7 Things I Learned From Building My First Desktop PC

By  |  Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 11:13 am

My mission to buy a desktop PC started out simple: I wanted a powerful work computer with support for three monitors. Getting a PC within my budget seemed reasonable.

But then, temptation set in. With a slightly better processor and graphics card, this desktop could play the latest video games. And with a solid state drive instead of hard disk storage, everyday work performance would be breezier. Of course, boosting those specs at any configure-your-own PC site made the final price skyrocket. After days of searching for a powerhouse PC under $1,000, I admitted the truth to myself: If I wanted it, I’d have to build it.

Today, I write to you from my homemade, high-powered rig, built last Thursday. It has a 3.3 GHz Intel Core i5 2500K processor, an AMD Radeon 6870 graphics card, 8 GB of RAM, a 120GB solid state drive and a basic DVD burner. The total cost, after taxes and rebates, was about $920. (I got parts from MicroCenter, an electronics retailer, which meant paying sales taxes but getting everything immediately.)

Building my first desktop PC wasn’t just a means to an end, it was also a learning experience. If you’ve ever thought of building your own PC, here are some things to consider.

1. It’s Not as Daunting As It Sounds

Conventional wisdom on Internet message boards says that if you want the best desktop PC for cheap, you need to build it yourself. I always figured that wasn’t so much advice as it was a way for geeks to boast about their engineering talents. But as someone who lacks said talent, I was surprised by how simple setting up a PC can be. I used a recent how-to from The Verge for general guidelines, and consulted my manuals–mainly for the desktop case and the motherboard–when I needed more detailed explanations. In most components, everything’s labelled well enough to be self-explanatory, and the only tool you need is a Phillips-head screwdriver.

2. Picking Your Parts is the Hardest Part

If you’re building a PC for the first time, the real daunting part is the initial commitment, in which you decide not to buy a pre-made rig and start trying to figure out what parts you need. I spent a lot of time trawling through message boards for suggested builds. Hours were lost obsessing over the balance between power and prices. And after deciding on specs, I still had to pick decent parts, which meant scanning through countless user reviews on Newegg to make sure my power supply and RAM wouldn’t crap out on day one. By the time I’d lined up all my components, the building process didn’t seem so scary.

3. Needed: A New Kind of CPU and GPU Review

I have immense respect for sites like AnandTech and Tom’s Hardware, which churn out exhaustive reviews of graphics cards and processors. But those reviews cater to a highly technical audience, which is to say not me. When picking a processor for a gaming PC, I only need two questions answered: What’s the newest game I can play at the highest settings, and what do I gain by spending $30 more on the next model up? Of course, lots of other variables affect the answer, but I’d love to see more short, sweet graphics card and processor reviews that explain what an extra 0.3 GHz gets you in the real world, not in benchmarks.

4. The Mail-In Rebate is Alive and Well

My big electronics purchases of the last few years–phones, tablets, a laptop and a TV–have come without mail-in rebates, which makes me think that retailers and vendors are doing away with this noisome practice. But when buying individual PC components, mail-in rebates are everywhere–$10 here, $20 there. In total, I’ve got $90 in rebates across five vendors to deal with. My guess: component makers hope it’s enough of a headache that some people won’t bother.

5. There Are Parts You Don’t Think About (And They Add Up)

The specs I bragged about at the top of this story aren’t the only parts of the machine, off course. You also need a motherboard, a power supply, and a case. Depending on your setup, you might also want extra USB controllers, a built-in SD card reader, and a wireless network adapter. And don’t forget about a copy of Windows 7. (Most online retailers sell the OEM version for about $100, which is roughly half the price of a retail copy, but can’t be transferred to another computer.) This stuff can get expensive, quick.

6. Sage Advice: Don’t Force Things, and Build in the Buff

Before building, I asked folks on Twitter if they had any tips. I liked Brian Katz’s advice, which is common-sense but worth being reminded about:

Also, PCWorld’s Patrick Miller had an interesting recommendation:

The Verge’s how-to also suggested stripping down if you don’t have an anti-static wrist wrap. I have no idea if these claims of static danger are overblown, but I didn’t take any chances. I assembled on my kitchen table–where there’s no carpeting around–in my underpants. It was a weird scene, especially with all the electronics strewn about, but at least nothing got fried.

