There I was, a first-time PC builder sitting in my office with all the components I’d ordered: a CPU here, a PSU there, plus my trusty anti-static wristband and a screwdriver. I had everything I needed to build my first PC. But I was afraid to open that first box.
Why was I paralyzed? Lots of reasons. With no single manual to cover all my PC parts, where was I supposed to begin? What if I couldn’t cram all those cables into my PC case? Had I already blown it by not getting an optical drive? Worst of all, what if I put everything together and my PC refuses to turn on? PCWorld's comprehensive build guide covers all the steps, but in the heat of the moment, details specific to my situation and other random concerns kept popping up.
In retrospect, I wish I’d worried a little less about my first build and enjoyed it a bit more. After all (and as I ruefully discovered later) there’s only one first time when it comes to putting together your own computer.
Let my minor traumas be your teachable moments. Read on for seven things I wished I'd known before building my first PC, starting with...
1. You can transfer your ChooseMyPC build to PCPartPicker with one click
This first tip is more about the planning stage rather than the build itself, but it’s still something I wish I’d known before wasting a precious hour or two.
For those of you who haven’t heard of it, ChooseMyPC.net is a great first stop for building your PC. Just pick a price point by adjusting a slider, make a few quick choices (such as whether you’re planning on “overclocking” your PC and whether you need a copy of Windows), and ChooseMyPC will generate a parts list for you.
Of course, the parts list that ChooseMyPC creates will by no means be definitive—part of the fun of building your own PC is picking and choosing your own components. That said, an initial, auto-generated ChooseMyPC build makes for a helpful starting point.
Once you’re ready to customize, you’ll want to move your parts list over to PCPartPicker.com, an invaluable site for organizing and tinkering with your PC part lists (and believe me, you’re going to end up with multiple lists for your first build).
Handy though it is, PCPartPicker didn’t make it easy when it came to recreating my ChooseMyPC build. Searching for a particular component often came up with multiple hits, and I was puzzled with even the most generic searches (like “Intel Core i3”) came up empty. (The reason: PCPartPicker’s “compatibility filter” screens out parts that won’t work with your current build.)
Little did I know that I could have saved lots of time and frustration with a single click. (Cue the forehead slap.)
Once you’ve created your ChooseMyPC build, look for the “PCPartPicker Link” button at the bottom of the parts list and click it. The entire build will automatically be transferred to PCPartPicker, no searching required.
2. Size matters when it comes to the case
It’s easy to get distracted by bright, shiny things when it comes to picking a PC case, and I mean that quite literally.
In your research, you’ll find plenty of cases with flashy, neon-lit windows, perfect for showing off the innards of your custom-built PC. Cool though those side windows are, though, another feature meant much more to me: space, and lots of it.
Why the need for space? One of your main tasks when it comes to building your PC is dealing with all the cables connecting your various components. Not only do you want to make sure all your cables go where they need to go, you also need to make sure they’re tucked inside in a fashion that allows for plenty of unobstructed airflow. Proper cable management will keep the inside of your PC neat, tidy and cool. Sloppy cables, on the other hand, could leave you with a melted CPU.
Expert PC builders pride themselves in picking just the right case for their particular build—not too big, not too small. Indeed, perfectly weaving all those cables into a cramped PC case can be akin to building a ship in a bottle.
As a novice PC builder, though, I wasn’t shooting for a work of art. I just wanted to get through it—and for me, that meant having plenty of room to work. I wanted to go big.
Generally speaking, PC cases come in three sizes: ATX (the biggest), ATX Mini (smaller), and ATX Micro (even smaller), with variations within each category for “full tower,” “mid tower,” “mini tower,” and so on. In my case, I went ahead and sprang for an ATX Full Tower case.
Now, did I really need a case that big? Of course not. After all, the motherboard I eventually picked was a smaller ATX Mini form factor, I was only installing a single video card, and I wasn’t even dealing with any bulky after-market CPU coolers.
During the actual build, though, I loved all the extra room. I never felt cramped, and I had plenty of space for bundling my cables just as I wanted. I also have lots of room to grow.
Bonus tip: If at all possible, consider springing for a slightly pricier PC case (and by pricier, I mean $60-ish instead of $40-ish) with beginner-friendly features like “tool-less” drive bays.
3. No, you don’t need an optical drive
One of the first questions you’ll be asked at ChooseMyPC.net is whether you want an optical drive to be part of your build. My initial answer: Well, yes! After all, how would I install Windows without a Windows DVD?
Of course—and as I should have known, giving that I can’t remember the last time I touched a PC DVD drive—it’s easy to install Windows on a PC without an optical drive.
Plenty of online guides are available, but here’s the short version: Just use Microsoft’s free ”media creation” tool to install a copy of Windows onto a (3GB or larger) USB memory stick. The first time you boot your new PC (and yes, you’ll get there), you’ll land on the BIOS screen. From there, navigate to your system boot options, then set your PC to boot from the USB stick. Once you boot from the USB drive, the Windows installation wizard will take care of the rest.
Beyond Windows, practically any program or game you’d ever want to install is available for download, no DVD required.
But what if you find yourself in the (unlikely) situation where you absolutely, positively need an optical drive? If that happens, you can always go back, crack open your custom PC and install one, or just grab an external USB optical drive (for all of $15 or so).
