Build Your Own PCSave money and craft a system that exactly matches your needs.
by Stan Miastkowski
Stan Miastkowski is a contributing editor for PC World.
You don't need a hammer, a saw, and a shelf full of This Old House tapes to qualify as a bona fide do-it-yourselfer. For computer aficionados, building your own PC is the ultimate do-it-yourself project--and you don't even need to be a pocket-protector type to get the job done.
Why build your own PC? The best reason is to craft a system that exactly matches your needs. The next best reason is to save money: With careful shopping, you can build a custom PC for $100 to $200 less than an off-the-shelf system costs. As a bonus, you'll learn a lot about how PCs work by building your own.
But building a complete PC isn't everyone's cup of tea. One of the biggest advantages of buying an off-the-shelf, name-brand system is having access to one-stop technical support. If you run into trouble with your home-built system, you'll have to figure out how to isolate the problem yourself. You'll also need to spend time researching and buying the components for your system. PCWorld.com's Product Finder is a good place to start looking.
But if you're ready for the whole enchilada, here's a step-by-step guide to building your own custom PC.
1. Gather the Parts and Pieces
To figure out the exact components for your custom PC, check out manufacturers' Web sites, study reviews, and look over PC World's Top 100 listings. Hardware Web sites like Tom's Hardware and Anandtech are good places to find motherboard recommendations. Some of the components listed here are optional.
ATX case and
power supply ($50 to $300): Cases are available in
many types and sizes, ranging from plain vanilla to sexy stainless steel or
colored cases. The most popular and economical is a midsize tower case with
internal space for at least two hard drives, along with three or four
externally accessible 5.25-inch drive bays on the front for CD-RW, DVD, and
other removable-media drives. Most come with a power supply installed, but if
you plan to pack your PC with components, consider getting a hefty power supply
rated at 300 watts or more. (See the August
Guide for details on matching a power supply to your
B. Keyboard ($15 to $75) and mouse ($10 to $75): Consider USB models for the easiest hookup and versatility.
C. Monitor ($150 and up): If your budget allows, now's a great time to upgrade to a bigger monitor. The 17-inchers start at $150, 19-inchers at $250, and flat-panel LCDs are finally coming down in price, starting at about $400.
D. Motherboard ($100 to $200): Buy a motherboard matched to your processor, with room for growth if you want to upgrade to a faster CPU later. Some motherboards have sound and network support built in. But stay away from models with built-in video. They're compromises, at best.
E. Processor ($100 to $600): A 1-GHz or faster processor can cost less than $200, but lower-end (600- to 800-MHz) CPUs are fine if you have a limited budget. "Boxed" retail CPUs normally include a fan or heat sink and complete installation instructions; a less-expensive OEM version usually ships sans instructions or a fan. (A fan is a necessity and costs about $25.)
F. Memory ($75 to $200 for 256MB): Don't even consider building a PC with less than 256MB of RAM these days. Make sure you match the RAM type and speed (133 MHz) to the motherboard. See "CPU & RAM" in our accompanying story, "Do-It-Yourself Dream Machines."
G. Floppy disk drive ($15 to $20)
H. Hard drive(s) ($90 to $250 each): The bigger, the better is still a good rule of thumb. Drives up to 80GB are readily available. And the newest and fastest 7200-rpm drives offer better performance. Consider outfitting your PC with two drives and reserving the second one for data.
I. CD-RW drive (optional; $150 to $250): A CD-RW drive is a virtual necessity these days. If your budget permits, go for the fastest write speed possible.
J. CD-ROM drive (optional; $35 to $75): A CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive makes copying CDs onto your CD-RW drive a breeze by eliminating swapping discs. Or, if your budget is tight, you can get by with just a CD-ROM drive.
K. DVD-ROM drive (optional, $75 to $150): Necessary if you want to view DVD movies on your PC monitor.
L. Removable-media drive (optional; $50 to $500): Choices range from 250MB Zip drives to 2GB Jaz drives, as well as tape-backup drives. Some devices require a separate SCSI add-in controller ($50 to $100.)
M. AGP graphics card ($75 to $400): Plan to spend more if you work with high-end 3D graphics or are a dedicated gamer. Inexpensive cards are fine for more-mundane computing tasks, and some even come with high-end options such as the ability to run two monitors.
N. Sound card ($30 to $200): Many of today's motherboards carry built-in sound support, which is adequate for many users. However, if you're serious about sound and want extra features such as surround sound or a wide variety of audio connections (such as support for digital sources), you can opt for an add-in card. If you choose an add-in card, you'll need to disable the motherboard's built-in sound (if any); this usually involves working through the setup program or using a jumper.
