Whether you are new to PC building or have tons of experience with the process, it can be intimidating and overwhelming. I remember choosing and ordering parts as a new builder, terrified that I would screw up the part-picking process and buy incompatible parts, or that I would screw up the assembly process and break one of my new, expensive parts. PC building can be fun and can save you a ton of money, but it can be scary for newbies. However, even as an experienced PC builder, when I begin the process of buying and assembling a new PC, I am intimidated every time. There are tons of factors to consider: what parts do I need for my use case? What are the best value parts of these categories for me? Is this a good time to buy? Will new parts come out soon and devalue my choices? Am I future-proofing myself enough? Couple these questions with the overwhelming amount of part choices out there, and it’s easy to not even know where to start. I hope this guide to choosing PC components helps clear things up a bit.
I know how you feel; I’ve been there. And, if you’re a new builder or you’re considering it for the first time: it’s a very rewarding and fulfilling experience, and it really isn’t that bad. Congratulations for taking the first step! Regardless of if you’re a newbie or if you have some experience, I hope you find this guide helpful.
What to expect
In this guide to choosing PC components and parts while building a PC, I intend to share my thought process when creating a new build, share some tips that I’ve learned along the way, and share some part picks that are solid at the moment. I have chosen parts for and assembled quite a few PC’s in my time, and I have some expertise that I know could save many folks time and money. I hope that I can share them with you in this guide to choosing PC components.
For those who have never assembled a PC before, as an aside, be sure to watch this video and educate yourself from a few different sources, such as this one, about how to actually assemble all of the parts. Additionally, the biggest tip that I have is to read your instruction manuals. Read the manual for the motherboard and the case, especially. But, before you can assemble your PC, you first need to know what you’ll be using it for.
Understanding Your Use-case
The first step to choosing PC components is to get a full understanding of what you’ll be using the computer for. Think of a primary purpose and a secondary purpose. Here are some ideas to aid in your classifications:
- Browsing webpages and streaming media
- Programming and/or writing
- Playing computer games
- Using the PC as a home theater or home server
- Using the PC as a workstation
- Use the PC for a general-use home computer
There are many other possible categories, but hopefully these get you off to a good start. Keep these categories in mind when reading the rest of the post and choosing your parts. For example, if you are using the PC as a server or workstation, you will want to purchase a lot of storage. If you are using the computer for programming or writing you will want a very high resolution monitor (possibly 4k) because it greatly improves readability and reduces eye strain. If you will be playing computer games you will want a decent monitor and a very good graphics card. These are just a few examples of the considerations that will evolve out of your use case choices. So, with a primary and secondary category chosen, take a look at what the parts are that you will be considering buying.
What goes into a PC
There are 6 core components to any PC build, and 4 secondary components. The core components are as follows:
The CPU, or central processing unit, is the brain of your computer, and is responsible for performing the actual processing in every task on the computer. It is the “commander” that orders all other components to perform their own respective actions. The CPU is responsible for input/output, display (sometimes), transferring files, and all other computational tasks. Having a solid CPU goes a long way.
The motherboard is the mainboard that houses and connects all of the components of the computer. The CPU drives the motherboard and transfers information around through its buses. All storage devices, graphics cards, and power cables, and peripheral cables will connect to the motherboard, along with the CPU, of course.
The case houses all of the components of your PC and keeps them cool, dry, and free of debris. For many, the case is also an aesthetic piece that they can use to convey their creativity.
The power supply has a cable that plugs into the wall, and it converts the electrical current into a usable format for the computer. Thus, if the power supply fails in a bad way, it can destroy many components of your computer.
Memory, also known as RAM
Random access memory (RAM) is extremely fast storage that is attached to the motherboard. It is used to hold data for applications currently in-use on the computer, so that the data can be available quickly. RAM is volatile memory though, which means that it is flushed when the computer is turned off.
A storage medium is required to hold the operating system of the computer, provide the user with storage for files, and be used to store runtime data that cannot fit in RAM. Storage devices consist of hard disk drives, which are slow but have a large capacity, and solid state drives, which are about 100,000 times faster than hard disk drives, but are much more expensive for a comparable amount of storage. You may want a lot of storage or a little, depending on your use cases. You may even want multiple storage devices, such as a solid state drive to hold the operating system for fast booting and paging, and a hard disk drive to hold files for cheap, high-capacity storage.
