If you have decided to go down the desktop PC route to satisfy your gaming needs, you have made a wise decision. The trusty old desktop computer sports a degree of versatility and performance that makes it the best gaming machine available. A high-end, custom-built desktop computer will easily surpass any current-generation gaming console when it comes to upgradability, graphics quality and raw performance. It allows you to be at the very cutting edge of gaming technology, and you won’t find any serious gamer who would disagree.
Building your first computer may seem like a daunting undertaking, but you’ll find it tremendously rewarding, and you’ll learn a lot in the process. Things often don’t go very smoothly the first time, but while you’ll no doubt encounter a few frustrations along the way, this guide will help you to get it right the first time.
Do You Have Everything You Need?
Although this guide doesn’t deal with buying the actual components for your dream gaming rig, this section serves to help you make sure that you have everything you need to get started. First-time PC builders often forget about something small, yet crucial, and only find out once they’re half way through assembling the machine. Firstly, let’s take a look at the core components that any gaming PC needs:
- AMD or Intel CPU, depending on your motherboard. All retail processors come with a heat sink and fan, though you’ll likely want an aftermarket cooler for improved performance, particularly if you intend to overclock the system.
- AMD or Intel motherboard depending on your CPU. If you plan to use multiple graphics cards, make sure that it is compatible with nVidia SLI or AMD Crossfire, depending on the graphics processor manufacturer you choose.
- Dedicated PCI-Express graphics card, either based on an nVidia or AMD processor. Multiple-card setups require identical graphics cards.
- 8 GB of RAM in two 4 GB DDR3 sticks for dual-channel operation. Only buy DDR4 RAM if you have an Intel X99-based motherboard.
- Internal solid state drive for using as your system hard drive. SATA-III SSDs are the most common, although some high-end ones use PCI-Express.
- Standard internal hard drive for storing lesser used games and programs as well as documents, movies and music.
- A case, preferably with additional system fans. The size is a matter of personal preference, although mATX or ATX form factors are most popular.
- High-quality branded power supply. A typical single-card computer should have a 600-watt PSU or better, while multi-card setups require 800 or more.
- Optical drive, typically a DVD burner, although movie enthusiasts may want to go for a DVD burner that includes a Blu-ray reader.
The above represent the core components of any PC, but there are other considerations that gamers should be aware of. The following are optional, but favoured among serious gamers:
- Aftermarket CPU cooler. These provide improved cooling over stock coolers. Gamers on higher budgets may want to consider water cooling.
- Front-panel fan controllers are useful for overclockers and other enthusiasts. They fit into standard 5.25″ drive bays.
- Additional case fans for improved airflow and more headroom for overclocking.
You’ll also need all of the necessary peripherals, including a gaming keyboard and mouse, a mouse pad, monitor, headset and speakers. All of the required screws, fittings and cables should be provided with the aforementioned components and peripherals. Additionally, you’ll need the following tools to put everything together:
- A size-2 Phillips magnetic screwdriver, although having a whole set of different-sized screwdrivers might come in handy.
- Thermal interface material, unless you are sticking with the stock CPU cooler, in which case this should already be provided.
- Cable ties and straps for improved cable management, although some may be included with the case.
- Anti-static wristband to negate the risk of damaging circuit boards with static electricity.
- Headlamp, particularly if you are working in poorly lit conditions.
Finally, you’ll need an operating system, either on a bootable USB drive or DVD disc. Windows 7, 8.1 or 10 are the most popular options for gamers. Now that you have everything you need to get started, it’s time to put it all together!
Step 1: Preparing the Case
With a hard, stable surface to work on, such as a desk or table, the first thing to do is start preparing your case, taking into account important factors such as cable management and airflow. Lying the case down on its right side, remove the left-side panel so that you can access the motherboard tray. Next, you’ll need to install the brass standoffs in the motherboard tray so that they line up with the screw holes on the motherboard. These should only need to be finger-tight.
Unpack the I/O shield that came with your motherboard. This rectangular metal panel is designed to fit the ports on the back of your motherboard. Fit it into the slot at the back of the case. If an I/O shield is already in the case, remove it, since it likely won’t fit your motherboard anyway.
Finally, make sure that any front-panel cables leading from the front of the case are properly routed using the cable management features provided. While you’re working on the computer, you might want to move them out of the way by taping them to the top of the chassis.
Step 2: Installing the CPU and RAM
It’s usually much easier to install the CPU and RAM before putting the motherboard into the case, since you’ll have a lot more space to work with. Begin by unclipping the small metal arm that holds the CPU in place before flipping it back and, very carefully, lifting away the plastic tab that protects the pins of the CPU socket. These pins are extremely fragile, so it is essential to take utmost care to ensure that you don’t bend them. Unpack the CPU and line up the two notches on the chip with those on the socket before lowering it in place. With the CPU in the socket, pull the metal arm back down to lock it in place.
