Building A Reliable And Practical Desktop Computer System (part 1)
This might blog might be confused with yet another computer typical building how-to. It is written primarily for everyday consumers who wish, and are willing to build a good reliable system for their own use without relying on commercially ready-made systems.
Everyone should try building their own system, if possible.
This short guide is not a super detailed guide to teach how to build and assemble a computer system from beginning to end.
It tries to establish some ground rules to promote the construction of reliable desktop computer systems for the average consumer. Think of it as a longer more complicated version of a “rules of thumb” that will help you make decisions about building your budget conscious and practical mainstream desktop computer system.
It details a philosophy that I have used over the years to build a budget-conscious and practical system that will make systems that tend to be more future proof – not to mention a greener and more environmentally friendly.
Would it not be great if you could build a system in such a way that with a few additions of parts (which would be the most ideal scenario for an upgrade) every few years can keep it running new software with decent performance without buying a brand new system?
Would it not be great if you could breathe new life to an otherwise great pc that you would have to discard to make room for a new one?
It will NOT teach you how to build the fastest system for gaming – although it can certainly help.
It won’t help you that much in building servers for the enterprise – some tips might be useful to that end.
There are already TOO many guides and youtube tutorials on how to do this – to build a system from scratch.
I want you to think of this guide as a partner who can help you make practical choices about things that matter the most and to aid through purchasing and system building decisions as you explore options and alternatives during the system building process.
Building a reliable and budget conscious system with longevity in mind – trying the best to future-proof your system as much as possible.
It is also the intention of this guide to help you build a system that will last you for as long you want it to last – until your next rebuild. It will also show you how to build a system to help you save money – in the long run. I’ll explain this later on.
These tips embody a philosophy that I follow myself and these rules of thumb have served me for years with my own personal computers and the computers that I once serviced during my career in the computer industry.
I do not expect everyone to agree.
These tips have worked for the countless systems I have built for myself and others.
Custom built systems are not necessarily cheaper than the commercially built system from Dell, HP, or Lenovo. In many cases, they do provide better value because you decide how to spend your money to build a system that capitalizes on the task or function you need it to be most efficient. A system built in this manner also makes last longer and stays with you longer because it is built to your taste and needs.
Commercially built system are often bought by a customer with a certain degree of compromise. Why? Because of it a system that comes CLOSE to what you want but seldom addresses your specific goals.
The commercially built or ready-made system doesn’t always leave enough room for future upgrades. The reason is obvious, is it not? It compels the customer to seek out for an upgrade a few years down the line or the acquisition of an entirely new system. It makes a good profit for the company.
Custom systems that you build are more reliable (if built properly), have plenty of room for expansion, and have an easy path to upgrade without the need to throw an entire computer system away just to get a better system.
With the swapping and changing or a few parts, your system can serve a new purpose or goal. This is not always possible with commercially built systems.
In a time and age of environmental consciousness, systems built with longevity in mind means less hardware thrown away in the landfill.
The need to upgrade constantly in this day and age is slowly subsiding. Unless you have very specific needs and you want to be at the cutting edge of computer technology, a good custom built computer system should last for many years.
Desktop computer technology is not progressing nearly as fast as it used to. Computing power from the average computer currently far exceeds the average user’s demand by a large margin.
Let’s get started with an outline of topics covered in this blog.
Major topics covered are:
- Computer case and power supply
- Motherboard and memory
- Video cards
This guide is a multi-part blog.
Let’s get started.
It’s All About A Good Case
This is something I learned the hard way and I learned it at a much later time than I should have. Up to a point in my life, I never bothered paying attention to details about selecting a good computer case.
In fact, I used to get whatever case was cheapest and never considered about its size or features as long as it fit the components for the upcoming system I had in mind.
That is the worst thing one could possibly do when building a computer system.
The computer case is a VERY important part of building a desktop computer system.
I mention computer cases first because this is the first place where you can save money.
Buying the proper computer case for the job will save you money in the long run and save you headaches with future upgrades.
When selecting a computer case and its features, I say:
“I rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it”
A new computer case purchase should take the following into consideration:
- room for expansion
- spaciousness for its size
- modular design
- good cable management features
- easy disassembly with little or no tools
- easy access to sections of the case
- room for extra fans
- fit most standard sized motherboards
- easy to clean
- efficient airflow design
Wow, you say. This is a very long list of criteria for a computer case right?
