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Building a home PC step 1 — Choosing an operating system

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*TUX penguin created by Larry Ewing

Breakdown of Costs: First and foremost most people must consider costs when choosing a home computer. A few notes about the table below. Buying a PC may appear much cheaper than buying a Macintosh but please note that these low hardware costs were based on an Intel compute stick which is pretty bare bones and not recommended. My experience is more inline with a self built PC costing 300-500$ (may not be sufficient for gaming but good for everything else). While this cost is within the same price range as a low-end Mac I can’t emphasize that you get a lot more performance and customization of a PC for the same price. Like Macintosh, Windows 10 comes included with most prebuilt PCs but expect to get the minimal version of the operating system (home) that lacks some features. The office suite price for Macintosh and Windows 10 is for the Microsoft Office. Macintosh does come with its own included office suite which is very nice but if you plan on creating files for work or school Microsoft Office is a must. Linux does not have Microsoft Office but its own free options such a LibreOffice or AbiWord. These options will probably be fine for documents and spreadsheets but there may be some problems converting presentations to PowerPoint.

Macinosh Windows 10 Linux
Hardware 500-3000 120 86
Operating System included 0-200 0
Office Suite 150-230 150-230 0
Price 650-3230 270-516 86

 

Considerations Beyond Cost

Macintosh: If you decided on Macintosh you’re already done as you must buy a computer directly from Apple. While there are ways to install Mac OS X on a custom PC, I doubt that they are legal and they are certainly not intended. If you decide to build a custom Mac computer you won’t be able to get any support from apple and only a limited set of components will work without some hacking. It is also important to note that apple pays for design and updates of Mac OS X from computer sales so if you decide to not support that model you may be inadvertently hindering Apple. I had an iBook and a Macbook Pro for years so I will give you my impressions. I would only recommend a Macintosh for someone who just wants to plug a computer in and turn it on. You can’t beat a Mac for simplicity and ease of use. However you will be paying a premium price for mid-range and outdated hardware that is essentially the same components as you can find in any PC. Then there is the issue of quality. Back in the day apple paid excruciating detail to quality components and reliability of their operating system because they had such a limited market share. Now Apple is so popular that more consideration to appearance than substance. For example, My Macbook Pro would run so hot you could cook an egg on it but there was only a tiny fan in the back because additional fans or a larger size would detract from a slim look. Another example is on the operating system level: my laptop could be overheating, low on battery, an currently being used and Mac OS X would still decide to index (generate a list of every file on my computer) at that specific time.

Windows: If you are looking for the greatest variety in software and compatibility then Windows is the reigning champion. Windows 10 is a big step forward from earlier versions. For the first time in a long time Windows is relatively responsive and unlikely to crash. Arguably, Windows 10 has lower performance hardware requirements and more responsiveness than Mac OS X. The downsides to Windows 10 are cost, finicky behavior, and viruses. Windows 10 will cost you 350$ or more just for software! Then there is the finicky behavior; While Windows is unlikely to freeze or crash outright it cannot tolerate much tweaking. If you install a lot of software be ready for your the performance of your computer to diminish. If you do any modifications there is always the chance that Windows will not boot. All your files might still be present but Windows 10 has no simple tools to fix boot problems. You will have to backup everything, completely reinstall the operating system and all your programs, and then restore all your files. Finally, Windows is a favorite target for hackers because the operating system has a large market share and is the predominant use case for businesses.

Linux: If you are looking for fast and reliable operating system then look no further! Linux is by far the most stable and the fastest option out there. I plan on a future date covering all of the different derivatives of Linux but there is a massive variety. There are variations in the appearance or skin (common examples are Gnome, KDE, XFCE, LXDE) and the emphasis on performance verse feature sets. For example, you could go with Damn Small Linux with requires 50MB of hard disk space and 16MB of Ram all the way up to something like Ubuntu (512 MB RAM , 5GB hard drive space). By comparison Windows 10 requires 2GB memory, & 16GB of space and Mac OS X 2GB of memory  & 9GB of space. Besides speed Linux is free (Donations are a good thing but not required). The only negative thing that can be said about Linux is you might have to learn a few things if your a Mac or Windows user. Most Linux distributions have manuals, forums, and chat to help new users.

One last note: Linux can happily live alongside Windows if you want to use both on one computer. You simply choose what you want to run at boot. You can also run some Windows programs in Linux using Wine.

