Guide to parts for building a PC: What parts do I need?

Build your own.

Screengrab via Corsair

If you’re looking for a PC, you can either go for a pre-built system or build your own. Both options have their pros and cons and appeal to different users. Building a PC is sometimes cheaper than buying the equivalent prebuilt alternative, and the user chooses every part of the build. On the other hand, pre-built PCs don’t require any technical ability, and they are pre-tested and come with warranties. 

Building a PC requires many components, often from different manufacturers, coming together to form a functioning system. Each part should be compatible with the others to ensure optimal functionality and the best performance possible. Since technology is improving rapidly, it’s advisable to buy the best parts possible and leave room for future upgrades.

Here is a guide to the parts needed for building a PC.

Case

Image via Phanteks

The case is essentially just a box housing all of the PC components. Cases come in various sizes like Extended-Advanced Technology eXtended (E-ATX) or Mini Information Technology EXtended (mITX) and have different characteristics like tempered glass panels, built-in fans, and USB ports. Most cases have a frame on the interior to mount the motherboard and slots for add-on cards. High-quality cases may even include designated areas for certain components and cable management features.

It’s advisable to pick the case before all the other components. Since the case’s size and features are limiting, users should ensure it has the space needed for their build. If a case is too small, it may be challenging to fit all of the parts, and there might be no room for future upgrades. Larger cases might house all the components with room to spare, but they can be expensive.  

Central processing unit (CPU)

Image via AMD

After picking a case, the next step is choosing a CPU. The CPU is the PC’s engine and provides the computing power to run games and other software. It’s always best to get the fastest processor within your budget to ensure it lasts longer before requiring an upgrade. Upgrading the processor sometimes necessitates upgrading the motherboard, which can be pricey. 

When it comes to processors, Intel and AMD are the leading manufacturers. Both companies make high-performance processors, but they have different socket types, so users can’t install AMD CPUs on Intel boards or vice versa. When Intel and AMD release new processors, they often have new sockets and aren’t compatible with older motherboards. An example is Intel’s latest LGA 1200 socket motherboards which only support the company’s 10th and 11th generation processors.  

CPUs come in a wide range of specifications. Some are designed for office work, while others are made for gaming or graphics. The price difference between low-end processors like Intel’s Celeron range and its performance-orientated i9-9900K is vast, so be sure to pick the CPU that meets your requirements.

Motherboard

Image via Asus

Motherboards are printed circuit boards (PCBs) that act as an interface for all the other components to communicate with each other. The motherboard is the foundation of every build because components like the CPU, GPU, and storage drives are connected to it. 

There are different slots on the motherboard for each part. Most components have a unique slot type and have to be compatible with the motherboard. The CPU is one of the main components on a PC, and it has to have the same socket type as the motherboard, or it won’t fit. Other components like the GPU, RAM, and NVMe drives should also be compatible with their corresponding slot on the motherboard.

Graphics processing unit (GPU)

Image via Nvidia

Most motherboards and CPUs come with integrated graphics, which are used to display images on the monitor. Integrated GPUs are entry-level versions that can handle day-to-day activities like office work, movies, and some older games. Modern games have intense, fast-paced graphics that require a discrete GPU with more processing power.

Like CPUs, there are two companies specializing in high-performance GPUs. Nvidia and AMD are the two prominent companies behind high-performance cards like the RTX 3080 and the RX 6900. Cards from both companies should work on most motherboards, but you should still check compatibility beforehand. 

When prepping your build, you should also ensure that the processor has enough power to support the GPU. It’s also worth checking to see if the PCIe slot on the motherboard is operating at the fastest speed to get the best out of the GPU. Some GPUs are bulky and require more space in the case.

RAM

Image by T-Force via Amazon

Random Access Memory (RAM) is the working memory on the PC that processes the information from the software. Since RAM processes information in chronological order, it needs as much memory as possible to get through the tasks quickly. RAM is only used for processing tasks and doesn’t store any permanent data.

RAM usually comes in sticks comprised of an integrated circuit (IC) with transistors and capacitors. The sticks come with various memory capacities ranging between four and 32GB, and they also operate at different speeds like 2,400MHz or 4,600MHz. 

