Perhaps you’ve realized that pre-built machines are nice but may not feature the components you want in a computer, or simply aren’t flashy enough for your tastes. Maybe you’re not happy with the cooling solution, or the lack of ability to overclock.
Regardless, you’ve come to the decision to finally build your own gaming PC, but aren’t sure where to start. Thankfully, we’ve got you covered in this beast of a guide.
Throughout this megapost, we’re going to walk you through every step of the build process, starting with deciding what to buy all the way through assembly and OS installation and finish with getting gaming. We’ll be sure to include direction to other parts of our blog and elsewhere on the web for your convenience and ease of reference. So, without any more delay let’s dive right in.
Part 1: Specs & Part List
Ideally, we’d all like to have the ultimate gaming PC. One with virtually unlimited storage and could run every game at blazing fast speeds for the next decade. Unfortunately, we live in the real world with concerns such as budgets and constantly evolving hardware. So, this first section is going to focus on helping you decide what you really want and need out of your machine, then prioritizing what you can afford while ensuring your PC as good as possible for as long as possible.
Before we can go out and start buying whatever components we want, there are a few things we should really think about. The first thing you should ask yourself is, “What do I want this machine to do?” Obviously, you want it to play games, or else you wouldn’t likely be reading about how to build a gaming PC. Also, is there anything else you want to do with the computer, such as school projects, statistical analysis, audio mixing, or 3D modeling? Each of these features would require extra consideration when choosing components and building your machine.
Additionally, what types of games do you play? Casual gamers have different requirements than strategy gamers, which have different requirements from either FPS or competitive online gamers. A machine optimized for PlayerUnknown’s: Battlegrounds or competitive Overwatch is going to be different from a machine you’d build for someone who wants to play Sims 4 or a machine optimized for VR.
Take a moment to figure out which games you play most frequently, which games you’d like to play but cannot on your current machine, and which games you’re really hyped to play as soon as they’re released. Then, when you have your list take a few moments to figure out what these games’ minimum and recommended requirements are. If you’re unsure you can check the developer’s websites, the relevant page on Steam, or use an external site like Can You Run It.
In this section, we’ve listed the minimum and recommended requirements for a few popular games, as well as the listed requirements for the HTC Vive VR headset. This will give us a baseline from which we can start making decisions.
|CPU||Intel Core i3-4340 or AMD FX-6300||Intel Core i5-6600 or better|
|OS||64-bit Windows 7, 8.1, or 10||64-bit Windows 7, 8.1, or 10|
|GPU||nVidia GeForce GTX 660 2GB or AMD Radeon HD 7850 2GB||none listed|
|HDD||Minimum 30GB free space||Minimum 30GB free space|
|CPU||Intel Core i3 or AMD Phenom X3 8650||Intel Core i5 or AMD Phenom II X3|
|OS||64-bit Windows Vista, 7, 8.1, or 10||64-bit Windows Vista, 7, 8.1, or 10|
|GPU||GTX 460 or Radeon HD 4850 or Intel HD 4400||GTX 660 or Radeon HD 7950|
|HDD||Minimum 30GB free space||Minimum 30GB free space|
|CPU||Intel Core i3-3210 or AMD A8-7600||Intel Core i5-4690 or AMD A10-7800|
|OS||Windows 7, 8.1, or 10||64-bit Windows 10|
|GPU||GTX 400 series or Radeon HD 7000 series or Intel HD 4000; need OpenGL 4.4||GTX 700 series or Radeon RX 200 series|
|HDD||Minimum 1GB free space||Minimum 4GB free space|
|CPU||Intel Core i5-6600K or AMD FX-6350||Intel Core i7-6700 or AMD FX 8350 Wraith|
|OS||64-bit Windows 7, 8.1, or 10||64-bit Windows 10|
|GPU||DirectX 11 compatible with 2GB VRAM|
GTX 660 or Radeon 7850
|GTX 1060 3GB or Radeon RX 480 4GB|
|HDD||Minimum 50GB free space||Minimum 50GB free space|
Star Wars: Battlefront 2
|CPU||Intel Core i5-6600K or AMD FX-6350||Intel Core i7-6700 or AMD FX 8350 Wraith|
|OS||64-bit Windows 7, 8.1, or 10||64-bit Windows 10|
|GPU||GTX 660 or Radeon 7850||GTX 1060 3GB or Radeon RX 480 4GB|
|HDD||Minimum 15GB free space||Minimum 15GB free space|
Assuming that you want to use your machine for more than just gaming, we also need to consider what other functions you want your computer to be able to do. If you want to use the machine for basic school work you’ll want an Office suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint). If you want to do graphic design, you’ll want to make sure you have a powerful enough machine to run your graphics suite like Adobe Creative Cloud. Similarly, if you’re programming with something like Unity3D, you’ll want to make sure you can handle this type of work. Other specialties like statistical analysis or audio editing and mixing have their own requirements.
Home and Student Use
If you want to use your machine for basic student or home office needs, you’ll want some sort of office suite. The most well-known being Microsoft Office, but there are others available such as Apache’s OpenOffice. These types of programs have fairly modest hardware requirements. Microsoft’s Office Home and Student 2016 needs at minimum a 1GHz processor, 2 GB of RAM, 3 GB of free space, and a DirectX 10 compatible graphics card for graphics hardware acceleration. Apache’s requirements for OpenOffice 4.1.x are even less. This essentially means that we don’t have to worry about additional hardware for this function, just the cost of software.
Adobe’s popular Creative Cloud contains the current iteration of the Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator software and has the following recommended requirements as of January 2018: Intel Core2Duo or AMD Athlon 64 processor, 8 GB of RAM, at least 3.1GB of free space, 1200×800 or better display, and a graphics card with at least 2GB of dedicated VRAM. These are fairly minimal requirements, and our basic gaming build will likely exceed these as long as we pay attention to the video card.
If you are serious about graphics design you will want a more powerful machine than these fairly simple requirements. Browsing the websites for dedicated art and design schools yielded the following recommendations: Intel Core i5 or i7 processor or AMD equivalent, minimum 16GB of RAM, 500GB free space, high-quality monitor, solid graphics card. Aside from the monitor, these are fairly well aligned with our ‘high requirements’ game tier.
Unity3D and Other Functions
If you want to design and program your own games, be aware of the system requirements for whichever development software you intend to use. For example, if you’re using Unity3D the stated requirements are fairly vague: 64-bit Windows 7, 8.1, or 10, a CPU with SSE2 instruction support, and a DX9 or DX11 capable graphics card. Per their website, “the rest mostly depends on the complexity of your projects.” A quick rule of thumb is that you’ll want your machine to be at least powerful enough to play the game you’re designing, if not more powerful.
For other functions such as statistical analysis or audio editing, use common sense especially if system requirements aren’t available or seem outdated. Looking into statistics programs such as SPSS, SAS, and the R-Project, the stated requirements are either non-existent or fairly minimal. However, common sense and a little bit of Google-Fu leads us to understand you’re going to want a powerful CPU and lots of RAM for all that number crunching, whereas a high-end graphics card isn’t going to do you much good in this instance.
For audio recording and editing, you’ll likely want a quality sound card (even if built in to the motherboard), a good CPU and 8+ GB of RAM for audio processing, a high quality microphone for recording, and probably want to consider the acoustical quality of your system fans and case to reduce ambient noise.
With the list of what you want your computer to do fresh in your mind, we have some idea about what components we are going to need to get this computer assembled and running. For your convenience, we’ve put together a checklist of the required components for your BYOPC.
- Heatsink and CPU fan, if not included with CPU
- Memory (RAM)
- Storage – hard disc drive (HDD) and/or solid state drive (SSD)
- Graphics card
- Power supply
- Case and case fan
- Operating system
These components comprise the bare minimum that you’ll need to have a functional system. However, they’re not all we can add to the system. Below is a list of some ‘optional extras’ to further customize your machine. They’re not strictly necessary, but some of them are quite nice to have.
- Aftermarket heatsink/CPU cooler or water cooling
- Wireless card, if not included with the motherboard
- Additional storage drives
- Optical disc drive (ODD) such as DVD player/burner or BluRay player/burner
- Dedicated sound card
- Additional case fans
- LED strips
- Headset and/or microphone
- Additional software and games
Some of these ‘optional extras’ may not seem like they should be here to some people. For example, we’ve frequently been asked, “Why is an optical drive optional?” Simply put, the vast majority of software is available through digital download and also DVDs aren’t that good of a data transfer device anymore having been replaced by USB sticks. Some computer cases don’t even have the 5.25″ bays for optical drives anymore. DVD or BR drives are only necessary if you have software that requires an installation disc or want to watch DVDs/BR discs on your computer.
