The second thing you should do when building a computer, once you have a basic build, is buy the parts. We went over the basics of what each part does in an article on understanding how your PC works. Now we’re going to discuss the kinds of things you want to consider about each individual part when you’re building your own PC, whether it’s a family machine or a hardcore gaming rig. This is the second article in the series, so you may want to go back if you’re just starting out. It may also be a good idea to take a look at these tips for buying new tech, as they apply to computer parts, too.
Okay, then. You’ve done your research, looked at different builds, and found or modified one to work for you. That’s great! But don’t celebrate for too long… you’ve just graduated to the toughest step – checking compatibility.
For most PC parts, it’s not as simple as saying “I like that one,” and clicking the ‘buy’ button. You need to know if all the parts will work together and make sure that they’ll fit in your case. The good news is that if you’ve knocked a build together, you already have your shopping list. Now you just have to look at the fine print.
Before I go into each individual part, there’s one thing that applies to all of them that is very important: Always buy from a respected manufacturer. If you’re new to the game, this is where user reviews will be your best friend – stick with items that have a lot of good reviews, preferably several hundred or more. When a motherboard has 2,763 reviews and is still 4-stars, it’s a safe bet that it’ll serve you well. Also, pay attention to the number of that specific type of product you see by that brand. If a company only makes one kind of RAM, they’re probably not the best at it, but they guys who make several dozen probably are.
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The CPU (or ‘processor’) is arguably the most important part for the average user; it determines how well your computer can ‘think.’ Gamers may want to choose a graphics card first, but for everyone else, the processor is the decision that all following decisions will be based on.
You essentially have two options: AMD or Intel? There’s so much debate on the topic that I would tell you not to stress too much over it. When it comes to CPUs, you get what you pay for, so spending $200 on an AMD processor is likely to get you about the same performance as a $200 Intel processor would. It’s kinda like Pepsi and Coke – there are lots of people that have firmly chosen sides, but they’re so similar that most people don’t lose sleep over it.
For decades, CPUs consisted of one core (like a ‘brain’), but most processors these days have multiple cores. Gamers will want a minimum of four cores (quad-core) for a decent gaming rig. If you can snag six or eight cores, good on you, but know that having more cores doesn’t necessarily make the chip better than something with fewer cores, so comparisons are very important – check out CPU Boss to make sure you get the right one. Also bear in mind that whichever one you pick will determine the motherboard you can get.
Don’t kill yourself on this one – unless you’re a gamer, just find a CPU with good ratings that fits into your budget. Don’t skimp, but unless you’re planning on adding a lot of RAM and a massive video card, there’s no reason to put more than a few hundred dollars down on it.
One final note – just about every processor will come with a cooling system (typically a fan), as well as some thermal paste, which helps dissipate heat. The average user will be fine with those, but if you’re planning on doing some intensive gaming or overclocking your system, you may want to get something other than what comes included.
Motherboards, in a sense, are a lot easier to buy than other parts, because you really only need to check a few things: 1) Size; 2) Price; 3) Compatibility with the CPU you’ve chosen or (if you’re a gamer) graphics card you want. You’ll see the word ‘socket’ tossed around – that tells you which CPUs will fit, so make sure the socket for your processor and motherboard match. Yes, there are loads of different motherboards out there, but there’s typically not a big difference, performance-wise, and several years down the road, you’ll likely need to get a new one when you decide to upgrade your CPU, anyway, to ensure compatibility. If you’re planning on getting a small case, you’ll probably want a Micro-ATX motherboard, but otherwise, you should be okay with a standard ATX.
Gamers, take heed – small motherboards and cases often don’t fit the high-end graphics cards and other PCIe cards out there, so I’d recommend getting at least a medium-sized case and an ATX board.
The absolutely most important thing that you need to remember when getting a motherboard is that everything else you buy needs to be compatible with it. So keep those motherboard specs handy, because you’ll need them.
Random Access Memory (RAM)
RAM comes in sticks, and should always be installed in pairs. More is better, because it determines how quickly information reaches the processor. Your average user could get by with 2GB, but I’d recommend 4GB as a solid minimum for anyone, gamer or not. If you are gaming, 8GB or 16GB would be ideal, and while you can go higher than that, there’s really no good reason for it. 4GB is acceptable, though, and the best thing is that it’s super simple to add more RAM when you’ve got the cash to do so – just pop it in and you’re done.
The other main thing you’ll want to pay attention to is clock speed. This is mostly for gamers, but you will need to make sure that your motherboard accepts your RAM’s clock speed. 1600MHz is solid, and you won’t really notice too much difference after 1866MHz.
You’ll also notice that they all say something like DDR3 or DDR4. DDR4 is newer, better, more expensive, and not necessary if you’re anything but a truly hardcore gamer, so don’t feel cheap by going for DDR3. Again, make sure this is compatible with your motherboard.
Beefing up your RAM can speed up your system to compensate for a less-than-ideal CPU or graphics card, but it’s not a fix-all. If you really want to boost performance, you’ll need a good amount of RAM and a solid CPU and GPU.
Video/Graphics Card (GPU)
A note to avoid confusion: there is a difference between the manufacturer and the brand, as it were. Yes, NVIDIA is a company, but their graphics cards are made by different manufacturers, like EVGA or Sapphire, so one GeForce GTX 960 may not be exactly the same as another. It’s a fine detail that won’t affect most people, but it is important to buy from a respected company (like EVGA) who are known for making quality products.
Now for the hard part. Average users may not care too much about this – just get a basic GPU with good reviews for $60-100, and you’ll be fine for several years. Gamers, though… this is their bread and butter. A hardcore gaming rig with a crappy graphics card is like a Corvette with the engine from a Ford Fiesta – what’s the point?
The two main competitors in the graphics card field are NVIDIA and AMD. The difference? Honestly, not too much. AMD tends to be a bit cheaper and run a bit hotter, but ultimately, it comes down to personal preference.
Be aware that some cards require 2 PCIe slots, and that cards vary wildly in size. Always check the dimensions and specs of your chosen GPU to ensure that it will fit, both on the motherboard and in the case.