for $100 and you normally get a GB for under a quarter. There are two interface types for hard drives: IDE (also known as ATA) and SATA. ATA cables are slower and are flat,and are long in width. SATA cables are faster, and they are shaped like regular cables so air will flow easier. Hard drives spin a different RPMs, and this is a decent indicator of performance. A higher RPM drive will find information faster. As well, look for a cache (RAM on a hard drive that stores frequently accessed information) of at least 8MB (16MB is better). Newer motherboards also support RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) which allows multiple, lower cost hard drives to function as a single unit. Hitachi and Seagate are both highly rated brands.
6. Select a disk drive. This is where your CD/DVDs go. Depending on your needs you should choose one that's right for you. Almost all new DVD writers can make CD-Rs, so look for either a dual burner set-up or a burner and reader set-up. Living room computers may also consider a Blu-ray drive or HD-DVD drive. Lite-on, Sony, and LG are good manufacturers.
7. Choose an OS (operating system). The most recent OS is Windows Vista, and has heightened hardware requirements. Windows XP is still sold and available at retailers like Newegg.com.
* On a budget, Windows XP Home and Vista Basic should satisfy most users.
* For a business environment, XP Pro and Vista Business are the OS of choice.
* Vista Premium and Ultimate, as well as XP Media Center Edition all have media center software and are ideal for living room computers
* Almost any version of Linux will run on standard hardware. Linux is great and free but may need more attention to install and configure. However building machine from pieces gives you great opportunity to check the list of supported hardware and be sure that your devices (especially video cards) will work.
* Mac OS X is only available on Apple computers and will only run on Mac hardware. It is possible to install and run Mac OS on standard PC hardware because Apple is now using Intel processors, but it is illegal to do so as Apple does not allow its software to be installed on any non-Apple Hardware.


* The quality and price of a component are often linked when comparing one brand's component to another brand's component of the same specs. Make a judgment call based upon the brand's reputation, the quality of their support (RMA process), and online reviews. Do not settle for a component of sub-par reliability just to save a few dollars. The biggest differences in price come from each component's level of technology. For example, Core 2 Duo verses Core 2 Quad.
* The legal retail Windows version for a custom machine may be more expensive than the pre-installed OS you get in the computer from the shop. An alternative to this is to qualify to purchase and activate an OEM version of the software. You can find OEM versions of Windows on most online retailers. You will need to purchase a "permanent component" (hard drive, motherboard, processor) to qualify for this type of license. It will usually cost under half as much as a retail license, at the expense of after-sale support from Microsoft. However, some argue that this is not a problem given the large scale support available from an online search.
* Choosing your own sound card and video card will enhance computer performance by relieving the CPU (Central Processing Unit)of work on graphics with the video card's GPU and the sound card's sound chip.
* Floppy disks are obsolete. When you build a powerful machine the last thing you need is another heat source. Get a flash drive, they are smaller and they fit into your USB port. Most MP3-players and iPods can be configured into flash drives and still play music.
* There are three interface slots a graphics card can fit into: PCI (peripheral card slot)(slowest), AGP (advanced graphics port), and PCI Expressx16 (the fastest).
* Consult the many forums on the Web for people who enjoy building their own computer systems. Post what you are planning on building, and ask for suggestions. Many people on forums are more than willing to make sure that you have chosen parts that are good, and that the overall computer will work. Here are some forums:

o http://www.tomshardware.com
o http://www.extremeoverclocking.com
o http://www.computerforums.org
o http://anandtech.com
o http://www.pcmech.com
o http://www.techspot.com/
o http://www.overclock.net/
o http://www.build-a-recording-studio.com/build-computers.html


* Before touching any of the hardware, make sure you discharge yourself of any static electricity by touching the metal chassis of the computer or another large metal object. You can also purchase anti-static wrist bands.
* If you are building this yourself than you should take extra care that you DO NOT plug in the power supply until you are ready to turn it on.
* Most cases have sharp edges that cut, get cases that are meant to be worked on that have smooth edges.
* Do not put really powerful components in small cases for they will overheat and fail.
* Do not try to bootleg a copy of Windows or any other kind of software. Non-Genuine copies of Windows are ineligible to receive select security updates.

