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How to build a PC: The Tech Report guide

Step-by-step instructions for a custom build
— 8:21 PM on December 17, 2012

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So, you want to build a PC. The process is a lot easier than you might expect, even if you've never pieced together all the components that make up a typical system. Although the underlying technologies are often stupendously complex, modern PCs are no more complicated to assemble than the average piece of Ikea furniture.

Well, that might be a bit of an oversimplification—but only just. Today's PC hardware is definitely user friendly. All of the various parts are designed to fit into only the right sockets, slots, and ports. In most cases, installation requires little more than a screwdriver, if that. Newer enclosures and power supplies have also smoothed out the wiring process considerably. Building a clean-looking system worthy of being shown off through a case window has never been more straightforward.

Now is a pretty good time to be putting together a new PC, too. The market is brimming with options to suit just about every budget. Even today's mid-range graphics cards are likely to be more powerful than what's coming in next-generation consoles, and there are plenty of PC games that take advantage of them right now. Solid-state drives have revolutionized storage and are affordable enough for budget builds. Then there are the latest processors, whose integrated GPUs have serious media chops and can keep up with casual games.

Best of all, builders can choose just the right mix of components to meet their needs. If those needs change, PCs can be adapted to serve new missions through substantial overhauls or gradual upgrades. They may not be the hippest computing platforms around right now, but PCs continue to be the most powerful and flexible.

We've built and upgraded countless PCs over the years, from the constantly changing systems that inhabit our labs to the personal rigs that sit under our desks, not to mention all those other boxes built for friends and family. We've picked up a few tricks along the way, and those morsels of wisdom have been sprinkled across our all-new PC building guide. Over the following pages, we'll step through the entire process of assembling a PC from scratch. We'll also show you video footage of exactly how everything comes together.

Choosing the individual components for a new build deserves careful consideration, of course. That subject is beyond the scope of this article, but the current edition of our System Guide will bring you up to speed on our favorites in each category. The enthusiast-worthy system we're going to put together here uses parts pulled from our stash of test hardware in addition to a stack of components provided graciously by Asus and Corsair.

For more visual learners, we've put together a detailed video that chronicles the building process from start to finish. Snippets of footage are distributed across the following pages, but you can view the full-length cut below.

The video weighs in at about 47 minutes, so get comfortable. We'd suggest popcorn, but you don't want to assemble a new PC with greasy fingers.

Setting the stage
Before beginning your build, clear a large, clean work area preferably devoid of 70s-era shag carpet and anything else that might induce a static electrical charge. Next, gather a few Q-tips or some paper towels, rubbing alcohol or higher-grade isopropyl hooch, a fistful of zip ties, and a Philips-head screwdriver. The few screws we'll encounter are relatively small, so it helps to have a screwdriver with a magnetic tip.

Now, collect all the components. Go ahead and unpack the case right away, since those boxes typically take up quite a lot of space. Given all the unboxing videos online these days, we'll understand if you can't wait to tear through some cardboard and styrofoam. You'll also want to get a sense of the size of the case, so you can clear enough space to work around it comfortably. Ideally, there should be enough space to lay the case flat in addition to standing it vertically.

Ground yourself before doing anything else. Static electricity doesn't mix well with electronic components. Any charge you might be carrying can be discharged easily by touching a large metal object. Just about anything will do—a filing cabinet, the frame of a desk, or even a metal PC case. If you're in a carpeted room, ground yourself any time your feet shuffle across the floor. Frequent grounding is also recommended if you're wearing a static-prone fabric like polyester, which can generate a charge just from rubbing against dry skin. If you're one of those people who seems to get shocked by every other doorknob, consider accessorizing with an anti-static wrist band. Anti-static gloves are also available, but they can be a little cumbersome when dealing with some of the smaller screws and wires we'll be handling during the build.

Make sure the parts match
The beauty of PCs is the fact that their components are largely interchangeable. However, you can't combine any old parts off the shelf. CPUs, coolers, and motherboards are designed around specific sockets. The motherboard's form factor needs to match the case, too. Before beginning any build—and ideally when making your initial shopping list—make sure those components match. Let's start with the CPU.

The contact pads of an Intel LGA CPU (left) next to the pins of an A-Series AMD processor (right)

CPUs are designed to fit into only one kind of socket. AMD uses traditional sockets, which are riddled with holes to accept hundreds of pins on the bottom of the CPU. Intel transitioned to Land Grid Array (LGA) sockets years ago. LGA sockets work in reverse, putting the pins on the motherboard and contact pads on the base of the processor. There are different variations of the AMD and Intel sockets, each with a unique pin count and layout. Make sure your CPU's socket type matches the motherboard exactly. Even seemingly similar sockets, like LGA1155 and LGA1156 or Socket FM1 and FM2, are incompatible.

In addition to matching the CPU's socket type, the motherboard needs to be supported by the enclosure. Desktop motherboards typically come in one of three sizes, otherwise known as form factors. From smallest to largest, those form factors are Mini-ITX, microATX, and ATX.

From left to right, you're looking at the Asus P8Z77-I Deluxe, P8Z77-M Pro, and P8Z77-V—Mini-ITX, microATX, and ATX boards, respectively. The Mini-ITX board has only two memory slots and is limited to a single PCI Express expansion slot. The microATX one features four memory slots and a decent selection of PCIe slots, but not as many as the ATX model. Bigger boards have more memory and expansion slots because there's more surface real estate for those parts.

Within each form factor, motherboard makers tend to offer multiple products. More expensive boards usually support multi-GPU schemes like CrossFire and SLI (at least for microATX and ATX boards with enough room for dual graphics card slots). Pricier models typically have auxiliary Serial ATA and USB controllers, as well. Some also court overclockers with fancier electrical components and beefier power circuitry. When running at stock speeds, though, these high-end boards deliver largely the same performance as their less-exotic peers.

Case compatibility for the various form factors is eased by the fact that microATX and Mini-ITX motherboards use subsets of the mounting holes employed by full-sized ATX models. ATX cases easily accommodate microATX and Mini-ITX boards as a result. MicroATX cases support both microATX and Mini-ITX boards, too. For obvious reasons, though, you can't shoehorn a larger motherboard into a case built for a smaller form factor.