Computers are one of the least intuitive and most poorly understood technologies to enter into wide use, second only to the microwave. They are implacable beige monoliths to the dark god of the transistor.
Oh, you can use them, but if something goes wrong you are entirely helpless to fix it. You know who you are. You’ve never opened the case. It could run on fairydust and wishes for all you know. The Best Buy guy sold you eighty dollar speaker cables to ‘keep the technobytes from running out’ and you believed him.
The trouble with this state of affairs is that, if you want a new computer, you have to go with what’s available, and believe the salesman when he tells you what you need. We both know that that guy would sell his own mother into slavery for a soggy dollar bill. So how do you avoid this? Build your own. You’ll save money, you’ll be able to get exactly what you need, and when it does break you’ll be able to fix it. Here’s how:
1. Figuring out what you need
Your first step is to figure out what you’re going to do with the computer. If you need basic word processing and net browsing, you can probably get away with a single-core processor, a gig of RAM, a basic video card, and a fifty gigabyte hard drive, which won’t set you back much. If you want to play modern videogames, use high-end graphics applications, render a CGI short, or really anything of that nature, you’re going to need a substantially higher end computer (say, a dual core processor with four gigs of RAM and a new graphics card).
To see how different systems perform relative to one another, check out the benchmarks here. Once you’ve figured out what you need, you can move on to…
2. Ordering the parts.
One of the upsides to buying online is that everything is much, much cheaper. A $50 stick of RAM at Radioshack becomes $20, if you know where to look. Try Tiger Direct or Newegg, or Ebay if you feel like living dangerously. Try to buy as many parts as possible from the same store to save on shipping. Refurbished is fine, if you buy a warranty.
Let’s look at what you’ll need:
- A case
- A motherboard and spacers
- A hard drive
- A CPU, fan, and heatsink
- A CD/DVD drive
- A case fan
- A power supply
- A video card
- A network card (wireless or otherwise)
- Power cords
- Disk cables
- A keyboard and mouse
All of these parts can be bought on the above sites. Be sure to buy a good quality case fan to reduce noise – cheap fans sound like a car being sucked into a tornado. To check reviews and compatibility, try Tom’s Hardware. Hardware compatibility is vital if you want to avoid spending half an hour of your life yelling at RAM that doesn’t quite fit.
3. Assembling the computer
Once you’ve got all the parts, you can begin preparing to build it. First, get your tools together. You’ll need a few flathead screwdrivers, an anti-static bracelet, a pair of needle-nose pliers, a flash light, and a clear surface to work on. First, put on the anti-static wristband, to avoid accidentally going Darth Sideous on an expensive piece of computer hardware.
Next, plan out exactly how you’re going to fit everything together (generally, put the motherboard in first, then the power supply, then the storage drives, and then everything else). Make sure it all will fit. Then, start assembling. If you get stuck, try here for more detailed tips.
Save all of the packaging and receipts, and return anything that doesn’t fit, or won’t work. Most sites have a thirty day return policy that you can make use of if you’ve made a mistake.
4. Debugging the system
Odds are, the thing is not going to work the first time, so don’t panic when you finally plug it in and get… nothing. Unplug it, check the user manuals to make sure everything’s connected right. Wearing the anti-static bracelet, remove components and double check that they’re seated correctly. If you get absolutely nothing (including no fans), borrow a volt meter and check the power supply’s putting out enough voltage (or any). If you get fans but no BIOS, check if the CPU is seated properly, and ensure that all the cables are attached properly.
5. Installing an operating system
So, you’ve finally got it booting to BIOS, and everything works. Time to get an operating system. Windows XP and Windows 7 are both respectable operating systems, but avoid Vista like the bubonic plague.
If you’re poor and feel adventurous, try a user-friendly, free build of Linux like Ubuntu. Also be aware that Microsoft has a substantial discount for college students buying Windows 7. Install the operating system via the disk drive as you would with any new PC, then install the drivers that came with your parts.
6. Maintaining your new machine.
Save all your receipts, warranty information and packaging in the same place, in case something goes wrong. Open the case once every few weeks to blow it out with canned air to avoid parts jamming.
If something does go wrong, test each part individually and use the return policy or warranty if you can.
7. Enjoy your new home-grown computer!