Building a PC requires at least the following components. Have all of them available before you start to build the system. Open each component box and verify the contents against the packing list before you actually start the build.
- Case and power supply, with power cord
- Motherboard, with custom I/O shield, if needed
- CPU cooler, with thermal compound or pad
- Memory module(s)
- Hard drive(s) and cable(s)
- Optical drive, with data cable
- Video adapter, unless embedded
- Sound adapter, unless embedded
- Network adapter, unless embedded
- Any other expansion cards (if applicable)
- Supplementary case fan(s)
- Keyboard, mouse, display and other external peripherals
- Screws, brackets, drive rails, and other connecting hardware
Hand Tools and Supplies
You really don't need many tools to build a PC. We built one PC using only a Swiss Army Knife, just to prove it could be done. Our basic PC building toolkit is a #1 Phillips screwdriver. It's a bit small for the largest screws and a bit large for the smallest, but we've built dozens of systems using no other tool.
Note: Don't worry about using magnetized tools. Despite the common warnings about doing so, we've used magnetized screwdrivers for years without any problem. They are quite handy for picking up dropped screws and so on. Use commonsense precautions, though, such as avoiding putting the magnetized tips near the flat surface of a hard drive or other magnetic media.
It's helpful to have more tools, of course. Needle-nose pliers are useful for setting jumpers. A flashlight is often useful, even if your work area is well lit. A 5 mm (or, rarely, 6 mm) nut driver makes it faster to install the brass standoffs that support the motherboard. A larger assortment of screwdrivers can also be helpful.
You may also find it useful to have some Nylon cable ties (not the paper-covered wire-type twist ties) for dressing cables after you build the system. Canned air and a clean microfiber dust cloth are useful for cleaning components that you are migrating from an older system. A new eraser can be helpful for cleaning contacts if you mistakenly grab an expansion card by the connector tab.
In addition to hand tools, you should have the following software tools available when you build your system. Some are useful when you build the system, others to diagnose problems. We keep copies of our standard software tools with our toolkit. That way, we have everything we need in one place. Here are the software tools we recommend:
Operating system distribution discs
Service packs and critical updates
Note: It's a very bad idea to connect a PC directly to the Internet, and that's especially true for an unpatched system. Several of our readers have reported having a new system infected by a worm almost instantly when they connected to the Internet, intending to download patches and updates. Patch the new system before you connect it to the Internet, and never connect it directly to the Internet. Use a NAT gateway/router between any PC and your broadband modem.
Major applications discs
Note: Pay close attention to the instructions that come with the driver. Most drivers can be installed with the hardware they support already installed. But some drivers, particularly those for some USB devices, need to be installed before the hardware is installed.
In addition to basic drivers, the driver CD may include supporting applications. For example, a video adapter CD may include a system tray application for managing video properties, while a sound card may include a bundled application for sound recording and editing. We generally use the bundled driver CD for initial installation and then download and install any updated drivers available on the product website. Keep a copy of the original driver CD and a CD-R with updated drivers in your toolkit.
Note: Keep original driver CDs stored safely. They may be more valuable than you think. More than once, we've lost track of original driver CDs, thinking we could always just download the latest driver from the manufacturer's website. Alas, a company may go out of business, or its website may be down just when you desperately need a driver. Worse still, some companies may charge for drivers that were originally freely downloadable. That's one reason we don't buy HP products.
Hard drive installation/diagnostic utility
Seagate, for example, provides DiscWizard installation software and SeaTools diagnostic software. If you're building a system, you can use the bootable floppy or bootable CD version of DiscWizard to partition, format, and test the new drive automatically. If you're adding a drive, you can use the Windows version of DiscWizard to install, prepare, and configure the new drive automatically. You can configure the new drive as a secondary drive, keeping the original drive as the boot drive. You can specify that the new drive be the sole drive in the system, and DiscWizard will automatically migrate your programs and data from the old drive. Finally, you can choose to make the new drive the primary (boot) drive and make the old drive the secondary drive. DiscWizard does all of this automatically, saving you considerable manual effort.
Note: All hard drive makers provide installation and diagnostic utilities. If you buy an OEM hard drive or lose the original CD, you can download the utilities from the manufacturer's website. For obvious reasons, many of these utilities work only if a hard drive made by that manufacturer is installed.
Note: Many system builders routinely run a memory diagnostic to ensure the system functions before installing the operating system. One excellent utility for this purpose is MEMTEST86 (http://www.memtest86.com). It's free, self-boots from a floppy drive, or can be run in DOS mode from an optical boot disk. Best of all, it does a great job of testing the otherwise difficult-to-diagnose memory subsystem.
Many people simply turn on the system and let it run for a day or two. That's better than nothing, but an idling system doesn't stress all components. A better way is to run software that accesses and exercises all of the components. One good (and free) ad hoc way to burn in a system is to compile the Linux kernel, and we sometimes use that method. We generally use special burn-in software, however. The best product we know of for that purpose is BurnInTest from PassMark Software.
Learn more about this topic from Building the Perfect PC, 3rd Edition.
Even if you’re not a total geek, you can build your own PC -- and it’s worth it. You'll discover that the quality is better and the cost is much lower than any comparable off-the-shelf PC you can buy. Written by hardware experts, this book delivers complete instructions for building your own dream machine with high-quality components, whether it’s a PC for general use, extreme gaming, a media center, or home server. Straightforward language, clear directions, and easy-to-follow illustrations make this guide a breeze for computer builders of any skill level, even those with no experience. Design the custom computer you want, and have fun doing it.