10 Things To Know Before You Build A Desktop

10 Things To Know Before You Build A Desktop
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

The last few years haven’t been kind to the PC builder community. As we all know, the chip shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic has raised the price of key components, putting many projects on hold.

Execs and analysts made bleak predictions about when things would return to normal, with some folks insisting the shortage would persist into 2023. While that may be true, we are finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Prices for various components, namely GPUs, have decreased considerably in recent months as stock continues to normalize.

With prices nearing MSRP, now is a good time to reconsider that PC build you put on hiatus months or even years ago. If this is your first build, or if it’s been a while since your most recent, we’re here to help. Like most things, practice makes perfect when it comes to building a desktop: the first time can be tough, the second time is a bit easier, and eventually, it becomes second nature. We don’t want you to ever have to struggle, so we’ve come up with a list of the top things you should know before starting your next PC build.

GPUs are back in stock (well, sort of)

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Less advice and more useful information to consider: GPUs are making a comeback. For the past few years, supply shortages made buying certain components damn near impossible. When these vital desktop components did hit the market, they sold at enormous markups and were quickly gobbled up by scalpers who relisted them at even higher prices. At their peak, Nvidia and AMD GPUs were selling at 300% above their retail price.

Things are now improving. 3DCenter Germany released a report in mid-April indicating that AMD GPU prices had declined in the past three weeks by an average of 13% while Nvidia cards had dropped 6%. The price decrease for Nvidia cards is slowing as components from both Team Red and Team Green near their original MSRP.

We’re not out of the woods just yet. All of the stock cards sold directly by AMD and Nvidia are out of stock and you’ll still need to pay a small markup for most cards, especially those landing between the top-of-the-line options and the budget ones. We just aren’t seeing the 2x or 3x price hikes we once did at the height of the pandemic and the concurrent growth of unrestricted cryptocurrency mining. With prices levelling at lower rates than we’ve seen in recent years, now might be the right time to resurrect your PC. That is, unless you wait a few months for next-generation GPUs.

Either way, I wouldn’t start my PC build unless I had a GPU physically in front of me. You’ll want to return components should you run into any issues, so sitting on a bunch of expensive parts as warranties dry up is not a risk you should take.

PCPartPicker is your best friend

Image: PCPartPicker

PCPartPicker is the best website for anyone planning a desktop build, bar none. Universally loved by DIY computer builders, PCPartPicker has all the tools you need to map out your PC’s components, ensure compatibility, and even find the lowest prices.

Need inspiration? The website has a database full of completed builds. Photos uploaded by its users will give you an idea of how certain components look, or you can dig into the parts list and replicate a build that fits your needs and preferences. If you want to make life easier, the “Build Guides” section showcases completed builds organised by categories, including entry-level gaming, budget home office, or portable LAN.

Once you get a feel for what’s out there, head to the System Builder page and start choosing components. After you pick a CPU, PCPartPicker will do the hard work for you by only showing you other parts that are compatible with your processor. Next to each component is a price list with a direct buy link. If you need to learn more about certain parts, visit the “Browse Product” section.

Know what to prioritise

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Whether as a hobby or for a specific task, building a desktop is an expensive endeavour, especially in today’s market. It’s easy to get caught up in pulsating RGB lights, nifty liquid cooling systems, and gorgeous glass cases — not to mention high-end components you might not even need. Trust me, I’ve been there.

My advice? Really think about how you’re going to use the PC for and stick to your budget. Remember, you can always upgrade your system in the future and potentially recoup some cash by selling used parts. As I mentioned before, use PCPartPicker to find the lowest prices for each part and ensure that they are compatible. Another useful resource is Slickdeals, which aggregates the best deals on…well, everything. Filter your search for PC parts and you can score some killer deals, especially around holidays.

There are certain things you don’t want to cheap out on. One of those is a good PC case that will last you through several builds. Seasoned PC builders will recommend a high airflow case, meaning something with lots of mesh and lots of fans — ingredients needed to prevent your system from overheating. There are endless options out there, but this Fractal Design Mesify 2 case is a good place to start…

Don’t cheap out on the power supply (PSU)

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

You should also buy a quality power supply. Get one with a high-efficiency rating and give yourself enough headroom to upgrade your build down the line. Don’t know how much power to go with? This handy Newegg calculator (PCPartPicker has its own version) can help.