The GPU, or graphics processing unit, is a special type of processor that can do many low-intensity tasks simultaneously. This is a contrast to the CPU, which can do fewer tasks simultaneously, but has a lot more processing power. The GPU is traditionally responsible for doing graphics calculations and outputting data to display devices. However, recently, GPUs are being used for more and more computational tasks, such as mining cryptocurrency and training neural networks. If you will be doing any graphics-intensive tasks with your computer, a GPU will be necessary. In fact, in many cases, a GPU will be necessary. The only exceptions are low-end, general use computers that will not need advanced graphical capabilities.
Many CPUs come with a small cooler that is fine for standard use. However, if you want to keep your CPU extra cool, or if you want to increase the clock speed of your CPU, and thus cause it to generate much more heat, then you will need to buy an aftermarket cooler to do so.
The monitor is an input/output device that displays information from the computer to the user. You will need a monitor to use your computer, however, you may already have one from an old computer. The monitor is a component that will vary greatly depending on your use case. If you will be programming or doing work, you may want an ultrawide or multiple monitor setup for multitasking. If you are writing or programming and want to reduce eye strain, you may want a 4k monitor. If you are gaming, you will want a 1080p or 1440p monitor with a high refresh rate for crisp gaming. For general use, you may just want a cheap, basic 1080p monitor.
Other peripherals that are necessary to use the computer include a mouse and keyboard. You probably already have these, but you may want to get one tailored to your use case. You may want a special, precise mouse for gaming or a mechanical keyboard for a better typing experience. You may want a mouse that has function buttons to aid in your work. All of these peripherals are very subjective.
As a final note, you will need to install an operating system on your computer once you install it. To do this, you will need to create a bootable flash drive (I’d recommend using Rufus to do this), plug it into a USB port on the computer, and install the operating system. Windows OS will cost money, unless you are entitled to get it for free through your school or employer, which you should definitely check for.
My Methodology for Picking Each Component
I’d now like to share my thought process and methodology for picking each part from the list above. For each category, I’ll give what I believe to be the best value part on the market right now. If you have any suggestions or better picks, feel free to comment or contact me and tell me about it! Please note that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Picking your CPU
You absolutely do not want to skimp on your CPU. If you buy smart and buy to your use case, you can save quite a bit by buying the right CPU, but you do not want to mess around and get a cheap one. As I said before, the CPU is the main driving force behind the majority of your computer’s uses. That being said, here’s what you need to know:
In the past, Intel was always the best value and the best CPU. AMD was always on their tail. Recently, AMD has stepped up bigtime, and in a lot of ways is passing Intel out. The big discrepancy between the two brands is the concept of cores. A core is essentially a processor in itself, soldered onto the main CPU chip. Each core can be attached to a process by allowing it to use its thread. Each core has one thread. When a thread is switched from being used by one process to another, it takes a long time, computationally speaking.
Intel has always had a low core count, while AMD has had a high core count. However, Intel’s cores are considerably more powerful. The catch is that many applications, such as games, only run on one core. However, parallelizable applications, such as rendering a video or a photo using software, do utilize multiple cores. Intel also has the ability to split its physical cores into two virtual cores, recognized by the operating system effectively as having double the cores. However, this feature is only available on the i7 model.
So, the reasons for my picks:
- If you’re building a gaming PC or a PC that will be running applications that use one core, get the i5 8600k.
- If you’re building a general use-it-for-whatever PC, a budget gaming PC, or just want to keep your costs down and get the best value, get the Ryzen 5 2600X.
- If you’re going to edit videos or need a higher-end workstation with a ton of computational power to run heavy programs, get the i7-8700k.
Certainly, there are many other CPU’s out there, and perhaps one suits your exact needs better than these picks, but I can assure you that you won’t have buyers remorse with any of these CPU’s.
Picking your motherboard
The most important thing to consider when choosing your motherboard is that it has to have a socket that matches the CPU. That being said, the rest is up to you. If you are getting multiple graphics cards, be sure that it has enough slots for them and supports running them in parallel. If you are getting a lot of storage devices, be sure that it has enough SATA connectors for them. I have one pick for Intel and one pick for AMD that I believe are a good value for most use cases with either CPU. As you can see by my picks, I really like MSI boards. I really like their customer service and RMA policy. I’d recommend getting an ATX board, unless you have a good reason otherwise.