Tools You Will Need
In addition to all the computer parts that you want in your machine, you’ll also need to consider the physical tools you’re going to need to actually assemble the computer. In our experience, we’ve found that some tools are indispensable for every computer build, some aren’t always necessary but are nice to have on hand in case they are needed. We’ll mark those as “optional” for those on a budget.
- Phillips-head screwdrivers, one small and one medium
- Rubber-tipped or anti-static needle-nosed pliers or tweezers (mostly optional)
- Cable ties (optional, but recommended)
- Anti-static wrist strap
- Thermal paste or grease, if not included with heatsink
- Canned air (optional for build, but essential for maintenance)
- Small part holder (magnetic tray, small glass bowl, pill case, etc.)
- Strong surge protector or uninterruptable power supply.
Another thing to consider is the space that you’re going to be assembling the machine in. There’s a strong probability that you don’t have a professional-grade workspace replete with properly grounded anti-static mats and all sorts of testing equipment. That’s ok. What’s important is that you have the proper surface to assemble the machine on. Typically this is either a sturdy table or workbench that’s big enough to hold the computer case on its side, all of the other components and tools you’ll be using, and any documentation you may require. Hopefully, the surface isn’t metallic or you can cover it with a non-conductive material like an anti-static mat or even a plastic sheet. We’ll get into the workspace more in a future post, but for now, just keep it in the back of your mind.
The final component we need to consider before building your machine is your budget. Building a gaming machine isn’t necessarily cheap, so we’d like to put some numbers in your mind so you are better informed before picking out your components and software. To help get you thinking about what it could cost we’re going to show you what you’d need for the moderate and higher requirement games we discussed above. To refresh:
|Moderate Requirements||Higher Requirements|
|CPU||Intel Core i5-6600 or|
AMD FX 6350
|Intel Core i7-6700 or
AMD FX 8350 Wraith
|OS||64-bit Windows 10||64-bit Windows 10|
|GPU||nVidia GTX 700 series or|
AMD Radeon HD 7950
|nVidia GTX 1060 3GB or
AMD Radeon RX 480 4GB
|HDD||30GB free space||50GB free space|
Given the age, availability, and cost of some of these components, we’re going to swap some parts out for alternatives that are more readily available and still meet our needs. For example, the GTX 700 series and Radeon HD 7950 are both fairly old and have been replaced with newer components. Also, the current cryptocurrency mining craze has made the cost of the Radeon RX 480 soar to triple the normal cost, so we’ve switched that out as well. Finally, for consistency across the board, we’re including some baseline components such as an OEM 1TB HDD, a Corsair Carbide 100R case, an EVGA 500B power supply, and a copy of Windows 10 on USB.
Intel & nVidia Build
|Intel & nVidia Build|
|Moderate||Expect To Pay||Higher Spec||Expect To Pay|
|i5-6600||$200||i7-6700 w/ cooling||$380|
|Basic LGA 1151 board||$60||Basic LGA 1151 board||$60|
|8GB DDR4 2400||$85||16GB DDR4 2400||$160|
|GTX 1050 2GB||$150||GTX 1060 3GB||$280|
|1TB HDD||$50||1TB HDD||$50|
|Carbide 100R||$50||Carbide 100R||$50|
|EVGA 500B||$50||EVGA 500B||$50|
|Windows 10 USB||$120||Windows 10 USB||$120|
|Moderate||Expect To Pay||Higher Spec||Expect To Pay|
|FX 6350||$110||FX 8350 Wraith||$150|
|Basic AM3+ board||$50||Basic AM3+ board||$50|
|8GB DDR3 1600||$60||16GB DDR3 1600||$115|
|RX 550 2GB||$100||RX 570 4GB||$350|
|1TB HDD||$50||1TB HDD||$50|
|Carbide 100R||$50||Carbide 100R||$50|
|EVGA 500B||$50||EVGA 500B||$50|
|Windows 10 USB||$120||Windows 10 USB||$120|
*These are guide prices not an exact figure.
As you can see, you should plan on a minimum of $600, as well as any additional costs for tools and taxes, for even a modest build. Also, the cost of these components is based on the most modest components available for that particular part. Motherboards, in particular, will have higher costs depending on the form factor and options that you choose. Just keep in mind that the better the components you decide to use, the more you can expect to pay for them. Bottom line: plan on a solid but modest machine coming in between $600 to $1,000, a higher end machine somewhere in the $1,000 to $1,500 range, and top-of-the-line machines easily exceeding $1,500.
Tips for Managing the Costs
Building a gaming machine can be expensive, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. That being said, there are a few ways of helping keep the cost of your build down.
Be flexible: Don’t think that you absolutely must have the latest and greatest components or those from a specific brand. Many of these components, especially motherboards and graphics cards, are very similar to one another with some of the only noticeable differences being a few letters, a port or two, or the brand name. The differences between an i5-6600 and i5-6600K may not be noticeable in your performance, especially if you don’t intend to overclock, but you can save a little there.
OEM packaging: You can save money by buying the OEM packaging over the retail packaging, especially with hard drives. Note that the OEM won’t have a SATA cable, but your motherboard will likely have one or two.
Bundles and rebates: Some retailers will offer discounts if you buy components as a bundle. For example, Microcenter offers a modest discount if you buy the processor and motherboard together. Sometimes they also offer bundle pricing if you add-on a graphics card, RAM, or SSD to your purchase. Many manufacturers frequently offer mail-in or online rebates if you purchase their products. I’ve seen these add up to over $100 on complete builds, which is nothing to scoff at.
Buy over time: Really want 16GB of RAM, but can only afford 8GB? It’s relatively easy to add another stick of RAM later on. Just make sure your board can handle the upgrade.
Part 2: Processor, Motherboard & Memory
In part one, we took a look at determining what you might want and what you really need when looking to build your own gaming PC, as well as current requirements for some games and setting a budget. Now we’re going to get down to the business of how to compare and pick out components.
Picking a Processor
The first component we need to decide on is the processor (CPU). This could eat up a fair portion of our budget and will also determine what type of motherboard we will need. It is also one of the single most important decisions you’ll make when building your machine. While it is possible to replace processors and motherboards later on in the life of your computer doing so can be a headache and necessitate wiping your machine and reinstalling your OS and software which is essentially rebuilding your computer. It’s much easier to swap out graphics cards or hard drives than switch out CPUs and motherboards and rebuild your whole machine. Because of this, we ideally want a CPU that will perform well and run games for a few years at least.
Intel vs. AMD
There are two major companies out there making CPUs: Intel and AMD. The vast majority of gaming enthusiasts will vocally prefer one company over the other. We’ll save that debate for other corners of the Internet because frankly, each company’s chips have things they do well and things they don’t. Typically AMD aimed to have a higher number of processing cores with each having a modest clock speed, whereas Intel typically had fewer cores at higher clock speeds. Also, in the past, AMD was fairly well known for lower-priced processors with the A-series and FX-series chips, but frankly those are either lower-end or older processors that we’re really not considering for our gaming builds.
There also exists a concern that AMD processors tend to run hotter than Intel processors, which has some foundation in benchmarking but this generalization can be misleading. In our experience, the stock coolers and heatsinks with pre-Ryzen AMD chips were rather poor, but the Wraith cooler that comes with Ryzen chips and is an option on some of the older FX chips was better. If you intend on overclocking, you really need to look into aftermarket cooling or liquid cooling.
Our concerns don’t lie in which brand is superior but rather which processor gives me the best performance for my gaming dollar and will not need to be upgraded soon. Given that we’d rather compare individual chips and build the rest of the machine around that.
The first thing to note about AMD processors is that the underside of the chip has an array of delicate pins that insert into the socket on the motherboard. Careful handling is required so you do not bend any of the pins, which will cause your processor to fail unless you can somehow realign them. Also, most AMD chips do not come with integrated graphics. While this is not a concern if you have a graphics card at the time of assembly, it can require a little bit of extra troubleshooting if your machine does not POST properly.
The best of AMD’s budget-friendly chips is the Ryzen 3 2200G, which typically runs around $100. It is a quad-core processor with a 3.5GHz core speed and relies on an AM4 socket motherboard. The “G” designation indicates that it does offer an integrated Radeon Vega graphics chip, so if your budget doesn’t allow for a discrete GPU at the onset you can still get up and running without one. The graphics won’t blow you away and you probably won’t get 60FPS on high-end games, but the inclusion of the integrated graphics is more about convenience and budget rather than performance. When you are able to add a discrete GPU, the Ryzen 3 2200G is powerful enough to run many of them quite well.
