Want to Learn More About Computers? Try Building Your Own PC
About This Event
Assembling a computer yourself is a lost art—one due for a revival.
BACK IN THE days of dialup internet, it was commonplace to build your own computer. Instead of walking into a Best Buy or logging onto Dell's website to shop for a complete unit, you'd assemble a desktop PC yourself using standardized, commodity parts purchased either online or at a store specializing in computer components.
These days, most consumers have only ever bought prefab systems, no assembly required. However, many gamers and computer hobbyists still prefer to roll their own boxes. Doing so means you maintain total control over how the computer turns out, and a successful DIY build is a point of pride. Also, knowing your way around the inside of a PC makes it easier to replace a single piece of a broken-down system instead of just junking your whole rig and buying a new one.
I am embarrassed to admit that, even though I worked in IT for a number of years and have written about tech even longer, I had never built a PC from scratch before. I've put together bare-bones kits (like Intel's tiny NUCs), and I've repaired and upgraded countless systems, but never have I brought a new computer into the world that I could call my very own.
There's a snag to assembling a PC in 2018, however. Exorbitant DRAM costs and the inflated price of graphics cards—thanks to their central role in the cryptocurrency mining trend—mean it's more expensive to put together a decent rig than it was even just a few years ago. That's why I thought the new AMD Ryzen chips were an appealing option. These brand-new processors combine AMD's latest processor technology and high-speed Vega graphics cores together on a single chip. They're useless to Bitcoin miners, but the graphics capabilities are robust enough to play plenty of games.
This makes Ryzen an excellent platform for topsy-turvy times. If you're into games, you could build a Ryzen system today, then drop in a discrete Nvidia or AMD graphics card as an upgrade once their prices come back down to sane levels. Personally, I didn't need a gaming rig when I set out to build one, but the simplicity of relying on a twofer chip like this seemed like a logical way to lower the complexity and price of the build.
Sure, you could always just buy a game console like a PS4 or Xbox One S, saving both money and time. But a general-purpose computer can also be used to manage media and take care of schoolwork. And then there's that whole pride thing. To prepare, I watched dozens of YouTube videos and read a bunch of articles on PC building. I also called in parts from component manufacturers like AMD, SanDisk, Corsair, and MSI. I crossed my fingers, broke out my screwdrivers, and put everything together. Here's what I discovered about computers, and myself, by building my very first PC.
Getting Started: Pick Your Core PC Parts
The first thing you need to know: There are an overwhelming number of components to chose from. If you're used to configuring a MacBook with a few mouse clicks, this exercise will feel like a trip to Home Depot in comparison. It's important that first-time builders (like me!) understand the anatomy of a system. There are six major parts that make up a computer like the Ryzen-based PC I built.
- Processor: The brain of the machine. This is where your data will be crunched.
- Motherboard: The backbone of any system. This intricate, chip-stuffed circuit board is where the processor and RAM live, and where you plug in your SSDs, hard drives, networking cables, and peripherals.
- RAM: Temporary, short-term storage for tasks. In a Ryzen system like this, where the graphics chip and the processor are combined, RAM serves double duty, handling the main memory and the memory for the onscreen graphics. That means it's worth buying faster RAM, but faster RAM is also more expensive.
- Power supply: This heavy brick of a thing converts power from the wall into the power your motherboard and processor require. You'll need to decide on the rest of your components first so you know much muscle your power supply will need. It's ideal to have a little extra juice for any future upgrades.
- Storage: Hard drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs) that act as long-term storage. HDDs have more capacity and are cheaper; SSDs are smaller, pricier, but way faster.
- Case: Where all the above components are installed. It's the box, but you'll have to navigate the case's design when routing cables and installing components. Also, be sure to pick a case that fits your motherboard, power supply, and the rest of your components.
Since a few companies lent me some parts in the interest of journalistic experimentation, assembling a parts list was a quick process for me. The resulting PC I built with these parts is powerful, but also more costly than I'd like if I were paying for this out of my own pocket. If you're more focused on being thrifty, I've also put together a cheaper build you can use as a starting point.