As an aside, for future-proofing, the AMD AM4 socket is promised to be supported until 2020. So, new AMD CPUs will be compatible with an AM4 board that you buy today until 2020. As far as Intel, it has not been announced how long the LGA1151 socket will be supported for, but it has been around a long time. In my opinion, it may not make it past 2019. As far as graphics cards, as long as your motherboard has a PCI express 3.0 slot, it will fit any graphics card in the foreseeable future. PCI express 4.0 does exist and was recently developed, and exists on some very new boards, but it is not something to worry about getting for the average consumer.
Picking your GPU
When picking a GPU, I always first check benchmarks. Of course, benchmarks aren’t totally infallible indicators of exact performance comparison, but they can give you a general idea of card performance. Here is a benchmark-based list of GPU’s sorted by price for performance. Whatever card you get, if you’re trying to get the most for your money, make sure it’s on that list. Check some other benchmarks while you’re at it. Here are the absolute best performing video cards, ranked accordingly.
Things you should know about the video card market: There are two main companies designing cards, NVidia and AMD. NVidia makes GeForce cards, and AMD makes Radeon cards. Now is an incredible time to buy graphics cards. They were in high demand when cryptocurrency was big because they are pieces of hardware that can be used to mine. However, the demand has broken because cryptocurrency is less desirable nowadays. This means that lots of cards are on the market for great prices.
As far as AMD vs NVidia, right now, NVidia have the lead by quite a bit. Their cards are better value and much more powerful, as you can see by the benchmarks. My choices reflect this:
- If you won’t be playing games at all and are just using your PC for general browsing and streaming, you probably don’t need a graphics card at all. Your CPU can take the reigns instead.
- If money is no object and you want the best possible performance, get the RTX 2080 Ti.
- If you want the best value for your money and want to have an incredible gaming experience without breaking the bank, get the GTX 1070ti.
- If you’re really on a tight budget, get the RX 580
If I were upgrading or building right now, I’d get a 1070ti. It’s an amazing card at a great price!
Picking your Case
The case is the most subjective part you’ll buy, other than peripherals. My guidelines are:
- Buy a mid tower case, but not a full tower. Full towers are massive, ATX cases are standard size. Don’t get a smaller one unless you have a reason to and are experienced.
- Buy a case with good reviews. Particularly look for comments on how easy it is to assemble the PC inside.
- Get a case that you like looking at!
So, browse cases for yourself. Here’s a link with some best sellers by price. Browse around a bit. My recommended cases are any case by Fractal, because I love Fractal cases. I can’t recommend them enough, they’re super quiet. I also have included a Corsair Carbide, which is, in my opinion, the best budget case. Finally, I added a nice Corsair case with green lights and a glass door so you can see your components through. I like how it looks, and it is a good example of what to look for in a nice case: good reviews, lots of fans, good airflow, and good aesthetics.
Picking your Storage
Storage is quite simple. Hard drives have been around forever, and I have a guide written on how to get them for the best value already. SSDs are much cheaper than they have been in the past, and they’re getting cheaper every day. Traditionally, hard drives and solid state drives connect to your motherboard with SATA cables. However, SSDs are actually much faster than SATA cables can transfer data. This has led to the development of the M.2 slot. M.2 slot SSDs are even faster than normal SSDs; about 7x faster than SATA SSD’s, which in themselves are around 100,000 times faster than hard disk drives. However, only NVMe M.2 SSD’s benefit from this 7x speedup. If your SSD is M.2 but not NVME, it will be limited to SATA speeds. This is a very sneaky fact that many SSD listings gloss over. So, for my picks, I provided a nice NVMe M.2 SSD, a classic SATA SSD, and a nice hard disk drive.
What I’d recommend:
- If you’re not going to be storing a ton of data on your computer, just buy an SSD. It will have enough space for standard documents and files.
- If you will be storing tons of games, movies, music, etc. on your computer, buy a small SSD to install the operating system on. Additionally, buy a large capacity hard drive to store all of your extra files on. This will allow the computer to boot incredibly fast with the SSD and use the HDD to give you tons of storage.
Picking your Memory
RAM is one of those parts that you can probably get on sale. The only real requirement is that it’s DDR4. Other than that, the speed doesn’t really matter. Some may say otherwise, but I’ve never seen any definitive evidence. So, watch out for discounts and rebates and save a bit on your RAM. I’ve picked some really nice sticks. If you’re building a lower-end computer, get 8 gigabytes. If you are building a higher end computer or can afford it, get 16.