For a mid-tier experience without breaking the bank, the Ryzen 5 1600X is a good bet. Checking in around $200, it offers six-cores and a 3.6GHz clock speed. It features multi-threading capabilities and can be safely overclocked. Like the Ryzen 3 we talked about above it also uses an AM4 socket motherboard, but it does not feature integrated graphics so you will need a discrete GPU.
One of the best AMD chips you can find for less than $400 is the Ryzen 7 1800X, which is typically around $360 online but the best deal we’ve seen on it recently is at the brick-and-mortar retailer Microcenter which sells it at $300 if you pick it up in store. It features eight-cores and a base clock speed of 3.6GHz, but also has multi-threading capabilities and can be overclocked. While most games and applications aren’t written to use these capabilities fully, they might in the future so this chip should exceed your needs for years to come. It also uses the AM4 socket motherboard and does not feature integrated graphics.
Finally, if you have to have the biggest and best processor available and don’t care about cost there is AMD’s Threadripper line. Each of the Threadripper series exceeds $400, with the mighty 1950X checking in at $900 online. They use their own socket type, so you’ll need a TR4 motherboard and also a discrete GPU because they do not offer integrated graphics. However, you will be buying a processor with up to 16 physical cores at a base clock speed of 3.4GHz which is capable of multi-threading and overclocking. These will do pretty much anything you will ask of them for years to come.
Unlike the AMD processors we just discussed, Intel’s chips do not have the pins on the underside of the chip. Instead, each of their motherboards has the exposed pins within the socket and you must carefully insert the chip without dropping it and damaging the pins on the motherboard. As always careful handling is required. Also, most Intel chips do have some form of integrated graphics capability with the notable exceptions being the Xeon chips and the Extreme-series chips. Typically, Intel’s chips do cost a little more than their AMD counterparts.
One of the most budget-conscious gaming quality chips Intel offers is the Core i3-8100, which runs about $115. Like the Ryzen 3 2200G, it offers integrated graphics so it doesn’t require a discrete GPU right away. It is a quad-core processor with a core speed of 3.6GHz, but it is not an “unlocked” processor so it is not designed for overclocking. Based on comparisons between it and the Ryzen 3 2200G, it isn’t as powerful a processor but it does use less power and produces less heat. It requires any LGA1151 motherboard that supports Coffee Lake (8th generation) processors.
A solid offering for the mid-tier chips is the i5-8400 which runs around $180. It is a six-core processor with a base clock speed of 2.8GHz but utilizing its’ Turbo Boost technology can go up to 4.0GHz. In order to utilize this feature, you’ll need a motherboard that supports it and most likely an aftermarket cooling solution. This chip requires an LGA1151 motherboard that supports Coffee Lake processors. Because it’s not “unlocked” don’t pay extra for a motherboard designed for overclocking as you won’t be able to do so. If you want to overclock you should opt for the more powerful i5-8600K which runs about $50 more and requires a more expensive overclocking board as well as a heat sink and CPU fan.
One of the best Intel chips you can find for less than $400 is the i7-8700K, which runs around $340 online. Like the Ryzen 7 above, Microcenter’s physical locations offer a lower price of $300 if you pick it up in store. The i7-8700K is an “unlocked” processor for easier overclocking. Even when it’s not being overclocked it features six-cores with a base 3.7GHz clock speed that can Turbo Boost up to 4.7GHz. It is also capable of multi-threading. Like the two 8th generation chips we just talked about, it requires an appropriate LGA1151 motherboard but this time you should opt for one that supports overclocking. It does not come with a heat sink or CPU fan.
The crème de la crème of Intel’s chipsets are the Extreme series Core i9 chips. Unlike the Ryzen Threadripper series which top out at around $900, that’s the starting price for the i9s. The biggest beast of them all is the i9-7980XE which is around $1900 but features 18-cores, multi-threading, a base clock speed of 2.6GHz and a turbo boost speed of 4.2GHz. Each i9 Extreme series chip requires a 2066 Socket motherboard and a robust cooling solution as well as a discrete GPU. These chips will handle just about anything you can throw at them for years to come, but the price tag is fairly steep.
The next essential piece of any computer is the motherboard. These come in several different sizes called form factors and have a wide variety of different features to be aware of. The prices will vary depending on so many factors, but they can start as low as $50 and go much higher. Rather than list a bunch of recommendations, the aim of this section is to inform you about several of the key components to better arm you to make a well-informed decision.
One of the easiest parts of the motherboard to recognize is its form factor. Essentially, the smaller motherboards will have fewer features but require less space whereas bigger boards can pack in more features but require bigger cases. There are three major form factors to choose from: ATX, mATX or microATX, and mITX or mini-ITX. The largest of these three is the ATX motherboard at around 9.6″ x 12″. The middle size is the mATX board at around 9.6″ x 9.6″. The smallest of these is the mITX board at around 6.7″ x 6.7″. Typically, the mITX board is considered “small form factor” or SFF. There are other sizes as well, such as extended ATX for those who want an even bigger motherboard.
Understanding the Label
Motherboard manufacturers have a wide array of features that they can pack onto a single motherboard but have come to the realization that different groups of people look for different common elements in their motherboards. As such they tend to create motherboards with targeted segments of the computer community in mind such as the bare essentials user, the mainstream user, the business user, and the enthusiast user. Unfortunately, AMD and Intel boards target slightly different groups and their designations vary. Below we have put together a list of common motherboard designations and which audience they’re targeting:
“A” boards – AMD’s designation for no-frills motherboards targeting the bare-essentials crowd. These do not support overclocking, and low cost is their most important feature.
Intel’s “B” boards – Intel’s designation for business-class motherboards. These typically have different capabilities targeted to business users such as parallel port support. May not be appropriate for gamers.
AMD’s “B” boards – AMD uses the B designation for their boards targeting mainstream users. These typically have a few more features than the A boards such as more USB ports, more PCIe lanes, and the ability to overclock.
“H” boards – This is the Intel designation for ‘home-user’ motherboards. These are similar to AMD’s A designation, but Intel typically goes a step further and breaks this class up into boards with a few additional features and boards with the bare bones. They cannot overclock.
“X” and “Z” boards – These designations are for the enthusiast crowd, such as high-end gamers. These boards have the most features and are unlocked for overclocking. AMD uses the X designation and Intel uses the Z designation, except with their extreme series 2066 boards where they also use the X designation
With any of these motherboards, the number indicates which chipset the motherboard is using and thus which processor it is compatible with, see below:
AM4 motherboards – A320, B350, or X370 (or A, B, or X300 for SFF boards).
TR4 motherboards – X399
8th gen 1151 motherboards – H310, B360, H370, or Z370
2066 motherboards – X299
Form factor and chipset are not the only features we care about in our motherboard, we also care about what other things our board has to offer. Some things to consider include:
RAM – How many slots? How close to the CPU? What speed?
Audio – What chipset / codec does it use? How many speakers can it handle? Subwoofer?
SATA ports – How many? What types? Where are they located?
PCIe slots – How many? What types? How are they spaced? Can it handle multiple GPUs?
USB – How many ports on the back panel? How many headers does it support? What types?
M.2 – How many slots? What speed? What lengths?
Fan headers – How many? Where are they located?
CPU power – 4-pin or 8-pin?
BIOS – How to update? Backup available?
Troubleshooting – Error code LED? On/off button? Reset button?
Aesthetics – Do I like how it looks? Are there built-in LEDs? Are they customizable? Do any of the plastic shields interfere with other components?
Obviously, some of these questions may not apply to everyone. For example, if you only plan on running one graphics card and no other expansion cards you may not care about most of the questions on PCIe slots. But you should still be mindful of its location on the motherboard. You can still run into trouble if your card cannot fit due to one of those plastic shields nearby, or if it cools by venting hot air right into another component like your power supply.
When it comes down to it your motherboard is one of the most vital components of your computer and the hardest to replace. We recommend taking time to figure out exactly what you need in a board, checking out reviews about reliability, and even talking to a BYOPC specialist if you feel completely overwhelmed.
The third major component we’re going to examine today is the system memory. If you are purchasing a processor of the current generation (8th gen or Extreme series for Intel, Ryzen or Threadripper for AMD), then you are going to need DDR4 RAM for your system. This is the latest generation of RAM and represents a significant upgrade over its predecessor DDR3. The DDR4 standard can handle sticks up to 64GB (as opposed to a maximum of 16GB for DDR3), has faster data transfer speeds, and has lower voltage requirements. Unfortunately, it also costs more than DDR3.
