There’s little doubt that the personal computer, along with associated technologies like the world wide web and smartphone, is one of the most pervasive features of this century. Without one, you’re severely hampered in your ability to learn new things, keep up with friends, express yourself creatively, do (or even find) a job, and entertain yourself during your downtime.
It’s therefore surprising just how little people actually understand their PCs. For most people I know, it’s really just a “black box”: a device that’s supposed to perform certain tasks, never mind how exactly, and gets yelled at when it does so too slowly. Now, there’s no particular reason everyone needs to know about flip-flops, memory management, or interface standards, but learning just a little on the subject can save you a ton of money when building a new computer.
Just like when buying a car, being up to speed on the jargon and industry will help you understand more of what the salesman is saying. In other words, it’s possible to get more of what you need without paying extra for stuff that doesn’t matter to you. As I used to be an engineer, I’ll hopefully be able to explain the more important concepts from the ground up. Interspersed with the following computer building tips, you’ll see some explanations of the theory (simplified and therefore not always technically accurate) that will hopefully show you how a PC’s parts fit together. Getting a handle on the basics really isn’t that hard and will help you understand important specs instead of leaving you scratching your head about how many megawoozies the gizmonator can purdoodlize.
Table of Contents
- 1 First Things First: Restore Your Old PC Before Thinking About Building New Computers
- 2 Figure Out What Your Expectations Truly Are
- 3 Check that Your Drivers Are Up to Date
- 4 Keep Up With Regular PC Maintenance
- 5 Consider Re-Installing Your Operating System
- 6 Incremental Improvements to Think About Before You Build or Buy a PC
- 7 Figuring Out What’s Holding Your Computer Back
- 8 Adding a Better or Extra Monitor
- 9 Upgrade Your Keyboard, Mouse, and Headset
- 10 Plug in an SSD Hard Drive or More RAM
- 11 Add Extra Storage
- 12 Check the Wifi
- 13 Building a New Computer: Can You Learn to Do It Yourself?
- 14 Is It Better to Build Or Buy a PC? What About Pre-Owned Computers?
- 15 Our Best Computer Building Tips for Beginners
- 16 * * *
First Things First: Restore Your Old PC Before Thinking About Building New Computers
When it comes to saving money on computer upgrades, many people jump the gun right to the question of whether building vs buying a PC will work out cheaper in the long run. The simple truth is that you may not need to spend any cash at all – it could be that your current computer is really all you need, especially once you send a little love its way.
Figure Out What Your Expectations Truly Are
Instant gratification is the norm these days: fast food, same-day delivery, online platforms that automatically play the next queued video. This has conditioned us into believing that everything we desire needs to happen immediately, especially when dealing with a computer.
Think, however, about what kind of impact a “slow” computer actually has on your life and productivity. Having to wait six seconds for the result of a database query is mildly annoying, but it’s not what’s causing you to work overtime. The latest video games look pretty cool, but you can still waste time and have fun on older computers if you don’t get sucked in by their hype. If all you need to do is word processing, email, and browsing the internet, you can easily get by with the most basic PC or even a tablet.
Some applications, of course, like programming IDEs, are monsters when it comes to system resources. It may be that you’ll have to build or buy a PC to run them stably or at all. Unless you have such specific requirements, though, take a moment to think about what you can spend your hard-earned money on other than a computer upgrade.
Check that Your Drivers Are Up to Date
Outside the Apple ecosystem, tens of thousands of different, unrelated companies are involved in hardware and software development. It’s kind of a miracle that all their products (usually) can work along with one another; part of the reason is that the interfaces between different modules are so well defined:
In particular, each hardware manufacturer supplies a software program called a driver to tell the operating system (typically Windows) how to communicate with their device. Unfortunately, no piece of software is ever perfect. Older drivers may lack the latest performance-enhancing optimizations, not work well with recent software, or even contain security holes hackers can exploit.
If your computer has become sluggish or unstable (i.e. prone to errors and crashes), simply updating your drivers may fix the problem in half an hour or so. You can do so using Windows Update, manually, or by installing third-party utilities that should keep things humming along without any effort on your part.
Keep Up With Regular PC Maintenance
Is it better to build or buy a PC, or just keep the one you have in tip-top condition? This one can be called either way, but bear in mind that computer hardware prices always drop like stones: if you can keep your current PC in good shape for only three months longer, you can save a significant sum on its replacement. So:
- Keep your PC clean, physically. Something as simple as a vent clogged with lint can cause performance issues and shorten the lifespan of your computer, so get some canned air.
