Wondering how hard (or how easy) it actually is to build your own PC? We’ve got you covered!
In general, physically building your own PC is not hard at all, even if you have limited technical experience. Most PC components are designed to be plug-and-play, meaning that you usually can build an entire PC with nothing other than a screwdriver and a simple manual. The whole process can often be done in an hour or two.
Without a doubt, the hardest part of building your own PC is simply knowing which individual component to select for the build. There are numerous options for CPUs, motherboards, RAM, GPUs, etc, and it can be difficult for a beginner to know which parts to combine.
That’s the way-too-short answer and, if you’re new to this whole process, you’ll definitely have plenty of questions and concerns. But don’t be intimidated- a DIY PC is almost certainly going to save you money and perform better than a pre-built.
We created this quick guide to give you a good understanding of how easy/hard it will be for you to create your own build that fits your own specific needs. And we put a special emphasis on simplifying component selection (the hardest part of the whole process).
So you’re thinking of building your own PC, but there’s something holding you back from taking the leap.
Maybe it seems too complicated for you, or maybe you’re afraid you’ll pick out the wrong components. Maybe you have a sinking feeling that you’ll accidentally break all your expensive new computer parts while you try to put it all together.
Building a computer sounds like it should be a difficult undertaking best left to those sci-fi-loving IT geeks or the bigwigs at Intel and Dell…but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
A DIY PC is the best (and only) way to make your perfect rig a reality. You can work and game on a computer you grab off the shelf, but there’s nothing like having a machine that you built from the ground up to your exact specifications.
You (probably) can’t build yourself a personalized car or assemble your ideal smartphone, and you can’t design and build your perfect home without the help of a whole crew (and a ton of money). Computers may be some of the only electronics—or big purchases in general—that you can truly personalize down to the finest details.
That may be enough to convince you. If not, chances are you’ll feel a lot better about building a new computer by the time you finish reading this piece. It’ll walk you through choosing your components, making sure they’re all compatible with each other, what risks are involved, and some other info that’ll help you make an informed decision.
But first, a question: Why build a PC instead of buying a pre-built one?
Pre-Built PC vs Building Your Own PC
There’s nothing wrong with buying a pre-built computer. Building a PC isn’t for everyone, and there’s no rule saying you can’t be a real gamer or computer whiz if you opt for a pre-built model. That being said, however, there are some real disadvantages that come with those pre-built PCs.
The first problem with buying a pre-built PC is the price. Manufacturers add a nice margin for themselves on the PCs they build, so almost any pre-built PC will be more expensive than the exact same computer built on your own.
See for yourself: Pick out a computer from a retailer like Best Buy, see what parts they use, and see if you can find the same parts online and add up the prices. You may be surprised at just how much of a premium manufacturers put on pre-built machines.
For all that money you’d think pre-built machines would only have premium parts, right? Yeah, not exactly. A lot of manufacturers win bids to build PCs by coming in at the lowest possible price, which naturally means a lot of cut corners.
It’s all in the details; they’ll often grab your attention by putting the (actually quite good) CPU or GPU front and center while quietly slipping a bunch of bargain-bin RAM, an off-brand motherboard, barely functional storage, or a hilariously inadequate cooling system (or no cooling system at all).
You may have better luck with some pre-built brands than others, but you should always take their spec sheets with a grain of salt and dig into it for yourself.
Another problem with pre-builts comes in the form of bloatware. Pre-built computers don’t just come with an operating system installed, they also come with a bunch of extra programs you never asked for.
Programs like “free” trials of antivirus software, random games, and other third-party apps you’ll never use. Manufacturers get paid to install all this garbage on their pre-build computers, and while it may not actually hurt your computer, bloatware can adversely affect its performance.
It takes up storage space, runs processes in the background (even while you’re not using it), and generally makes a nuisance of itself until you remove it.
There’s nothing wrong with buying a pre-built computer, but it’s hardly the best choice for anyone with even a modicum of technical knowhow. You’re going to want to build your own PC if you plan on doing anything more involved than browsing the internet. So now that you know that, it’s time to move on to the first step toward building your perfect PC: Finding the right components.
Picking The Right PC Parts
Every computer needs a few key components to function: A motherboard, a processor, some RAM, a storage device, a power supply, and, if you’re a gamer, a graphics card.