Building a home PC step 2–Starting Your Build

Initial Considerations: The first things you need to consider when starting a computer build is size and price. I recommend that you always choose a bigger sized computer. It might not look as nice but either way a desktop is going to sit next to a desk so size is usually not an issue. If you go big the advantage is that you have plenty of space for components, good airflow, and future expansion. Even though most components give their approximate dimensions be forewarned that there are always protrusions or unusual shapes that won’t work together (although you typically find this out partway through a build). Even if everything does fit and your case is packed with components they will block air movement. In addition you always need space for expansion. There is nothing more irritating than having a relatively new computer and needing to replace the case just to put in another video/sound card or hard drive. If your willing to go big I suggest going with a full ATX tower case or larger. We will talk more about the size in a bit. Next issue is price. You have two main processor brands (Intel and AMD) which will affect all of your future choices and the overall cost. If a low price is the highest priority (<500$) choose AMD. AMD is a good company but because they are much smaller than Intel they are a few years behind in research and development so the only way they can compete is to make cheaper products. If you are willing to spend more money (500$+) you can’t beat Intel on performance/efficiency (i.e. less heat generated).

CPU: Now that you have the tough decisions done you want to start by choosing the brain of your computer the central processing unit (CPU). There are four factors you should consider when buying a CPU: price!, clock speed in GHz, number of cores , generation. The biggest limitation is always going to be price. You can spend over 1000$ on a CPU if you want but that is not needed for the home user. I typically will not spend more than 300$ on a CPU and it depends on what you plan on doing. Most tasks can easily be managed by any modern CPU. You really need more power if you plan on doing video games, image/video editing, rendering, or heavy duty multitasking. If you are still unsure look at the hardware requirements for your operating system (see previous post) or the software you plan on using. Generally higher clock speed is better but it does not directly equate to performance when comparing processors in different families. I would shoot for 2Ghz or Higher. Number or cores is the number of discrete processing units that can independently run tasks. Having multiple cores is a must for most users. You should be able to get quad core processor easily enough even on a budget. AMD also has hexa- and octa- core processors for consumers. For Intel anything with more than 4 cores is going to be prohibitively expensive. The final consideration is generation. Newer CPUs are going to offer better performance and produce less heat. The current CPU generation is Skylake for Intel and Steamroller for AMD. For each generation there are different grades based on performance I would choose an i5 or i7 prcessor for Intel or a greater than FX-4xxx or A8 for AMD. Take a look at this to see a performance comparison of CPUs.

 

Water Cooler (Silverstone TD02-Lite) on left and Zalman copper heatsink (CNPS8900) on right.

CPU Cooling: When you buy a CPU it will typically come with a chunk of metal called a heatsink for cooling. The heatsink sits on top of the CPU and is cooled by a fan or a closed liquid cooling system with a radiator. Conductive thermal paste is applied in a thin layer between the heatsink and CPU to ensure good transfer or heat. While you can use the stock heatsink and thermal paste I don’t recommend doing so. The stock heatsink will keep the CPU within the safe temperature range specified by the manufacturer (unless you run the CPU at 100% usage for prolonged periods of time) but it will run hot. The advantages of using a third party heatsink for your build are manifold. You will keep the CPU and your whole computer cooler which is advantageous for prolonging useful life and maximizing performance. If you get a high end heatsink it is possible to run your CPU at full speed without worrying about overheating or throttling of speed to keep the processor at a safe temperature. Having a third party heatsink also allows the overclocking of the CPU which makes it run at a higher speed than the stock values. I personally have not delved into overclocking because I worry about shortening processor life or making my computer prone to crashing but many modders practice overclocking to eke out the maximum performance out of their build. For most people I suggest getting a pure copper heatsink with a decent sized fan. You will need to know the size of the heatsink when you pick a case and a motherboard later on. Also keep in mind that you need to select a heatsink that is compatible with the socket, generation, and thermal design power of your CPU. If you want maximum cooling go for a liquid system with a radiator (for future steps keep in mind than you will need a case that is designed to work with a radiator and motherboard that has a separate water cooling pin header).

 

motherboard  Gigabyte GA-Z170XP-SLI shown above

 

Motherboard: The motherboard is going to connect all the disparate components of your PC together and allow them to communicate. It has a socket to interface with the CPU, slots for short term memory (RAM), long term memory (sata-hard drive), and expansion cards (PCI). Motherboards come in varying sizes (i.e. form factors). I suggest going with an ATX form factor or larger so there is plenty of space for components and expansion. Beyond the size you need to choose a motherboard that is compatible with your chosen CPU and heatsink. For CPU compatibility you need to have the correct socket so the CPU can physically snap into place. You also need motherboard that supports the CPU family/generation that you chose earlier. Most heatsinks will work with larger motherboards but make sure that you have a header pin to control a pump if you plan on using a water heatsink. Once you find some motherboards that meet the aforementioned criteria the final choice comes down to how many connectors there are form components. For RAM slots choose four or more even if you only plan on using two at present. For hard drives get something with at least four SATA6 connectors. A M.2 socket is also an option if you plan on using a high end solid state hard drive (more on that later). For video cards to connect to a monitor you need at least one PCI Express x8 or x16 slot. If you plan on using more than two monitors now or in the future you need additional PCI Express slots that are spaced far apart. You also want to have a few general PCI slots for other expansion cards. Finally, you need onboard audio, LAN, and a few usb slots. Such items should come standard on almost any motherboard these days.

