How to build a PC
While it can feel daunting to build a PC, the ability to choose your own components is more than worth the time investment. Because building a computer is potentially overwhelming, we’ve crafted a step-by-step guide to help you through the process.
We’ll tell you everything you need to know about staying safe and organized while you install all the elements of your PC in the proper order. Get ready to step back in pride as you power on your own custom-built computer.
This guide is all about piecing components together to create a functional machine. If you haven’t selected and purchased all the required hardware, make sure you do that first. It’s also a good idea to purchase (or craft) your case last so you can make sure everything will fit inside it.
Have your parts? Good. Let’s build a computer!
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends Before you dig in, ensure there’s a clean workspace with plenty of room to open boxes and put parts together. Hopefully, there’s already a pile in front of you. If not, our PC build guide can walk you through that process.
There are a couple of safety issues to discuss before we actually start ripping open those boxes.
There’s an invisible risk when building a computer that can crush the most powerful system: Static electricity. The same force that lets you shock your friends when you wear wool socks can also fry components in a heartbeat. Fortunately, static is easy to all but eliminate with a few simple steps.
One simple solution is to purchase an anti-static wristband. One end wraps around your wrist, and the other clips somewhere on the computer case, keeping the wearer constantly grounded. Touching the case frequently with the PSU plugged in and powered off achieves the same effect.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends Apart from that, build your PC in a room with a bare floor — carpets generate a lot of static — and wear rubber-soled shoes rather than socks. Many components ship in anti-static bags, so leave them bagged until just before installation.
This guide serves as a general overview of the process, and the instructions packed with your parts may vary from our suggestions. When they do, default to the included instructions and use our guide as a road map for the overall project.
Opening the case
Preparing the case is the easy part. Instructions for the specific case you purchased should introduce you to its basic layout as well as list special instructions regarding component installation.
Lay down the case in your work area and remove the side panel. For most PC cases, this means the left-side panel when viewed from the front. This panel provides access to the case interior.
Also, remove anything that’s dangling inside the case. If it’s attached, push it aside. Many cases have permanent internal wiring that becomes problematic later on.
Before we start putting everything together, we’ll first install the power supply and then set the case aside for a few minutes.
Step 1: Install the power supply
The first component to make its way into the case should be the power supply (PSU). It is typically located at the rear of the case, usually in the bottom or top corner.
When in doubt, the slot is easily located by searching for a square opening with screw holes in at least two corners. The PSU sits in this opening with its power switch and a female socket facing out from the case’s back panel. Consult your case’s manual if you have trouble finding the proper location.
There are two main power supply variants: Standard and modular. There’s a hybrid semi-modular type too, but we don’t need to worry about that for now.
Modular PSUs have cables that detach from the main unit to avoid clutter. They’re ideal for smaller cases and neat freaks. If you have a modular PSU, it’s best to leave the cables out for now and run them as you install each additional component.
If the PSU’s cables don’t detach, carefully bundle them so they’re hanging out the case’s open side panel. This temporarily keeps them out of the way while we install the remaining components.
Step 2: Install the processor
Next, prepare the motherboard by installing the CPU, cooler, and RAM before fitting it in the case. They’re a lot easier to install now rather than after the motherboard resides in the system.
In fact, depending on your case and cooler, you may not be able to assemble your system with the motherboard already installed. That’s because many after-market coolers use a backplate to provide the tightest fit possible. It is, of course, attached to the back of the motherboard. You won’t be able to install it unless you have a case with a cut-out that aligns with the backplate’s location, a feature typically found only in high-end enclosures.
There are numerous pins on the CPU and motherboard, and bending any one of them could render that component kaput.
Carefully remove the motherboard from its anti-static bag and set it on a hard, flat, non-metal surface such as a wooden desk, or the top of the motherboard box itself. Also, make sure there are no sources of dust or liquid nearby.
Even though installing a CPU is an easier task now than it was in previous years, it’s still one of the most precarious. There are numerous pins on the CPU and motherboard, and bending any one of them could render that component kaput.
That said, the process isn’t designed to be difficult, and as long as you follow the instructions clearly and keep an eye out to ensure the chip is fully seated before you clamp it in place, you’ll be fine. However, there are some subtle differences in the process depending on who made your CPU
How to install an Intel processor
Instead of jutting from the processor, pins now reside in modern Intel sockets on motherboards, making CPU installation easy. This part of the socket is called the contact array. Absolutely do not bend or touch these pins!
The square metal bracket holding the CPU in place is the load plate, and it’s raised and lowered using the load lever. When clamped down, the end of the load lever tucks under a hook to keep everything in place.
