Section 2 - The Essentials
Go Team 2704 Computer Workshop
These comprise the bare minimum of what you’ll need to build a computer.
Where are you going to put your computer? How much space will you have? How much does it need to hold? What external connections and bays are needed. These are things to think about when selecting a case. Although a case is just a case, it’s something that you’re going to be looking at for a good while. Choose carefully. Cases typically cost $50 - $200 (and beyond).
Motherboard Form Factors - You’ll need a motherboard and motherboards come in different (mostly) standard sizes (i.e., form factors). Also, the mounting holes in your case will need to support the form factor for your motherboard. As such, knowing what form factors your case will support is critical.
Maximum Length of Power Supply - Thinking of a massive power supply for your build? You may want to know whether it will fit in your case. Most case manufacturers will list the maximum power supply length a case will accommodate. Having said that, it’s good to ensure that there’s some room for power supply cables.
Maximum Length of Graphics Card - Just like power supplies, your case will need to have enough room for a graphics card (if you use one).
Maximum Height of CPU Cooler - If you use a non-standard CPU cooler, you'll want to make sure that there’s enough room for it in your case.
Case Fans - What fans come with the case? Will they provide sufficient cooling? Most cases provide options for mounting additional fans at various locations. You may want to be aware of these should more cooling be required.
Internal 3.5" Bays - Internal 3.5" bays are used for internal hard drives. If storage beyond what will be on the motherboard is needed, you’ll need another drive in the case, which can be a hard drive or a solid state drive (SSD). Hard drives are cheaper for large storage capacities. SSD’s are much faster. A 3.5" internal bay can be used for a 2.5" SSD with an adapter.
Internal 2.5" Bays - Internal 2.5" bays are used for internal SSD’s or laptop size hard drives.
External 5.25" Bays - External 5.25" bays are mainly used for optical drives (dvd/Blu-ray readers/writers). Many cases don’t have external bays any more as most people don’t have a need for them. However, if you are going to want an optical drive or another 5.25" bay device, you'll need provisions in the case accordingly.
External 3.5" Bays - External 3.5" bays are even less common than 5.25" bays. Card readers are one use for 3.5" external bays.
PSU - Power Supply Unit
You will need a power supply for your computer to run all of the cool things inside the case. The main question is how big? The selected graphics card most likely specifies a minimum recommended size. In addition, you can use a power supply calculator to come up with a good idea of what your minimum power supply size should be. For example, one such power supply calculator can be found here:
Form Factor - The typical case uses a power supply with an ATX from factor. As such, find a power supply with an ATX form factor. Check the length to make sure that it will fit in your case with some room to spare for cable management.
Connections - You will also want to make sure that the power supply has enough power connections to supply your components such as your graphics card. PCIe power connections are used for graphics cards and many come with 6+2 pin connectors which can be used for either 6-pin or 8-pin graphics card connections. Lower end graphics cards often don’t require separate power connections.
Modular - What about modular versus non-modular?
Modular. All of the power cables to components come separate and you can plug in just what you need. This makes it easier to build plus you don't end up with extra cables cluttering the case and blocking airflow.
Semi-Modular. Most of the cables come separate with one exception - the power cable to the mother board. Since you’ll always have to have a power cable for the motherboard, this is as practical as a modular power supply.
Non-Modular. All of the power cables are attached to the back of the power supply (like spaghetti). If you used all of the cables, it wouldn't really matter except it would be a little more difficult to build. However, you usually don’t need all of the cables. The unused cables can clutter the case and affect air flow.
Efficiency - What about efficiency? A power supply with higher efficiency will result is a greater percentage of power actually going to the computer components. What happens to the power that doesn’t make it to the components? It becomes heat, which isn't desirable. While the efficiency isn’t the most critical aspect of a power supply, it is a factor for consideration. In addition, the higher efficiency rated power supplies tend to be the better power supplies from a construction and reliability standpoint. Having a power supply with at least some rating is recommended. More expensive builds should use higher efficiency ratings. The certification also means that the power supply will meet basic requirements. Efficiency ratings from least efficient to more efficient are as follows:
- not rated (not recommended)
- 80 Plus (least efficient)
- Titanium (most efficient)
Certified - If you want to check to see if your power supply really is certified, you can check the following official website:
The motherboard is going to be the heart of your computer. Just about everything will plug into it. Motherboards typically cost $90 - $200 (and beyond).
Form Factor - You’ll need to know the form factor of the motherboard that you're interested in.
ATX is a standard size motherboard, but won't fit in all cases.
micro ATX (mATX) is a smaller motherboard which will fit in more cases, but will have less flexibility
mini ITX (mITX) is smaller still, with limited space for memory and other cards
CPU Socket - You’ll need to know that your central processing unit (CPU) will be compatible with your motherboard. The most popular sockets are:
- Intel 1151 (300 series) - Consumer oriented CPU's ranging from Intel Celeron (low end) to Core i9 series (high end).