7. You Are Your Own Tech Support

I wish I could say everything went smoothly. Unfortunately, my new PC showed a tendency to get choppy after waking from a few hours of sleep. I tried updating drivers, updating the BIOS, and fiddling with settings, but to no avail. Eventually I reinstalled Windows, which seems to have fixed the problem. Also, one of my fans was behaving sporadically, until I found the lose connection to blame. Calling up the PC manufacturer would have been nice, except in this case, the manufacturer was me. This may seem stupidly obvious, but if something goes wrong, you’re on your own.

On that note, good luck!

 
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42 Comments For This Post

  1. Thom Says:

    I think somebody was messing with you, man – it sounds like you had a great time doing this and it makes me wish my last build hadn't been somewhere around 8 years ago, but this building naked thing? That seems like an awesome prank, and straight from the mind of a Breaking Bad fan or something of the sort. Yeah, static sucks, and it's easy to fry things (not to mention an anti-static wrist strap should have been available at Micro Center, cheap), but I've always put things together clothed, and I've never fried anything – just worn the strap, and failing that made sure to discharge prior to opening things up and whenever I think of it afterward. I guess there's no such thing as too cautious, and you did accomplish your goal – building a PC without frying a single component – but your significant other, children, pets, etc., got an added bonus out of seeing you do it all in your skivvies!

  2. Marty Says:

    Another tip for building your own pc is, instead of buying MS Windows (and maybe MS Office), look into getting a 1yr Microsoft Technet subscription. This gets you TONS of licenses, for lots of different products, and you can download all of the disc images from the site.

  3. Jared Newman Says:

    I didn't have the wrist wrap. And the advice came from a couple sources including one published, so it would have been some prank. But yeah, weird scene. Probably for the best that my wife was out of town.

  4. Kevin Says:

    I second the excellent advice to get MS Technet. I also am dubious about the build-naked idea. I'm not apt to do this, nor anyone else I know of who builds systems (as far as I know!). The latest authoritative advice I've heard is you basically don't need to worry about static these days. (Though I for one would go ahead and touch some metal to ground out any buildups before digging in.)

  5. phred14 Says:

    Actually the skivvies comment makes a lot of sense, though it's not strictly necessary if you're wearing the right fabrics.

    The issue is ESD. (Electro-Static Discharge) It can absolutely kill anything in silicon. Even though we always put "protect structures" onto the chips for ESD, they're just not good enough to protect against downright "abuse" like a hard zap. If you can see, hear, or feel a spark, it's enough to kill your chips.

    Remember in grade school when they talked about making static electricity by rubbing a glass rod with a cloth? Same issue here – almost any two things rubbing against each other can create static electricity. Some things are worse than others, which is why the underwear are OK, because they're usually made of cotton, and that's one of the safer fabrics. (I suspect because cotton tends to take on moisture.) Stuff like silk, wool, or polyester are just asking for trouble. Once upon a time we had an ESD problem at work, and it ended up getting traced down to a machine operator who wore silk boxers.

    I use a wrist strap. I also try to wait until it's above freezing, and not dry-as-a-bone. Humidity helps mitigate ESD.

  6. John Says:

    Nice article. I built my first pc a year or two ago after a storm fried our Dell while we were away for the weekend. I was able to reuse a few components too. Enjoyable learning experience. I’m just afraid I’ll have to relearn everything next time I do this in a few years. It’s amazing how quickly you forget what you’ve learned when you don’t do it regularly.

  7. Tim Says:

    Thom the getting into your skivvies thing is for people who don’t have wrist straps. I’ve done it before, but have had equally good luck simply caressing the power supply when its plugged into the wall. The problem with static damage is simple. A extremely small amount of static can zap a chip, but be undetectable to the human touch. I’d rather play it safe that blow a couple hundred bucks.

  8. Jared Newman Says:

    Interesting. What happens after a year? Is your copy of Windows still valid?

  9. vulpine Says:

    First off, I'm surprised that this is your first build. As a technology writer, until now I believed you had experience. Congratuations on the success of your first build.

