How to build a computer: A beginners guide to a new PC
Building your own PC may seem like a daunting task right now, especially considering how hard it is to source individual components in 2021 due to the semi-conductor shortage and manufacturing roadblocks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. But learning how to build a computer is still a satisfying experience, regardless of the prevailing situations. It may be overwhelming the first time you do it, but you’ll surely enjoy the process. We’ve put together a step-by-step guide on how to build a computer if you’re embarking on your first build.
In addition to giving some beginner tips, we’ve also recommended some parts in each section. Just remember that no two builds are identical, which means you may have a completely different set of parts at hand or in your mind for your build. That’s totally fine because it’s all based on personal preference. Now let’s get you prepared for your very first PC build:
How to build a computer: Pre-requisite
It’s always best to prepare yourselves and have all the necessary tools at your disposal to avoid getting distracted while building a computer. Here are a few things you may want to grab before putting everything together:
- All the PC components: Keep all the components around you so it’s easy to reach out for something.
- Phillips-head screwdrivers: PC building involves dealing with a lot of screws and standoffs, which is why a screwdriver is a must.
- Thermal paste: A lot of CPU coolers have this pre-installed but you might need one if it doesn’t.
- Flashlight: It can get dark in the corners of a PC case, so you definitely need a flashlight.
- Zip ties: You may not need this early on in the build since cable management can be dealt with towards the end, but it’s probably not a bad call to grab it early on.
- Anti-static equipment: You’re probably not going to short anything as long as you’re building the PC on a wooden or a plastic desk (avoid metal ones), but there’s nothing wrong with playing safe.
With these pre-requites out of the way, it’s now time to get down to the business.
Add components to the Motherboard
It’s recommended you connect some of the core components like the CPU, RAM, SSD, etc. before mounting the motherboard inside the case. PC cases tend to have limited space, so it’s easier to do this before mounting the mainboard.
As for the motherboard options, we recommend buying something that offers potential room for future upgrades too. Remember, a motherboard is the backbone of your PC as it holds all the components together. It’s best if you don’t skimp on this component because the choice of motherboard will also influence a few other aspects of your PC including the size of your PC case, storage options, number of ports, and more.
We think the ASUS ROG Strix X570-E Gaming is a solid option for an AMD-based build whereas the ASUS TUF Gaming Z690-Plus WiFi D4 is our pick for Intel-based builds. It’s worth pointing out that the Z690 motherboard can only be used with Intel’s new 12th gen Alder Lake processors. Also, you need different motherboards for Intel and AMD CPUs, so pick your poison. Both of these motherboards are ATX units with a ton of expansion slots and ports for your build. Not to mention, they also leave headroom for future upgrades. You can buy these motherboards from the links below.
We suggest you check our collection of the best motherboards to find all the available options including the budget and the compact ones for your SFF build.
The CPU is the first thing you’ll connect to your motherboard. The first step is to release the tension lever on the CPU socket so you can drop the processor into it. You need to line up the arrow/triangle on the top of the CPU with the one on the socket or its cover. This is a crucial step and you may end up damaging either your chip, the board, or both if you don’t pay attention. The CPU will ideally settle into the socket due to its own weight. If it doesn’t, pick it back up and re-seat it. Don’t force the processor into the socket. Once it’s in place, press the tension lever back down.
The above instructions remain the same for both Intel and AMD mainstream CPUs on the market. The big difference is where the connecting pins are — On Intel builds, the pins are on the socket while in AMD’s case, the pins are on the CPU. Also, enthusiast platforms like AMD’s Threadripper and Intel Core X have slightly different steps involving multiple levers or even Torx screws. That particular process is tricky, so we won’t get into that, for now. Besides, you probably already know what you’re doing as an enthusiast if you’re dealing with those components.
We recommend the Ryzen 5 5600X for an AMD-based build and the Intel Core i5-12600K for those leaning towards the blue team right now. You can also check out Intel’s other Alder Lake CPUs, but keep in mind that these new CPUs require a Z690-based platform to work. You may also need DDR5 memory modules to get the best results, thereby increasing the overall cost of your first PC. Our collection of the best CPUs will help you with all the available options on the market.
