How to build your own gaming PC, Part 2: Putting it all together
So, you’ve pored over loads of reviews in technology magazines and you’ve finally selected your concrete list of components, eh? I suppose you’re hoping to transform that nondescript collection of shiny, expensive boxes into a badass gaming rig as well? Well, the good news is that the hard part is over. As I said in the first part of my two part guide, fitting together a PC is a lot like putting together a giant Lego set. Once you’ve decided what exactly you want your Lego set to be made up of and you’ve made sure that all parts are compatible, you’re golden.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take the utmost care whilst putting together your new pride and joy. It goes without saying that £1000 is a lot of money to justify spending on a hobbyist item like this. It would be downright silly to jeopardise that investment by simply forgetting to take the necessary safety precautions. That’s why I’m going to cover in detail some of the things you need to make sure of before you even think about opening up that PC chassis. That way, you’ll be able to assemble your PC safe in the knowledge that you’re not going to break anything.
Before you begin
Anti-static wrist strap
One thing you may notice about your respective purchases when you unpackage them is that they are surrounded with anti-static material. This is to prevent damage to your sensitive components. As small as a static charge is in terms of voltage, even a tiny amount of electricity passing from your finger tips to a component like a motherboard can cause it to short out, rendering it useless.
This problem can be countered by using an anti-static wrist strap at all times whilst putting together your PC. The idea behind them is simple: you wear the strap on either one of your wrists and attach the end to a part of your PC’s case, causing the current from your body to be earthed. You can alternatively just hold onto something metal with your free hand whilst assembling your pc, but when they’re as cheap as £1.99 you’d be silly not to just buy one.
If there’s one thing that computers have a lot of, it’s screws of varying sizes and types. Choosing to build a computer without a decent set of screwdrivers is asking for trouble and can lead to screw heads getting worn down. This set from Amazon seems like a good deal for £8.99
Large work area
It seems like a fairly obvious point to make – and it definitely falls under the category of common sense – but a large amount of uncluttered space is essential for putting together a PC. Ideally, this should also be on an elevated surface like a dining room table. This is so that family pets and small children aren’t in danger of knocking expensive stuff on to the floor or treading on it. It’s also a pretty good idea to use a large sheet with a high contrasting colour like white to assemble the computer on so that tiny screws aren’t in danger of getting misplaced.
Installing the fans
Once you’ve prepped your work area with a protective sheet and have found an anti-static wrist strap and a decent screwdriver set, you’ll want to bust open the package containing your computer’s case. After you’ve removed all of the external packaging and have admired it for a while, slide open the side panel and remove the loose contents. Inside, you should find an instruction manual, a bag containing a huge amount of screws and some fans.
Most cases come with at least two fans, but the case we selected in the first part of this guide actually comes with three. Coupled with the CPU cooler, this should be more than enough to keep the internal temperatures of the case acceptable. If you like, you could always buy more fans depending on the amount of space your case has, but be warned that more fans generally make for a louder system.
The first thing you’re going to need to do before you install the fans in your case is to locate the instruction manual. In here you should find a clear guide outlining which screws are needed for each component. Keep this close at hand for the rest of the build and locate twelve fan screws (one for each corner). Everyone will have different opinions as to where each fan should be placed, but for the purposes of this guide I would say that placing one fan at the front, one on the top and one on the rear of the case is the best idea. You must make sure that each fan is facing in the same direction before you screw them down and that the power cables from each aren’t being trapped between the chassis.
This will eventually create what’s called a “positive air pressure” because there are two intake fans on the front and top, and one exhaust fan on the rear. In order to establish this system, there must always be more intake fans than there are exhaust fans. This means that there will be a constant flow of air from the front to the back of the case, and that the computer’s components will collect far less dust than they would with other set-ups.
Installing the CPU
I’m afraid it’s been delayed for as long as possible. You’re actually going to have to get your hands dirty now and touch some computer components! Before proceeding with the next step though, please bear in mind what I said earlier and make sure you’re grounded with your anti-static wrist strap.
The first thing to do here is to open your motherboard packaging up, slide the board out of the anti-static bag it came in and lay it down flat on top of the bag. This should serve as a nice protective covering to prevent further static charges from reaching its circuitry. The next thing to do is to locate the small cage on top of the motherboard that’s covered by a silver hinge (it should be incredibly obvious) before pulling the lever that keeps the cage in place firmly upwards. This should cause the cage to pop open.
Before proceeding, I think it’s incredibly important to mention that you shouldn’t be worried to be a little rough with your computer’s components. There will be several stages in this guide when I tell you to “firmly” carry out an action. Don’t start worrying that you’ve seriously damaged your parts or you’re doing something wrong if you need to apply a little force. These components are designed to take a level of punishment – within reason of course – and they will be fine as long as you always wear a wrist strap.