Your biggest choices to consider in choosing RAM are how much do I need, how many sticks, what transfer speed, ECC or non-ECC, what brand, and what appearance?
Typically, most users will either choose 8 or 16GB of RAM for a gaming machine. 8GB comes as either a single 8GB stick or two 4GB sticks and will typically run between $100 and $150 dollars. Purchasing 16GB will typically run between $180 and $300 and comes in a single 16GB stick, two 8GB sticks, or four 4GB sticks.
DDR4 comes in a wide variety of speeds, anywhere between DDR4 1600 up to DDR4 4800, but the most common is DDR4 2400. Other common speeds include DDR4 2133, 2666, 3000, and 3200. These numbers refer directly to the data transfer rate in MT/ and indirectly as double the clock speed (i.e. a clock speed of 1200MHz is read as DDR4 2400). Thus the higher numbers represent faster RAM.
If you’re not familiar with ECC RAM, this stands for Error-Correcting Code memory. This type of RAM is used in systems where even a single-bit of corrupt data can have disastrous effects such as in high finance or scientific applications. This added security comes at an additional cost. Unless you have some non-gaming requirements that require this feature, stick with non-ECC memory.
As for brand, the standard brands such as Corsair, Crucial, GeiL, G-Skill, and Kingston are all fine. There are a number of other brands but your mileage may vary. They all offer a variety of appearances in terms of colors and heat-shield styles, so you can make a choice depending on your aesthetic preferences. The only thing we would caution is to stay away from unshielded memory, as heat generation can cause damage to the chips. Having a functional heat shield will help disperse the heat and keep your chips safe.
Part 3: GPUs, Hard Drives, Power & Cases
In our last segment, we looked at picking out a processor, motherboard, and memory. Now we’re going to look at picking out other components such as graphics cards, hard drives, power supplies, and cases. Each of these components is highly important in a quality gaming machine and you should take ample time to familiarize yourself with the different features and terminology involved before selecting the component that’s right for you.
Graphics Cards (GPUs)
After your processor and motherboard, your graphics card is one of the most important and most costly components in a gaming machine. If you want your games to look beautiful and not have to worry about pixilation or a drop in frame rate you’ll definitely want a GPU that exceeds the recommended requirement for your favorite games. If a game recommends a 760, get a 960 or 1060. Does it require 2GB of video RAM? Get 4GB instead. This way you’ll future-proof your machine for the next generation or two of video games.
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention a current trend that is dramatically affecting the prices of many popular graphics cards: cryptocurrency mining. With Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency prices skyrocketing, so to have the prices of graphics cards which are used to mine for these currencies. As such, the cost of many graphics cards is well beyond that of the manufacturer’s recommended price (MSRP). This is, unfortunately, the new normal for online retailers such as Amazon or Newegg. There was a series of articles a while back on PCGamer.com and TomsHardware that noted some Microcenter stores would discount their GPUs if you bought other components such as a processor and motherboard with it but that requires being near one of their brick-and-mortar stores. That being said, expect to pay more than normal for a solid graphics card.
Chipsets: AMD and Nvidia
Just like CPUs, there are two main chipsets for GPUs: AMD and nVidia. Some people have a preference of one chipset over the other but frankly, we’ll leave those arguments alone again. While both AMD and nVidia chips work fairly well with Intel processors, it is worth noting that AMD’s CPUs and GPUs are designed to work well together. Go figure. Three of the top manufacturers – ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI – make both AMD and nVidia cards.
NVidia Graphics Cards
NVidia’s main line of game-inspired graphics cards is the popular GeForce GTX series. While they do offer other lines such as the GT series, these are meant for ‘everyday’ use and will likely not perform well, if at all, on modern games. The GTX series has been around a while and uses standardized naming practices, which will read something like GTX 960. The first digit (or two digits in the case of the 10 series) represents the numerical series the card is in, which in this case is the 900 series. The last two digits, a ’60’, is a reference for which audience/price point the card is targeted for.
As a general rule of thumb, an x80 is typically their highest end card of the series, x70 is a very good gaming card, the x60 in the series is a mid-tier but solid gaming card, and the x50 is the entry-level gaming card. Anything with x20, x30, or x40 is not meant for gaming. The newest series, the 10 series hasn’t even released 1040 yet.
Some of the recommended specs for games will list either a 600 or 700 series graphics card, typically the GTX 660. As a point of reference, the 600 series was released throughout 2012 into early 2013, and the 700 series was released throughout 2013 into 2014. NVidia skipped the 800 enumerations, and released the 900 series in late 2014 and throughout 2015. Their current line, the 10 series, was introduced in 2017. While it is possible to find some 700 series cards still, they are likely either used or refurbished. We’d recommend looking at the latest line, the 10 series, as they’ll likely last longer and will certainly have better driver support.
AMD Graphics Cards
As for AMD’s chipsets, they have a slightly wider variety of names for their different incarnations: the Radeon HD series, the Radeon RX series which is further broken down into 200, 300, 400, and 500 series, and their latest the Radeon RX Vega series. Each of these The Radeon HD series’ last chipset was released in 2013. The 200 and 300 series of RX were predominantly in 2014 and 2015 respectively.
The cards you’ll likely be interested in are from the 400 series, 500 series, and Vega series. These are all from 2016 and 2017. Similar to nVidia’s nomenclature, the 400 and 500 series also show their targeted segment/price point with the last two digits of the number, with 50, 60, 70 and 80 being roughly equivalent between chipset brands with the 80s being the top of the gaming chips and the 50s being the entry gaming chip. The Vegas only have the 56 and 64 models, with the 64 being the more powerful of the two.
To exemplify the note on cryptocurrency driving up the price of cards that we noted above, consider this. According to Wikipedia, the release MSRP for a Radeon RX 480 8GB card was $239 in June 2016. Used versions of the RX 480 8GB model are currently selling for around $500 on Amazon, and a new version of the weaker RX 480 4GB model on Newegg is $550.
The other main thing to consider when buying a graphics card is the brand. As always, we’ll strive to maintain neutrality as best we can. Three of the most reputable brands: ASUS, Gigabyte, and MSI make both AMD and nVidia cards. For the most part cards from any of these brands will be pretty solid and they all offer decent warranties, support, and up-to-date drivers. EVGA and Zotac only make nVidia cards, and manufacturers XFX, Sapphire, and PowerColor only make AMD cards.
You’ll probably notice that similar cards from different manufacturers can have drastically different prices. For example, browsing the prices for GTX 1060 6GB GPUs on Amazon range from around $350 to around $600 dollars. There are a number of reasons that can explain the differences ranging from the brand, the number of cooling fans, clock speeds, and warranties.
Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) and Solid State Drives (SSDs)
Every machine needs someplace to store its data, whether it is on a traditional platter hard drive or on a solid state drive. Your operating system, every installed program and game, and all your music, movies, and files need to reside somewhere. When you’re designing your new gaming system you’ll have to consider whether you desire capacity, speed, or both.
Hard Disk Drives
Traditional hard disc drives (HDDs) are ideal if you require large storage capacity and aren’t overly concerned about transfer speed. Most standard desktop drives spin at 7,200RPM and transfer using the SATA III protocol (6Gb/s), and they come in a wide variety of capacities. They also tend to be cheaper per gigabyte than solid state drives. There are a few potential shortcomings to traditional HDDs though: sectors on hard drives can go bad causing the loss of the data on those sectors and also the mechanical components of the hard drive can fail, making the entire drive unusable and potentially unrecoverable.
Solid State Drives
Solid state drives are much newer than the traditional platter HDD, and significantly faster. This is in part due to the lack of moving mechanical parts and in part due to electronically storing data on microchips rather than magnetically storing data on platters. While their speeds are noticeably faster in accessing files, opening programs, and even booting the operating system, they are also more expensive per gigabyte than a HDD. In addition to having SSDs that use the standard SATA channels, there are also drives that can use your system’s PCIe lanes, which are even faster. Like HDDs, SSDs also have their share of potential shortcomings: they aren’t susceptible to magnetism like platter drives but are instead far more susceptible to electrical shocks including static which could short the entire drive making data retrieval incredibly expensive.
Rather than having to choose between capacity and speed, we recommend making room in your budget for both an HDD and an SSD. Buying a modestly sized solid state drive (e.g., 250GB) and a larger HDD (1 or 2TB), you can get the best of both worlds without breaking the bank. Installing your operating system on the SSD and using the HDD for storage means that you can get the fast boot and access times from the solid state as well as the storage capacity of the platter drive for your music and movies.
