Should I Build My Own PC?

Category: Hardware

Personal computers are complex machines. But they basically consist of modules that plug together. You don't need a soldering iron or a degree in electronics. So, should you build your own PC?

Just Bring Your Screwdriver!

Enthusiasts cite several reasons to build your own PC. You will learn a lot about the inner workings of a PC; what the components are, what they do, how they work together, their nitty-gritty performance specs, etc. You will end up with exactly the system that you want, not some vendor's idea of what you should buy.

You will feel a great sense of accomplishment when you flip that power switch and everything works! An added bonus -- warranties on separately purchased components run up to three years, versus a one-year warranty on many factory-built systems.

Whether you will save significant amounts of money by building your own PC depends on what kind of system you have in mind. Computer vendors have a huge advantage when it comes to making cheap, general purpose desktop computers. They buy components in enormous volumes and pay lower unit prices than an individual will ever see. But for high-performance gaming and specialty systems, building your own PC can cost a lot less than ordering a custom-built one-off system through a system integrator such as Alienware.
Barebones Kit - Build Your Own PC

It takes a lot of time to build your own PC. Most of that time is spent learning what components are available and compatible with each other. There are numerous books on the subject of building your own PC, and many Web sites devoted to step-by-step guides. To get a good idea of what you need to learn, visit Kitchen Table Computers.

Mix and Match or Barebones Kit?

After compiling your parts list, you will need to research and source each component that will go into your computer: the case, motherboard, power supply, CPU, hard drive and other storage devices, memory, video card, monitor, network adapter, even the keyboard and mouse.

When selecting components, keep in mind that they must all be compatible. The motherboard must fit in the case. The CPU and RAM must be compatible with the motherboard. The power supply must be the right form factor, and provide adequate power for all the components. That can be a lot of work. On the other hand, you will be able to pick the best of everything that you can afford.

An alternative that makes the job somewhat easier is a barebones kit. These usually include the system unit case, motherboard, power supply, CPU, heatsink & fan, RAM memory, hard drive, and a CD/DVD drive. The big advantage here is that you know all the components are compatible. If your motherboard has the video and network adapters built-in, all you'll need is a monitor, keyboard and mouse to complete the package. Tiger Direct is one online vendor that sells a wide variety of barebones kits. If you're building your own system for the first time, I would definitely recommend using a barebones kit.

Oh, don't forget the operating system and application software that will not be bundled with your homemade PC. Most users will need Windows, an office suite, and security software. Check out my related articles on Free Word Processing Software and Free Anti-Virus Programs and you'll learn how to save a bundle on this essential software.

Also keep in mind that assembling your own computer could be your chance to try Linux and open source software, freeing yourself from the expensive Windows habit! See my article Which Linux Version Is Right For Me? for help getting started with Linux.

Building your own PC is a point of pride among hard-core geeks. Most regular users won't want to invest the time and effort necessary. Have you built your own PC, or are you thinking about it? Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Should I Build My Own PC?"

Posted by:

22 Jul 2011

I have built my own computer, and built two with my kids so they would have the experience. It was fun & challenging, but then I like to tinker & build things. For the average user, it is probably not worth it, but for those who like to tinker, work with their hands, & see how things work it can be a great experience. It really isn't that hard, especially if you start with a barebones kit. The nice thing is you can configure the machine exactly the way you want - number & type of optical drives, card readers, usb & firewire ports, etc. I have had good luck with, both from a price & performance standpoint.

Posted by:

P. Champlin
22 Jul 2011

It runs pretty well, Can you make it any better??

Posted by:

Tom S.
22 Jul 2011

Starting in the 80's I built in excess of a dozen computers and can say that they are both easy AND hard. It easy if everything works when your finished and its HARD when it doesn't. Would I build another one? With the excellent prices of refurbed units I would have to say NO! But that's just me. It IS fun and you DO get a good feeling of accomplishment when its completed!

Posted by:

