When I was growing up, I was fascinated by what was inside a computer. All those gizmos and gadgets inside, with chips and capacitors, fans that made noises and a screen that allowed me to explore the world right there on my desk. I was living vicariously through the internet with head spinning connection speeds of 56.6kbps on my dial up modem. Yeah, those were the days of slow downloads, when software companies made big, CD sized patches for their products. Those days, thankfully, are long gone. But some things don’t change, and one of those is the fun and theatre of building your own DIY PCs. The satisfaction of making something work is immense, and it’s far easier than you think.
The first step, if you choose to accept the challenge, is to get past your fear of all the bleeping acronyms, decode the fancy numbers, and understand exactly what it is you want your computer to do. Then, you can take some practical steps to get your build right. Let me take you down the yellow brick road towards DIY PC building nirvana.
DIY PCs – a timely warning
I’m going to be frank. If you go down this road, you must remember that you’re going to be handling sensitive electronic equipment. It’s also probably going to be expensive electronic equipment. A really important consideration is static electricity, which can ruin your day in an instant. Understand what it is, take steps to prevent static electricity from discharging into your components, or you’re going to have a painful experience back at the shop.
DIY PCs – why build your own?
Short answer: because a prebuilt computer from a big box store is just a blatant rip-off. While doing some research for this story, I did some research. I walked into my local Harvey Norman, which is generally a reputable company. In their computer section, there are prebuilt gaming PCs. They look pretty good, lit up with LEDs and some even come with water cooling as standard. But then I looked at the specs and the price. Guess how much the below system would set you back:
- GeForce GTX970
- 16GB of DDR4 memory
- Coolermaster CM Storm case
If you’re thinking AU$1,500, you better double that. The recommended retail sticker price on this system was AU$3,200. I could probably build three of these systems for that price, given how the parts themselves are over two years old. Yes, Harvey Norman is actually pricing this stuff as if it was the latest and greatest. The kicker? You only get one year of warranty, and you have to pay money to extend it to three years. Buying the components individually would probably bet you three year’s warranty from each manufacturer. Sounds like a terrible deal doesn’t it? This is why a lot of people actually actively go out and learn how to build computers themselves.
DIY PCs – understanding your needs
When it comes down to it, there really aren’t that many parts to a computer that you physically have to go out there and buy. There are essential parts, and non-essential parts, though that does depend on what you intend to do with the thing in the first place. Before you go out there and start to wonder what you should be buying, you really need to understand what exactly you want out of your PC. Ask yourself what you’re going to do with it, are you going to:
- Do basic stuff like emails, write letters,
- Watch movies, use it as a server,
- Build a media server,
- Heavy duty workloads like rendering,
- Play basic games, or
- Play the latest and greatest at ultra.
There are other options too, maybe you want to do all those things at once. Maybe you have some other need that’s obscure. But building and specifying your own PC will let you do all those things. The best part is that you’ll also make it easier to identify the cause (or causes) of issues, should they crop up.
DIY PCs – a matter of standards
Now, I will confess that computers are a mess of acronyms. It’s like buying a car that has MiVEC, VVTi, ABS, TC, EBD and ESC, among other terms car companies use for technologies they’ve developed. Unless somebody is on hand to help you understand just what each and every thing does, you’ll probably feel lost and not very smart. In the same way, there are a heap of acronyms in the computer world. But the most important thing about these acronyms is that it’s not actually marketing speak. Most of them relate to internationally agreed standards, which means that manufacturers actually have to conform. Otherwise, you simply couldn’t bring your products to the market with any degree of certainty you’ll sell anything. Doesn’t explain how Apple gets away with things though.
Throughout this guide, I will use acronyms. I can’t avoid it. But what I can do is explain, as simply as possible, what the acronym means. This way, your eyes won’t glaze over when you’re looking through a list of parts. Hopefully, this will also stop you from getting dazzled by all the garish lighting features inherent in so many of today’s products.
DIY PCs – what’s needed in a build
Now, let’s start with the minimum number of parts for a build. There aren’t actually that many, but because of the variety of mix-and-match possibilities out there, it can get overwhelming. Fear not, intrepid adventurer, for you can indeed wade through it all. So we start by defining what we definitely need, and what are optional bits that you can tack on later. For a barebones build, you’ll definitely need the following:
- CPU (Central Processing Unit) – which literally is the central processor for the entire computer.
- Motherboard – think of this as the chassis for your car. Except the motherboard also serves as the communications link between every other component.
- RAM (Random Access Memory) – these components are used by the computer to temporarily store short term data. Think of it as your computer’s short term memory.
- Hard disk – the computer’s long term memory. There are now many options for storage, and we’ll break these down in each section.
- GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) – which outputs to a screen so that you can see what you’re doing.
- PSU (Power Supply Unit) – which takes power from the wall and distributes it to the various components in your computer.
- A case – to which you’d mount all the aforementioned components.