Power Supplies (PSUs)
Another major component to consider is your power supply. While it certainly isn’t the sexiest piece of hardware it is extremely important and requires careful consideration. Having been on the wrong end of a power supply dying, I can tell you from first-hand experience that you definitely don’t want to see sparks and flames coming from the back of your computer, nor do you want to see scorch marks on your motherboard and processor when said power supply fries them because you tried to save a few bucks on a cheapo PSU. Memory and storage can be added and graphics cards can be changed out, but you don’t want to have to deal with a blown power supply and the potential havoc it can wreck on every other piece of hardware in your machine (not to mention the horrible smell from a fried PSU).
There are several factors to consider when picking out a PSU, cost notwithstanding what wattage you’ll require under load, the efficiency rating, the 12V rail, modularity, and its physical dimensions among others.
One of the reasons we listed PSUs after the majority of the other components is in an effort to help you calculate wattage requirements. Since you already have an idea about which CPU, motherboard, RAM, GPU, and storage you want, it will be far easier to calculate your wattage requirements. There are a number of power supply calculators freely available online to help you determine a good starting point for a PSU. While many of the PSU manufacturers have a calculator to recommend their own, there are unaffiliated ones such as Outer Vision which makes recommendations regardless of brand. Just remember that these calculators will give you a good starting point, but you’ll have to ultimately decide for yourself. If you plan on overclocking you’ll also need to consider the additional power draw when determining wattage.
Energy Efficiency Rating
Another consideration is the energy efficiency rating of your PSU, which is essentially a rating of how well it can manage energy consumption under load. The better the efficiency rating, the better your PSU is at managing energy, which can help your overall electricity bill. The standard for energy efficiency is the 80 PLUS certification, which states that the PSU has at least 80% efficiency at certain key load levels. If your PSU has a metal listed after 80 PLUS then it has met more stringent requirements. In increasing levels of efficiency, the ratings are 80 PLUS (sometimes called WHITE), Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Titanium. For more information, see the Wikipedia page on 80 PLUS.
One of the more frequently forgotten considerations for a PSU is the 12V rail. Most graphics cards have a minimum requirement for the amperage on the 12V rail (listed as +12V on the PSU) and without meeting that requirement your GPU will be useless. It’s simple to check, just look at your GPU specifications, see what amperage it needs on +12V, and compare with the PSU. If the power supply is equal to or exceeds that number, you’re set.
Fully, Semi or Non-Modular
Another consideration for your power supply is whether or not it is fully modular, semi-modular, or non-modular. This concerns whether the connector cables for the interior of the machine are removable or not. Non-modular PSUs have all of their possible cables coming out of the PSU on the interior, regardless of whether or not you’re planning on using them all. Fully modular PSUs allow you to choose which cables you need and only plug those into both the PSU and the related hardware. Semi-modular PSUs typically have non-removable motherboard and CPU cables but allow you to choose which peripheral cables you use (GPU, SATA, Molex, etc.) Fully and semi-modular PSUs are particularly useful when it comes to cable management. Good cable management not only is more aesthetically appealing but also improves airflow inside the machine which can keep all of your components cooler.
Size & Brand of PSU
The final considerations come down to physical size and brands. Obviously, you need to consider how big the PSU is and whether or not it will fit inside your case. Also, consider whether or not the PSU can pull in cool air and vent warm air by noting the locations and directions of its fans. Finally, in terms of brands, there are quite a few PSU manufacturers. Some of the more reliable PSUs come from CoolerMaster, Corsair, EVGA, and Thermaltake but your mileage may vary.
Now that you’ve picked out the necessary hardware, we need to find a case in which to assemble the disparate components into a functioning machine. Just like motherboards, cases have a variety of form factors to choose from. The four main sizes are SFF or small form factor, mini tower, mid tower, and full tower. These correspond with the largest size motherboard they can handle. SFF cases can hold mini-ITX boards, mini towers can take up to mATX boards, mid towers can take up to ATX boards, and full towers can even handle extended ATX boards (eATX). These distinctions also represent other functions as well, such as what size PSUs they can hold, how many and what size of case fans they can take, how many graphics cards or other expansion cards they can hold, and so on.
Airflow and Cable Management
An important factor to consider when picking out a case is airflow and cable management. While not always the case, we have found that cheaper cases tend to put less emphasis on ease of cable management than some of the mid-range cases. If your case forces you to run all of your cables in front of the board, that will impede airflow and can cause heat issues. We recommend looking for a case that will allow most, if not all, of your cables to run behind the motherboard or at least out of the main airflow. Also, consider where the cooling fans can and will be placed. If you’re running an exclusively air cooled system you’ll want to have a fan or two pulling cool air in from the front of the machine, over each of the components, and then have another fan pushing the hot air out the back.
Finally, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the aesthetic factors in choosing a case. For some people, this is more important than others. The look of the case is vital in these instances, and aspects like color, clear paneling, and available LEDs are important considerations. For other people, a simple black case without a windowed side panel is more appropriate. Others still aren’t concerned with aesthetics but rather with acoustics, and for those, you’ll want to look into cases that focus on sound dampening rather than appearance.
As far as manufacturers go, there are dozens of them out there for pretty much every aesthetic, including the yacht crowd. Coolermaster, Corsair, Inwin, Lian Li, and NZXT are just some of the manufacturers who make some phenomenal products.
In addition to all the hardware components necessary for a functional machine, there is one critical software component that you will need: an operating system. If you are one of the vast majority of computer users, this means Microsoft Windows. In years past, we could have had a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of Windows 7, 8.1, and 10; now, not so much. If you are running a 7th or 8th generation Intel processor, or any AMD Zen architecture chip, you’ll need Windows 10. Simply put, the newer chips were designed to only run Windows 10. If you want to run Windows 7 or 8.1, you’ll need an older chip.
32-bit or 64-bit Operating System
About the only choices then come down to the following: 32-bit or 64-bit; Home or Pro; and DVD, USB, or digital download?
The first decision is a no-brainer: 64-bit. I suppose if you’re a business owner running an old 16- or 32-bit application then maybe 32-bit is ok, but you’re not. You’re building a gaming machine, so get 64-bit.
The second decision comes down to the following: do you need to join a domain or use BitLocker? If yes, get Windows 10 Pro. Otherwise Windows 10 Home is sufficient.
The final choice concerns the installation media, and in this instance, we’d probably opt for the USB stick. Every motherboard will have USB ports, but not every computer today has an optical drive. Also, we like to have a physical copy of our installation media and certificate of authenticity. It’s rather hard to go re-download installation media and access your emails for your product key if your hard drive is dead and needs to be replaced with a bare drive.
In the interest of full-disclosure, the OS restrictions built into the newer CPUs is in regards to Windows only. If you have the knowledge and/or patience to go with your favorite flavor of Linux, the latest Intel and AMD chips can handle it. Similarly, if you want to try UNIX, OSX, or some other non-Windows OS you have that option.
Part 4: How to Assemble Your Gaming PC
In the previous segments, we’ve taken a look at determining your requirements and setting a budget, choosing key components such as a CPU and motherboard, and choosing other components such as a graphics card, hard drive, and power supply. This time, we’re going to discuss the steps necessary to actually assemble your machine safely and getting it up and running.
Step One: Preparing Your Workspace
The first step in assembling your new computer is readying your workspace. This is a step which is often hurried through by first time builders due to the excitement of wanting to get the machine up and running NOW. However, by taking the time and effort to make sure your assembly area is setup properly and safely will save you headaches later on.
Obviously the first thing you’ll need to consider is the space itself. You’re going to want somewhere that minimizes your risk of damaging any of your new components, which means we want an area that avoids damage from falling, electric / static shock, and liquid. If at all possible avoid assembling or working on the insides of your computer in a room with carpeted floors. Carpeting will dramatically increase the risk of electrostatic discharge which could destroy one or more components.
You’ll want an assembly area that is large enough and sturdy enough to handle your case on its side, the components you’re currently using, any instructions you want to refer to, as well as a grounded power strip or uninterruptable power supply and your monitor. Ideally this surface will be at a height that is comfortable for you to work on. Often this will be a large desk, workbench, or even a kitchen table. If you have access to one, make sure to line your work area with a properly grounded electrostatic mat. Assuming you do not, there are some simple household objects that can help minimize your risk of static such as rubber-backed placemats or even a simple plastic tablecloth.
Plastics are insulators, so they can reduce the chance of static discharge. Wearing rubber-soled shoes also helps. Additionally, wearing and properly using an electrostatic wrist strap will minimize the risk of static shock.
