This article is also available as a download. For a graphical look at the process of building a box with enough muscle to run Vista (and the Glass interface) for less than $500, check out this photo gallery.
ever-expanding array of barebones kit options, a growing number of PC parts
suppliers, and seven new versions of Microsoft’s next Windows client coming,
many technology professionals may choose to build custom systems from scratch. Doing
so offers several advantages, including the ability to tailor components to
your needs while controlling costs. This list offers 10 recommendations to
review when building a PC from the ground up.
#1: Select the mobo carefully
The motherboard is the most important component you select
when building a PC from scratch. Not only does your motherboard choice determine
the number and type of ports (parallel, serial, USB, memory card, etc.) a new
system possesses, but it also dictates which processor powers the box, the memory
(type and speed) that’s used, the number and type of disks (IDE, SATA, etc.)
supported, and the resulting PC case style (micro, Shuttle, mid-tower, 1U server,
etc.), as the motherboard’s form factor (ATX, mini-ITX, etc.) typically determines
the case that must be used.
Pay particular attention to a motherboard’s CPU socket type
when reviewing your processor options. The CPU socket type typically dictates
the CPU manufacturer (Intel versus AMD) as well as the processor family
(Pentium 4, Athlon, Celeron, Sempron,
etc.). If you become confused as to which socket is designed for which CPU, Wikipedia maintains a handy listing.
It’s also a good idea to review the motherboard’s chipset
and video port specifications. Chipset type determines maximum RAM
configuration (among other elements), while most every contemporary board
supports older PCI technology. Newer boards, however, favor PCI-Express slots over
AGP for improved video performance.
#2: Review CPU options
While your motherboard choice often determines the processor
(AMD Athlon 64-bit and Intel Core Duo are but two
examples), you still have a decision to make. That is, how fast should your
Remember that a CPU boasting additional processor cycles will
provide improved performance during its service life, and the service life may
well be extended proportionate to its increase in speed over base models. In
other words, a Pentium 4 3.06 GHz chip is more likely to meet minimum system
requirements longer than the same model CPU with a 2.26 GHz clock.
#3: Don’t skimp on the PC case
Avoid the temptation to purchase the cheapest beige box. The
case that houses the system does more than just hold the PC’s components. Cases
also determine the system’s footprint, as well as the type and number of data
ports easily accessed from the machine’s front.
#4: Power up
Never underestimate the importance of a good power supply.
Problematic power supplies can be a nightmare to diagnose. Ensure that you
purchase a quality unit that generates sufficient power for your system’s
#5: Check the RAM
You can never have enough RAM, but you can certainly
purchase it improperly. For example, if you need 2 GB of RAM, don’t plan on
plugging four 512 MB sticks into most boards. Many motherboards now feature
only a pair of RAM slots, so be sure to purchase the most concentrated RAM
modules you can.
Also, purchase the correct memory. It’s easy to confuse
different types. Confirm that you’ve received the proper RAM and aren’t the
recipient of 333 MHz DDR memory when you paid for a 400 MHz DDR stick, as
almost happened to me recently. (Fortunately, I caught the error and corrected
a well-intentioned clerk prior to completing the purchase.)
#6: Choose the right disk format
Your motherboard selection will provide you with several
disk options. In addition to the requisite CD/DVD drive, you’ll likely have
your choice of IDE, SATA, or even SCSI hard disks. If your system will process
large amounts of data often, it’s worth supplying the new system with a SATA or
But if the system is to be used for nonintensive
applications (likely the case for the majority of corporate systems), cheaper
and potentially recyclable IDE hard disks are readily available and will
adequately meet your needs. Don’t just assume you need the latest and greatest
hardware. Significant savings can be had by reusing an existing 5400 RPM 20 GB IDE
disk as opposed to purchasing a new 7,200 RPM 300 GB SATA drive.
#7: Consider video requirements
There used to be little call for potent video cards in most
corporate environments. Other than graphic artists, CAD designers, professional
photographers, and video production houses, few people other than gamers really
required video cards packing more than even 64 MB of video RAM.
But that’s all changing. The use of rich media is growing
exponentially across all professions. The trend is sure to stress a vast number
of video cards currently in use, and Windows Vista (with its graphically
intensive Glass interface) will push many organizations to using video cards
with 256 MB or more RAM.
Video adapter type is another consideration when building a
barebones system. PCI- and AGP-based adapters long met most organization’s
needs. But PCI-Express, with higher speeds resulting from serial interconnects
versus the old-style bus, is overtaking AGP (which itself overtook PCI).
Be sure to keep your organization’s requirements, and the
system’s intended use, in mind when specifying the new PC’s video parameters.
In many cases, a simple embedded video adapter will meet your needs. In others,
a separate AGP or PCI-E slot and video adapter with 256 MB nonshared
video RAM may be required to accommodate graphically intensive tasks.
#8: Secure everything
More than a few systems have been hastily built and pressed
into service. It’s easy to overlook fundamentals, especially when projects
stack up, but always take the extra time to secure all the components inside a
Ensure all power supply and data cables are directed away
from cooling fans, including fans used to cool the CPU, video card, and the
case itself. PCs have lots of moving parts, so prevent cables from shifting position
by connecting them to the case’s frame (or even other cables) using zip ties.
Also take time to secure all drives and disks in their bays.
Don’t rely upon a single screw to hold a hard disk or CD/DVD drive in place;
use at least two screws (one to each side) and preferably four (two to a side).
#9: Buy a burner
If 40 is the new 30, a CD/DVD burner is the new floppy. Many
PCs no longer even include a floppy disk. Assuming a little extra cost now (for
a CD or DVD writing drive) will save you time and trouble in the future.
Sure, everyone believes they’ll be able to e-mail or FTP
larger files to the appropriate vendor, supplier, or customer, but I’ve lost
count of the number of times I’ve needed to transfer large files but couldn’t
access FTP shares due to security or firewall issues and couldn’t e-mail the
files due to Exchange attachment restrictions.
Add a burner to your barebones PC and you’ll also have a
secondary method of creating backups, too. The benefits simply outweigh the
#10: Cool is good; heat is bad
PC cases commonly don’t include five-dollar case fans. Buy
one and install it. Heat’s a PC’s worst enemy.
Purchase a quality CPU fan, too. Both cheap and expensive
models (particularly any that add neon glow) should be avoided. Instead, go
with tried-and-true manufacturers that don’t make CPU cooling complicated. It’s
a simple problem with a simple solution.
Also, don’t store the system’s documentation inside the PC.
I recently replaced a failed hard disk in a physician’s computer that likely
died an early death because the previous administrator placed a plastic bag
containing the PC’s documentation inside the case. It’s a practice I see
occasionally. Although it’s a good idea in concept (keeping a system’s
documentation, license, and install CD with the unit), the material obstructs
airflow. In this case, it blocked numerous exhaust ports and likely contributed
to the hard drive’s premature failure.