As PC enthusiasts and gaming enthusiasts, we love to build our own PCs. After all, making your PC from scratch is much more cost-effective and personal to your needs than buying a pre-built PC. However, what if you’re not really sure how to get started?
There are a lot of delicate components in a PC, and unknowingly doing the wrong thing with the wrong part is an excellent way to ruin your investment. PCs are sensitive, finicky things, and there are many things you need to learn before building a PC on your own is a good idea.
With this guide, we’ll walk you through all of the things you need to know to build your own gaming (or non-gaming, if you prefer – the steps are the same) PC.
Step One: Plan
Before you do anything else, it’s always a smart idea to plan out your PC. We’re talking as many aspects as possible here – plan your budget, plan the size of your PC, plan where you’ll put it, anything you can think of. Leave no stone unturned, because if you do, you could end up paying for it later.
Your budget should be the first place you start with your PC. First, set an overall budget that you want to stick to. We don’t recommend going below about $300 for gaming, but for a utility PC, that budget may be sufficient depending on what you’re using it for.
If you want to be able to play modern games on your PC, it’s good to start at at least $400 or $500. For future-proofing, you can step that up to $600 or $700. However, by the time you’re in or above the $800 range, you’ll have a PC that should be able to play modern titles until its internal components start to wear out of you decide to get rid of it – whichever comes first.
Now is when you should start researching different PC components. Various components will cost different amounts of money, so you may have to go through a few different iterations of your shopping list before you finally create something that fits your budget.
This is the time in the process where you will want to be extra thorough with your research. Many different parts of a PC, from GPUs to CPUs and motherboards, come in generations that succeed each other every few years. The newer the item, the more expensive it will be compared to an equivalent one from the previous generation.
As always, there will be budget and premium options available, too, even in new generations. When deciding which items are best for your gaming PC, you’ll generally be choosing between three things:
- A top-of-the-line, future-proof component from a recent generation
- A mid-tier, affordable, but still moderately future-proofed part from the latest generation
- A luxury component from a past generation that has fallen in price, but still performs well
- A budget component from a recent generation that’s meant to save you money at the cost of performance
Which option you choose will generally depend on what’s available, how carefully you shop, what your budget is, and whether or not any sales or going on.
Cyber Monday, for example, is a retail holiday that takes place every year that sees sharp price declines in many different PC components. Similar sales happen throughout the year as new generations are released and item stocks are sold off.
Choosing Your Components
Picking out your components is the most time-consuming part of the PC building process. Besides needing to pick out elements that match up with what you’re looking for, you’ll need to pick components that work together, too.
For example, you always want to purchase an Intel CPU with an Intel motherboard, and so on. Just because two parts are made to fit together doesn’t mean they’ll work well together!
If you’re not sure whether two components will work together, there are generally a few different things you can do about it:
- Check the device’s documentation and specifications. Incompatible devices of certain kinds should be listed here.
- Do an internet search about it. If PC builders have experienced problems with two parts before, you’ll likely find information about it on the net.
- Search related forums. PC building forums are wonderful resources for information, and if you have questions that you can’t find the answer to, you can always post your own question. While you may have to wait a while for an answer, it may prevent you from buying an incompatible part or making some other mistake down the road.
Your budget, your intended size, and what features you’re looking for will be the main contributors to which parts you pick. However, keep an eye out for parts that just don’t work well, too. We have hundreds of buying guides here on GamingScan that can guide you through the very best of certain components if you need a place to start.
Your Parts List
While some PCs have more components than others, there is a list of basic components you always need to build a functional, reliable gaming PC. We’ll go over these parts below.
PC Case or Chassis
A PC case is the exoskeleton of your entire build, and while you can technically build a functional PC without a case, we do not recommend it! A PC case protects your delicate internal components from dust, liquids, jostling, and other dangers that could ruin them.
A PC case also holds everything in place and helps it connect, too, in addition to directing the flow of air (or water) around hot components. How well your PC cools is partially up to how good the airflow in your case is, so if you plan to put any sort of strain on your new PC, try to find a case with decent airflow.
If you set your heart on a case that doesn’t flow well, there are things you can do to mitigate the issue. Liquid cooling setups, while expensive, aren’t as dependent on fans and airflow as air-cooled builds are. Alternatively, a PC that will not be put under as much stress will not depend as much on airflow, either.
Making sure your PC has adequate airflow is part of building a safe, reliable PC. A PC without proper cooling support could end up overheating, damaging internal components, or even starting a fire. We recommend keeping a close eye on your computer’s load temperatures for the first few months to make sure you have enough fans (or a proper liquid cooling setup).
PCs come in several different sizes, and you should pick a size before you start narrowing down your final choices. Several less-common sizes that are meant for niche builds (Super towers and NUC PCs). The ones you’ll need to concern yourself with are:
- Full-tower cases
- Mid-tower cases
- Mini-tower cases (or micro ATX cases)
- Small form-factor cases (or mini ITX cases)
Generally, the sizes of these cases will align with specific motherboard sizes for convenience’s sake. We’ll go over these more in the Motherboard section. Keep in mind that, the larger your tower, the more powerful your PC has the potential to be.