First, open the load plate. Do this by gently pushing down on the load arm and moving it out sideways from under the hook, and then raising it up all the way. The hook’s lever-action opens the plate, which you can easily flip up. If it’s a new motherboard, there may be a plastic or foam filler in the socket, which you can gently remove.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends, As shown above, the CPU itself should have a small half-circle notch on each side of the chip. With the contacts facing down, there should be only one direction where the notches line up with the notches in the socket. Gently place the CPU into the socket so that the outer rim lies flush with the socket body. This part doesn’t require any pressure.
Use the load arm on the side to lower the plate over the chip, then push down and re-clip the arm under the hook once again. This requires a fair amount of pressure, so make sure the chip is properly seated before pressing down.
Remember, the notches in the processor should align with those in the socket. If in doubt, start again and double-check.
How to install an AMD processor
Unlike Intel’s design, pins jut from AMD’s CPUs. These pins insert into holes embedded in the motherboard’s CPU socket. The load arm on the socket slightly shifts the holes underneath, gripping the pins on the processor when pressed all the way down.
If it isn’t already, raise the arm so that it’s pointing straight up, and then rests a little farther back. That ensures the holes for the pins are wide open.
Instead of using notches, correctly line up the processor in the slot using a triangle engraved in gold on one of the CPU’s corners. All you need to do is a line that triangle up with a second triangle cut into the slot.
Once the processor sits comfortably in the slot, simply press the arm down until it clicks into place and locks in. This last step can be intimidating since it requires a fair amount of pressure to lock in place.
Step 3: Install the RAM
System memory, or RAM, doesn’t require any careful goo placement or wires. There are just two important factors, assuming you’ve chosen compatible RAM: Direction and slot choice.
The direction is easy enough. Each memory stick has a notch in the contacts lining the bottom edge that lines up with a block in the motherboard’s memory slots. If you hold it just above the slot and the two line up, it’s facing the right direction. If it doesn’t line up, spin it 180 degrees.
Slot choice depends on a few factors, one of which is how you purchased RAM. If it’s just a single stick, install it in the A1 slot and move on with your life. A diagram in the motherboard’s manual should label the slots if it isn’t printed directly on the PCB.
However, you likely purchased two identical RAM sticks, a common package called a dual-channel configuration. The system can use both sticks as if they were a single block of RAM but accesses them individually, providing a modest boost to memory performance.
You should install these sticks in channels (slots) with matching colors, usually labeled A1 and B1, though sometimes A2 and B2 are preferable. Check your motherboard’s manual to confirm which are best for your system.
Now that we know the proper slot and direction, the next part is easy. Push the plastic wings at either end of the slot down and outward (some motherboards only have one) then place the stick in the slot sticking straight up. Push down firmly until the RAM clicks into the slot, and the plastic wings click back in and clamp the ends of the sticks.
Step 4: Install the motherboard
Installing your packed motherboard is easy enough, but it can’t just sit in your case. Most modern cases have built-in, non-removable spacers between the back wall and motherboard, known as standoffs. They act as a ground for the motherboard while preventing the connections on the back from shorting.
Some cases have removable stand-offs you must manually install. They’re easy to identify because they look unusual — essentially screws that have another screw hole on top instead of the typical screwdriver notch. They’re usually copper or gold in color, making them easy to pick out.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends Your motherboard’s orientation depends on your case. At the back or the top, you’ll see a rectangular cut-out. This is for the motherboard’s I/O panel — the portion containing the USB, video, and Ethernet connections. Your motherboard ships with an I/O shield that fits into this rectangular cut-out. If you install that shield and then align your motherboard’s I/O panel, you should see the motherboard’s screw holes align with the stand-offs in your case.
If not, you may need to wiggle the motherboard slightly to make sure it snaps properly into the I/O shield and the stands-offs align. This may require some effort, but it shouldn’t require much force. If you’re forcing the motherboard, double-check how it’s aligned, as it may not be properly positioned. Be firm but gentle.
Don’t go wild while tightening screws, as you might damage the board if you put in too much effort.
Depending on the case and motherboard combination, pairing the two requires between six and 10 screws. You may find that not all holes match up with standoffs underneath. Drop a screw into a hole to see if it threads right away.
Like every set of screws, the first step is seating the screws and giving them a couple of precursory turns. Then, proceed in a star pattern, tightening each screw a little at a time. Don’t go wild while tightening as you might damage the board. You only need enough torque to hold the board in place without wiggling.
Once the motherboard seats comfortably in the case, there are a few necessary connections.
First, the motherboard’s power connection is a wide, two-row cable that fits snugly into a similar looking spot on the board itself. This 20-28 pin connector powers both the motherboard and the CPU. However, some boards have a second 4-pin or 8-pin connector for the processor, which resides near your CPU, typically in the top corner. If you have it, you’ll need to plug that in, too.
Second, connect the case plugs and buttons to the motherboard. A double-wide row of pins — the location of which will be noted in your manual — runs the USB ports, buttons for reset and power, and activity LEDs for power and storage.