You’ll also need a case, some kind of cooling system, a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse.
As we’ve said, compared to physically installing everything, this is usually the hardest part of a DIY PC build. You’ll want to make sure you know what you need, what you don’t need, and how it all works together.
We’ll cover each critical component piece-by-piece to help you know exactly how to choose.
Picking The Right CPU
The processor (CPU) is perhaps the most essential part of any PC. They’re essentially the brains of the computing world; they interpret and execute instructions, run programs, and are generally in charge of telling the other components what to do.
There are two companies that produce CPUs today: Intel and AMD. Both firms offer a whole range of CPUs to fit just about any budget and use case, and neither has a clear advantage over the other in terms of performance or versatility.
Picking an AMD or an Intel CPU will lock you into their respective ecosystems, however, so keep in mind that you won’t be able to mix and match your motherboard, CPU, and (often) storage device.
Aside from the manufacturer, the most important aspects of a CPU are how many cores it has, its clock speed, and the size of its cache. Picking out the right one can be tricky, but you can narrow it down pretty well if you know what kind of computer you’re trying to build.
You don’t need to break the bank on a super-powerful processor if you’re only planning on using your computer for doing schoolwork, for example, but you also don’t want to opt for something cheap and weak if you’re going to do anything remotely resource intensive.
Here’s some advice to help you narrow it down:
AMD or Intel CPU?
While AMD used to be the cheap, less-impressive alternative to Intel, it’s really come into its own in recent years. Newer AMD CPUs are just as powerful and versatile as their Intel counterparts, and they’re often cheaper, too. You’ll be just fine regardless of which company you go for.
Which CPU is right for you really comes down to two things: Your budget and what you want to do with it. Here are a few general recommendations based on what you plan to do with your new computer.
What CPU for Basic Computing?
If you’re planning on using your new computer for stuff like browsing the internet, watching videos, checking your social media, and working with basic documents, you probably don’t need anything too extravagant. You’ll probably get by just fine with an entry-level CPU like an Intel Core i3-10100F or an AMD Athlon 200GE. You could go for something more expensive, sure, but there’s really no reason to unless you plan on upgrading your other components in the future.
What CPU for Gaming?
Most games rely more on GPUs than CPUs, so you may be better off going for a midrange CPU and spending the extra money on a better GPU. That doesn’t mean you can skimp out on a CPU—you still need a decent one to game no matter how powerful your GPU—but it does mean you don’t need to drop over $400 or $500 on a CPU. Something like an Intel Core i5-12600K or an AMD Ryzen 5 5600X would give you plenty of power without breaking the bank.
What CPU for Data Processing and Creative Work?
Some creative work can be handled by your computer’s GPU, but most of the more intensive stuff you’ll do in your average workday—managing spreadsheets, crunching numbers, running reports, etc—rely heavily on your computer’s CPU. And since faster processing means faster results, spending the money on a good CPU now can save you time and make you more productive in the future.
You’ll want to splurge for something high end like an Intel Core i9-11900KF or an absolute beast like the AMD Ryzen 9 5950X. The sticker price may be a bit of a shocker but remember, time is money.
Picking The Right RAM
RAM (Random-Access Memory) is a bit like your computer’s short-term memory. It stores all the data and instructions for all your active programs so your CPU can access it quickly, and it’s what lets your computer manage multiple open programs and browser tabs at once.
Too little RAM will make your computer run sluggishly, and excess RAM will sit there unused, so you’re really looking for the right amount of the right type of RAM to get you in the Goldilocks zone where you aren’t wasting time or money.
Thankfully, RAM is easier to pick out than a CPU. RAM (with very few exceptions) will work just as well with an AMD CPU as it will with an Intel CPU, so you have a lot more freedom of choice, and picking it out is pretty straightforward. All you need to consider is the RAM’s generation, its speed, and how much of it you want.
As far as which brand/model of RAM to opt for, check out our guide to whether or not RAM brand matters. It has everything you need to know in order to avoid paying for things you don’t need, along with compatibility info.
Most of the cost-effective RAM you’ll find on the market is of the DDR4 generation. DDR5 generation RAM exists, but it’s new, expensive, and not widely available (though this is changing fairly quickly).