While small PCs can be plenty powerful, it tends to be more expensive to buy specially-size parts for them, and you tend to run into other issues when everything’s close together, too.
The bottom line is that, in a larger case, there’s more room for airflow and more room for parts, such as GPUs, RAM, and SSDs. However, cases become more expensive as they get larger, too. For first-time PC builders, it’s generally best to stick with a mid-tower PC unless you know what you’re doing.
Some mini-tower PCs can be acceptable, too, but stay away from small form-factor chassis and full-tower cases unless you need one for a particular reason. Streamers and video editors, for example, can benefit from full-tower PCs, as they need truly beefy computers to be able to handle so much data every day.
Motherboards are the next most crucial part of your PC build. The motherboard is the mortar that holds all of your PC’s components together and lets them interface.
There are a few things you should know about motherboards. Firstly, they come in several sizes, and as we mentioned, these sizes typically match up to your PC case size. Additionally, motherboards are usually manufactured by one of two companies: Intel and AMD.
When choosing a motherboard, you will need to make sure that your chosen CPU is made by the same company as your motherboard. If you’ve purchased an AMD motherboard, your CPU needs to be AMD, too, and vice versa.
If you’ve decided to choose a mid-tower case, as we recommended above, you should be looking at ATX motherboards, as these will fit best in your mid-tower cases. The full list of the most common motherboard sizes includes:
- E-ATX (or Extended ATX)
- mATX (or Micro ATX)
- mITX (or Mini ITX)
There are a few other fringe sizes available, but you won’t need to concern yourself with those for your first build. Generally, full-tower cases can fit any size motherboard, while mid-tower cases can fit ATX and below, mini-tower cases can fit mATX and below, and small form-factor cases can fit only mITX motherboards.
Generally, the bigger your motherboard is, the more powerful it has the potential to be. Larger motherboards have more spaces for things line RAM, GPUs, HDDs or SSDs, and sometimes even multiple CPUs. However, unless you’ll be doing demanding tasks like streaming or 3D modeling, you shouldn’t need more than what a standard ATX board can offer.
Power Supply Units (PSUs)
The PSU essential to any PC. It’s what gives your computer power and electricity! However, you might not be aware than PSUs, despite being virtually the same between manufacturers, also have a few things you need to know about.
Firstly, just as computer cases do, PSUs can come in several form factors and types. If you have a smaller computer, you need to have a smaller PSU, after all. For simplicity’s sake, you should look for PSUs based on the same specifications of your motherboard. If you’ve chosen an ATX motherboard, for example, an ATX PSU will be sufficient for your build.
Remember that PSUs come in different power levels, too. When building your PC, take into account the total wattage requirements of all of the power-consuming aspects of your PC. Programs like the Power Supply Calculator from Newegg can be very helpful for this, but be sure to leave a little extra for future upgrades to your PC, too.
PSUs also have efficiency ratings, similar to furnaces in homes. Never dip below about an 80% efficiency rating on your PSUs, as anything listed as less could come from unreputable sources. Moreover, a less-efficient PSU will result in energy loss and, as such, higher electrical use. The more efficient your PSU, the more expensive it will be, so try to find a happy medium between efficiency and price.
Central Processing Units (CPUs)
The CPU, as you probably know, is the intelligence behind everything your computer does. As such, having a low-quality CPU can cause what’s called a “bottleneck” if it’s not powerful enough for the rest of your computer. When a bottleneck happens, it means the other components in the computer are processing information faster than the CPU can handle it, and your CPU is likely struggling to keep up.
Besides putting stress on the CPU, a bottleneck also leaves other components of your PC idling or waiting for instructions when they could be working. This equates to an instant performance loss.
To prevent CPU bottlenecks from happening, make sure your CPU is powerful enough to keep up with the rest of your computer. When building a custom PC, you will want most of your components to be roughly of the same quality caliber. If you’re buying a luxury GPU, for example, plan to buy a premium CPU, as well, and so on.
If, instead, you decide to use a budget CPU with cutting-edge graphics cards, you’re likely to cause a bottleneck. Bottleneck Calculators exist on the ‘net to help you avoid this if you’re not sure.
When looking at CPUs, there are three metrics you should remember: cores, threads, and clock speed. Generally, the higher your cores, threads, and clock speeds, the better the CPU can perform, but the clock speed is usually the most critical metric. You’ll need to choose between Intel and AMD CPUs, too.
However, how new the CPU is also makes a huge difference, as numerically-identical PCs produced in different years can show vastly different performances. Generally, it’s better to buy a budget CPU from the newest generation than it is to buy a higher-end CPU from an older age.
Another term you’ll hear used in conjunction with CPUs is overclocking. Essentially, overclocking means over-tuning the CPU to get more performance out of it. However, overclocking can be a tricky thing to do, as overclocking your CPU too much or too hastily can cause permanent damage to your PC. Instead of worrying about overclocking for your first build, try stepping up to a higher-quality CPU instead.
