How to build the best PC for your needs
25th Sep 2011 | 09:00
The best components to buy and how to put them together
How to build a PC
System builders are great and everything, but unless you emit static electricity or are terminally lazy, you should be thinking about building your own PC.
Why? Because not only do you get the satisfaction of having crafted your machine from the ground up, growing and harvesting each component from the soil… or something like that.
You also get full control over what goes in the chassis. And what the case will look like. System builders do a great job of delivering sensible packages of components at attractive price points, but building your own rig gives you full control. All the parts you need, none that you don't. And no extra expense to you.
And that level of control's important. It's what being a PC enthusiast is all about. It's what elevates us above the hunched simian shoulders of console gamers.
Everyone uses their PC in a different way; sure we all have a web browser, a media player and Sims 3: Toilets 'n' stuff installed, but beyond that our hard drives and habits are as varied as grains of sand on a beach. Choosing each component individually allows you to make a machine that will suit your exact needs.
The rig for you
Whether you're a thifty technophile, an avid gamer, a designer, multimedia editor or music producer we'll guide you through picking the best parts for your needs - and your budget.
We've even made a handy step-by-step for you. Pretty invaluable if you've never built a rig from scratch before, and just as useful if you have - even experienced rig builders are odds on to have spent a few frustrated afternoons scratching their head and wondering which flipping connection they haven't made.
Our step-by-step is the antidote to such troubled times. Over the next eight pages we'll show you what we think are the best system components for budget builders, gamers and those in need of a seriously powerful workstation, why they're worth your money and how to build them into a PC.
But like we said, every PC user is unique - that's why we've also given you some options and suggested alternatives. Read on to start building.
How to build a cheap PC
Motherboard: Asus F1A75-M - £81
Processor: AMD A8-3850 - £105
RAM: Corsair 4GB 1,600MHz - £28
Graphics: XFX Radeon HD 6670 - £60
Storage: Seagate 750GB - £36
Optical: LiteOn DVD RW - £14
PSU: Corsair 430W - £35
Chassis: Asus TM-B11 mATX Tower - £23
Putting together the perfect budget machine is a tricky business in the current market. With money being tight it's more important than ever to make sure your components are balanced properly so you're not wasting money on unnecessary bottlenecks. With any PC build you've got one of two ways to go right from the off. Do you want an Intel or an AMD-based machine?
At the top-end there really is currently no choice whatsoever: it's Intel all the way. AMD's Bulldozer might put a little dampener on things for Intel, but with the Sandy Bridge Extreme processors and X79 chipset waiting to trump AMD's release the status quo may well remain.
But at the budget-end things are as unequivocally AMD as the high-end is Intel. On the Intel side your cheapest serious options are the dual-core Sandy Bridge chips, and although offering hyperthreading they're weak ol' CPUs.
In the balance
AMD has a wealth of options to choose from though. But to keep a balance of price and performance we're going to be looking squarely at the new desktop Llano hardware it's just launched.
If you're just looking for a budget machine that's only going to be used for gaming occasionally you can make do without a discrete graphics card in this Llano build. The integrated graphics of the top-end Llano APU are at least three times faster than that of the fastest Sandy Bridge iGPU. With a discrete card you're getting the most out of your build.
Because of the Llano chip's Dual Graphics function you can pair a mid-range AMD GPU with the graphics side of the APU and give your card a healthy boost. At the very least we're talking about a 33 per cent speed boost over just the card on its own.
Elsewhere we've trumped the budget build in the Rig Builder pages and boosted the storage and memory options. Llano benefits extremely well, especially in Dual Graphics mode, from speedy memory modules. Dropping in 4GB of 1,600MHz DDR3 should do some serious good.
There's also a 750GB HDD for only an extra £7 on top of the 320GB drive in that build. The smallish, 430W PSU is all that's needed due to the power-saving prowess of the Llano chipset, and the HD 6670 graphics card doesn't even need a separate PCI-e power connector.
The mATX Asus motherboard is based on the same technology as the F1A75-V Pro and that board enabled us to hit an impressive 3.7GHz with this 2.9GHz rated chip. And you should be able to get close with this board too.
This is a little machine, quite capable of gaming on a full HD 1080p screen and would be a great pairing with an old 1,650 x 1,080 panel. Hitting over 30fps in DiRT 3 and 24fps in Just Cause 2 at 4x AA on the highest settings at 1,920 x 1,080.
Striking the balance
XFX Radeon HD 6670
This budget rig is all about balance and when the HD 6670 is thrown into the mix with a Llano APU, the Dual Graphics function makes it far more of a real gaming option. Expect a performance boost of 33 per cent, at the very least, over what the card can manage on its own.
You can spend a little more on faster GPUs, but it needs to be AMD to work with the APU as Nvidia cards won't benefit at all. That said it's not worth looking at much higher-end cards, as you may as well pick up a standard AMD CPU without onboard graphics.
AMD A8 3850
The new desktop Llano APU is a great choice for the budget machine. As we've said you can make do without a discrete GPU if your gaming needs aren't particularly hi-res or 3D demanding, and if they are you can make do with a fairly middling card thanks to the APU's Dual Graphics functionality.
The CPU component of the chip is quite good too, coming in full quad-core trim but without the Phenom II's Level 3 cache. Still, it's not a bad overclocking chip and knocks the equivalent Intel Core i3 chip out of the running.
Corsair 4GB 1,600MHZ DDR3
Because of the way the Llano APU shares the system RAM between its CPU and GPU it's very important to make sure your RAM matches up and supports the chip.
The difference in actual gaming frame rates between the memory running at 1,333MHz and 1,600MHz is surprisingly big; in some cases making the difference between jerky and smooth gaming. This is especially true when you factor in the Dual Graphics technology as the RAM then becomes seriously taxed, especially when you're trying to output to high-resolution monitors.
You can see from the Cinebench score it's still a worthy CPU, especially compared to the 2.96 score the equivalent Sandy Bridge CPU manages. In gaming too it hits double figures in Heaven and over 30fps in DiRT 3 is nothing to be sniffed at.
CPU rendering performance
Cinebench R11.5: Index: Higher is better
Budget rig: 3.42
DirectX 11 tesselation performance
Heaven 2.5: Frames per second: Higher is better
Budget rig: 13.4
DirectX 11 gaming performance
DiRT 3: Frames per second: Higher is better
Budget rig: 31
How to build a gaming PC
How to build a gaming PC
Motherboard: Asus P8Z68 V Pro - £146.00
Processor: Intel Core i5 2500K OEM - £159.06
Graphics: Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 2GB - £203.63
RAM: G.Skill RipJawsX 2 x 2GB DDR3 - £49.99
SSD: OCZ Agility III 120GB - £169.34
HDD: Seagate Barracuda 1TB SATA III - £36.98
PSU: CoolerMaster GX 550W Green - £48.71
Chassis: CM CM690 II Elite - £54.95
Cooler: Antec Kuhler H20 620 - £46.44
Optical drive: Sony DDU1681S-0B DVD - £11.87
OS: Win7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM - £67.28
As gamers, we tend to upgrade certain components once or twice a year depending on how flush we're feeling. Often we're spurred on by a stunning new title or the new generation of a particular gubbin. But how often do we get to just admit that our hard drive is nearly dead and our motherboard's always been dodgy, and just start again from scratch?
Not as often as we'd like. When we do, it's a great opportunity to take the plunge into the latest chipset - the least practical of incremental upgrades. If you've been languishing in first generation Intel Core territory, the step up to 6 series chipsets such as Z68 not only unlocks fantastic Sandy Bridge CPUs, but USB 3.0, SATA 6 Gbps, DDR3 RAM and more.
Set your budget
When it comes to budgeting, there are two factors to consider. Firstly, what can you afford to spend before you have to sell body parts and start living in your car? Secondly, how much should you pay?
Above a certain level of cash-throwing, you stop getting a noticeable performance increase and you're basically just making everything look nicer and hitting higher synthetic benchmark scores. We reckon that level is £1,000. It's still a massive outlay, and you'd expect some serious performance and longevity from that.
Unfortunately, the components market is a confusing place. Manufacturers release products £10 apart from each other within their own range. Model numbers are unnecessarily complicated and often misleading. Compatibility can be a headache, and it's far from clear which components will actually get you the most bang for your dollar.
