For some, the most PC building they’ll ever do is upgrading their RAM (if that). If you have a thirst for cable management, however, building your first PC is an experience you’ll back on fondly. There’s nothing quite like powering on a PC that you’ve assembled, especially considering how much money you saved and PC knowledge you gained during that sweet, sweet bonding time. It’s easy, rewarding, and possible in even the most inebriated of circumstances (but we don’t recommend this).
Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and puppies. After all, the first PC build is the hardest. With all the screws you have to screw, plugs you have to plug, and parts you have to buy, your first PC building experience can easily be the last time you ever try. No matter, follow these tips to solve most — if not all — of the problems that come with building a PC.
1. Take a Deep Breath
Seriously, take a breather. You already have a stack of boxes towering over you. Before this moment, PCs had been a mysterious box of entertainment and whirring fans. You’re about to give life to a machine, so it’s best to proceed carefully and stress-free.
My first PC build was done half on the floor, half on a desk, with cable ties scattered around and the occasional expletive when a black screw fell in the dark, shag carpet. You should know better. Clear out a space, preferably a large counter top, where you can work. Lay out all of your parts, and open every box with the intent to organize them on your clean, smooth surface. Trust me, it makes all the difference.
2. Check Your Case, Just in Case
Heard the expression, “Measure twice, cut once”? It’s the same with PC build, except there’s (ideally) no cutting. Your first priority is picking out a case that will provide plenty of room for your build. This means checking your case’s dimensions, before proceeding with the build. Make sure your case can fit two things: your motherboard and your graphics card. These are the largest components in your PC, and should be measured at least a few times to ensure their fit.
This isn’t to say the occasional ‘tight fit’ isn’t going to happen, but when it comes to building a first PC it’s best to stay on the safe side. To ensure you’re using the correct case, make sure which motherboards fit. Motherboards generally come in three sizes — called form factors — ranging from smallest to largest: Mini-ATX, Micro-ATX, and ATX.
Cross check your motherboard with your case. Then, check the dimensions of your graphics card. Depending on the placement of your PCI slot, make sure you have ~5-6 inches left over horizontally in your case for card readers and chassis additions. Finding out your brand new GPU won’t fit into your case is a pain no one should bear. If you’re unsure about the fit of your parts, buy a slightly larger case.
3. Matchmaker, Matchmaker
Trying to install a new GPU on a ten year old motherboard? Unfortunately, life can be like grade-school recess sometimes: unfair and full of regret. Compatibility checks are another big issue with PC building because, although you’ve fit all the parts on your motherboard, they might not interact well with each other.
Even if all of your parts are working and your PC turns on, you may not be using all of your parts to their full capacity. In this case, things like RAM, PCI-Express speeds, or CPU bottlenecks may be causing a serious constraint on your PC even though your parts appear to be fully functioning.
Websites like pcpartspicker.com help you deal with compatibility woes. When assembling your build list, PCPartsPicker will not only inform you if your case is too small for your GPU but will also notify you if your motherboard requires a BIOS update before using your CPU. Not all RAM speeds and GPUs are compatible with all motherboards, so taking the extra step to make sure your parts work well together can make all the difference in the world.
4. Fit It Til’ It Clicks
During your PC building, a lot of things will click. You will have to fit them into their corresponding slots until they click. RAM, most notably, is going to click. Power cables, when plugged into your GPU, will most likely click. When you install your CPU, it will also click.
It’s very hard, at first, to gauge how much stress you should put on your parts during installation. Knowing when a piece is successfully installed and when it isn’t can be difficult, as you’re never truly sure that you didn’t crack something during installation. Remember: all of these parts are built to withstand assembly, so if you’re sure you’re setting the component in the right spot, with the right orientation, don’t be afraid to cram it in there. If you’re still unsure if a part is properly installed, the almighty jiggle test is your greatest ally.
5. A Little Dab’ll Do Ya
You’re on to arguably the most difficult part of building a PC, the CPU, and it’s time to show you the ways of the thermal compound. There are many schools of thought concerning how thermal compound should be applied; some spread the thermal compound in an X shape, some apply it in a line, and some simply add a dab of compound in the middle.
In any case, please ensure that you are using a quality thermal compound. Arctic Silver is the most well-known and highly regarded thermal compound on the market to date.
Do not downplay the role thermal compound has on the PC, as a low quality thermal paste can and will lead to overheating. Some CPU units come pre-applied with compound on their stock coolers, although I would advise that you wipe off that compound and apply your own for maximum cooling power.
Thermal compound works by creating a thin layer between the CPU and the heat sink so the heat off of the CPU can travel easily to the heat sink and dissipate. No matter what shape you decide on, remember to only add enough that the top layer of your CPU is spread. Too much may render your CPU unusable, not enough will cause overheating problems. When in doubt, a pea-sized dab’ll do ya.
