Planning and Designing your Homebuilt Computer
Like any other worthwhile endeavor, designing and building a new PC begins with planning. Proper planning prevents rushed trips to the computer store in the middle of the assembly process.
There are many factors to be considered when designing a homebuilt computer. The most important among these are:
It would be nice if we never had to worry about how much things cost; but for most of us, that's not the case. So the first step in planning your new PC should be to set a budget -- decide how much you can afford to spend on the entire project. Later on, you can use this budget to help you make decisions about individual components.
What do you plan on doing with the machine? You didn't just wake up one morning and decide that you wanted to build your own PC, right? You actually want to do something with it when it's all finished. What is that "something" that you want your new computer to do?
If you just want to run office applications, surf the Internet, and do other low-pressure tasks, then you can save a bundle by selecting components that are not quite state-of-the-art. This is especially true of processors, which get a lot cheaper once the next-fastest version of the same chip is released. So if you're building a machine to do simple things, you can probably save some money by choosing cheap computer parts.
On the other hand, if you are into gaming, audio or video editing, music composition, engineering, heavy-duty math, or other high-resource computing, you will want to get as close to the bleeding edge as your budget allows you when choosing a CPU, RAM, motherboard, etc. You'll also want the biggest hard drive(s) you can afford, and will probably want to use SATA for faster data transfer.
The computer's intended use will also affect decisions such as what case to buy and how many fans to install.
How long do you want the computer to last? Hardware advances that make a component cutting-edge this year may just barely satisfy the minimum system requirements for software released a few years from now. If you can afford it, selecting the most current components available may endow your computer with an extra year or so of life.
As you begin sketching out your new PC, check the reviews, newsgroups, and message boards to see what others think of the components you are considering.
Pretty much any computer part you buy will come with drivers for most recent versions of Windows (but check the box anyway, just to make sure).
If you are planning to use Linux, BSD, or some other non-Microsoft operating system, then make certain that your components will work with that system. Most Linux distributions, for example, maintain lists of hardware that will work with their distribution. There are also newsgroups devoted to hardware issues on specific operating systems.
(If you're thinking about using Linux, please click here for our own brief introduction to Linux for home computer builders.)
Most computer enthusiasts have "favorite" companies. I like nVidia video cards and Creative sound cards, for example. It doesn't mean that the others are no good, but I happen to like nVidia and Creative. I've always found their products to be durable, high-performing, and dependable. I also like Netgear network cards and Plextor optical drives, for the same reasons.
Some people would disagree with my opinions, and that's fine. But when I build a machine for my own use, I tend to choose hardware from companies that I like -- companies whose products I've had good experiences with. That is my right; and it is your right to choose which companies' parts will go into your computer. It's your baby.
Consider a Kit or a "Barebones" Computer
If you've never built a computer before, you may want to consider a computer kit. Kits come with pre-selected parts that (usually) have been tested to work with each other. They usually also include fairly detailed assembly instructions.
On the other hand, if you decide to build your computer from a kit, you may feel it is less "your own" creation, since you didn't design it yourself. But if you choose carefully, you may be able to find a barebones kit that closely matches what you would have designed, anyway, but at a lower cost. So it's worth considering, at least.
"Bare bones" computer kits straddle the line between a home-designed computer and a pre-configured kit. Bare bones kits usually include a case, power supply, motherboard, CPU, and little else. Some may also include other components, such as the hard drive or optical drive(s).
Barebones computers usually present a pretty good bargain as compared to buying the components separately, and still allow you a hand in designing the rest of the system.
If you decide to design your computer yourself (and even if you decide to use a barebones kit, for that matter), check the newsgroups and message boards to see if anyone's had problems with the particular combinations you've selected. Some components simply don't play nicely with each other.
While you're fantasizing about all of those great parts you want to put in your new computer, let's look at the tools that you'll need.