Luckily for you, here at PCF we know those components like the back of our hand. We swim through them to get to our desks in the morning, furiously benchmark them all day, and eat our dinner off them when we go home. Such a lifestyle has given us fantastic insight into which bits of silicon are actually any good, and which aren't even fit to eat beans on toast off.
Get the best GPU
The glamour piece in a rig of this kind will always be the graphics card. A new GPU gives the biggest performance boost in game. With that in mind, a top-notch GPU should be your biggest outlay in a gaming rig. Spend as much as you possibly can, because the GPU's in charge of frame rates. And high frame rates make a good gaming rig.
There are other important considerations though. A quick SSD might not seem like the obvious gaming go-to guy, but it is worth shelling out on, as is a solid mobo and cooler for overclocking.
On the flipside, you don't need a Blu-ray drive, a gigabit network card, a fancy case or more than 4GB of RAM. Indulge in the parts that matter, omit the others heartlessly from the finished rig. You'll be happier, trust us.
Inside your new rig
Radeon HD 6950
The GPU is to the gaming rig what Lionel Messi is to F.C. Barcelona and what Alberto Tomba was to men's giant slalom skiing. As such, this should be your big purchase. We think £204 is fantastic value for a card as powerful as Sapphire's Radeon HD 6950.
For starters, it's equipped with a dual BIOS and 2GB memory so you can perform the famous HD 6970 BIOS flash on it, and unlock the full power of the Cayman architecture. Sapphire has also done a sterling job with the card's cooler, you can overclock it to beyond the reference HD 6970 card's settings.
Intel Core i5 2500K OEM
The other hard worker in your new gaming rig is Intel's Core i5 2500K - It'll keep the pace with your GPU and deliver buckets of performance.
The difference between this and first-gen Intel Core chips, such as the Q6600 that also has four cores and four threads is really staggering. This raw performance coupled with Turbo Boost and some excellent overclocking potential make this chip a must-have in your new rig. Save a few quid and go for the OEM version rather than retail.
OCZ Agility III 120GB
Hang on, what are we doing spending £169 on an SSD in a gaming rig? Couldn't we make do with traditional HDD storage and plump for a second GPU? Well, sure, you could squeeze an extra HD 6950 into the budget, but the performance increase you'll get will be barely noticeable in the real world and far from the 100 per cent boost some expect.
A high-performance SSD such as OCZ's Agility 3 can make a big difference to general desktop and gaming use. From boot times to level loads, an SSD with 500 MB/s reads and writes can boost your system in areas that your GPU and CPU can't.
On our 2560 x 1600 screen, this gaming rig gave us the surplus frames we expect for almost a grand. Flashing the GPU's BIOS will give you an extra 5 to 10 frames for free.
CPU rendering performance
Cinebench R11.5: Index: Higher is better
GAMING RIG: 5.33
DirectX 11 gaming performance
DiRT 3: Frames per second: Higher is better
Stock BIOS: 35.5
6970 BIOS: 40.8
DirectX 11 gaming performance
Shogun 2: Frames per second: Higher is better
Stock BIOS: 44.1
6970 BIOS: 50.7
How to build a workstation PC
How to build a workstation PC
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-990FXA-UD5 - £157.19
Processor: AMD Phenom X6 1090T Black Ed - £131.99
Graphics: AMD FirePro V5800 1GB - £300.06
RAM: 16GB G.Skill RipJawsX 4 x 4 GB - £143.98
SSD: OCZ Vertex III 240GB - £394.99
HDD: Seagate Barracuda XT SATA III 2TB - £122.63
PSU: Corsair HX series modular 750W - £111.30
Chassis: Corsair Obsidian series 700D - £158.87
Cooler: Corsair A70 air cooler - £32.36
Optical drive: LG 10x Blu-ray writer - £64.99
OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM - £67.28
USB Drive: Transcend Jetflash 700 32GB - £46.39
Sound card: Digidesign MBox 2 Mini & Pro Tools 9 - £319.00
The term 'workstation' doesn't conjure up exciting visuals. It's a place to do work after all, so perhaps the term 'ultimate workstation' might read like 'performance stapler' or 'most powerful biro ever' to some.
The workstation lives in the shadow of gaming rigs, netbooks and tablets, but as our relationship with tech changes, so do our expectations from our gear. YouTube has turned us all into amateur movie directors, recording artists, video bloggers, stop-motion film makers and judging by any comments section: hate-filled morons.
