After years of working with computers: taking out and replacing components, opening them up, upgrading them, and generally being comfortable inside them, I built my first PC years ago. I’m mostly self-taught on building computers, but I’ve got a number of from-scratch computers under my belt now and thinking about it, once you have the parts it’s pretty straight forward. This list is procedural memories from my mind, so feel free to add to this list any corrections or best practices that you have.
These steps will work well once you have your parts obtained. For good hardware metrics and recommendations, I suggest you stop over at Tom’s Hardware. To buy your components, I recommend NewEgg. If you have specific questions, you should refer to the documentation that comes with your components, particularly the motherboard manual. Without further interruption, here are 25 steps to building your computer:
- Remove both sides of your case.
- Place your case on its side so that the side with the metal “wall” is closer to the ground. When looking head-on at your case, this would typically be the right-side that should be laid to be on the ground.
- Remove the Rear I/O panel shield from the case (if it came with one) by popping it out and snapping the one that came with the motherboard into the rear of the case. There are only two ways the shield can really go in, and you can gauge the correct way by looking at the ports on the motherboard. Typically the keyboard and mouse P/S2 ports (perfect circles) will go closer to the top of the case or the left as you look at it laying down from behind.
- Take the 8 motherboard stand-offs and carefully screw them into the 8 holes inside your case where they line up with the holes in your motherboard. You want to secure the stand-offs so that they aren’t loose but you can’t really crank them tight or else you’ll strip the hole in the case. The cheaper the case you have, the more of a pain in the butt this step will be.
- Attach the base of your CPU heatsink to the bottom of the motherboard.
- Carefully place your motherboard inside the case. Line it up with the rear I/O shield and slide the ports past any of the metal guides from the I/O shield until it is all the way back that the ports are mostly flush with the shield and the stand-offs are lined up with the holes in the motherboard.
- Use 8 screws to attach the motherboard to the stand-offs. The screws should be secure but you don’t want them to be so tight you risk cracking the board. Congrats your motherboard is now in place!
- Install your power supply. This should be evident from your case where it goes. You may have to slide it onto a couple metal rails and will most likely have to secure it with at least 4 screws to the case. As long as the wires are not pinched and reach freely toward the motherboard and other components (hard drive/CDROM), it’s all set.
- Remove the CPU cover from the motherboard, it is likely held in with a gate/latch mechanism. Carefully remove your CPU from the packaging only holding the small square by the edges. Line up the triangle on one of the corners of the CPU with the triangle on the CPU slot and gently set it in there. Once it’s securely resting in the CPU slot, close the gate to hold the CPU in and secure the latch.
- Put a BB-sized drop of thermal paste in the center of the CPU.
- Look at your heatsink and see which way the wires run and where the 3 pins for your CPU fan are on the motherboard. Align the heatsink so that the wires will easily reach without being pulled taut or near any fans and lines up with the base of the heatsink. Set the heatsink straight down and secure it with the screw in each corner with as little wiggling as possible (since this will squish and spread around the thermal paste). Note: Many heatsinks have thin copper fins to dissipate the heat well. The difference between a fin and a blade when in contact with your skin can often become confused.
- Plug the cable in for the heatsink into the CPU fan pins on the motherboard.
- Install the RAM by only handling it by the short edges (not the copper). Refer to the motherboard manual as to which slots should be filled first if you are not filling all slots equally and it isn’t obvious from a color scheme with the RAM slots. Snap the RAM in securely and so that the plastic handles are holding the stick in.
- Install the hard drive. Put it in a 3.5″ bay and secure it with screws so that the ports are accessible. Plug a SATA data cable into the back of the hard drive and into the motherboards SATA 0 slot. Plug a SATA power cable (wider than the data) into the back of the hard drive from the power supply. If there are more hard drives, follow the same steps and connect them to the SATA 1 slot and counting up.
- Install a CD-ROM drive. If it’s SATA, connect it to the lowest available SATA slot on the motherboard after the hard drive and connect a SATA power cable from the power supply. If it’s IDE, connect an IDE ribbon cable from the CD-ROM from the back of the drive to the motherboard’s primary IDE slot. Then connect a 4-pin molex power cable to the back of the drive.
- Install the video card. Since the video card is often one of the bulkiest components we’ll do it mostly towards the end of the components to be installed. With room in the case and running into other components (re-arrange if necessary), the only likely problem the video card is pretty easy to install. Just line up the video card with the PCI Express x16 slot and a slot in the back of the case, then slide it in. Secure the video card with a screw into the frame where it rests on the case.
- Install any other components (extra USB ports or other PCI cards) by lining them up with a slot in the back and where they’ll reach the pins on the motherboard or PCI slots. Slide them in and secure them with a screw like the video card. If you have USB ports and audio ports on the front of the case, you’ll need to connect these to the motherboard as instructed in the motherboard manual. You’ll also need to connect any Power/Reset buttons.
- Plug in the cables from the power supply including the motherboard power, CPU power, video card power, and any additional components like case fans.
- Plug in the computer and power up! If it turns on, congrats! If not, double-check your power supply switch is on, the button on the case is connected to the motherboard correctly, and the power supply is connected to the motherboard correctly.
- Stand the case up and put the sides back on your case.
- Peek inside the BIOS system info to see that your components are registering correctly like the amount of RAM, your hard drives, CD ROM drives, etc.
- Boot from CD with your OS disk in the drive.
- Install your operating system by following the on-screen prompts. Make sure everything like hard drive size checks out as you go along.
- Install all the drivers that came with your components. You might also check online for updated drivers and BIOS updates.
- Let it run to test for any problems/BSoDs that might indicate a component/driver problem.
You should now have a fully functioning computer that you built yourself. This always gives me a better sense of knowing the ins and outs of a machine, its capabilities, and where to look if there are problems down the road.