Want to Learn More About Computers? Try Building Your Own PC

Do it yourself

Assembling a computer yourself is a lost art—one due for a revival.

Building your own computer is a great way to gain a fresh appreciation for the technology we've become so reliant on.
Building your own computer is a great way to gain a fresh appreciation for the technology we’ve become so reliant on.Beth Holzer for Wired

Back in the days of dialup internet, it was commonplace to build your own computer. Instead of walking into a Best Buy or logging onto Dell’s website to shop for a complete unit, you’d assemble a desktop PC yourself using standardized, commodity parts purchased either online or at a store specializing in computer components.

These days, most consumers have only ever bought prefab systems, no assembly required. However, many gamers and computer hobbyists still prefer to roll their own boxes. Doing so means you maintain total control over how the computer turns out, and a successful DIY build is a point of pride. Also, knowing your way around the inside of a PC makes it easier to replace a single piece of a broken-down system instead of just junking your whole rig and buying a new one.

Most consumers have only ever bought prefab systems, but many gamers and computer hobbyists still prefer to roll their own boxes.

I am embarrassed to admit that, even though I worked in IT for a number of years and have written about tech even longer, I had never built a PC from scratch before. I’ve put together bare-bones kits (like Intel’s tiny NUCs), and I’ve repaired and upgraded countless systems, but never have I brought a new computer into the world that I could call my very own.

There’s a snag to assembling a PC in 2018, however. Exorbitant DRAM costs and the inflated price of graphics cards—thanks to their central role in the cryptocurrency mining trend—mean it’s more expensive to put together a decent rig than it was even just a few years ago. That’s why I thought the new AMD Ryzen chips were an appealing option. These brand-new processors combine AMD’s latest processor technology and high-speed Vega graphics cores together on a single chip. They’re useless to Bitcoin miners, but the graphics capabilities are robust enough to play plenty of games.

This makes Ryzen an excellent platform for topsy-turvy times. If you’re into games, you could build a Ryzen system today, then drop in a discrete Nvidia or AMD graphics card as an upgrade once their prices come back down to sane levels. Personally, I didn’t need a gaming rig when I set out to build one, but the simplicity of relying on a twofer chip like this seemed like a logical way to lower the complexity and price of the build.

Sure, you could always just buy a game console like a PS4 or Xbox One S, saving both money and time. But a general-purpose computer can also be used to manage media and take care of schoolwork. And then there’s that whole pride thing.

To prepare, I watched dozens of YouTube videos and read a bunch of articles on PC building. I also called in parts from component manufacturers like AMD, SanDisk, Corsair, and MSI. I crossed my fingers, broke out my screwdrivers, and put everything together. Here’s what I discovered about computers, and myself, by building my very first PC.

Getting Started: Pick Your Core PC Parts

The first thing you need to know: There are an overwhelming number of components to chose from. If you’re used to configuring a MacBook with a few mouse clicks, this exercise will feel like a trip to Home Depot in comparison.

It’s important that first-time builders (like me!) understand the anatomy of a system. There are six major parts that make up a computer like the Ryzen-based PC I built.

  • Processor: The brain of the machine. This is where your data will be crunched.
  • Motherboard: The backbone of any system. This intricate, chip-stuffed circuit board is where the processor and RAM live, and where you plug in your SSDs, hard drives, networking cables, and peripherals.
  • RAM: Temporary, short-term storage for tasks. In a Ryzen system like this, where the graphics chip and the processor are combined, RAM serves double duty, handling the main memory and the memory for the onscreen graphics. That means it’s worth buying faster RAM, but faster RAM is also more expensive.
  • Power supply: This heavy brick of a thing converts power from the wall into the power your motherboard and processor require. You’ll need to decide on the rest of your components first so you know much muscle your power supply will need. It’s ideal to have a little extra juice for any future upgrades.
  • Storage: Hard drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs) that act as long-term storage. HDDs have more capacity and are cheaper; SSDs are smaller, pricier, but way faster.
  • Case: Where all the above components are installed. It’s the box, but you’ll have to navigate the case’s design when routing cables and installing components. Also, be sure to pick a case that fits your motherboard, power supply, and the rest of your components.

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