Put in your system components and it will spit out a wattage number. A good rule of thumb is to go above 500W but below 1,000W, but in general, it’s better to buy a lower-capacity power supply from a reputable brand (Corsair, Seasonic, Cooler Master, EVGA, be quiet!) than a higher-capacity knockoff that might save you a few bucks. You want this thing to least for years, right?

Hit these basic system requirements

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Your PC needs to have enough RAM, an SSD, and a motherboard compatible with your CPU and memory (more on this in the next slide).

As a general guide, fill two slots of RAM to take advantage of dual-channel and try to budget for at least 16GB. As for storage, you should use an SSD for faster boot times and launching apps; these are more expensive than hard drives but the price of storage is so low now that you can buy a 1TB SSD for well under $US100 ($139). If you need to store large files (photos, videos, etc.), add a few high-capacity HDDs to the mix.

The other components are more need-based. If your desktop is meant to be a gaming rig, it’ll need a decent graphics card. You could splurge on the high-end Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 or go for something more budget-friendly like the AMD Radeon RX 6700 XT. Again, pricing and availability need to be considered here. Buying the right CPU also depends on your needs — you want something that fits within your budget and won’t bottleneck your system.

Research, research, research

Photo: Nvidia

Look, I’m glad you’re reading this guide, but it really shouldn’t be your only resource. I’ve already mentioned PCPartPicker, but do yourself a favour and check out other consumer tech sites — yes, I want you to visit our competitors. Places like Tom’s Hardware or PCMag provide thorough reviews of the latest PC components with plenty of benchmarking results that make it easy for you to decide which part to get without having to sift through every release.

It’s helpful to know about the latest products so you don’t end up buying old parts and building an outdated desktop. Right now, the latest CPUs are Intel 12th Gen and AMD Ryzen 5000. Nvidia’s RTX 30-series graphics cards are in high demand while AMD has its own Radeon RX 6000 series. New models are always being launched, so be sure to check in on your favourite tech sites before you start building. In the end, the more research you do, the better you can cater your desktop to your needs.

Your components need to be compatible

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

The last thing you want to do is spend a ton of money on a component only to discover that it isn’t compatible with the rest of your build. Fundamentally, a motherboard needs to be the correct form factor for your case (ATX, Micro-ATX, and Mini-ITX) and fit the socket for your Intel or AMD CPU.

If you’re using PCPartPicker, you probably won’t run into any issues, since the System Builder already filters out incompatible parts. However, if you’re freestyling this, then you need to do some research to ensure your CPU, memory, and motherboard are all speaking the same language. For example, if you’re splurging on the latest DDR5 RAM, you’ll need a motherboard with the proper slot — that means Intel 12th gen motherboards and those for AMD’s next-gen chips; anything older and you’ll run into issues. Another bit of advice is to spend a bit extra on connectivity, so your system supports the latest ports and wi-fi standards (unless you’re going wired).

You need to keep your budget in the back of your head as you’re mapping out these components. Typically, opting for the latest version of one component means you will need the latest version of another — a cycle that could end up costing more than you had anticipated.

Have your tools ready

Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Before you start building, you’re going to need to stock your workplace with a few mandatory tools. Some of these you should have hiding in drawers or stashed in the corner of your garage, while others might need to be purchased (don’t worry, these won’t dent your budget too much).

I strongly recommend buying zip ties or twist ties for cable management. Not only will this help with aesthetics, but it’ll make removing and installing components much less of a hassle. It should be said, however, that many modern cases have excellent built-in cable management. You will also need a Phillips-head screwdriver and a pair of scissors or a box knife for opening packages. Oh, and don’t forget a flashlight — the corners of your PC case are dark when the RGB isn’t glowing.

Get creative!

Image: InWin

Have fun with this! Don’t let your build be stressful. When you run into a frustrating roadblock — and you almost certainly will — try to frame it as an exciting challenge. After all, building a desktop is just one big puzzle where you get to choose the pieces before putting them together.

And don’t forget that a desktop is very much a piece of art and an expression of yourself. I’m not saying you should build one of these, but don’t be afraid to get funky with it. Go ahead, buy all the RGB you can find, or choose an unconventional case if it speaks to you.

Don’t forget about the accessories

Photo: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/Gizmodo

It’s easy to get distracted by the excitement of finishing a build, but you won’t see the fruit of your labour until you’ve connected your computer to the proper accessories. Pressing that power button won’t do much unless your PC is linked to a monitor.

And you won’t be able to do much with all that power you’ve just harnessed without a keyboard and mouse. Throw in a good pair of headphones, a USB mic, an external webcam, and whatever else you might need while you’re at it.