4. The motherboard manual is your best friend
One of the most daunting things about building my own PC was the fact that there wasn’t a single, IKEA-like manual that covered the whole process. Mind you, there are plenty of generic walkthroughs for building a PC (including PCWorld's good one), but nothing telling me how to assemble my own specific components. Instead, there was a manual for each individual component, and many of the directions were sketchy at best.
My reaction was to blunder into the build practically blind, installing the drives first because that seemed like the easiest thing to do. (Note: While the experts will tell you to install the motherboard first, getting those drives installed was not only easy, but also a big confidence-booster.) Then I seated the CPU in the motherboard (with a sickening crunch as I pushed down on the delicate lever).
Soon enough, I was staring at my PSU, my GPU, my memory sticks and a tangle of cords in my PC case, without a clue about what to do next.
Eventually, my gaze drifted to the motherboard manual, and I began to page through it. Initially, few of the diagrams made sense, but the closer I looked, the more I recognized. Those thin little front-panel connectors dangling in the case? They go right here, the manual said (or at least, that’s how I deciphered the diagrams and connector labels.) Expansion ports? Here and here. Memory slots? One here, and one here. Your power cables go here and here, and right here is where your SATA connectors for the drives go.
The more I studied, the more I realized (belatedly, I guess) that the motherboard manual was the key to this whole puzzle. After all, all roads lead to the motherboard (or the “mobo,” if you want to sound cool about it) as far as your PC build is concerned, and once you understand where all the various cards, cables and connectors go on the mobo, you’ve pretty much nailed your build.
5. There’s nothing scary about a 'modular' or 'semi-modular' power supply
”Keep it simple” was my mantra as I picked the parts for my first PC build. But nothing sounded simple when it came to one of the biggest choices about picking a power supply—specifically, whether I should go with a modular, semi-modular, or non-modular PSU.
For those of you new to PC power supplies (as I was until just a few weeks ago), the whole modular vs. non-modular issue centers around the cables that connect the power supply to your various PC components. A modular PSU’s cables are all detachable, meaning you can connect just the cables you need and avoid a tangle of unused cables in your PC case. A semi-modular PSU has only the essential power cables attached, with the rest of the cables detached until you need them. A non-modular PSU arrives with all its cables already attached, so no need about worrying whether you’ve got all the power cords you need.
Initially, I was intimidated by the idea of a modular or semi-modular power supply. What if I didn’t know which cables I needed, or where they were supposed to plug in? Did “modular” mean one more thing I had to put together? I started leaning toward a non-modular model, reasoning that a PSU with all the cables attached would be easier to handle.
Tempted by the idea of fewer loose cables in my case, I eventually took the leap for a semi-modular PSU, and I’m glad I did. After all my worry, it turned out the optional detached power cables (like those for the case fans and the hard drives) were easy to identify and connect. As with the motherboard, the PSU came with a manual that mapped out which cables go where. Best of all, I used only the power cables I needed, making for easier cable management in the end.
Of course, that’s not to say my PSU installation went perfectly. I made a crucial mistake when it came to plugging in a main power cable, which leads to my next point...
6. Don’t panic when your PC doesn’t turn on
So there I was, all systems go—or so I thought. My motherboard was screwed in and wired up, ditto for the hard drives and front-panel controls, my power cables were plugged in and even my monitor was ready. Taking a deep breath, I flipped the main power switch.
At first, good news: The system fans whirred to life, meaning I’d done something right. But the monitor stubbornly displayed a “No Signal” error, and a telltale red light flashed on the motherboard’s “debug” panel. Then, the bad news: It was the CPU error light that was lit, meaning some kind of processor failure.
The temptation to panic was strong, but I tried to stay cool as I retraced my steps. The motherboard wiring had been complicated, but I’d followed the manual’s directions carefully and a second look revealed no missteps. The power supply, though, gave me pause. I’d been a little sketchy on where the main power cables plugged into the motherboard, and I began to suspect my problems lurked there.
And I was right: I’d ignored a four-pin power socket in the motherboard because I couldn’t find a matching power supply cable, but a closer look at the PSU’s manual revealed the answer: an eight-pin plug that could be snapped apart into a pair of four-pin plugs. I split the plug in two, connected the correct four-pin section into the motherboard, hit the power switch, and—it worked! Never in my life had I been so happy to see a BIOS screen.
7. You’re going to want to build another PC
Perhaps my biggest surprise about building a PC was how quickly I’d finish building it—and indeed, I was a bit bummed it was so easy. After spending weeks agonizing over my parts list and painstakingly assembling my components, the actual build took only a few hours over two days. I hoped that installing and configuring Windows 10 would be something of a challenge, but that turned out to be easy, too.
Within another day, I found myself back at PCPartPicker, fiddling around with a new parts list. Yes, I already wanted to build another PC, and if you’re a first-time builder, don’t be surprised if you wind up with the same urge once you finish.
Note: Instead of coughing up several hundred dollars to build a second PC that I didn’t need, I tackled some different DIY projects instead. First, I replaced the optical drive in my aging iMac with a solid-state drive, a $200-ish project that turned out to be far more difficult than building an entire PC from scratch. (Three trips behind my iMac’s 27-inch monitor and a failed SSD later, I finally got it done.) Next, I snagged a $50 Raspberry Pi, a circuit board the size of a deck of cards that can run Linux and even a pared-down version of Windows 10—just plug in a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, and an SD card to get started. I'll let you know how that turns out.