If you've never done it before, the idea of building a computer from the ground up can seem very intimidating—but it's one of the most satisfying projects a tech enthusiast can take on.
Being more of a software gal than a hardware geek myself, I was the only Lifehacker editor who had never built a PC from scratch. So when I needed a new PC late last year, I took the plunge and built my custom system. I'm so glad I did—the project turned out to be one of my proudest accomplishments of 2008. If you've cracked open your PC before to install a new hard drive or TV capture card, but you've never built a whole new system from the ground up, it's not as difficult as you might think. Here are my notes for first-timers who want to build instead of buy their next computer.
Why Build Instead of Buy
"But computers are so cheap these days," you say. "Why waste the time and energy building your own system when you can get a great machine fully assembled and shipped to your door?" That's a great question. Building your own PC will not save you time. It might save you money, but that's not even the best reason to do it. For me, it was a fantastic hands-on educational experience. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction every single day when I press the power button on my tower, watch it light up, and know that I plugged in the wire that goes from that light to the motherboard. Building your PC takes the mystery out of what's going on inside that black box you spend hours on per day.
There are other good reasons to build instead of buy, too. With your own build you can customise your system just how you like and make your perfect media centre or gaming machine. You can save money if you already have some parts (though see my warnings on the dangers of a "Frankenbuild" below). Upgrading your PC in the future becomes easier and cheaper since your parts aren't tied to a particular manufacturer. With a custom build you can do fun stuff like overclock your CPU and get more bang for your buck, or install OS X where it was never intended to run.
In short, building your own PC makes you feel like a badass.
What You're Getting Into
Don't get me wrong, though: building a PC (for the first time especially) takes research, time, gumption, patience, and a willingness to deal with several WTF moments. If you've never cracked a PC's case and installed parts, like a new hard drive or a video card, start there first. If you've got that experience under your belt, you might think that building a new PC is just a matter of snapping together a few parts. It is, but building from the ground up takes much more than an hour or two. My build took two full days, one online order, one returned motherboard, two trips to Fry's, one condescending sneer from a sales associate when I asked a newb question, and one trip to Radio Shack. If that sounds like a lot, well, it was, and there were moments in the process when I wished I'd just bought a Dell. But when it finally all came together, all the sweat makes the results even sweeter.
Where to Start: Researching and Buying Your Parts
You scared off yet? No? Good. Let's get down to it. There are a gadzillion articles on the internet about building your own PC, but many are way out of date, or just don't get specific about what exactly you should buy. When I had to start researching what parts to purchase, of course I turned to savvy Lifehacker readers to help me out. Several readers mentioned Ars Technica's excellent system buyer's guide, which breaks down exactly what parts you'd want for one of three levels of computer: a "budget box," a "hot rod," or a "God box." The 2008 guide published last fall; make sure you use the most recent one when you start your research. I started by plugging parts from Ars' "hot rod" system list into Newegg to get a sense of price and see if there were any deals, coupons or upgrades. In the end I didn't use Ars' exact recommendations, but it was an awesome, up-to-date, jumping-off point.
Your research into parts is the most important stage of the process. For first-timers it can be bewildering, and you will have questions. Just keep reading, take notes, consult with forums or sales associates, and remember that if you make the wrong purchase you can always return it for the right one. In the photo to the left you'll see my build's case, motherboard, power supply, CPU, and RAM. (I had a video card, DVD drive, and a hard drive from an old machine I planned to use in my new build.)
Get Down and Dirty
Once you've got your hot little hands on all the parts you need, the real fun begins. There are two stages to your build: the hardware stage, and the software stage. Once you've got everything plugged in and mounted inside your case, plug in your keyboard, mouse, monitor, and power, and press the On button. This is the moment of truth. The first time you see the lights come on and the system setup appear on-screen, you'll feel like you've just arrived at the top of Mount Everest.
If the machine doesn't power on, or there's no video signal, or the keyboard doesn't work—just unplug everything and check your connections. It took me a few hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing attempts to get my new build to boot properly. If it doesn't work the first time, take a breath, unplug it all, and try again. Don't cry; that won't help.
Once you're into the machine's BIOS setup, key around and make sure the motherboard recognises your DVD or CD drive and your hard drive. You'll need those working in order to install your operating system. Everything there? Now set your boot sequence to check your optical drive first. Insert your operating system's disc into your CD or DVD drive, and restart the machine. Now your operating system's setup will launch on boot, and you can install away.
In the meantime, blast very loud rock music, strut about the vicinity with your arms raised over your head, and revel in your greatness.
Mistakes I Made That You Can Avoid
When you build your first PC, keep a few things in mind I wished I'd realised before I started.
- Beware of the "Frankenbuild." A great way to save money on your new PC is using parts that you've already got around. But I was overly optimistic about what items from my very old Dell tower would work in my new system. I assumed my hard drive would work (it did, but it was an IDE drive, which I wound up replacing with a faster SATA model), I hoped my video card would work (it didn't), and I thought my DVD drive would work (it did). In the end I wound up buying parts I thought I'd be able to reuse, so my total price wasn't as low as my initial estimate.
- Expect mishaps. I bought the wrong motherboard. Well, not the wrong one, but one that didn't have a FireWire port, which I wanted. I figured this out after I installed the CPU, which meant I had to remove it from the board, break the thermal compound seal, and ship the motherboard back. When I got the new motherboard and reinstalled the CPU, because the thermal compound left there didn't work anymore, the machine would boot up and within 10 seconds overheat and shut itself off. Lesson: there will be mishaps. Expect crap to go wrong. Be confident in your ability to fix it after you Google the solution to the problem hundreds of people have had before you did.
- Read the frakkin' manual. With years of tinkering in my PC's case under my belt, I went into my build eager to start working and only skimmed the user guides and online howto's before I started. Don't do that. Open and read the full-on manual that comes in the box with every single one of your parts. If you're not sure about something said manual includes, do your research before you plug anything in.
- Buy locally if you can. My initial parts order was from Newegg, which was great price-wise, but really sucked when I had to return my motherboard, because I had to pay shipping fees and a restocking fee. With a Fry's down the road, I regretted not just buying everything at the store itself from the get-go to to make returns easier.
- Give yourself lots of time. I wrongly assumed I'd be able to finish my build in a day, but it took two whole days and stressed me out because they were work days. Don't build a new PC when you're on deadline or otherwise pinched for time. Give yourself a whole weekend and a clean and spacious work area that you can leave filled with packing debris and electronic parts strewn about for a few days.
Have you built your own PC? Are you considering taking the leap? Let us know how it went or what you're thinking in the comments.
Gina Trapani, Lifehacker's founding editor, loves turning on her new PC every single day. Her feature, Smarterware, will appear every week on Lifehacker.