Things you’ll learn build­ing your first PC

LET BEN PAT­TER­SON’S MI­NOR TRAU­MAS BE YOUR TEACH­ABLE MO­MENTS

PC Advisor - - CONTENTS -

There I was, a first-time PC builder sit­ting in my of­fice with all the com­po­nents I’d or­dered: a CPU here, a PSU there, plus my trusty anti-static wrist­band and a screw­driver. I had ev­ery­thing I needed to build my first PC. But I was afraid to open that first box.

Why was I paral­ysed? Lots of rea­sons. With no sin­gle man­ual to cover all my PC parts, where was I sup­posed to be­gin? What if I couldn’t cram all those ca­bles into my case? Had I al­ready blown it by not get­ting an op­ti­cal drive? Worst of all, what if I put ev­ery­thing to­gether and my PC re­fuses to turn on?

In ret­ro­spect, I wish I’d wor­ried a lit­tle less about my first build and en­joyed it a bit more. Af­ter all (and as I rue­fully dis­cov­ered later) there’s only one first time when it comes to putting to­gether your own com­puter.

Let my mi­nor trau­mas be your teach­able mo­ments. Read on for seven things I wished I’d known be­fore build­ing my first PC, start­ing with…

1 TRANS­FER YOUR CHOOSEMYPC BUILD TO PCPARTPICKER WITH ONE CLICK

This first tip is more about the plan­ning stage rather than the build it­self, but it’s still some­thing I wish I’d known be­fore wast­ing a pre­cious hour or two.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, ChooseMyPC (choosemypc.net/uk) is a great first stop for build­ing your PC. Just pick a price point by ad­just­ing a slider, make a few quick choices (such as whether you’re plan­ning on ‘over­clock­ing’ your com­puter and whether you need a copy of Win­dows), and the site will gen­er­ate a parts list for you. Of course, the parts list it cre­ates won’t be de­fin­i­tive – part of the fun of build­ing your own PC is pick­ing and choos­ing your own com­po­nents. That said, an ini­tial, au­to­gen­er­ated ChooseMyPC build makes for a help­ful start­ing point.

Once you’re ready to cus­tomise, you’ll want to move your parts list over to PCPartPicker (uk.pcpartpicker.com), an in­valu­able site for or­gan­is­ing and tin­ker­ing with your PC part lists (and be­lieve me, you’re go­ing to end up with mul­ti­ple lists for your first build).

Handy though it is, PCPartPicker didn’t make it easy when it came to recre­at­ing my ChooseMyPC build. Search­ing for a par­tic­u­lar com­po­nent of­ten came up with mul­ti­ple hits, and I was puz­zled that even the most generic searches (In­tel Core i3, for ex­am­ple) came up empty. (The rea­son: PCPartPicker’s ‘com­pat­i­bil­ity fil­ter’ screens out parts that won’t work with your cur­rent build.) Lit­tle did I know that I could have saved lots of time and frus­tra­tion with a sin­gle click.

Once you’ve cre­ated your ChooseMyPC build, look for the PCPartPicker Link but­ton at the bot­tom of the parts list and click it. The en­tire build will be trans­ferred to PCPartPicker, no search­ing re­quired.

2 SIZE MAT­TERS WHEN IT COMES TO THE CASE

It’s easy to get dis­tracted by bright, shiny things when it comes to pick­ing a PC case, and I mean that quite lit­er­ally.

In your re­search, you’ll find plenty of cases with flashy, neon-lit win­dows, per­fect for show­ing off the in­nards of your cus­tombuilt PC. Cool though those side win­dows are, an­other fea­ture meant much more to me: space, and lots of it.

