(You Can) Say No To Pre-built Computers

This may come as a bit of an out of left field kind of blog post. But please bear with me, it’s a subject that has been with me for – as I realised today – close to 20 years. It just never occurred to me until earlier this semester at uni that I care enough about it to make a point. Maybe it’s a convergence of how reality developed in recent years and my (outdated?) views on the issue that made this into a subject worth making a point about.

The subject is computers. Desktop computers, specifically. I’ve bought parts and assembled them myself for years, and never thought anything special about it. The first and last pre-assembled system I had was a Pentium 100, so it must have been the mid-90s. I was in my early teens. Tech became not just old news, but downright unable to keep up with demands much faster back then, so i built it into a Pentium MMX 166 system not that much later.

As I saw it, if you used a desktop system, you’d be involved in some form of tinkering with its innards, at least indirectly: If you bought a pre-assembled desktop computer, you’d eventually upgrade it with a better component to squeeze a few more years’ worth out of it, right? If you couldn’t do that yourself, you had a computer-savvy friend who’d do it for you. And those with enough money would pay someone to do it for them.

Earlier this semester, though, in a lecture on Human–Computer-Interaction, the Prof just casually mentioned to a filled lecture hall – of which half had never seen a computer’s inside, despite studying a computer-related subject – that it’s not unusual for store-bought, pre-assembled desktop systems these days, to be housed in a case that is not meant to be opened by the user. That there were websites documenting how to circumvent these measures in the least destructive way possible.

WAT?

It was completely beyond my comprehension why anyone would buy a desktop computer under these conditions. You get pretty much the worst of all worlds this way: You pay more than for building it yourself, and don’t get any real choice in customisation. Like a laptop, you can’t upgrade it, yet don’t get its portability. Clearly, something is keeping people from even considering to assemble their own computers. My sister explained it as people having gotten used to ‘hands-off’ hardware via smart phones and cheap laptops. Be that as it may, I think you should at least have this alternative on your radar.

So It’s my crusade du jour to tell you that assembling your own computer is not rocket science, and you should totally do it. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that there are more opportunities for error in a medium-sized LEGO set than in assembling a desktop computer. Honest!

Why Build Your Own Computer?

As I alluded to earlier, what you get out of building your own computer is customisation heaven: You have exact control over its components. No matter whether you need an energy-saving low power system, a workstation tailored to your needs, or a roaring monster that runs the latest games at the highest settings, you build what you want/need/can afford. If you were ever unhappy with the choice between two pre-built models, neither of which was exactly what you wanted, this is for you.

You usually get it for a lower price than a pre-assembled system. If a deal looks like it can compete financially, I’d start looking for the hidden snag.

You get the experience of building your machine, of seeing a jumble of parts boot to life for the first time, installing the operating system of your choice and witnessing a true clean slate, without any pre-installed vendor crap. Yes, it feels a little like this every single time. Besides the sentimental aspect, don’t scoff at getting this little bit of insight into the insides of the machine you’re going to use daily. It goes a long way in dispelling the mystery of what goes on in there.

And, I reiterate, it is absolutely doable. All it requires is some reading up, and no special skills at all. This is not for tech-heads only!

There are but two drawbacks compared to store-bought computers: Convenience, and the safety of having warranty on the whole box instead of only the individual components. You pay for these by foregoing the above advantages.

How To Build Your Own Computer

This is only going to be a very general outline, no specifics and brand names at all. Think of it as a roadmap for general orientation, and to illustrate the scope of the task.

The most involved part of self-building is putting together your list of components to order. This is because not every pair of components is going to fit with each other.

Thankfully, many techy websites frequently post what they consider the best current build for certain conditions –  usually things like ‘best general purpose PC under 500 USD’ or ‘best mid-value gaming rig’. These, along with a bit of general knowledge, provide useful starting points. At least, they’re useful to read, as they usually outline the editors’ reasoning behind their decisions.

If this is your first foray into even thinking about a computer’s insides, this will seem super daunting. All the different parts, all the different technologies with their cryptic names, and whatever you choose will influence all your other choices. You don’t need to do this all on your own, though. It’s absolutely legitimate to ask for help. Chances are there is someone among your friends or relatives who’ll either help you pick, or look at your list and give you some input. Heck, even after almost 20 years of building my own computers, I have to spend a little time before each build just reading up on what’s on the shelves these days.

A Short Run-down On Computer Parts And How They Fit Together

Nowadays, computers aren’t made up of too many individual parts. A lot of functionality is already embedded on the motherboard, and for a good many use cases, that’s serviceable enough. First things first, though:

The CPU, or processor, is your computer’s heart. The faster it is, the faster your computer will fulfill most tasks. Like all other components, it sits on the motherboard (or mainboard), a big plate of circuitry that every component connects to. All the USB ports etc. are also on the motherboard. Nowadays, most motherboards have integrated basic sound, graphics, and network functionality, so you don’t require components for each of these. Furthermore, your computer requires two kinds of storage: Fast ‘short term’ memory chips called RAM, to keep all the currently used things close at hand, and long-term storage for your data called a hard disk drive. Finally, you need a power supply. All of these components fit into a case, which is just a fancy box made for holding all these things. And that’s about all you need, not mentioning optional bells and whistles.

The most common optional part is a dedicated graphics card. This is a piece of circuitry with a processor and RAM just for doing graphics-related calculations. If you want to play games, you’ll probably need one of these. You might also want to spend a little coin on a DVD- or BluRay drive.