- AMD TR4 (or sTR4) - Consumer high-end Ryzen Threadripper series
- AMD AM4 - Consumer Ryzen series and for some Antlon series
Compatibility - You’ll need to confirm that your CPU is compatible with your motherboard.
Chipset - It’s nice to know what chipset series your motherboard have. For example, high end consumer chips sets include Z390 for Intel and X570 for AMD. However, mid-range chipsets, such as H370, will often have sufficient features.
Memory - 288-pin DDR4 memory is the current standard for desktops. Other memory types can be used, but must be compatible with the motherboard. Most motherboards have 4 memory slots. However, a small mITX motherboard form factor will likely have only 2 memory slots.
M.2 Drive Slots - Recent motherboards allow for storage on the motherboard using a solid state drive (SSD) and a faster interface (PCIe) than for storage off of the motherboard (typically using a SATA interface). Using an M.2 SSD for at least the boot drive is recommended due to the faster speed. Most motherboard M.2 drive slots support both PCIe (faster) and SATA (not as fast) interfaces.
Wi-Fi - Does the motherboard come with it's own Wi-Fi connection? Those that do usually have antenna connections on the back of the motherboard.
CPU - Central Processing Unit
The motherboard may be the heart, but the CPU is the brains. CPU’s typically cost $50 (low end) - $400 (high end). A capable mid-range CPU can typically be found for about $200. If you want to compare CPU’s, the following websites offer benchmarks for comparison purposes:
Socket - The socket designates the physical socket for the CPU to fit in on the motherboard and is specific to each manufacturer (either Intel or AMD). The socket must be same as that of the motherboard.
Compatibility - If your motherboard and CPU use the same socket, it's probably (but not always) compatible. Check the manufacturer's website for the motherboard to confirm that CPU is compatible.
You will need memory. The biggest question is how much memory will you need. There’s no advantage to getting more memory than what you need. Low end computers used for surfing the web and office applications (e.g., word processing) will do just fine with 4 GB of memory. For mid to high-end computers, 8 GB to 16 GB will typically be sufficient. If one is doing heavy-duty content creation, more memory may be desirable. Computer memory is pretty much a commodity item. As long as you’re getting memory from a reputable manufacturer, it doesn’t matter that much who you’re getting memory from.
Memory Type - 288-pin DDR4 memory is the current standard for desktop memory.
Number of Memory Modules - How many memory cards will you need? Are there sufficient slots on your motherboard? Do you want to leave some slots open for future expansion?
Memory per Module - Multiply by the number of memory modules to get your total memory.
Memory Speed - 2666 MHz is typically the uppermost speed that motherboards can use without overclocking. However, memory speed isn’t going to affect system performance that much.
You’ll need a boot drive for your operating system. Cost can range from $40 to $200 (and beyond). Like memory, boot drives have become commodity items. It doesn't matter that much who makes them as long as they come from a reputable manufacturer.
- M.2 Solid State Drive (SSD) PCIe interface - If your motherboard has an M.2 slot with a PCIe interface, this is the recommended option has it will the fastest option.
- M.2 SSD SATA interface - While an SSD is still much faster than a hard drive, the SATA interface will be slower. The main advantage of using the M.2 slot is that it's on the motherboard vs. taking up space and a power connection someplace else.
- 2.5" SSD - This is a good option if the motherboard doesn't have an M2. slot. As an SSD, it will be still be much faster than a hard drive, even with the SATA interface.
- 3.5" hard drive - 3.5" hard drives have been the traditional storage medium, but are much slower than SSD's. Somewhat better performance can be obtained using a drive with a 7200 rpm speed vs. 5400 rpm.
- 2.5" hard drive. A 2.5" hard drive is usually used in laptops, but can be used in a desk top.
Size - A minimum of 120 GB for an SSD is recommended and is sufficient for most purposes. For a relatively small increase in cost, 240 GB SSD can be obtained. A larger size may be needed if a lot of programs and data are to be stored on the boot drive. Larger sizes can be obtained at greater cost.
You’re going to need an operating system which is typically Microsoft Windows. You'll want a 64-bit version as there are some severe limitations with 32-bit systems. You can buy an official boxed version which comes with an USB flash drive or... you can also get a downloadable version and install yourself.
There’s another option which is cheaper. You can get an OEM [Original Equipment Manufacturer] version where you are simply mailed a product key and you install windows from installation media. The main limitation of an OEM version is that it’s tied to the motherboard. I.e., you won’t be able to transfer the operating system to another computer down the road. Use a reputable dealer as some deals may not be legal. The Microsoft page for windows installation media can be found here:
A student researches component options during a Go Team 2704 Computer Build Workshop.