Here I’ve compiled a few of the tips I found useful during the long process of building my budget PC. Some of them are so basic they’ll cause minor face pain, but under a bit of pressure I found myself doing some pretty dumb things.
Plan. Plan. Plan. Leave it a while. Plan some more.
You should know exactly what you want your computer to do before you begin buying the parts for it. I planned to use mine solely as a games machine so it needed to be able to play the latest games while running fraps to record at a steady 30fps. That affected my choice of CPU.
Don’t order your graphics card three weeks before you can afford your processor, or before you’ve even decided which processor you need. The price of computer parts fluctuate wildly and you’ll probably change your mind in the between time. I went through four graphics cards before settling on the 6870; patience almost always pays off (the price of my card dropped by £30 overnight). If you’re not ready to build, there’s no need to buy the parts.
Know your budget. Factor in things like a mouse & keyboard, OS (if you’re not a swashbuckler) and a display if you’re still playing Xbox on a CRT. I spent £30 on my mouse and keyboard alone. You can get a trial version of Windows 8 free, but then you’ll be running Windows 8. Own goal, by many accounts.
Use the Falcon Guide (or Hardware-Revolution’s version) to help you budget and get the most boom for your dainty queen pound.
Research parts – make sure they’re compatible. It’s no good buying a MicroATX case with an ATX motherboard. The manufacturer websites tend to have great long compatibility lists so it’s worth having a browse through those.
Read reviews and forum posts by others who have asked about their builds. I ran my prospective build by a number of forums. Not only did I end up saving £50 in exchange for a small slice of my self-worth, I prevented at least one compatibility disaster and ended up with a notably superior PC to the one I originally planned to build thanks to the legion of people who knew much, much more than I did.
Guides are a great resource but if you can get people from reliable forums to comment specifically on your build that’s infinitely more useful. Try Eurogamer’s Budget Gaming PC thread.
Buy from reputable sellers
eBuyer and Amazon are a good start. Before I even started building I’d returned a broken mouse and 8GB of spare RAM. It pays to buy your parts from sellers you know are going to play nice if you have to start returning those parts and asking for your Great British dollars back.
Make room for an SSD
If you’ll allow me to indulge in a little science for a moment… An SSD (or Solid State Drive, if we’re using the Latin) is a wonderful little rectangular thing that makes other things do their jobs much quicker. Think of it as a digital Egyptian slave master whipping the RAM and the CPU and… stuff. How is this possible? Well, instead of gizmos that go round and round inside it’s got something, er, else. What? Christ, I don’t know. Dark matter. The Force. The blood of Tony Soprano. It doesn’t matter. All I know is my PC boots in 14 seconds, loading times in-game are reduced and when I click Steam it appears quickly and quietly. My MacBook Pro can’t keep up.
A 120GB SSD costs roughly £60 and is perfect for running an OS, Steam and a handful of games from. I’ve got a standard hard drive I use for storing video and running the games of yesteryear (Age of Empires, the indomitable Rollercoaster Tycoon), but for the hardcore stuff I rely on the SSD. Solid State technology marks a huge improvement over the traditional hard drive and if it comes down to an i5 processor and no SSD or an i3 and an SSD (as was the case with my build), go with the i3 and the SSD. You can always jam a better processor in down the line. I hear it’s a bit of a bother reinstalling Windows on a new drive and you want Windows running off an SSD.
Read the motherboard manual before you start building
Not midway through when you’re wondering whether you were supposed to be that rough with the CPU socket lever or after the thing’s exploded, taking George Michael the inquisitive family kitten with it. There are some fantastic guides to building a PC on the net – and you should read them – but none are tailored to your components. Your motherboard manual is the closest thing you’ll get to a set of Lego instructions. It will prevent you from electrocuting yourself, it’ll tell you how to properly handle the CPU, it’ll teach you how to wire the computer up, how to insert a SATA3 cable and it’ll guide you through the BIOS setup. Mine even ushered me through the Windows installation. Of the many errors I made, most were traceable back to the motherboard manual.
While you’re at it, read any other manuals too and don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by anyone telling you ‘building a computer is totally easy’. Paragliding is easy, once you know how. Probably.
Read some guides
You’ve read the motherboard manual, right? Good. Next it’s worth taking a look at some guides on how to build your My First PeeCee. Ars Technica’s how-to is particularly good and comes complete with big pictures as well a handful of helpful videos. Hardware Heaven’s guide is worth a look as well, although it’s a couple of years older than the Ars guide.
The more confident you are going in the less likely you are to be weeping uncontrollably into your pillow as your family turn your £500 mistake into a makeshift BBQ.