If you want to make a parts list from scratch, you are playing a kind of puzzle game: You have to match the names (often just a cryptic string of letters) of each component’s way of connecting to the motherboard with what the motherboard provides. A CPU’s way of plugging into the motherboard is called a socket, so you’ll have to make sure the motherboard and CPU of your choice both have the same socket name in their descriptions, or they won’t fit. The same goes for RAM and the amount, type, and speed of modules your motherboard provides slots for. (A propos CPUs: Unless you know what you are doing, just buy what’s called a ‘boxed CPU’ – that’s a CPU that already comes with an appropriate cooler.)

Hard disk drives, DVD/BluRay drives, and dedicated graphics cards are easier, because there usually is just one heavily used standard of plugging them into the motherboard at any given time.

A sensible procedure would be to pick out sine qua non components first – let’s say a certain CPU you really want – and go from there: Find a nicely featured motherboard for this CPU’s socket. Then, choose your other components to fit this motherboard.

Once you have the innards all picked out, you can use one of the many websites that can calculate how much power these components are going to draw and choose a power supply accordingly –  just give it a little safety margin of more power than you need, but not excessively so.

To finish your hardware choices, pick a case that can house a motherboard of your chosen board’s form factor (they come from large & spacious to tiny & cramped, but it’s really just another round of the letter-matching game you already know) and provides room enough for the number of drives you want.

Finally, add an operating system to your list. Windows for end users usually is a little more expensive than the deals manufacturers get for pre-installing it, but having an actual disc to re-install from after wiping your hard disk is a distinct advantage. For normal, non-gaming desktop use, you might even save all that coin by going with a Linux distribution like Ubuntu or Linux Mint. They are free and are geared towards providing a user-friendly desktop experience.

And that’s it. Yes, that’s a lot of interconnected stuff, and it usually involves reading up on every single item, whether reviewers found any specific drawbacks with it, whether it will be the weak link that bottlenecks your more powerful components, and so on, but this is an outline for building a list from scratch. That’s the longest way to skin this particular cat. (Note: No cats are to be skinned in the process of building a computer! meow :3)

For starting out, you can just use a build list someone compiled and modify one or two items to better suit your needs and/or budget. That’s why I outlined how to build a list from scratch – when you have an idea how component decisions influence each other, you also know how to account for the changes you made. Remember, you can always ask for help. Don’t discount the internet as a resource, too.

How To Actually Build Your Computer

So you got all the fancy boxes of the parts in front of you. If making the parts list was the somewhat dull accounting part, assembling is the fun LEGO part.

In most cases, the motherboard manual will give you a detailed step-by-step guide on how and where to fit each part, as well as in which order to proceed. Since some components require specific instructions, have a glance at their manuals when it’s their turn, too. It usually goes something like this, although the order of steps may vary a little:

(Spoiler: you’ll be following the manuals and plugging things in the only way they fit)

  1. Put the CPU in its socket, then mount and secure the cooler on top. (The manuals know how to. It’s the only place these items fit.) Do the same for the RAM modules. (Again, motherboard manual, and the only place they fit.)

  2. Mount all your stuff in the case. The case’s manual knows how to mount any motherboard of your chosen form factor, as well as how and where to fix any hard disks, DVD drives, and whatever else you bought.

  3. Use the appropriate cables to plug all the hard disks/other drives into the storage ports on the motherboard. (The motherboard manual knows, and it’s the only place they fit.) If you bought a dedicated graphics card, fit it in its slot. (The motherboard manual knows how, and yes, it doesn’t fit anywhere else either.)

  4. Only two things left now: The case itself has a few small fiddly plugs for the power switch, the small lights, and other assorted things that need to be plugged into the motherboard. (Trusty old motherboard manual…)

  5. The last thing is to put power to the whole thing. Out of the business end of your power supply comes a big bouquet of multicoloured wire bundles, all with several differently-sized plugs for the motherboard, graphics cards, drives, and so on. Between the component manuals and where each plug type fits, you’ll be able to figure this out easily. There will probably be more plugs than you need.

Now you’re done. Yes, really. Plug in your screen, mouse, keyboard, speakers, power, and it’s ‘IT’S ALIVE!’ o’clock.

Right now, ‘alive’ is just about all it’s going to be, but you should already get some screen output, along with a message that no device to boot from was found. Insert your Windows/Linux installation medium, restart, and off you go installing your operating system.

This involves clicking ‘next’ a whole lot of time until it’s finished. (No, you should really read what it tells you, but you’ll still be clicking ‘next’ most of the time.) For Windows, you’ll have a lot of drivers on the discs that came with each component. It’s usually better to hunt down the most recent versions from the manufacturer websites, but if that seems too daunting, you can install the ones from the discs. As far as I know, Linux takes care of itself in that regard.

Bam, self-built computer, all up and running! When you spell it out step by step, it sounds like a lot of work, but it can be done in an afternoon. The hardest part is getting to know all the components and what you need – but that’s something you’ll have to do at a slightly smaller scale when you want to make an informed choice between pre-assembled models anyway.

So, I hope I at least managed to make you aware of self-building computers as an option. I don’t want to unfairly present it as no more difficult than picking a computer off the shelf, because it is. But not by much! And I think it more than makes up for it just by teaching you what went where, and taking the mystery out of the magic box.

Most importantly, I’d like people to know that they don’t have to deal with some of the crap manufacturers throw at them, like cases you can’t open. I’m still shaking my head about that one.

So, how about you? Did you ever assemble a computer before? Thought about it? Think differently about it now? I’d love to know!