You’ve double-checked that your parts are all compatible. You’ve waited for the achingly slow delivery truck to arrive. You have your parts. You’re ready to build your own PC.
Or are you? There are a few things you’ll want to do before you get started. Clear a decent-sized area for the task (the floor or a large table will do). Avoid carpeted areas, if you can, and wear an antistatic wristband, if one is available. Static electricity is a real danger when you’re working with electronics like this, and no one wants to fry their processor before it’s even installed. Also, avoid snacks and drinks while you’re working – needless to say, your motherboard doesn’t like coconut water as much as you do.
Take all the packaging off your parts and get them arranged neatly in the area you’ve cleared for the task, but make sure to keep any instruction manuals on-hand for easy reference. Open the side of your case – if both sides of your case open, there should be one that gives you better access to everything, so use that one.
2. Installing the Power Supply
The first thing to do is install your power supply (also called a ‘PSU’). You won’t actually need it until much later, but much like a car, some parts get hidden under others, and the best time to get this sucker in is before there’s a bunch of other stuff in the way. You should see holes in the back of the case where the screws will go to attach the power supply – line the supply up with these holes, keeping the fan on the unit pointed downward. Screw it in (the screws should have come with the power supply), then move the cables out of the case as much as possible – you need room to work!
3. Installing the CPU
Take a look at your motherboard – there should be a lever that locks the processor also (called a ‘CPU’) into place (and a little metal cover if you have an Intel processor). Put the lever in the unlocked position and remove the cover if there is one. You’ll want to leave the motherboard out of the case for the next few steps to give yourself a little more working room.
This can be one of the most nerve-wracking steps of computer-building. Processors have a bunch of delicate little pins on them, and you need to be gentle to avoid bending any. There should be little arrows on socket (the place where the CPU goes) and the CPU itself – line them up and gently press the processor into place. Be careful! It shouldn’t take too much pressure to get it in. Now replace the cover and flip the lever back to lock it in.
4. Installing the CPU Fan/Cooler
Your processor should have come with a fan or some other cooling system. This is necessary to keep the processor from overheating, much like a radiator in a car. You’re going to put this directly on top of the CPU. Some cooling units come with thermal paste (also called ‘thermal compound’) already applied – this paste helps transfer heat from the CPU to the cooler more effectively, so it matters. Some people prefer to buy their own, rather than use the included stuff, but that’s entirely up to you. If it’s not pre-applied, spread some evenly across the processor. A drop or two should do it – you want to have a paper-thin layer of paste when you’re done.
Installation of each cooler is a little different, so at this point, you’ll want to look at the specific instructions that came with yours.
5. Inserting the RAM
Good news! The toughest parts of the installation are already done, and it should be smooth sailing from here. Don’t celebrate just yet, though – there are still quite a few things left on the checklist.
If you can’t tell which slots on the motherboard are meant for RAM, you can either consult your motherboard’s manual or simply look at the size of your RAM sticks – there should be a series of slots (typically four, but it can vary) that fit your RAM.
There will be little clips on the sides of each slot; push these down to unlock the slots and ready them for the RAM. Now make sure the RAM is facing the right direction (there’s a little raised ‘key’ at one end of the slot to help with this) and gently, but firmly, push the RAM into the slot. You’ll know it’s in when the clips are back up and locked into place – there is often a little ‘click,’ as well.
If you have enough RAM to fill up all of the slots, just repeat this step. If you have more slots than you do RAM, you need to make sure that they go in the right ones. Most are color coded these days, but you’ll want to consult the motherboard’s manual just to make sure. If you get the RAM in the wrong slots, your computer won’t start up properly.
6. Installing the I/O Plate
You know that little metal piece with a bunch of oddly shaped holes that came with your motherboard? That’s your I/O plate (input/output). Check it with the back of the motherboard to make sure it’s right-side up, and then push it into the open space at the back of your case until you’re sure it’s solidly locked into place.
7. Mounting the Motherboard
It’s time to finally make your computer look like one! There will be little ‘risers’ that keep your motherboard from directly touching the sides of your case, and if they’re not pre-installed, you’ll need to put them in yourself. Sometimes there are pre-marked holes, but if it’s not terribly obvious, just look at the motherboard’ manual. (By the way, never throw away this manual – it’ll be a lifesaver if you do any upgrades or repairs in the future.)
