After having purchased pre-built retail PCs until this point in time, I wanted to share lessons learned from completing my first custom PC build.
Read, Read, Read…
As a first time builder, I found it extremely useful to read what others experienced during their own builds. There are many online forums where people discuss their recent builds. They typically include detailed specifications, component lists, and assembly tutorials so that you may learn about what works, any pitfalls encountered, how to overcome issues, and the quality of the products you may eventually purchase. There are also many articles that provide example builds that fall within price ranges. If you’re looking to build a PC that costs less than a certain price, then the article will have a list of components to achieve the cost goal along with the associated pros and cons.
…But Be Careful of What You Read
While it’s essential for beginners to read everything they can find about building a computer, it is equally important to not get too caught up in what you’re reading. Some online forums have a tendency to descend into heated arguments over components. While the arguments may be appropriate for a niche group of people with specific requirements, the eventual choice of component brand may not be important to the average builder.
As is true with many things online, the information posted may not be entirely accurate. Do not rely on a single source for your research. Use the information wisely, do your own research, and come up with your own plan. Duplicating a person’s custom build may not be appropriate since it was built with that person’s needs in mind and not your needs. While duplication may be the easiest path to a custom build, it may not be the most appropriate for you.
It’s A Balancing Act
Building your computer is a balancing act between function and cost. It’s very easy to want the latest, most expensive, most powerful components. Always remember that the latest and greatest will soon be yesterday’s model at a reduced cost. Depending on your needs, you may be paying a premium while only taking advantage of a small set of the latest model’s capabilities.
Define Your Needs
What do you plan to use this computer for over the next few years? The components needed for a gaming computer will be very different from one that will be used for basic office applications and web browsing. Review the system requirements on the latest versions of software packages that you’re planning to use in the near future. This will at least provide you with a basis for determining the minimum specifications for the components in your new machine.
Establish a Budget
It’s easy to go overboard when buying or building a new computer (or anything for that matter) so establishing a realistic budget upfront is a good idea. Do you really need the latest, fastest, most expensive CPU on the market? Do you really need dual video cards or a power supply capable of lighting Clark Griswold’s home at Christmas?
The choice of motherboard and CPU will make up a large portion of the costs. Once you figure out which motherboard and CPU are appropriate for your build, then that will help determine the remainder of the needed components due to compatibility.
Also, make sure you include the costs for parts beyond the CPU, motherboard, memory and hard disk. When I first started to create a budget, I forgot to include the cost of an operating system license. You may also need a new case, power supply, and optical disk drive if they can’t be re-used from an older machine.
Once you’ve figured out what to buy, it’s nice to reduce your costs as much as possible. Take advantage of free shipping and online price trackers to find the parts at their lowest cost. It also helps to buy parts over time and not all at one. I was surprised to see how much the cost of hard disks fluctuated over several weeks.
If you have an existing computer, you may be able to re-use parts if they’re compatible with the new machine. You may not need to buy a new power supply or optical disk drive if you have one that already works and can handle the demands of the new build.
Additionally, keep in mind that the brand new part you just bought may not work. It is essential to buy parts from a reputable company with a good return policy. In some instances, you may not be able to return something if the package has already been opened.
It’s Stronger than It Looks
I was surprised at the amount of force required to put some components in place. The several hundred dollar CPU falls into its motherboard socket with ease, but then there is a socket arm to keep it in place. It seems like the arm would crush the CPU, but it can handle it the pressure.
However, if it feels like too much force, then you may want to step back and take a moment to validate that you’re doing it correctly. Re-purchasing the same component because it broke during installation will not help your budget.
Take Your Time and Have Fun
I found my first custom build to be a challenging and educational experience. It was a good feeling to have control over what went into my machine and to build something that met my personal requirements even with compromises necessary to stay within budget. While the overall cost may be the same as an off-the-shelf machine, you will avoid the bloat of pre-installed software and potentially lower quality parts. More importantly, you will have the personal satisfaction of having built it yourself.