Why the need for space? One of your main tasks when it comes to build­ing your PC is deal­ing with all the ca­bles con­nect­ing your var­i­ous com­po­nents. Not only do you want to make sure all your ca­bles go where

Not only do you want to make sure your ca­bles go where they need to go but you also need to make sure they’re tucked in­side in a fash­ion that al­lows for plenty of air­flow

they need to go but you also need to make sure they’re tucked in­side in a fash­ion that al­lows for plenty of un­ob­structed air­flow. Proper cable man­age­ment will keep the in­side of your PC neat, tidy, and cool. Sloppy ca­bles, on the other hand, could leave you with a melted CPU.

Ex­pert PC builders pride them­selves in pick­ing just the right case for their par­tic­u­lar build – not too big, not too small. In­deed, per­fectly weav­ing all those ca­bles into a cramped PC case can be akin to build­ing a ship in a bot­tle.

As a novice PC builder though, I wasn’t aim­ing for a work of art. I just wanted to get through it – and for me, that meant hav­ing plenty of room to work. I wanted to go big.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, PC cases come in three sizes: ATX (the big­gest), Mini ATX (smaller) and Mi­cro ATX (even smaller), with vari­a­tions within each cat­e­gory for ‘full tower’, ‘mid tower’, ‘mini tower’, and so on. In my case, I went ahead and sprang for an Full Tower ATX case.

Now, did I re­ally need a case that big? Of course not. Af­ter all, the mother­board I even­tu­ally picked was a smaller Mini ATX form fac­tor, I was only in­stalling a sin­gle video card, and I wasn’t even deal­ing with any bulky af­ter-mar­ket CPU cool­ers. Dur­ing the ac­tual build, though, I loved all the ex­tra room. I never felt cramped, and I had plenty of space for bundling my ca­bles just as I wanted. I also have lots of room to grow.

Note that if at all pos­si­ble, you should con­sider spring­ing for a slightly pricier PC case (and by pricier, I mean £50-ish in­stead of £40-ish) with be­gin­ner-friendly fea­tures such as ‘tool-less’ drive bays.

3 NO, YOU DON’T NEED AN OP­TI­CAL DRIVE

One of the first ques­tions you’ll be asked at ChooseMyPC is whether you want an op­ti­cal drive to be part of your build. My ini­tial an­swer was yes. Af­ter all, how would I in­stall Win­dows with­out a Win­dows DVD?

Of course – and as I should have known, giv­ing that I can’t re­mem­ber the last time I touched a PC DVD drive – it’s easy to in­stall Win­dows on a PC with­out an op­ti­cal drive.

Plenty of on­line guides are avail­able, but here’s the short ver­sion: Just use Mi­crosoft’s free ‘me­dia cre­ation’ tool (tinyurl.com/hv23bgr) to in­stall a copy of Win­dows onto a (3GB or larger) USB mem­ory stick. The first time you boot your new PC (and yes, you’ll get there), you’ll land on the BIOS screen. From there, nav­i­gate to your sys­tem boot op­tions, then set your PC to boot from the USB stick. Once you boot from the USB drive, the Win­dows in­stal­la­tion wizard will take care of the rest.

Be­yond Win­dows, prac­ti­cally any pro­gram or game you’d ever want to in­stall is avail­able for down­load, no DVD re­quired.

But what if you find your­self in the (un­likely) sit­u­a­tion where you need an op­ti­cal drive? If that hap­pens, you can al­ways go back, crack open your cus­tom PC and in­stall one, or just grab an ex­ter­nal USB op­ti­cal drive (for all of £15 or so).

There are plenty of walk­throughs for build­ing a PC, but noth­ing on how to as­sem­ble my own spe­cific com­po­nents. In­stead, there was a man­ual for each in­di­vid­ual com­po­nent

4 THE MOTHER­BOARD MAN­UAL IS YOUR BEST FRIEND

One of the most daunt­ing things about build­ing my own PC was the fact that there wasn’t a sin­gle, IKEA-like man­ual that cov­ered the whole process. Mind you, there are plenty of generic walk­throughs for build­ing a PC, but noth­ing telling me how to as­sem­ble my own spe­cific com­po­nents. In­stead, there was a man­ual for each in­di­vid­ual com­po­nent, and many of the di­rec­tions were sketchy at best.