A computer case conforming as much as possible to the list above will be the FIRST and LAST case you will ever need – making the computer case much more future-proof.
When you settle for buying a cheaper case, you’ll find yourself swapping for a new case every 2 or 3 years, maybe even sooner.
I used to do that because every new system I built would outgrow my older case and forced me to purchase a new case to deal with my new system requirements. It adds up and gets very expensive when you have to buy a new case every time, even when it is cheap.
Following this philosophy, my last computer case purchase took place about 8 years ago or so. My computer case is still good for my next upgrade. It still has enough room for anything and everything I throw at it.
If I was still relying on my old philosophy of “get the whatever cheapest computer case”, then I would have probably wasted enough money replacing the cheap computer cases to buy the one computer case I have that I can still use for years to come.
I haven’t had to purchase a new case. The current computer case has survived at least 2 to 3 upgrades and it is still able to accommodate all the hardware components and new motherboards that I throw at it.
Example: A good computer case fitting the above list of criteria might cost MSRP of $139. If you went for a discount during a special sale (Black Friday, Xmas, etc), you might get a discount and get it for $100. If you buy 3 cheap cases of about $40 each on a yearly basis you will already spend $120 for those 3 cases. Your next build might force you to buy yet another case for $30 or more.
This gets very expensive and is money down the drain. It offers you no value in the long run.
Room For Expansion
There is nothing worse than having the desire to add something to make your system better and finding it impossible to do so from lack of space.
Maybe you want to add a new card to add more USB ports or support for a better video card or the latest WIFI card.
You don’t want your computer case to be the obstacle limiting an extra hard drive upgrade or what prevents you from installing the better video card.
Get A Sturdy Computer Case
A sturdy computer case goes a long way. You know you can move it around and it will not damage easily. A study computer case is also good for housing and protecting the components installed within it.
A study computer case will also withstand a great deal of moving around. Sometimes, you have to take your computer to a LAN party or even someplace for a project or just to a different part of your dwelling. A sturdy case will let you do this without a problem. In fact, some of these computer cases come with special handles that let you take the computer around in a convenient way without damaging parts of the case while doing it.
Get A Spacious Computer Case
Some say bigger isn’t always better. This may be true for some things, but not for computer cases.
Unless you have some physical size restrictions about your room or have a special use or reason for a small size case, I suggest you always get the larger or largest case of its class.
Computer cases come in mini, mid, and full towers. Some even come in desktop form. The most common and widely used computer case is the tower case. It can house all and everything a desktop case can house but with better space efficiency.
My preference is for larger towers or a medium computer tower case. I always try to find the largest case in its class. Get the largest mid tower you can get or the largest full tower.
Larger cases tend to have better airflow and run cooler by default, simply from its spaciousness – it’s physics.
A large case is the first step to providing better cooling for your system overall.
Spacious Case In Its Class
What does this mean? Not all computer cases are created equal. Some mid-tower computer cases are smaller than others in the same category. Every manufacturer has their concept of what a mid tower or full tower is. Always get the largest case for its class.
For instance, my favorite computer cases are made by Cooler Master. I have my reasons for liking Cooler Master. They make the sturdiest cases I know and they are always very spacious and full of room for upgrades. They are truly well made. Don’t take my word for it. If you ever have the chance to go to an electronics store where they sell computer components, have a go and examine the computer cases made by Cooler Master.
Some of my favorites ( I actually own these cases myself) are the HAF series, CM980, and CM690 (this is a great case).
As an example, I want to mention the CM980 II case by Cooler Master in particular. When I first went looking for a case for a new build years ago, I was looking to purchase a full tower. Walking down the aisle, a computer case caught my eyes. It was not a very fancy looking case but it did look sturdy and compact. It is very simple in design. To me, it looked like a full tower.
Perks Of Large Interior
The interior was very spacious and able to fit full-size gaming graphics cards (these cards are extremely large and big) as the ATI HD79xx series. I was surprised at the price. The salesperson explained to me that the CM680 was actually described as a mid-tower case by Cooler Master. If you measure it, the dimensions of this case are compliant with what most other manufacturers would consider something in the full tower class but was sold at a mid-tower price. Needless to say, I purchased the case and never looked back. Both my father and my sister also own this case with their computer builds.
