So here you are. You’ve got your CPU, Motherboard and RAM. You have your graphics card and main storage, alongside your case and power supply. Your various peripherals and your monitor have arrived and it’s time to put everything together. This is the point where things become a little trickier.
If you’re not experienced with putting together a PC from scratch, then this is not something you should undertake lightly. Find a friend with some real experience, or speak to a local PC repair shop, about getting some assistance. The last thing that you want to do is to ruin some crucial component through mishandling or improper installation. As such, this article isn’t going to break down every little step in building your final PC, for two main reasons. The first is that it would make the article far too long; I’d need to write for days to cover everything you need to know. It would probably require a whole new series of articles to do the topic any justice. The second reason is that Zero1Gaming is a gaming website, and there are countless other sites out there that will be able to assist you with the nitty-gritty should you encounter any problems.
What I intend with this article is to point out a few common flaws that most people make when building a PC, alongside one or two shortcuts or tips that I’ve come across in my time working with PCs. If you have any questions that you’d like to ask about anything I’ve said across the span of any of my articles, you can do so in the comments below. With that said, we’ll begin with the construction of your PC.
To start off with, make sure you’re grounded before even opening a box. This can be accomplished in a couple of ways, the easiest of which is to touch an earthed metal object. This can be something like a tap or a cooker; anything that will dissipate any static charge you might have about your person. The other method is to use an anti-static wristband, but I would discourage you from taking these too seriously. In all of my time working with the insides of PCs, I have never once had anything go wrong as a result of static discharge. It really is a non-issue, as long as you aren’t literally shuffling around in wool socks over an acetate floor. Take the time to occasionally touch some earthed metal and you’ll be fine.
When installing the various components into your PC case, you want to do the motherboard and power supply first. They can be done in either order, but I prefer to install the motherboard before the PSU, simply because it’s easier to ensure you have everything secure. Mount the backing plate (the metal strip with the holes cut out for the motherboard’s various ports) to the back of the case; this is normally done from the inside pushing out, with a firm press in all four corners giving it the purchase it needs to stay put. Make sure you screw in the brass mounting pins for your motherboard, lining them up with the eventual position of the 9 or 12 screw holes in your motherboard. Also take note of your CPU’s heat sink and fan assembly, which may require you to mount a bottom plate on the reverse of the motherboard before installation.
When installing your PSU, simply ensure that you align any dust protectors correctly and keep the cabling out of the way for the moment. It may be prudent to have some cable ties handy, since these are a fine way of keeping your wires tidy when it comes to connecting everything up. Once you have your motherboard and PSU in place, you have the beginnings of a system in place. Next up can be the most difficult part of the installation: your processor.
Please note that this is the one part you really cannot get wrong. Any misstep here can and often will cause you major headaches somewhere down the line, if not immediately. If you have bought a motherboard with the CPU and heatsink already installed, you can safely ignore this part, since you’ve had the legwork done for you by someone with nerves of steel. If you have bought your CPU boxed separately, however, then it’s all on you. First of all, determine if the thermal paste is pre-applied to your heat sink; in most cases, it will be, which saves you a great deal of hassle. If not, then the onus is once again placed on you to source some and apply it yourself. Some good brands are Arctic Silver 5 or Akasa – always opt for the silver-based pastes and not the silicone ones, since I have noted problems with the latter in my personal experience.
Putting your CPU into your motherboard can be nerve wracking, but just take it slow and triple-check everything you do. Line up any arrows or markings as instructed. Ensure it is seated firmly and securely before you close that lever arm. As long as you’re 100% sure you’ve followed every instruction to the letter, don’t fret if it seems stiff, even if it makes a little noise or seems to be pushing harder than it should. When installing my Core i5 Sandy-Bridge a year or so back, it made little “scratches” along the metal sides of the top of the processor – this didn’t happen with older models, so it was new to me and caused no end of worry until I discovered that it had happened to many others when installing their own processors. If you’re in any doubt, consult the internet or the processor manufacturer’s helpline.
When you’ve got the processor installed, it’s time to attach the heat sink. If you checked before and the thermal paste was pre-applied, then you’re good to go. If not, then now’s the time to apply it to your processor. Consult your processor manual for exact specifications on how to apply the thermal paste, but for most processors, the advice will be the same: apply a tiny amount to the exact centre of the metal top of your CPU. This little sphere of paste needs to be smaller than a pea; it is crucial that you do not apply too much or too little. Imagine it spreading out to a wafer-thin disc across the top of your CPU; if there are any gaps in this disc, air bubbles will form and your processor will overheat. Too much paste will make the disc too thick, meaning heat won’t transfer as efficiently and your processor will overheat. This is not something that should be attempted by those not confident, so be extra sure you’re willing to take the risk if this is your first time. Consult the internet for more help should you need it.
