Some people will buy a car right off the lot and be perfectly happy with it. Others want to customize their ride with a personalized set of options. For computer buyers, investigating customization can even lead to considering building your own system. Getting maximum performance at a given price point, or building the quietest machine you can manage, are a couple of reasons to go that route. You might even build one just to say you've done it. Whatever your motives, a few basic tips can help make it a positive experience.
Think It Through
Building a computer is like trying a complicated recipe for the first time. The more effort you put into planning, the easier it will be. Start by deciding exactly what you want in a computer. If you're a gamer or a graphic artist, you might need a state-of-the-art graphics card. If you're a programmer, processing power and lots of RAM might be more important. For office chores, a big, beautiful monitor and a fast hard drive might give you your best bang for the buck. Ask around, if you're not sure. Next, settle on a budget. There are always perfectly good reasons to upgrade to a better component, and having a maximum dollar amount can help keep you focused.
Your processor chip is as good a starting point as any. Intel's i3, i5 and i7 offer multiple models at different price points and performance levels, and so do AMD's A and E series. Once you've picked a processor you're comfortable with, choose a motherboard with the right socket for that chip. Performance-oriented motherboards have fast bus speeds, lots of room for memory and enough controllers for several drives and USB connectors. Value boards sacrifice performance or expansion to keep costs down, which is why it's important to know your priorities before you start.
Graphics cards can be among the most expensive components in your system, with high-end cards often costing as much as a pretty good computer system. Gamers, animators and graphic artists will benefit from a top-of-the-line card, but most users don't need that much horsepower. Mid-range graphics cards from AMD and Nvidia are usually very comparable in performance, so choose one that plays well with your motherboard. Match your monitor to the video card. If you're a gamer, look for a response time of 5 ms or less to minimize blurring. Large, high-resolution monitors such as Samsung's Series 9 usually offer a DVI or HDMI connection for better data transfer rates.
Your hard drive is another important part of your system. Conventional hard drives are large and inexpensive, with consumer drives now offering storage in terabytes, or thousands of gigabytes. Solid-state drives such as Samsung's 840 Series use high-speed memory chips to hold your data instead of the traditional spinning platters. They cost more per gigabyte than conventional hard drives, but they're many times faster and can be installed just as easily. Installing your OS to an SSD drive and saving your data to a conventional drive is one way to have the best of both worlds. Optical disc drives are beginning to fade in the marketplace, but if you still buy games on DVD or movies on Blu-ray, it's useful to include one in your computer.
System memory is another major component of your computer, but it's easier to choose. Buy the size and format your computer needs, and get lots of it. More is better, up to the point that it starts to bend your budget. A good motherboard will support very fast RAM, but your processor might not take full advantage of its speed, so do a bit of research before you start spending.
Nuts and Bolts
Once you've settled on the rest of your components, you need to pick out a few "nuts and bolts" pieces to bring it all together. Choose a case design that provides enough drive bays and connectors for your components, and that fits your physical space. Make sure you have lots of room for cooling fans and air circulation, and buy a power supply with enough connections for your drives, fans and -- if necessary -- video card. You might need extensions for some of your power cables, if they're too short. Extensions also enable you to bundle up your cables neatly, making it easier to work and improving the cooling air flow within your computer.
In August 2012, Network World staff writer Jon Gold built a system for the first time, and documented the process in an article for the site. He found the process unexpectedly straightforward, requiring only a single screwdriver and some patience. When questioned about the experience several months later, his biggest tip for fellow novices was to "...read the manual. Pretty much every part you buy will come with detailed documentation, which you absolutely need to read." In his own case, Gold caused himself a few unhappy moments by overlooking power connections and similar details. Before you begin assembly, you should also buy an antistatic wrist strap and have the salesperson explain how to use it. A static discharge can damage your newly-purchased components, and won't be covered under warranty.
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