PC building: Why?

This article was gifted to the website as part of our community driven initiative.

PC building: Why? is about the thought processes behind building a PC. It is meant to help people who have never considered building a PC before, or those that find the task daunting.  It is not about recommending any particular products or brands. That being said, if you do want to know the current PC build recommendations, you can always check out the PC Builds section, and if you want to browse through the current deals, click here.

As you know, there are many OEM brands out there who offer pre-built PCs for all budgets. You can buy them online, in the large retail stores, or in the specialized electronics shops. You can test sample builds if you want to, you can get comprehensive warranty and in most cases the operating system is pre-installed and ready to go. There’s no need today to build your own PC.

So then why build your own PC? One needs to search individual components, make sure that they are compatible with one another, assemble the PC before installing the operating system plus all the ancillary software. It is pure madness!

And yet, for some people it is not, quite the contrary. There is an entire community of pc enthusiasts who get goose bumps just thinking that it’s time to build a new PC. I will list here a few reasons why building your own PC can make sense:

  • Price, performance and personalization
  • The pleasure of learning
  • Bragging rights

Let’s go through these reasons, one by one.

Price, performance and personalization

This is a very difficult subject to address simply. That is because besides personalization, both value and performance can mean different things to different people, even if both indicators are represented numerically.

Let’s start with price. There are indeed very good offers out there to buy pre-built PCs at very competitive prices. The reason for this is that big OEM manufacturers get very good deals when they are ordering the components in bulk. Very good deals indeed! However, these companies also employ a lot of people. They need to worry about many things: from research and marketing, design, testing, making deals with the HW providers and the retailers, logistics, advertisement, etc. All these costs are added to your final product. So where’s the catch? The answer is generally that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Usually the very attractive prices hide low quality, mediocre performance, short or no warranty, or most likely an unbalanced system (more on that later).

How about performance? There are definitely high-performance pre-built PCs out there. Usually advertised for gamers or creators. But those PCs can easily run into the thousands of dollars. Now, maybe money is not an issue for you. However, you do want to make sure that you are getting the proper performance for your money. But the real question is not the amount of raw (measurable) performance you get from your PC, rather if the performance you get is of the right kind.

Finally, we should all understand that PCs perform tasks for us. Whether to play, or to work on, or to study, or to do research, or to simply browse the web; ultimately they perform tasks for us. And each of us needs different tasks to be performed. But we all want our machine to excel at performing the task that we need most, and we don’t mind when it struggles to perform tasks that we don’t do often enough. And all of this is about personalization. We don’t all need the same kind of performance from our PCs.

Thus, it is simple to argue that the ability to build your own PC can lead – if done correctly – to a system that is best suited for your own needs, giving you most satisfaction for the longest amount of time.

The pleasure of learning

It should be clear by now that in order to build a PC, one needs to do a certain amount of research. This applies to everyone, whether you are an engineer or someone who knows very little about PCs. That is because the technology advances so fast in this area, that your one-year old knowledge is already outdated. It’s true that tech-savvy people can get there faster, but they too need to do their homework when building a new PC.

Choosing the components for your PC build is not always a simple choice of selecting the best performance or most affordable components and cramming them all together in a case. Some components are incompatible with others, and this is one aspect a PC builder needs to keep account of. Otherwise, their system simply won’t boot, or you won’t even be able to put it together in the first place.

The most important aspect is balance. You should not combine components with widely different performance or quality ratings. Since balance is hard to define in a new phrases, it has its dedicated chapter below.

Bragging rights

This one is maybe more of a joke to many. But not to all. Everyone of us likes to show and share our creations, or flaunt our skills. We are sharing with others a lot of information, and the act of sharing is in itself rewarding. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and others make fortunes from our propensity to share what we like, want, think and do – with as many people as we can.

So then why would it be different with something that we have built?

When you build your PC, it’s rather unique. Of course there are a limited amount of components, and as such by definition it is bound that there will be other people having identical builds as you. But I guarantee that it won’t be your friend or neighbor (unless you planned it together, which can also be a lot of fun). Plus, you can always customize it further with lighting, decals, and so on if you really want your system to be unique.

What is a PC made of?

We need to take a little detour first.

In order be able to build a PC, it’s obviously important to know what are the main  PC components, what roles they have and how they interact with each other. If you feel you already know this, go ahead and skip this entire chapter.

Here is a table listing the main distinguishable components of a PC.