Tools & Access
Once you’ve prepared your work surface, you’ll want to make sure that all of the tools and other supplies you will need are within reach. In addition to the wrist strap mentioned above, you will definitely need one or more Philips head screwdrivers, cable ties, some snips, as well as any tools that may have come packaged with any of the components you purchased (like a processor insertion tray, or an adapter for easy installation of stand-offs). We’ve also found it nice to have something to keep all of those little screws in so they don’t roll away during assembly. While magnetic screw trays are nice, a simple glass or plastic dish will do.
While this may seem like common sense, but remember to keep any and all liquids away from your components. If you absolutely need to get something to drink, keep it in another room and make sure your hands are dry before touching circuit boards.
Step Two: POST Test Outside the Case
The idea of assembling some of the components outside of the case may seem a little strange, but is actually grounded in my experience working as a repair technician. It is incredibly frustrating to assemble an entire machine inside a case and beautifully manage your cables for a wonderful balance of aesthetics and airflow, only to have the machine not boot up properly and then have to disassemble the unit to figure out what component is at fault. Sometimes components are D.O.A. (dead on arrival), or sometimes they’re not seated correctly, or any number of other potential issues arise. The point is, by adding this step, we are ensuring that several key components (processor, motherboard, RAM, and power supply) are all in working order.
POST Test Components
This step requires the following components: processor, heatsink and CPU fan, motherboard, RAM, power supply, mouse, keyboard, monitor, and your graphics card if your CPU doesn’t have integrated graphics. You’ll also need the power cables for your power supply and monitor, whichever cable you intend to connect your computer to your monitor with (HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI, VGA), and your anti-static wristband. Finally, you’ll want the empty motherboard box and the large anti-static bag that your motherboard was in. Using some painters’ tape, line the outside lid of the motherboard box with the large anti-static bag. This will create an anti-static surface that we’re going to use in this step.
First, ground yourself by attaching the alligator clip end of your anti-static wristband to an appropriate surface like the metal supports on your case. Then, holding the motherboard by its sides, place it on top of the anti-static bag topped motherboard box with the rear panel hanging off slightly (in case we need to install a graphics card). Next, we are carefully going to install the processor but this process varies depending on whether or not you bought an Intel or AMD chip. We will also provide links to instructional videos on YouTube as visual guides.
Installing Your CPU
MSI – How to Install Intel LGA1151 CPU
- Push down and gently pull out on the metal rocker arm to release it and then raise it up, which will release the metal CPU holder from underneath the retention screw.
- Raise the metal CPU holder to its highest point.
- Holding the sides of the processor, rotate the processor so the white arrow is aligned with the arrow or dot on the motherboard and then gently set the processor into the socket.
- Slowly set the metal CPU holder back underneath the retention screw.
- Push the metal rocker arm back down, then lock it back into place. This should remove the protective plastic shield on the metal CPU holder. Store this for later.
- If you’re using a cooler with thermal paste pre-applied, skip to Step 7. Apply a roughly pea-sized drop of thermal paste to the top of your CPU. You do not need to spread it around.
- Align the CPU cooler so that the fan cable can reach the CPU_FAN header on your motherboard, then gently push down on the plastic retaining pins until they “click” into place. If you are using an aftermarket cooler, follow the instructions provided with the cooler.
- Plug the CPU fan into the CPU_FAN header on the motherboard, ensuring that the cables are not getting caught up in the fan blades.
If you have an Intel LGA2066 CPU watch this video instead.
MSI – How to Install AMD AM4 CPU
- Release the metal rocker arm and pull it upward until it stops, which will open up the pin slots on the CPU socket.
- Holding the sides of the processor, rotate the processor so the arrow is aligned with the arrow or dot on the motherboard and then gently set the processor into the socket. The pins should fall in effortlessly. DO NOT FORCE, this will break the pins.
- Push the metal rocker arm back down to its original position, locking the CPU into its socket.
- Apply a roughly pea-sized drop of thermal paste to the top of the CPU. You do not need to spread it around.
- Place the CPU cooler on top of the processor so that the locking mechanism matches up with the tabs. Attach the metal brace without the locking mechanism on first, then attach the other end and lock the plastic mechanism. Once again, if you’re using a different cooler follow the instructions the manufacturer provided.
- Insert the CPU fan cable onto the CPU_FAN header on the motherboard.
If you have an AMD TM4 CPU watch this video instead, which includes unboxing the Threadripper.
Installing DDR4 RAM
Now that your processor and its cooling unit are installed on the motherboard, it is time to install the system’s memory. It is fairly straightforward, as the sticks are designed to only be inserted in a specific orientation. It is important to consult your motherboard’s operating manual to see what DIMM slots to install the memory into especially if you are using two or more sticks of RAM. This is usually pairs of slots such as 1 and 3 together or slots 2 and 4 together.
- Consult motherboard manual for proper DIMM slot pairings.
- Release the locking mechanism(s) on the sides of the DIMM slots.
- Holding the sides of the RAM stick ensure the proper orientation by aligning the notch in the base of the chip with the tab in the DIMM slot.
- Press down on both ends of the memory stick firmly which should trigger the locking mechanism(s) and secure the memory in place. DO NOT FORCE the RAM as this can damage components.
- Repeat with additional sticks of RAM, remembering the slot pairings from the motherboard manual.
- Optional: Installing a graphics card
If your CPU doesn’t have integrated graphics, we’ll need to install a graphics card on the motherboard in order to be able to run our POST test. However, if you do have integrated graphics, please skip ahead to Hooking up the power supply. In the video, they’re installing the card inside a case, but as we’re not in the case yet we can skip the case-related steps for now.
- Release the latching mechanism on the motherboard. If it is a butterfly clip, gently press down. If it is a sliding latch, slide into the open position.
- Holding the graphics card in both hands, carefully insert into the PCI slot and push down on both ends of the card. DO NOT FORCE the card as it can damage components.
- Ensure that the latching mechanism is locked back into place, securing the graphics card.
- Hooking up the power supply
Installing the PSU
Now it is time to hook up the power supply in two (or three) connectors. We’ll need to attach the 24-pin motherboard connection, the 4- (or 8- ) pin CPU connection, and if you have a graphics card its 4-, 6-, or 8-pin connection(s). This video shows how to connect the motherboard and CPU connectors.
- Ensure the power supply is not plugged into the wall.
- Take the 24-pin motherboard connector and plug into the motherboard power slot. It can only be plugged in with the proper orientation.
- Take the 4-pin (or 4+4-pin) CPU connector and plug into the CPU power slot at the top of the motherboard.
- It too can only be plugged in with the proper orientation.
- If necessary, plug in the proper graphics card power connector(s) into the GPU.
- After each connector is plugged in properly, plug your PSU into the wall and make sure that your PSU switch is “on” if it has such a switch.
- Now that your main components are assembled please plug in your keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Make sure the monitor is set to the proper input if auto-detect is not selected.
If your motherboard has a power button or switch directly on the board go ahead and turn it on. If your board does not have a power button or switch, we’ll have to manually turn it on using the tip of a screwdriver and two jumpers on the motherboard. The lower right corner of your motherboard will have a section of 9-pins that connect to the front panel. By touching your screwdriver to the proper pins, you’ll jumpstart your computer without a power switch. There should be a row of four pins and a row of five pins. We want the last two pins on the row of four (labeled pins 6 and 8 on the picture from Intel below.) Touch the tip of your screwdriver to pins 6 and 8 without touching any others. This should turn on the machine.
If all goes well, your components should go through a process called Power On Self Test, or POST. You’ll know this has completed successfully if the monitor starts to show the boot process and eventually ends up in the system BIOS. If this did not complete successfully this indicates either the components were not installed properly or that one or more of them is faulty. If you have a debug LED on the motherboard, consult your manual to determine the exact nature of the error.
Step Three: Assembly Inside the Case
Once we’ve successfully had the machine POST, we can turn off the power and unhook any external cables and peripherals (power cord, keyboard, mouse, etc). Next, unplug the internal power cables from the motherboard (and graphics card). If you have a graphics card installed, reverse the steps above and remove the card now. Once these steps are completed, we’re ready to install the components inside the case.
- Remove both side panels from your case and set the case on its side with the opening for the I/O rear panel at the bottom.
- Ensure that your case has standoffs installed. These may be pre-installed on the interior of the case, or you may need to install them yourself.
- Take the I/O shield which came with your motherboard and insert it into the rectangular opening in the rear of the case with the keyboard/mouse ports at the ‘top’ and the audio ports at the ‘bottom’.
- Grasping the sides of the successfully POSTed motherboard/CPU/RAM combination, set it carefully onto the standoffs and I/O shield and then secure it in place using the screws provided with the motherboard. Please remember that the screws should only be going into standoffs, not directly into the case.