Once the thermal paste is applied (either by yourself or the manufacturer), then you need to attach the heat sink and fan to the motherboard. Different heat sinks have different methods of attaching to the board, but a good rule of thumb is to secure it in a diagonally-opposite order. Treat the pins or brackets as points of a compass, fastening them in the order of North, South, East and West. Of course, if your manual says differently, then follow their instructions above mine. Remember to plug in the CPU fan to the motherboard – there’ll be a dedicated connector on the motherboard just next to the CPU for this exact purpose.
Congratulations; the hard part is mostly over. The rest of the assembly is more or less straightforward and really only involves plugging the right things into one another. Attach the power cables from your PSU to your motherboard (both the 20 or 24-pin one and the 4 or 8-pin one). Check the inside-front of your case for the power button and front panel cables, which will attach to your motherboard to provide functionality like your power button, power LED and suchlike. The connectors for these are normally at the bottom-right of your motherboard when seen from above; the exact order the cables go in is normally referred to as a “pin out” specification and will be included with your motherboard’s manual.
You can go ahead and put in your RAM at any point, making sure to align the gap in the pins with the plastic of the RAM slot. Again, a rule of thumb is to insert the RAM as close to the processor as possible if you’re not using all of the slots, but defer to the instructions given by the motherboard’s manual in all cases. Next up is your graphics card, which will sit in one of the PCI-Express slots on your motherboard, which should be coloured differently and clearly marked. Most new graphics cards will be “double-spaced”, meaning they need twice the room of older models. Remove any metal PCI backplates (straight bits of metal at the bottom-rear of your PC) that will be in the way and ensure the card has the room it needs. Slot it into the PCI-E slot and secure it with the provided screws. Make sure and plug in any power cables it requires – don’t use any splitters or converters provided by the card manufacturer if you can help it; it’s always better to get the power directly from the PSU if at all possible, without any intervening adapters.
Add any optical and hard drives last, when you’ve got all the crucial components installed. Attach any case fan power cables to the motherboard (or Molex power cables, depending on design). Connect up any SATA cables that you need, making sure to get the right port for the job; typically, SSDs will only see their full speed benefit when connected to newer SATA 6Gbps ports, which should be clearly marked on the motherboard or in the manual. Similarly, optical drives tend not to like the newer SATA ports and so should be plugged into the lower SATA 3Gbps connectors if at all possible. Connect up any front-panel USB or audio cables (usually coloured with white plastic guides on the end) to the motherboard, along with anything else that your manual specifies. Lastly, start plugging in the SATA power connectors to your hard drives and optical drives, then stand back and survey your work.
This is the point where cable management is needed, as chances are you’ve got a mess of cables running in every direction, overlapping and generally making a mess of things. While it’s not essential, cable management does ensure that none of your wires are going to start hitting your CPU or graphics card fans. Assess which cables go where in your case; see if there’s anywhere they could be fastened to provide a neater interior, while still leaving your options open for future upgrades. Stow any unused cables into gaps in your drive bays, where they won’t get in your way.
And that, in a nutshell, is that. All that remains is plugging your various peripherals and your monitor into your PC and firing it up. Make sure to configure your BIOS to boot from your optical drive to begin with, since you’ll need to install Windows before you can do any gaming. If you encounter any problems with your build, the internet is really your best resource for advice and help. Make sure you use the disc provided by your motherboard manufacturer to install the basic drivers needed to make your computer work, but try to avoid installing any “crapware” that may accompany it. As soon as you can, update your drivers – especially your graphics ones – and ensure that you have a fully working PC before you even think about downloading Steam or installing Skyrim.
Looking back on this article – and this series as a whole – makes me think that it’s somewhat rushed. But that’s my PC-repair day job speaking, since the topic of choosing components and building a PC is so much more complex than I could ever hope to pin down completely. What I hope I’ve accomplished with these seven articles is to provide some help and advice to those who may just have needed that little extra push towards building their own PC. If you have any questions or would like to discuss the choices I made in this series, feel free to leave a comment below.
Thank you all for reading and I wish you well in your PC building endeavours!
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A twenty-something gamer from the North-East of Scotland. By day, I’m a Computer Technician at a local IT recycling charity, where I fix and build PCs. Outside of that, most of my time is spent either sleeping or gaming, which I try accomplish in equal amounts.