My re­ac­tion was to blun­der into the build prac­ti­cally blind, in­stalling the drives first be­cause that seemed like the eas­i­est thing to do. (While the ex­perts will tell you to in­stall the mother­board first, get­ting those drives in­stalled was not only easy, but also a big con­fi­dence-booster.) Then I seated the CPU in the mother­board (with a sickening crunch as I pushed down on the lever). Soon enough, I was star­ing at my PSU, GPU, mem­ory sticks and a tan­gle of cords in my PC case, with­out a clue about what to do next.

Even­tu­ally, my gaze drifted to the mother­board man­ual, and I be­gan to page through it. Ini­tially, few of the di­a­grams made sense, but the closer I looked, the more I recog­nised. Those thin lit­tle front­panel con­nec­tors dan­gling in the case? They go right here, the man­ual said (or at least, that’s how I de­ci­phered the di­a­grams and con­nec­tor la­bels.) Ex­pan­sion ports? Here and here. Mem­ory slots? One here, and one here. Your power ca­bles go here and here, and right here is where your SATA con­nec­tors for the drives go.

The more I stud­ied, the more I re­alised (be­lat­edly, I guess) that the mother­board man­ual was the key to this whole puz­zle. Af­ter all, all roads lead to the mother­board as far as your com­puter build is con­cerned, and once you un­der­stand where all the var­i­ous cards, ca­bles, and con­nec­tors go on the mother­board, you’ve pretty much nailed your build.

5 THERE’S NOTH­ING SCARY ABOUT A ‘MO­DU­LAR’ OR ‘SEMI-MO­DU­LAR’ POWER SUP­PLY

“Keep it sim­ple” was my mantra as I picked the parts for my first PC build. But noth­ing sounded sim­ple when it came to one of the big­gest choices about pick­ing a power sup­ply – specif­i­cally, whether I should go with a mo­du­lar, semi-mo­du­lar, or non-mo­du­lar PSU.

For those of you new to PC power sup­plies (as I was un­til just a few weeks ago), the whole mo­du­lar ver­sus non­mod­u­lar is­sue cen­tres around the ca­bles that con­nect the power sup­ply to your var­i­ous PC com­po­nents. A mo­du­lar PSU’s ca­bles are all de­tach­able, mean­ing you can con­nect just the ca­bles you need and avoid a tan­gle of un­used ca­bles in your PC case. A semi-mo­du­lar PSU has only the es­sen­tial power ca­bles at­tached, with the rest of the ca­bles de­tached un­til you need them. A non-mo­du­lar PSU ar­rives with all its ca­bles al­ready at­tached, so no need about wor­ry­ing whether you’ve got all the power cords you need.

Ini­tially, I was in­tim­i­dated by the idea of a mo­du­lar or semi-mo­du­lar power sup­ply. What if I didn’t know which ca­bles I needed, or where they were sup­posed to plug in? Did ‘mo­du­lar’ mean one more thing I had to put to­gether? I started lean­ing to­ward a non-mo­du­lar model, rea­son­ing that a PSU with all the ca­bles at­tached would be eas­ier to han­dle.

Tempted by the idea of fewer loose ca­bles in my case, I even­tu­ally took the leap for a semi-mo­du­lar PSU, and I’m glad I did. Af­ter all my worry, it turned out the op­tional de­tached power ca­bles (like those for the case fans and the hard drives) were easy to iden­tify and con­nect. As with the mother­board, the PSU came with a man­ual that mapped out which ca­bles go where. Best of all, I used only the power ca­bles I needed, mak­ing for eas­ier cable man­age­ment in the end.

