How to build your own computer

The final part of CNET's guide to building your own computer will walk you through the entire process from connecting your first wire to installing the operating system.

Dan Graziano Associate Editor / How To
Dan Graziano is an associate editor for CNET. His work has appeared on BGR, Fox News, Fox Business, and Yahoo News, among other publications. When he isn't tinkering with the latest gadgets and gizmos, he can be found enjoying the sights and sounds of New York City.
Dan Graziano
6 min read

This is the third and final part of CNET's guide to building your own computer. Make sure you have read part one and part two before proceeding.

Having all these small and expensive parts sitting in front of you may look like a daunting task, but in reality the setup process, while long, is relatively simple. Having tools like a box cutter, scissors, zip ties, and a screwdriver by your side will only make the process that much quicker.

The most important task, and I cannot stress this enough, is to ground yourself. This can be done by touching the metal on your case. You should also work on a non-conductive surface, such as a wood table, or even consider wearing an antistatic wrist strap to ensure that you don't accidentally fry your new components.

In short, be sure to use common sense when handling your system. Don't handle components after shuffling around in your socks or taking fresh clothes out of the dryer.

With that said, let's get started.

Build your own desktop computer
Watch this: Build your own desktop computer

External build

Step one: Motherboard

We are going to begin with the motherboard. Carefully remove it from the box and rest in on either the table or box. Just be sure not to place it on top of the antistatic bag that it came in. As we mentioned in part two of this guide, the motherboard is the heart and soul of your system.

Step two: CPU

Inside of the Intel or AMD box will be a microprocessor and a large fan, called a heat sink, and it ensures that the processor doesn't overheat. Gently lift the LGA socket on the motherboard and remove the protective cover. Remove your processor from the package, hover over the socket, and place it in all at once. Don't push down, as this could damage the pins it connects to.

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On the bottom of the heat sink is a thermal adhesive that helps it stick to the processor even under extreme conditions. Locate the power connector on the motherboard, rotate the heat sink accordingly so it's in the correct position, and push down on opposing diagonal pins.

Step three: RAM

Installing the RAM is as easy as one, two, and three. If your motherboard has more than two slots, be sure to look at the numbers or colors that correspond with each slot. In most cases it will be something along the lines of slots 1, 3, 2, and 4; or blue, black, blue, and black. Pull back the plugs, place the RAM sticks in slot 1 and 2, and push down until they click into place. If you have more, place the extra cards in slots 3 and 4.

Internal build

Step four: Power supply

Set the motherboard aside, it's time to move onto the case. Remove the power supply from its box and place it inside of the case; it will be located either on the top or bottom. Align the the power supply with the rear screw sockets and secure it in place. If you have a modular model, there is no need to connect the power cords just yet.

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Step four: Motherboard

It's now time to place the motherboard in the case. Gently pick it up, line up the external ports and internal screw sockets, angle it into place, and screw it in.

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Step five: GPU

Next up, the graphics card. The GPU connects to the PCI port on the motherboard, with the rear ports facing outwards. Pull back the PCI plugs and gently push down.

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Step six: Storage, drives, and fans

Installing the hard drive is relatively simple process, merely slide it into the dedicated slot and secure it by screwing it in. For most cases, the front panel must be removed to access the space for the CD/DVD drive. You may have to unscrew it, or simply pop it off. Once removed, the drive slides in similar to the hard drive and must be secured in place with screws.

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If the case came without fans preinstalled, you will be required to screw them into the front, back, and sometimes the side and the top of the case.

If you purchased a wireless card, connect it to the motherboard in the corresponding PCI slot. If you are using a wireless USB dongle, attach it to the USB port on the back of the computer.

Bringing the system to life

Step seven: Cables

With everything now installed, it is time to begin connecting each component to the power supply. First, connect the large 20+4 or 24-pin ATX connector to the motherboard; this slot should be located near the RAM. Next, plug in the 4-pin connector to the motherboard, which can be found near the CPU.

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For the graphics card, plug in two 6-pin PCI connectors to the back. Then, connect a SATA power cord to your drives (hard drive and CD/DVD drive) and a 4-pin Molex connector to each of your fans.

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You must now connect each component to the motherboard itself. The hard drive and CD/DVD drives must be plugged into the SATA socket on the motherboard. You must also connect the power switch, LED connectors, and any front panel audio or USB ports, which should plugged into their corresponding 8-pin slots.

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The power switch and LED connectors plug into the first 8-pin header, even though they will only consist of one or two pins.

Each motherboard is different, however, and it is recommended that you check your manual for exact placement.

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Step eight: First boot

Take a step back and observe your work. You did it, you built your first computer. If your system is looking a little cluttered, I use zip ties to keep extra cables tied down and things looking neat.

While the initial build process is complete, there is still more work to be done. To begin, load the Windows installation disk into your CD/DVD drive and power on the system. If the operating system begins to install, just sit and wait. If not, we must change a few settings.

In some cases when you first power on the computer, assuming everything is connected properly, the Basic Input/Output System, or BIOS, settings will begin to run. A splash screen will appear on your monitor instructing you to press the "DELETE" key to enter the settings.

Inside of the BIOS settings you must set boot priority to the CD/DVD drive. Next, save your BIOS changes and restart your computer.

Choose your language and time in the Windows installer, and click on the "Install Now" option. After accepting Microsoft's terms of conditions, choose the "custom installation" option and select the hard drive you would like to install the operating system on.

Sit tight while Windows is being installed on your computer. After a few minutes, you should be be asked to create a username, enter a product key, and customize the date and time.

Step nine: Drivers

The last step is to update your software drivers, these allow your computer to communicate with each component. You can either install them using the CD that came with each component, or go to the manufacturer's website and download them.

Step 10: Upkeep

You just spent a couple of hours and a few hundreds of dollars building your new computer, and the last thing you want to do is run into problems. I recommend that you purchase compressed air to routinely clean the inside of your computer and blow dust away.

Now go have some fun with your new computer, you've earned it.

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If this all seems a little above your skill level, remember there's no shame in buying a new computer. Scan our lists of the best laptops and best desktops you can buy right now. We won't judge.