The point of this story is that you cannot just go by the described specs of the computer case online You need to look at it physically and inspect it if you have the chance. The CM680 is basically as spacious as a full tower made by other manufacturers and sold at a much lower price point.
In this instance, the master CM680/CM690 was the largest and most spacious of the mid towers (one of the largest in its class).
I thought I would include some pictures of this case to give you a visual idea of the CM680/CM690 case design and how spacious it is.
If you are in the market for a new computer case, you should really consider purchasing this one. I have set up some affiliate links on this blog post. If you click on the links you’ll be taken to Amazon and I’ll make a few bucks in exchange while you visit and read.
Modular By Design
Depending on the type of user you are, modularity may or may not on your list. Modularity is on my list.
Modularity helps when you want to move things around a bit to make other components fit. You can also make parts of the case point in a different orientation or even take parts off to make room for wires or extra cooling pipes to run through the computer system if you so desire.
Modularity is not a necessity if you are not building a very high end or sophisticated system ( like some large powerful gaming rig). For most regular users, modularity is nice to have and comes in handy when you want to add more drives and need to make some adjustments to fit the wiring.
Modularity also means that you can take parts of the case apart without the need to disassemble something else first. All the pieces that make up the case are fairly independent and can come away from the main case individually.
Good Cable Management
Some say that good cable management is more about the builder than the case. Some argue that a builder that is organized and disciplined will be able to creatively figure out the best cable management for any case. That is true up to a certain extent, but a case built with cable management as a feature goes a long way with any builder.
Why is cable management important? It helps with airflow and cooling as well as organization – obviously. If your cables cannot be tucked away to allow for better overall airflow, then cooling in the computer will suffer. No amount of fans will help if the cables block the flow of air going in and out of the computer. Computer fans are placed where they are because it directs air in a specific direction and allows for cool air to come in and warm or hot air from within the system to leave the case as efficiently as possible.
The Luxury Of More Space
I remember when I used to get the cheap computer cases. The designs were so limited for cable management that most of the cables ended up right in the middle and on top of the motherboard. The cables had no space allocated to be tucked away and the wires just blocked critical space making airflow really bad. My computer system would always run hotter than they were supposed to simply because the system could not effectively get the hot air out of the system.
A cooler computer system is always a computer system that runs better.
It is also aesthetically pleasing to the eye and makes it easier to trace cables if any problems arise. It can be very time consuming to trace wires when they are all bundled up in the wrong places.
With the cheap computer cases, your wires are just all bundled up ( with no room in the case) and make it really hard to fix problems. It is not uncommon for wires and connections to come undone causing very annoying and hard to trace issues.
Taken Apart With Little Or No Tools
This feature is at the top of my list. I want to be able to take my computer apart to fix things or make changes – even for easy cleaning.
Tool-less computer cases are a blessing to the builder and owner of these computers. It means that you can take anything apart with your bare hands and do not need any screwdrivers to do the job.
Cheap computer cases are usually not easy to take apart because they are not very modular and are not toolless. This might seem a nice to have feature until you have to do an upgrade and computer a toolless case and a regular case side by side. Convenience becomes a need very quickly.
These days I swear by toolless cases. Now, computer cases that are “tool-less” are usually about 90% toolless. How is this so?
It All Depends…
There are certain parts of the computer that are not well suited to be tool-less. For instance, it is best to use regular screws to hold the motherboard to the computer case. Hard drive mounting and add-on cards are perfect features for a tool-less design.
Just remember that a tool-less design will is not a fancy feature. It will add more value to you, the owner, and make your system building a pleasure. No longer will you have to take a whole toolset just to add a new hard drive to your machine. With your bare hands, you will be able to upgrade your computer in record time.
Ease Of Access To Sections Of the Case
Actually, this “feature” is merely a consequence of a case design that follows modularity and a tool-less philosophy. If your computer case is modular and tool-less, then ease of access will result as a consequence.
All this means is that a good computer case will give you access to any and all of its parts without much difficulty. You won’t need to go around taking several pieces of the case before you can gain access to what you need.