Installing the RAM is very straightforward, but you do need to make sure to use the right RAM slots to take advantage of the faster, dual-channel configuration. Most motherboards use colour-coded RAM slots, and if you have two RAM sticks, you’ll want to install them into the same-coloured slots. To install a RAM stick, pull back the levers at each end of the slot, and push the RAM down until the levers lock it in place. If you have four RAM sticks, use them to populate all four RAM slots on the motherboard. If you have a very high-end motherboard with eight RAM slots, you’ll ideally want four or eight RAM modules, in which case the same rules apply.
Installing a stock heat sink is usually very straightforward, but if, like most gamers, you plan to use an aftermarket cooler, it may be necessary to mount a special back-plate on the back of the motherboard and take a few other steps. You may need to refer to the installation guide that shipped with the cooler for more specific information. When installing the cooling unit, be sure to apply a small amount of thermal compound to the surface of the CPU. Arctic Silver recommends that you use an amount about the size of a grain of rice, but make sure that it covers the surface without any spilling over the edges. With the thermal compound in place, you can align the heat sink with the CPU and lock it in place using the retention brackets or fasteners provided. Once installed, the cooling unit should be firmly attached and unable to wobble around. Finally, be sure to connect the CPU fan cable to the motherboard to the socket labelled CPU_FAN or something similar.
Step 3: Installing the Motherboard
You are now ready to install the motherboard into the case. With the case lying on its side, lower the motherboard into it, gently pushing it towards the back of the case so that the ports align with the spaces in the I/O bracket. Hold the motherboard in place so that the holes for the screws align with the standoffs in the motherboard tray. Finally, connect all of the screws.
It is now time to connect the front panel cables so that the buttons, LEDs and ports on the case itself will work. Although all computer cases feature LEDs for hard disk activity and power as well as a power and reset switch, your case will likely come with front-panel USB, headphone and microphone ports.
The front panel header typically includes five very small cables for the power switch, power LED, reset switch, hard drive activity LED and, sometimes, an internal speaker. Connect these to the front panel header on the motherboard, referring to the schematics if necessary. Don’t worry if you connect them the wrong way round; the functions just won’t work, but nothing will get damaged.
- Front-panel USB connectors typically feature a single header characterized by a missing pin in the corner. Usually, two USB ports only need one header. Connect this header to the port labelled USB_1 or USB_2 or something similar on the motherboard.
- USB 3.0 ports use larger headers, and are typically only supported by higher-end, newer motherboards and cases. The header features 19 pins, with a missing one on the corner and a notched connector so that you cannot connect it the wrong way round. Connect this to the port labelled USB3 or something similar on the motherboard.
- Front-panel audio connectors, typically featuring ports for a microphone and headset, are characterized by a 9-pin header. Again, due to a single missing pin, they cannot be connected incorrectly. Attach this to the port labelled AUD, F_AUDIO or something similar.
When connecting the above cables, make sure that they are optimally routed through the case so that they do not get in the way later on, stall fans or restrict the flow of air.
Step 4: Installing the Drives
It makes sense to install the drives next, since your graphics card will probably make it more difficult if you install it later. Installing the hard disk drive, solid state drive and optical drive is typically a very simple process, but you’ll be using three different drive bay sizes.
Optical drives use a 5.25″ drive bay, typically located at the top front of the case. To install the drive, punch out the panel in the front of the case, and slide the drive into the bay. Secure it in place with four screws or, if your case features a screw-free design, use the mounting brackets required.
Standard hard drives come in the 3.5″ variety, and most cases feature at least two internal 3.5″ drive bays and an additional one with a front panel. The latter is used for things like floppy disk drives or internal flash card readers. In the case of the latter, you simply need to connect the cable from it to an available USB header on the motherboard.
Finally, you’ll need to install your solid state drive. These usually come in the 2.5″ variety like hard drives for laptop computers. Although some desktop cases can accommodate drives of this size, you may need to use a 2.5″ mounting bracket to fit the drive into a 3.5″ bay. Fortunately, many retail packages come with a 3.5″ mounting bracket.
All of the above drives use the same power and SATA-III interface connectors. Simply connect the provided SATA cables to the available ports on the motherboard. The order doesn’t matter, and most motherboards have at least four SATA-III connectors on them. Again, make sure that the cables are kept tidy and as unobtrusive as possible.
