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Building a PC: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide (Part 1)

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Building your own desktop or workstation is an incredibly fulfilling journey that will save money for you, and your business, in the long run. Understanding what components work best for you is the first and most important step in building a PC; we’re here to help!

The basic components of a PC are the case, central processing unit (CPU), power supply unit (PSU), motherboard, random access memory (RAM), graphical processing unit (GPU), and storage (either a hard drive or solid state drive).

CPU

CPU Building A PC Intel® Core™ i5-9400F Coffee Lake 6-Core 2.9 GHz Desktop Processor Without Graphics

Deciding on the CPU first will help you narrow down your choices on the motherboard, which is the centerpiece of your hardware connectivity. CPUs have various specifications, such as cores, clock speed, threads, and cache. We will focus on the important specifications that matter most today.

  • Cores

Cores refer to how many processing units are reading and executing program instructions. Each chip can be made up of one, two, four, six, or eight cores. For the professional video editor or designer, having more cores will be beneficial to boosting performance and speed. If you use the PC for daily office tasks such as documents, excel, or web browsing, a dual core will suffice most of the time; for more intensive professional software, quad-core and up will be the sweet spot.

  • Cache Memory

Another key factor in determining the value of CPU is the cache memory. This is the processor’s built-in RAM that assists in accessing the central memory (actual RAM) faster. There are different layers of cache, referred to as L1, L2, and L3 – the higher capacity yields faster response. Cache sizes usually range from 512KB to 16MB with L1 being the smallest size and L3 being the largest. All of the CPUs we recommend below have cache sizes around the L3 range, which will provide more than enough memory capacity for various productivity, business, and entertainment needs.

  • Threads

Finally, threads are the tasks that the CPU executes. Similar to cores, multithreading is only really beneficial when running multithreaded applications, such as video editing, programming, heavy multi-tasking, and 3D rendering.

AMD and Intel both provide CPUs that are targeted at entry-level PCs and enterprise workstations. The best value CPU for everyday purpose is AMD’s Ryzen 5 2600 – it offers probably more cores than the average daily desktop needs, but for the $200 price mark it is hard to pass up. AMD also offers higher-end CPUs like the Ryzen Threadripper with even more cores for the professionals and absolute PC enthusiasts. Intel’s budget competitor to the Ryzen 5 2600 is the Intel Core i5-9400F. It does provide slightly better single-threaded performance, but Ryzen’s 12 threads provides a better experience for multithreaded workloads. Both AMD and Intel processors offer quality processors with slightly different specs, so try to go with the better value.

Motherboard

Build a PC NZXT motherboard

After deciding on a CPU, you can move onto picking a motherboard – the circuit board that acts as the central communication center for all the different hardware. Motherboards have a specific chipset that supports certain CPUs and sockets. Always double check what socket your CPU requires – this information is clearly labeled in the product names or specifications. For instance, the Intel Core i5-7600k requires an LGA 1151 socket as the full product name denotes.

Here are some popular chipsets and sockets with their supported CPUs.

Socket Supported CPUs Chipsets
LGA 1151 6th– and 7th-generation Intel Core Skylake (6th-gen): H110, B150, Q150, H170, Q170, Z170.
Kaby Lake (7th-gen): B250, Q250, H270, Q270, Z270
LGA 1150 (300 series) 8th– and 9th-generation Intel Core Coffee Lake (8th-gen): H310, B360, H370, Q370, Z370
LGA 2066 Skylake-X/Kaby-Lake X X299
sTR4 AMD Ryzen Threadripper X399
AM4 AMD Ryzen and 7th-generation A-Series and Athlon A300, A320, B350, X370, X470
AM3+ AMD FX A970, A980G, A990X, A990FX
FM2+ AMD A-Series and Athlon A58, A68H, A78, A88X

There are three common motherboard form factors: ATX, Micro ATX, and Mini-ITX. They all vary in size and compatibility when it comes to other hardware connectivity, such as the GPU, RAM, and Serial Advanced technology Attachment (SATA) ports. SATA ports are part of the current standard of connecting storage devices into the computer. Storage devices like the hard drive, external drives, and solid-state drives all use up a SATA port each, so make sure if you plan on using a lot of storage to accommodate for each port. We tend to see people who use the PC for everyday productivity usually only needing 2 to 3 SATA ports.

ATX, the most common desktop case size, allows up to 8 RAM slots, 4 GPU slots, and 12 SATA ports. The likelihood of using up every single slot for every hardware is unlikely, but always check how many slots you can use if you plan to add on extra hardware.

Lastly, the bigger the motherboard you can get your hands on, the more components you can add—for instance, the ATX motherboard (the most common type) can fit up to 7 expansion slots. Expansion slots add more functionality to the computer with cards for video, sound, or network. If you plan to pack on Wi-Fi connectivity or higher graphical processing capability, make sure to buy a motherboard with enough expansion slots for your needs.