Things You'll Need

* Motherboard - The motherboard is basically the computer. Without it nothing happens. Everything connects into the motherboard, which makes it really important. Modern boards contain PCI-Express (PCI-E) slots that are much faster than the old PCI. Motherboard makers list compatible CPU and memory products online. Read them before making your CPU and memory selections. You might want to look at the processor and the motherboard at the same time. Make sure your motherboard has enough USB slots for all your peripherals. Although the performance chart states MicroATX as the lowest performance motherboard, that is not always true. Though the MicroATX form factor has fewer expansion slots, it is often similar in performance to its larger cousins. It is indeed possible to create a MicroATX system that has high performance and reliability.

* Processor (CPU) - This is the thing that makes the computer run, it does everything from running a game to adding 2+2. There is not a lot to think about in a CPU but there is one major decision. Intel or AMD. Up until recently, AMD showed better results in gaming and desktop computing, and Intel had better straightline speeds for data-crunching. Since the release of Intel's Core 2 Duo Processor line, however, this has changed. In the sweet spot for gaming performance, AMD could be competitive by significantly lowering prices for the Athlon 64 X2 or Athlon 64 FX-62. However, either a Core 2 Duo or an Athlon will fill your needs, as long as you purchase a processor from either line that is powerful enough for your needs.

* Power Supply - Focal to the computer is the power supply itself, which provides power to the components. Power supplies are mainly rated by their power output in watts. Watts, however, aren't everything. A good quality 400 watt power supply from a reputable manufacturer will generally be a much better choice than a generic 550 watt unit. If you get a case with the power supply included, then there's often much you need to worry about. Antec generally makes good quality cases and power supplies. If you are looking to make a gaming rig then you must also look at how much power your video card will draw, both amps and watts. Other good brands include FPS Fortron, SeaSonic, some Thermaltake (Purepower and Toughpower lines), and all PC Power & Cooling. Many of today's power supplies have 2 or more 12-Volt rails, which is where a video card draws its power. This divides the total available amps and watts evenly between these. Certain high end Video cards will need to draw more amps or watts than a single one of these rails can provide so it may be important to get a single 12Volt rail power supply. Be certain to check that the power supply you want also has the proper connectors for the newer video cards.

* Hard Drive - The hard drive stores everything you'll need: the operating system and all other data that you put on your computer. The only criteria for your hard drive is capacity and type. SATA is an industry standard now, and offers higher burst read and write speeds than IDE. The SATA standard also uses smaller serial cables, instead of wide parallel ribbon cables. All new motherboards are compatible with SATA hard drives. If you want to use RAID, ensure your motherboard supports it. Check your motherboard manual online before purchase. RAID is often not worth it. There are many different standards of RAID, outline below.

* RAID - RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks. There are many standards of RAID. The most common three are RAID 0, RAID 1, and RAID 5. RAID 0 is non-redundant (and thus one failed drive typically destroys all data stored over the array) and typically offers twice or more the bandwidth and increased read and write speeds. RAID 0 can also be used by more than two hard drives. RAID 1 is redundant (and thus one failed drive is backed up by the other drive--giving you good data security), but performance is basically the same as a single hard drive. You can only use two hard drives in RAID 1. RAID 5 is a multi-drive configuration, where each hard drive stores an overlapping portion of the data. A typical way to figure out storage is the total capacity of all hard drives, minus one hard drive's capacity. For example, if you have four 500GB hard drives, your total storage will be 1500GB. Each hard drive will hold 1/3 of the data, so one failed drive will not destroy the data on the array. You need to use hard drives that are all manufactured by the same company and the same capacity. Seagate typically has good-quality hard drives. Most common advice for this is stay with name brands, such as Seagate, Western Digital, and Samsung.

* RAM/Memory - Since the hard drive is too slow to give information at a speed the processor uses, a lot of information has to be stored in a place where it can be accessed quickly. This is where the RAM comes in. However, it is not a replacement to a hard drive because it is not a permanent memory. Sometimes more is better than faster, depending on what applications you want to use. RAM choice is dependent on the motherboard. Go with a stick of 512 MB DDR or DDR2 (depending on the motherboard) RAM as the bare minimum, but for anything other than office applications, you'll want at least 1GB. Install at least 512 MB per processor core, and stick with more established brands, such as Crucial, Corsair and Kingston.

