I will build it, piece by piece
January 1, 2011 2:59 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand computer hardware.

My previous computers have been basically bought by telling one of my computer-knowledgeable friends "Hey, need a computer, can you assemble a list of specs for me?" and, more recently on my current laptop, picking a laptop off a list and running it by said knowledgeable friends.

This year, I want to vet out a list of specs and hardware for my new upcoming desktop. I'm probably not going to chance assembling it by myself, but I'd like to pick the components. Except I have no idea where to start.

So, Metafilter! Where is a good place to start learning about computers and hardware? What are the core things I need to buy to have a functional computer - motherboard, RAM, video card, sound card, and...? What are the things that set average motherboards from really awesome ones? What the heck does dual core mean? Websites and books (preferably current ones, so they'd be able to teach me modern language like SATA and hyperthreading and whatever else is on the market) recommendations would be appreciated!
posted by Hakaisha to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Reading the recommendations at the build-a-pc subreddit at Reddit is a good place to start.
posted by proj at 3:06 PM on January 1, 2011

Some of the sites recommended in my old question may be helpful.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:08 PM on January 1, 2011

Tech Report does good system build guides every so often.
posted by sinfony at 3:09 PM on January 1, 2011

Motherboard -- some people are (or at least were years ago when I read about these things) big into overclocking so highly configurable front side bus speeds, multipliers and RAM timings were important
CPU -- processor will be of a certain socket and will only fit motherboards with that socket (in other words, if you get a CPU with AM3 socket, pick a motherboard to match); faster isn't necessarily better (e.g., an Intel 2.6 GHz Core 2 Duo [which means two cores on chip] is most likely to be slower in many applications than a Intel 2.53 GHz i7 CPU)
RAM -- I've always bought crucial and never had problems, pay attention to the type your motherboard takes
Harddrve -- not just capacity, but speed (everything should be SATA now so don't worry about interface); solid state versus spinning platter will be determined by budget; in terms of speed, look at sustained transfer rates, random writes, etc
Video card -- do you game? if not, integrated video will most likely be fine.
Case -- do you care about how it looks, how easy it is to swap out a harddrive in case you plan on tinkering with it every month?
Optical drive -- BluRay or just DVD?

I order everything from Newegg, in Canada you guys have NCIX or something? I'm not sure. But I'm sure if you posted a budget, you'd get several people here who would figure out how to best spend your money.
posted by Brian Puccio at 3:14 PM on January 1, 2011

Ars Technica's System Guides might be a nice place to look once you have a bit more technical know-how. Like Tech Report mentioned above, they spec out computers at several price points and discuss why they chose the particular component of each. It'll help you to discern what makes one part objectively 'better' than another and if the extra cost is worth it to you.
posted by JohnFredra at 3:19 PM on January 1, 2011

This year, I want to vet out a list of specs and hardware for my new upcoming desktop. I'm probably not going to chance assembling it by myself, but I'd like to pick the components. Except I have no idea where to start.

One very important thing, that I think you might not be aware of. The kind of information you want is going to be far, far away from static. Whitepaper specs mean almost nothing in the a la carte computing space, and specifics like the best bang for buck (and what specifications you'll want to be looking for, in particular, for "future-proofing") can change on a monthly basis. The best personalized parts recommendations, bar none, can be found at the General Hardware subforum there at Hardforum.

It is important, however, to realize that if you ask for a build recommendation, you shouldn't do so until you're ready to buy that week. Pricing changes, models change, model-specific manufacturing changes, and what's on the horizon is always getting closer. They'll tell you as much. To be honest, I'd start just reading threads--a few hundred at least--to get the feel of that universe. You'll learn functional things there much, much faster than if you started at the beginning looking at each part of a computer and how it functions.

Once you've absorbed a little bit of the conversation, you can do more research at will via Newegg reviews (you'll want a minimum of 20 to a product before they'll be of any, ANY use), and the component-specific subforums at Hardforum as well. But "what should I get?" and "start learning about computers and hardware" are on two different continents.

Also, just in my opinion--it's easier to put the parts together than it is to pick them (well) out of the sea of available stuff, these days. Assembly is isn't foreknowledge, it's problem-solving and manual-reading. But picking parts for good reasons is based on having a good grasp of the marketplace, which very few people actually have for more than a few weeks at a time.
posted by Phyltre at 4:41 PM on January 1, 2011

The sites that I've found to be particularly useful are (in no particular order):

1. Tom's Hardware - In particular they have two monthly articles called "The Best Gaming CPUs for the Money" and "The Best Graphics Cards for the Money." They are slanted towards gaming but the information is applicable to other uses too.

2. Anandtech - Their articles have a lot of really in-depth technical details but they do a great job of explaining things in easy to understand terms.

3. Silent PC Review - One of the few sites that really focuses on the acoustic performance of components.
posted by VTX at 5:20 PM on January 1, 2011

I was you in November when I decided to build my own PC. I had no previous experience and only the most basic knowledge about computer hardware. What I did was comb through the various builds over at Hardware-Revolution.com. The guy that runs it creates builds for different price points and purposes (gaming vs. workstation), then links you to the best hardware components for the money. (And he does a good job explaining why one is better than another.) He ensures that they're all compatible, so you just have to pick and chose the best fit for you. If I had had to do all the research myself, I probably would never have built my own system, for fear of choosing the wrong thing. Using that website made it sooooo much easier!

Once you have all the parts, don't cheat yourself out of the fun of assembling it! Just read the instructions carefully, go slow, and take it step by step. Pretty much all the parts are sized and color coded so you can't really go wrong as long as you are paying attention. You'll feel so proud when it boots up that first time - I was walking on air for days!
posted by platinum at 9:52 PM on January 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Honestly, one of the best places to learn about this is wikipedia. They have a pretty in-depth article for all of the terms mentioned in your question. Be sure to also check out the "List of [x]" articles, e.g. Lists of microprocessors to get an idea of what the current product lines are. Also check the infobox templates, e.g. types of DRAM, Nvidia lines (click [show] if necessary), and so on.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:00 PM on January 1, 2011

« Older Help Choosing a Honeymoon spot   |   Sincerely, Cordially, Respectfully Yours Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.