Building a computer when you know next to nothing about hardware

My Final Build (Monitor and OS are wrong but close)

Okay maybe this title is misleading.  I’ve had a computer that I’ve maintained pretty much since I was five.  Really, by maintained, I just played a lot of Starcraft, Age of Empires, and Heroes of Might and Magic. It wasn’t really until the beginning of college until I had to get my own computer that I learned what went into a good computer.  I still can’t claim to know, but I’ve done some research on each of the parts.  This is mainly an intro guide for other people who just ordered a bunch of crap Newegg told them to buy and how to put these things together.

Step 0: Set up your work area

Pick a preferably non-carpet area and a season that is preferably not winter.  Put on a static wrist strap and attach it to something in order to ground yourself and prevent yourself from ruining your expensive computer parts and delaying your build.  Get a marker and a board and write down where you took screws from.  Make sure you have a monitor and keyboard, and make sure all of your equipment is unwrapped (especially motherboard because the anti-static wrapper can ironically ruin other stuff).  Get whatever Google machine you have to debug random stuff.  Make sure all of your instruction manuals are readily available and skimmed so you have a general idea.

Step 1: Get to know your tower

nzxt tower

I got the NZXT s340 Elite (courtesy of Nate).

Everything goes into your tower, so you should look at it and figure out where stuff goes.  There should be space that you can open from the back (for the power supply), a large piece in the middle with a bunch of screws that form a rectangle (place for motherboard), small boxes with screws that lock in small rectangular boxes (for your hard drives), small boats with 4 seats (for solid state drives, like the one pictured in the bottom right corner in the picture), and a few connections that link to your exterior slots (i.e. USB slots, audio slots, etc.)  Unscrew everything that can be unscrewed to make it easy, but keep your screws where they need to be.

Step 2: Put in the power supply

Goes in that slot we talked about.  Should attach to the outside back via four screws that attach to the case.  I suggest taking a picture of the front before you put it in because each part of your power supply.  MAKE SURE THE SWITCH IS TURNED OFF RIGHT NOW.

power supply.png

Let there be electricity

As a helpful tip, clearly label any cable you are connecting to this.  This gets very confusing super fast.  Your future self thanks you.

Step 3: Install the motherboard, CPU, and CPU cooling

The motherboard is kind of the place where everything comes together and hang out.  Consequently, it’s a large circuit board-looking thing.


I’m referring to the top left arrow as “dark blue” by the way.  Sorry this may be a nightmare to colorblind readers 

Blue goes toward the back.  It has the connections to your USBs, HDMIs, Ethernet slots, and audio ports.

Light blue is where the CPU eventually goes.  We will talk about that in a second.  Yellow is where the RAM goes.  As it turns out, you really need to pay attention to which RAM slots your motherboard takes depending on whether you have one, two, or four sticks.  This is actually a common cause of error.

The green arrow refers to where the audit lights are.  Your motherboard may have lights, an audio beep speaker, or if it’s super fancy, a LED that gives you error numbers.

The purple arrow is the various parts where your case’s fans, USBs, etc connection onto the motherboard.  Along that whole line at the bottom should be various slots.  Refer to your manual for the semantics of what goes where, but it’s actually kind of important.  Don’t jam anything in.  There’s actually small differences in what you’re supposed to put where.

The red arrow is the slots for graphics cards or mounted hard drives.  We’ll get to that in a second.

At this stage, you need to focus on light blue.  There’s a dummy case and a latch that looks like a mouse trap.  Remove this and replace it with your CPU.  Make sure the mouse trap part snaps in. It’s kind of scary, but trust me when I say you’ll know if you’re right.


Intel i7 Computer Brain

This would also be a good time to connect whatever cooling you have to the CPU.  Your cooling system goes on top of your CPU and makes sure this guy, which while unassuming, is really important (like REALLY important) does not catch fire (also REALLY important).  This thing going on there will cover the whole thing, and you want the connectivity to be really good.  You can also put thermal paste on if it’s not complete tight.  The idea is that air is actually a really good insulator so you want to create a surface to conduct from this guy to the thing that is supposed to cool this guy.  Mounted, the CPU cooler should look pretty spiffy and cover the CPU completely.

nzxt cooler.png

This makes your computer look … cooler (pun intended)

The front fans of this cooler go to the front of the tower or really somewhere that it can “breathe”.  On my case, there’s actually a false front and a underlying layer in which the liquid cooler is attached (bridge by 2 fans).  These fans then attach to the motherboard.  Remember to plug this cooler into the motherboard and to plug the motherboard into the power where appropriate.  This part is super important because there’s a few failpoints here:

  1. The motherboard needs power.
  2. The fans need power thru the motherboard.
  3. The cooling system (circle thing) actually separately needs power. My build almost came to a blazing conclusion on this one. The power supply for this was not properly plugged in.
  4. The audit for this needs a connection to the motherboard (it sends the info to your CPU). If you’re not getting data back on BIOS on this stuff, this is one of the things that can go wrong.