* Additional Drives - In addition to the hard drive, you may also want to purchase a CD/DVD Drive. The CD/DVD drive (optical drive) is an important removable media drive for CD's or DVD's. They are cheap ($20 for a basic DVD reader or $30-35 for a basic DVD burner) and easy to install. All you have to consider is whether it burns CD's or not and whether it reads/writes DVD's. The most "able-bodied" CD/DVD drive is a combo drive.

* Graphics Card (GPU) - The graphics card is the gateway between your computer and your monitor. It determines how you will see your desktop and everything else you do on your computer. This means how fast you see it and the quality of what you're seeing. For most purposes, fast integrated video like Intel GMA 3000 or nVIDIA 6150 will suffice (even for Vista's Aero Glass), but if you are going to be gaming or editing video, get a dedicate graphics card. Your graphics card fits into either a PCI-E slot (the current graphics standard), or a much older AGP slot. If you are upgrading an older or low-end PC, there may be neither of these slots, in which case you will have to use an empty PCI slot to accommodate a PCI video card. These boards almost always have integrated video. In addition, you have to check the memory of the graphics card. The memory in the graphics card determines what you can do it with the card. Some programs need more memory to run. 256 MB is recommended but a good graphics processor and 512 MB is better for gamers.

* Case - The case is the enclosure that holds your computer together. It protects your computer from dust and other things that may harm your computer. A mid-tower, mini, or micro cube is fine for most users, but a full tower may be needed for servers or users who want a lot of space. The main thing you want to consider in your case is the fans that are in it. The more fans the cooler your computer will be. However, the more fans the more noisier your computer is. In addition, some cases have a Power Supply which will determine if you need to buy a separate one later. Also, make sure the tiny box you'd like has enough space for hard drives, DVD recorders, and that optional card reader. Running out of space is a pain.

* Monitor - The monitor is the display on which you will see your desktop and everything you do on your computer. The only thing you have to worry about is whether there are ports that will connect your computer's your monitor. For instance, most graphics cards have DVI ports instead of VGA ports while some only have VGA ports and not DVI ports. The description of the graphics card will tell you if it has a DVI port or not. You may want to get special features with your monitor, but that is completely up to you. CRTs, the large, boxy monitors, are still preferred by graphic artists for their reliability and color accuracy. However, LCDs are much sharper and will leave your desk less crowded. They also consume less power. It's mainly a money and personal preference decision. Look for LCD monitors larger than 20" if you can afford it--they're typically $200 for low-end models. If you are gaming, you might want to get an LCD monitor with a lower response time, like 2-3 ms, or maybe even 5 ms.

* Keyboard & Mouse - There are expensive gaming and work sets available, for first-person-shooter (FPS) games or designing 3D. Just get a cheap set (wireless is good, less congested) for basic computing. A docking rechargeable mouse is great (no more battery changing!). If you love FPS games, then you should go with a laser mouse (not to be confused with an optical mouse!) that has a nice feel and weight to it. If you have a tendency to develop carpal tunnel syndrome then a trackball mouse might be best. They are slightly more expensive, but you don't have to move your wrist at all and you can place them anywhere (leg, table, arm of chair, anything).

* Sound card/headphones - Your sound card or headphones is the device that lets you hear the sounds of your computer. A surround sound card lets you have surround sound with a lot of speakers. There are also headphones that have a microphone built in (headset). You can have either. Remember also that many motherboards have excellent integrated high definition audio, so you may not need one for all your sound horsepower.

* Operating system - Keep in mind what Operating System you will be using. Windows Vista will require better performing hardware than Windows XP, MacOS X, or Linux. The operating system you select should fit your needs, your comfort level, and your peripherals. For example, Windows XP and Ubuntu are excellent choices for hardware compatibility and ease of use, but may not always include the latest features of Windows Vista, MacOS X, or other Linux distributions. There are a multitude of Linux distributions such as Fedora, openSUSE, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, Knoppix, Kubuntu, Debian, Freespire, Slackware, Gentoo, etc. Avoid distributions such as Slackware that require intimate knowledge of Linux command line shells unless you're comfortable with Linux. Avoid distributions such as Gentoo that require every file to be compiled during install unless you're willing to spend multiple days on an install for a disputable increase in performance.


