Before embarking on a build, we can’t stress how important it is to check your chosen hardware is compatible to ensure a smooth, and fulfilling, experience. First-timers, swept up in the exhilaration of buying components and putting together a machine, often neglect this crucial part of the process and pay for it down the line in wasted time.
Hardware is expensive, and there’s nothing worse than fitting a CPU for the first time only to realize it doesn’t install on the motherboard, then footing the bill for a replacement part.
To avoid any undue expense and frustration, here’s how to make sure all your computer hardware parts are compatible.
Motherboard and CPU Compatibility
The first step to building a working PC is ensuring the CPU and motherboard are compatible. The primary indicator is socket compatibility. In simple terms, a socket is a physical connection between the CPU and motherboard, or the slot of the motherboard that houses the pins sitting under the CPU.
Motherboards are manufactured with a specific socket and are only compatible with CPUs fit for that socket. Socket types have a particular name based on a sequence of numerical and letter values usually referring to the number of pins on the CPU. The two big CPU manufacturers, AMD and Intel, also use different socket types that are not interchangeable. With this in mind, the socket determines which brand of processor it can support, as well as which model.
Motherboard chipsets also play a lesser role in making sure the CPU is compatible due to manufacturers releasing updated versions of existing CPUs. For example, an LGA1151 socket Intel Core i7 released two years ago will work with an LGA1151 motherboard launched two years ago, but might not work with an updated Intel i7 released this year.
It’s, therefore, worth checking the chipset requirements for a CPU against the motherboard’s chipset, especially if you are considering a newer model. Information is readily available on manufacturer websites.
Cases, PSU, and Motherboard Size
Here we have more of a physical consideration. Manufacturers ship cases of different sizes; the smaller Mini ITX, the midsize Mini Tower and Mid Tower, and finally the Full Tower. Each has specific dimensions, so it’s crucial to buy a motherboard fit for the case.
Motherboard sizes are categorized into three incrementally larger form factors: Mini-ITX, MicroATX, and ATX. Other than physical dimensions, differences come down to the number of RAM slots, GPU slots, SATA ports, and PCI-E slots. Both motherboard and case manufacturers provide detailed compatibility details for each specific model on their websites.
Similarly, PSUs vary in size based on wattage. The higher the watts, the larger the PSU. Most PSUs adhere to the ATX standard measuring 150 × 86 × 140 mm, with only the depth size shifting to 160, 180, 200 and 230 mm. Measure up the case dimensions and verify the PSU will fit, especially if you opt for smaller form factors.
Motherboard and GPU
Chances are you’re building a gaming rig, and you’ll be installing a dedicated GPU. If this is the case make sure the motherboard is equipped with a PCI-E slot to house the GPU. The same goes for an SLI/Crossfire dual GPU setup – make sure the motherboard has two available PCI-E slots available and supports either of the technologies based on the brand of the two GPUs.
When opting for one of the smaller motherboard form factors, check to see if the dimensions of the GPU line up with a comfortable fit inside the case. Newer GPUs tend to pack quite the physical footprint and in more cases than not will struggle to fit into one of the smaller form factors. GPU manufacturers often produce smaller variants of popular models specifically for these scenarios.
Both CPU and motherboard support different RAM types, speeds, and amounts. Check CPU and motherboard specifications on vendor websites for whether they support the newer DDR4 RAM or, the older DDR3 RAM. Then, check that the amount of RAM you plan to install is within the CPUs maximum memory capacity limits, and there are enough RAM slots on the motherboard for your needs. Finally, the RAM’s speed (measured in MHz – 2400MHz, 2666 MHz, 3000MHz, etc.) must matches up with what the CPU can handle.
Power Supply Unit
One of the most common pitfalls for first timers is underpowering or overpowering a build. Not all power supply units are equal when it comes to their Watt output and with good reason. Depending on the configuration of components inside a PC, the power consumption will differ and, consequently, the power requirements will too.
In practical terms, this means tallying up the wattage needs of the GPU, CPU, motherboard, RAM, cooling solutions, and any other hardware in the build such as PCI audio and networking cards, and choosing a suitable power supply unit capable of delivering the required power.
In most cases, the rule of thumb is to buy a power supply unit that offers a wattage twice that required by all the components combined. For example, if the total wattage requirement is 250 Watts then opt for a 500 Watt power supply unit.
To make the process easier, power consumption information measured in Watts is readily available on manufacturer websites. There is also a range of sites that can tally up the wattage needs of various components for you using power supply calculators. Case, cooler kit, and power supply unit manufacturer, Cooler Master, offers a calculator on its website for example. Enter the component brand and model, and the calculator does the rest.
PC Part Picker
If trawling through page after page of manufacturer specs sounds like a tedium-inducing descent to hell, then we’ve got just the ticket. PC Part Picker is a staple of the PC building community and go-to resource of budding first-time builders and does all the heavy lifting for you.
All you need to do is provide the brand and model number of each component of a build, and then the website will do its magic to make sure they are compatible. In case they aren’t, PC Part Picker raises any issues allowing you to make rectifications until you land on a build that works.
On top of that, you can save builds and return to them later or share them with more knowledgeable builders for feedback and advice.