PC-Wholesale's Guide to Building a Computer

Photo courtesy of Flickr: selda

Personal computers (PCs), especially desktop systems, offer users a great degree of freedom and the power to run a host of programs that are convenient and beneficial. Often, desktop computers are the center of the home network, and they most commonly serve as gaming machines, file servers, and media servers. They are also popular for video editing and 3D rendering, business and financial applications, and just browsing the Internet. Compared to tablets and laptops, it is much more possible for users to build and customize their PCs or enhance them with upgrades. There are issues, however, that computer users will need to take into consideration before they embark on the task of building their own machine.

Before Building: What To Consider

Prior to building a desktop computer, it is important that the user think about a variety of factors. One's budget is a major consideration, as it will help determine how much computing power one can afford and also what features the PC will have. When designing a PC, it will also be necessary to establish what tasks or purpose the computer is meant to fulfill. A gaming machine will have different requirements than a file server, for example, or a computer that is intended for business purposes. Desktop PCs are typically stationary machines that can be moved if necessary but are most often left in one location. This means that in most cases, a user will also need to decide where to place it, as that will help determine the size of the computer. Most importantly, users will need to consider whether or not they have the know-how to build a computer on their own.

Necessary Computer Parts

All desktop PCs have a basic set of parts that they require in order to function properly. For starters, PCs need a chassis or computer case to hold and protect all of the computer's internal parts. The internal parts include the CPU, or central processing unit, the memory, or RAM, a hard drive for permanent data storage, a CD or DVD drive for removable optical storage media, peripheral ports such as USB ports for connecting external devices, plus network, sound, and video adapters. All of these internal parts also require a motherboard, the function of which is to ensure that the other parts all cooperate and communicate efficiently. In addition, PCs need a mouse and keyboard for data input and a monitor for users to see the computer's data output. All computers require electricity, so another necessary component will be the power supply unit (PSU). This delivers electricity to the motherboard, which routes it to all other components within the PC.

If a user is building a gaming machine, they will need to concentrate on a faster, multi-core CPU and a high amount of RAM, plus they will need a powerful discrete or dedicated video card. If the user intends to do video editing, video conversions, or 3D rendering, they will need all of that plus a computer motherboard that will accommodate even more RAM than a gaming machine. Computers designed for viewing movies or for business purposes, such as managing personal finances, can get away with less power and RAM and the video adapter provided by the motherboard. File servers will need more RAM than a business computer, moderate CPU power, and a large-capacity hard drive that is designed for constant use. Servers can survive on a motherboard-provided video adapter and in some cases won't even need a computer monitor, depending on how savvy the user is.

Basic Knowledge and Tools

Before attempting to build a PC, a person should have a basic understanding about electronics and how they work. At a minimum, purchasing technical books on electronics or "how-to" books on the topic of computer-building can be a good start for someone with no experience and can provide considerable insight on the ins and outs of custom-building a PC. This includes understanding what parts go where, how they interconnect, equipment compatibility issues, basic maintenance, and what to do to prevent damage from occurring during the building of the PC and while it is running.

When building a desktop machine, users will also need a set of tools. These include a static strap, which users should have on their wrist and connected to the computer case at all times during the building process in order to avoid static electric shock. In addition, they will need spare screws for devices such as hard drives and various types of screwdrivers, preferably Phillips screwdrivers. Screwdrivers with variable heads are a particularly essential tool. A set of tweezers or a three-pronged hardware extractor will be needed to grab parts such as screws that might fall into hard-to-reach places. In addition, spare computer parts can be an indispensable part of one's toolkit. For instance, if a video card is malfunctioning, then a backup video card can help troubleshoot the issue and tell if the computer itself is having problems or if the adapter is simply incompatible. Spare connector cables are also a must, in case a user finds themselves with a failed connector or they need more than they realized.

Building the Computer

After factoring in the computer's intended use and what parts it needs, next comes the task of building the machine. The first step involves assembling the necessary parts or components, preferably on a clean, flat, and unoccupied surface like a table or a desk. The surface should be made of plastic, wood, or another material that does not conduct electricity. This is to reduce the risk of static electric shock, which can damage equipment. Driver CDs should also be assembled here as well.

Start with grounding oneself with the static strap, then open the computer case and lay it on its side so that the motherboard can be installed with its face pointing outward. Typically, this means laying the case on its right side. The first thing that should be installed in the case is the motherboard. The CPU should be installed on the motherboard next, then the RAM and the cables that connect power and reset switch, speakers, and LED lights. Install the CPU cooler fan and, if necessary, the thermal paste that goes between the CPU and the fan. The RAM, when installed in the right direction, will snap into place. The CPU is made so that its pins only fit in the one proper way, according to that CPU and the motherboard's socket. If they're not compatible, they won't fit. Finally, install the PSU if it isn't a part of the case, and plug in its power cables. Install the video adapter in its proper peripheral slot (typically the small motherboard PCI port nearest to the CPU) if one is using a dedicated video card, and plug in any power cables that it uses. Once that is done, install the hard drives and DVD/Blu-Ray/CD optical drives, and plug their data cables into the proper ports on the motherboard, which are usually the SATA ports in modern systems. Use the screwdriver to screw in the optical drives and hard drives so that they are secured in place. Each drive typically has four points, two on each side, where they can be secured by screws. Connect their power plugs into the PSU's plugs after that. If the user bought add-on peripheral cards like sound cards or Wi-Fi adapter cards, these should be installed as well. Finally, connect the mouse, keyboard, and monitor. Before closing the case, try connecting the PSU's power plug to the wall socket, and turn on the PC while it is on the desk to ensure that it at least powers on and reaches the end of its power-on self-test (POST). If it doesn't, go back and troubleshoot the components and connections to make sure everything is connected correctly.

Additional Information

After successfully building a PC and ensuring that it boots properly, users will want to consider what operating system they want to use. For PCs, this often means Microsoft Windows or some flavor of Unix, such as Linux. Ultimately, custom-building a desktop PC will take a considerable amount of know-how. Although this information covers the basics of building a PC, serious PC build enthusiasts may want to consider formal training, particularly if a more complex machine is desired. Formal training can be obtained by taking a course through one's local college. Professional computer technicians are experts in PC building, upgrading, and troubleshooting and typically acquire A+ certification both for up-to-date hardware training and to establish their credibility.

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