Component nameDescriptionMain characteristics
CaseA metallic box that houses the core componentsSize
Ease of access
Air flow
Sound dampening
Visual aspect
Power supplyProvides the electrical power to all core componentsRated power
Efficiency
Cooling systemRemoves away unwanted heat from the core components
If unfit for your PC, it may hinder its performance
Air or liquid based
Fan sizes
Processor (CPU)The main execution unit of the PC
The part that does the thinking inside your machine
Number of cores
Operating frequency
Cache sizes
Graphics card (GPU) A dedicated component for preparing images to be displayed by the monitor
Sometimes, it is incorporated into the CPU
Processing units
Operating frequency
Onboard memory
Motherboard (mobo) The main circuit board where all the core components are connected.
Acts as a nervous system of your PC.
Chipset
Memory (RAM) The place where the executing programs and data stay temporarilyCapacity (GB)
Speed (MT/s)
Latency timings
Storage The place where you save all your data and programs for long term useType (SSD or HDD)
Capacity (GB or TB)
Connector (SATA, M.2)
Monitor The display you look atPhysical size (inches)
Resolution (pixels)
Frame rate (fps)
Peripherals All the gizmos you touch or interact with:
keyboard, mouse, speakers, headphones, printers, scanners, etc.
 

Note: In my terminology, the term ‘core component’ means a component that sits inside the desktop PC case. The rest of the PC components that you can see are peripherals (monitor, keyboard, etc.).

Compatibility concerns

Most of the PC components are interchangeable. That means you can replace any product from any brand with an equivalent product from the same or another brand and it should be fine.

However, some components are so tightly connected and dependent on each other, that they are not universally compatible. These are the CPU-motherboard-RAM combo. The motherboard has dedicated sockets to plug both the CPU and the RAM sticks. As such, they need to fit perfectly with the component they are meant to receive, and this is the main constraint of PC building that you simply cannot ignore.

Common misconceptions

Let’s address in this section some common misconceptions about some of the PC components. Hopefully this will help you avoid clever marketing ploys that exploit these misconceptions to try to trick people into buying sub-par components.

The power supply

The power supply has a power rating expressed in Watts. This means that the power supply is rated to provide (or drive) maximum the specified amount Watts downstage to the components of your PC. It can also provide any lower wattage, depending on the system needs. And this doesn’t mean that the power supply will consume that amount of from your wall socket all the time. It only means that you should avoid driving more than that amount of watts downstage. Doing that may damage and break your supply.

Another rating for your supply is efficiency. This is usually branded with the words “80 Plus [metal]”, for example 80 Plus Bronze, 80 Plus Platinum, etc. The metal name may be missing altogether. In general terms, this naming convention only specifies how efficient your power supply is. I would recommend users to buy power supplies 80 Plus Gold or better, as any price differences at purchase time compared with the less efficient supplies will be offset over time by the decreased electrical bills.

The case and cooling

Cooling system as a whole can be easily misunderstood, or proper importance not given to it in a PC build. This is usually where it is very easy to cut corners (and some OEMs do). That is because it may go unnoticed by the amateurs.

Your PC is only as fast as the cooling system allows it to be

Electronic devices generate a lot of heat, but they also do not like heat too much. Because of that, and since many of these devices are rather expensive, they do have built-in thermal sensors and special features that allow the device to react when the temperature exceeds acceptable levels. Usually, the devices throttle down (meaning they slow down) or may even shut down entirely, depending on the severity.

If the cooling system is not good enough or the case itself doesn’t allow sufficient air circulation inside (hence impeding the cooling system’s ability to work efficiently), then the CPU and/or GPU will very likely throttle down. This means that you will effectively have a slower system than what you have paid for.

The processor

Perhaps the oldest misconceptions are around assessing CPU performance. Long ago, the only parameter people used to consider was the base frequency. Nowadays, with the advent of multi-core processors, the core count and simultaneous multithreading – SMT (aka hyper-threading) are also used.

Unfortunately things get even more complicated. The raw performance of a CPU depends on many factors, including: number of cores, SMT, base frequency, boost frequency, cache sizes, number of ALUs per core, and even the speed of the RAM. People use the term instructions per cycle (or IPC) when trying to refer to the overall performance of a processor, although direct IPC comparison between different CPUs can be misleading in some cases.

Even using benchmarking software to compare CPU performance should be done with consideration. That’s because the benchmarking software is going to provide a synthetic indicator which needs to be understood properly, and different benchmarks may rank the same processors in different order.

How do I build my PC?

By now, if you’re still here, probably your curiosity is piqued and you’re at least considering building your own PC. Well then, let’s start with the first steps.