Suddenly we're putting heavy duty video-encoding and editing tasks on our systems. Suddenly we want studio-quality audio recordings from our bedroom. We want to mod our favourite games, manipulate 3D models, touch up photos and remix songs. And unless you love staring at loading bars that means you'll need a PC that can handle all these demanding tasks. That is a workstation.
We want it all...
Whether you're building a machine for your actual occupation or serious about your particular digital hobby, there's a tangible, quantitative reward for spending big on a performance workstation. And here, we reckon, is where to spend it.
First, a six-core CPU is really useful for any multi-threaded application. Genuine cores will always trump threads, and AMD's Phenom X6 1090T Black Edition offers an economical means of getting those cores.
The pricier 1100T runs quicker but shares the same 9MB cache, which means overclocking the 1090T up to 4GHz gives you all that performance for less - that's why we chose the Gigabyte board. Not only does it get great performance out of the CPU through its 333 acceleration tech, it can also handle hefty overclocks.
…And we want it now
We've waxed lyrical about G.Skill's RipJawsX memory plenty in PC Format, but suffice to say 16GB of the stuff is going to have a massive impact on loading audio, video and images in powerful apps.
There's plenty of room to store those files on OCZ's blindingly quick Vertex III SSD. Its 240 GB is enough for Windows, your key applications and any current projects you're working on. For anything else, the ample 2TB hard drive should suffice.
Here's where things get niche. If audio is your thing, plump for the MBox 2 mini and Pro Tools 9. It's a great low latency sound card and you can't run Pro Tools without it. Good I/O options too.
If you're into 3D/image/video editing, opt for the FirePro V5800 from AMD. It's a well-endowed workstation GPU with 800 stream processors, DX11, OpenCL and OpenGL 4.1 support. What more could you possibly want?
How about a nippy USB drive to transfer your work between devices? Check. Blu-ray writer to export hard copies? Check. Granted, the price tag's formidable, but the machine you get in return is even more so.
The work horse
Increase your productivity and badass quota all at once
DigiDesign MBox 2 Mini
If you want professional quality audio recordings, look no further than this soundcard. Look for good bundle deals with Pro Tools 9 or LE. The two are tied together at a firmware level, and PT is arguably the best digital audio interface out there.
As well as zero latency, high fidelity recording, the MBox 2 has two simultaneous analogue inputs and outputs for XLR or -inch jack connections. You can plug in a guitar or mic through the front direct input (DI) connection for a quick setup. If sound's not your thing opt for a £20 SoundBlaster Audigy.
AMD FirePro V5800 1GB
If you're serious about visuals, this is the workstation GPU for you. Two DisplayPort and one DVI outputs allow you to connect up to three 30-inch screens (that's 12.3 million pixels) through Eyefinity.
It has 800 stream processors and the 1GB GDDR5 memory will do the job when it comes to parallel processing and buffering. If you're more about audio, you can opt to go sans GPU entirely, or find a happy medium with a cheap gaming card.
Corsair HX Series Modular 750W
As former PCF Art Ed Matt Orton pointed out: "buying a power supply is like buying toilet paper. You've got to do it." When you don't have multi-GPU setups in mind, how much is there to take into account?
Well for a workstation as magnificent as this, it needs to be extremely power efficient and have enough juice to power many peripherals. Corsair's 750W HX series ticks both boxes, boasting 90 per cent efficiency, a cable-saving modular design and a truckload of power. That's important when all your USB ports are occupied.
HP DreamColor LP2480ZX
Consumer-grade TFT monitors display about 16.7 million colours. This 24-inch professional screen designed by HP and Dreamworks takes a giant multicoloured dump over that spec, itself sporting more than 1 billion.
Okay, it costs £1,833, but this is the Holy Grail for visual designers of any kind, supporting industry standard colour-depth consumer screens can't get close to. If your screen requirements aren't quite so high, check out Dell's P2411H for just under £250.
How to fit the PC components
01. Install CPU
We're going to test the vital components before putting them into the case. Lay your motherboard on its anti-static bag and remove the CPU guard. Lower your CPU in, being careful not to bend any pins. Lock it down and add a pea-sized dab of thermal paste to the top.
