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Computer Component Selection

Step 1 in Build Your Own Computer

In this section, Computer Component Selection, we will review each component and part you need to know, and we'll give you specific suggestions and recommendations.

Always Get the Manual - Good-quality computer components from the major manufacturers will always come with a good manual, as well as other information. This is called "documentation." For those new to building computers, documentation is extremely important. You will be referring to the manual when configuring and installing every component and some parts. NEVER buy a component without its manual. Always look for it.

OEM hardware - "Original Equipment Manufacturer" hardware is computer hardware (components and parts) that is usually of the same quality as the manufacturer's other good-quality products, but for whatever reason, the hardware was dumped.

OEM products are placed in bulk packaging, come with little or no warranty, usually have little if any documentation (including a manual!), and usually come with no extras like cables and support software. Yes, the price is way cheaper. But so what? If you don't know what you're doing, using OEM products can easily create unnecessary and difficult complications. Unless you don't need your computer working soon, I recommend you stay away from OEM hardware.

Now, lets look at the components in a computer:


The level of processor you will need will be determined by your intended use of the computer. A discussion about the uses and levels of computers is in the Introduction of this guide.

Basic - If your interests are in non-demanding programs, then you'll want an AMD Duron or an Intel Celeron. These processors are very good for standard office programs, and they are inexpensive.
Mid Level - This is the level processor that is most popular today. This level is appropriate not only for business programs, but also for more demanding programs, such as PhotoShop, Coral Draw, and all but the most intensive latest games. These processors include the AMD Athlon XP, the Intel Pentium III, and the earlier Pentium IV's. The Athlon XP and Pentium III are very reasonably priced.
High End - These are the AMD Athlon 64 FX-51, and the Intel Pentium IV HT Extreme Edition. These processors have the most on-board memory and are capable of easily handling all memory-intensive programs including the latest gaming programs. The Athlon 64 FX-51 has a slight advantage for gamers. Even some of the other processors such as the AMD Athlon XP and earlier versions of the Intel Pentium IV are also very powerful, they are well able to handle memory-intensive programs. The latest Athlon 64 FX-51 and Pentium HT Extreme Edition are expensive.

Another high-end processor is the new Intel Centrino, which is "packaged" with wireless hardware. The Centrino is also expensive.

Upgrading a Processor - If you're going to buy a new processor for an older case, you want to make sure the processor will fit into the case before you buy it. Also, you must pay careful attention to a new processor's cooling needs. It may need increased air flow. That means an additional fan must be installed into the case. If your case will not accommodate the recommended fan placement for a new processor, buy a new case that will meet minimum requirements. Otherwise the processor may very well "burn."

Fans - Should you need to purchase a fan, make sure it is of the ball bearing variety and not a cheaper (and ineffective) sleeve bearing type fan.

Also, if possible, try not to plug the fan directly into the power supply. It is much better if it can be plugged into the CPU_FAN 3-pin plug on the motherboard. Also, on older cases, the heat sink may be separate from the fan. If this is the case (a pun!), make sure the heat sink is attached to the processor. This is done with clips or with heat sink compound. Sounds messy. I recommend the clip.

Used Processors - Incidentally, always perform a simple inspection before buying a used processor. While not touching the pins, inspect to make sure they are not bent. If they are, do not buy.

RAM Memory

The selection of memory is usually fairly simple. SDRAM is seen in inexpensive computers today. For mon-demanding programs, this is usually fine. DDR SDRAM is a newer standard of SDRAM memory that is faster. DDR SDRAM is highly efficient and is seen in both inexpensive and expensive computers. While SDRAM and DDR SDRAM share about the same technology, they are not interchangeable. DDR memory can only be used in systems that have been designed for their use.

Because types of memory are not interchangeable, the type of memory that you purchase will be determined by the type of memory required by the motherboard.

A third type of memory is Rambus memory, or RDRAM. But RDRAM has proven to be not as popular as expected. On the plus side, RDRAM is faster than DDR SDRAM, and is endorsed by Intel as their chosen successor to SDRAM. However, RDRAM has several troubling issues. The first is a compatibility problem. RDRAM will only work within a very specific computer environment. Also, RDRAM generates much more heat than other RAM memory. This has proven to be, shall we say, an unwelcome inconvenience. As if that's not enough, RDRAM is very expensive to manufacture. So, cost-conscious consumers have found RDRAM to be an unnecessary and bitter pill to swallow. With all of this, a decision to use RDRAM must be considered carefully. In many cases, it's best to stick to the friendly, cool, and cheap DDR SDRAM.