The next thing to do is to open up your processor and remove it from its small plastic case. When handling the CPU, you should always make sure its pins are facing downwards and that you never let your fingers touch them. You should always handle the processor with just two fingers touching the outer edge of its metal casing to avoid damaging it.
Once you’ve got your processor and are holding it above the cage you’ve just opened on your motherboard, you need to carefully place the processor inside and in line with the receiving pins before shutting the lid and forcibly pushing the lever down. There is only one way for the processor to be placed into the cage. There should be a small marking on the bottom corner of the CPU’s casing that will correspond with another inside the CPU housing. If you’re unsure about this step, then please consult your CPU’s manual to make sure you’re matching the symbols correctly. This is one of the most difficult steps in the process and it’s really not worth damaging your processor over.
Installing the heatsink and motherboard
The previous step was one of the hardest in the whole process of building a PC, but it is my personal opinion that this is the hardest step. You really need to take a great deal of care over this part, but rest assured that you’ll be able to breathe easy again soon.
You may have noticed that your CPU came with a rather peculiar looking fan attachment as well as a large amount of reading material. This is the stock CPU cooler, and for the purposes of this guide, it’s best to just carefully repackage it back in the box and keep it as a spare. Anyone who read my previous guide will know that I suggested a nice aftermarket cooler to keep your CPU temperatures down, so that’s what I will be instructing you on how to install in this section.
Upon opening the Arctic Cooling Freezer 13, you will notice that it has a cable coming out of the fan and a small amount of grey paste on the underside of its copper base. This is stock CPU coolant that comes as standard on many aftermarket coolers. It is completely up to you if you want to use this instead of going to the bother of applying your own, but in my previous guide I actually suggested that you purchase some Arctic Cooling MX-4. Although cooler manufacturers often use perfectly good paste, it can sometime have been sitting dormant for an incredibly long time and may have hardened. If you want to clean it off and use some fresh paste, you need to use ethanol and a non-absorbent completely flat material that you apply it to and gently rub it off. I would suggest some baking cases that you would use for making fairy cakes!
Once you’ve decided which type of thermal paste you want to use, you’ll need to install the motherboard into the PC case. If you followed my advice on selecting a motherboard in my previous article, you’ll have bought an “ATX” board. In order to determine which holes you need to screw the motherboard standoffs into, you’ll need to consult your case manual and find the right type of board size. Once you’ve screwed in the standoffs, you need to place the motherboard inside the case, being careful to line up the holes before screwing it down. If you’ve done this correctly, you should have a small gap in the case partition directly behind the CPU for the back plate of the cooler.
The next part is definitely the tricky part. If you have cleaned the CPU cooler or if you have bought a cooler with no pre-applied paste, then you need to apply some Arctic Cooling MX-4 directly on to the back of the processor itself. The trick here is definitely a “less is more” approach. You should only need a small line of paste (about 1.5cm in length) directly in the centre of the CPU to do the trick. Next, you need to take the heatsink and press it firmly and directly downwards on top of the CPU. You should feel the two parts starting to bond together.
Do not separate the two surfaces again for any reason. You should now screw the heatsink down and affix the backplate as quickly as possible in line with the instructions supplied with your heatsink’s manufacturer. If you purchased the heatsink that I suggested in my guide, then you have the simple job of just pressing the clips in place with no need to affix a backplate. When this job has been completed, the heatsink should be firmly in place and the thermal paste should have evenly dispersed over the processor’s surface.
Installing the power supply
Phew! Now that the hard part is out of the way, we can get on with the easier stuff. The next step that you need to complete is installing the power supply. This should make it relatively easy to simply plug each component that you install from now on into the power source so that good cable management won’t become an impossible task later on.
Before you install the power supply, you should consult the case manufacturer’s manual once again to ascertain where exactly it is supposed to be housed and what screws you are supposed to use. If you have chosen the case I suggested in the first part of my guide, then you will need to screw the power supply onto the bottom at the rear of the case directly above the filter/vent.
Next, you will need to locate the two largest multi-pin connectors you can find coming out of the PSU and connect them to your motherboard. These should be 24 and 8 pin connectors respectively, and they need to be plugged into the correct voltage ports to power it. It would definitely be okay to consult your motherboard’s manual at this point to make sure you are connecting to the right ports, but it’s impossible to connect them to the wrong places. It may also be a good idea to use the windowed partitions inside the PC case to do some cable management and keep things tidy.
Once you’ve done this, it would also be a good idea to connect the CPU header fan and the three previously installed system fans to your motherboard according to your manual. This will make sure that everything we’ve connected so far has power supplied to it and will work once switched on. There are definitely enough fan power ports on this motherboard, so there’s no need to use the fan controller that came supplied with the Fractal Design Case.
Installing the graphics card
At this point in the installation process it makes absolutely no difference which order you install the remainder of the components, but because you’ve already put in such a lot of effort it would be nice to crack open your graphics card and have a look. Go on, treat yourself! They are awfully nice to look at!