02. Cooler and fan
Cooler fixings vary between coolers and chips. Most require a bracket underneath the board, which affixes to the cooler itself. Check your manual to find out which of the screw holes and fittings you need. Connect the fan cable to your mobos' CPU FAN connector.
03. Fit the RAM
RAM only fits one way, you just need to open the catch, snap it in and lock it in place with the catch again. Some motherboards have different configurations between memory channels, so 1 and 3 may operate differently to 2 and 4 - check in the manual first.
04. The graphics card
The GPU should always occupy your top PCI-e slot because this is where the highest bandwidth will be: x16. Since bandwidth drops to x8 as soon as you involve another GPU in an SLI/CrossFireX array, manufacturers usually only put one x16 slot on the board.
05. Hook up the PSU
Connect the 20+4 pin connector to the mobo, the 8-pin EPS cable to the mobo (near the CPU) and whichever 6/8-pin PCI-e cables your GPU requires. If your cooler has more than one power connector, make sure it's hooked up to a SYS_FAN on the board.
06. Test the components
Power that sucker up by turning on the PSU and either hitting the power button on your mobo if it has one or using a screwdriver to short the power (+PW-) pins on the board's ATX block (This is where you connect all the case connectors).
07. Prep the case
Take out any bits of case you don't need such as drive bays and PCI slot plates. You need as much room in there as possible, and it's at this point that buying a bigger case pays for itself. Tie all the fan cables out of the way and fish out the mobo's mounting screws.
08. ATX backplate and mounting screws
Chuck your case's backplate in favour of the one that came with your mobo - it's guaranteed to fit, and chances are it'll be less flimsy. You'll also need to fix mountings to the case in line with your mobo's screw fittings.
09. Install the PSU
Some cases offer the choice to fix the PSU at the top or bottom of the case - there are pros and cons to both. You need to consider airflow and space to make the best call. Screw it in place and tie the cables out of the way. If it's modular, take all the cables out.
10. Drop in the motherboard
Remove the GPU from your mobo for now and with the CPU, cooler and RAM still in place, lower your mobo in and line it up with the rear mountings, then screw it in place. It's easier to do it this way round than to try and fix the components in afterwards.
11. Reunite GPU and mobo
This can be surprisingly fiddly if your case's storage bays stick out quite far. Some cases will allow you to pop out some drive bays, so do this if possible, and bung your graphics card back into that top PCI-e 2.0 x16 slot. Once it's firmly in the slot, screw it in place.
12. Test it still works
You'll need to connect the PSU's cables to all your components again. Checklist: main mobo power, CPU power and GPU. Don't worry about hooking up any case fans yet, just the CPU cooler. Power-up as before and check for POST beeps or LEDs light up your mobo.
13. Install the hard drive
Locate the handiest 3.5-inch drive bay (bearing in mind the SATA and power cables that will be trailing off it), pull it out and screw the disk into the bay. Pop it back inside. Slightly trickier if you need to reinstall those drive bays you took out to get the GPU to fit.
14. Add the SSD
Those sleek SSDs need mountings of their own to fit into a 3.5-inch bay, so screw your solid state bad boy into its mounting (usually provided with the drive) and then affix it as a hard drive. If you're the sort to hot-swap drives, use the easily swappable bays.
15. Attach an optical drive
Pop out the cover for the optical drive bay from the front of the case, and slide in your optical drive, again from the front, then secure it in place by screwing it in. If your inner OCD slave can deal with it, it's neater for cables if you use the lowest drive bay.
16. Case connectors
Invariably the fiddliest of all steps. Connect your case's USB cables, HD audio, fan connectors and all those tiny 1-pin ATX block connectors. There's a tiny diagram on the motherboard itself that shows where to put each pin, but check the board's manual.
17. Tidy your cables
This tidy up will help maintain good airflow and avoid dust build-up. If there's space between the backplate and case, feed cables in there. Make sure your drives are connected to the fastest SATA ports, use the PCI-e cables for your GPU and tidy up with cable ties.
18. Windows installation
Time to check everything is working properly. If you get any funny beeps check out what they mean online - it's probably a loose component or missing connection. If everything works fine, bung the Windows disk in your optical drive and install the OS on your SSD.
First published in PC Format Issue 256
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