As a refresher: fire = bad. In fact, write on your hand right now to download something to monitor core temps for CPU and fan speed.  NZXT’s is really good.

With these things all in, screw where appropriate the motherboard to the case and the fans and cooler to the case as well.

Step 4: RAM and hard drives (the memory step)

I grouped these together because these are pretty easy.  Also, these things do related stuff, so it’s nice to know the difference.  Remember: RAM holds the temporary memory used and your hard drives are written to and read from.

ram sticks.jpg

Remember: You can’t just download RAM

A lot of builds generally want to have multiple RAM sticks and multiple hard drives.  Modularity is pretty nice if you want to have a boot up drive that’s fast and cost-effective while having enough storage space to really have a place to hold grandma’s entire scanned photo album in TIFF from the 40’s.  In this day and age, your HDD is like an attic and your SSD is your front rooms to welcome guests.

In my case, the HDDs are in the bottom near the power supply but separated by a wall.  These require separate power and data connections, but I’ve strung mine together on one long SATA cable.  That’s the one with a one long straight line that is kinda flat.  It’s for data.  DATA cable anyone? No?

In any case, once the hard drives are linked, take the RAM out, release the little clips on yellow arrow in the previous picture, and press the ram in (MAKE SURE YOUR MOBO AND YOUR RAM ARE COMPATIBLE AND ALSO THAT THE GROOVE IS GOING THE RIGHT WAY).  DDR3 and DDR4  are actually legit slightly different so while you need to press hard enough for it to click, you don’t want to break the ram or the motherboard. Once you figured out what you’re supposed to do (and specifically which slots to put it on), it’s somewhat trivial.

How to tell!

Step 5: Installing your OS

Make sure everything on your list is double checked.  Make sure that nothing physical is not touching something it’s not supposed to be (i.e. something is literally physically hitting a fan or something. You’ll know with some unpleasant sounds.  Oops.)

Plug in a monitor into your motherboard, as well as a keyboard. Turn the PC on.  You’ll get a weird screen at low resolution. For me that was MSi because my motherboard was MSi.  It’ll show you basically information that is available to it (i.e. memory usage).  If you have failed, consult your motherboard’s debug.  I think I hit every light on the Christmas Tree on my way down (curse you, wrongly slotted RAM!).  For some you might get a lot of different angry beeps.  Turn it off and on/plug it in and out a few times, and then if it’s still bad then something’s very wrong and please check Google.
At this point, once all of these things are connected, you’re actually pretty set to install the OS (operating system).  I used Windows 10 Student (thanks UChicago!).  I did this by putting it on a thumb drive that’s 8 GB and simply inserting it.  It took care of the rest.  Just be there and pay some attention.

Make sure everything works, plug in Ethernet for now to test internet.  We can do the other stuff later. You can do some driver updates in the meantime while you take a break.  You deserve it.

Step 6: That Baller Graphics Card

Some super-good advice: do this one last (or close to).  Seriously – I jumped the gun on this so many times because I really wanted to play PUBG at high resolution and man did this cause me significant headaches.  As my former manager told me: get it working, then add the frills.  This is definitely a frill.



Edgy meme courtesy of Reddit

Your graphics card will require power (and lots of it – this one took me a while to figure out).  Please please please read whether its 8 pin or 2x6pin and how these things are slotted. Do NOT use anything in this that wasn’t given to you with the actual card or power supply.  I’ve seen some online horror stories about shit that was melted and stuck and then boom suddenly your $750 1080 Ti is worth $40 to some parts scrapper.  You should be able to tell whether it’s not getting power if there’s no LED’s on it.  Also if there’s something plugged in but there’s no power, your motherboard will get mad at you (mine did) with some angry lights.

Figure out which slot this goes into (should be the red arrow in my picture).  Your motherboard instruction manual should have some tips about this.  Otherwise, this one is somewhat easy if everything else is correct.  A few charming facets is that now, your graphics is routed through it, so when you turn this on make sure your HDMI is actually plugged into this and not your motherboard.

Step 7: Audio & Wireless Cards

Didn’t do this step, but if you want either of these dedicated, I think at this point you’ve some experience with where stuff should fit.  Watch some YouTube and you’ll be okay.

Step 8: Programs & Drivers

Now you can run some tests on stuff.  I suggest getting your LEDs on both your graphics card and your coolers to correspond with temperature (for now).  It’s actually somewhat useful for debug.  Make sure all your drivers are installed, and install everything they tell you to.  It’s pretty useful.  EVGA, for example, has a program to control fan speed automatically based on temperature, which is very useful for gaming because it’s actually kind of annoying to have your computer sound like it’s ready for takeoff 24/7.

Step 9: Do what you want I’m not your mom

You’re done (hopefully) here.  Enjoy your computer!



Special Thanks to Nate for the parts and Samir for going with me to Micro Center, Bobby, Rouse, Jamie, and Asaad for debug help during my struggles



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