O. Network card ($50 to $100): If you're connected to a network or have broadband Internet access, you'll need a 10/100 Ethernet card.
P. Modem ($40 to $75): A necessity if you don't have broadband Internet access.
Q. Operating system and software (free to $220 and up): You can save more than 50 percent by purchasing the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) version of the Windows operating system and of major software such as Microsoft Office. Local computer stores that specialize in building systems and online retailers such as TC Computers and Multiwave can sell you OEM software, provided you purchase a piece of hardware along with it. The only trade-off: You won't get any free tech support on OEM products from Microsoft. If you like, of course, you can opt for an alternative, such as Linux.
2. Get Ready for Construction
Clear a good-size workspace with plenty of light. It's best to avoid carpeted areas, which can quickly accumulate component-destroying static electricity. You'll need a Phillips-head screwdriver, a pair of needle-nosed pliers, plenty of time, and an antistatic wrist strap (available at electronics stores) to wear when handling electronic parts (A).
Gather all your components and unpack them to confirm that everything is included. Remove the computer case cover and lay it flat on your work surface. Inside, you should find the AC power cable, mounting brackets, and a bag of screws.
It's also a good idea to collect the latest driver updates for your hardware on a CD-R or a Zip disk.
3. Prepare the Motherboard
Most of today's motherboards have only a few jumpers, and you seldom need to deal with the ones that are there. Usually, the default settings will work fine. But read the manual for your motherboard carefully to see if any need to be changed.
If you purchased your motherboard along with a CPU and RAM, these components may already be installed. Otherwise, you'll need to do it. Lay the motherboard on a flat surface and install the RAM into the RAM sockets, beginning with the socket marked "Bank 0." Slide the module firmly into the socket. A bracket on each side will snap into place when the module is correctly seated. If you purchased multiple modules, install the rest of them now.
Work very carefully when installing the CPU. Lift the lever located on the side of the socket and carefully insert the processor. As you do so, make sure that pin 1 on the processor matches pin 1 on the socket. The CPU will fit correctly only one way. Hold the processor firmly in place and lock the lever down (A).
Install the cooling fan/heat sink on the CPU (procedures vary, so read the instructions carefully), and attach the fan power connector to the connector on the motherboard (B). (See the motherboard manual for the correct location.)
4. Install the Motherboard in the Case
Screw in the metal standoffs (packed with the case hardware) that will hold the motherboard in the case (A).
Carefully slide the board into place (B).
You'll know it's correctly seated when the mounting holes line up. Using the screws that came with the case, mount the motherboard. Be careful not to overtighten the screws, or you may damage the board.
Next, hook up the small connectors for the case's on/off switch, the reset button, speakers, and the indicator lights (power and hard disk activity) to the motherboard. See your motherboard manual for details, and work carefully.
Finally, connect the large power connector from the PC's power supply to the motherboard. The connector will fit only one way.
5. Perform Initial Testing
Now's the time to do a quick test of the motherboard, CPU, and RAM. Insert the graphics card into the motherboard's AGP slot, secure it with a screw, and hook up the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Connect the AC power cord from the rear of the PC to the wall, and turn on your PC. If your PC beeps once and you see BIOS information on the screen, the core components of your PC are working fine. Unplug the PC from the wall and continue with the steps below.
But if your PC doesn't power up or you don't see anything on the screen, double-check all connections (especially for the power-switch cable running from the case switch to the motherboard) and try again. If that still doesn't work, see "Hunt Down PC Building Problems."
6. Install Drives
Using the screws that came with the case, install the floppy disk drive. (If you aren't sure where it goes, look for the cutout in the front panel of the case.)
Next, make sure the jumpers on your EIDE hard drive (A), CD-RW drive, and other drives are set correctly. For more on how to prepare your drives for installation, see "Hard Disk & Removable Storage."
Make sure the data and power connectors on all drives are facing inside the case.
Mount your hard drive (or drives) in the appropriate location, usually in bays in the middle of the case near the motherboard. If you have two hard drives, install the second one next to the primary drive to make hooking up the cables easy.
For components, such as CD-RW drives, that you'll need to access from the front of the case, you may have to attach mounting brackets that came with the case. Some cases don't require them. When you install the drives, make sure that their fronts line up with the front of the case (B).
7. Install Add-In Cards
Press firmly and evenly on each add-in card until the card is seated properly in its slot; then screw the card down using the set of screws that came with your case (A).