- AMD Ryzen 5 2400G processor with Vega 11 Graphics: $169
- MSI B350 Pro AC Motherboard: ~$100 (retail pricing not available)
- Corsair Carbide Air 240 case: $80
- 16 GB G.Skill DDR4-3200 RAM (2x8 GB): $254
- 256 GB Sandisk Ultra 3D SSD: $79
- Corsair RM650 Power Supply: $109
Reading the reviews and perusing tests that enthusiast sites have run, I think that there's way better value in going with the cheaper Ryzen 3 2200G and some other lower-priced components. The Ryzen 3 chip has slightly worse graphics performance and only four processor cores (no hyperthreading to help out), but if you shop carefully, you'll be able to squeak by paying less than $400 for everything:
The Budget Option
- AMD Ryzen 3 2200G processor with Vega 8 Graphics: $99
- ASrock A320 Motherboard: $50
- Fractal Design Core 1000 case: $35
- 8 GB HyperX Fury DDR4-2400 RAM (2x4 GB) $100
- 256 GB Sandisk Ultra 3D SSD: $79
- Corsair CX450 Power Supply: $30
Prices fluctuate, but my total on the parts for the cheaper build was around $395. It's worth noting that the motherboard I selected might have an older firmware incompatible with the Ryzen 3 2400G, but if it's not up-to-date, AMD will send you a chip for free that'll let you fire it up and run the necessary updates. This cheaper list of parts is just the basics. It doesn't have Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, but you could add that stuff with USB or a PCI card if you choose. If you want to make sure all your parts are compatible, hit up PCPartPicker and build your dream system there—the site will flag any potential snags before you buy.
One thing to remember is that when you build a PC, you don't automatically have Windows included. You'll have to buy a license from Microsoft or another vendor and make a USB key to install it. If you don't plan to play games or don't need Windows software, consider a flavor of Linux! Ubuntu is a great place to start, and it's completely free. Admittedly, Linux support is still early for these chips, and the jury's out as to whether it's ready for real-world use. It seems like April 2018 is when the Linux kernel will be fully updated to support Ryzen APUs.
Building the PC
I've repaired plenty of computers, but this was my very first build. Naturally, I made a ton of mistakes when I tried to assemble all these parts. There are many great tutorials and videos you can refer to—this one from Paul's Hardware is a great place to start—but once I got going on my build, I relied as much as possible on the included user manuals to get everything hooked up. Here's what I learned.
Watch Out for That Fan!
The first thing I did when I got my parts was assemble the motherboard. This entails installing the processor, RAM, and the heat sink that goes onto the processor to keep it cool. AMD includes a heat sink in the box that works fine, but there are plenty of crazy aftermarket options you can grab, including self-contained water-cooling systems. When you put these parts together, be sure to discharge any static buildup and work on a non-metallic surface like a wood table. Or you could just assemble the motherboard on top of the cardboard box it comes in.
This was fun at first, but when I noticed the front USB ports had stopped working, I panicked. Even though it's shaped in a way that should prevent incorrect insertion, I had managed to put the USB 3 cord in the wrong way. When I unplugged it, there appeared to be a pin missing. A quick Google search turned up a diagram, labeling the "broken" pin as simply an empty spot. So, I didn't break the plug after all! I breathed a sigh of relief and made myself a cup of tea as a reward for not completely borking up my first self-assembled PC.
Gaming and Performance
The Ryzen 5 performed well, especially considering it's a $170 chip. Comparable chips from Intel cost a bit more at around $180 but include only weak Intel UHD graphics. The graphics in both the Ryzen 3 2200G and 5 2400G, according to smarter, techier folks than myself, is roughly in line with the Nvidia GeForce 1030—a part that'd cost around $100 on its own, without the main processor attached.
I ran some standard benchmarks (like the ever-popular 3DMark Fire Strike and Time Spy tests) on the Ryzen to make sure it lived up to the hype. Unsurprisingly, it basically does. My benchmark results lined up with those published on the web, although trying out Middle-earth: Shadow of War was a little underwhelming. The game occasionally suffered from tearing and stuttering but held it together when the action got tense. Of course, there's a chance I just have the settings all wrong, and PC gamers will probably leave angry comments on this story, but them's the breaks.
The consensus seems to be that, for popular multiplayer games like Rocket League, Destiny 2, and Overwatch, either Ryzen APU will give you enough juice to play, albeit at reduced settings.
To Console or Not to Console?
I touched on it briefly above, but it's a worthwhile question: Should you just skip building a PC altogether and instead buy a gaming console? A few years ago, this wasn't a very common line of thought, but options like the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X bring pretty astounding performance to your home for around $500.
Even though I kept a budget in mind for this story, you could buy an Xbox One S and a low-end PC laptop like an HP Stream or a PS4 and a Chromebook—mix and match whichever combination suits your needs and you're still only paying half a grand.