- Your case may already have chassis fans installed, if so skip this step. Otherwise, now is the time to install these fans. Most fans have two arrows on the side to denote the direction the fan spins and the direction the air is pushed. Remember that hot air rises, so front and bottom mounted fans should be intake fans (pushing cool air in) whereas rear and top mounted fans should be exhaust (pushing hot air out). When the fans are installed using the provided fasteners, don’t forget to plug in any 3- or 4-pin connectors to the chassis fan headers on the motherboard. If they use the larger Molex connectors, do not plug them in yet.
- Installing storage solutions depends on your specific components. When or if you’re installing a HDD or SATA SSD, these will be installed in one of the storage bays provided in your case. If the bays are oriented along the front/rear axis, make sure that the SATA and power ports are facing inward. If the bays are oriented the other direction (currently top/bottom as you look down at it), make sure the ports are facing downward. This is for ease of cabling later. If you are installing an m.2 or PCIe SSD, follow the instructions provided with that component.
- To install your graphics card you first need to remove one or two PCI protectors on the rear of the case, depending on your card. This will always be the cover next to the top-most PCI slot on your motherboard (and the one below it, if needed). Then, release the latching mechanism on the PCI slot. Carefully insert the graphics card, pressing it down into the slot. The rear panel of the card should line up with the opening you just made on the rear of the case. Secure the card by using the PCI slot latch as well as any screws from the port covers you removed earlier.
- The vast majority of cases today require the power supply to be mounted at the bottom of the case, and we will assume in this tutorial that yours is one of these. First, inspect your case to see if there is a vent at the bottom of your case for airflow purposes. If so, then you want to have your power supply’s fan aligned with that vent, so it can pull in cool air from outside. If it doesn’t have such a vent, then orient the fan facing upward into the case so it can pull in the warmer air and vent it out the back. Once the orientation is correct, secure the power supply to the case with the provided screws.
For now, the only cables we should have plugged in are attached to the CPU fan or chassis fans. You shouldn’t have any power or data cables installed yet, as we’ll get more into that below.
Step Four: Cables, Airflow and Aesthetics
The final parts of the assembly is to run the cables between components: from the PSU to other parts, from the HDD/SSD to the motherboard, and so on. This merits its own section because of the importance of cable management. When done well, your cables will not only connect each component necessary but they will also look pleasing and only minimally interfere with airflow. When done poorly, it can look like a rat’s nest which can collect dust and cause your unit to suffer from unnecessary heat.
Basic Cable Management
The simplest way to explain basic cable management is, whenever possible, get your cables to run behind the frame the motherboard rests on. Many cases encourage this by providing some extra space behind the frame, between the frame and the side panel. Start with the cables from the power supply, run them out the main cable management hole at the bottom, then run them back through whichever cable management hole is nearest the component. Similarly, run SATA cables through the same cable management holes between your storage drive(s) and the motherboard.
Next, run the front panel cables from the case through the lower management hole and plug them into the motherboard according to the instructions provided with your board. Finally, when all cables are properly routed you can bundle them and loosely strap them together with cable ties or Velcro straps. Snip away any excess cable tie once secured, so that they don’t get caught up in a fan.
For a more in-depth tutorial on cable management and aesthetics, Tom’s Hardware provides an excellent beginners’ guide.
With your components installed inside the case, and your cables nicely managed, its time to get the computer up and running and loaded with software and games. We hope you enjoyed part 4 of this guide on building your own gaming PC, and invite you to join us for part 5: Software, troubleshooting, and other helpful links.
Part 5: Installation
We hope you’ve found the series helpful so far, as we’ve walked you through setting up a budget, picking out parts, and even building the machine itself. In this last segment, we’ll discuss getting your OS and drivers installed, offer some basic troubleshooting tips, and provide a few helpful links for your perusal.
Installing the OS
Now that your machine has been assembled and the cables are managed to your heart’s content, it’s time to get an operating system installed. As noted in prior posts the vast majority of users will be installing Windows 10, so we’ll be walking you through this process. For this step, you’ll need your Windows 10 installation media (USB or DVD), your product key, and possibly an optical drive. The optical drive is only necessary if you have DVD installation media, and can either be one mounted in a 5.25″ bay in your system or a USB powered external drive.
With no operating system installed, and no media inserted in the machine, you may think there is not much you can do. This isn’t the case, however, as your motherboard has some built-in software which allows you to view and control some aspects of how your hardware operates. Simply turning on your machine with no OS and no media (USBs or DVDs) should bring your system into its BIOS. From here you can ensure that the motherboard sees each piece of installed hardware, potentially check fan speeds and operating temperatures, check whether your system is in UEFI or Legacy (preferably UEFI) mode, and manage your overclocking settings if desired.
If you decide to examine these settings, just make sure that your system sees all of the installed hardware (like RAM, disc drives, etc.) and make sure the system is set to UEFI. After you’re done exploring turn off your system, and we’ll begin the Windows 10 installation.
- Insert installation media into machine (USB or DVD).
- Power machine on.
- After boot sequence initializes, you should see the Windows 10 logo and some spinning white dots, which is the sign that the Windows 10 installer is starting up. If you see this prompt “Press any key to boot from CD or DVD,” press any button on your keyboard, which will start the installer.
- Choose your language and other preferences.
- On the next screen, click Install Now.
- Next, you’ll be prompted to enter your product key (which is on a non-transferable sticker found in the box/case that your media came in). It is a string of 25 characters in five groups of five characters (i.e., XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX-XXXXX). Don’t worry about the dashes, Windows will take care of that.
- You will then be prompted to accept the licensing terms. Check the box and hit next.
- The next screen will ask where you want to install Windows. If you only have one drive, you should see something similar to the screen below. If you have two or more drives, you’ll have Drive 0, Drive 1, etc. listed. Pick whichever you wish to install the OS on, and click next. This will partition that drive and begin the installation. Remember, if you have an SSD and a HDD, you’ll want to install to the SSD as you’ll benefit from the access and boot speeds of the SSD.
- If prompted, allow Windows to create additional partitions as needed.
- Then select the partition marked ‘primary’ and click next.
- Wait. Let Windows reboot your system. Then wait some more.
- Go through Windows’ setup screens. Here, you’ll be given the option to either “Customize” or “Use Express Settings.” Choosing express settings selects the default options for everything, but choosing customize will allow you to access some privacy-related settings that unless chosen here are set to send Microsoft a fair bit of information about how you use your machine. This is ultimately your decision.
- You’ll also be prompted to either choose a User Name or sign in to your Windows/Microsoft account. Then you’ll be up and running.
Once Windows is up and running, the next step is getting your system drivers installed. Windows has some of these setups by default, but they may not be optimized for your system or could be out of date. Since these are the important pieces of software that tell your system how to best interact with each piece of hardware, having obsolete or out of date drivers will negatively impact performance.
There are several different ways of getting your drivers installed and updated. Microsoft’s preferred method is to just let them handle everything through Windows Updates. This is probably the easiest method, but you don’t get the benefit of choosing which version of drivers to install and some of those provided on the Windows Update service might not be the most recent.
The second method is to go through each manufacturer directly, either by using the provided DVDs that came with each piece of hardware or by logging on to each website and downloading the latest drivers. The big advantage of this is that you will ensure that you have the most recent drivers available for your hardware, as well as having the ability to install optional software extras that come bundled with the drivers. While some of the software can be useful, the manufacturers are also paid money by the third party to add extra software to these bundles such as trial versions of anti-virus software, search bars, and other similar stuff.
This kind of extraneous software is generally referred to as bloatware, which is designed to give these software developers a foothold on your system. The idea is that if you have a free trial of something, you’ll generally find it easier to pay them to unlock the full version rather than take the time and effort to remove the software and replace it with something else. We recommend caution with this, as some of them may have unintended consequences on your system performance.
A third method of getting the most recent drivers available is to use a third party driver manager to do the legwork of pulling the drivers from the various manufacturer sites. In my experience with diagnosing and repairing systems, I have found that the majority of the time these “free” pieces of software tend to bundle in malware or spyware. As a general rule of thumb, I did not use any of these driver installers that required being installed onto your system.
The only one of these that I ended up trusting was a piece of freeware (actually free software supported via donation) called Snappy Driver Installer. The fact that it was legitimate freeware, portable (i.e., didn’t need to be installed on a given system), adware, spyware, and malware free, and didn’t have any ‘premium’ features that needed to be unlocked were key selling points for me. It’s not a necessary piece of software, but it is nice to have around on a flash drive.