Picking your Monitor
Monitors are another one of those parts that are totally subjective. I’d recommend having at least 2 monitors, unless you are just using your computer for simple browsing and streaming. If you are a gamer, power user, or using your computer as a workstation, you’ll thank yourself for getting two monitors. As far as what kinds of monitors to get for what situation, my recommendations are:
- For high-end gaming, get a low refresh-rate 1440p monitor. I have one in my picks. You’ll want a 144hz refresh rate.
- For low or mid range gaming, get a low refresh rate 1080p monitor. I have one in my picks. You’ll want a 144hz refresh rate.
- For general use and browsing/streaming, get a cheap 1080p monitor that has good reviews.
- For coding and writing, get the highest resolution monitor you can afford. Also, consider buying an ultrawide.
Keep in mind that 4k monitors are not great for gaming, because even high end graphics cards can’t keep up with the massive amount of pixels when running intense games. This means you’ll have low framerates, and a rough gaming experience. High refresh rate monitors, however, make gaming super smooth and very enjoyable.
Picking your Power Supply
I always get my power supplies on sale or with some sort of rebate. My advice for a power supply, unless you’re a superuser with an extremely expensive system, get an 80+ bronze. I’ve always bought them, and I’ve never had a problem. The “metal” rating of power supplies is just a ranking on their efficiency. It is also somewhat of a quality indicator. Get a power supply from a reputable company with good reviews so you can be sure it won’t fry your system. For a standard machine with one graphics card, you’ll be fine with a 500 watt power supply. If you want, you can go higher, especially if you have multiple graphics cards. In fact, you could probably go lower, but power supplies are so cheap anyway that there really isn’t a need to. If you have a low or mid range build, get the 500 watt power supply. If you have a mid or high range build, get the 750 watt power supply. Basically, if you’ve got a mid range build, either one will work. I included a really fancy gold rated power supply in addition to my choices in case you wanted to really splurge.
The only really important thing to know about picking a power supply is that modular power supplies offer more convenience. A modular power supply allows you to plug cables into the power supply as you need them, while a non-modular power supply has all of the cables permanently attached. This means that modular power supplies aid in cable management.
Picking your CPU cooler
An aftermarket CPU cooler is only necessary if you’re overclocking. The Hyper 212 Evo is my favorite; I think it’s the best air cooler on the market. You’re going to want to go with air cooling, unless you like the novelty of water cooling. Water cooling isn’t really any better than air cooling, at least from what I’ve seen in my time building.
Picking your Peripherals
Your mouse, keyboard, and other peripherals are totally up to you. For example, maybe you’re an audiophile and want to buy an internal soundcard. Maybe you want an extra USB hub for some reason.
I know that I really enjoy mechanical keyboards, and would recommend them for both gaming and general typing. I also have a favorite mouse that I’ve been using for years, the Logitech G502. I’ve included some of the peripherals that I like in my recommendations, but these are really up to you.
Ways to save money when buying parts
Use web resources
When considering any component, consider pasting its amazon link into camelcamelcamel. This will give you an extensive price history in a nice graphical form. With this tool you can determine if the component is at its lowest price, and, if not, when it was at its lowest price. You can get an idea of how good of a deal you’re getting, and if you may want to wait for the item to drop in price before buying.
Additionally, use resources like reddit’s buildapcsales to check for sales on parts, or use reddit’s buildapc community for extra guides and recommendations. Shop around on forums like these and get an idea of the climate for the part you are considering so you can be sure you’re getting a good deal. This is something that I do for a few weeks before I actually make my purchase. As items go on sale, I pick them up one-by-one. Common items that go on sale are power supplies, RAM, solid state drives, and hard drives.
Know the new-release climate and time your purchase
Determine the age of the components that you are considering. Use the aforementioned resources to gauge whether it is possible that newer components will come out soon. If a new line of graphics cards comes out, for example, the prices of the previous generation should drop considerably. Be sure you are aware of when big conventions and releases will be, so you don’t end up buying too early. If a new line of graphics cards or some other component is coming out very soon, consider waiting so that you can either buy the latest generation and get the best performance, or so that you can get a discount on the previous generation’s model.
Once you get your parts together, it’s not a bad idea to head over to pcpartpicker and throw them all in a build, to be sure that there are no compatibility issues. After you get that part list solidified, have fun building your PC. I hope that this guide on choosing pc parts and components was helpful to you. If you enjoyed, feel free to share the article, or sign up for my newsletter to be informed of future content. If you have any thoughts to share with me, feel free to leave a comment or contact me.
Feel free to check out some products below if you’re interested as well. Please note that as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases!