Building your first homebuilt computer can be a challenge. It’s not particularly difficult. It’s not rocket science — it’s just mechanical construction. However, there are enough pitfalls and traps for the unwary.
Subscriber Richard Fuller wrote to ask if he could build a computer to replace his aging model:
My computer’s hinting that it’s reached retirement age. Apart from the frustration of sluggish performance (despite a daily maintenance regime) and peering at a 14″ monitor that takes up far too much of my desk space, the E key of the keyboard has worn right through! However, I can’t afford to race out and buy a new one, and in any case I’m averse to buying off-the-shelf kit because all my computers have been custom made.
The question, therefore, is this: how difficult is it for an average user to build his own computer? When I bought my first, twenty years ago, I had a reasonable understanding of it and its software, but since then things have moved on considerably and now I’m a mere button-pusher, probably with just enough knowledge to be thoroughly dangerous.
While I can remove and replace cards, fans, and so on, it seems the biggest hurdle might be that of deciding on a suitable specification, ie. good performance for routine computing (I’ve no interest in games or watching films on the computer) without spending money on unnecessarily high spec. components. On the other hand, it makes sense to have a machine with sufficient capability to last for quite a few years.
What would you advise? Is building a computer something that the average user can tackle with confidence? And how does one go about choosing components of the appropriate specification that will be compatible with each other? In respect of the latter, with the rapid advance of all components I should imagine any book on the subject would be out of date before it reached the bookshelves.
With thanks and best wishes,
My first advice to Richard was about economics. He didn’t say it was his intent, but just in case — don’t assume you can build your own computer to save money. It works in the opposite direction. You’d be buying parts at retail, even if discounted retail. You can’t compete with the computer manufacturers on price.
On the other hand, if you have particular components you want to use, then home-brew is the way to go. The most important is the case, to let you have room for future upgrades (more hard drive space, easier access to parts, etc.). Some pre-built PC’s have little that you can do or change.
Yes, it’s possible for the average user to build his own computer – but the first one is the challenge.
I built my first one by following the directions in the motherboard manual. Actually, it was an upgrade, rather than a full rebuild, but when you replace the motherboard, you end up disassembling almost the entire computer.
I finished the work, but I had a slight problem. It wouldn’t boot – that was back in about 1992, upgrading from a 386sx-16 to a 486-33.
Ultimately, I took it to a computer shop where they replaced the video card to solve the problem. The problem was that the boot process checked for the video card and wouldn’t boot if it didn’t find it. The video card was so much slower than the motherboard that the motherboard would say "video card, are you there?" The motherboard would give up before the video card got around to responding.
Another homebrew computer wouldn’t power on at all, for the simplest of reasons. I hadn’t plugged in the power connector into the motherboard with enough force.
I saw someone else building a computer, but they didn’t pay attention and inserted the memory backwards. I’m still not sure how she got the memory clipped down to the motherboard at both ends, while the line-up slot in the DIMM didn’t match the line-up bar in the memory slot.
So, yes, it’s possible — but it’s a lot easier to build your first homebuilt computer when you have someone whose done it before to walk you through the steps — and help you debug.
Richard wrote back to say:
Very many thanks for giving me the benefit of your experience, not least that assembling a home-built will not save money, which is the critical issue here.
One problem I have is that, due to the layout of my home-built desk, I need a proper desktop case — one that lies flat with the printer on top — and all the pre-built jobs have daft tower cases that take up too much space unless you put them under the desk, which I can’t.
Thanks again for the advice, which has at least given me a clearer perspective of the matter.