Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Build your own Computers!

Building your own computer is fun! I've been doing it off and on for 30+ years. As a student in the 90's it was a good way to stretch my budget. Today I like selecting the exact parts that go into it, and I enjoy putting it together.

What's more, building a computer is easy. I really mean it; a new computer is a total of about nine parts, case included, and the only tool you need is a Philips screwdriver.  Mostly things just snap or slot into place, with no way of doing it wrong.

And we have the internet to help us out. It's full of Youtube videos, forums and blogs that can help you answer every question, from what parts you should get to the finer points of installing your operating system.

Here's an overview of what goes into a desktop computer:

All the major parts that go into a computer. Laptops, tablets and smartphones all have basically the same organization, but most components are integrated instead of being separate in order to save space and reduce cost.

The CPU is "the computer". Everything else is just there to help it do its job. It needs memory for running programs and processing data. It needs storage — today usually an SSD (like a USB stick but much faster) — where you install and save stuff so it doesn't disappear when you shut it off.

The CPU gets really hot, so it needs a cooler to keep the temperature down. This is usually a fan with a heatsink that bolts on top. And often (but not always) you need a separate graphics card that generates the graphical output  you see on screen.

Here's my motherboard, an AsRock Taichi X570. If you think it looks, well, colorful, that's a current trend. A lot of home PC builders like to bling out their computers, so parts are full of LEDs and cool-looking designs. You have to pay extra to get a motherboard without it. Me, I don't mind either way.

At the top you can see the four slots for memory. Below that is the large square CPU socket. To the lower right you have three PCI connectors, were things such as a GPU is connected. The panel of connectors to the left will be exposed outside the case and give you networking, sound output, USB connections and so on.

You mount all of this onto a "motherboard". A modern motherboard comes with a lot of things already built in: sound, network hardware, sometimes also Wifi and Bluetooth and more. When I was young(er) you often had to get all that as separate add-in cards. Things have gotten easier.

This all goes into a case, together with a power supply. With the motherboard in place you can connect all power cables, fans and the outside case ports (this can be fiddly and take a lot of time if you want to make it neat and clean). Finally you install an operating system (I'm partial to this one) and you're done.

My storage is an SSD (solid-state drive - think really fast, big USB drive) that connects to the motherboard with an M.2 connector. The M.2 connectors sit underneath a panel on this motherboard. The drive is the small narrow board sitting at an angle in the middle of the picture. When you close the cover it's pushed down and held in place by a cover screw.

Later, you probably want to go into the settings on the motherboard and change a few settings that will make your machine a good deal faster — again, there's lots of information and friendly communities on the net that are happy to help you.

All parts come with detailed instructions, and include all the things you need. The Noctua CPU fan I got, for instance, comes with a tube of thermal paste (you add a drop on the CPU to make a better heat connection with the cooler) and a long, thin screwdriver to reach the holding screws when you install it.

The CPU is in place. This is really easy: you lift up a latch (the metal stick next to the socket), drop in the CPU — it goes in with no force at all — and close the latch again. Just make sure the CPU is the right way up; there's a triangle mark next to the socket, and a triangle mark on the CPU. Match them up and you're fine.

Easy but nerve-wracking. The CPU has about a million (OK, about 150) tiny, soft metal pins on the back, and if you bend one of them you might permanently break the CPU. And if you break it, you broke what may be the most expensive component of your computer. Be very careful.

So, why, exactly, would you want to do this? You can go buy a computer, bring it home and start it up in minutes. Why bother?

Is it cheaper? Yes, to a point. If you're building a really cheap system you probably don't save much. For a high-end computer you can potentially save a fair bit. But that's not the main reason to do it.

You get the freedom to choose the exact parts that *you* want, and set it up the way you like. You can find a prebuilt computer with about the same specs as my new one. It may be about the same price or perhaps a bit more expensive. 

But it will have slower memory. It will have a cheaper, noisier cooler that might not be able to cool the CPU enough to let it run at full speed. It will have a cheaper-looking case with noisy fans and worse airflow. It will have a slower, smaller SSD for storage. When I build my own I get a faster, higher-quality computer for less money.

The memory is in place on the lower right; look up in the motherboard manual what sockets to use, then simply push the sticks in until they click. The gigantic thing in the middle is the Noctua air cooler, two radiators with a fan in the middle to push air through it. There's just barely space enough to fit it on the board and into the case. But it is very efficient and very quiet.


But the main reason, for me, to build computers is that it's fun. It's fun to read up on the current state of the art; it's fun to pick and choose parts; it's fun to plan the build. And it's really fun when it starts up the very first time without breaking anything. It's fun.

This is really no different than spending time and money to customize your car, or plan your autumn wardrobe, or hunt for rare commemorative coins. It's a hobby, and doesn't need any justification beyond the enjoyment we get from doing it.

Here's my finished computer mounted in its case. A 16 core 5950x CPU, 32GB memory and 1TB SSD storage, running Ubuntu, in a low-key case. The GPU that sits below the cooler is my older RX570; I'll probably upgrade in another year. This is very understated by the way; many builds are much fancier than this.

Do I, strictly speaking, need this? No, no more than anybody needs a fancy car, or sports bicycle or a Gucci bag. I do want it, though, and I enjoy both building it and using it.

If you want to get started, you don't even need to build a full desktop. If you just want to dip your toes in the water, you can get a "barebones"-style device: a tiny PC with a motherboard, CPU and cooler already installed. You just add memory and an SSD and off you go. 

They are really capable machines that easily handle web browsing, office work and light gaming. You could use one as network storage for your other computers. I use an ancient one as a web server and backup storage. And they're so small you can literally mount them on the back of your monitor (they usually come with a mounting bracket). This is an AMD CPU-based one from ASRock I'd love to have for myself. 

If you want to know more, I would start with r/buildapc. It's a Reddit community dedicated to building PCs with literally millions of members. They are friendly and helpful, and there's a great Wiki with lots of information. They are focused on gaming PCs, however. If you're looking to do something else you need to take that into account; they will tend to recommend very fast (and very expensive) graphics cards you don't need for instance. You can also search Youtube for "build a PC" and get lots of good videos. Here's a shorter video, and here a longer one, but there's just lots and lots of them out there.