- Install a reliable antivirus program,
- Get rid of applications you no longer use,
- Turn on automatic updates for your operating system and applications,
- Periodically clear out the recycling bin and delete temporary files,
- Set up a scheduled task to run disk checking and defrag utilities once a week.
None of these actions, it should be said, is likely to grant you a huge performance boost. They’re all very easy to do, though, and can prevent numerous problems from ever arising. Just maybe, they’ll make it unnecessary to build or buy a PC until you can afford to.
Consider Re-Installing Your Operating System
Referring to the diagram above, you’ll see that pretty much all of your interaction with a computer goes through your operating system (OS) – Windows, macOS, or Linux. Typically, you’ll be looking at an application like an office package, internet browser, or media player, but the operating system is doing a lot of the real work. The kernel (the small yet indispensable core program of the operating system), systems utilities and services (which handle things like communications and system health checking) are shown separately here but are normally distributed along with the OS itself. They’re therefore the same color in the diagram.
Now, if this were drawn with all operating system components shown individually, it would cover way more than a single page. This complexity only increases when you take regular (and necessary!) updates into account, along with random junk, like outdated registry entries, that builds up over time.
A large part of building new computers is actually just installing a fresh operating system. This by itself doesn’t necessarily lead to major improvements in speed, but re-formatting your hard drive does get rid of bloatware, applications you no longer use, background services you don’t need, and of course malware you may not even know you have.
Reinstalling Windows is not technically difficult, but should be approached with caution. Specifically, you’ll want to make doubly sure that all of your files and software licenses are backed up before you start – once they’re gone, getting them back is expensive at best and impossible at worst.
Incremental Improvements to Think About Before You Build or Buy a PC
In a business environment, particularly one where IT infrastructure is critical to the task at hand, the guiding philosophy is usually to go after upgrades with a chainsaw: rip out and replace everything connected to the module you’re actually worried about. The increased efficiency and reliability of the whole system justifies the extra expense.
Of course, in this case, IT budgets are fixed and generous. The same probably can’t be said for yours. It therefore makes sense to put your money where it will do the most good: identify the component that will give you the most bang for your buck. Here’s a quick guide to the most important parts of any PC to refresh your memory:
Figuring Out What’s Holding Your Computer Back
One of the best computer building tips you’ll ever come across is this: your PC can’t work faster than its slowest bottleneck. When you’re considering building vs buying a PC, you can count on the designers having weighed the capabilities of the different parts in order to produce a machine that’s not going to be seriously lacking in any respect. If you prefer to shop for your own components and put them together, you should do the same.
When you’re in the situation of trying to save money on upgrading an existing PC, your task is both simpler and more complex. Some things will not be possible for you unless you replace both the CPU and motherboard, which basically amounts to building a new computer. On the other hand, there are certain specific concerns you can take care of by upgrading your computer for under $100.
A good place to start is using resource monitoring software to find these bottlenecks during different tasks. This can tell you things like whether additional RAM is needed or if a certain application is slowing you down, at a glance and without needing much technical knowledge.
Adding a Better or Extra Monitor
Humans are visual creatures; our eyes are our main way of taking in and processing information. Small, practically meaningless animations make any piece of software seem more polished. Arguably, video games haven’t really advanced at all in the last decade except for making stuff look prettier. If your job involves spreadsheets, it also involves making graphs; if it has anything to do with marketing, graphic design will rear its head at some point.
Everything goes faster and more smoothly when your principal way of interacting with your computer is larger, clearer, or more detailed. Is it better to build or buy a PC, or simply make your old one look and feel better? New monitors tend to get pricey especially at the high end of the range, but getting one has another major advantage: giving you double the number of information channels.
If you’re a web developer, you can use an old monitor to see exactly how your CSS is going haywire without losing focus on your code. If you do data collation or capturing, you can check your source on one screen and transfer it to the other using normal cut-and-paste commands. Should customer service be part of your responsibilities, you can keep your email and chat programs in view while continuing with something else.
Bear in mind that you may have to buy and install a basic graphics card as well. For most purposes, one costing about $100 will do just fine (at least for a second monitor) and only needs to be plugged in to work. Most laptops can connect directly to a suitable monitor.
Upgrade Your Keyboard, Mouse, and Headset
This suggestion follows exactly the same path of reasoning as the previous one. If you’re currently using cheap, junky peripherals, it will cost you under a hundred dollars to improve your sensory experience tremendously – why wait?