Step 5: Installing the Graphics Card and PSU
Installing the graphics card is one of the simplest steps of all. Firstly, you’ll need to remove the bracket from the back of the case behind the full-length PCI-Express slot just beneath the CPU. Pull back the lever at the back of the slot, and gently push the graphics card in place until the lever locks. Fasten the bracket at the back of the graphics card to the rear of the case with a single screw. If you have a multiple-GPU setup, repeat the process for the additional graphics card(s), and be sure to connect a multiple-GPU bridge between them (this should be provided with any motherboard that supports multiple-GPU configurations).
Desktop power supply installation hasn’t changed much in a decade. Either on the top or bottom of the rear of the case, there will be an obvious bay for installing the PSU. Simply slot it in place, and secure it with four screws. If you have a fully or partly modular PSU, you’ll have a much easier time with cable management, since you’ll be able to completely remove any unused cables. All of the components in your computer require power to function, so now it’s time to get the final cables connected.
- Connect the largest connector to the motherboard. Almost invariably a 24-pin connector, this is used to power the motherboard and various other components connected to it.
- Connect the 4-pin connector to the motherboard. This cable is used for powering the CPU, and you’ll usually find the port near the CPU itself.
- Connect two power cables to the ports on the side of the graphics card. Modern graphics cards require more power than the PCI-Express port can provide. Most graphics cards require two 6-pin connectors, while the highest-end models may require two 8-pin connectors.
- Connect the narrow, 15-pin SATA power connectors to the optical disk drive, hard drive and solid state drives. Most power supplies provide two SATA connectors on one cable for easier cable management.
- Use the wider 4-pin Molex power connectors for connecting any additional case fans, front-panel fan controllers or old IDE hard drives.
Don’t worry about connecting the power cables incorrectly, since doing so is impossible due to their design. Now that everything is connected and installed, you can put the case cover back on, and you’ll almost be ready to start up your new custom gaming PC for the first time!
Step 6: Finishing Up
You’re almost ready to boot up your PC and install Windows, but first, you’ll need to connect the keyboard, mouse, monitor and speakers. Don’t connect any other peripherals, such as printers or scanners, for now, and don’t screw the case cover back on, just in case you need to change something inside. You can now turn on the computer for the first time, although it won’t go beyond the POST screen, since no operating system will be installed.
Unfortunately, sometimes not everything goes to plan the very first time you build your dream gaming rig. However, if you see the POST (Power-On Self-Test) screen, and you get to the message stating that there is no operating system installed, then you’re almost certainly ready to install Windows without a hitch. However, if your system won’t turn on at all, or there’s an error message at the POST screen, there’s likely a minor issue that you overlooked.
- Make sure that the switch on the back of the power supply is on.
- Make sure all internal and external power supply cables are connected.
- Make sure that the monitor is turned on and connected to the graphics card.
- Try reseating the RAM and graphics card, making sure the power is off beforehand.
- Disconnect any unessential components, such as hard drives, optical drives and internal fans to troubleshoot the problem. Sometimes, a Molex connector may be shorting the system.
- Short the CMOS jumper. This process involves moving the jumper next to the lithium battery on the motherboard one pin along for a few seconds and putting it back before turning the system on.
- Ensure that your RAM sticks are in the correct slots.
- Ensure that the CPU fan is connected to the motherboard.
The above troubleshooting steps should fix the vast majority of problems, provided that the issue isn’t due to incompatible or faulty hardware. Before continuing, you may also want to explore your BIOS to change any essential settings, in which case, you will need to refer to the motherboard manual. Most importantly, ensure that your BIOS is set to UEFI mode and fast boot, since you cannot generally do this after installing Windows.
Finally, with everything up and running, you’ll be ready to install Windows. The process is largely self-explanatory with newer versions of the operating system, but it might still be helpful to outline the key steps involved:
- Disconnect the power cables of any non-system hard drives inside your computer, leaving only your blank solid state drive connected, since this will help to make sure that Windows is installed on the correct drive.
- Boot from your Windows DVD or USB drive and choose your solid state drive as your system drive, since this will lead to much faster booting times and improved overall performance.
- After installation is complete (this typically takes 20-30 minutes), install any available service packs and updates.
- Download and install all of the latest motherboard drivers from the manufacturer’s website. Likewise, download and install the latest AMD or nVidia drivers for your graphics card from their respective websites. Discard any driver CDs that came with your hardware, since these will be outdated.
- Install your programs and games only once Windows and your drivers have been completely updated. This process will involve multiple restarts.
Once you have your computer up and running, there will still be plenty of things you can do to improve its performance to get the very best gaming experience that your hardware is capable of. Any serious gamer will also want to spend some time benchmarking their computer’s gaming performance using software such as 3DMark before tweaking graphics card and CPU clocks and making a variety of other changes to increase those critical frame rates.