Of course, that’s not to say my PSU in­stal­la­tion went per­fectly. I made a cru­cial mis­take when it came to plug­ging in a main power cable, which leads to my next point…

The PSU came with a man­ual that mapped out which ca­bles go where. Best of all, I used only the power ca­bles I needed, mak­ing for eas­ier cable man­age­ment in the end

6 DON’T PANIC WHEN YOUR PC DOESN’T TURN ON

So there I was, all sys­tems go – or so I thought. My mother­board was screwed in and wired up, ditto for the hard drives and front-panel con­trols, my power ca­bles were plugged in and even my mon­i­tor was ready. Tak­ing a deep breath, I flipped the main power switch.

At first, good news: the sys­tem fans whirred to life, mean­ing I’d done some­thing right. But the mon­i­tor stub­bornly dis­played a ‘No Sig­nal’ er­ror, and a tell­tale red light flashed on the mother­board’s ‘de­bug’ panel. Then, the bad news: it was the CPU er­ror light that was lit, mean­ing some kind of pro­ces­sor fail­ure.

The temp­ta­tion to panic was strong, but I tried to stay cool as I re­traced my steps. The mother­board’s wiring had been com­pli­cated, but I’d fol­lowed the man­ual’s di­rec­tions care­fully and a sec­ond look re­vealed no mis­steps. The power sup­ply, though, gave me pause. I had been a lit­tle sketchy on where the main power ca­bles plugged into the mother­board, and I be­gan to sus­pect my prob­lems lurked there.

And I was right: I’d ig­nored a four-pin power socket in the mother­board be­cause I couldn’t find a match­ing power sup­ply cable, but a closer look at the PSU’s man­ual re­vealed the an­swer: an eight-pin plug that could be snapped apart into a pair of four-pin plugs. I split the plug in two, con­nected the cor­rect four-pin sec­tion into the mother­board, hit the power switch, and – it worked. Never in my life had I been so happy to see a BIOS screen.

7 YOU’RE GO­ING TO WANT TO BUILD AN­OTHER PC

Per­haps my big­gest sur­prise about build­ing a PC was how quickly I’d finish build­ing it – and in­deed, I was a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed that it was so easy. Af­ter spend­ing weeks ag­o­nis­ing over my parts list and painstak­ingly as­sem­bling my com­po­nents, the ac­tual build took only a few hours over two days. I hoped that in­stalling and con­fig­ur­ing Win­dows 10 would be some­thing of a chal­lenge, but that turned out to be easy, too.

Within an­other day, I found my­self back at PCPartPicker, fid­dling around with a new parts list. Yes, I al­ready wanted to build an­other PC, and if you’re a first-time builder, don’t be sur­prised if you wind up with the same urge once you finish.

In­stead of cough­ing up sev­eral hun­dred pounds to build a sec­ond PC that I didn’t need, I tack­led some dif­fer­ent DIY projects in­stead. First, I re­placed the op­ti­cal drive in my ag­ing iMac with a solid-state drive, a £200-ish project that turned out to be far more dif­fi­cult than build­ing an en­tire PC from scratch. (Three trips be­hind my iMac’s 27in mon­i­tor and a failed SSD later, I fi­nally got it done.) Next, I snagged a £28 Rasp­berry Pi, a cir­cuit board the size of a deck of cards that can run Linux and even a pared-down ver­sion of Win­dows 10 – just plug in a mon­i­tor, a key­board, a mouse and an SD card to get started.

Af­ter spend­ing weeks ag­o­nis­ing over my parts list and painstak­ingly as­sem­bling my com­po­nents, the ac­tual build took only a few hours over two days

A semi-mod­u­lar power sup­ply unit can keep the in­side of your PC from get­ting stuffed with a jum­ble of un­needed power ca­bles

Don’t be afraid of the moth­er­board man­ual. It looks com­pli­cated, but it’s an in­valu­able guide for first-time PC builders

There’s noth­ing wrong with choos­ing a jumbo case if you’re a first-time PC builder

Dy­ing to build an­other PC right away? A £28 Rasp­berry Pi might tide you over

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