How do I build my own computer?

I know, I know. I can get a Dell of Gateway really cheap right now. But I want to build my own for 2 reasons: I don’t usually have $500-$700 just sitting in my account gathering dust; and, more importantly, I think building my own will make me feel all empowered 'n stuff. So I can yell, “I am Computer Woman. Hear me ROAR!” Ambitious, I know. My present computer is verrrrry old and has been limping along for some time. Some day, I’m afraid I will hit the power button and it will just cough, sputter and breath its last dying gasp. I gotta do something before then.

So, I’m thinking, I’ll buy the parts on ebay and assemble it all myself. How hard can it be, right (famous last words, I know.)? So, what do I need to get? What brands do you recommend? What software? Any and all help is appreciated so much.


Speaking as someone who has assembled a lot of computers from components (and doesn’t want to do it any more) I’ll suggest you don’t bother. There are a lot of pitfalls and even if things go together right you’ll probably end up paying more than if you had bought a new machine, especially when you add the cost of the operating system.

If you must I suggest you get your components from a local supplier who will stand behind them and help you with compatibility issues. You can get some good stuff on ebay but if you end up with a motherboard/CPU/RAM combination that doesn’t work even though it’s supposed to you’ll be between a rock and a had place.

What you need is to buy a clone pre-built. That way you can open the sucker up and see how everything connects. Read up on parts and then upgrade yourself ( is excellent for this).

A clone normally doesn’t come with the OS though so even if you can get a pre-built clone for $400 you have to add the OS to the price (Windows 98 ME costed me $200 US).

If you really want to make a computer, well, get a friend to help you. My advice would be to really get a nice mother board so that future upgrades aren’t so painful (just pop in a better CPU and off you go).

I prefer building my own. The last few computers I’ve had are home built. I’ve really never had much of a problem with any of them (knock on wood).

As for the components needed, it really depends. What do you use the computer for, e-mail and web surfing mostly? Do you do a lot of gaming? What about music and CD ripping? Do you need things like Firewire & USB 2.0? The nice thing about building your own computer is you can customize it to your own needs. And while it’s not difficult to put everything together, you need to have a bit of knowledge to get things working correctly.

Here is a basic list:

  1. Motherboard
  2. Processor
  3. Case
  4. Memory
  5. Hard Drive
  6. CD/DVD Drive (possibly CD-R/DVD-R depending on what you want)
  7. Video Card
  8. Audio Card
  9. Operating System
  10. Keyboard & mouse
  11. Monitor

However, all these things need to be compatible with one another, you need to know what they do and where the go.

I have a general idea what I want, but that may not suite you, so suggestions are difficult. My suggestions wouldn’t be cheap, so you may not want to hear them. Plus I get all excited talking geeky and typing while drooling on the keyboard makes it extremely difficult to type. Slippery keys and all.

I kind of enjoyed building my own computer. I don’t play intensive games, so I skipped the high end graphics cards. In short, I went to a local store and bought:

  1. A package that included the mainboard, power supply, processor and case
  2. Memory (256MB, more than I needed because I don’t play games)
  3. memory. I only bought 256MB because, really, it was more than I needed.
  4. hard drive. Mine is 20GB because, again, it was more than I needed.
  5. CD-RW
    6)Keyboard & Mouse
  6. Floppy drive. I think this was include because I thought I ought to have one. Don’t know why. Don’t use it. Don’t look at it. Don’t have any floppy disks hanging around. Habit, I guess.
  7. 17 inch monitor.

Because I use Linux, I didn’t need to buy an Operating System but it made my life easier to get:

  1. a cheap modem, because winmodems can be a pain in the butt with Linux
  2. a mid-range audio card
  3. A mid-range AGX graphics card. The onboard video would have worked, but I wanted a better card. Again, I didn’ go crazy. If you aren’t playing games, 32MB graphic card will do, 64MB is nice, anything else is excessive without a compelling reason.

Including the monitor, I was able to build the system for $350 (US). If I were to use Windows XP, I would need to tack another $100 or so for the Operating System.

Many mainboards come with onboard ethernet, modems, audio and video. USB ports are also included. I found that as long as the mainboard had an AGX slot (for the graphics card) and at least two PCI slots, it’s probably good enough. YMMV.

It was fun. I didn’t have any experience building PCs, and I was able to do it in a fairly short amount of time.

The gotchas I ran into were:

First, getting the CPU mounted on the Mainboard is painful and tricky. Basically, I had to latch a hook on one side, then get the other side latched down, too. It’s a metal rocker that doesn’t want to bend, and their ain’t much room for fingers when you’re doing it. Patience won out, though.