Exercise Your Right to Repair
Then again, building your own PC is far more rewarding than just unboxing a PlayStation and calling it a day.
In an age when disassembly is discouraged, with repair rights constantly under threat, this isn't simply a fun project. It's an educational exercise of an increasingly rare sort. Sure, it tickled my contrarian side to stick it to the big electronics companies who don't want you tinkering with parts or fixing your stuff. But more importantly, I found it surprisingly fulfilling to build a machine with my hands. If you do it, I hope it'll give you a new appreciation for the technology we've become so reliant on. Whether you want to learn more about how computers work or just need a new rig and want to save some cash, I highly recommend picking up some screwdrivers and building your own machine.
The processor mounts into a socket that catches its pins. I had to lift a metal lever, orient the chip correctly (look for the golden triangle on the chip—it lines up with a triangle on one corner of the socket), drop the chip into its slot without pushing it in, then return the metal lever to the down position to lock the chip in place. Then, I installed the heat sink and fan on top of the processor. This part has a thermal paste pre-smeared on its bottom that fastens the aluminum heat sink to the chip, making for more effective heat transfer.
But I made a mistake. The tiny motherboard had all its slots and ports crammed next to one another, and the little black fan atop the heat sink has an AMD logo that bumps out. The first time I installed it, the little logo bump blocked one of the RAM slots. I had to uninstall the heat sink, clean and replace the paste on the heat sink and chip, and reinstall the fan. Pay attention—if you have an asymmetrical cooling solution, be sure it's not going to interfere with any other components.
After I got the fan hooked up and the RAM installed in the motherboard (these chips slot in—check for correct alignment with a notch in the middle and press it down until the latch clicks), it was time to inspect the case.
Scope Out Your Case
This Corsair case is on the smaller side—more of a cube than a tall-and-wide rectangular prism like most PC towers. Since the mini-size motherboard I chose hardly takes up any space inside the case, I had all the elbow room I needed for a graphics card and additional hard drives. It's worth it to buy a bigger case if the bulk isn't a concern.
I familiarized myself with the case's layout, like where the hard drives go, where the power supply mounts, and which standoffs will support the motherboard. The case comes with the screws you'll need to secure everything, and mine even included some zipties to help manage cables. Installing the power supply was pretty simple, and it only needed four screws.
Then I installed the motherboard. Well, actually, I installed it twice. You see, each motherboard includes a stamped metal shield that fills in the gaps around the ports on the motherboard. I thought it went on after the board was screwed in place, but it turns out it needs to be slotted into the case first. Only then can you slot the ports into the metal shield. Whoops!
Tiny Cables Are a Pain
The motherboard needs to be hooked into all your devices. The power supply unit I used in this build is what's called fully modular, which means that you can select the cables you need and leave the rest off to eliminate clutter. Otherwise, PSUs have a ton of cables and you'll have to deal with the unused power connections dangling inside your case. I hooked up cables for the motherboard and to power up the SSD.
You also need to plug the board into your case—the power buttons, audio plugs, and USB ports on the front of your computer don't just magically work, they have to connect to something on the motherboard. There are special headers for each kind of plug scattered around the board, so you'll want to check your manual for the location and function of each grouping of pins. Easily the hardest part of the entire build was plugging in the cable that goes to the power buttons on the front of the case. These tiny pins need to be plugged in a certain way, and they're unbelievably minuscule. These tested my patience. There's also a hookup for the case's fan—in this case, there was one header on the motherboard but three fans installed into the case. I used a splitter I got off Amazon to use this one header to power two fans instead of just one. Then there's the SATA cable for your SSD, which plugs into the motherboard.
Boot It Up
After creating a Windows 10 installation USB stick with another computer, I was ready to fire up my creation for the first time. Thankfully, all my components agreed with one another and the machine booted up. I installed Windows 10 onto the SanDisk SSD, and I set up Windows, which has become a very easy process over the last couple of years. Of course, there are hardware drivers you'll have to hunt down and install, but Windows did an admirable job of automagically recognizing most of my components. I ran some quick tests to make sure everything was functioning properly.
Charm the Snakes
After I was sure everything worked, I spent some time routing cables in a way that made the inside of the case looks a lot tidier. In the Corsair case I used, almost half of the case can be filled with snaking, messy cables so that you won't have to see them through the clear acrylic window on the other side.