If you missed part 1, go here.
What components are necessary?
These are the bare minimum components that are necessary to have a working computer for home or office use.
- CPU – Central Processing Unit, aka Chip
- RAM – Random Access Memory
- Storage Disk – Hard drive/SSD
- Power Supply
- Operating System & Other Software
- Peripherals – Monitor, Keyboard, Mouse, Speakers
What other components could I get?
These components may not be necessary, or they may be only necessary because you have special applications that require them.
- Video Card aka Graphics Card aka GPU
- Optical Drive aka DVD drive or BluRay Drive
- Wireless networking card or USB
- External Storage/RAID
- Cooling System
Sidebar Mention – Raspberry Pi
Finally, this part won’t be complete without a special mention of the Raspberry Pi. This is a super affordable option for those who want to experiment.
CPU – Central Processing Unit
The CPU is one of the first items you need to choose. There’s no reason not to choose a CPU that is one of the newest generation of processors. Technology advances so quickly that computers two years old are less powerful than new computers. And the CPU is a big part of that technology. The two big CPU manufacturers are Intel and AMD. You’ll want to consider the speed of the processor and how many cores. When Intel and AMD processors are compared side by side, usually Intel is slightly more expensive, but also slightly more reliable. I have always used Intel processors, but if you’re more budget conscious, go ahead and get an AMD processor. If you plan on upgrading frequently, the AMD will be more cost efficient. If you want your computer to last many years ( > 5 yrs), Intel processors will be your best choice.
Whichever CPU you choose, make note of the socket size. This helps align it with a compatible motherboard. Intel CPUs use socket names like LGA 1155, which refers to the pin layout, where LGA means “Land Grid Array”. AMD CPUs have socket names like AM4, FM2+, sTR4.
There used to be a choice between 32-bit processors and 64-bit processors, but I believe 32-bit processors are going away. If you happen to see one, don’t bother getting it unless you know for a fact you have a requirement for software that does not run on 64 bit. 32-bit processors will soon be obsolete.
I highly, highly, highly, highly recommend choosing either the CPU or the motherboard first. You may want a motherboard with specific features. Or you may want a fast CPU that has many different motherboards to choose from. But, these two components are the most important in your build and they must be compatible. Think of them like a Beta video player and Beta tapes – you need both in order to watch a Beta tape. You can’t use a VHS tape in a Beta player. (Too old school? Sorry!)
Oh, and don’t forget the CPU cooler/heat sink and thermal paste! What is thermal paste? It’s a paste that helps the processor more efficiently move heat away to the CPU cooler and it is essential! Check your CPU – some of them come with a cooler (or you can buy a fancier one) and thermal paste. My last CPU that I bought already had paste pre-applied on the stock cooler. All I had to do was install the cooler onto the CPU. Oh, and what’s a cooler? It’s usually fins and a fan that sits on top of the CPU. Many people choose to buy an after market heat sink (or must due to requirements). You can also get really fancy and buy a liquid cooled cooling system. The advantages of these are they are more efficient at cooling, but also much more complicated and expensive.
The motherboard is as important as, if not more important than the CPU. The motherboard contains the means to attach features you want in your computer. For example, I didn’t want to mess with WiFi cards, so I picked out a motherboard that incorporated WiFi directly on the motherboard. I also knew I wanted a graphics card, so I needed at least one PCIe slot. PCIe is a type of expansion slot and you will need to know which slots go with which features. There are some new ones as well: M.2 slots can hold an SSD or other device.
When choosing a motherboard, if you already have a CPU, you have to choose one that will fit your CPU. You must narrow down the search with the CPU socket size. Also, the same considerations you had for picking the CPU apply to picking the motherboard as well. I knew I wanted DDR4 memory on my new computer, so I made sure the motherboard I chose supported it.
Also be aware of the size of the motherboard, aka the form factor. ATX, mini ATX, and micro ATX are the popular form factors. If you need a lot of features, you’ll need a larger motherboard, and hence a larger computer. But if you imagined a little tiny box sitting on your desk, you’ll need a smaller motherboard.
RAM – Random Access Memory
RAM is a very important component in your build. When I built my first computer way back when, I did not put in very much RAM. And I regretted it. It wasn’t long before I had to buy more to make up for my mistake. Therefore, I am of the opinion that one can’t have too much RAM. The amount you can get will depend on your CPU and your motherboard. Large motherboards will hold 4 sticks of RAM; smaller ones may only have 2. RAM began with DDR and advanced through DDR2, DDR3, and now we have DDR4. Check your motherboard specs, as there is still DDR3 floating around, as of the date of this article.