Motherboards usually have multiple RAM slots to add and remove chips, but they have varying overall capacities. Low-end motherboards often have a limited RAM capacity, while top-of-the-range gaming motherboards go up to 128GB.

Storage

Image via Samsung

All of the data on the PC, including the operating system, programs, media libraries, and game installations, reside on a storage drive. These days, most people have upgraded to solid-state drives (SSDs) or Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) drives, but many older PCs are still running hard disk drives (HDDs).

HDDs

These drives are the oldest type of storage with mechanical parts like the platters, spindle, and actuation arm. HDDs are much slower than the more modern options with reading and write speeds of 80 to 160MBps. While they aren’t ideal for running the operating system, HDDs can still work as storage for media and other files. They are also very cheap by comparison. 

SSDs

Solid-state drives have a smaller form factor than HDDs, and they are much faster, with speeds of between 200 and 550MBps. SSDs have faster speeds, and they tend to have better long-term durability because they don’t contain moving parts. They are also more expensive than HDDs.

This type of drive is faster than HDDs and slower than NVMes. Despite being slower than NVMes, SSDs are versatile enough to run operating systems and software or storage drives.

NVMes

NVMes are the latest type of PC storage device. They resemble RAM chips and plug directly into the motherboard without any interface. Plugging into an M.2 slot allows NVMes to have fast read speeds of up to 7,100MBps and write speeds up to 6,600MBps.

Power supply unit (PSU)

Image via Corsair

Power supply units (PSUs) resemble a metal box with cables running out the back. This module regulates and distributes power to all the components in the PC. Modern PSUs have a modular design, so users can add and remove cables depending on their build requirements. 

Deciding on the best power supply depends on the electricity requirements of the motherboard, CPU, and GPU. These components are the most demanding. Components like the RAM and storage drives also require power, but they don’t have high power requirements. A PSU should put out more power than is required by all the parts on the PC. 

CPU cooler

Image via Thermaltake

When CPUs are processing information, they generate heat and need to be cooled down to function correctly. The two main types of cooling use air and water to reduce heat

Air cooler

Air cooling is the most common type of cooling, and it’s found in most pre-built PCs. Some reasons air cooling has remained a standard for many years are its low cost, effectiveness, and easy installation. 

Most air cooling units consist of a static pressure fan blowing cool air onto a heatsink that absorbs the heat from the CPU. Advanced cooling systems may have multiple fans and extra features like RGB lighting. 

When choosing an air cooling system, it’s worth ensuring that it’s compatible with the motherboard and CPU socket. Modern air cooling systems usually ship with multiple brackets to suit different sockets. It’s also worth checking the fan’s size and output to know how much noise it makes and how efficient it is.

Liquid cooler

Liquid cooling is sometimes a more effective cooling system than air cooling, but it’s more expensive. All-in-one (AIO) coolers come with all the parts required to cool down the system, including the radiator, tubes, and pump. The cold plate absorbs the heat from the CPU and transfers it into the water passing through it. All the warm water is then pumped to a radiator and cooled by fans, and the cycle begins again.

Like with air cooling systems, AIOs come in a range of sizes with different cooling properties. They range between 120 millimeters and 360 millimeters, and their effectiveness depends on how much heat is generated by the CPU and the temperature inside the case. Modern AIO coolers like the NZXT Kraken Z63 and the Thermaltake Floe DX 360 are effective and easy to install, but they cost more than air coolers because they are more complex.

Case cooling and airflow

Image via Corsair

When components are working together, they generate lots of heat, which can harm their operation or inhibit performance. If computer parts are continuously exposed to high temperatures, their life expectancy also decreases.

To prevent damage to components, it’s worth taking additional measures to keep the case cool and optimize airflow. The most common way of cooling down a case is by having fans installed in a push-and-pull setup. This means that fans on the front of the case suck in cool air into the case. Once the air enters the case, it gets warm due to the heat from the components. After absorbing the heat, the warm air is then extracted by an exhaust fan at the rear of the case. The cycle is then repeated. 

Some cases come with fans installed and others require add-on fans. There are also cases available with vents for better airflow, and some with an open-air design. While some cases have better airflow than others, they all require adequate cooling to perform reliably.