Building your first desktop PC

I've long been curious about the process of building a computer from scratch, and, a couple of weeks ago, I finally took the plunge. While I was expecting a tortuous and highly technical process, the actual experience was far less painful.

BUILDING A PC: Safety tips and handy online resources

SHOPPING LIST: My components

With careful component research, a few invaluable online resources and some very helpful experts, I was able to sketch out an excellent machine with comparatively little fuss -- and probably for a lot less money than would have been required for a professionally constructed device. I wound up with an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor, a beefy Nvidia GTX 670 graphics card and a case that looks a little like a missile silo. Although I overbought a little bit], I still managed to pay less than $1,400 for the whole package. By comparison, Alienware's full-sized gaming desktop line starts at $1,500, and a machine equipped similarly to mine would quickly surpass the $2,000 mark.

So, after acquiring all the parts I wanted, I sat down on my apartment's hardwood floor and -- somewhat unexpectedly -- put together a complete desktop PC in just a few hours.

One thing that surprised me about the whole process was how few specialized tools were needed. While desktop computers are very complex indeed from an electronic standpoint, they're mechanically quite simple, and many components are highly standardized. All I really needed was a good set of screwdrivers, and even then, most parts of my build simply plugged into each other. The only things that needed to be screwed into place with an actual screwdriver were the power supply and the motherboard, thanks to my case's use of tool-less bays for the various disk drives. (I did have to use one to mount a solid-state drive to an adapter for its drive bay, though.)

I don't want to give the wrong impression, however -- there were a couple of scary moments. The first was early in the building process, when I had to lock the CPU into place on the motherboard. Every set of instructions I'd read about installing processors emphasized the extreme importance of not bending the forest of little contacts on the underside of the device and being as gentle as possible when putting it in its socket. After the processor was delicately seated, however, I had to fix the thing into place with what looked a lot like a locking bar on an old mousetrap -- and required a similar amount of pressure. Yipes.

"Trying not to break anything" was the common theme for my nervous moments with the new machine, actually -- the motherboard's main power connector also required a frankly alarming amount of force to get into its socket, and I was sure that the board itself would crack under the strain.

Seating the big EVGA GeForce GTX 670 into its place -- I bought the machine partially for gaming, so this was a key component -- also confounded me briefly. It took me some time to figure out that there was a little plastic locking tab that had to be pushed back before the device would fit onto the motherboard, and even then, it took a little bit more pressure than I was comfortable with to make it line up precisely with the expansion slot at the back of the case. (To be clear, I'm told that all this is relatively common, but it didn't prevent me from worrying at the time.)

But all this aside, the assembly went off more or less without a hitch. Even though I didn't actually get it working until the following morning -- I'd neglected to plug a couple of power cables into their assigned spots on the power supply, causing frustration as I fretted about defective components -- I was surprised at how quickly and easily I was able to assemble a working computer more or less from scratch. I also paid considerably less than I would have if I'd bought a device with similar capabilities from an OEM.

What's more, it was fun -- I had a great time building my computer, and I learned a lot in the process. When I fired up a game on it for the first time -- ironically, an older game called "Eve Online," something even my old PC could run fairly easily -- I found that everything on the screen moved with buttery smoothness, even on the highest possible settings. It's done that to pretty much everything else I've run on it so far, including "Assassin's Creed: Revelations" and several games in the "Total War" series. (I really should find something that'll actually test this thing!)

Of course, home building is probably not for everyone -- it's really only practicable with desktops, the advantage in price relative to an OEM computer tends to shrink toward the low end of the market, and some people probably won't find it as much fun as others do. Still, photo and video editors, gamers and folks in the market for a home theater PC should look into it -- they might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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