Identify your needs

This is not as easy as it sounds. Even if I wish, I couldn’t list here what your needs are. That is your job. But I can try to help you to identify them. Some things to consider:

  • Where will you place your computer?
    • Lit or dark room?
    • Dedicated space (own room) or a shared space (e.g. living room)?
    • Quiet or noisy place?
  • What do you want to do on your PC?
    • Gaming
    • Working
    • Studying
    • Media consumption (movies, music, etc.)
    • Process videos and/or photographs
  • How often will you be using your PC?
    • Daily, less often?
    • How many hours per week: 10 hours, 50 hours, more?
  • For how long do you plan to keep the system around before you change it entirely?
    • 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, more?
  • Who do you need to share your PC with?
    • It’s your turf
    • Siblings
    • Flat mates
    • Significant other
    • Kids

This is by no means an exhaustive list of questions, there can be many others. But by now, I hope I primed your brain to imagine how you would use your PC once you have it, to visualize where it will stay in your house, who will have access to it, etc. All these questions should help you to gauge your needs and use cases. List them down so you can consult them as you’re designing your system.

Set your budget

For obvious reasons, it’s important to know what your budget limit is. Things to consider:

  • How much would you pay for your PC?
  • How much can you pay for your PC?
  • How much time can you wait for your PC?

Usually the price of something sits between how much you would pay for it and how much you can pay for it, all seasoned up with how patient you are to get it.

Always set your budget at the limit which you think is correct for the build. Inevitably, that limit will increase as you become more aware of your choices and as you get to identify your needs. Usually, as you delve deeper into researching the options you have, you might discover you want things that you’ve never considered before.

It is very unlikely that you will manage to build a system that is significantly below your set budget. That is because if you do find that you can pay a lot less than you budgeted, you will most likely simply increase your expectations (needs) and mentally ‘upgrade’. It’s the greed mechanism inside us that makes us behave this way. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Understand balance

A PC builder needs to be able to put a system together in such a way that all the components are running close to their top limit (in terms of performance). This is what a balanced system is: one in which all the components are capable of running at (or close to) their top performance.

In order to understand balance, we need to understand bottlenecks. As the name suggest, the neck of a bottle being narrower than the rest, slows down the speed of the contained liquid as it pouring out. If you fill a bottle and a cup with the same amount of water and you try to throw that water away, you will notice that the cup is instantly empty while the bottle will require significantly longer.

The exact same thing happens in any complex system. A component will become the bottleneck of a system if it is somehow hindering other components to reach their top performance. Once you replace that bottleneck component with a better one, another component will become the ‘new’ bottleneck.

And this is an important point to understand well: all PCs have one or more components that are bottlenecks. All of them. Think about it, if you wouldn’t have any bottleneck, then you would get infinite performance.

A perfectly
balanced system is one where most (or all) of the components are bottlenecks.

Let me clarify this one though. You will never be able to create a perfectly balanced system. It’s only an ideal, a model. But you can – and you should – always aim for it.

The art of PC building is to find a combination of components where as many of them as possible are at or close to become bottlenecks of your system. Unfortunately there is no secret sauce, no ‘right’ combination. You need to find your own balance, and even experienced PC builders struggle with this. But if you are ignorant about balance, it’s almost guaranteed that you’re going to be throwing money out the window.

You know you’ve got an unbalanced system if you know that if you replace a single component, you will automatically gain a huge boost in overall performance. That’s the sign. What you want to aim for is a situation where in order to improve the performance of your system, you will need to do multiple changes in your system.

Plan and execute

The best way to achieve your goal is to approach the task of building a PC like a project. You need to split the project execution in 3 main phases:

  • Research and design
  • Procurement
  • Final assembly

The research and design phase

Researching means collecting information from around the Web about the current state of PC technology. We have seen that there are many PC components, and we need to understand each of them separately. Designing is where you try to take the requirements and to find that balance that I keep talking about.

I have combined these two activities in the same phase, because most of the time you will have to go from one activity to another, and then back again. You might need to repeat this switchover several times, over the course of which you might even change your mind completely. This is perfectly normal, and an expected outcome if you do your research and design properly. Going through this phase without changing your mind at least a few times or at least for a few components, may indicate that you’re not doing such a good job at it.

So how should you approach this? Well, it’s as simple as starting your favorite search engine, picking one of the PC components listed above, and start searching for information about the available products and the technology behind. Good sources are written articles and even videos on platforms like YouTube from people who are benchmarking and/or analyzing said products and technologies. Before long you will realize that you start to understand a lot about the researched component and how it works.