22 Jul 2011

I used to have an old Compaq with Win98 installed. I performed nicely but it wasn't quite enough. I did a lot of research and finally decided to build my own. Here are the specs:
- Intel D915PGN Socket 775LGA Motherboard
- Corsair TX650W 650 Watt Power Supply
- Windows XP Pro x32 w/ SP3
- 3.6ghz Intel P4 with Hyper Threading, 2mb L2 Cache and 800mhz FSB
- 2g Corsair XMS Dual Channel DDR RAM (PC3200)
- NVIDIA GeForce 9400 GT with 1g DDR2 RAM
- LaCie Double Layer DVD±/CD-RW drive with Lightscribe
- 74g Western Digital 10,000 rpm SATA150 Raptor Hard Drive with 16mb Cache (C: drive)
- 400g Western Digital SATA150 Hard Drive with 16mb Cache (D: drive)
- Mitsumi 7-in-1 Card Reader/Writer and Floppy Drive
This computer served me well for almost 8 years before some of the hardware finally started to wear out and go bad.
I currently have another custom build which my Nephew put together and it's much batter than the other. I'm not sure of all the specs but i know it has:
- ASUS M4A87T Socket AM3 Motherboard
- Windows 7 Ultimate x64 w/ SP1
- 3.1ghz AMD Athlon II X3 445 Quad Core Processor
- 4g Dual Channel DDR3 RAM
- ATI Radeon HD 5830 graphics card
- Double Layer DVD±/CD-RW drive
- 74g Western Digital 10,000 rpm SATA150 Raptor Hard Drive with 16mb Cache (C: drive)
- 1tb Western Digital (D: drive)
- 320 Western Digital 7200 rpm SATA150 Hard Drive (E: drive)
I will never buy a computer off the shelf again like the Compaq.
Custom builds will be all I ever run.

Posted by:

22 Jul 2011

I had built 2 computers and it is fun and exciting. you do get a huge feeling of accomplishment and you get to learn a lot about computers and computer systems. I even encouraged a couple of my friends to build their computers and they did.
I would definitely recommend to someone who has never built a computer to go for it. you don't have to spend a lot of money doing it and you'll get a lot of experience and pride in building your own computer.

Posted by:

22 Jul 2011

My current 'home-built box' is the same machine as I built 15 years ago, except that all the parts inside have been changed !

I didn't save any money all those years ago, but the knowledge of how it all goes together and the confidence to crack-it-open and 'have a look' has payed-off in upgrades and repairs ever since.

So now I know which bit does what and where the current bottle-neck is, I can make upgrade decisions on a part-by-part basis when the time is right to purchase.

It's not even a disaster if it stops working - no problem to bang-in a new PSU or whatever !

Definitely a worthwhile learning experience !

Posted by:

22 Jul 2011

I've never done one from scratch, but I did switch out a motherboard a long time ago (486 to P133) and the only mistake I made is when I hooked up the power supply. Back then there were two sets of wires and plugs that went to the MB (I hope they've fixed this by now!). If you didn't put them back in the same exact way, zap goes the power supply. Had to order a new one. Used that box for a couple of years, but now whenever I do any kind of upgrade/fix to ANYTHING, I take lots of pictures first in case I need to refer to them when it's time to re-assemble.

Posted by:

22 Jul 2011

I've been building my own for 10 years and I still prefer to do it that way. I can upgrade any component when I want, choose the ones I want based on my needs, and I have a better idea of what the problem is when something goes wrong and can replace that part. It's not that hard.

Posted by:

22 Jul 2011

Hi Bob and friends,
I agree that you need plenty of time to do your research. Most of us don't know what we don't know. For example:
- How much power supply is enough - to tolerate surges, sags, and brown-outs and keep running reliably for years. No one actually has the equipment to power-test a power supply, so if it goes 'soft' 2 years in, we end up blaming every component but the PS.
- How to do the thermal calculations so you not only don't melt down, but do not degrade over time.
- Matching the CPU to the bus to the RAM, again, with margin for error and degrading components.
- What's the lifespan of the individual components on your motherboard, and how do they effect the useful life of your PC?
- Have you correctly matched your drives to the hardware controllers?
- Does you cabling need to be longer, shorter, or routed differently?
- Do you know how to make all the necessary settings in your operating system for your hardware?
- Do you have all the drivers, firmware, etc. and know how to get them working together properly?
- and many, many more.
Sure, people who want to sell you parts (at a premium price) will tell you it's just Plug'n'Play. As a Professional Computer Engineer, I can tell you there's way more to it than you suspect.

I'm not saying don't do it, it can be great fun and very rewarding! Just be ready to do a LOT of research, probably pay more and get less than a commercial PC.

I also like Bob's suggestion of the Barebones kit. That reduces your risk (and your cost) substantially. There are also a lot of High-quality 'customize your own' PC vendors. That is the best low-risk, high reward option for my money.

