Practice to Build a Computer?
October 29, 2008 12:32 AM   Subscribe

How should I prepare to eventually build a computer from parts?

I have never done any sort of electronics or computer hobbying or hacking, but being an avid interneter and an even avider cheapskate, I've decided that I want to build a computer from parts at some point, like you see people saying they do.

What sort of smaller projects should I undertake first to teach myself the basics and practice the techniques? Bonus points if the project is available in kit form, so that I don't have to worry about getting the parts wrong and can just give it an evening's work.
posted by crayolarabbit to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Kits, you say?

Why not just start with a computer kit? Building a computer isn't like building a radio -- all the pieces come assembled, you just have to connect them in the right way. (No soldering gun required.)

Google search
Example 2
Example 3
posted by MaxK at 12:54 AM on October 29, 2008

Putting a computer together is not hard. There's no soldering, and most of the connectors are pretty obvious.

Finding parts that are compatible - that's the hard part.

For practice with the assembly itself: disassemble and reassemble a desktop / tower PC: remove the drives and cards and powersupply and motherboard, and then put them back in.
posted by zippy at 12:54 AM on October 29, 2008

it's actually really easy and pretty straight forward. as long as you ask people what to buy and make sure you have everything you need, there's not too many things easier then piecing together a modern computer.

What you'll need:

Power Supply
Video Card
Hard Drive(s)
DVD drive (Blu-Ray if you're feeling fancy)
Sound card (if your standards are higher then integrated mobo audio)

as long as you make sure you buy compatible stuff, tab a into slot b and install the OS.
posted by meowN at 1:00 AM on October 29, 2008

Go get some lego.

Make the whatever-it-is that the lego kit is.

If you break or scratch any of the pieces, burn a $50 note.

Now you're ready for the main event!
posted by pompomtom at 1:10 AM on October 29, 2008 [5 favorites]

Similar to whats being said in comments above.. my advice would be to find an extra/junk computer (preferably one that has a working OS installed )... shut it down.. and unplug/disassemble it. Play around with the components and then re-assemble it, hopefully such that it works again when you turn it back ON :)

The only drawback to this strategy:.... any extra/junk computers you find are probably old enough (in "computer-years", which are like dog-years)... that the internal components will be slightly different than brand new off the shelf parts. For example the video card may not be the same type of slot/connector.. or the hard drives may be the old style wide ribbon connector (PATA) and not the newer thinner serial (SATA) connector.

The point of breaking down and re-assembling a PC is basically to give you experience knowing how much physical force it takes to remove/insert things like CPU, memory, data cables,etc. A lot of the connectors are keyed (notched) so that they can only be inserted in the correct orientation, so its hard to get it "wrong".
posted by jmnugent at 2:01 AM on October 29, 2008

"cheapskate" -- it's not necessarily cheaper to build your own. If you're looking for really cheap get a Dell when they have an offer. Mass-produced computers get parts discounts that aren't available if you buy the bits yourself.

I build the computer I'm writing this on a couple months ago, vaguely following ars technica's guide. It really is just like making a Lego model; the hardest part for me was screwing the mobo into the case.
posted by katrielalex at 2:08 AM on October 29, 2008

I've been though this. I found it really rewarding to build my own computer. I'd just make sure you have a large workspace, no time constraints (lots of little screws to lose!), and just have it planned. Make sure to watch some youtube videos about how to do it before you do-- I can't tell you the projects that online videos have gotten me through.

2nding the ars technica as a resource, they were helpful to me too, and this was about 8 years ago.

Random: make sure your tool set includes the static electricity dampener.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 2:17 AM on October 29, 2008

The June issue of PC Gamer published this incredible and resourceful PC Builder's Bible. It's extremely comprehensive without overwhelming you with information, taking you through each part, comparing pros and cons depending on what you're looking for. It's a gamer's mag, sure, but the information in this issue is indispensible.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:40 AM on October 29, 2008

Putting a computer together is super easy, you don't need any training.

The hardest thing I've encountered is weird power connectors that require being put on at a 90-degree angle to their final position, then rotated downwards, like from a T to an I. Oh, and make sure the notches in the bottom of the ram match up with ones on the board.
posted by beerbajay at 2:48 AM on October 29, 2008

Upgrade or modify your existing computer (extra harddrive, ram, change of video card and disabling onboard video in CMOS). Have a nerd help you. Then do it yourself.
posted by holloway at 3:07 AM on October 29, 2008

A decade or so ago I would buy a new motherboard every few years. I had a few problems with setting up the heat sinks correctly and I toasted a few CPUs. Either I've gotten more cautious or whoever designs motherboards have made them more idiot proof because I haven't had a problem in the last few years. Work slowly, test what you can, and be patient with the heat sink and you should be fine.
posted by rdr at 3:28 AM on October 29, 2008

Two more things. Have an assortment of screwdrivers at hand and have a container that you can put little tiny screws in on your desk.
posted by rdr at 3:41 AM on October 29, 2008

Building a computer yourself doesn't make things any cheaper (in fact, it'll likely be more expensive, as katrielalex pointed out).