After you’ve finished ogling your new graphical powerhouse, make sure you remove absolutely all of the packaging that came attached to it. It’s typical for manufacturers to go to great lengths to protect their GPUs during shipping, but it can lead to people accidentally installing cards whilst they still have a layer of protective plastic over their fans, and we don’t want that!
Next, you’ll need to locate the PCIe 3.0/2.0×16 port using your motherboard’s manual. There should only be one port this fast on the motherboard that I suggested in the first part of my guide. Then, you’ll need to unscrew the case bezel in line with it and simply push the card down into the PCI port. You should make sure that the GPU’s fans are facing the bottom of the case when you do this, and you should listen for the definite “click” of the port’s catch resetting. Once you’ve done this the card should be in place.
Now all you need to do is find two six pin power connectors coming from the bunch of PSU cables and connect them to the power ports on your graphics card. Use your GPU manual to help you if you need it, and don’t be afraid to push hard! These power cables can be problematic at times.
Installing the optical drive and HDD
Before you install the DVD drive and the hard drive I recommended, just take a moment to familiarise yourself with the front portion of your case’s chassis. You should be able to see three sets of cages. The DVD drive needs to be installed in one of the ports on the top cage, and the HDD needs to be installed in the bottom cage. The middle cage is just there if you want additional hard drives for fancy things like RAID arrays. This can be removed to improve airflow. You should also notice a small port inside one of the optical drive bays which can be used for a solid state drive should you choose to upgrade at some point.
The first step to take when installing the optical drive and HDD is to simply screw them into one of the allotted drive bays. For the DVD drive, you will need to remove one of the front bezels from your PC’s case but the HDD can just be inserted with no other preparation necessary. It is obviously important at this stage to ensure that the connectors at the rear of the drive are facing in the direction of the motherboard, and that they are screwed securely in place.
Next, you will need to locate two “SATA” data cables that should have come with your motherboard and connect one end of each to the back of the DVD drive and HDD. It should be obvious which ports these are intended to be connected to, and they should click easily in to place. Once you have done this, you will need to refer back to your motherboard’s manual and locate the “SATA II” and “SATA III” ports and connect the loose ends of the data cables to one of each. In my opinion, it is better to connect the hard drive to a SATA III port as they need to be as fast as possible when loading data from disk, but an SATA II port will be more than adequate for the DVD drive. This also leaves your valuable SATA III ports free for future upgrades.
Lastly, you will need to connect both of these drives to the PSU. The power cable required for each should be small, flat and obviously intended for the drives connectors. Now you will be able to install games from a DVD to that beefy 2TB hard drive! Hopefully, you should be able to see that your computer is taking shape and is nearly complete.
Installing the RAM
After all of the headaches caused by installing the CPU and heatsink, you’d be forgiven for thinking that installing the RAM is suspiciously straightforward. It is actually so straightforward that even a toddler could do it after building their first Lego set!
Firstly, you need to locate the “DIMM” slots on the map inside your motherboard’s manual. They should be somewhere approximating the right hand side of your CPU. These slots are referred to as having a “Dual Channel Memory Architecture”, which for the purposes of this guide means that there are two “A” type slots and two “B” type slots. Push both sticks of RAM firmly down into either the two A slots or the two B slots and you’re done! There’s no such thing as power connectors or data cables here. It’s just nice and straightforward.
By this point in the assembly process you have all but cracked it! You’re just a few minutes away from being able to boot up your computer, install a fresh new copy of Windows and get on with enjoying those excellent PC games. But, there are still a few things to do that might have slipped the attention of some hastier individuals.
The most important thing to do at the end is to connect the buttons at the front of your PC’s case to your motherboard. Everything should have power now, but without these vital connections pressing the power button will yield no life from your PC! This step involves identifying a cable coming from the control panel at the front of your chassis, finding its respective port on the motherboard and connecting it carefully. These will include the power and reset buttons, the LED indicators, the USB ports and any front facing I/O ports. These may be fiddly to connect and you might even require a small torch to see what you’re doing properly, but this is definitely an easy task.
The last thing to do is to ensure that the cable management inside the case isn’t too untidy. This is more of an aesthetic concern, but it can actually have a negative impact on airflow and it may make future upgrades or identifying faults problematic. I would suggest using some small cable ties at this stage to group wires together and make the process a bit tidier.
Now all that’s left to do is to try and fire that bad boy up! If it doesn’t work immediately, then don’t panic! It may just be a slightly loose power connector somewhere. The worst case scenario is that one of the PC’s components is misfiring – most likely the PSU. It is for this reason that I strongly suggest you keep all of your receipts in a safe place and take your time whilst putting it all together. Building a PC can seem like an insurmountable uphill struggle, but hopefully I have conveyed that it can be a fun and thoroughly rewarding experience if you’re enthusiastic enough to learn. I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best of luck and invite you all to a game of Team Fortress 2 once you’re up and running. Just remember, it’s only Lego.