Frank's Handy Guide to Building Your Own PC

Fig 1., the author's new machine. The blue fans are for verbs, the green ones for nouns.

If you're like me -- and let's hold a moment of silence and hope you're not -- you need a new computer every few years because your old machine is beginning to spew cooling fans and bits of germanium every time you turn it on.

My former machine, which could run the letters A through C in Word 1877 and add two digit numbers twice every year.
So, if it's time for a new machine, you've got a few decisions to make.

1) Laptop, desktop, or tablet?
2) PC, Linux, or Mac?

Let's tackle Question 1 above first. 

For me, a laptop was out of the question, because I need a monitor the size of a movie screen just to see lower-case letters now. Too, I've never met a laptop keyboard that didn't feel cramped and flimsy. My typing style involves a lot of pounding, and detached solid metal gaming keyboards are the only ones that hold up. 

But what about portability, Frank? What if you want to write away from home?

I tried the whole write-at-the-coffee-shop bit a while back. Hated it, too. For one thing, coffee shops won't lock the doors no matter how politely I ask, and people kept getting in and ordering coffee. Worse, these people hang around after ordering, talking and reading and breathing. 

I hate that. Too, my trademark black hipster author beret keep falling down over my eyes and making me miss the tiny laptop keyboard. 

Finally, I've got everything I need right here -- large dogs, privacy, peace and quiet. No one wanders in and orders a double-stuffed mocha latte horseradish shellac hibiscus Concorde or whatever it is they drink these days, and if they did, Thor the behaviorally-challenged German Shepherd will be happy to show them the door.

So no laptop for me. 

A tablet? Look, those are nifty for watching the Youtubes or Facing the Mybooks, but I've got work to do.

So, that's settled -- for me, it's a desktop, aka The Grandpa Box, with a solid-steel mil-spec keyboard and all the trimmings.

Question 2 evokes the eternal struggle between the People of the PC and the Masses of the Mac, while one bearded guy in hiking boots looks up from his Linux box and waves.

Look, I'm sure Mac machines are fine pieces of equipment. They're even cute with their spartan little keyboards and their clever hidden components and their animal-themed OS designations.

At this point in our discussion, you need to reach beneath you, and feel around under your seat for bags of money.

If you're one of my writer pals and you're reading this, don't bother, because while we might not have much else in common a distinct lack of cash-sacks is certainly a deficiency we share.  

Macs aren't cheap. Take the current Mac Pro desktop. It runs a cool $2499, and comes with a quad-core Intel processor, 6 gigs of RAM, and a 5770 video card with 1 GB of DDR5 RAM. 

Maybe those specs don't mean much to you. If that's true, allow me to look upon them and yawn in polite boredom.

My old machine boasts better specs.  6 gig of RAM? Puh-please. A 5770 video card? 2010 is on the phone, and it wants its hardware back.

$600 would be a bit steep for such a rig. $2499 is just nuts.
Another factor, at least for me, is the upgrade/replacement aspect. 

If a part goes bad in my new PC, no big deal. I open the case, remove the bad component, pop in a new one, and I'm back up and running.

I can upgrade, if and when I want. Since I chose a roomy case and a hefty power supply, I can just swap out the other parts for years to come, and still have a decent computer without a major expense. 

Apple doesn't exactly encourage you to open their machines, much less start poking around and sticking new motherboards in. 

So, for me, the choice is clear -- I'm going with a PC build, at least until I can afford to drive to the Apple store in my Mercedes with a quick stop at Oscar de la Renta's New York shop for a new black beret.

Why not Linux?

Linux is a free operating system that involves entering a lot of things like ./grep -r -al/wtf/dammitdammitdammit  and hoping that somehow makes BioShock Infinite start up. Linux machines are largely impervious to viruses and malware, mainly because there are only six of them running in the entire world outside of server farms and businesses and why bother. 

Now comes the time when you need to decide whether to buy or build.

I used to buy. I bought Dells, and was pretty happy with them, at first. But then I wanted to add memory. I had a fan go out. Finding memory or replacing a fan suddenly wasn't quite the trivial task it should have been, because in order to cut costs Dell uses proprietary components which are often hard to find, and expensive when you do. Buying a new PC instead of maintaining the old one quickly becomes the most attractive prospect.

Finally, I took the plunge and built my own machine out of parts I chose and assembled myself, and I've never looked back.

Oh, and did I mention how much money you can save my building your own machine?

Well, you certainly can.

My new build has a 6 core processor and 8 gig of RAM (soon to be 16) and a video card that, if plunged into a flood of red-hot magma, would produce a puff of vapor more powerful that any ten 5770 video cards. And it cost less than half of that ludicrous $2499 Apple wants.

That still out of your budget?

I could put together a modest writer's work machine (hardware only, Windows 7 is another hundred bucks) for a little more than $300. It wouldn't run the latest games on the highest settings or store the entire contents of the Library of Congress, but it would run the crap out of Word 2010 and get you on the net and let you Face the Mybook and anger the crunchy candy birds while you're supposed to be writing.

Curious about how all this is done?

It's not as complicated as it sounds.