You build your own if nobody sells a machine with the configuration of specialized components that you want.
posted by dmd at 3:51 AM on October 29, 2008

Yup, the only thing that'll give you any trouble is attaching the CPU/heatsink to the motherboard. With everything else, if you try to put it in the wrong place, it won't fit, or you'll get a blank screen when you go to boot it and you'll get to try again. Spend some time reading up on how to properly seat a heatsink, and you'll be good to go.

(And I'm serious about following those directions closely the first time. When they tell you to ground yourself, do it. Or, you can do what I did, and think 'rubbing alcohol to clean the surfaces? Pfah, I have Clorox cleaning wipes.' Then you'll get to see what a fried processor smells like. Which turns out to be less of a draw than you would at first think)
posted by Mayor West at 4:55 AM on October 29, 2008

You can also look at buying a barebones kit from, say, Those are typically cases with the power supply, motherboard and (sometimes) CPU already assembled, and you would be adding in the other bits, like hard drives, memory, optical drive, etc.

As everyone has noted, desktop PC assembly ain't rocket science, and it's a matter of snapping the parts together in the right way. Usually, the plugs are designed so that you can only snap them together in one specific way. Also, there's really no need to panic. Unless you're really staticky (and you should discharge your accumulated static electricity before working), it's hard to damage computer parts if you have any sort of common sense, i.e., you shouldn't get a mallet to fit a stubborn connector.

Just to note, I find the putting on the CPU and its heatsink the most nerve-wracking task (well, for some low value of nerve-wracking compared to, say, putting in the hard drive), and neatly doing the cabling the most frustrating part (though that depends on your choice of cases).
posted by chengjih at 4:57 AM on October 29, 2008

One trick: when you screw the mobo to the case, you should be using little hex-nut-bolts called standoffs (they keep the mobo from touching the case plate- they screw into the case, and the screws thread into them). Thread all your screws into standoffs BEFORE you do this, just to take the edge off any threads, and unthread them, and assemble the whole thing. This helps to prevent crossthreading. IF you're unlucky enough to have a screw crossthread, you have to take the whole mobo apart, hold on to the stand off on the back of the mobo, and unscrew it. Pre-threading all the screws into the standoffs feels like wasted time, but trust me, it's not. (I"ve built at least four computers, and regularly dig into my case just for entertainment.)
posted by notsnot at 6:02 AM on October 29, 2008

chengjih notes that the hardest part in a build is mounting the heatsink on the cpu, and it is.

If you buy the parts locally at a real computer store, as opposed to an electronics store, they might be willing to mount it for you.

At the local store that I buy most parts from (when I buy local that is, I usually order online), they will mount your cpu and heatsink in the mobo, install the ram, throw in a video card and make sure the thing POST's. This is basically getting it to the point that you are ready to install a disk, the other components and install your OS. This is one of the trickiest areas to trouble shoot, so if you can leave the store knowing that this works... your build should go very very smoothly.

Other than that, my advice is don't rush. Read and watch online tutorials. If it doesnt look like it should go there, it probably doesnt. If it looks like it should go there but isnt going in easily, give it a little muscle but be aware of what you are doing. Read your motherboard manual and make sure you arent missing any power connectors and what nots.

You may (will) draw blood... this is part of the process. This is why you also have a case of beer on hand for the build.

Good luck!
posted by utsutsu at 7:14 AM on October 29, 2008

Ahh, well it was also noted by others. Apologies! carry on...
posted by utsutsu at 7:16 AM on October 29, 2008

Tech Report offers system guides, which are basically lists of components that seem to work well together at a few different price points. If you buy the recommended parts, it's basically like having a kit.

Once you have the parts, Tech Report also has instructions on how to put them together. It varies somewhat depending on which parts you have, but it's very detailed, and it has pictures, and I was able to follow along with no problems when I built my newest computer.
posted by kidbritish at 8:28 AM on October 29, 2008

I ordered the parts for two computers, pointed the admin assistant at work to a guide on how to build a PC, gave her a little coaching, and turned her loose. She'd never built a PC before (though she wanted to), but she did just fine.