    However, you also emphasize the point that the majority of people who argue about computer pricing when comparing certain brands almost exclusively claim that they can build one cheaper than they can buy one and you have proven that for yourself while also pointing out that when matching like-for-like the variance between brand names isn't nearly as much as these same people want to claim.

    I, as an Apple user since 1979, have built more than one PC for myself and my clients. I personally recommend Apple computers to most of them because of the support capabilities from Apple as well as–for me–the well-established reliability of the Apple product compared to any other I have used–including self-built models using above-average components. Quite honestly, when I compare the work of researching, purchasing and finally assembling a self-built PC to buying an Apple off the shelf, I consider the Apple the better choice for most. I do not mean all.

    Yes, there are some things where a self-built PC gives you a huge advantage. The ability to pick and choose the processor, graphics card and RAM among other components can let you greatly increase the capability over almost any store-bought PC. It also gives you a much easier path to upgrade your PC multiple times before the motherboard fails or cannot take a higher processor. This also means you will experience more frequent expenses as you choose to perform those upgrades–risking (slightly) the death of your PC each time you do so. I'm using an iMac right now that performs as well as it did when I purchased it 5 years ago and I'm still capable of playing even some of the latest MMOs through Windows 7 as well as WoW and others on OS X. I haven't paid a single extra penny for upgrades or support since I purchased this machine.

    So. Yes, I do agree that building your own is easier than you might have believed.
    Yes, I do agree that you have much better control over what goes into that machine.
    Yes, techies do have a great advantage when building their own machines.
    NO! The average consumer knows even less than you do about building and maintaining a machine.
    Maybe now you can better understand some of the arguments pro and con and therefore better explain in your columns why one machine or device may be better than another.

  10. Geoffrey Wykes Says:

    Hey, nice job! Great, honest write-up, too. I think that you’ll probably now have a better sense of the specs of commercial machines, considering that you are now on the hook for everything that goes wrong on your system. You might not always enjoy that aspect, but I love building/rebuilding/upgrading my computer, loud-beep-no-display-what-the-hell moments nonwithstanding.

  11. SirWired Says:

    Your Windows isn't valid to begin with. TechNet is supposed to used for development use only (i.e. testing the new software you wrote with multiple Windows versions) You aren't supposed to use the software in production at all.

  12. SirWired Says:

    Using TechNet to build a "production" PC is not legal. You are not supposed to use software on TechNet for anything but development. (i.e. using the OS licenses to ensure the software you just wrote works on multiple Windows versions.)

    There's a reason a TechNet license is way cheaper than many of the applications it provides copies of.

  13. Jared Newman Says:

    Yeah, I imagine it's a right of passage that I should have done sooner. Tech writing these days often comes down to the user experience rather than the guts of the machine, but it's nice to have a better sense of how everything comes together.

    To clarify: My points about pricing didn't have to do with comparing brands. It's just a matter of ordering parts direct from the manufacturer and cutting out the cost of labor/tech support.

    Obviously I wouldn't recommend that the average consumer builds his or her own PC, but it's kind of a moot point because I imagine most average consumers wouldn't even entertain the idea.

  14. SirWired Says:

    Rolling your own is a perfectly valid way to build a PC if you enjoy screwing around with your box.

    If you want to screw some parts together, and then get some actual work done, think again. The money you "save" by buying your own parts is going to disappear the second you have to mess around with it to beat it into working. (i.e. Reinstalling Windows to fix some sort of vague issue.) That happens with a box you bought at Best Buy? Back to the store it goes!

    I support computers all day. The last thing I want to do when I get home is fight with my PC. When I buy a new one, I want it to "Just Work." And if it doesn't, I want to be able to heave it over the counter and get my money back.

  15. Stickeh Says:

    As you don't mind the drive to Best Buy to drop it off and again to pick it up, plus the time wasted waiting for them to repair it. If you have to reinstall Windows (pretty uncommon, really), you might be out an hour or 2 max.

  16. Daniel Busoli Says:

    I built my first computer from Grade 11 onwards (about 10 years ago now), buying each new part as I could (slow going, pushing trolleys isn't very profitable). Being relatively young, I relied on the help of my local computer shop, who ultimately selected the best components that I could afford, making sure things were going to fit e.g. CPU & MB. I think I was quite smart, in buying the components in the reverse order of obsolescence (e.g. case, cd-rom first; CPU, HDD last). These days, my local computer shop has a list of parts and the staff aren't much help, but then I think that's a product of the internet.