I can’t tell you the countless times I have had to take apart cases and wish things were more straightforward. Commercially made computer systems by brand name computer companies are often good examples of how disassembly is sometimes tactically made difficult. Of course, these companies always try to make it harder for you to access the parts of their machines in the hopes that you will give up and send it to one of their service centers for the job instead.
A computer case you purchase for your own build should not follow the “hard to access” philosophy.
Computer fans are the very core of your computer cooling system. Unless you go for liquid cooling (not a subject we are going to deal with), all the cooling is done by the computer fans.
Fans are installed at specific places by the designers of the case to allow for cool air to flow in and warm or hot air to flow out in a very efficient manner. Like we discussed before, keeping your computer cool is going to make it work better always.
In fact, most case designers make it their business to design and leave extra room for additional fans that you can purchase and install to expedite the airflow and improve the cooling of the computer case to its maximum potential.
Does it mean that you HAVE to buy the additional fans and have them installed? You don’t have to. It just means that the extra fans will make it better. Depending on your situation, extra fans may or may not be needed, but extra fans won’t hurt with better airflow. In some cases, the extra fans might become a necessity. It all depends on what types of computer components, how many of these components are running, and whether you are making these computer components worker harder than usual.
For Some Extreme Cases
For instance, a lot of computer enthusiasts love to overlock their systems. They like to tweak the hardware to run at higher than manufacturer suggested speeds. Components that are put to this type of stress will usually generate A LOT more heat. You are well advised and strongly encouraged to install extra fans to dissipate and eliminate as much heat as you possibly can.
Fortunately, I did say that this guide is for all the good nice readers that want to build general purpose computers follow manufacturer specs during operation, right?
If you are not, that’s O.K. I won’t tell. Just make sure you install the extra fans or make room for a liquid cooling system – unless you want your computer to become a fancy electric steak grill.
Fits All The Motherboards
Why would I even mention this? Aren’t all cases able to fit motherboard properly? The answer is NO.
Some case manufacturers just get it right and some just don’t. I remember well the many computer cases that did not have the proper screw holes and would not let the motherboard sit properly. The motherboard was either too big, too small, or parts of the motherboard could not be screwed on properly to the case because there were missing screw holes and did not match the holes on the motherboard and left parts of the motherboard dangling. I hate it.
If you build enough computers, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. It can become very upsetting and very frustrating when you encounter a case that can’t fit your motherboard properly or can’t allow you to screw a motherboard properly because of missing holes that don’t match the motherboard.
A good case will not have this problem. You know those Cooler Master cases like the HAF series and the CM680/CM690 that I talk about? I never have a problem with these well-designed cases. Cooler Master is not the only manufacturer that makes good cases, but you’d be surprised how many do a bad job.
You’ll grow to appreciate this feature. When things just work and all the components go together seamlessly and are held in place properly, the feeling of joy and accomplishment is just indescribable.
Easy To Clean
An easy to clean case is a case that helps the computer run better.
Computers get dusty very quickly and very easily.
Dust is also the number one enemy when it comes to keeping components cool. A dusty motherboard or add-on card get warmer when they are dusty. It affects heat dissipation tremendously.
Dust can clog up the intake vents making airflow less efficient or blocks airflow almost completely.
Get rid of the dust and clean your computer as much as you can and as often as you can. A computer case that gives you easy access to its parts will make your cleaning job much easier. You can selectively clean the parts.
Depending on the case design, some computer cases tend to get dustier than others.
The computer case is usually the most neglected part of the computer component list. Most people make it their mission to save money when purchasing a computer case.
You don’t have to do that. You don’t want to do that. A good computer case is a great investment.
With a good computer case, you can keep it and use it for the next several projects. Maybe you can even keep it for as long as you can fit all the components for your next upcoming build.
A cheap case will last you no more than 2 years, maybe 3. Buying a new computer case for every new build can add up.
Here are some links below if you are thinking about computer cases shopping for computer cases mentioned on this page that have similar or the same features.
Mid Towers ( these are pretty large and very spacious)
Full Towers (high end)
I wish you happy a computer case shopping. For the next part, we will talk about computer power supplies. For the next part of the guide just click here.