Clicking on this article suggests you’re considering building your own PC but don’t know where to start or you have experience but feel somewhat outdated with the latest in PC technology so need an update of what parts to go about picking for a 2016 ready PC.
Every first-time builder has to start somewhere, so in this brief guide, I’ll cover the most important points to get you on your way to building an up-to-date PC for the right purpose.
A bit of background to PC building
Some things are important to get clear before entering the sphere of custom PC’s so here are some pointers that may help you decide if it’s for you and what you’d be getting yourself into.
Why do people build custom PC’s? There are two main reasons I like to think people do it. First of which is to get the best value for money. When you buy a third party pre-built system from the likes of Dell, HP, ASUS or whatever, you’re straight away paying a premium that pays for the labour of constructing the PC, the marketing to push the product to the consumer and load of bells and whistles in the form of bloatware that you don’t necessarily need, and that doesn’t come cheap. By going custom you eliminate those fees allowing you to put the money towards better parts and features that meet your specific needs.
The other reason to go into PC building is more of a hobby approach. If you’re a tinkerer like me and prefer to have a full understanding of how something works, then custom building a PC might be more enjoyable than you think. It opens doors for easy upgrades, self-servicing and you also learn a valuable skill that will save you money in the long-run. Aside from this you can also personalise it and make it almost a work of art by creating themed build like the watercooled system below.
It’s similar to owning a car and not knowing how to do simple services yourself, meaning you have to take it to your nearest Kwik-fit and pay a premium – some people don’t mind it and don’t care to understand why the car needs an oil or filter change, but I’d rather know what I’m putting in my car and prefer to enjoy the savings as a free tank of fuel.
Assuming you’re set to go ahead with a custom PC build, this guide will run through everything you’ll need to build an Intel Skylake based system (Skylake – the latest chip architecture by Intel). You may have heard about AMD which is another chip manufacturer, but at the time of writing this, Intel’s Skylake chips are newer, faster and generally the more popular choice.
What parts go into a custom PC?
It’s important to first understand what main components a PC is composed of before you get into the thick of things, so here’s a simple checklist of the major components you’ll find in a typical custom PC:
- Processor cooler
- Graphics Processor
- Power supply
- Optical drive
Below I’ll go over explaining each of the above and what to look out for when choosing specific products for building an Intel Skylake based system. For first time PC builders the choices on the market can seem overwhelming with loads of complicated model numbers and fear of compatibility between the parts, but hopefully having read this guide, you should be on your way to choosing exactly what you’ll need to construct that PC you’ve always wanted.
What purpose will the PC serve
Before you go about searching your parts, it’s important to understand what purpose your PC will be used for as many variants of the components will feature technologies that will favor certain purposes. For example, you may be building a home theater PC which you wouldn’t require huge processing power for as it’s just for streaming movies. You might be looking to build a gaming PC which would require a dedicated Graphics processor depending on the demands of the games. Or perhaps you work with demanding video or rendering software that requires fast, multi-core processing power for faster processing. Having made this decision will then help you pick the right available variations of particular components detailed below.
Motherboard – The main board that sits in the center of the PC build that strings together all other components in the PC.
Choosing the correct motherboard can seem like a confusing task when you look at all the different models available but this can easily be narrowed down once you know what you actually want out of your system.
For an Intel Skylake build, you’ll need an LGA 1151 socket motherboard which is a fancy way of saying that this motherboard is made to fit Intel Skylake processors.
The next thing to decide is the chipset variant to go with. Below is a table outlining the differences between the available chipsets which each offer different onboard features and capabilities such as the number of DIMM (memory) slots it has or how many USB 3.0 connections it provides etc.
For this build, you’d be looking to get yourself either a H170 chipset motherboard or a Z170 (if you plan to overclock). Both these chipsets feature all the latest most advanced technologies you’ll need to get the best out of your system. For simplicity, I’d ignore the other chipset options as they lack certain features you’d be after in a typical custom build. Other chipsets may be more targeted for third party manufacturers to keep costs and features to a bare minimum or more suited for servers.
Once you’ve narrowed the choices down to the chipset, the differences between available boards on the market are down to personal preference based on layout, size, colour and extra bells and whistles marketed by that particular third party vendor, so just have a read around what the different brands offer and what appeals to you the most. You’ll find some boards are marketed with “Gaming” in their name which could mean things such as enhanced audio, memory speeds or durability for things like overclocking – features aimed towards gaming enthusiasts. My advice would be to go with a brand you feel you can rely on, that may offer features that appeal to you, have good pricing and offer good customer care.