You’ll also have to install a CPU cooler for controlling the thermal output of the CPU. Many CPUs come with coolers in the box and they should be enough if you’re not doing any heavy overclocking. However, you can also buy aftermarket CPU coolers to get the best performance out of your CPU. A majority of stock coolers, be it for an AMD or an Intel CPU, use push pins that go through the holes in the motherboard. We recommend pushing opposite corners in to evenly spread the thermal paste.
Oh yes, the thermal paste. You’ll also need a thermal paste solution to fill the gap between the CPU IHS and the base plate of your CPU cooler. A lot of CPU coolers come with pre-installed thermal paste, so you should be fine. If not, then you can check out our essay on how to apply thermal paste to a CPU to learn more about it.
Unlike the stock coolers, the aftermarket coolers mount in various ways. It also depends on whether you’re going for an air cooler or a liquid cooling solution. We suggest you check out our best CPU cooler recommendations below and consult the instruction manual to find out how the CPU cooler of your choice can be installed on the motherboard.
Installing memory modules is perhaps the easiest of them all. All you need to do is make sure the latches for each memory slot are open before snapping the modules in. Some boards have these latches on both sides of a RAM slot while others have them on one side. Pushing down the DIMM on each slot will allow the latches to close on their own. It requires a little bit of force, but make sure you’re not installing the RAM backward.
If you’re installing two RAM sticks in a board that has four slots, install the first module on the far end of the CPU socket (not the one close to the socket). The second module goes into the third slot, which means you’ll have an empty slot next to the first module. They’ll still work if you put them in the wrong slots, but you may not get the best performance.
We recommend going with a DDR4 module for now since DDR5 is still in its infancy. That being said, we have individual collections for both the best DDR4 memory and the best DDR5 memory, so be sure to check them out to see which one suits you best.
We also recommend installing the M.2 SSD before mounting the motherboard inside the case. You can do it later too, but other parts may get in the way. Unlike RAM modules, installing an M.2 SSD requires a little bit of effort. You’ll have to remove the screw located across from the M.2 slot and slide the SSD in at an angle. Now, slowly lay the SSD flat and secure the mounting screw. And that’s it!
We think the WD SN850 Black is the best M.2 SSD on the market right now, but there are plenty of other options too. You can check our collection of the best M.2 SSDs to see which ones are best for you. Some motherboards have a heatsink/shroud covering these M.2 slots, so you’ll have to open the heatsink first to reveal the M.2 slot.
Now that you’ve installed some of the core components to your motherboard, it’s time to start putting everything inside the PC case. There are a ton of cabinets on the market and the choice of a PC case comes down to personal preference. From full tower PC cases to a compact mini-ITX case, we’ve got plenty of options in our collection of the best PC cases. Be sure to check it out and see which one’s best suitable for your needs. We think the Lian Li PC-O11 Dynamic is the best overall PC case that’s suitable for most users, but you can also go with a mid-tower case like the Corsair Airflow 4000D.
Installing a motherboard inside the PC case involves careful maneuvering. You’ll have to gather all the standoffs that came with your case and find the proper place to install them. Almost all the PC cases on the market right now have markings based on the size of the motherboard you chose. In fact, many cases even have the standoffs pre-installed, so you may be able to skip this step entirely.
Before securing the motherboard in place, you’ll have to install the I/O shield which covers the area around your rear ports. I/O shield comes with your motherboard and you’ll have to fit the shield into the chassis before setting up the motherboard. The ports on the board will fit through the holes once both are installed. You’ll have to use some force to snap all four corners of the shield into the chassis, just like you did while installing the RAM modules. A lot of premium motherboards have pre-installed I/O shield, in which case, you can skip this step too.
The power supply unit is usually mounted at the back of the PC case towards the bottom. This has been the designated spot for the PSUs for a long time now, and it’s a safe space for the unit to work properly by pulling in cool air from under the chassis. Installing the power supply unit is as simple as screwing it into place with four screws at the back of the PC case. We recommend buying a modular PSU so you can avoid creating a cable mess inside your case. Once the PSU is in place, you can connect the 24-pin power connector and supplemental/CPU power connector to the motherboard. The power supply unit, as the name suggests, supplies power to the entire PC, so you’ll essentially be connecting a lot of components to the PSU via cables.