Basic - Windows XP has a minimum requirement of 128MB of SDRAM. While that amount of memory is acceptable for a basic computer, we recommend 256MB of SDRAM to prevent periodic slowness.
Mid Level - We recommend you get at least 256MB DDR SDRAM at 400MHz . DDR SDRAM is only slightly more expensive than SDRAM, but it adds an edge.
High End - We recommend 512MB DDR SDRAM at 400MHz. However, you may wish to consider the faster 512MB RDRAM from 600MHz to 1 GHz. Incidentally, never touch memory contacts.

Hard Drive

This is one item that is always best purchased new. Make very sure you have its manual, as the information in it will prove to be important to know. A jumper diagram on the drive itself should also be provided.

Types of Interface - All hard disk drives must use an interface in order to connect with other components in the computer. There are several types of hard disk interface that you should know about:
SCSI - (pronounced "scuzzy") If you plan to build a high-performance (high-end) computer, you may have considered the use of SCSI interface. While it is more flexible and faster, there are two things a first-time builder may like to consider. First, SCSI only works with computer components made to work with (that support) SCSI. This will add significantly to the cost of the computer. Secondly, SCSI is tricky to configure.

IDE - (pronounced as individual letters) is the most common interface used through 2003. It is now assuming the new name of parallel ATA or PATA, to differentiate it from the new SATA interface which began to show up in computers in 2002.

SATA - or Serial ATA, is a new technology that is clearly superior to IDE. It is also clear that it will eventually replace IDE. For 2003-2004, most computers will include both IDE and SATA.

Speed - A factor in the selection of a hard drive is speed. While not an important factor in basic computers, it becomes much more important in mid-level and high-end computers. Hard disk speed is given in RPM, or revolutions per minute, and is usually either 5400 RPM or 7200 RPM.

Following are our hard drive recommendations:

Basic - While 10GB of storage will probably be all you will ever need, you'll find that 20GB is often considered to be minimum. It's up to you, but at this level you simply won't need a big hard drive.
Mid Level - Mid level computers now come with about 40GB. If you do no video editing, will not be using MP3s (music downloads), then you will find that 40GB at 5400 RPM will suit most tasks well. But if you will do video editing or MP3, you will want 60 to 80GB at 7200 RPM.
High End - We recommend 80GB to 120GB at 7200 RPM. Make sure you get 7200 RPM and not anything lower.

The Case

There are several basic designs to pick from:

  • Desktop - These cases lay under the monitor, horizontally. They use to be very common but they are not as popular as they use to be.
  • Tower - design is much more practical. It is the easiest design to work within. Expansion is usually never a problem because there's lots of room. Make sure the tower will fit in the space where you plan to keep it in your home or office. If there's not enough room, then you will have to go with a smaller design. All things being equal, we recommend the tower design.
  • Mini-tower - is a smaller case, which means it is more difficult to work within. However, this case is very popular as it will fit into a smaller space around the desk. Only use an mini-tower if space is a problem.
  • Mini-PC - is a newer but an even smaller design option. In my opinion it should be avoided. However, some folks love'em. The contents of the mini-PC is decided for you, however the latest versions are very powerful machines of gaming quality. It's available in a "barebones" kit form as well as fully-assembled.

Quality - If you can afford it, there are a number of advantages to buying a better case. They're better designed. Access is possible without tools. The interior is easier to work within, both building and servicing. Hard drives will be on slide-out trays. Cables will be labeled and color-coded. Nice.

Other Points:

  • Check the sturdiness of the case. Some cases being manufactured now are too flimsy inside.
  • Make sure the case you select can be closed without a major planned operation. Some are very difficult to close when opened. The screwless type is best.
  • Also, avoid a case that comes apart into many pieces.
  • Look for at least two USB ports, preferably in front.
  • If you get the tower case, make sure you have enough room for expansion with at least two free bays and a free PCI slot. If you have an graphics integrated mobo, look for a free AGP port.
  • If you have a camcorder and you intend to do video editing, you will want a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port.

Power Supply

Every case will have its own power supply which comes with the case. Make sure it has one that will accommodate the hardware you wish to use. Many cases, especially older ones, are only 250 watts. It used to be that this would be more than enough. But now with more powerful computers with components that require more wattage, 250 watts may not be enough. If you'll be getting a large amount of hardware or high-end hardware, especially a high-end processor, look for a 400 watt power supply.