    Research is key, though however filtering through the details online to find the component that you want is quite a frustrating task. I've gone to many a manufacturer's website, only to be daunted by the way components are categorized – e.g. for motherboards chipset type. No where have I been able to find a decent search tool, one that lets me filter on features. I'd love something that let me search for a MB based on something as simple number of internal/external ports by type. E.g., I don't want P/S2 or serial ports, and want at least 6 USB ports. At the moment, it involves knowing the processor I've got (or am going to buy); knowing the corresponding series of chipsets; and then opening each models page to find out if it has got the features I need.

    If anyone knows of a good search & filter tool for computer components (e.g. motherboards, cases, graphics cards), I'd love to hear from you.

  17. The_Heraclitus Says:

    It was a prank. Bare feet would accomplish the same thing…

  18. The_Heraclitus Says:

    It takes longer to drive the machine back to the store than to just fix the problem yourself.

  19. Mike Cerm Says:

    As said by SirWired, you're not supposed to use TechNet in this way. However, Microsoft doesn't stop you from doing this, and the keys you got while your were a paying TechNet subscriber remain valid.

  20. Drew Says:

    Strange (having built a number over the past two decades) is the importance of beer and pizza to the building process.

  21. yoyo Says:

    I spent a lot of time building PCs in my youth, and the only problems I had were always with the sound card. It seems there was always an incompatibility between the sound card and a graphic card or the mobo or the OS or sthg.
    Bottom line: don't try to install a sound card if you don't have to.

  22. finch83 Says:

    I disagree. Read http://www.mdcsna.com/?p=1350

  23. John Fenderson Says:

    There is simply no way I would trust Best Buy to repair my computer. Even if they would repair it correctly, the cost is way too high — if not in money, then in time & the aggravation of having to deal with Best Buy.

  24. daleyt Says:

    SPAM

  25. Vulpine Says:

    Forgive me if you misunderstood my 'pricing' comment; I was talking more about techie commenters in general who claim that one brand is grossly overpriced and try to prove it by claiming they can build a machine with the same capabilities for less. Given the knowledge and will to do so, honestly anybody can. Simply put, the general public has neither the knowledge nor the will; they rely on techies like us to recommend the best machine for them or build it, as the case may be.

  26. Vulpine Says:

    I won't necessarily describe this as spam, but it is clearly off-topic and doesn't belong.

  27. Jared Newman Says:

    Gotcha. Yeah, it's not really fair to use a homemade PC as a basis for comparison with anything pre-built.

  28. Brandon Backlin Says:

    I see how it is Jared! If the Verge does it; you have to do it! :P

    Actually, there are a LOT of advantages to building your own desktop. You took all of my list, except; there's NO garbage-ware loaded before you get it. It's just the hardware, and the OS. That's all it should be.

    Also, generally; box PCs are cheaper, but you get the bigger bang if you kit out your own.

  29. AMacGuy Says:

    I"ve never seen a homebuilt box that didn' t look like a bowl of spaghetti on the inside. :-)

    Parts manufacturers don't make those cables just the right length to bundle together and look neat.

  30. bigdav1178 Says:

    I can understand the science involved in order to reduce your chances of producing static electricity through your clothes, but this really was completely unnecessary.

    A good rule of thumb is to have something handy to discharge yourself before handling a new component. By plugging in your power supply to the wall outlet (no need to connect it to the PC or turn it on), the chassis of the supply is a good way to ground yourself – touch the outside before touching your next component. Likewise, you really don't need to worry about generating ESD (electro-static discharge) while handling components either; they will gradually accumulate the same charge as you rather than getting a sudden charge (ESD) – it would be best to touch that power supply before touching the component to something else to ensure it is discharged, though.

    You typically don't need an ESD strap or to jump through hoops to handle components, just use some common sense – discharge yourself (and/or the component) before touching anything new. And to be honest, though not wearing clothes would have reduced some likelyhood to generate a charge, it did little to nothing to discharge any charge you may have generated anyway.