What does RAM actually do for you? RAM is what helps your computer run efficiently. It helps you access files quickly; it helps games run faster; it helps load webpages faster. If you don’t have enough RAM, you will get some pretty weird effects that you won’t enjoy. Get as much as you can afford!
Storage Disk – Hard drive/SSD
With the prevalence of “the cloud” which I still can’t write without quotes around it because it sounds ridiculous, some may argue that storage on a computer is superfluous. Guess where I stand on that. Here, we will assume that you are using your computer for IMPORTANT THINGS, so we will talk about storage disks. There are two types of storage currently: big and slow, or small and nimble. Big and slow means normal hard drives which are mechanical spinning magnetic platters (HDD). You will have lots and lots of storage, but it will be slow. Small and nimble will be your solid state drives which are, um, solid state (SSD). If you need lots of storage, I recommend HDD. Otherwise, get the largest SSD you can afford and your computer will be blazing fast. You can also do a compromise by getting a small SSD to put your operating system on, and a large, cheap HDD to store all your files on. This allows you to have the quick boot up time on the SSD and then plentiful storage for your work.
Why is including an SSD so important? Namely, the read/write speed on a HDD is incomparable to an SSD. The HDD spins a disk on which information is stored. This spinning limits the speed at which the HDD can access information. SSDs are just microchips that store data. They have no moving parts, and don’t put out as much heat and require less power than HDDs. But, they are byte for byte (or rather gigabyte for gigabyte), more expensive than HDDs. This is why I recommend using HDDs if you need a lot of storage (and are on a budget). But you can still use the SSD to speed your boot-up by putting the operating system on an SSD.
For all of these various components you also need a way to provide power. The power supply is very important. If you don’t have enough power for all your components, your computer will not work. Luckily, as technology has progressed, components have become more efficient and the same amount of power can go a lot further than 5 or 10 years ago.
In order to pick your power supply, you’ll need to know all the components you will have in your computer. Here is where PCpartpicker.com will come in handy. Enter in all your components into this website and it will tell you the estimated wattage of all your parts. I like to add 100-200 watts to the estimate in case of future expansion or overclocking the CPU.
Most power supplies should have plenty of hook ups for your components, but if you have something a little different, make sure your power supply has the proper connector. You can pick fully modular or semi modular to help with this. Examples of power supply connectors are pictured here: ATX for the motherboard, P4 for the CPU, SATA for drives, PCI-E for graphics cards, and Molex for fans.
Operating System & Other Software
Here at TechDifferent there is only one operating system to consider. Linux! Just kidding. (Sort of;) You can also install FreeBSD. Or, if you must have Windows or the current Mac OS, feel free to waste your money on them. Actually, OS X is free, so that is fine, but it is not Open Source, so I highly recommend one of the first two options. (I’ll explain why in a future post!) Pick a Linux Distro here. Check out the list of the current most popular flavors of Linux down the right hand side.
Seriously, you’ll want to know the kind of software you’ll need in order to pick which operating system to use. The catch with Windows is that if you need to upgrade your motherboard or CPU at some point, you’ll most likely need to buy another instance of Windows. Microsoft does not work well when the computer it thought it was installed on suddenly changes. If you just change RAM, or add an SSD or change power supplies, it should be fine. But any significant changes will require a new operating system install.
By the way, don’t be afraid of picking “the wrong” operating system. If you start using something and decide you don’t like it, it’s very easy to install a different one. Just make sure your important files are backed up to a portable drive or “the cloud” before you switch.
I’m assuming you will have a normal desktop computer and not a computer as desk. (Though that would be sweet!) So, you will have to house all your components in a case. This is what everyone will see when they see your computer and you may want to have something cool to show your friends. They may not see your motherboard, but they will definitely see your case. Or maybe you don’t care what your case looks like because it will be sitting under a desk in your office. Either way, the flashier cases will tend to cost more.