What you really want to focus on, aside from performance, of course, is reliability. Commercial PC makers invest vast amounts of money in choosing the cheapest possible components that will last just over the 1-year warranty period. When I build a PC for commercial use, it typically lasts 5 years without a failure, and is only replaced because of technology obsolesence. So here's my best hints:
1. Make sure the motherboard has MIL-SPEC capacitors. When one capacitor goes, your motherboard is toast, and therefore so is your computer.
2. Make sure the motherboard has trouble-shooting features, like heat, voltage, fan speed, and bus speed sensors. A good motherboard will have utility software that lets you monitor everything in Windows. A really good motherboard comes with an actual troubleshooting hardware device.
3. Buy only name-brand parts. Beleive me, it's easy for the sweat-shops to make a motherboard, disk drive, power supply, or graphics card with the same specs for a lot less. You just cut the quality of the components, buy off-runs or end-of-life batches, don't spend money on testing and burn-in.
For a PC that still works great 2, 3,... years down the road, stick to the brands that sell on quality, not price. ASUS motherboards, Western Digital or Seagate drives, Kingston RAM, genuine AMD or Intel processors, AMD/ATI or NVIDIA-recommended graphics cards, Eaton or Antec power supplies.
The best check is to peruse the component manufacturer's website. If it feels like "Bargain Harry's", flee! If it tells you all about reliability, efficiency, engineering secrets and manufacturing ability, you've got a good candidate. Compare the good ones against each other. Once you've spotted a quality manufacturer, you'll learn what to look for and what to run from.
As a rule, "Made in China" is suspect, but can be OK if the product owner is directly involved in the manufacturing process. "Made in USA, Germany, or Japan" is a safe bet. Korea and Taiwan usually have well-run plants.
4. Get youself some basic test equipment - at least a multimeter - and make sure you have an anti-static strap and anti-static workspace, and know how to use them.
5. Take your time, and enjoy the ride! If you're going to make this a project, be fussy about neatness, cleanliness, cable-dress, testing each item before you plug in a new one. Be carefull of shorts where anything metal can or does touch a circuit board. Remember that with heating/cooling & vibration things can move over time. Keep a notebook of everything you do; if something goes wrong, you'll be glad you did. If everything is perfect, you'll be able to relive the experience later, and help your friends with their project.

Good luck, and may you build the world's best PC!

Posted by:

Jack Mccurdy
23 Jul 2011

@ Russ, that second build is a very nice system but, the AMD Athlon 2 X3 is actually a triple core processor not a quad. Unless your Nephew was able to unlock that fourth core, which is quite possible. Either way it is still a very strong performer especially for the price.
I did an EVGA SLI FTW, Q9550 Core 2 Quad @ 3.6 GHz 4 gigs of OCZ 1000 MHz ram, Corsair A70 dual fan CPU cooler, EVGA GTX275 graphics cards in SLI, Antec TPQ 1000 power supply, Coolermaster CM690 case.
The motherboard and graphics cards have lifetime warranties. It's getting old but it still runs great even by today's standards, all because I built my own and did some smart shopping. When I do finally upgrade, all I have to buy initially is a motherboard, CPU and RAM. Then later on get a new graphics card. But I won't do that until I can get a single card in the low $200 range that will smoke my pair of GTX275's Then when it starts getting dated I will just get a second card again. I will probably upgrade to the upcoming Ivy Bridge processor after they are out long enough for the prices to start coming down. So for us people who don't mind tinkering, we really do get much better systems for the money than the people who buy the pre built systems. My motherboard has 100% solid Japanese capacitors. I doubt any consumer Dells or HP's or any others can claim that. At least none that I have worked on. I obviously built my system with gaming in mind but, I do a lot of video editing and encoding and other graphics work with it. It just does everything fast. I will never buy a store bought system unless it's a laptop. And I wish I could get the stuff to build those too. I built nice Quad core system for my friend and his motherboard died 2.5 years later. It was still covered by a 3 year warranty, I sent it back to Asus and got him a better one than the original for the price of one way shipping. For the newbs, there are a lot of good sites where people [Geeks] will be happy to help you shop for and select components online.

Posted by:

23 Jul 2011

I've purchased many ready-made PCs over the past 20 years and always vowed that, one day, I would build my own. My Gateway computer died 4 years ago and I knew it was time. I had 2 days to do my research and pick out my components before we started checking prices. I like large tower systems so started with the box then moved inward. With my husband pulling the parts out of our shopping bags and overseeing my work, I proudly built my own system without him assisting. It worked first time on startup. Of course I'd had some experience with changing power supplies, hard drives and memory over the years so it wasn't totally foreign to me but it was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. This time I went laptop but would I build another system from scratch? Probably. I know a lot of females out there who wouldn't even attempt to do a backup of the family computer. Building one's own system is something I would recommend to everyone... especially the ladies. It's not rocket science girls... it's just another recipe but you're using metallic ingredients. :)

Posted by:

Denis Trainor
23 Jul 2011

Hello Everybody;
I am retired and have time on my hands to build a computer.I would like to build one for mostly socializing such as Facebook and downloading and uploading pictures. How much do you think it would cost to build a computer that would be suitable for what I have described? I also like to shop on e bay.

Posted by:

23 Jul 2011

I love to build desktop PCs, to date I have built 10, since 1998. Must say, building today's PCs is much easier than in 1998. Why? Motherboards today are 'jumperless'. Back in 1998, you honestly had to read the Motherboard manual to set-up the Jumpers properly. If, you didn't, you had a PC that didn't work or was 'fried'.