And while you can technically opt for cheaper DDR3 RAM, it’s almost certainly worth the extra few bucks to bump up to DDR4. Part of it is performance—DDR4 has higher bandwidth and faster speeds—and part of it is compatibility; most newer motherboards only have DDR4-compatible slots, so there’s really no point to buying DDR3.
There’s a decent amount of variation in RAM speeds even among models of the same generation. DDR4 RAM can operate as slowly as 800MHz and supposedly maxes out at 3200MHz, but firms like Kingston and HyperX have worked their magic to accelerate their RAM’s performance well past the supposed limit. It’s safe to say that you shouldn’t settle for any RAM with advertised speeds below 3000MHz.
This largely comes down to personal preference, your computer’s intended use, and how long you plan on keeping your new rig before upgrading.
Minimum: 8GB is the bare minimum you should shoot for. It’ll give your PC the power to manage a few lightweight programs at once, run some games, and even do a bit of light photo or video editing.
Ideal for Most: 16GB of RAM will be more than enough for everyday stuff, and just enough to handle more in-depth creative work and run more demanding games in higher resolution. You probably won’t need any more than 16GB outside of a few special situations.
For Special Situations
32GB of RAM is what’s recommended for people who do heavy-duty modeling work, animating, editing huge videos, designing games, or anything that might require lots and lots of rendering. 32GB is overkill for the vast majority of users, however, so there’s really no reason to spend the money unless you’re planning on using your personal PC as a creative powerhouse.
Picking The Right Storage
This one’s easy. There are two main types of storage devices on the market: Hard drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs), with HDDs being the older, slower, more conventional choices and SSDs being the faster, newer, and almost objectively better options.
When you’re on this step, definitely take a look at our guide that covers when SSDs are worth the extra money and when they might not be.
You only have to consider three factors when you’re looking for a storage device: Capacity, price, and transfer speeds. Here’s a quick breakdown of what to look for.
A HDD or SSD’s capacity is the total amount of data it can store. Hard drives have higher maximum capacities and tend to be cheaper on a $/GB basis, though SSDs have been catching up in recent years. How much storage space you need depends on what you’re going to do with your computer, but it’s probably safe to say you want at least 1TB of storage. You’ll want a lot more if you plan on installing a ton of games or storing a lot of big files, and you may not need as much if you’re going to use your PC for basic stuff, however, so the choice is ultimately up to you.
Your PC’s operating system, programs, and files all live in its storage drive. It takes time to boot up the OS, load programs, and open files, and it takes more or less time depending on your storage drive’s transfer speeds. Higher transfer speeds mean faster startups and loading times, which translates to a snappier, more responsive computing experience.
Lightning-fast transfer speeds are one of the main selling points of SSDs, and especially NVMe SSDs. We also recently did a complete head-to-head comparison of NVMe SSDs versus standard SATA SSDs.
Where it might take upwards of a minute to boot up or restart your operating system off of a hard drive, a solid-state drive will finish the same operation in a matter of seconds. SSDs all-but eliminate loading times in games, make programs and big files load in the blink of an eye, and make pretty much every other interaction with your PC feel smoother and snappier.
Price is the one main advantage HDDs have over SSDs. SSDs have dropped in price quite a bit since they were first introduced, but you’ll still be hard-pressed to find a SSD that’s cheaper in $/GB than a HDD. NVMe SSDs are even pricier than standard SSDs, but many users find the added price more than worth it for NVMe SSDs’ ridiculously fast transfer speeds.
Picking The Right Motherboard
A PC’s motherboard is a kind of circuit board that houses the other components and facilitates communication between them.
Each motherboard has a set of slots to accommodate the computer’s other components, and the type, shape, and generation of the slots determines what components it’s compatible with. If you choose an AMD CPU you’ll need to pick an AMD-compatible motherboard, or vice-versa if you opt for an Intel CPU.
When you look for motherboards online you’ll see that each one lists what kind of sockets/slots it has as well as its chipset (integrated components that work with the CPU and enable different functions).
It’s a good idea to make sure your components are compatible with the motherboard you’re looking at (manually or with an online service), but otherwise you have a lot of leeway here.
