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10 things to consider when building your own PC

Building a custom system lets you tailor the components to meet your needs, while holding down the costs. Justin James offers advice about some of the choices you'll need to make.

Building PCs is a hobby that many tech enthusiasts enjoy. Even if building PCs is not your hobby, it is sometimes the only way to get a machine that exactly meets your needs, or meets them at a reasonable price. Here are 10 things to think about when building your next PC, some of the choices you may have, and what to keep in mind when making these choices.

1: SSD vs. platters

At this point in time, I think the drive selections have more to do with performance than the CPU choice does. Modern CPUs have more than enough power for typical loads, but as the applications we use get bigger, and the data they handle gets larger (video games, multimedia editing, giant-size Outlook PSTs, etc.), the drives can become the bottleneck.

Solid state drives (SSDs) are lightning quick, especially for accessing lots of small files at a time (like when the system boots). The price to pay is in the cost-per-gigabyte: They are many times more expensive on a per-GB basis than traditional drives. While there is debate about whether traditional drives are as fast reading long, sequential files, or if the read/write limits on SSDs make them less reliable than the mechanical failures of traditional drives, the performance on typical usage is not a question.

One possibility, especially with an OS like Windows 7 or Linux that make it easy to separate data from applications, is to use an SSD for the main OS and application space and put user data on a traditional drive. That way, you can get both speed and disk size at a reasonable price.

2: Video card

People often tend to buy either too much video card or too little. Unless you are playing video games, the on-board video card should be sufficient --  so long as it has enough of the right kinds of ports and can meet your resolution needs. You should not need to devote too much system memory to it, either.

If you are playing video games, keep in mind that games are now putting the lion's share of the hard work onto the video card. There is a definite price curve on the video cards. You can often get last year's top-end models for a good price, and they will handle all but the most modern and intense games at reasonable settings (often the highest settings). If you are doing a lot of multimedia, numerical analysis, and other computationally intense tasks, check to see whether your applications can leverage the video card and if so, what cards it is compatible with.

3: x86 or x64?

When installing the OS, there is no reason to not use the x64 version at this point, unless you have an extremely outdated application that refuses to run on it. And you should almost always install the x64 version of applications. That said, there are some things where you need to make a choice. Internet Explorer, for example. While it installs both versions, always use the x86 one -- the one labeled "Internet Explorer" instead of "Internet Explorer (64-bit)" -- because the modernized JavaScript engine in IE 9 is available only in the x86 version. Many IE users I've met have been baffled by the lack of speed in IE 9, and that was the reason.

Also, be very wary about installing Microsoft Office's x64 versions. Many, if not most plugins still do not run under x64 Office, and it looks like they probably never will. The only reason to go for x64 Office is if you routinely work with monstrously huge files that the x86 version can't handle.

4: RAM density

Let's say your motherboard holds up to four DIMMs, each one with a maximum size of 8 GB, and supports Dual Channel RAM, and your goal is to have 8 GB of RAM. If you buy one 8 GB DIMM, you are leaving lots of room open to eventually fill the machine to 32 GB, but you are giving up the speed advantages of Dual Channel. If you buy two 4 GB DIMMs, you get the speed of Dual Channel. But if you want to get the full 32 GB in the future, you'll have to replace the two 4 GB DIMMs with an 8 GB DIMM. Personally, I like to buy the smaller DIMMs and get the Dual (or Triple) Channel advantage, worrying about the extra costs down the road if I ever need an upgrade. You may prefer to leave as much space for future expansion as you can.

5: RAID

A RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) allows you to combine various physical disks into one volume. The main RAID levels to think about on a desktop are:

  • RAID 0: Allows multiple disks to be combined into one large disk; a single drive failure takes down the whole RAID and often loses data. The volume size is the total of the size of all of the disks.
  • RAID 1: Mirrors a pair of disks into one volume; if one disk fails there is no data loss, and the drive can be replaced (and the data automatically copies to the replacement), usually with no downtime. The volume size is the size of the smaller of the two disks.
  • RAID 5: This is more complex. It takes three drives and combines them in a way that they all provide some redundancy for the others, with an optional fourth drive as a "hot spare" to be immediately incorporated into the RAID if the drive fails (highly recommended). A little bit of drive space is lost due to the way the redundancy is performed.