The following table is a general suggestion table for choosing parts, regardless of a computer's intended use. Value categories are suggestions to save money (ie: build a PC for less than $500 US), performance categories are mainstream or for gamers, and the enthusiast categories are for those who enjoy building high-end systems or playing intensive games like Crysis on high settings. These categories are highly subjective, may not be up-to-date beyond its initial writing, and only exist to serve as an example. Updated Mar 6, 2009.

Value Performance Enthusiast
Case Any, typically mini or mid-towers Mid-tower with room for intake and exhaust fans (example: Antec, Thermaltake, Coolermaster) Full-tower or mod case with extensive cooling capabilities (ie: room for water cooling system), or built-in passive cooling (example: Lian-li, Coolermaster, Zalman, etc.)
Motherboard Socket 775 (Intel)/AM2+ (AMD), onboard graphics and PCI-E X16 graphics Socket 775 (Intel)/AM2+/AM3 (AMD), PCI-E 2.0 X16 graphics Socket 775 or 771 (dual-processor)or Socket 1366 for Core i7 (Intel), AM3 (AMD) multiple PCI-E 2.0 slots, Crossfire or SLI support
CPU AMD Athlon X2, Intel Celeron E1xx0, Intel Pentium Dual-Core E2xx0, Core 2 Duo E4xx0, AMD Phenom or Intel Core 2 Duo E6xxx/E7xxx or Quad Q6x00, Intel Core 2 Duo E8xxx, Intel Core 2 Quad Q9xxx Intel Core 2 Duo E8xxx, Core 2 Quad Q6xxx, Q9xxx, Core i7, Xeon E54xx (for dual-processor), Intel Extreme Edition processors (with an X in the product name); AMD Phenom II.
RAM 1GB of DDR2 533, DDR2 667, or low-cost DDR2 800. At this price point, go for more RAM as opposed to fast RAM - e.g. aim for 2GB as opposed to looking for RAM with CL4 on it. 2GB of DDR2 667, DDR2 800, or higher. Some motherboards in this class may require DDR3. Look for CL4 or CL5 at 1.8V. 4GB of low latency DDR2/DDR3 (it's a better idea to use fewer modules, e.g. 2x2GB as opposed to 4x1GB). It's typical that high-speed DDR2 (DDR2 1066 and above) will be available at CL5 (5-5-5-15) and at or above 1.9V.
Power Supply 400W+ quality PSU (15+ amps on 12V) 500W+ quality PSU (30+ amps of 12V) Over 600W+ quality PSU (60+ amps of 12V)
Video built-in video chip on motherboard, NVIDIA x200/x300/x400/, or ATI Radeon x3xx card. NVIDIA 7900/8600/8800GT/9600(any letter combo)/9800GT or ATI 36x0/46x0/4850 card NVIDIA 9800GTX+/GTX260/GTX280/GTX285/GTX295 or ATI Radeon HD 4850/4870/4870 1GB/4870X2 card(s). Multiple cards in nVidia's SLI or ATI's CrossFire can give better performance, but make sure your motherboard chipset supports it. You cannot usually mix 2 or more graphics cards from ATI and nVidia on one motherboard.
Audio onboard audio controller onboard "HD" audio controller, or Creative Labs X-Fi, Auzentech X-Meridian, or HT Omega (cards with EAX 2.0 or higher) ASUS Xondar, Auzentech Prelude, or Creative Labs X-Fi
Hard Drive(s) 3.5" 7200rpm SATA drive, any capacity 3.5" 7200rpm SATA drive, usually 500GB or greater. Multiple 7200rpm SATA drives, 10000rpm SATA drive or drives, or 10000rpm SAS drives, SSD (Solid State Disks - remember these have low capacity but incredible speed)
Optical Drive(s) Any SATA DVD reader or burner SATA DVD Burner, 18x or 20x speeds, LightScribe recommended SATA DVD Burner, 20x speeds, Lightscribe recommended, Blu-Ray Reader or Burner optional




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