Plug in an SSD Hard Drive or More RAM
One of the most common bottlenecks on PC performance is in getting data from the hard disk to the working, short-term memory (called RAM). You’ll generally notice this only at specific times, namely when booting up (starting the computer) and while loading large files – graphic designers and CAD technicians will know exactly how frustrating the latter can be.
There is also a third case where your hard drive’s data transfer speed – a maximum of about 200 MB/s for conventional platter drives, but much lower when multiple operations are happening simultaneously – slows down your computer. Few computers are designed to never run out of RAM; they would simply cost way more than they need to. What happens instead is that a page file on your hard drive is used to store the overflow:
Let’s break this down: though “memory” is used interchangeably with “RAM”, your computer actually contains several kinds. The fastest is located on the CPU itself. When this component needs to retrieve or store data in RAM, it has to pass through the northbridge: a silicon chip on the motherboard that acts as traffic cop for all high-speed interactions. This pretty much refers only to communication between the CPU, RAM, and graphics card. The northbridge is also connected to the southbridge, which handles all (relatively) slow data transfers including those to and from the hard drive. The word “relatively” certainly applies: SSDs (Solid State Drives) hard drives are significantly faster than their mechanical HDD (Hard Disk Drive) counterparts. This is true both for rapidly accessing a small scrap of information and sustained data transfers.
Here’s how these components look on an actual (older) motherboard:
Is it better to build or buy a PC with an SSD drive, then? It really depends on your budget and performance requirements. SSDs cost approximately 10 cents per GB, traditional hard drives about a fifth of that, and RAM around $5/GB. Each is therefore used for a specific purpose: extra RAM to increase performance at demanding tasks, hard disk drives for mass storage, and solid-state drives falling somewhere in between.
All of them are also easy to upgrade without switching out other components. If you find that your computer is lagging when it’s “thinking hard”, an extra RAM module (compatible with your motherboard) is the way to go. If it seems slow in general and especially takes some time to warm up, throwing in an SSD to house your operating system and/or page file should produce a noticeable improvement.
Add Extra Storage
While we are on the subject of computer building tips and hard drives, are you sure you have an adequate backup system? It’s up to you whether you use an external hard drive (stored apart from the PC in case of a break-in) or a free cloud-based service, but take care of this before you start to think about building a new computer.
Check the Wifi
Before blaming your PC for being slow, especially if it happens suddenly or only on occasion, it’s a good idea to verify that this isn’t rooted in a network problem. This is a possibility if you use video calling, need to connect to your work network remotely, use cloud software like Salesforce or Deskera, or do anything in a web browser. Here are some steps to follow:
- Use a ping tester to verify how fast data can move between your computer and the internet, as well as how long it takes to make a round trip.
- Check your signal strength. You may need to reposition your router, use a wifi extender, or hook up your computer using an ethernet cable. The latter, by itself, should get you better speeds and pings.
- Turn off your router, wait at least 10 seconds, and turn it back on again.
- Disconnect unused devices from the network when you require high bandwidth. Alternatively, if you know a little about how networks are organized, try to tweak the router’s QoS (Quality of Service) settings.
- Disable bandwidth-heavy apps. Simply installing an adblocker may help, too.
- Change your internet plan, service provider, and/or VPN to one with higher data caps, lower congestion, or better network infrastructure.
Building a New Computer: Can You Learn to Do It Yourself?
Building a PC from components used to be fairly hard. Today, this is no longer the case: instead of having to fiddle with things like jumpers, dipswitches, and IRQ conflicts, you can generally just plug everything together. Compared to the days where you had to calibrate floppy drives’ read/write heads manually, building new computers is now definitely an amateur’s game.
The knowledge and skills needed are almost certainly within your grasp. Just because building a new computer is possible (as well as, to some, interesting and rewarding) doesn’t mean that it’s the best option for you or the most economical way to upgrade your computer. Let’s take a deeper look at the tradeoffs between building vs buying a PC:
Is It Better to Build Or Buy a PC? What About Pre-Owned Computers?
Time, and what yours is worth to you, is the first factor to consider. Excluding the installation of the operating system, an experienced technician takes less than 30 minutes building a new computer. You could guess that it will take you approximately twice as long…but don’t forget about all the reading you’ll have to do before you even start. There are plenty of Youtube videos containing computer-building tips, but simply selecting the right components for the job will probably take days of research. Which parts can work together, are available, and offer the best value change all the time, so getting the most bang for your buck takes serious work.