Each of these RAID types can bring some speed benefits. Due to the high level of drive failures I experience, the value of my data to me, and the cost of downtime, I choose RAID 1 for all of my personal PCs and have done so for quite a few years now. It has saved my neck many times!

6: Case

Even if you are not the sort to care what your computer looks like (other than a nondescript beige, gray, or black box), the case selection is still important. Cases with better airflow reduce internal temperatures, which in turn reduces failure rates and allows temperature-controlled fans to spin slower (which makes the machine quieter). Larger fans turn more slowly to move the same amount of air, which also reduces the noise. Some cases even have air filters to keep the dust levels low. In addition, better cases make it easier (and less painful, if they have smoothed edges on the metal) to replace components. Look for removable motherboard trays and drive cages to make maintenance easy. The pricier aluminum cases weigh a lot less, which is important if you plan to move your PC often.

7: Power supply

People tend to overestimate how big a power supply unit (PSU) they need. You're better off having a smaller PSU with higher efficiency than a larger PSU with lower efficiency. Not only will it deliver the same power to your components, but it will save on your electric bill and produce less heat. (Again, heat reduces reliability and makes the fans work harder which increases noise.) Unless you have a super-powerful video card or a lot of hard drives, it is hard to argue for more than 350 - 450 watts of PSU capacity.

8: CPU choice

I am not going to get into the Intel vs. AMD debate. Just compare capabilities and price and get the cheapest CPUs that meet your needs. Here are some questions to ask yourself when picking a CPU:

  • Does it support virtualization and do I need that support? As a developer and author who occasionally needs to run VMs for testing, the answer is "yes" for me.
  • Does it support HyperThreading (HT)? HT allows one CPU core to act as two, and while it does not always improve performance, it can often increase it.
  • How many cores do I need? Remember, many applications still are not written to leverage multicore architecture, but the OS will. And more cores means a better experience on the whole if you like to do many things at once or play games.
  • What speed do I need? Few things will actually max out a modern CPU long term. I would rather have four cores at 2.0 gHz than two cores at 4.0 gHz, all else being equal.

9: Backups

Thinking about backups should start when you are putting your PC together. If you are using online backups, you don't need any additional hardware. But for onsite backup, now is the time for it. Some people like external drives for backups because they are easily switched, moved to other places, etc., but they are a bit more expensive.

I've got a large internal disk (much larger than the data I will ever store on the machine) that I perform a nightly backup to, and I backstop that with the Carbonite online backup service. Between this and my RAID 1, if I ever permanently lose data, it means that I have bigger things to worry about than my data! If you use an external drive, eSATA is much faster than the ubiquitous USB 2.0. In terms of software, there are lots of great choices out there. While the built-in Windows Backup is adequate for most home user needs, it does have its gaps and you will want to consider a third-party application.

10: Malware protection

Now that your fresh, pristine system is up and running, it's time to protect it from viruses, spyware, and other nasty applications. We all know that education is the best defense. But even so, the malware has a habit of finding its way in sometimes. There are plenty of good anti-malware choices out there, ranging from "free" to "expensive," with plenty in the middle, too. Whatever you choose, make sure that it is one of the first things you put on there.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

19 comments
birumut
birumut

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repeters
repeters

Over the years, my choice of a mother board has become more & more important . I've come to believe a good mobo is vital and the very foundation for the entire architecture of the PC. I used to buy the cheapest mobo I could find but have changed my opinion over the years and now go after a quality mobo. The more expensive mobo's have added features, speed, quality chip sets (i.g. USB 3). The problem lies in determining which mobo is a good choice. Tom's Hardware can help in making a informed choice: http://www.tomshardware.com/ .