You need eight (maybe nine) components to build your own PC. Here they are:

1) A case, to hold everything together and provide ventilation.
2) A motherboard, which houses the CPU, the memory, and other vital components.
3) The CPU. The brain of the machine. You can opt for any of the CPUs made by Intel, which are excellent but relatively expensive, or you can chose a CPU made by AMD, which are still bloody good and a lot cheaper than Intel. Those are your choices.
4) RAM memory. RAM is what the CPU uses for fast operations. You want at least 8 GB (gigabytes). You could get by with 4. 6 is just silly. 8 is great, 16 is mahvellous, dahling.
5) A hard drive (HD) or a newer, faster solid-state device called an SSD. This is where your programs and files are stored. Hard drives are cheap and fairly fast. Get at least 500 GB. SSDs are super-fast but uber-expensive. I haven't bought one yet. Send me money, and I'll try one.
6) An optical drive. Yeah, I know, who uses CDs anymore. You might only use it once, to install the OS (operating system). But you'll need it, so get one, and since they can be had for $20 or less why not?
7) The OS (Operating System). Windows or Linux. If you read that and thought 'Linux? What's that?' forget it and shell out the hundred bucks for Windows 7, the 64-bit version. 
8) The power supply. Unlike Macs, which apparently run on unicorn giggles and the innocent 8-bit dreams of children, your PC will need power. Power supplies are rated in watts. A bare-bones strictly-business PC would be just fine, probably, with 350 watts. Start adding video cards and fancy motherboards and multi-core performance processors, and you'd better start looking at the 550 to 650 watt range. Two big video cards? Better get a kilowatt. Oh, and bring your wallet.
9) A video card. Look, you might not need this. Most motherboards come with onboard video features. AMD's new chips come with onboard video processors; they're called APUs. I wanted a video card because I have this fantasy that someday I might be able to start and actually finish a PC game (which I've never done). I don't need the card to run Word, but I like knowing it's there. But it is an extra expense, so weigh your needs carefully.

The list above assumes you have a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse handy. If not, you can get them too, but I won't be including them in my discussions.

I buy all my components from two places. They are:

Both are excellent, trustworthy online merchants I've used for years. They've both got great selections, fast shipping, and prompt customer service.

They're also good places to learn about what really goes into a computer. I learned just about everything by looking at what they call 'barebones' systems. With a barebone system, they've selected components which are compatible with each other, they tell you what performance to expect, and there are videos which show you what each part does and how to put it all together.

I've never ordered a barebones machine myself, but I did learn the basics of what works when paired with what, and what goes into a basic machine as opposed to a fancy gaming rig.

Just remember the following tips as you proceed:

1) Some motherboards like Intel chips. Some like AMD. None like both. So you'll have to choose either Intel or AMD, and stick with it. Intel chips are faster. AMD chips are cheaper. How deep are your pockets, Sunshine?
2) That $20 power supply? Yes, it's cheap. And yes, it will BLOW UP IN YOUR FACE the instant you take it out of the box. Forget it. I use Cooler Master power supplies because I once saw a Cooler Master PS take a direct lightning hit and then climb out of the case and PUNCH THE CLOUD. 
3) You can get a decent case for $40 bucks, $30 if it's on sale. I like Cooler Master cases. Don't go any cheaper. You'll regret it if you do.
4) For motherboards, stick with ASUS, ASRock, Gigabyte, or MSI. I stick with ASUS, myself, and have never had one fail.
5) For RAM, I suggest Corsair, Kingston, G.SKILL, or Crucial. You get some really cheap no-name stuff, but I have to assume it's made from the toenails of unidentified corpses and bundles of Fukushima asbestos. 
6) Worried about what CPU chip will fit in which motherboard, and what memory will work with both? Not a problem. Go to and build your system there -- if you choose the wrong parts, you'll be told what won't work, and why, all for free!
7) No, do NOT choose Windows 8. Just. No. Windows 7, 64 bit, so you can pile on the RAM (the 32-bit version can't access much RAM).
8) Both Newegg and Tiger Direct have 'Memory Finders' which match RAM to your motherboard. Use that, and you can't go wrong!
9) Stop looking at Windows 8! Honestly.

There is a vital rule of thumb to consider when choosing between AMD and Intel CPU chips, and that rule is this -- whatever you choose, you have chosen poorly.

That's because there are Intel fanboys who will hurl acrimonious bile you way if you go AMD, and AMD fanboys who will do the same if you select Intel.  Both camps have benchmark test figures to back up their claims.

I suggest you ignore both camps entirely and buy whatever you can afford. Without a bench crammed with test gear, you are never going to see any real-world difference between comparable Intel or AMD products. I can hear furious fanboys rushing my way now.

Here's a link to a great video series that shows you, step by step, how to build a PC. Yeah, it was made in 2011, but while the hardware has changed the build procedures have not. You can find much more recent how-to videos out there -- just Google your MyFace toward 'DIY PC build video' and start watching.

Here are the parts I used in my new build.

Here are the specs:

CPU: AMD A-6300 six core CPU, ASUS MA597 LE motherboard, 8 GB Kingston HyperX 1600 MHz RAM, 500 GB WD Black hard drive, Cooler Master case, Cooler Master HyperX CPU cooler, Cooler Master 650 watt Bronze power supply, ASUS optical drive, Rosewill wifi interface card, Win 7 Home Premium 64-bit OS, and an XFX Radeon 7850 Core Edition video card with 2GB of DDR5 memory. There are also 3 Cooler Master 120 mm lighted case fans, because if I'm ever wandering around inside the case I'll be happy I installed some lighting.

It worked the first time I powered it up. Total build time was probably five hours, including Win 7 installation.

Anyway, if you're interested in building your own, check out the links I posted above, and have fun!


I have very little to report. THE FIVE FACES is still under consideration by the publisher. Work on the new Mug and Meralda didn't see much progress this last week because we were on vacation.

But tomorrow it's back to the usual routine, so I should have a decent word count to report next week.

So get out there and build something!