Opinion: Build your first gaming PC: 5 tips from a first-time builder
By Joe Osborne
Why it took me so long to build a PC
Hey everyone, my name is Joe, Reviews Editor for TechRadar, and I’ve never built a PC. Until now. Yes, I work for a technology media outlet and have never tangled my fingers in SATA cables. This is my shame. But recently all that changed.
I’ve been a PC gamer for as long as I can remember, but the hand-me-down systems my parents received from friends and family were just enough to handle Wolfenstein 3D and later Star Wars: Tie Fighter. When Everquest hit, I needed a beefier rig, which took months of saving (and a little help from my parents).
When World of Warcraft (my ultimate PC gaming obsession) came around, all I needed to do was buy a better graphics card (and have a surly fellow at the local CompUSA install it for me). Soon after that, laptops began taking off, with rising power and falling prices. That sparked my passion for mobile computing, and I didn’t look back until a few months ago.
All of the hype around the launches of the Xbox One and PS4 got me itching for a serious gaming rig at home. Despite their plug-and-play nature, I’ve grown tired of their walled gardens. I mulled over crafting a Steam Machine for a minute, but I wanted a Windows machine for the wide support. The reality of the situation grew clearer and clearer, I should just build my own gaming PC. And I needed to do it before the World of Warcraft latest expansion, Warlords of Draenor releases this November.
It was time to put a part list together. Over the course of a few days, I pieced together a set of components that was as affordable and compact as I could make it, but also handle Warlords of Draenor at 1080p with all the settings locked at “high”.
And I’m happy to say that crushed it. The end result is a marvel. I’ve managed to assemble a box far thinner and not much taller than an Xbox One that lets me soar through Azeroth on a cloud of gigaflops at a frame rate that would make Peter Jackson blush. All for a total cost of just $486.
That’s before picking up a 1080p or Windows install. If you don’t plan on hooking your would-be machine up to an HDTV or installing SteamOS, expect to add around $200 to that price.
Click through to see the five things I wish I knew before starting my build that none of the PC building guides told me.
The tips only a noob could give you
I may have steeled myself for the Iron Horde now, but only after several days of mistakes, missteps and errors. I hope that my experience may save you some of the headache that preceded my eventual PC gaming nirvana, because dude, this rig is sweet.
1. You might not have all the right tools
Our brilliant friends over at Maximum PC told me that all I would need to build my gaming PC was a simple Phillips screwdriver. Lies. To install the included 802.11ac Wi-Fi module on my motherboard, I needed a #00 screwdriver.
To avoid a run to the local hardware store in the middle of your build, take every part out of the package and skim the stack of installation manuals. Find out whether you have every tool and part necessary to build the thing before you begin. Returning to a half-built PC is the stuff of nightmares.
2. If you can avoid it, don’t use mini ITX
For the uninitiated, mini ITX is the smallest form factor motherboard and case that can accept a discrete graphics card. But leave these to the pros (like I should have). In such a small chassis, things will get tight as you get further into your build. After you get your power supply in there, you’ll have room for a few fingers at best. That’s when you begin to truly appreciate the amount of computing power packed into the latest consoles.
Because I live in a one-bedroom apartment that another human also occupies, however, I went ahead and used mini ITX. I would like this other human to remain my fiancée, so I built a machine that wouldn’t dominate the two-person desk in our living room. But if you have the space, for the love of all that is holy, using a roomier chassis for your first build will save yourself hours of frustration.
3. Use every last cable tie
My Maximum PC pals told me that before I even started inserting silicon, I should have a plan for where the cables will go. And that no, “I’ll just shove them between the 3.5-inch drive bay and case wall,” does not constitute as a plan.
Chances are that either your case or power supply came with a pack of cable ties, those little plastic things that zip closed. (If my case hadn’t come with them, I would have picked up these velcro cable ties.)You can use those to loop through the metal hooks on the case and around every wire in your PC. Let no cable go untied!
4. Drives need power, too
It’s a simple, rookie mistake – at least that’s what I’m telling myself. It turns out disk and optical drives need power to run just like your fans do. SATA connections do not provide power, only data.
Nothing bad will happen to your machine if you try to boot it the first time without these hooked up to the power supply. (This guy I know tried that once and everything was fine.) In most cases, it simply won’t turn on. Just get back in there and use 4-pin to SATA cables to pipe power where it needs to go.
5. Your graphics card needs drivers to work, silly
Your build is complete. Everything is connected, your fans are clear. You’re ready for takeoff. And nothing’s happening on the screen. You’ve checked all your connections, including the GPU and it all seems good to go. What’s the deal?
Without drivers, your motherboard and CPU have no idea how to communicate with that foreign part. These parts don’t natively understand the PCI-E connection.
After I worked this out for myself, I turned off the computer off completely – flipping that power switch in the back, too – and connected the VGA cable to the main I/O shield (the CPU in my build packs integrated graphics).
Protip: you must use a VGA cable until you can install the GPU drivers. After all the drivers are installed, turn off the system in the same fashion and switch to HDMI or another connection, like DisplayPort or DVI. I, for one, had to buy a VGA cable, because I threw out the one that came with my old, 15-inch HDTV that I ended up having to replace anyway. Your new monitor likely came with one in the box, but if you’re hooking this rig up to an HDTV, you’ll likely have to to do the same.
In the end…
These are all simple problems or mistakes that I didn’t need to make. Had I known about or thought through them ahead of time, I could have saved myself several hours of build time.
When the computer finally booted properly and I launched my first game (WoW, natch), the feeling of seeing a system that I put together with my own two hands work as well or better than the ones you see in Best Buy, was well worth it. And yes, that includes the grumbly trips to various stores and nearly spraining my hand fastening the main power supply wire to a cable tie.
Not only do I have a system that eats 60fps for breakfast, I learned an immense amount about how and why computers work, all of which will come in handy when something breaks or it’s time to upgrade. Oh, and The Horde best watch its back