Whichever method you choose, we heartily recommend making sure all of your drivers are installed and updated, and your system rebooted, before installing any additional software or games.
Once your drivers and OS are up-to-date, you’re ready to start installing other software: browsers, productivity software, anti-virus, and most importantly your games.
Do yourself a favor and start with your anti-virus software. There are way too many virus and malware threats out there to go unprotected. While this post won’t delve into reviewing and rating antivirus software, we will remind you of the phrase, “You get what you pay for.” That is, typically speaking paid antivirus software is better than free, and free software is better than nothing. What about Windows Defender? In our experience the only thing Defender is good at is defending Windows itself. Not your email, and not your browsers. Frankly, it’s near the bare minimum that Microsoft has to do to say, “Look, we’re doing something to protect you from problems!” Also, there is a nice piece of free software, Malwarebytes Anti–Malware Free, which can clean up a fair chunk of malware if it gets into your machine.
Typically for most people after their antivirus is installed they grab a new browser or two. As I heard frequently in the tech bay, “Internet Explorer (or Edge) is the best browser… to download other browsers.” Most people prefer Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or even Safari. Grab your favorite from the links at the end of the article.
Office Suites – Microsoft And Alternatives
For productivity, the vast majority of people use some version Microsoft Office. In the links section, we’ve provided a link for the official download site for Office. If you don’t already own a copy, you’ll need to buy a license or a subscription. The short version of difference is that the perpetual license (like Home & Student 2016) gets you one installable copy of that specific version, whereas with the subscription model (Office 365) you pay less up front, get multiple installable copies of the latest version, but pay an annual subscription fee. If you only plan on installing it on one computer, go with the perpetual license, if you need multiple copies then try the subscription.
However, if you’re either strapped for cash, want to save it for games, or just don’t want to give Microsoft more of your money there are some alternative productivity suites out there, like Apache OpenOffice or LibreOffice. See the links below. They may not have all of the same features as Microsoft Office, but they’re similar in a lot of ways and get the job done.
Finally, what we’ve all been waiting for: installing your games. If you need instructions on how to install your games, I’m sorry. Be glad you’re not an old timer who had to deal with installing everything from CDs or even floppy disks, because that was not fun. Especially if you lost one somewhere along the way. So get online, grab Steam, UPlay, Origin, GoG, or whatever you use to manage your library and get cracking. Those games aren’t going to play themselves. For your convenience though, we’ve provided the links to some common sites at the end of the page.
Eventually, your machine is likely to run into a problem. Whether it’s a blue screen error, a significant slowdown, hardware failure, or a game not running up to snuff, something will go wrong. When this occurs, it’s helpful to remember not to panic, this problem can be solved.
When I used to work in technical support and repair, my customers and non-computer geek friends always asked how I knew how to fix so many issues. Frankly, there isn’t any big secret other than experience and following the same steps over and over until the issue is resolved.
- Verify the problem. Can you replicate the problem, or is it a one -time occurrence? If it can be replicated, move on to step two. If it cannot, you’re done because there doesn’t seem to be a larger issue.
- Figure out the root cause of the problem. This entails methodical trial-and-error testing to figure out when the error is occurring. Is it only when a specific program or programs are open? Is it only when the computer’s been on for a certain amount of time? Did anything change with the machine before the problem started (like updates, new software or hardware, or even a power outage)? Any error messages you receive during this process should be fairly useful, take a screen shot or write down any codes.
- Research the issue. Simply put, Google is your friend. If you’re having a specific computer issue, other people have also had the same issue. Remember to be as specific as possible in order to get more relevant results. Searching for “black screen on startup Assassins Creed GTX 1060” will get you better results than searching for “screen goes black when starting game.”
- Try and correct the issue. Based on the research you found, try different suggestions to see if they resolve the issue. Maybe a driver needs to be updated, or even rolled back to a more stable version. Maybe that new sound card you installed is conflicting with other hardware. Try the different suggestions one at a time until the issue resolves.
- Verify the solution. Make sure that whatever you did to resolve the problem does so consistently. The last thing you want is to have the problem keep popping up over and over again. This can happen a lot if you have to switch drivers, because Microsoft thinks they know what’s best for your machine.
- When in doubt, get outside help. Call tech support from the manufacturer of whatever component is acting up. Visit a local repair shop. Ask questions in online forums. There are people out there who are ready and able to help you resolve this issue.
Helpful External Links
This final section is a list of links to external websites you may find helpful. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Simply put, they’re sites that are trustworthy and at least mildly helpful.
- AMD – https://www.amd.com/en – Processors and graphics chips
- Antec – https://www.antec.com/ – Computer cases predominantly
- ASRock – https://www.asrock.com/index.us.asp – Motherboards
- ASUS – https://www.asus.com/us/ – Motherboards, graphics cards, monitors, and more
- Cooler Master - https://www.coolermaster.com/ – Cases, air and liquid cooling, power supplies
- Corsair – https://www.corsair.com/ca/en/ – Cases, memory, power supplies, gaming gear
- Crucial – https://www.crucial.com/ – Memory and SSDs
- EVGA – https://www.evga.com/ – Motherboards, nVidia GPUs, power supplies, cases, cooling
- GeIL – https://www.geil.com.tw/ – Memory, and memory cooling
- Gigabyte – https://www.gigabyte.com/us/ – Motherboards, GPUs, cases, gaming gear
- G.Skill – https://www.gskill.com/en/ – Memory, SSDs, gaming supplies
- Intel – https://www.intel.com/ – Processors, motherboards, SSDs
- InWin – https://www.in-win.com/ – Cases, power supplies, fans
- Lian Li – https://www.lian-li.com/ – Cases
- MSI – https://us.msi.com/ – Motherboards, GPUs, monitors, gaming gear
- NZXT – https://www.nzxt.com/ – Cases, cooling
- Samsung – https://www.samsung.com/us/ – SSDs, monitors
- Seagate – https://www.seagate.com/ – Hard drives
- Thermaltake – https://www.thermaltakeusa.com/ – Cases, power supplies, cooling, gaming gear
- Toshiba – https://storage.toshiba.com/consumer-hdd – Hard drives and SSDs
- Western Digital – https://www.wdc.com/ – Hard drives and SSDs
- Zotac – https://www.zotac.com/us/ – nVidia GPUs, motherboards
- Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/computer-components – It’s Amazon.
- Fry’s – https://www.frys.com/ – Online and brick-and-mortar retailer (mostly CA, TX)
- Microcenter – https://www.microcenter.com/ – Online and brick-and-mortar retailer (mostly East coast and Midwest)
- NewEgg – https://www.newegg.com/ – Online retailer
- TigerDirect – https://www.tigerdirect.com/ – Online retailer
Helpful YouTube Channels
- ASUS North America – https://www.youtube.com/user/asusrog
- Gigabyte – https://www.youtube.com/user/GIGABYTEChannel
- MSI How To – https://www.youtube.com/user/msihowtochannel
- NewEgg – https://www.youtube.com/user/newegg
Useful Software Sites
- Chrome – https://www.google.com/chrome/ – Google Chrome browser
- Firefox – https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/ – Mozilla Firefox browser
- GOG – https://www.gog.com/ – Good Old Games platform
- Humble Bundle – https://www.humblebundle.com/ – Humble Bundle store and bundles
- LibreOffice – https://www.libreoffice.org/ – Libre’s open source office alternative
- Linux distributions – https://www.linux.org/categories/popular-distributions.152/ – Official Linux forum containing some popular Linux distributions
- Microsoft Office – https://www.office.com/ – Microsoft Office login and download
- Oculus – https://www.oculus.com/setup/ – Oculus Rift setup
- OpenOffice – https://www.openoffice.org/ – Apache OpenOffice open source office alternative
- Origin – https://www.origin.com/usa/en-us/store – EA’s Origin platform and store
- Snappy Driver Installer – https://sdi-tool.org/ – Freeware driver installer
- Steam – https://store.steampowered.com/ – Steam gaming platform
- Unigine – https://benchmark.unigine.com/ – Unigine’s benchmarking tools
- Uplay – https://uplay.ubi.com/ – Ubisoft’s Uplay platform
- Vive – https://www.vive.com/us/ – HTC Vive setup
- Windows 10 ISO – https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/software-download/windows10 – Official Windows 10 media creation tool
This just about wraps up our series on how to build your own gaming PC. We hope you both enjoyed it and found it to be a useful resource. If this has inspired you to go out and build your own machine, then we consider this series to have been successful.
Obviously, we could not cover every combination and permutation of hardware components, but we still hope that the general lesson conveys enough information to guide you in picking out components and building a machine.
Thank you for reading, happy building, and happy gaming!