Just don’t skimp out on a motherboard, otherwise you may find your computer’s foundation crumbling long before the rest of the components. We documented this in our guide to determining if your motherboard is a bottleneck for your build.
Picking a Power Supply
This one’s also pretty easy. All you need to do is add up the amount of power your other components need, add at least 100W to the total power consumption figure (for safety and future upgrades), and find a well-reviewed PSU that puts out at least that many watts.
The “well-reviewed” part is important, by the way. The PSU powers all your delicate, expensive computer components, so you’ll really want to spend the money on one that’ll provide clean and safe power.
There are plenty of good PSU options out there. We tend to like Seasonic and Corsair, but they are certainly not the only solid choices.
Picking a GPU (Optional)
The reason we all this step “optional” is that most (but not all) CPUs include integrated graphics. In layman’s terms, this just means that there is a light-duty GPU built in to the CPUs capabilities.
We can’t stress this enough: If you opt for a PC build without a dedicated GPU, make sure you pick a CPU that includes integrated graphics!
If you need extra help deciding, read through our complete breakdown of dedicated vs integrated GPUs. It has everything you need to know in order to determine whether or not
You’re going to need a GPU if you’re planning on building a gaming rig or doing any kind of serious rendering or creative work. Very few modern games will even run without a dedicated GPU, and more and more creative programs are opting to offload their processing from the CPU to the GPU.
It can be tough to figure out which GPU is right for you. There are a ton of different models on the market (or there will be when the chip shortage eases), and AMD and NVIDIA GPUs can work with both AMD and Intel CPUs, so it can be tough to narrow it down. GPUs can also be one of the most expensive parts of your computer, so it isn’t a choice you can take lightly.
You have three options, none of which are better or worse than the others:
- Buy the most expensive/high-end GPU you can afford.
- Opt for a midrange card like an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1660 or an AMD Radeon RX 5700
- Look up your favorite game on Steam, check the recommended specs/components, and buy the card listed
Picking a PC Case
Choosing a PC case is often equal parts function and aesthetics. You can opt for all sorts of designs, shape, and sizes, but the main thing you need to be aware of is whether or not your parts will fit.
There are seven commonly sold types of PC cases. Each type is classified by the type/size of motherboard it can accept, along with its general form factor.
Here’s a list of the PC case types and the motherboards they commonly accept:
- Full Tower: Accepts ATX and many accept eATX (Extended ATX) motherboards
- Mid Tower: Most accept ATX size motherboards and Micro ATX motherboards
- Mini Tower: Most accept Micro ATX and Mini ATX motherboards
- Desktop: Accepts some Micro ATX and Mini ATX motherboards
- Small Form Factor: Usually only accept Mini ATX motherboards
- Ultra Small Form Factor: Accepts Mini ATX motherboards
- Micro: Usually only accepts specialty integrated motherboards
Aside from the motherboard size compatibility (we cover that later in this article), you’ll be basing your case selection mostly off of your own aesthetic choices, other space considerations, and fan placement.
GPUs, in particular, are the main component you need to make sure will fit in your case. Some cases can handle a massive motherboard, but don’t have the side-to-side clearance for the larger GPUs on the market.
Picking Fans & Cooling Systems
When building your own PC, your potential fan options are usually determined by the case you select.
Lots of cases include fans, making your job even easier. The ones that don’t include fans will still have specific slot/spaces pre-drilled and ready for fans.
CPU fans and CPU liquid coolers are another important factor that you’ll need to decide on. Most of the time, a simple heatsink with a fan is plenty good enough. But for high-end, demanding builds, liquid cooling can be a great choice.
There are also lots of all-in-one CPU coolers on the market nowadays. These are basically luxury, closed-loop, plug-and-play coolers for your CPU.
Cooling your custom PC build is arguably the most variable and potentially creative part of the entire process. There are literally hundreds of products and layout combinations you can experiment with.
Rather than try to detail all of that here, we’ll strongly recommend that you check out our guide to PC fans and airflow.
Building a PC is a lot easier than you might think. Picking out the parts is the hardest part; anyone with functioning hands and a screwdriver can put a PC together once you have the components.
Just make sure you do your own research, follow some how-to videos to make sure you’re putting it together right, and enjoy your brand-new PC.
Oh, and welcome to the club.