This is how you build your own PC powerhouse at home, from CPU to nuts
With a bit of research and some DIY spirit, you can build a burly PC from scratch for much less than one you can buy off the shelf.
Clifford ColbyManaging Editor
Clifford is a managing editor at CNET, where he leads How-To coverage. He spent a handful of years at Peachpit Press, editing books on everything from the first iPhone to Python. He also worked at a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWEEK and MacUser. Unrelated, he roots for the Oakland A's.
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If you're looking for a high-octane computer to do industrial-strength video-editing or animation work, Apple's Mac Pro workhorse is coming this fall, starting at $6,000. Or a fully equipped custom-built PC from a boutique computer maker such as Puget Systems could cost about the same. But if you're willing to roll up your sleeves and do a bit of research, you can build a brawny PC that will cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars less -- and you'll have exactly the machine you want.
Of course, a home-built PC is not for everyone: If you're mainly writing, watching videos and browsing the web, a good budget laptop might be just the ticket. Or if you're concerned about battery life or need a bit more horsepower, one of these top-performing laptops should also be fine.
But if your work or hardcore
requires serious computational muscle and tons of storage, choosing your individual components and then building a custom workstation or gaming rig might be the better route to take.
That's the path CNET video producer Oliver Padilla decided to go down when he specced out a high-powered PC workstation for CNET's video team. Here's how Oliver chose the components and then built the workstation. Of course, being part of CNET's video team, he made a video of the entire process.
First, let's look at the various components you'll want to consider if you're thinking about building your own PC and then see how they all fit together.
If you've decided to build your own PC, you'll need to do some research, gather the components and then assemble the PC yourself. It's really not as scary as it sounds.
Weighing cost and performance for each component can seem challenging. But if you're looking for guidance about where to put your money, Reddit's r/buildapc subreddit is a helpful and active community ready to offer advice and answer questions on specific components.
If you want guidance on building a complete machine, the subreddit r/buildapcforme is a great source for complete parts lists for everything from a budget PC to a top-end gaming rig. If you'd rather not post, PCPartPicker has some great guides for people who might be too shy to ask on a forum.
While we can't decide which combination of components is right for you, here's a general list of the parts you'll need to think about:
Motherboard. You'll plug your components into the motherboard, which handles the communication between everything. Make sure your components are compatible with your motherboard and that it fits inside your case.
Storage. Not long ago, the choice between a hard-disk drive and a solid state drive might have come down to price. But now, with SSD devices around the same cost as hard drives, the place to save a few bucks in your build is probably not with storage. Go with fast and reliable SSD storage unless you have terabytes of data to store -- then, you may want to consider a hard disk drive.
Case. Choose one that is large enough to hold all your components and any upgrades you may make to the basic model.
CPU. You essentially have two brands to choose from when buying your CPU, the brains of your computer. Your choice of processor is between those from
and AMD. Here's where you'll want to check in with the PC subreddits to see which processor maker will better suit your needs -- whether it's a budget PC intended for web browsing to a super-charged gaming rig.
Graphics card. The processor or motherboard you pick may come with an integrated GPU to handle graphics and image processing. But if you're doing more than web surfing, you'll most likely want a separate graphics card, which can start at $100 and run over $1,000, depending on your intended use, such as video editing or animation.
Memory. For a PC's random access memory, DIMMs plug into memory slots on the motherboard and come in various speeds and memory sizes. For the custom-built machine we made at CNET, we had to pay close attention to which memory slots we filled and left open to take full advantage of the system's memory architecture.
CPU cooler. While your case may come with a fan or two, you will also need a dedicated cooler for the CPU. Most CPUs will come with one, but buying a better one could improve performance.
Power supply. You can pick a power supply that comes with detachable cables -- so you can use just the ones you need and keep down the clutter -- or one with all cables already connected. Make sure your power supply can provide enough power for your components. Newegg has a helpful power supply calculator that estimates the power supply you'll need based on your components.
Windows 10. Of course, you'll need a copy of
, on a flash drive, to install. Use
Windows Media Creation Tool to create the installation media on the drive that you'll then install on your PC when you are ready.
Tools and supplies. To assemble your PC, you'll need a few tools, some you may have around and others you may need to track down. If a specific component for the PC requires a unique tool, the manufacturer usually includes it in the box.
Here's a quick list of the tools and other items you'd want to have on hand before you start assembling your PC:
A Phillips screwdriver, preferably with a magnetic tip.
An antistatic wristband. If you don't have one, periodically touch a metal part of the case to discharge any static electricity you've built up in your body.
Velcro straps, zip ties and twist ties, to manage cables.
Thermal compound or thermal pads to help maximize heat transfer and dissipation. (Your parts may come with the compound already applied, but have some around just in case, especially if you are using second-hand parts.)
A tray, bowl, rimmed baking sheet or something you can use to organize -- and not lose -- the screws and small pieces you'll need to assemble your PC.
Each PC assembly is going to be different -- because of component choices, motherboard configuration and so on -- and some components are easier to install on the motherboard before you put it in the case. This is how we put together the PC in-house. For a step-by-step look at the assembly, be sure to watch the video. We list the specific parts we picked at the end of the article.
Install the CPU. Because each motherboard and CPU are different, consult your motherboard and CPU manuals for installation instructions specific to your setup. In general, all CPUs have some kind of marking to help you orient them correctly on the motherboard. And make sure the CPU is seated correctly because you can easily damage the pins in the CPU socket.
Add RAM modules. Again, your motherboard's manual will have recommendations on which slots to use for your memory modules to optimize your PC's memory.
Add the storage device. Oliver installed two NVMe high-speed flash storage drives in his build. Here's where you'll want to use thermal pads that either come with the drives or that you bought separately.
Insert the motherboard. At this point in Oliver's assembly, he's ready to put the motherboard inside the case. After you've correctly oriented the motherboard, secure it with screws. Here's where the the magnetic tip screwdriver is a blessing because fishing a dropped screw out of the case is challenging.
Hook up the power supply. While the orientation of your power supply will depend on the case, make sure the fan is pointing to a vent or else you'll trap the hot air inside the case and your computer could overheat.
Attach your CPU cooler. Refer to your cooler's instructions for how to install. Our cooler came with thermal compound, but if yours didn't you can apply a bit -- about a large grain of rice's worth. You'll probably have to connect your cooler to the motherboard and to the power supply, following the instructions in its manual. If you have additional fans, connect those too.
Connect your storage. Now connect your storage device to the power supply and motherboard.
Connect components to the front I/O panel. You may also need to connect audio and USB connectors as well as the power and reset button to the I/O panel on your case. Be sure to hook up all the fans in your case.
Install the graphics card. Again follow instructions in the manual and make sure the card is free of any plastic or protective coverings. Connect the appropriate power connectors to the card.
Close up the case and plug it in. When you're ready, plug in the flash drive with the Windows 10 installer and then turn on the PC. You may or may not hear a beep. The system may restart a few times; this is normal. You're now ready to install Windows 10.
Install Windows 10 off the flash drive. Installing Windows will vary depending on your components, so check your manual for specific instructions. Here, basically, is how to do it.
1. Insert the flash drive with the Windows installer.
2. Press the appropriate key on your keyboard to bring up the BIOS firmware.
3. In BIOS, search for "bootmenu."
4. Select the flash drive, and press Enter. Your computer will now boot up from the flash drive, and the Windows installer should launch.
5. Follow the instructions to install Windows.
Oliver's parts list
Each build is different, right? Here's what Oliver chose for his build, with prices. The final cost for his burly PC is $5,064, about $1,000 less than the Power Mac's base configuration.