You’ll also need a screen (known as a monitor), a mouse and a keyboard. How expensive (or cheap) any of these components are will depend on your needs and your wants. Just don’t forget to factor these components into a build. Optional extras these days include things like Blu-Ray drives or DVD drives, extra fans and more capable cooling methods. Oh, and lights with RGB rainbow displays and whatnot. Just don’t go overboard, will you?
DIY PCs – Choosing a CPU
When choosing a CPU for your DIY PCs, it’s really important to understand your expected workload in the short term, and understanding what you might want to do with the computer into the future too. There are CPUs to suit all budgets and needs, but of course with all things, there are compromises to be made, and options to consider. For example, if you’re building a basic home office workstation, you’re not going to need a top of the line CPU. Not that you can’t have it of course.
You’ll likely be able to get by on a cheap and cheerful chip that can also output to a screen at the same time. But if you’re a professional who consults and renders videos and create media, you might want to consider an expensive CPU. There are also use cases that fall in between these two extremes, and it’s important to choose the right components for you.
There are two brands of CPU manufacturers. There used to be more, but the hard truth is that research, development and manufacturing of complex transistors at the nanometre scale is difficult and expensive. If you fail, you could bankrupt your company. Intel is the Goliath of the two companies, and AMD is David. Both companies have been at it for decades, building and competing with each other for innovation and market share. At one point, one will have the fastest CPU ever, while the next month the lead swaps. But ignore that. You want to know what kind of product is right for you. In this case, you’ll have to choose from their massive product lines. Here’s a guide to the capabilities of processors from both Intel and AMD, which is correct at the time of publication.
Intel’s basic CPUs
The cheap and cheerful stuff from Intel is indeed cheap, and relatively cheerful. In Australia, you can buy a Celeron G3900 for $55. Obviously nowhere near the most powerful component in the world, it’s still a dual core CPU with decent grunt for all your desktop email and internet browsing needs. If you think you might want to do some light gaming (beyond Solitaire), you can go for a Pentium G4560. This is also a dual core, but with more trimmings for a decent boost to power. All this for AU$77.
Intel Core CPUs
Intel’s Core CPU series is a pretty big product range. There are lots of numbers and you’d be right in guessing the bigger the number, the better the CPU. But it also means that the bigger numbers come with a bigger hit to your pocket. How big? Think over AU$2,000 for a top of the range CPU. But here’s a run down of what a CPU model’s designation means and what to expect in terms of performance. Let’s begin with the moniker each chip receives, which is generally something like i7-7700K. Intel has three tiers of Core processors. i3 is the cheapest and “slowest” of the lot, i5 is the middle bunch and i7 is the top range. A word of caution you should remember that CPUs don’t hit mega frequencies these days for great performance. It’s all about efficiency and the number of simultaneous things it can do at once.
The next bit is the numbers. The first number denotes the generation of Core CPU, with the number after that denoting the relative performance level within that generation. An i7-7700K is the top performing chip of its current generation. After the numbers can come letters, which denote different things. A “K” denotes the chip can be manually overclocked, “U” denotes a mobile chip and “T” denotes low power.
Intel Xeon CPUs
You might ask what a Xeon is. Well, they’re server chips, specifically designed for stability rather than raw performance. However, there are Xeon CPUs designed specifically for mass market desktop users. Xeons have the naming convention that looks like this: E3-1230 V6. The number after the “E” denotes what tier it is, in the same sort of way that Core processors are named. Then there’s the 1230 bit, which tells you what performance tier it is, and finally the number after the “V” tells you what generation Xeon processor it is. The basic E3 Xeons are essentially Core i5 and i7 processors, but with slightly different instruction sets, and no integrated graphics processors.
AMD Ryzen and Threadripper
This is where the performance is right now. Not to mention value for money. AMD has released its Ryzen chips, which are basically multithread performance and value monsters. Eight cores with sixteen threads for the top tier R7 chips and similar multitasking performance to Intel’s top range chips for half the price. What’s not to like? If you really need grunt, think about getting the upcoming Threadrippers. They have up to sixteen cores…
AMD’s Accelerated Processor units are actually their basic workstation chips. The include integrated graphics, and some decent computing grunt for your every day needs. Just don’t expect them to blow your pants off on performance. Think of them as Intel’s Celerons and Pentiums, but with much faster graphics units.
AMD Athlon CPUs
Ah, the mighty Athlon. Once, this name struck fear into the hearts of Intel executives. Now, it just languishes there as AMD’s cheapest of the cheap offerings. These are AMD’s cheapest PC offerings, and most basic, but they are still pretty decent chips. What you miss out on is on board graphics processors.
Thus ends the first part of our guide on building a computer. The CPU remains the heart of the computer, though its not necessarily the most powerful component. Next time, we’ll look at picking out motherboards and memory. Stay tuned for more on DIY PCs.