  31. alexander Says:

    Been building custom since 1996-97, NEVER built naked, NEVER wore anti-static and NEVER fried a system component by static. Things are a bit more robust than most seem to imagine.

  32. Movies Says:

    Actually, there are a LOT of advantages to building your own desktop. You took all of my list, except; there's NO garbage-ware loaded before you get it. It's just the hardware, and the OS. That's all it should be.

  33. ogman Says:

    That's what modular power supplies are made for.

  34. nomad Says:

    Nice article. I've built a few PCs in my time. Some further advice (unless you know how to fix and debug if things go wrong):

    i) Avoid buying cutting edge components as they don't always play well together. E.g. there may be incompatibility between a CPU and motherboard. (And If you do run into problems you may need another machine to try and identify what's the issue)

    ii) For relative newbies (or those wanting an easy life) I'd recommend buying a pre-made & tested kit (motherboard, cpu, memory) as this is often where things can go awry. Ok, it reduces options, but makes for an easier life.

    iii) It's tempting to buy the latest motherboard, though think hard whether you need all the features. Often I've found I don't use them, and by the time I want to, the technology has moved on again, and the new CPU I want isn't compatible with my motherboard.

    iv) Try to buy components which aren't noisy (cpu fans, gpu cards, cooling fans etc), it's makes a big difference to your working environment

    Whatever said, building PC is a wonderfully rewarding experience!

  35. Ricardo Says:

    Just put Linux and save money and troubles

  36. Matthew McKenzie Says:

    I still think you were pranked! But even so, a wrist strap falls under the category of "essential extras" — if you don't have one, you're taking a dreadful and unnecessary risk with your build.

  37. Matthew McKenzie Says:

    I'll agree with you this far: Many people, probably most, can't or won't show the attention to detail and planning that's required to build a reliable system. Something as simple as using non-certified memory on a particular motherboard can be enough to cause terrible problems.

    But if you really know what you want in a build, you're patient and prepared, and you're able to invest some time up front, then building your own can be a superior option.

    And Best Buy? Really? You're a glutton for punishment, aren't you?

  38. Matthew McKenzie Says:

    That may or may not be true depending on your hardware choices and how you'll be using the system.

  39. George Says:

    Hey there, that's pretty good going for a first time build [with the exception of the solid state drive its a carbon copy of my last 2 builds]. I found an easy way to ground/earth the machine chassis and me. I used the EARTH pin of the domestic power supply. Here in the UK we are blessed with 3 pin plugs for domestic power—-live neutral and earth. I connected all three wires of the cable to the earth terminal of the plug and ran the cable to the chassis and attached the 3 wires using crocodile clips. [Note the plug, the cable and the crocodile clips are all clearly marked as earth/ground. with all 3 wires attached to the Earth pin there is no chance of electric shocks.

  40. Zepe Says:

    You don't have to strip down if you're concerned about static, but if you just feel a bit kinky, feel free to do so. Or, get a spray bottle with a fine mist spray and give yourself a light misting, this will get rid of the static. If you have a humidifier in your home this will suffice as well.

    I do neither of the above and have been working in electronics since 1955 and I have never, ever had a problem with static. Your head and some common sense is all you need.

  41. K73Ch Says:

    Once you build one, you will want to keep building them. The spaghetti bowl wiring look get’s better after a few builds. You will learn to tuck the wiring away so it doesn’t look this way. There are some great articles, and pictures of wiring management out here on the internets. The one thing that sticks out to me is that silly monstrosity Intel calls a push pin heat sink and cooler. I call it junk, but it looks like you got it secured alright. Thanks for the article, you just upped your geek cred!

  42. jimmy Says:

    I recommend Desktop, something goes out like psu, it a half hour fix with standard parts. it’s faster than any appointment setup at genius bar, bestbuy, etc. i am up running quicker than any other solution. all my files still accesible. all office computers should be pcs. software wise, microsoft provides the longest time support. peripheral wise like cams, printers have the broadest support. cleaning dust out is fastest which is why i recommend pc case as opposed to all-in-ones. cheaper to upgrade and less to recycle. i mean everytime somebody change an all in ones, they are throwing away perfectly good lcd just because their cpu is no longer current.

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