The power supply is often given little thought by most computer builders, yet the power supply is one of the most critical parts of the computer. Because it is so often ignored, manufacturers are aware of this and will often use the cheapest power supply they can find. Cheap power supplies often lack stability, creating noise, spikes, and surges. Yet this one unit supplies power to very sensitive components! In fact, the power supply is usually the one component that most often fails and needs replacing. No wonder, since they are often of such poor quality.

The wise computer builder will pay extra and get the best quality power supply available, even replacing the one provided by the case manufacturer. Get one rated at 400 Watts. Installing a good power supply will do more to protect your computer than anything else you may think of.


The motherboard, or mobo, is the most important component in the computer. In one way or another, everything inside connects to it. You should be mindful of several things before buying one.

You need to evaluate your needs and look at mobo accordingly. A motherboard is one of those things that is best when it is more than what is immediately needed. So, always think about expansion when selecting a motherboard.

BIOS - The Basic Input Output System (BIOS) is a pre-programmed chip embedded on the motherboard. The BIOS (pronounded bye-oss) provides the memory, monitor, keyboard, and printer with instructions on how to do basic things and accomplish simple tasks. The BIOS does not control the computer. That is the job of the operating system.

Mobo Types - Although there are many levels of motherboards, for the purpose of categorization, they may be thought of as being of two types:

  • Inexpensive Multi-use Mobos Fair to good quality boards are made for the non-technical average computer user. These inexpensive boards are characterized by offering a package of goodies built into the board, such as a sound, video, modem. They have limited range of CPU support, often overclocking is not especially good, usually with zero expandability. They are cheap and are made for popular ready-made computers purchased in stores.
  • Standard Mobos Very good to superior quality boards with a lot of technical goodies. They typically have multiple hard drive controller options including EIDE and SCSI, most come with on-board sound, and some come with on-board video. Often the sound and video can be disabled enabling the use of better-quality, separate sound and video cards. There is usually good processor support, good overclocking, good voltage, lots of multiplier settings, a good number of PCI slots, and they usually come with a built-in network card.

Form Factors - Motherboards come in two form factors. You will have to select which form is best for you. The two forms are AT and ATX:

  • AT Regular AT form factors were used in early computers and will usually not fit into most present-day cases. The Baby AT form factors are the most commonly seen today. They measure around 8.5 X 13 inches. A common problem with Baby AT forms is the location of the processor; it's in the front and can sometimes get in the way of expansion cards.
  • ATX The ATX form factor is a superior design in many ways. While the Baby AT is acceptable, the ATX is much preferable.

In/Out (I/O) Bus Slots

Embedded on the mobo, the type and number of I/O bus slots is an important consideration. There are two types in current use:

  • PCI - As the present port standard, PCI is used for a number of boards, including some video cards and all sound cards. Since Intel will soon double the 33 MHz speed of the PCI bus, the PCI has a bright future. We recommend you find a mobo with five PCI ports. Four ports may be adequate. However, some may have only three PCI ports, especially if the video and sound is integrated (embedded) onto the mobo.
  • AGP - The Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) allows 3D imaging software to have accelerated access to RAM memory. This provides enhanced image rendition which means superior quality graphics. We recommend you look for two AGP's (but feel lucky if you get even one). If you do graphic-intensive work, you must locate a mobo that has at least one AGP.
  • Note: Since late 2000, mobos are no longer manufactured with ISA ports. ISA cards should be avoided. (Of course, if you are working with an older computer, ignore this remark.)


The chipset is the part where peripherals are connected (plugged) into the computer (actually the motherboard). Because the chipset has a set number of connectors, in effect it establishes the limit of future upgrades. Therefore, you should pay attention to the chipset before you purchase a mobo.

  • Parallel Port
    A parallel port is used to connect a printer.
  • Serial Ports
    A serial port is used to connect a mouse, keyboard, joystick or other similar device.
  • USB
    Embedded on the mobo, the Universal Serial Bus (USB) is a one-size-fits-all connector. Peripherals may be connected without turning off the computer or removing the computer cover.