Waiting for your parts to arrive after you’ve ordered them eats up additional time – if you just need to get up and running quickly, buying a pre-built machine is probably best. Clearly, that experienced technician we just mentioned needs to get paid for his labor. It may therefore surprise you to learn that buying your own parts generally costs more than getting a machine ready to go, at least for high-performance PCs. Each component is simply more expensive when bought retail rather than in bulk, canceling out other overheads.
What may end up costing you far more is accidental damage caused by improper handling of components. Your warranty will probably not cover this. In fact, you may find that your home-built computer simply doesn’t run once assembled, with no easy way of determining what’s wrong. If building vs buying a PC, this can result in extra expense and delay, particularly if you’re a beginner. With a pre-built computer, you can just take it back to the store – the warranty will normally be on the whole system, not just the individual parts.
For many gaming and tech enthusiasts, however, all of these disadvantages make little difference when choosing to build or buy a PC. The key reason for this comes down to customizability. Pre-built PCs are mostly clones, designed around specs that will work for most people or in order to be sold at a low price. They may even use older components they just happen to have in stock, or “open-box” parts that have been returned and possibly repaired.
You’re usually not allowed to request a major variation from the basic model; if you can, you’ll probably be charged a premium. If a stock-standard PC you have your eye on is lacking in some particular aspect that’s important to you, such as a high-end audio device, you’re out of luck unless you’re willing to do the installation yourself. Finally, though the CPU and graphics card are likely to be of good quality – these are the specs most people look at first – the same might not be true of less glamorous components like the power supply and RAM.
When building a new computer yourself, you can cherry-pick every part to suit your needs and budget. Unless you are pressed for time, you can also wait for your chosen components to go on sale one by one. You’ll also get to know your machine while building it, making future repairs and upgrades much easier.
Finally, buying a PC second-hand is generally not a good investment. You’ll have no warranty, old technology at a comparatively high price, and the possibility of pre-existing defects. If you choose to do so, it’s best to think of it as no more than a stop-gap while you save your pennies for something much better.
Our Best Computer Building Tips for Beginners
Starting a build is exciting, finishing it is satisfying, but the part in the middle can get frustrating. The best advice you’ll ever hear is to remain patient, look for any information you need online rather than guessing at what to do, and take a break whenever you need to.
- Assuming that all the parts you want will play well together rarely turns out well – double-check online resources before you order anything.
- Reading and watching tutorials online, as well as scanning the instructions that come with your parts, is essential for someone building a new computer for the first time. Nothing beats hands-on assistance, though. If you know someone who’s into electronics, try to enlist their help.
- Unplug the power before messing with anything. Also, don’t eat the thermal paste – unfortunately, some people need to be told these things.
- Some parts (CPU fans, RAM modules) can require a little effort to seat properly, but they’re also fragile. Think and observe carefully before you try to force anything into place.
- Most screws also don’t need to be torqued; just tighten them until they’re securely in place.
- The way in which many components are packaged leaves a lot to be desired; open with the utmost care! I’ve dropped several CPUs through carelessness and had to straighten the pins by hand.
- Clean hands are more important than you probably think. Skin oil on a high-speed connector can prevent it from making good contact, a fault that’s very difficult to figure out.
- ESD, or static electricity, is a risk many people ignore; a component damaged in this way may work at first but fail considerably sooner. All you need to do to keep this from happening is connect an inexpensive wrist strap to the case.
- Electronics and heat are natural enemies. Especially if you live in a hot climate, spending extra on your cooling system – even liquid cooling – will save you money by increasing everything’s reliability.
- Regardless of whether you build or buy a PC, it’s good planning to spend more on what you absolutely need now and have an upgrade path in mind for the future.
- It’s rarely cost-effective to replace an Intel CPU with one that’s compatible with the same motherboard; AMD is a better choice in this regard.
- Certain computer parts (RAM, hard drives) are getting better and cheaper all the time. Plan on upgrading these in future and spend more on key components the first time around.
- Similarly, if you plan on playing video games, you don’t need to spend $1,500 on a powerful GPU right away. Something costing a tenth of that price has way more than a tenth the performance in practical terms (and can be upgraded later, anyway).
- Cable management is an art. Planning ahead and using zip ties won’t make your PC run faster, but looks a lot more professional and will facilitate future repairs and upgrades.
* * *
It’s definitely worth your while to spend some time figuring out how you can save money on computer upgrades: you’ll probably be using that machine every day for the next couple of months or years. As you’ve seen, there’s a lot more to think about than simply building vs buying a PC.
In a sense, your computer is an extension of your mind and its capabilities. The easier and more pleasant it is to use, the more you can potentially achieve.