PC Building Best Practices: Hardware

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Graphics Cards

Most midrange-to-high-end graphics cards require supplemental power to operate. Forget to connect the necessary power cables, and you won't get any video.

Although installing a graphics card is also a fairly straightforward process, you should keep a handful of things in mind. Virtually all new graphics cards available today are designed to be used in a PCI Express x16 slot, also known as a PEG (PCI Express Graphics) slot. Many motherboards have multiple physical PCIe x16 slots, yet not all of those slots have true x16 electrical connections to the chipset. Typically you should install a graphics card in the uppermost PEG slot (closest to the CPU socket) to ensure optimal performance. If you’re uncertain about which slots on your motherboard best support graphics cards, consult the motherboard’s manual to see which slots are true x16 slots.

Many of today’s higher-end graphics cards also require supplemental power connections. Be sure to use a power supply with enough capacity to support your graphics card, and remember to connect the necessary supplemental power leads before turning on your system. If the required power leads aren’t connected, the system may refuse to boot or to show any video.

Look out for memory slots that fall too close to the graphics card, as well. When the retention clips on the memory slots are closed, they should be out of the way. But if the retention clips are in the open/lower position, they may stick out far enough to make contact with the graphics card and possibly shear off a surface-mounted component.

Drives and Storage

Choose the incorrect hard-drive mounting location in many midsize towers, and you won't have enough clearance to fit a typical high-end graphics card.

Installing drives into a system is usually a simple procedure, but you should remember a few things to ensure optimal placement and easier cable management.

Depending on the size and type of the case you're using, typically you'll mount the hard drive in a cage that sits behind the expansion slots. If the drive slides into the cage perpendicular to the motherboard tray, it’s usually best to have the drive’s connectors facing the back of the system, so that you can run cables behind the motherboard tray. If the drive slides into the cage parallel to the motherboard tray, though, be sure to choose a location that won’t encroach on any expansion cards. With many smaller midsize towers and minitowers, installing a hard drive into the wrong location will interfere with longer expansion cards, such as graphics cards.

Power Supplies

Be sure to mount the power supply in the correct orientation, typically with the fan pointing downward.

Few things can go wrong when you're installing a power supply. Most cases have a single location for mounting a PSU, and the associated mounting holes are keyed to allow installation in only one way. Just be sure to fasten the power supply securely, because it is most likely the heaviest component in the system. Use a unit that supplies ample power for all of your components, too. In fact, it’s best to allow for future expansion--if your components require 350 watts, for example, springing for a 550-watt (or somewhat larger) PSU is advisable. Also, stick with a reputable brand; off-brand power supplies rarely meet their advertised specifications. A good power supply is critical if you intend to build a reliable, stable system.


It may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has ever taken a basic electronics course, but the white wire in the front-panel connectors on most cases is the negative lead.

Few cases require assembly, but you still have a couple of chassis-related issues to watch out for when you're putting together a system. First and foremost, be extremely careful when removing drive-bay covers to accommodate your drives. Many cases have metal knock-outs that you need to remove before you can install an optical drive or a bay-mounted device such as a fan controller. These knock-outs, and the small metal tab left behind after you remove them, can be extremely sharp. (Take my word for it--I once required 12 stitches after suffering an unfortunate accident while building a system for a friend a few years back.) Use gloves if you’d be more comfortable.

Another annoying issue involves the case wiring. Installing the tiny connectors for the power/reset switches, the speaker, and the activity LEDs can be a real pain, especially since there isn’t a standard layout or easy color-coding. Consult your motherboard’s manual for the correct front-panel connector layout, and keep in mind that the white wire in most connectors is usually the negative (-) lead.

Great work! We’ve covered many of the most common PC building pitfalls here; with so many hardware combinations available, however, countless other issues can arise as well. If you’ve encountered problems that we didn’t cover, share them in the comments area below.

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