You'll do just fine. Just take it slow. Read a few guides. Think things through.
posted by Good Brain at 8:46 AM on October 29, 2008

Rather than practicing the physical bits (which are, as others have noted, not nearly as complex as you seem to imply), you might want to start reading up on compatibility and cost/benefit for various components. I've been mac-side for about 4 years now, but back when I built my own PCs, I regularly read HardOCP for enthusiast/tinkering news. They may be a bit more hardcore (watercooling, overclocking, etc) than you're looking for, but they also post pretty good hardware guides and suggested builds. Figure out if you want Intel or AMD, DDR2 or DDR3, if you need SLI or not, ATi or nVidia graphics, etc..
posted by Alterscape at 8:52 AM on October 29, 2008

You can probably get your hands on an old computer for pennies at a thrift store. You can then take it apart for practice, and use the parts for testing later, while you're building your real computer.

I second what has already been said about the heat sink on the CPU. That's the only thing I seriously messed up on when I was building my computer, just because it was strange and unfamiliar. And once you mess it up, you can't really go back and do it again. Get someone more experienced to mount it for you if you can, and watch them do it.
posted by Laugh_track at 9:05 AM on October 29, 2008

i second going to for all of your parts. they have great reviews from people who usually know what they're talking about, have solid deals, a majority of the time they have free guaranteed 3 day shipping. when you choose a part, like a motherboard for example, scroll down and look on the left hand side of the screen and click combo deals. lots of times you can save around $20-30 on other parts like a processor, or ram. as far as piecing everything together it is more or less self explanatory and my ASUS board came with a great guide that explained everything for me. took me less than 3 hours and it was my first build. the only thing it didn't explain was putting the little gold pegs in the bottom of your case that correspond to your mobo. either ATX or mATX. read on and you'll understand.

some things to look about/ look for when buying your parts. just click on the specifications tab to find all of this information :

first your case. you have several options. i would get a large case since it's your first build it is much easier to piece together and has more room for expansion. look for external usb and firewire ports. and make sure it is compatible w/ your motherboard. just match up the case and make sure it will accept micro ATX or ATX whatever your motherboard ends up being.

motherboard: choose either intel or AMD(i went with intel) and make sure your processor is intel as well. look for a high front side bus (FSB). this is usually the bottleneck for all of your speed issues. look for lots of USB ports since they're the most commonly used and at least one firewire port. depending on what you're looking to use it for you may want an optical audio out for digital sound. you most likely will not need an extra sound card just make sure you have one on board.

CPU or processor: match up the socket type most likely (LGA 775) with your motherboard. also make sure your motherboard can support whatever processor type you go with (quad or dual core) i went with a 2.4ghz quad core which could be overkill for what you need but i think it was well worth the extra money. this is a nice dual core for the price and very popular. the hardest is definitely putting the heatsink over the processor but i think you'll be just fine. just match up the arrow in the corners and latch everything in to place after much cursing and knuckle busting.

Powersupply: i wouldn't recommend using the power supply that comes with the case if you're provided one. never tried one but i've been todl by everyone w/ more experience it's usually the first thing to go and just don't chance it. just click on best sellers on new egg and find a good cheap one under there. i got a 750w power supply marked off almost $100. just check back repeatedly for sales. you would probably be fine w/ a 630w.

video card: if you plan on hooking it up to an HDtv make sure that it is HDCP ready. this card is on ly $30 right now and would be enough to watch HD tv, some gaming, and dual monitors which is a definite plus.

Ram: just make sure the pin number on it is the same as the motherboard. also match up the memory standard. example: DDR2 800. that number should match up w/ whatever your motherboard is.

hard drive: they are coming down in price big time. you can get 1TB for $120 now. i recommend Seagate mostly for their 5 year warranty. 2 years more than western digital.

dvd drive. any old dvd drive should do. you can find a dvd burner for $25 pretty easily now.

as i said the motherboard i got came w/ a guide to putting everything together. and most the plugs are self explanatory and match up to each other so just put the shapes together. there are tons of guides out on the internet and forums as well. don't be intimidated it's easier than you think.
posted by no bueno at 12:01 PM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Look in TigerDirect for one of the $100 dollar wonder machines that are refurbs off lease from Timbuktu. Get it home, take it apart, put it back together, and have fun to your hearts content. Alternately, if you have a university nearby, they may be selling deprecated models by the pallet. Buy em up, and play computer repairman.
posted by deezil at 5:59 PM on October 29, 2008

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