mishkafofer
mishkafofer

My dad is a musician. Bought a new PC with i7 CPU, attached his external professional sound card through Fireiwre and got zilch. Apparently MSI works with sub-standard Jmicron firewire chips. He went back to the store and told them that the mobo is bad, i personally had to explain what went wrong and we refreshed their memory that pc was for music making and they knew about what he was looking. The store quickly changed the mobo to Gigabyte deluxe version for i7 with Texas instruments chip and my dad is a happy musician since then. That how manufacturers cut corners so that you get those cheap mother boards.

brf531
brf531

A friend and I recently built a desktop PC and had to consider many of the points mentioned in this article. We wrote up the experience, with pictures. If you would like to read a slightly different point of view, with many of the same conclusions, take a look at: "http://home.comcast.net/~brf/diy/diy_txt.html"

jck
jck

oops...double post :(

jck
jck

I just wanted to throw in my thoughts here...(post-writing: and boy, was I long-winded...so, feel free to TL:DR me lol) 1. SSD or HD - You're spot on, in regards of use...if you can separate your apps from their data. You have to determine if the application will let you store your data for it on a separate volume. Also, its configuration is something to consider if it is updated quite often since SSDs "wear out" with constant re-writing. How I have been handling this is: Get an SSD and use that for your OS-related operations only. Then, put in one or more 300 or 600 GB Velociraptor (or other high-speed conventional drive of your choice) for applications that need access performance. Then, put in one or more 1-2TB drives to store files, music, videos, etc. 2. Video cards - The biggest problem I've seen in regards to them for gaming is this: Buying one HUGE overpowered card. Why? Here's the reason. You buy one, and it burns out. You are looking at 2-4 week RMA process, depending on the card maker or (r)etailer. Even if you have on-board graphics, they aren't going to be anywhere near enough to do what discrete graphics do at the top-end level. My suggestion, since the coming of SLi and CrossFire, has been to buy two pretty good video cards and link them. You get comparable performance to a single top-end and usually about the same price or maybe a bit more. And if one video card goes out, you're not stuck with playing in 800x600 @ 60Hz or worse...solitaire. lol 3. x86 or x64 - I think it really depends on what you're going to do. I continue to run 4 machines on Windows XP Professional x64, and I haven't had an issue yet. Of course, I don't run IE9 or Office on any of them though. And, I won't. 4. RAM Density - Absolutely right. In addition, watch out buying older/used AMD Phenom II class chips that have the old Integrated Memory Controller. They had issues with limited speeds when using all 4 banks. 5. RAID - Spot on here too. Choosing what's right for you is important. RAID can offer both data safety and performance enhancement. Since I have external drives and backup software, I usually run in RAID 0. 6. Case - Another thing to keep an eye out on is the width/build of the case versus the air cooling solution. One time, I got a surprise when I built with a Azza case that was plenty wide a put a SunbeamTech 120mm HSF in...only to find that the Azza case has a 250mm fan that was barely too thick and that the blades hit the tops of the HSF pipes. So, the fan had to go. With pre-assembled LCS (Liquid Cooling Systems), the only real concern is making sure your case is large enough to host the fan and radiator. With the new push-pull models that are out, they can take a lot of space back-to-front. 7. Power Supplies - Er...um...have to disagree here with you somewhat. You're absolutely right if you're using a run-of-the-mill Dell pre-assembled office PC. All you'd need is 350W. But if you are having to buy a power supply for a machine you're building, you generally want to aim for at least 500W PSU on a typical machine that uses a CPU and a discrete graphics card. Why? Well, the typical CPU is 65W-130W. The average discrete GPU today is using ~100W, but can go easily over 400W for dual-GPU video cards for high-end gaming. And if you're overclocking your CPU...even more juice. My rule of thumb is to do this: a) Make sure that your total system watts falls in around 50% use of the max rated watts PSU that you're getting. This not only makes sure that you're falling in the middle of the 20-to-80 efficiency curve that most PSU manufacturers adhere to. But, it also lowers strain on the components in the PSU...and, it leaves you with some headroom to expand the system later. b) If you are putting in a large wattage GPU, make sure that there is a rail(s) that will, amperage-wise, support the GPU's power requirements @12V. Sometimes, PSUs will have "60A @ 12V", but it's on 4 individual rails so it's 15A per rail. For a 400W GPU, you would need about 34A. And even using 2 of the 12V rail power connectors, it would be insufficient. So, make sure your rails are high-powered enough to handle your GPU too. This only really would apply to gamers or people doing animation or CAD-based engineering, etc., that would need high-end graphics "umph". Also when you buy a PSU, make sure that it's "80 Plus" rated. And, try to get the better of those, as they are more efficient with higher wattage. 