Before starting your research, you could split the components in four different classes:

  1. Primary components (the CPU and the GPU). I think these are the primary components for two reasons. First, it’s that more often than not these are the most expensive components in your system. The price of these two components usually ends up being at least half the price of the entire system (of course there are exceptions). Secondly, the CPU choice you make will determine what kind of motherboard you will use, what kind of memory, and it may even determine the case and cooling you need to have the system running.
  2. Secondary components (motherboard, RAM, storage). These are secondary because they need to be chosen pretty much immediately once you have chosen the primary components. The storage stands apart somewhat, but this too is important because it may influence the choice of case you will need.
  3. Tertiary components (case, cooling and power supply). These are then selected based on the constraints provided by selecting the previous components. The case needs to be large enough to fit everything it needs, the cooling needs to be capable enough for your chosen CPU and GPU, the power supply needs to have enough grunt to power everything.
  4. Quaternary components (monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, etc). These are usually the last ones that need to be chosen. The reason being is that these are extremely easy to replace and really do not depend (too much) on the previous components you have selected, because they are using standardized connections. For a while, the monitors represented an exception, as some companies tried to push proprietary standards linking them to the GPU choice, but lately they realized that this is not the wisest idea.

I prefer to do my research and design in the order described above. The reason is that this order generally obeys the following rules:

  • Decreasing order of price impact (components with the greatest impact on price come first)
  • Compatibility dependencies (components which may narrow the next choices come first)
  • Increasing order regarding the ease with which you can change your mind (hardest choices come first)

The kind of information you need to gather in your research phase are answers to the following questions:

  • What are the most recognizable brands in the market for the component being researched?
  • What are the options you have within each brand for that component?
  • How does a selected component satisfy your needs and expectations?
  • What are the technological differences (if any) between the brands, regarding how they designed the component under research?
  • What are the performance and reliability differences between the products?
  • What is the price?

Again, this list of questions is not meant to be exhaustive. Please ask all the questions you find relevant. This way, you will be more confident on the choices you make and whether you spend the money wisely.

This phase should last anywhere between two to ten weeks. Of course, you could also take your time, especially if you’re not in a hurry or if you want to wait for some upcoming technology.

The procurement phase

At this point, the hardest part is behind us. By now we have a list with all the necessary components we need. Please bear in mind that when you are building your own PC, you do not need to buy all the components of a PC. If you already own one, and you are perfectly happy with some of the existing components and there are no compatibility issues, by all means, reuse them if they still meet your needs and expectations. Not only does it release some of the pressure on your budget, but this way you can also help diminish the footprint we have on the resources of this planet. Electronic devices are difficult to properly recycle and dispose of, and unfortunately the electronics industry as a whole is not the most energy efficient and cleanest industry out there.

So you’ve got your shopping list. Go to the retailers, investigate the online offers and options, wait for the seasonal discount periods (Black Friday is such an example, but there may be others as well), compare prices, support services and warranties. Take into account delivery costs, etc.

The assembly phase

The good part about assembling a PC is the fact that the components are usually designed in such a way that there is only one proper way to mount them. Think of it as a large jigsaw puzzle with only a few large pieces that don’t fit together in many different ways. Yes, there is always a degree of freedom, but your options are pretty limited.

But this is an advantage! It means that it’s really hard to mess up. For example power supply cables only fit in a certain way, and only to their dedicated socket. It’s actually quite difficult to assemble your PC in such a way that it will get damaged when you turn it on. As long as you take care when handling the fragile electronics, you should be fine.

If you want a visual PC assembly guide, I would recommend you watch the video below for a thorough step-by-step guide.

Conclusion

This pretty much concludes the article. I repeat again, read several other such articles, watch some YouTube videos, talk to friends who’ve built PCs before, do try to get your information from more sources than one. This always helps, regardless of what you’re trying to learn.

The rest of this article goes into some details which are not directly related to the PC building guide, but may offer more insight about the topic.

My latest PC building project

I will actually use myself as a concrete example of building a PC. I’ve built a few systems before, and I have made a few mistakes too. My excuse is that before, the amount of good online information was much harder to find than today, and I call dibs on it.

Also, I need to explain something first. I said in the beginning that I am not going to recommend any brands or components. I am simply going to list my choices and how I reached the conclusions. These choices were mine to make, for my own use case and I’m absolutely sure that they will not fit your use case. So do your own homework and build your own PC, using your own judgment.

Background

So, a small background about myself, as that will help you clarify some of my choices. I am a middle-aged man, with a family and two children soon to become teenagers. I make a living from writing software. As a hobby I do photography and to this age I still enjoy playing games. In addition, recently my son recently realized that the PC is not only a piece of furniture and starts using it.

Identifying needs

I have a separate office-slash-library room which hosts my computer. As such, noise is less of a factor for me. However, the visual aspect is important so the visible PC components case should be moderately elegant.