Don’t build in an 8ft x 8ft room in 29-degree heat
You’re about to insert your brain-case into a dark metal box full of snaking wires, graphics cards and something called a PSU for several hours, all the while concentrating intensely on making sure your SATA cable doesn’t end up plugged into George Michael’s anal passage. You need some space and you need plenty of time.
Putting a PC together is fairly straightforward, but so’s putting your fist through the motherboard because you didn’t give yourself enough space to work in. Equally, you don’t want to build in intense heat. Promise.
Don’t build on a carpet or near pets either. Static electricity is bad.
Build the basics outside of the case first
I made the error of installing everything inside the case in one long go and then having to yank it all out again when everything went the way of Macaulay Culkin’s career post-Home Alone. The one piece of advice offered over and over at that glum stage was rebuild outside of the case, start with only the basics: the motherboard, one stick of RAM, the CPU and the two power leads from the PSU. Public service announcement: LAME. It makes sense though. Building outside of the case helps determine whether all the parts are working before you’ve slaved away mounting your motherboard to the case (the worst part of the process, if you ask me). It’s also easier to spot the skullduggery of a stick of RAM on the fritz, for example, by adding components one at a time.
Don’t push too hard…
Chances are if it’s not going in, it’s the wrong way around. RAM, the CPU, the GPU and most of the cables have been designed to be inserted one way and one way only, so don’t go Hulk smashing your little sticks of RAM into your flimsy motherboard.
…but don’t be afraid to push a little
I was terrified of destroying my components – £550 is a lot of money, after all – but sometimes you need to apply a little pressure. I gave my motherboard a torrid time and it lived to see Rollercoaster Tycoon on the big screen. Be careful, but don’t be afraid to use a modicum of force. Incorrectly inserted cables are at the top of just about every troubleshooting guide (my 24-pin power connector and graphics card were particularly awkward going in.)
If it all goes to hell, take a break
You don’t want to be prodding £100 components through teary eyes. I tried and tried with my PC well into the night to no avail. I could have wired the power lead to an old Cumberland sausage and jammed that into the disk tray without questioning it I was so worked up. So I sulked and left it for a few days, rebuilt it a second time round outside of the case and voilà. No sign of what was wrong at all. Except for the faint smell of old sausage.
Prepare for the worst/Remember why you began this ridiculous MISSION
Know that if things go south, a billion other people have been in the same situation before you and they’ve probably smashed out a desperate, vaguely humiliating help thread somewhere on the internet too. Remember, Google is your friend (Yahoo Answers not so much.) Here’s a fantastic place to start if your computer isn’t turning on when you hit the big magic button: http://www.tomshardware.co.uk/forum/261145-13-perform-steps-posting-boot-video-problems
If you’re berating yourself for not buying that £300 Dell with the free copy of Norton Antivirus, take comfort knowing that watching your new PC boot up for the first time is immeasurably satisfying, especially if it’s running off an SSD! (So too is running Counter Strike Go at 180 frames per second. Wowwee!)
Extra parts you may need
The case, motherboard and PSU will come bundled with just about everything you need to wire your computer up. Altogether, mine came with screws, cable ties (woo!) and a couple of SATA cables. All the power cables you need are attached to the PSU. Basically, you don’t need to worry about not having the right cables, they all come snaking out of the PSU like serpents from Medusa’s mouldy old head.
That said, it’s more than a little annoying to discover you’re missing a vital part seconds away from blast-off (or worse, midway through ascent), so here’s a few extra things you might like to invest in, particularly if you’re planning to toss an SSD into the infernal jungle of wires and whirring mechanical bits and bobs:
An additional SATA cable for your SSD: The GA-Z77 motherboard I bought came with two SATA cables; enough for the HDD and the disc drive but not an SSD. You can get a SATA 3 cable from eBuyer for a couple of queen pounds.
A 2.5″ to 3.5″ SSD/HDD Bracket: Precisely zero of the six cases I researched were built to house an SSD. Unlike standard hard drives, which slot nicely into the normal 3.5″ housing-things, SSDs are smaller (2.5″), so if you want your SSD to fit snugly inside the case you’re going to need a bracket. They’re less than a tenner.
An anti-static wristband: Not an essential by any means, but an inexpensive insurance policy. The anti-static wristband ensures your levels of static energy are in sync with your computer’s. Or something. Basically, it’ll prevent you from frying your components in scenes reminiscent of the closing moments of Return of the Jedi. No not the part where Han and Leia kiss, for fuck’s sake. A similar effect can be achieved by remaining in contact with the case, but that’s easy to forget when you’re toiling away.