8. CPU Choice - This all comes down to 3 things: a) what you'll be doing, b) how much you have to spend, c) if you have any preference/bias. I typically buy AMD. And, I tend to buy the "unlockable" chips. I've got 3 AMD Phenom II 5xx series dual-core CPUs that unlocked to quad-cores. For ~$80, you can't beat that if it will fulfill your processing requirements. I have bought Intel, though. The Intel i7 first-gen quad cores with Hyperthreading were outstanding for use on Stanford's Folding@Home bigadv work units. Nothing AMD made could do them as efficiently. So, Justin is totally correct. Look at what you need, and look at what both chips excel at doing. And then, determine for your money what is your best solution. 9. Backups - Here is where I have my own standard: I don't trust the internet to be as reliable as I want. Online backups save headaches and give you more freedom, but they have downfalls too. With all the outages of cloud services servers, internet relays, etc., I find that my UPS and 2TB external HDs and backup software is more reliable and works great. And, it's not an expensive or difficult thing to accomplish. I got a USB 2TB external HD for $79 and got a rebate that made it $70, and I got Acronis 2011 with a discount and a rebate a while back for $4.99 total. $75 for a 2TB backup solution for your PC is reasonable, since off-site backups like Carbonite charge $59 per year. So after 15 months, it's comparable cost. And if you leave the external drive off when you're not backing up, it should be long-lasting. 2 years on, you should be ahead money-wise. It's a little more work, but it saves money in the long term. Plus, you never have to worry about your internet being out, there being server issues, or anything like that happening. I have 5 external drives, and one is 5 years old. If you are not using them constantly, they last a lot longer (given there's no manufacturing defect). And, retrieval across USB 2.0 is faster than internet. So if you ever have to do a restore, it saves time. Also as Justin said, RAID 1 is a great thing to think about if your motherboard has it (most do)...or even RAID 5 or 0+1...if you have a lot of the same hard drive in one PC. 10. Malware Protection - This is always a good idea...in fact, it should be a requirement for anyone. And, not just one. There are really 3 things everyone should make sure are there to protect you: 1) an internet security suite, 2) a malware scanner, 3) network-based protection. A lot is made about ensuring you have software installed to do this. But if you have a home network, also making sure your router/switch has up-to-date and solid protection and that it is *enabled* is imperative. After all, it's your first line of defense. Other things: Cooling solution - you need to make sure you have a sufficient cooler for your CPU. Other storage - do you need CD? DVD? Blu-Ray? Who is a quality manufacturer? And finally...something I don't think I've seen mentioned: The cooling in the room you're going to put the machine into for use. This is something, because if it's in your bedroom and you already have a 24" LCD TV and an A/V system in a 12x14 bedroom and just one small A/C vent...and your thermostat sensor is halfway across the house in the hallway...your bedroom is likely to get warm in the summer. I know that living in Florida, I had to often drop the temp in the rest of the house 4-5 degrees and leave the bedroom door open and the ceiling fan on medium to keep the bedroom from being warmer if I was watching TV while I had software running simulations or doing folding. Okay...diatribe over. lol Really nice article there, Justin. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and hope you don't mind my...blathering. Guess it's a side effect of having worked on PCs for 20+ years. lol

Ron_007
Ron_007

You mentioned USB2 for backup, but the time has finally come that USB 3 external HDs are becoming commonly available and cost competitive so you should look for USB 3 support on the motherboard.

