Let's build a computer!


Well, my last computer served me well for about 4 years. It was a 2.6 ghz P4 on an Abit xxx motherboard, with 3 gigs of RAM and a xxx graphics card.

I created a lot of 3D artwork on that system, edited tons of photos, and played a lot of games. But it was starting to show it's age. The newer games, especially those like Oblivion and Supreme Commander, were running at pretty bad framerates, and I couldn't crank up the graphic details at all.

The main reason for the upgrade though, was due to the memory limitations of a 32 bit operating system. In my more complex 3D scenes, I was frequently getting "out of memory" errors when I would go to render, and I decided it was time to go 64 bit.

Hence the perfect excuse to convince the wife it was time for me to build a new system. I decided to take photos of the process and document some of the main steps for those that hadn't built a system before but may have been considering it.

The question may arise, "Why build a system when you can buy one already made?" There are a few answers to that. First off, there's a lot of satisfaction that comes from building your own rig, and knowing how to troubleshoot it, and what to do if things go wrong. You can also save a lot of money building yourself. More importantly, you can custom-tailor it to exactly what you want, which isn't easy to do even with a site where you specify the parts.

And of course, if you want to be an uber-geek tweaker, you simply have no choice.

So let's get started!

The Stuff You'll Need

First off is the shopping list. This list will vary depending on who you are and what it is you want to do with a computer. Someone that spends most of their time in Word or Excel, reads email, and browses the web is going to have a very different set of requirements than someone that wants to play the latest games with all the bells and whistles turned on or someone that works with huge files in Photoshop or does 3D animation.

But the basic items will be similar. You will need the following items:


Power supply


CPU fan (may come with the CPU)



Graphics card

Hard drive(s)

CD/DVD Rom drive/burner

Operating system





Let's have a brief, oversimplified description of each of these items and what they do.

The Case: This one's simple. The case is the big metal and plastic box that holds everything. Once upon a time they were all beige. Now they've gotten all wild and crazy, and you can get cases that look like spaceships, or insects, or robots or whatever. But the function remains the same: all the other bits and pieces go into it.

The Power Supply, also known as the PSU: It's not going to run without power. The power supply is a metal box with a fan in it, and a bunch of cables hanging out. The cables get plugged into the motherboard, and the drives, and the graphic card, and whatever else needs power. Don't be cheap here, especially if you're going high-end. Lots of clean, stable power will make your system happy.

The CPU: The processor...the brain. Everything that's going on is generated and calculated by this magical piece of engineering. It plugs into the motherboard.

The CPU cooler: CPU's get hot. You want them to not get too hot, or bad things will happen. The cooler is usually a combination heat sink/fan apparatus that sits on top of the CPU and draws as much heat as possible away from it. Those crazy people that do a lot of over clocking and are always pushing their systems to extremes will actually used water-cooling systems.

Motherboard: This is the big circuit-board looking thing with all the sockets on it. The CPU, the RAM, the drive cables, the graphics card and other stuff all plug into it. It looks very complicated and dangerous, but don't let it scare you. It's just a circuit board.

The RAM: This is the memory that your system will have. The bottom line is that the more you have the better (within reason). Plan on getting a minimum of one gigabyte. If you're doing a lot of graphic work or want a good game system, get two gigs. I'm putting four gigs in this system, but don't do that unless you'll be running a 64-bit operating system, or you'll just be wasting it. A 32-bit OS can only take advantage of 3 gigs max, and there's some argument about that. If the memory gods are not smiling upon you, you might only have 2 gigs available to any running process.

The Graphics card: This is the thing that hooks up to your monitor so that you can see what's going on. If you don't play games or do heavy graphics work, you can probably get away with almost any recent (or near-recent) card. If you demand maximum gaming or pixel-pushing though, there are a lot of fast cards available made by nVidia or ATI. I'll have some links at the end of this where you can check out various cards and prices.

The Hard drives: You store everything on these guys…all your files, your data, your applications, your photos…you name it. I suggest you get at least two, and then set up a backup system to duplicate all your important files. Sooner or later, your hard drive *will* fail. And trust me, you will be singing the blues when you lose all your work permanently or have to pay some outrageous fee to a "data retrieval" company.

The CD/DVD drive: Once upon a time these were considered an "extra" but these days are essential. Most software ships on CD's these days, with larger programs shipping on DVD's. Prices have dropped like crazy on these, so there's no excuse for not getting a good one. You should really get one that reads all current disc formats, and you might as well get one that burns both CD's and DVD's so you can back up and permanently store important files.

The Operating System: Windows. Currently meaning Windows XP, but soon Windows Vista. As I mentioned earlier, I am going with Windows XP Pro x64 (64 bit) to get rid of those pesky memory errors when working with complex graphics files. Most people are using 32-bit Windows XP though. (There are other OS's like Linux and such, but those are outside the scope of this article.)

The Monitor: This is the TV thing that sits on your desk. You still have a choice of CRT (big, heavy old-school) vs. Flat-panel. I prefer using the old-school CRT for my main monitor, but flat panel for the secondary monitors. I'll talk more about multiple monitors later. They plug into your graphics card.

The keyboard and mouse you're already familiar with. They're the input devices, and also the things you bang on when things aren't working right.

For this particular build, I am using my previous keyboard, mouse, and monitors.


How Do You Decide What You Need?

The first step is to decide on the CPU you want to use. There's a price/performance balance here, that will depend on how advanced your system needs to be.

After you've researched and made a decision on the CPU you want, it's time to pick a motherboard that supports the socket size of your CPU. For instance, the Intel Core 2 Duo CPU uses what's called the LGA 775 socket. If you buy a motherboard that uses a different socket set, the CPU won't fit at all, and you're hosed.

Next you can decide on the amount of RAM you want. Remember that it's good to allow for future expandability; most motherboards these days have 4 RAM slots. If you decided you wanted 2 gigs of RAM for example, you could buy four 512 mb sticks, or you could buy two 1 gig sticks. By going with the 1 gig sticks, you've left 2 slots open and available for future expansion should you decide it's needed.

Now you need the box to put all the stuff in. There are a ton of cases to choose from, in a wide variety of prices. Check a bunch out, and decided which features are most important to you. Make sure that the case you're interested in is large enough to support the motherboard you've decided on. This is known as the "form factor". The ATX form factor is one of the most common.