Random Access Memory (RAM)
The RAM of a computer works side-by-side with your CPU in order to process tasks. Your RAM’s speed makes a minimal difference in how efficient your computer is, but the most important metric is how much RAM you have.
Multiple channels (i.e., multiple units running concurrently) is essential, too, as this multiplies your productivity. Try to look for at least dual-channel RAM, but quad-channel is better if it fits your budget. The size of your motherboard and how many RAM slots it has will determine just how much RAM you can add to your computer.
Another term you’ll hear in conjunction with ram is the term DDR4. Essentially, there are a few different “rates” of RAM transfer, and DDR4 is the best option for PC builders at the moment. Resist the urge to purchase DDR3 ram, even if it’s significantly cheaper.
Minimally, you want at least 4GB of RAM in a gaming computer (8GB is better). However, some high-quality motherboards can handle much more than that. Generally, 16GB of RAM is more than enough for modern gaming titles, but you can go up to 32GB if you need the extra power for other tasks.
SSD (Solid State Drive) And HDD (Hard Disk Drive)
SSDs and HDDs are two different types of computer storage. HDDs, or Hard Disk Drives, have been around for years, while SSDs are a newer technology. The two memory types accomplish the same end result, but the way they work is entirely different.
HDDs, as an older form of technology, come in much larger sizes and much lower prices than SSDs do. It’s common to purchase HDs in the terabytes for relatively cheap, while terabyte-sized SSDs can cost hundreds of dollars. SSDs are continuing to become bigger and cheaper over time, but it’s still common for most gaming PCs to have both HDDs and SSDs available for use.
One of the most fundamental differences between HDDs and SSDs is their speed. HDDs are great for loading games that you don’t play as much. This is because HDDs are slower to access than SSDs, but they tend to be larger. They also have moving parts, making them a bit less durable than SSDs.
SSDs, on the other hand, can be accessed much more quickly, so loading times in games and programs are faster. As such, FPS games and games with long loading screens work great on SSDs. Your computer will boot much faster if the operating system is installed on an SSD, too. They have no moving parts.
Essentially, an HDD is like a CD in a disk drive. The computer writes and re-writes data to the HDD as needed for storage, and then it spins the disc when it needs to access data in a specific location. An SSD, on the other hand, is more like a memory card. When the computer needs to access an SSD, it merely sends a signal to where the data is located on the SSD and reads it.
Graphics Cards (GPUs)
Graphics cards, or GPUs, are the powerhouses behind rendered games and visuals. While your CPU works hand-in-hand with your RAM and your GPU to produce a full gaming experience, your GPU, as the name suggests, is most responsible for the rendering aspect of the process.
If you’re familiar with gaming in any capacity, you probably know a decent amount about GPUs already. As such, you know that the clock speed on your GPU is only marginally significant; while you can overclock GPUs, it’s usually more worth your time and energy to just upgrade to a better one.
Instead, the VRAM, or Video RAM, is the most important metric on your graphics card. Always get at least GDDR5 VRAM in your graphics card, and try to stay above 2GB. 2GB of VRAM will run most modern games at modified settings. If you want to run games at maximum settings at 1080p, you should upgrade to 4GB. If you’re going to push your resolution to QHD or 4k, consider investing in 8GB of VRAM.
When purchasing a graphics card, it’s a good idea to benchmark them before you buy, just like with CPUs. Numerous sites on the web exist for both CPU and GPU benchmarks, such as Passmark and UserBenchmark.
Peripherals And Other Necessities
You now have all the parts you need to build a functional gaming PC! However, if you want your computer to function at its full potential, there are a few extra things you need first. We’ll go over these extras below.
The most essential peripherals you’ll need for interfacing with your computer are your mouse, monitor, and keyboard. Without a mouse and keyboard, it’s nearly impossible to communicate with your PC, let alone effectively. However, even with a mouse and keyboard, you can’t see what you’re doing without a monitor!
Fortunately, your mouse and keyboard, along with most other peripherals, work independently of your other PC parts: i.e., any mouse, keyboard, and monitor will work with any PC. As such, your peripheral buys don’t need to be handled with the same care and planning as your internal components do.
- A gaming headset
- A programmable gamepad controller
- A PC-enabled console controller
- A webcam
- Mouse upgrades, such as gaming mice with programmable buttons
- Keyboard upgrades, such as mechanical keyboards
Of course, if you want all of these peripherals to work, you need one crucial thing: an Operating System (OS). Some operating systems, such as Linux, are free to download online, but they don’t have the same support that Microsoft Windows or “Hackintosh” computers have. For your first build, we recommend purchasing a copy of Windows 10 to make things easy.
Now, you’ve got all of the pieces you need to get your computer up and running! Enjoy your new gaming PC! If you have any further questions, check the many guides available here on GamingScan for advice, product reviews, and troubleshooting ideas.