CVN76
CVN76

It must SUPPORT TRIM OR save your money. CVN76usn

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

Besides adding the extra RAM and even the SSD of your choice. These all add extra heat too. SSD is a bit pricey for the larger ones but setting up an array of three of the medium sized units and burning permanent and back up files to DVD. Over clocking and added GPU's with their own fans and it will get pretty hot. A quick solution is to dress your cables, and if need be, useage of posterboard ducting will help to bring in the maximum cooling air and exhaust the hot air any from any intake. Just a small fan would be needed to help boost and establish air flow. The hottest area, the CPU heatsink needs the most cooling. Spacing multiple drives is also critical. Stacking or obstructing air flow can cause failures. RAM would be next unless your GPU is just a heat sink with no fan, then it needs the next coolest air source. Power supplies have their own fan and intakes its air from inside the case, exhausts it out the back near the top. The small fan will be pulling air into the case through a filter near the bottom. Other cards usually don't need much cooling. Overclocked CPU's will also lead to other chips running warmer than normal.

pfeiffep
pfeiffep

Gaming is only one of the requirements for a dedicated video card...... Editing video is certainly another

cgrace70
cgrace70

Depending on what equipment you have inside the box, you must be careful about what PSU you put inside. As an example, I bought a high end video card (for gaming) that required 40A on a 12V rail. I did quite a bit of research in to this, because a lot of PSU's split the 12V rail. A lot of people I talked to (including the guy at the specialty computer store) incorrectly said that all you had to do was add the Amps split between the rails. This is not true. I looked at a 500W power supply with two 12V rails, each with 20A. The formula to find the actual amperage is A=W/V. In this case A=432/12. Note the 432(W) and the single 12(V). This is not a mistake. Of the 500W only 432W was available on the 12V rails and it doesn't matter how many 12V rails there are, you only use a single 12 in the calculation. In this case the Amperage equaled 36. If I had bought this PSU it wouldn't be able to use the card. I ended up buying a 750W (efficient) PSU that had 60A on a single 12V rail. It also had all the cables hardwired in to the PSU, which gives you an bundle of wires, but you do not run in to the issue of breaking connectors, resistance, etc. that you would run in to with a PSU that allows you to only connect the wires you need to connect to it.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

I always start by looking at the latest chipsets. The motherboard is going to dictate what you can and cannot do with the entire system. Putting money in to a nice motherboard has many benefits. Think about the number of SATA ports, if you need error correcting memory, RAID and expansion ports. Also form factor. If you care about size then this is the logical place to start. From there you will now have a range of CPUs, and memory to choose from. I always buy the fastest speed memory that my motherboard can handle; this can make a huge difference in how "snappy" or responsive the computer will handle. From there you just build out to your needs within the specs of the motherboard.

explodingwalrus
explodingwalrus

Choosing between 32 bit and 64 bit IE isn't need, choose a decent modern browser like Firefox or Chrome. Also if you don't need to use software that depends n Windows then it's worth considering Linux. And i agree with the above comment, SSDs are too expensive and also not proven to be reliable over long term use as they hve a limited number of writes

Peconet Tietokoneet
Peconet Tietokoneet

SSD vs. platters: I will stay with platters because of the price, also SSD's do not have the big range of the platters. Ram: Get as much as you can afford and the amount the motherboard can take it will make your system run smoother and in so doing you will have less blue screens of death. Power supply: Depends on how much you have inside your system, hdds's video cards etc. CPU: This is debatable and also dependent on the motherboard. Backups: This is a must have. Always have a backup in place, on-line or another hdd (on-board/external). I go for a small backup server with a Raid 10 but this is not everyones taste. Malware protection: This will depend on what operating system(s) you have, but for a Windows system it is a must have.

jck
jck

Even the big mobo makers have issues. One had a bad problem with defective SATA6 or something. I've had good luck with everything from top-of-the-line Asus to cheapo ECS mobos. Never had a bad one out of the box. I tend to stick with Asus or MSI for quality. But, that's just my personal preference. If I'm building a cheapy rig, I might get MSI low-end or use ASRock. Another good thing to invest in is a quality PSU too. PSUs are notorious for going out because of just one substandard component.