The last thing to note in regards to motherboards is the size. Typically you’ll find an ATX size motherboard is the most commonly available as this is the “standard” size, but they can range as big as E-ATX (big) to micro-ITX (very small), simply make sure it fits your desired PC case and you’re sorted. A smaller motherboard with the same features of a full sized board would have a price premium – Decisions, decisions!
Processor (CPU) – The workforce/brain that does all the calculations to make the PC tick. Located near the center of the motherboard.
Every year (more or less) Intel will release an updated version of their processor by either re-inventing it’s architecture (the way it handles information) or shrinking it’s die size (making the chip more dense/smaller) for improved speed and efficiency. In late 2015, Intel launched their Skylake line of processors (generation 6) which is currently their latest mainstream processor that most system builders would base their systems around. You’ll find, however, that just Skylake processors alone have many models to choose from. Below is yet another table highlighting the key differences between all the models available for desktop PC’s.
You’ll want to look at three main features when choosing the right CPU for you.
Number of cores – Generally the more the merrier, more cores means the CPU can split work across multiple cores making tasks more manageable.
Then there’re clock rates. These figures relate to the speed of the cores. You can have fewer cores working at a fast speed, however, having more cores working at a slower speed puts less “strain” on the CPU and could still perform better depending on what kind of tasks it’s given. For example, modern video games generally don’t utilise more than 4 cores so investing into an 8 core processor would be considered overkill for that purpose. However, modern rendering software such as photo and video editors tend to utilise multiple cores and would make these processes complete faster, for better loading and rendering times.
Generally, you get what you pay for, but being the brain of the PC this will likely be one of the bigger investments in the build. The Core i5 6600K (K indicates ability to manually overclock) is a popular choice as it has a high number of cores and allows for overclocking for increased performance.
Memory (DIMM/RAM) – Sticks of fast access memory that store temporary data for the CPU. Typically located to the right side of the CPU socket on a motherboard.
This one is fairly straight forward. The latest memory technology is DDR4 so make sure you choose that over DDR3 if you’re buying new modules. Compatibility is not an issue here as both DDR4 and Skylake motherboard chipsets are the latest and made to work together, however, certain memory capacities and frequencies are supported by different motherboards, but this is can be ignored as it simply means your RAM will automatically run a tad bit slower if you purchased the higher frequencies than supported by the motherboard.
Simply choose a capacity you find fit for purpose, I’d recommend at least 8GB for most people in the current day of computing. Make sure to purchase them in pairs, so 2x 4GB or 2x 8GB sticks as RAM works fastest in dual channel (pairs).
For those of you wondering, RAM frequencies have been debated and are known to have insignificant effects on performance. Given this, simply focus on the memory capacity and ignore frequency numbers unless you’re trying to break overclocking records that have no effect on actual performance. Having leftover RAM slots on your motherboard also leaves an option for a future upgrades by allowing you to add extra modules, just make sure the new DIMMS are the same brand/capacity/speed to avoid complication.
Graphics Processor (GPU/ graphics card) – The second brain that is dedicated to processing graphics algorithms i.e. for gaming. Typically sits horizontally, below the CPU.
Most medium to higher end custom built PC’s will have a dedicated Graphics Card. This will allow for much greater graphics performance in tasks such as gaming and video encoding. Many software applications now utilise the GPU in tangent with the CPU in work processes so it’s increasingly becoming a considered component.
In today’s market, you’ll be looking at GPU’s manufactured by Nvidia and AMD. Nvidia recently launched it’s Pascal range of GPU’s (Pascal is a generation name similar to Intel’s Skylake) and is currently the market leader and more popular choice for a dedicated graphics card. When it comes to picking a particular model from the Pascal range of Nvidia GPU’s, you’ll generally be choosing based on budget. And as you’ve guessed it – the more you spend the more you’ll get. If you’re a gamer, it’s best to check online benchmarks to see what kind of performance each model can deliver and if it meets your needs.
At the time of writing this, Nvidia hasn’t yet launched it’s lower range of Pascal GPU’s so you may consider a previous generation card if you don’t want to spend upwards of £200. For the latest Nvidia cards, check out the GTX 1060, GTX 1070, GTX 1080.