8. Connect the Cables
It's time to wire everything up. When making connections, make sure that pin 1 of the wide data cables (usually the red wire) connects to pin 1 of the drive and motherboard connectors. (If you're lucky, you'll have keyed connectors on the cables that fit in only one way.) Note the beveled edge on the power connectors and their sockets, but be careful: You can force them in the wrong way.
A. Attach the floppy disk data cable from the drive to the floppy connector on the motherboard.
B. Plug the wide data cable into the primary EIDE channel connector on the motherboard and into the first hard drive on the other end. If you have a second drive on that channel, attach the second connector on the cable to it. (It doesn't matter which connector you use on which drive.)
C. Connect a wide data cable from the secondary EIDE connector on the motherboard to your CD-RW drive. Attach the second connector to the second EIDE drive on that channel (if any).
D. Run the thin audio cable (not pictured) from the rear of your CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive to the appropriate connector on the sound card--or to the motherboard, if you're using its built-in sound support.
E. Plug power connectors into your floppy drive; your hard drive(s); your CD-ROM, CD-RW, or DVD-ROM drives; and any other removable-media drives.
Other drives (such as a DVD-ROM) may have additional cables. Follow the directions that came with the drive to connect these cables correctly. If you run out of power leads, purchase a "Y" connector to add a lead.
9. Connect External Peripherals
Plug the keyboard and mouse into the appropriate connectors on the back of the case. Also hook up your monitor, speakers, printer, and other devices (such as network or modem cables). Finally, plug the AC cord from the power supply into the wall.
10. Install the Operating System
Before you can set up your operating system, you must give your PC access to your CD-ROM drive. All Windows setup CD-ROMs are bootable, and most motherboards can boot from a CD-ROM. You might, however, need to tell your PC's setup program to do that. Reset your PC and enter setup. (Procedures vary, but often you press the Delete key at start-up.) The procedure for allowing CD-ROM booting also varies, though most commonly you enter the BIOS Features Setup menu and then cycle through the Boot Sequence menu until you see an entry that includes the CD-ROM drive. Save the setting and reboot your PC. Windows setup should start (pictured below). Follow the directions on screen to install. Keep the installation CD-ROMs for your new hardware handy.
11. Check Windows and Install Drivers
If you're lucky, Windows setup will recognize and install the correct drivers for all the hardware in your new PC. To check, go to Start, Settings, Control Panel, choose the System icon, and click the Device Manager tab (pictured below). If all your peripherals are listed and you don't see any yellow exclamation points, Windows recognizes all your hardware. If you do see exclamation points, right-click on the offending entry, choose Properties, and follow the directions to use the Windows hardware troubleshooter.
When the Device Manager shows all clear, install the software for your graphics card and sound card. Follow the manufacturer's directions. You may need to install extra software for your modem and network card (if you have them). In many cases, Windows recognizes these components and installs the required drivers and software.
12. Finish Up
Once you're sure that the hardware and operating system are functioning correctly, make a basic backup disk that you can use to restore the system if you run into future problems. (Most CD-RW drives come with software for creating system backup CDs, in case you don't have a large-capacity removable-media drive or tape backup.)
Finally, install all your applications, make sure everything's okay, and create another backup; then put the cover on your new custom PC, and enjoy yourself.
Troubleshooting: Hunt Down PC Building Problems
If nothing happens the first time you turn on your PC, it's time to troubleshoot. First, confirm that the PC power cable is firmly attached and that you've plugged it into a live AC outlet. If you have a voltmeter, you can easily check whether the power supply is creating voltage. If that doesn't solve the problem, unplug the PC from the wall and start checking connections. Make sure the motherboard power connector is firmly attached, and that the CPU, RAM, add-in cards, and all connectors are firmly seated. Hint: Double-check the connector from the case switch to the motherboard. It's easy to misconnect it.
If the preceding steps don't solve the problem, start pulling out add-in cards (except the graphics card), one by one (with the power turned off and the system unplugged, of course). After you pull out a card, try starting the PC again. If your PC starts up, the last card you pulled out is the problem. Pulling out the graphics card is a no-no because most motherboards won't work without one.
Tracking down problems with your RAM, CPU, or motherboard is more difficult. Ideally, you would swap out each of those components one at a time, but most of us don't have extras sitting around.
If your PC starts but you have trouble installing the operating system, the problem could stem from a number of sources. The Microsoft Knowledge Base has extensive reference material on common setup issues. If you're installing Windows Me, you'll find a helpful troubleshooting section at Microsoft's site.
Stan Miastkowski is a contributing editor for PC World.