Justin James
Justin James

I appreciate all of the extra information! There's only so much I can put into any given article (and this one was a bit longer than the typical "10 Things..." entries to begin with), so having extra details from readers is great! On the PSU issue... it really depends on your needs. For non-gamers, 350W is just ducky, and keeps the heat (and electric bills) down. If you are loading in a ton of drives and/or video cards, that's when it's time to bring out the calculator and get a definite number. :) J.Ja

repeters
repeters

I would stay away from IE9 on a Windows 7 64 bit installation. I had installed it via a system update and it caused all kinds of problems and crashes. I Googled the problems and found a lot of others have had IE 9 & Win 7 problems. It was NOT an easy "roll back", either.

repeters
repeters

I'm sticking with the platter drives, until they get the "kinks" out of the high failure rates due to write & re-write issue, defrag, etc. the big knock on SSD technology is its finite lifespan. Steve Gibson (Spin rite) wrote: "It actually hurts non-volatile memory to change its data. So in order to mitigate the damage, non-volatile RAM has a technology that spreads the actual writing around the surface of the RAM. So that even if you are reading and writing the same area, that is, the same address of the RAM over and over and over, its actually occurring in a distributed fashion across different physical areas of the RAM. They do that in order to spread out the damage caused by writing to it." The relative high cost coupled with the failure rate keeps SSD's on the back burner.

jck
jck

Like I said...with a CPU and a discrete GPU, you want to look bigger. For most professional office settings, 350-450 is more than adequate. However, you might want to go bigger than 350 with the newer GPUs built on-board the motherboard in newer systems. I'm not real sure, because I haven't built a rig that uses on-board graphics in probably 8-10 years...and had no need to look. Also if you go too small of a PSU when you're building , it can impact the power bill too. Say you have a machine with a 130W i7 and a discrete GPU eating 120W at idle (a last-gen GPU like a 5850) and 150W max, and you have 3 hard drives eating 2W each, then say you have 5 fans total consuming about 6W total, etc etc. For argument's sake, say your entire system uses 300W of the 350W max rating of your PSU in normal usage. You're using about 86% of the PSU's max rated power. If you have a non-80-plus PSU, an 86% usage of a PSU that's only efficient to 75% of max load means that efficiency will drop dramatically. It means that to make that 300W@12V, you're pulling 400W from the wall. The two real solutions to this are: a) Buy a larger PSU where your power use hits near the mid-point of the max rated power of the PSU. Peak efficiency of PSUs tend to fall between 20 and 80% load, and can be a few percentages more efficient on most models than peak. b) Buy the highest 80-plus rated PSU possible, which is "Platinum" and is 89% efficient at 100% load and 92% efficient at 50% load. This will maximize your efficiency and reduce your power bill the most. Going with a larger, higher efficiency PSU also means less power is being converted into heat. And, the difference between being 75% (for generic at near-peak load) and 90% (for 80-plus Gold at 50% load) can be a few hundred dollars a year in power savings. But yeah, you're right. Most users in the professional setting (and a lot of web-surfing/email-only users at home) are not going to need a Corsair TX or HX or Silverstone PSU. Of course, those users also won't be building/fixing a PC either. They let Geek Squad worry about that. lol ;) Great article tho. Stuff everyone who's looking to build needs to keep in mind. There's a lot of it, too. So much, it even makes my brain hurt. lol B-)