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Building a Computer from Scratch

Summary: Every few years I rebuild our personal computers either because something has broken or because I want to upgrade the components. For the last ten years I've built the computers using separately purchased components. It isn't hard and over the years I've saved a lot of money and learned a little about computers along the way.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

For about the cost of a basic computer system from assemblers like Dell, Gateway or HP you can build a high-end, custom computer yourself and it is not nearly as difficult as you might think. You'll use higher quality custom components that are typically found only in much more expensive systems.

You can purchase all necessary parts online and download software, including the operating system, for free. You don't need to be an expert to do this -- just work slowly and carefully. Below you'll find recommendations based on my experience from building two systems this way.

Please note -- these suggestions are not for computer geeks and gamers. You won't find detailed reviews on the latest and greatest hardware innovations. You will find suggestions for building a high quality, custom computer system that will serve your needs for many years.


computer motherboard without micro-processor and memory


A computer "system" typically consists of a case, case fans, motherboard, CPU, computer memory, power supply, video card, hard disk, CD/DVD drive, keyboard, mouse, monitor and software. All of these components can be purchased separately and assembled with simple tools. Since you'll probably need access to the Internet while you are assembling your system this might be a good project for a second computer. Each component will be briefly discussed below.

Many computer case styles are available, with or without case fans and power supplies. I'd suggest a bare (empty) mid-tower ATX case and add your own high quality case fans and quiet power supply. One recent advance in case design is front-mounted USB ports.

Case cooling fans are extremely important since today's motherboards and video cards tend to run hot. Better case designs have a fan low in the front panel that draws air into the case and a fan high in the rear that pulls air out. These fans are easy to install and plug directly into the motherboard. The case you select will dictate what size case fan(s) (typically 80 or 120 mm) you'll need.

You'll probably want at least a 300 watt power supply but larger (up to 600 w) is probably better. Power supply quality varies widely with inexpensive units running hot and noisy (bad!). Since the power supply and case can be used through several upgrades it makes sense to put together the best case, case fans and power supply you can afford.

You may not need a separate video card at all because many new motherboards have video built in. Add-on video cards come in two basic "flavors". Fast, expensive, high-performance cards designed for gamers that can cost hundreds of dollars and standard cards with 1-2 GB of video memory and cost $50-$100. For a non-gaming system a $50 AGP/PCI card is all you'll likely need so put the money into a better monitor!

At a minimum you'll need a SATA hard drive ($50+) and a CD/DVD($35+). I prefer keyboards that don't have the numeric pad built in since I never use one and they fit better on my desktop. Adesso makes such a keyboard for about $30. Finally, any inexpensive mouse will do.

If you are going to splurge, do it on the monitor and buy the best monitor you can afford. Your eyes will thank you and you'll actually be able to calibrate it! A LCD good monitor is one area where you will probably spend considerably more money then you would in a "pre-assembled system". This is because including cheap monitors is where system manufacturers can control costs at the expense of your eyesight!

Selecting the right combination of motherboard (mobo), CPU, and memory can be tricky. These components must be properly matched so I prefer to start with a bundled motherboard/CPU/memory but if you are brave you can purchase components separately and save a few dollars.

Assembly is relatively easy. Start with the power supply and case fans. Follow instructions that come with each component. Next place the drives in the case bays. Next secure the motherboard/CPU/memory unit. Mount the video card, attach cables (see motherboard manual) and plug in the power cord, keyboard and mouse.

The first time you turn on your new system you may get error messages caused either by hardware or operating system problems, this is common so don't panic. On another computer go to Google and search on the text of the error message. You'll likely find both a description of what's gone wrong and how to fix it. Again, work slowly and solve one problem at a time.

You'll need a variety of software to make your new computer run. Much of it is now available as Open Source, or freeware, even the operating system (Linux). Open Source software is developed by communities of dedicated programmers. The programs are available for free. As such, however, the documentation often is not as complete as commercial equivalents so installation and operation of the software takes a bit more work on your part -- but the price is right!

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