We think either 750W or an 800W power supply is plenty for most users, and we’ve recommended the product below. You can also check our collection of the best power supply units to see all the available options on the market across different power output ranges.
We’ve also installed an M.2 SSD on the motherboard earlier, so your PC has some storage to work with depending on the capacity of your M.2 stick. M.2 SSD can be expensive though, which is why you might want to add SATA storage to your PC in the form of either a 2.5-inch SSD or hard drive, or a traditional 3.5-inch hard drive. In each case, you’ll be connecting the SATA data cable from the drive to the motherboard, then connect the SATA power connector from the PSU to your drive. You’ll then have to find a spot to mount the SSD or the HDD since you can’t leave them lying inside the case. All PC cases have dedicated mounting brackets for the drives, so they should be fairly easy to find.
Installing the graphics card is an optional step if you’re using an Intel or AMD CPU with integrated graphics. However, you’ll need a discrete GPU if your CPU doesn’t have onboard graphics in order to connect your monitor. The first thing to do is remove some slot covers on the back of the case. This is for the HDMI, DVI, and DisplayPort to show through, letting you connect the best monitor of choice.
Once done, you’ll have to connect the GPU to the PCIe X16 slot on the motherboard. It’s the long one, usually found under the CPU socket. It’s recommended that you use the topmost slot if there’s more than one on your motherboard. High-end GPUs demand more power, so you’ll have to plug the PCIe power connectors from the power supply into the card to your GPU. It’s not necessarily easy to buy a graphics card in 2021, but we recommend you check out our collection of the best graphics card on the market to see your available options. We think an RTX 3080 GPU is one of the best GPUs you can grab right now, but there are some other options in there too.
Now that you’ve installed most of the main components, your PC is ready to go. But there are a few things left to do before we try turning the PC on. You need to make sure the connectors for any fans/AIO pumps are plugged into the motherboard fan headers. You’ll also need to attach the front-panel audio cable, USB case connectors to the motherboard headers. The location of these headers varies by motherboard model, so we recommend consulting the manual to locate them. Don’t forget to connect the front-panel connectors, including power, reset, LED indicator, etc. because they’re crucial to the build as well. Installing these tiny headers can be very annoying and you’ll often find yourself reaching out to the darkest corners of the case to locate them. You might want to put that flashlight to use now for this step.
Time to POST
If you’ve made it this far in the guide, then you’ve finished building your PC. Now all that’s left is to make sure there are no extra fan headers or power cables still waiting to be connected. If not, then plug the PC in, connect your monitor, and other peripherals like keyboard, and mouse. Now, turn on the power supply switch, hit the power button on the monitor, and lastly, press your PC’s power button. If everything’s fine, the PC should turn on and run a power-on self-test a.k.a POST. You’ll be sent directly to the BIOS if you’re using a new storage drive and there’s no OS installed yet. However, that’s fine, because we’ll be doing that towards the end.
We now recommend you turn everything off and get started with cable management. We’re doing this after the POST because you now know everything’s working fine, and you no longer have to re-seat or rewire any component. You can choose to avoid cable management if your case doesn’t have a window, but it’s still a good practice to organize everything inside the case. Imagine having to go through piles of unorganized cables in case you need to change something in the future.
Operating system and drivers
This is the part in which you’ll have to install the operating system of your choice. You can check out our how to install Windows 10 on a new PC guide that covers everything from creating a bootable Windows 10 USB to successfully activating the OS. You can also download and install Windows 11 if you’d like to check out Microsoft’s new operating system.
Before upgrading to Windows 11, though, you might want to update your drivers too. Windows will fetch most of the drivers for you these days, but we still recommend you to go to the manufacturers’ product pages for your parts to make sure you have or get the latest updates.
How to build a computer: Final Thoughts
Well, congratulations are in order because you just built yourself a new computer! Pat yourself on the back and start using your new PC now. We recommend you install some benchmarking and hardware monitoring software of choice to see if everything running fine. Benchmarking will allow you to push your PC to its limits to see if it’s over-heating, throttling, etc. This will help you understand your PC better and know it’s ready to tackle whatever it is that you’re trying to do on a day-to-day basis. Good luck with your build and don’t forget to enjoy the process. You can also join our XDA Computing forums to discuss your new build and suggestions/recommendations from other users.