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PC building cheat sheet / quick-start guide


Two ways of looking at the same trilemma.



Here’s a list of what you need, in approximate order of how you’ll build it:

  1. Case
  2. Power supply
  3. Motherboard
  4. CPU
  5. CPU cooler
  6. RAM
  7. Storage
  8. Video card
  9. Optical drive
  10. Peripherals

My number one piece of advice is spend more than you think you need to on #1. Get a really nice case, and for God’s sake get a full tower or something made for builders. It seems like a lot of money up front, but the truth is I’ve replaced my case twice now because they weren’t up to the task and/or I needed more space, and that’s basically $300 wasted.

Meanwhile, I’m still on the same processor/motherboard I got in 2010. As you continue to make tweaks/upgrades as you undoubtedly will, you’ll be glad you spent the money on a big, spacious case with great air flow.

What’s true for #1 is approximately the same for #2. Buy a quality power supply — it can potentially outlast your other components.

#3 through #6 should be seen as a set. Your motherboard/cpu/ram combo need to be of the same generation. If you really want to maximize value, you should be looking about two generations behind — I read this in an article about how Google buys hardware. That’s the optimum performance/dollar point.

For instance, I’m still running the machine I bought in 2010, an Intel i7 950 quad-core processor overclocked to 4.02 GHz ($295 when I bought it) on an Asus Sabertooth x58 motherboard ($189.99 when I bought it) originally cooled by a Cooler Master Hyper 212 Cooler ($29.99 when I bought it) for a total of $515.

But check this out. That’s the EXACT setup, used, for about 40% of the cost.

Here are further details on primary factors you’ll want to consider for each component.

1. Case

1.1. System heat

1.1.1. One of the single most important issues overall, and why I’ve had to replace my case twice.
1.1.2. Huge factor in the longevity of your system. Heat = death.
1.1.3. Modern components are hot, which means you’ve got to push a lot of air through the case to keep things cool. The larger the case, the more options you have for using giant, slow fans that can move a lot of air. The smaller the case, the fewer fans you can generally fit, and the smaller they have to be, which means they typically have to run at higher RPM to achieve similar cooling, which leads to #1.2.

1.2. System noise

1.2.1. Importance really depends on use – a server that you’re not going to be sitting next to can be very loud without this being an issue. Alternatively, if you’re going to be sitting next to the thing…

1.3. Expansion space / size

1.3.1. Estimate the maximum space you think you’ll need for hard drive slots, video card(s), etc., then multiply by 1.5 for future proofing.
1.3.2. Size also helps with heat dissipation because of surface area/volume.

2. Power supply

2.1. Overall wattage

2.1.1. Same principle as #1.3.1 – I’ve got a 750 watt power supply, which, at full load, draws about 450 watts. I’m much more comfortable with that than, say, pulling 650 watts at full load.

2.2. Efficiency rating

2.2.1. This relates to quality and will actually save money on electric bills over time. Means the power supply can efficiently supply even a 10% load without a lot of wasted overhead wattage.

3. Motherboard

3.1. CPU socket type

3.1.1. Arbitrary, needs to match #4.1 and #5.1.

3.2. Number of SATA connectors, and type (2 vs 3 — See #7.1)
3.3. Number of channels

3.3.1. Triple or Quad Best performance dictates that the board needs DIMMs installed in multiples of the channel number (i.e., you want at least 4 DIMMs for quad-channel, 3 for triple.)

3.4. Number of DIMM slots

3.4.1. Divide the maximum supported RAM to determine the ideal memory per DIMM.  E.g., board supports 32 GB max RAM, meaning however much RAM you buy initially, you want to buy 4GB DIMMs, i.e., 4x4GB sticks for 16 GB. This preserves cost-effective future RAM upgrades because you can supplement the DIMMs you initially installed, rather than having to replace them.

4. CPU

4.1. CPU socket type

4.1.1. Arbitrary, needs to match #3.1 and #5.1.

4.2. Number of cores

4.2.1. AMD and Intel cores are slightly different. Intel CPUs with hyper-threading create “virtual cores,” so a quad-core i7 will show 8 processors in Task Manager. Some Intel CPUs, like quad-core i5s do not have hyper-threading enabled, meaning Task Manager shows 4 processors. My understanding of the technical limitations of virtual cores doesn’t go very far, but 8 threads will grind through multi-threaded application workloads much faster than 4, so the i7s still trounce the i5s.

5. CPU cooler

5.1. CPU socket type

5.1.1. Arbitrary, needs to match #3.1 and #4.1.

5.2. Heat dissipation / noise ratio

5.2.1 People take this very seriously, related to likes/dislikes trichotomy and #1.2.

5.3. Dimensions

5.3.1 Ensure that it will fit in the case — some of them are huge, because more surface area = better values for #5.2, which relates to #1.3.2.

6. RAM

6.1. Speed

6.1.1 The faster the RAM, the more flexibility you have with overclocking).

6.2. Number of DIMMs (See #3.3)
6.3. GB per DIMM (See #3.4)


7. Storage

7.1. SATA type 2 vs 3

7.1.1. For individual drives, only SSDs really benefit from SATA3. A single HDD typically won’t fully saturate the bandwidth of SATA2.
7.1.2. For RAID, HDDs may need the extra bandwidth required to achieve full performance.

8. Video card

8.1. NVidia vs AMD

8.1.1. Check whatever programs you ultimately want to run to see what architecture they prefer. NVidia’s CUDA is great for Adobe Creative Suite, but absolutely abysmal at things like Bitcoin mining. AMD’s architecture is great for things like Bitcoin mining, but not as strong for Adobe Creative Suite. Not sure what works best for C4D, etc.

9. Optical drive

9.1. This isn’t complicated.


10. Peripherals

10.1. Nor are these.


My most recent build. i7 950 @ 4.02 GHz water cooled by H100.

My most recent build.
i7 950 @ 4.02 GHz water cooled by H100 with 4x push/pull Scythe “ULTRA KAZE” on Asus Sabertooth x58 with 24 GB Corsair RAM.