Second, connecting the case wires to the mainboard. The connections on the mainboard are documented in the installation manual, but identifying the wires and then actually, physically putting them in place is tricky. That whole finger room thing again.

Third, while there must be a good way to store the ribbon cables for the floppy and cdrom devices, I’ll be damned if I found it. Ugliness.

Moderation in all things, and you get a good computer for a great price. I’ve seen systems from Dell’s refurb site come close on cost, and non-refurb machines get down there, too, after rebates.

But if you add better components (larger drive, better audio or graphics cards, etc…) the big companies quickly get much more expensive.

As for operating system, if you use Windows, you’re pretty much guaranteed compatibility (as long as you aren’t doing anything too out there). It’s one of the benefits of their monopoly for Windows users.

About brands, I hardly looked at them. The mainboard is Biostar, and I’m happy with it. The CPU is an AMD, but I can’t tell the difference between it and an Intel. The CD-RW is Maxtor, and it does indeed read and write CDs.

I bought mid-range parts. Not the cheapest, not the most expensive. I’ve had good luck with that strategy.

Have fun building your computer. It does feel good having one you built, and it makes upgrading much less daunting.

Not into gaming. Just email/internet/cd-burning. Thanks for your help.


I would reccomend going to for finding the computer parts, not ebay - you get a better gurentee, and newegg’s prices are always close to the lowest you can find.

pricewatch and froogle are great places for pricing and purchasing components.

I woul drecommend you follow some of the poster’s links for online computer supplies. Once you have a list of what you need and how much it’ll cost you to buy over the net (include postage!), grab the locla newspaper or go online and try to find a computer show near your area. Go there with your shopping list and pick up anything you can get cheaper, then buy the rest online :wink:

This is what I do when I build systems and I can save alot of money. Usually, the high-end your system, the more you can save by building it yourself. The more low-end the system, the more you should consider buying from dell or gateway.

Out of curiosity, how do you know you want a P4?

(I’m not trying to be snarky or dissuade you, just wondering how/why you’ve decided this already. As an avid nerd I’ve heard from plenty of fanbois/fangrrls, but not from many non-nerd end users.)

To answer your questions, the Pentium 4 is a Processor (CPU) produced by intel, the motherboard will be (very likely) manufactured by another company but (very likely) use intel chips for the major components. If you want to run Windows XP, you’ll need at least 256MB of RAM and may want 512MB. Depending on what you’re doing you may want more, but you should be able to do e-mail, web-browsing, and cd-burning quite happily with 256 or 512MB.

Also, purchase an OEM version of Windows XP (usually marked Must be Purchased with Hardware) as it’ll be much less expensive than buying it at retail price. The online stores don’t really care what type of hardware you purchase with it, you’d get the discount if you buy it along with a mouse or keyboard.

I concur with DreadCthulhu, is pretty darn good. I’ve never bought anything on E-bay, I’m a little leary about used electronics.

If you are just doing email/internet/cd-burning, then you can go with a lower video card (or motherboard with onboard video) and a decent sound card and CD burner.

Motherboards, there are all kinds out there. If you are looking to get a Pentium Processor (I like Pentiums), then you’ll need a Pentium 4 motherboard. I’ve used Intel, Soyo and Asus motherboards with pretty good results. They can run anywhere from $60 up. Since you aren’t doing anything crazy and are looking for cheap, one of the cheaper boards should suffice. You might want to look for one with the Video integrated, that will save you from buying a video card and since you aren’t doing any gaming, it might suit you well. Intel has a board for around $90 that has built in audio & video but with an AGP video slot (for video cards) if you wanted a better video processor. Also a board that just supports EIDE/ATA hard drives should do you fine (see next). I prefer boards with 4 memory slots, but memory is so cheap now you can get away with just two. PCI slots are important, but you’ll probably only use 3 or 4 at the most. 6 is a good number. PCI slots is where you’d connect your modem, sound card and other periphials.

Hard Drives have come down a lot. For cheap, you’ll want to stick with EIDE/ATA drives. There are new drives out SATA (Serial ATA) have smaller connectors (thus reducing leenmi’s space problem) but are more expensive and a bit more difficult to set up. You can get a 40GB hard drive for under $60 and an 120GB for under $100. Maxtor, Seagate and Western Digital are all pretty good brands. Unless you have thousands of mp3s and thousands of pictures, 40GB should do you fine, but you might want to spend the extra $30 for the extra space, it couldn’t hurt.