As I mentioned, I like playing some games and I also do photography as a hobby. I do other things with my computer, like software development, but nothing computationally intensive. As such, I can ignore that from my needs since any modern PC is good enough for that.

Regarding photography, I only shoot pictures in RAW format which allows me the finest control over the post-processing process. I also currently have more than 70000 pictures, and that number will only go up. Many times I need to apply post-processing filters on large sets of pictures simultaneously. Also, because many of the photographs I take are with my children as they grow up, I usually back up the data regularly on an external drive.

Still, for photography, I need to use a larger sized monitor. I decided somewhere in the range of 32 inches would be good for me, considering the available space in my room. Anything larger than that would feel uncomfortable from the distance of 80-100 cm away. Also, while the ultra-wide format would be good for games, it might not be best for post-processing pictures which are mostly square-shaped in nature.

In addition, I would like to encourage my children to use the PC, and not only their own tablets and phones. I hope they will become e-literate, to help them in whatever careers they will choose when they grow up.

Finally, my intention is to build a system that could support a mid-life upgrade after 3-4 years.

So how does all of this translate more concretely into what I need to buy?

  • CPU: at least an 8-core CPU with good gaming performance
  • GPU: something suitable for 1440p gaming
  • Motherboard: anything that can drive the processor, future proof desired
  • Monitor: 1440p or more, with 120 Hz or more, FreeSync and decent color accuracy
  • RAM: 16 GB of memory or more
  • Storage: 512Mb-1TB NVMe boot drive and an additional 4TB+ HDD drive
  • Case: good-looking, black midi-tower with good airflow and easy access
  • Power supply: anything more than 600W rated, 80 Gold efficiency (90%)
  • Cooling: air-based, multi-fan
  • LED lighting in the case, keyboard and mouse, to satisfy my son who wants a ‘cool’ looking PC

Budget

I have decided to go for a 2000€ euro system. Sadly, I noticed that for a decent system that will fulfill my needs, I cannot go much lower these days.

Research

I’ve spent months and months researching this PC. For two reasons:

  1. I decided to build my next PC in November of 2017. Unfortunately the mining craze in that period made any reasonable PC completely unaffordable to me
  2. I was in no hurry to build it. I have a perfectly working PC, if somewhat outdated and slow. But I can still survive.

So I decided to ‘pay’ for it with patience, and it also allowed me more time for research. Originally I inclined towards an Intel CPU + Nvidia GPU setup. However, after researching more and comparing the offers against my needs and budget, I reached the conclusion that an all-AMD setup would suit me much better. It was not easy to cast aside brand loyalty (my current setup is Intel+Nvidia), but I am happy to have looked over the fence for alternatives.

I think I found the perfect solution for me. Time will tell.

ComponentProduct StatusPrice (€)
ProcessorAMD Ryzen 3000Not launched350
GraphicsAMD RX 3000 basedNot launched300
MotherboardX570 basedNot launched200
MonitorLG 32GK850Purchased500
RAM3200 MHz or faster 16GB of DDR4200
StorageNot yet decided (512GB NVME & 4TB+ data)250
CaseFractal Design Meshify CPurchased100
CoolingEnermax T.B. RGB 12cm 6-Fan Pack
Purchased80
Power supplyCorsair RM 650xPurchased90
KeyboardAsus ROG Strix Flare RGB Gaming, Cherry MX BrownPurchased120
MouseNot yet decided100

Please note, that at the time of writing this article, the primary components I would like to use are not yet launched. I only listed the maximum budget amount I am willing to pay for, but it all depends on their performance. As such, I will wait for proper reviews and benchmarks after their release before I will make the actual purchase.

The total cost is around 2000€. My original budget was set at 1000€. Here are the reasons why it doubled:

  • Original budget didn’t cover a new monitor. Meanwhile, my old monitor broke (now I am using an old one)
  • Decided to replace also the peripherals with LED-based ones as my son noticed them when I was watching review videos, and is very excited to have the same
  • Decided to switch to a mechanical keyboard, as I do type a lot
  • Originally I was thinking to go with a bootable SATA-based SSD, however when I learned about the faster (and more expensive) NVMe drives, I decided I must have one

The reason why some of the non-primary components are already purchased is that I was already in the process of ordering components for a Ryzen 2000-based system when the Ryzen 3000 leaks came and I couldn’t cancel the orders I’ve already made.

Final words

I hope that this guide will help you to build a system that you’re happy with, and I am honestly excited for you! Building your own PC will give you a lot of satisfaction. Use common sense and I don’t see what could go wrong.

Good luck!

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