 corex9

Case: Choosing a case is much less restrictive than many of the previous components. The only absolute requirement is to select a case that is large enough to accommodate your motherboard and heatsink. As usual bigger is better because it leave plenty of space for upgrades or large components. You will probably want to have the same number of 3.5 in hard drive bays as the number of SATA slots on your motherboard. Expansion slots should also roughly equate to the number of PCI slots on your motherboard. Ideally have more expansion slots than PCI slots (more on this later). There is quite a variation in case prices and design and one need not buy a expensive case. Keep in mind that for the best cooling use metal cases with plenty of perforations and brackets for cooling fans. Beyond basic requirements having a case with modularity, cable routing, and sliding drive brackets is convenient but not necessary.

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Graphics Card: You need some type of graphics card if you plan on hooking up your computer to a monitor. I should say that some CPUs come with built-in graphics (need mother board support for this option) but I wouldn’t choose going this route unless your strapped for cash. Graphics cards are installed into PCI express slots on the motherboard. If you want to get the best performance make sure that the PCIe slot has the same or newer generation as the video card. You also want to keep the slot speed in mind usually 8x or 16x is safe but you may need to download the video card manual to be sure. The card should have a maximum resolution that is greater than or equal to that of your monitor (1920×1080 is standard HD). You also need to get a card with ports that connect to your monitor (HDMI, DVI, VGA). If you plan on using more that one monitor get a card with support for multiple ports and monitors. Having a fan on the card is also preferable(unless you plan on cooling it with water) since video cards tend to generate a fair amount of heat. As far as specs go getting a card with more memory or a faster clock speed is better but you don’t need to go crazy here unless you plan on doing a bunch of gaming (~2GB RAM, 800MHz clock speed). You might be better off getting a few cheaper cards if your more concerned about having many monitors. As far as brand goes most of the graphics processors are made by Nvidia or AMD but some third party companies package them with their own cooling, ram, and custom clock speeds. AMD is cheaper than Nvidia but usually runs hotter and has inferior performance.

 

Memory (RAM): RAM is the very essential sort term memory of your computer. Because RAM is much faster than hard drives key parts of the operating system and most of what you are actively doing on the computer will be stored on the RAM so you need to have plenty! For the standard user I would suggest a minimum of 8GB of RAM. 16 GB is preferable and anything above that is useful for gaming & video editing. First of all you want to make sure that your RAM physically fits on the motherboard so it should have the same number of pins and most likely be SDRAM DIMM if your building a PC. Secondly, the RAM speed should be supported by your CPU/motherboard. The Speed is denoted by DDRx xxxx or PCx xxxxx where x is a number. I would suggest choosing the fastest supported speed if the price is not prohibitive. Also keep in mind the number of RAM slots you have on your motherboard. Using all your slots for instance 4 x 4GB will be cheaper and give a slight performance boost but then if you want to upgrade in the future you may need to get rid of two RAM sticks instead of simply adding more to a open slot. One final note some setups require buffered RAM (usually servers)but most consumer PCs don’t need buffered RAM and may not even be compatible with it.

ultrastar-7k6000_0

Hard Drives: All the files you save an your operating system itself will be stored on the hard drive. There are two categories of drive the mechanical spinning disk with magnetic platters and the solid state drive (similar to flash drives). Mechanical drives provide much more space for the price but they are much slower and much more likely to fail. Right now having a solid state drive paired with one or more mechanical drives provides the advantages of both formats. I usually get s solid state drive (SSD) to install my operating system and programs and store my large number of files and a mechanical drive. Mechanical drives usually come in a 3.5 in. size with a rotational speed and a SATA interface to connect to the motherboard. 7200 RPM and SATA2 or SATA3 is fine for most applications. I would shoot for greater than or equal to 1TB in size. If your data is absolutely critical and you can’t even accept the small risk of loosing it to hard drive failure your going to want to back it up to the cloud or store additional copies on other disks. On the web you can find statistics on the reliability of mechanical hard drives based on their manufacturer. Needless to say at the time of writing this one manufacturer is superior in this regard ;). For a 2.5 in. solid state drive you will need a minimum size of 128GB. Most drives will list speed in MB/s or IOPS for both saving a file (write) and for opening a file (read). Try to get a drive with SATA3 and the best performance for the price. One word of caution: stick with name brand drives and look carefully and benchmarks and personal reviews for the SSD.Off-brand SSDs offer larger capacities and lower prices but they tend to fail or be very unreliable.