As for the memory, go to or and use their wizards to find out what memory you need for your motherboard. Memory is pretty cheap now (as opposed to years ago, it was like $1/MB) and more memory is good. 256MB will get you buy, I’d suggest 512MB. Again, it couldn’t hurt.

You’ll need something to put it in. Most every case is ATX, which is the most common style of motherboards. Get one with the power attatched, and since you aren’t running a high end video card, one with a 350W power supply will do just fine. Full Towers give you more space to work in, but also take up more space. Mid-tower cases should do, you can pick those up for $50 in most cases.

If you are burning and listening to music, do yourself a favor and get a decent card. I’ve always used Creative Labs Sound Blaster cards. Maybe someone else can suggest another card. Still, if you are looking for cheap but still good, you can get one for under $100.

CD/DVD burners are up to you. I love (LOVE) my TDK VeloCD burner and just ordered a Sony 510A DVD burner. Haven’t really done anything on DVD, but for CDs, I’d suggest TDK. Other popular brands are Sony, Plexor, TEAC and HP. They are pretty easy to install, you just want to make sure it’s set to master and plugged into the secondary master slot on your motherboard (Your hard drive would be the primary master).

Keyboard, mouse and monitors are all to your personal liking. Logitech sells some pretty good stuff if you are looking for direction for mouse and keyboards. I’ve had good luck with KDS monitors, cheap and with good support.

As for OS, I like XP. You can get a full version under $100 and it should do you nicely.

Hope this helps and good luck.

I did not know this thanks for the advice. I went to check this and I found at one store they give you a list of suggestions of what other people bought that also bought XP. There were a lot of 99 cent cables that were purchased by other people along with windows.

Building a computer is easy. It’s also easy to get wrong. To minimise this, I’d suggest you look at one of the SFF (Shuttle or Biostar) systems. Virtually everything is on the motherboard and they supply it half set up. Plug in CPU, memory, HDD, and DVD drive and you’re set.

I build my own because I know exactly what I want but if you think you will save money you are mistaken. You can probably buy a system cheaper ready made. They have economies of scale which you don’t. It will save you time and headaches. You just don’t get to nitpick every single part but, if you are asking for advice that is not what you want to do anyway.

Where are you?

I live near silicon valley - there are custom building shops about every 3 blocks around here - if you’ve never built a PC before, find one of these places - the machines come pre-assembled, with YOUR choice of software - no spyware, no useless crap.

an example (I no longer use them (I can do better on price, and I have the anti-static foam, spare cables, power supplies, keyboards, etc which make building a system much easier) is

If you still want to build:

Yes, buy the software (“OEM edition”) with the hardware - save 50% on MS stuff.
If you can convince certain shops that you are a student, MS makes a bunch of stuff available at “educational” discount - dirt cheap.

Buy Asus motherboard, Seagate drive, Sony or Mitsumi floppy.
(other names I don’t have such strong opinions)

The enemy is static - one little spack, and your m/b is toast - make sure you discharge any static before touching a component - touching the bare frame of the case is a good technique.

I once typed a 2-page document on how to swap a motherboard, but I’m lazy.

Do you know about primary and secondary IDE circuits? The signifigance of the stripe on a ribbon cable? Are you aware that not every UDE cable will fit every IDE cable slot (you can ruin a motherboard over that one)?

Exactly where are you on the learning curve?

One recommendation I’d make is to go to TigerDirect and choose a Barebone kit. There are a few advantages:

[li]They choose the right motherboard/processor/fan combination for you.[/li][li]They have bundled pricing that is very competitive - it is cheaper than a Dell or Compaq.[/li][li]You save on shipping compared to buying your components from separate places.[/li][/list=1]

I had never built my own computer before, and had a great experience. I got a great system with an Athlon XP 1500 processor (which was extremely fast compared to my Dell Pentium III), DVD burner, 512 meg of memory, 120 gig hard drive, keyboard, mouse, and a Chieftec case for $400 and had the satisfaction of assembling it myself.

I build my own computers ('cept the laptops) and think it would be a great educational experience for you. Why don’t you a study guide for the A+ certification and study that while you put together your new pc; take the certification test when you’re done.

Of course, after you do that, you have to get into modding.:cool:

mmm… forbidden doughnut: If you don’t want to do gaming, don’t bother with Windows. Linux will do all of the things you want and isn’t as big of a pain in the ass about it (especially when it comes to security). Buying a boxed set of Red Hat or Debian will not only cost less, but you won’t have to worry about the newest virus or whether you’ll need to re-register if you upgrade some components.

Well, start with some breadboards and a whole lot of NAND chips…