6. The Dreaded CPU Cooler
I mean it; CPU coolers are dreaded creatures. If you don’t do it right the first time, you most likely have to clean off your thermal paste, re-apply it, and try again. You may also have a non-stock CPU cooler which, while more efficient, may require you to install a bracket mounting before installing the actual heatsink and cooler fan.
When it comes to CPU coolers, instructions are vital. Make sure you can diagram and use all parts that come with the cooler, including mounting screws for the brackets along with the cooler and fan. Take the time to ensure that the cooler is installed, as orienting it sideways may lead to a fall greater than the Roman Empire’s.
7. Give Power to Your Parts
The first time I build a PC, it didn’t turn on. I spent the whole day wondering, begging, only to ask myself “Did I plug in the power supply?”. No, I hadn’t.
It happens more often than we’d like to admit, so make sure you’re giving power to every single component in your PC and as well as turned on your power supply. This also includes connecting one of the most annoying parts of a PC, the front-panel connectors.
In case you didn’t know, these are the front-panel connectors. They connect your restart button, power button, and front-panel LED indicators. Each of them has its own tiny plug, so be sure to follow your motherboard’s instruction booklet before jamming these little things into their sockets. These frustrating plugs can be the difference between a fully functioning computer and a dead bundle of parts, so check them, double check them, and triple check them if your PC is not turning on at all.
8. Give Them Some Space
It’s not that they want to be alone right now – they just need some air. PCs require a spacious inside in order to run a constant stream of cool air throughout the whole computer.
Cramped PCs can and will have higher temperatures than spacious ones, unless proper cooling measures are taken. The easiest way to make sure your parts have enough space to breathe is to manage your cables. Most PC builders are so excited with the build, they shy away from cable management due to fears of accidentally unplugging something.
Use your PC’s back-panel, which is present on most new PC cases, to route wires to your different parts. Make sure you are not stressing your wires by routing them farther than you need to; they should be somewhat loose even after you’ve plugged them in. Although not exactly a quick solution, cable management is an essential step to prevent overheating issues in the future.
9. Room For More
So you’ve bought your parts, put them together, closed the case, and are now ready to game at ultra high quality settings. Great, let’s browse the Internet for deals. But wait…why isn’t your PC connecting to the Internet? Oh, that’s right, there’s no Wi-Fi card. There also won’t be, because there’s only one PCI slot on your motherboard. It’s understandable that cutting corners may work on some builds, but a well-assembled PC doesn’t just function; it thrives on to the next century.
Make sure your motherboard, along with your case, allows space for expansion so you can keep your PC updated for years to come. A Mini-ATX may cost less than an ATX motherboard, but the extra cost will allow you more space, a better gaming performance, and more RAM slots so you’ll virtually never have to buy another one.
Keep It Clean, It’s Not Your Room
You have to clean your PC at one point or another. The mechanisms inside this piece of equipment are fragile; the more a PC can do, the less durable it becomes and the more liable it is to break down. From wiping away stock thermal compound to blowing away dust, there’s no getting around cleaning the inside of your PC.
But don’t reach for the Kleenex! Stay away from paper wipes. Paper towels and wipes often leave over an excess film, which is small enough to get into the various nooks and crannies of your parts. You’ll never see a PC enthusiast using paper towels on a PC. Instead, use a microfiber cloth to wipe any dust or debris from your parts.
This next part may sound obvious, but do not, under any condition, use water to clean your PC. If you’re wiping thermal compound from your CPU or GPU, use rubbing alcohol. Rubbing alcohol dries very quickly at room temperature, and its viscosity makes cleaning easier and safer on your computer. Pour some on your cloth before applying, and reapply as needed. You want as high a concentration of isopropyl alcohol to water as possible for PC cleaning; some rubbing alcohol brands have a high concentration of water, which may lead to water damage.
If you want a dust-free computer, the weapon of choice is a can of compressed air. Do not use a vacuum cleaner, as the static electricity from the vacuum can do serious damage to your parts. Even if your parts are fresh out of the box, spray a little bit of compressed air every two weeks to keep your PC running optimally. If you don’t want to bother buying compressed air cans every so often, a manual foot pump will work cheaper, faster, and longer.
Building a PC is like fixing up an old car; the struggle associated with it creates a personal relationship between you and the machine. Make no mistake, building a PC is a fun and rewarding experience, but laying on the floor with a flickering flashlight wondering if you’ve damaged a hundred dollar part is no walk in the park. You, however, won’t have that problem, so tinker away!
Have you had or are you having issues building your PC? What are they? Let us know in the comments below so we can help!
Image Credit: technician look confused fixing computer by Odua Images via Shutterstock