Once the risers are in and tightened, line the motherboard up with the I/O plate, ensuring all the ports are through the holes, then lay the motherboard on the risers. Insert the screws that came with your motherboard, being careful not to overtighten, and check that everything is lined up correctly.
8. Installing the GPU
This is the moment that will excite gamers the most – installing the graphics card (also called a ‘GPU’ or ‘video card’). Find the first and longest PCIe slot on your motherboard (looks similar to the RAM slots, but bigger) and make sure the slot is uncovered/unlocked (every motherboard is different). Avoiding the gold connectors, line your GPU up with them and put the back-plate near the rear slot of the case. Push down until you hear and/or feel a click. Refer to your motherboard’s manual to check on how to secure the GPU in place (often a clip system similar to the RAM, but it can vary).
Some gaming cards require two slots, so you’ll do the exact same thing but with an additional slot.
9. Installing Drives
This is difficult to describe in detail, as every case is different. At the front of the case should be several shelf-like bays or cages where you will put your storage drives (hard drive or SSD) and any optical drives (DVD/Blu-Ray). There may be trays or caddies in these bays, and some cases will have different sized bays for different kinds of drives. Refer to your motherboard manual for instructions to make sure you get the right drives in the right bays.
10. Connecting the Cables/Wires
Everything is officially installed – now you just need to get it all connected. In some instances, there will only be one place a cable can plug into, but often there are multiple options. You’ll be referring to your motherboard manual quite a bit for this, but here’s a little guide to help out.
Connect your drives to the motherboard. Make sure everything that needs power is plugged into the power supply: motherboard, video card, and drives. Try to route any cables that will reach through the holes on the inside of the case behind the motherboard. This will make any future ventures much easier, improve airflow and heat dissipation, and just makes things look nice.
The power cables from your CPU cooler will go to the motherboard and the spot should be clearly marked. The same goes for any other fans in your case. Then you’ll want to connect any wires from the front panel (these vary wildly, but there will probably be USB and audio ports).
Now shift your attention to the loads of little front-panel wires that control your activity lights and case buttons (Power, Reset, etc.) – these will connect with pins on the motherboard. It can often be difficult to see the labels, so triple check all of these with your manual.
11. Installing the Peripherals
All you’ve got left is to plug in your keyboard, monitor, mouse, and speakers. Don’t worry about any other peripherals (which is just a fancy computer word for ‘accessories’) like your printer or external wi-fi adapter just yet. You want to make sure it works before any of that is necessary. You keyboard and mouse should connect to a USB-port, but your speakers may need an audio port (usually signified by a little image of a headset on your I/O plate). Your monitor will require its own power cable, and the kind of port used to connect it to the PC will vary, but it should be pretty obvious what goes where at this point. As always, if you have any issues, consult your manuals.
12. Booting It Up
Close up the case, plug the power cable from the power supply into the wall, flip the switch on the rear of the case into the ‘on’ position, say a little prayer to the computing gods, and push the power button. If all is well, you should see your motherboard’s logo pop up on your monitor, and you can breathe a sigh of relief. If nothing happens or something feels off, unplug it from the wall and double-check that everything is plugged in and that your RAM and GPU are set correctly, then try again.
13. Installing an OS and Drivers
If there’s no OS (operating system, such as Windows or Linux) on your storage drives, you’ll now need to insert a boot disk (i.e., a CD with Windows on it). Follow the instructions and wait for the install to complete (times vary by OS).
The very last thing you’ll need to do is install drivers, which are the instructions your PC uses to know how to operate its own hardware. Graphics drivers are a must, but there will also likely be drivers for your webcam, headset, speakers, and sometimes even your keyboard and mouse, depending on what you’ve got. Install each of your peripherals one at a time and let your PC do its thing for each – no point in overwhelming it. You may also want to pre-emptively install some programs like Java and Adobe Acrobat/Air/Flash/Shockwave to avoid the internet yelling at you every five minutes that you can’t view various webpages or videos because you’re missing them.
Congratulations – you’ve built your own PC! Hopefully this experience leaves you feeling a lot more confident around your PC, and when something goes wrong, such as a RAM stick dying, you can diagnose and fix it yourself, rather than just buying a new one. And don’t forget – if your needs change or your hardware simply gets too old to meet the demands of modern software, you can always upgrade individual parts as and when they’re needed, which is a big saver of money and time.