Disk Drives: Plan on watching DVDs, BluRays or installing software from a disc? or even burning discs? Then you will need a 5.25 disc drive for that. (The drive will take up a SATA slot on your motherboard).

Fans: Most cases will come with a fan or two. Plan on getting a few extra if your case has additional brackets. Try to go for a quiet fan (low decibels). Higher RPM and more fins will increase cooling.

Power Supply: You are going to supply electricity to you computer so you need a PSU. You don’t want to cheap out on this particular item because you need sufficient power and it needs to be supplied safely so you don’t damage your components. You want a PSU that provides a wattage that exceeds the requirements of all your components. There are calculators that allow you to get an estimate of wattage: http://psucalc.info. It also has to have enough connectors for the motherboard, drives, CPU, (sometimes video cards), and fans (typically molex). You should also consider that power supplies can create a significant amount of heat so it is worthwhile to get a high efficiency 80 Plus Platinum PSU with a cooling fan. Some PSUs offer modularity if you don’t want excess cords bundled somewhere in the case.

I/O Display, Mouse, Keyboard: To interface with your computer your going to need a mouse and keyboard. I suggest sticking with wired mice and keyboards because there are no connection problems and you never hace to change batteries. You will also need at least one monitor. Shoot for a size of 17in or greater with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 or higher. Unless you plan on having your computer in a high light area with glare use a glossy screen since the colors look richer.

Final Notes:

  • If it is your first time read the manuals!!!
  • You may want to install larger components such as motherboard, PSU or drives into case before hooking up cables.
  • Keep in mind that the power switch from the case may need to be hooked up to the motherboard early on because the pins can be blocked by other things.
  • Be sparing with CPU thermal paste; you only need enough to form a thin layer when the heatsink is securely fastened.
  • Leave space between components for airflow, avoid stacking hard drives or video cards!
  • Fans should form a directional airflow throughout the case so there is one large circular flow preferably bringing cool air from the bottom of the case and eliminating hot air at the top of the case.
  • Never force something to fit, most if not all components are designed so only he correct plug will fit in the right orientation.
  • Double check that everything is connected properly before powering your computer on!
  • Place your computer in a cool dry part of the house without much dust
  • Blow out dust intermittently to prevent overheating
  • Monitor your component temperatures (especially CPU) initially

Future Expansion: Are you done but looking for more?

  • Audio Card for Hifi Sound
  • More USB ports
  • Internal Memory card reader
  • Uninterpretable Power Supply
  • TV tuner card

Installing an Operating System

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Now that we gone over building a PC it is time to actually use it. I have previously done a comparison of the major operating systems in use today (Mac OSX, Windows, Linux) if you want a more in depth analysis. I also should mention FreeBSD which is a great choice for more advanced users. For this post though we will focus on installing Windows and/or Linux since this will be the common choice for the standard PC user. The first thing to decide is if you want Windows, Linux or both. Windows is only necessary if you plan on using software not found on Linux such as Microsoft Office, the Adobe Suite, or PC games. There are alternatives for office and Adobe software on Linux but many PC games don’t have Linux support. For most users Linux will meet all your needs at a 0$ price and in most cases will do it better than Windows anyway. If you feel torn you do have the option of installing both operating systems but this will require a bit more hard drive space. Once the decision is made you should make sure your computer supports the minimum hardware requirements . Just about any modern PC can run Windows 10 and just about any PC can run a version of Linux. Unless your upgrading Windows you will need to buy a disc. Most downloads online are illegal copies so I would suggest buying a copy directly from Microsoft  or a local electronics retailer. Linux can be downloaded as a disc image file (.iso) and be burnt to a cd/dvd or used to create a usb flash drive installer. If you are running windows I would suggest using CDburnerXP , Rufus, or Win32 Disk Imager. If you don’t have a running computer you can install windows first or purchase installation media. Ubuntu for example has direct downloads , torrents , or you can purchase an installer flash drive. Now we need to ensure that when we start the computer with the disc or flash drive inserted it will start our installer. To do this when your computer first boots you will need to press a key to enter your BIOS. Once inside BIOS you need to make sure that your CD/DVD or USB flash drive has a higher boot priority that any installed hard drives. Usually BIOS has these settings as a default so you can skip this step and return to it if you have any problems. Once the disk or flash drive boots the process is straight forward. Just a few notes though:

1. If you have anything already on a hard drive make sure you copy it somewhere else first because the installer will erase your files.

2. If you plan on installing Windows + Linux then install Windows first. You can leave blank space for Linux when installing Windows or just shrink your Windows partition when you install Linux.

3. Always install your Linux bootloader on the first hard drive to boot in your BIOS settings. You can put a Linux bootloader on any drive but if it is not the first drive it won’t boot automatically.

4. Make sure everything works properly before you start installing software or updates.

I have included a slide show to show a basic install of Windows + Linux on a single hard drive. Best of Luck!