You will need to strike a good balance between function and form. You need something that fits your motherboard. You need something that fits your power supply and peripherals (usually graphics cards are the biggest item after motherboard). Also think about where this will sit. If it will be on a desk, do you have any weight restrictions or height restrictions? Does it need to be tall and narrow or short and squat? Do you want a flashy window (or two) to show off the guts of your computer? Are you getting an optical drive to play DVDs or CDs that requires a 5.25″ outside drive bay? Where do you want the power button located: front or top? Do you want it made from a specific material? Do you need access to USB ports in the front? There are a hundred different things to consider, not to mention quality. If you buy a cheap case, it will most likely be made cheaply and be difficult to work with. If this is your first build, I’d go with something that has many reviews online so you know you’re getting something that will work.
Peripherals – Monitor, Keyboard, Mouse, Speakers
Don’t forget, if you don’t have them already, you’ll need a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. You may also need speakers depending on your usage requirements. The only issue here is what kind of connection the monitor needs. It used to be all VGA connections, but now HDMI has come into the picture [pun intended] and some [new] monitors may only have HDMI connections. Pay attention to what your motherboard and graphics card, if you have one, support. Many new components do not have support for the old connections.
Keyboards and mice should be plug and play. However, if you have really old keyboard/mouse they may have the older PS/2 connection instead of the now ubiquitous USB connection. Be sure your motherboard has the PS/2 connector if you need it. Otherwise, you may have to purchase a USB adapter.
Video Card aka Graphics Card aka GPU
I did not have a graphics card, aka GPU, aka video card, in my first build and I didn’t need one. Everything I did, including watching YouTube videos and Netflix, worked fine without a stand-alone graphics card. However, if you want to use multiple monitors for more work space, or you do a lot of video editing or play advanced video games, you’ll want a graphics card. This is merely a CPU specially made and set on its own circuit board, packaged to process graphics. Typically they fit in a PCI or PCI-Express slot. Often they come with their own cooler – usually one or two fans or some fins, and take up more than one expansion bay at the back of the computer.
Optical Drive aka DVD drive or BluRay Drive
Due to the ubiquitousness (is that a word?) of USB, the optical drive is going by the wayside just like 8-track tapes. (Anyone not know that reference??) However, if you enjoy using your computer as a home theater (and still buy DVDs/Blu-Ray discs) or if you like to back up your media to a NAS (network attached storage) or RAID, you may want a DVD or Blu-Ray player.
Wireless networking card or USB
I don’t know how anyone has a home computer without wireless these days. I could never have my computer immediately next to the modem wherever I lived and I never wanted to string a 50+ ft ethernet cord through my apartment. So, I always need a wireless card or USB device. A card is advantageous if you worry about knocking out a USB dongle. A USB is advantageous if you don’t have a spare PCIe slot in your motherboard. (This is why I picked a motherboard with integrated wireless for my newest computer!)
Honestly, external storage is something everyone should have. How much and what kind is the question. This is for storing backups onsite. It should have enough room to fit all your important documents and files and it should be easy to access. The popular option these days is to have a NAS, or Network Attached Storage. This is device you can connect to wirelessly to transfer files. I don’t have one myself, but you can find them on any computer shopping sites. I use a 2 TB USB pocket drive for my backups. Another, more advanced option is to build a RAID – Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks. Despite the name, this will probably be the most expensive route, but you can hold a lot of data. Also, depending on which type of RAID you build, you can have 1 or more disks fail without losing data.
Every CPU (and GPU) requires cooling. Most processors come with their own stock cooler to dissipate heat. But if you plan to overclock or run your CPU to capacity for long periods of time, you might want to get a separate cooling system. They can be as basic as several large fins to dissipate heat or a whole system cycling liquid coolant through the case with LEDs for interest. You may also want extra fans that don’t come with your case.
A Special Mention
This article would not be complete without mentioning the Raspberry Pi. The Pi is a special case because, rather than a full fledged computer, it is a mini motherboard with lots of potential. It is a very big deal in education circles because they provide hands-on learning experiences for students at a cheap cost. This does not have the power of a typical home computer, so you don’t want to use it to surf the web. Because of its small size and low power requirements, it can fit where other computers can’t and do jobs that other computers are not flexible enough for.
Here on Amazon you can order a Raspberry Pi 3 kit and get started making your own project for less than $100. It can also be used as a controller for various gadgets you want to make yourself. One person made themself an arcade game. Another used one to monitor his home’s energy usage. Now, this will involve a bit of programming in addition to putting hardware together. But, the possibilities are endless. Check out this page of ideas for what to do with a Raspberry Pi.
Finally, for those of you who prefer a more interactive experience, I found this video that explains general tips and tricks for picking out parts.
Thanks for reading! Next week I’ll post how to put it all together!