When deciding which brand to go with, you’ll be looking at several things; the cooling offered, whether the board has been replaced with improved components i.e. more durable capacitors and what customer care and warranty’s are offered.
AMD, on the other hand, have recently refreshed their lower end of graphics cards which pose good value for entry-level performance, check out the RX 480, RX 470 and RX 460.
Two things to note with graphics cards is its size and power requirements. some bigger cards may not fit a smaller case, so be sure there’s plenty of clearance by checking your desired case measurements. Also, be sure to meet the power supply requirements for the GPU as more powerful cards will need more juice to run at their potential, sometimes an extra pins are required to power more powerful cards, so double check compatibility.
Storage Drive (HDD/SSD/M.2) – Where all your system and personal files are stored.
These are pretty simple to choose as you’ll only be looking at speed and capacity, similar to how USB’s work. In the last decade, we’ve been introduced to new technologies such as the faster Solid State Drives (SSD’s) and M.2 drives (insanely fast and relatively expensive SSD storage) that have been replacing the ancient spinning disk which is the Hard Drive Disk (HDD). Recently, SSD dive prices have fallen enough that they make HDD’s redundant unless you’re after huge amounts of storage that doesn’t require fast transfer speeds.
Power supply (PSU) – The PSU is designed to safely and efficiently distribute power to the various components in your PC.
Power supplies are important for making sure all your PC components get all the juice they need to run. The most important things to watch when buying a PSU is it’s total wattage output and efficiency rating.
Having multiple Graphics cards in SLI (running two cards in sync) will require significantly more power as well as additional cables from the PSU to power the second graphics card. You may also opt for a fully modular PSU which means the individual power cables that run to each PC component are removable and replaceable so you can have a cleaner and more versatile build for the future.
To calculate how much power you need from your power supply, add the peak wattage requirements from each major component in the build and add an extra 100 watts to give you a safe overhead for your chosen power supply. Premium power supplies may offer better efficiency, saving you money on electrical bills, they may also have lower operating temperatures meaning quiet operation. With the latest generation of components, you ‘ll rarely ever need more than a 600 watt power supply for a single graphics card system as components have become extremely efficient over the last decade, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry so it’s bettter to do the math!
So you’ve got the main, or what I would consider more complicated parts out of the way, but there are still a few more things to consider.
You’ll need a case to house all the component. Cases are generally split up by size, and are designed to accompany different motherboard sizes, so make sure the two are compatible. For example, a large ATX tower case would be expected to fit any ATX motherboard including any smaller ATX variations i.e. micro ATX. Some cases will feature more modern front UI connections such as the latest USB 3.0 ports or SD card readers. However, these tend to be overlooked and cases are often chosen based on looks. Some important things to consider when choosing a case would be airflow, size, sound insulation and fan locations.
Another optional, yet highly recommended purchase would be an aftermarket CPU cooler. The stock fan cooler provided with a CPU doesn’t perform well meaning your CPU is put under extra strain when it’s core temperatures are at a constant high. Many affordable coolers are available that provide a substantial improvement in temperatures. Brands like Corsair offer all-in-one water cooling systems that provide exceptional cooling with really east installation, however, tend to have a premium price tag. Always check for compatibility of the cooler you’re after with the motherboard socket you intend to use it with i.e. socket 1151 as this will determine compatibility.
This final piece to the puzzle is debatable, but some people still like to install CD drives. If you burn CD’s or need a CD reader then you might want to install one but many now opt for external USB powered drives instead, saving space and allowing for more airflow.
Putting it together!
So hopefully, having read this guide, you now have a thorough understanding of what a PC is comprised of and how to confidently pick parts for your dream PC. But now comes the most challenging part… Putting it all together!
Writing a long step by step tutorial would probably confuse most new builders so instead I’m going to leave you with a detailed video tutorial that does a very good job of explaining how a custom PC is assembled step-by-step.
I hope this guide has helped you decide whether building a custom PC is for you and if so has helped you understand how to go about picking the right components.
On a final note, I’d like to strongly recommend Flubit.com as it’s a very good way to get all your parts for significantly cheaper meaning you can put mor emoney towards better components! Simply find the product you’re after on amazon.co.uk and paste the product URL into Flubit.com and we’ll come back to you with a better price!