Today, you still need to read the manual. However today, one is looking for panel connections to the computer case, specs on what kind of memory modules to use & how much you can use and the most important, how to set-up the BIOS to work with the components that you have, e.g. how to activate SATA or IDE or when you need to use the 'onboard' Video or AGP/PCI-E slots.

The best part of all, is that by building your own PC, you will NOT have a ton of BLOATWARE!!! Plus, you will have the CDs of the OS that you want to use, the drivers, installation of various components & the means to go to the original websites to update any driver, even your motherboard updates.

Yes, there are some great OEM PC manufacturers out there, Dell & HP come to mind, but most do not give you the 'tools' like CDs or DVDs to fix when they get out of sync or stop working. They want you to relay on their way of doing things or if, they can't help you, to purchase a newer model. Sorry, but that is how these companies make profits and survive.

When, I can't fix my PCs, I know that it is time to upgrade to a new Motherboard & Components. I also, know when a Video or Audio Card has seen it's day or when a Memory Module has 'bit the dust' or the Power Supply, plus, how to replace it all.

I have learned that it is important that when you purchase a new Motherboard with onboard Video, to make sure that this board also, has either a AGP or PCI-E slot. Nothing worse, than not having a back up, when the Video onboard, goes out completely. The same with Audio, you only need an open PCI slot to put in a new Audio Card.

I don't build a PC every year or so, I make mine last, by understanding what I need & when I need it. Right now, I am using a PC that I build in 2008. It is working fine. I have updated my Video Card, since I needed more memory to play my PC games.

I bought 2 Motherboards in 2008, that costs me less than $50 total. They were ECS Motherboards, that were refurbished. I have also, learned that many times, the refurbished motherboards are better than the original, plus you can save oodles of money. No, you don't get a 3 year guarantee with refurbished, but considering that I saved money & both of these motherboards are working fine, today, what's the difference?

Do I have the latest & greatest? No. I don't need that. I am not a Role Playing Gamer (RGP) that needs LOTS of power & memory. I need just the simple of things, overall. Yes, I love to play PC Games, but my favorites are Casual Games, Solitaire, Hidden Object Games, Match 3 & Mahjong, & my PC handles all of them with plenty to spare.

True story, this last winter, I was attending classes to learn how to prepare Taxes. The General Manager was testing some of their computers that would be used in the satellite offices, since they hadn't been used in over 6 months. She tried to start up one computer & it immediately started beeping & wouldn't start. She looked confused, not understanding what was happening. I told her, "Sounds like the one or more of the memory module need to be replaced." She looked at me, but went to get another memory module & the PC started right up.

Moral of the story, if, I had never built my own PCs, I wouldn't know what that beeping code meant. She knew how to change out components & memory, but didn't have a clue what the motherboard was telling her. She had never built her own PC.

Posted by:

08 Sep 2011

Ok The first machine I build was a solder it together kit ZX81, then an Apple II+ clone. I did buy a showroom 8088, but it was never able to do what I wanted (namely think). I plugged a 286 bare bones Mother board into the box and was hooked. I have kitted 9 boxes. Upgrading Mother boards etc. Some of the units were given away to group homes for school studies (Ha Ha). I still have 3 old boat anchours downstairs I turn on occasionally to smell the smoke. Oh and some of the old games I like will not run on a machine faster than 2Meg. Cost wise I think I saved, ... I was able to put in bigger better more expensive for less. Hmmm well maybe I didn't save, But I had fun and learned a lot.

Posted by:

21 Nov 2011

Building your own computer is a very rewarding experience. And, once you learn what you are doing, you can save a lot of money in the future!

I Would Recommend Starting Small. Check Craigslist, or eBay For An Old Computer (or maybe you know someone with an old one you can have). You Can Get A Fairly Decent Computer For Around 35-50 Dollars, And Not Lose very much Money if you Accidentally Damage Something. Pull The Parts Out, And Google The Part Numbers. This Will not only help you get acquainted with how things go together inside the case, but also you will know what parts are what, and what they do. The more you understand about each part, the easier it will make things when you finally decide to build your own machine from scratch.

If you do decide to build your own machine, research everything before jumping in. One of the things that I've learned is that computers are not as fragile as everyone thinks. So dont go into it thinking that you have to be super precise. Watch A Few Videos (and there are lots of them) on youtube. Check forums, and message boards. One Of the greatest things about the internet, is that there are professionals out there who will gladly give you advice for free, because they love doing the same things.

Oh, one more thing. If you do go the ebay route, and get an older computer, I would recommend leaving the connections for the front panel hooked up. These connections can be a real pain if they are not clearly marked on the motherboard(and most older ones aren't). and it can take hours of searching to find the manual for the motherboard online.

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