The table below lists the most common form factors of motherboards, but there are other existing variances out there. Just make sure to always check specifications to see if the motherboard will fit inside the case.

Mini-ITX MicroATX ATX
Size 9.0 x 7.5 inches 9.6 x 9.6 inches 12 x 9.6 inches
Expansion Slots 1 4 7
RAM DIMM DIMM DIMM
RAM Slots 2 Up to 4 Up to 8
GPUs Up to 1 Up to 3 Up to 4
SATA ports Up to 6 Up to 8 Up to 12

RAM

Build a PC GEIL RAM AURA SYNC

RAM is the computer’s short-term memory, which is essential to everyday tasks you run on a PC, such as loading applications, browsing on the internet, and running demanding programs or software. If you expect to run multiple applications, such as large spreadsheets, browsers, or programs, make sure to opt in for higher RAM. Most users opt for 8GB of RAM which probably offers the best value for great performance. For those who want to get into professional video editing, consider 16GB or more. Just remember, it is better to configure your PC to have more RAM than you might need just in case. Also, having an extra RAM is a great way to future-proof your device.

< 4GB Not recommended for anyone except the lightest user.
4GB to 8GB Minimum RAM for the typical productivity user
8GB to 16GB 8GB of RAM is what most users will want to use—it is enough for most productivity tasks and less demanding games
16GB or more If you are an industry professional needing heavy video editing software or gaming enthusiast, opt for 16GB or more

PSU

PSU Build a PC

The PSU is one of the most important components of your system because it drives electric power to run your system. Every PC component utilizes a certain amount of wattage and buying a powerful enough PSU will ensure your system’s stability and longevity.

Every PSU has a wattage rating in its name, such as 500W or 750W – this determines how much power it can draw from your wall sockets to your components. Generally, more expensive and high-end components will require more power. Check out the power supply calculator to first determine your recommended PSU wattage.

As with any components, power supplies also have different form factors to fit in different computer cases – ATX and ATX12V fit into full and mid-towers while Micro ATX and Mini ITX types fit into their respective cases.

There are also PSU models that are non-modular, semi-modular, and fully modular. A modular PSU comes with no cables pre-attached, and this is an advantage for those who want to completely optimize cable management and space utilization by using only cables that are required for their build. The downsides of using modular PSUs are their higher cost and bigger size, which can introduce some restrictions in what case you can use.

If you have more questions about brand recommendations or specific cabling, check out our in-depth PSU buying guide.

Storage

Storage Build a PC Intel Optane SSD

In order to actually run your PC, you need a place to store your operating system (OS), programs, and data when the power is off. The two storage options are the hard disk drive (HDD) and the solid state drive (SSD).

HDDs are usually more affordable and come with bigger storage space, making them useful for storing large amounts of files like photos, videos, and documents. SSDs on the other hand are more expensive, but process data-reading at much higher speeds which is perfect for booting OS or applications.

There are also specialized hard drives, such as the Seagate SkyHawk HDDs which support 24/7 operation and multiple video surveillance cameras. Deciding what storage you want ultimately comes down to how much data you keep and how you use it. Choosing between HDDs and SSDs can be difficult at first, but remember you can always easily install more storage after you finish your build.

GPU

GPU ASUS Strix 1080Ti Build a PC

The GPU is the processor that specializes in rendering visuals and video onto the display. If you only use the PC for basic tasks, browsing, or light entertainment, a CPU with an integrated GPU or an accelerated processing unit, such as the Ryzen 5 2400G or Ryzen 3 2200G will suffice. However, when it comes to applications or tasks that require heavy graphical processing, such as 3D visualization (from Computer Aided Design to 3D rendering programs), large display mirroring (from monitor to television screen), or entertainment, you need to invest in a GPU.

When you do decide to buy a GPU, it comes down to two choices: AMD and NVIDIA. Both companies offer a wide range of GPUs from entry-level to extremely high-end units. When it comes to a high-end, professional workstation, the GPU will be the most expensive component, so do enough research with specific benchmarks, user reviews, and buying guides.

In Summary

Build a PC ABS

Buying all necessary PC components may take up the most amount of time and effort in the building process. The first step will always require some in-depth research about what you want in the build. Afterwards, you can move onto specific models by prioritizing affordable pricing, solid brand name, customer reviews, and compatibility. The best part about the building process is that you can always upgrade or swap components in the future.

We’ll be back in Part 2 with a guide to putting all your parts together. Stay tuned!

Albert Cho

Albert Cho

A big tech and gaming/esports enthusiast from California and Korea.

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