    Eventually, USB connections will replace all parallel and serial connections. In turn, this will simplify connections, it will eliminate the need to identify ports, eliminate the need for adopter expansion cards, AC power adopters for devices, eliminate the need to configure software drivers and dip switches, among other necessary tasks. Monitors, keyboards, mice, joysticks, low-resolution digital cameras, low-Speed CD-ROM drives, and modems that do not need high performance connections will all use USB as their standard in the future. USB's usually come in two's.
A few things to look for:
  • Size - Because some mobos are larger than others, make sure the one you select will fit into the case.
  • Cache Module - A very few motherboards do not have an L2 cache embedded. If that is the case, you may need to buy one and install it.
  • Mobo-Processor Compatibility - Not all motherboards are compatible with all processors. The sticking points are voltage and speed. Here's why:
    • Voltage - The mobo's voltage regulator converts voltage to the core voltage of the processor. The problem is that the voltage regulator is designed to supply only certain voltages. Therefore, it is necessary to match a mobo's voltage capability to that of the processor.
    • Speed - Also, the mobo's processing speed and the processor's processing speed must be within the same range.
  • Jumpers - Connectivity within the case is done by Softmenu, DIP switches, or jumpers. Each one controls the CPU clock speed, bus speed, and CPU voltage. Any of these three is acceptable.

DIP switches are not used often. Jumpers are the most common. However, the preferred method is Softmenu, which are used in the newer cases. Even though Softmenu may sometimes cause software problems, in general they are the easiest to deal with.

When building a computer, the mobo manual has information you must have. When buying a mobo, don't forget to get the manual.

Video Card

A video card, sometimes called a graphics card or a video graphics card, is what displays images and text on the monitor.

Integrated System
While the use of graphics technology is usually in the form of a removable board, at times it will come as a chip permanently attached to the mobo.

The less expensive Intel Celeron and AMD Duron processors usually have mobos with an integrated system. One disadvantage is that the mobo uses the main system's memory. The video graphics, as it is integrated into the mobo, will draw on the system's memory as well as the mobo. This reduces the amount of memory available for the rest of the computer. With light computer use (word processing, spreadsheet, eMail, surfing the Net, other business software) this is perfectly acceptable. However, you do not want to use an integrated graphic system for serious gaming or any other graphics-intensive work.

A way around this problem is to add a video card to the computer. However, this will only work with some mobos which have an empty AGP slot. Make sure it's there if you may wish this option.

AGP - Medium- and higher-quality video cards and mobos increasingly use AGP as the connection standard of choice because it provides higher quality. Look for a AGP slot on the motherboard before purchase. Even if your present video card is not AGP, a later upgrade is more likely to require an AGP connection. There is no adopter available.

The quality and price of video cards does vary:

Basic - If you intend to use the computer only for eMail, word processing, surfing, and business programs, then an integrated graphics mobo or an inexpensive card with 32MB of SDRAM will do nicely.
Mid Level - Also in the mid level, an integrated graphics mobo or a simple, solid but inexpensive card with 32MB of SDRAM is perfectly acceptable. If you're interested in running games, note that older games should run without flicker on an older 3D/2D video card with 64MB of DDR SDRAM. You can squeeze by with 32MB, but image quality may not be as good. These mid level boards are now considered "budget." However, there's no reason to go higher (and pay more money).
High End - If your interest is in the newer, more sophisticated, texture-rich, full-motion 3D games, video editing, or any other graphics-intensive work, you'll need a high-end video card. Two manufacturers are ATI and NVidia. More sophisticated gamers and video editors need a card that can:
  • Deliver 60 frames per second (fps) in order to avoid the dreaded flicker, and
  • 128MB (or higher) DDR SDRAM of video memory. Make sure it's "DDR" memory.
Some high-end video graphics cards now come with TV tuners or TV-out channels. This type of TV add-on is found on high-end video graphics cards. Unfortunately, the general quality of a video graphics card is usually compromised when TV add-ons are added! This technology is certainly the wave of the future. However today, buying a good ole' standard TV can be cheaper and much more practical.

If you want a superior high-end card that will make you drool, I recommend you buy a PURE video card. Don't buy an expensive video card that sacrifices performance for the sake of unnecessary TV add-ons.

Note: If you play DirectX 8 games, you will need a video board that supports DirectX 8 hardware acceleration.

Retail stores usually carry a limit selection of video cards. Don't forget to look online.

Other Parts to Consider

Sound Card & Speakers

Many motherboards have sound integrated into the board. Inexpensive speakers are available. That will be adequate for many office and home environments. If you're interested in better quality sound, you may wish to get a better sound card and speakers. For under $300 you can get a SoundBlaster sound card with Dolby and a decent set of speakers.


Naturally, you need a monitor. Select one you feel comfortable using. I recommend getting at least a 17 inch. You may wish to get one that is larger. Flat screens are very nice but more expensive. Look at monitors in stores. Text will show if the monitor is really sharp, graphics do not! So ask to see text on any monitor you may be interested in.


You will find you need a CD-ROM up and running as soon as possible in order to install the operating system, the O/S. Make sure the CD-ROM comes with its driver installation disk. This will allow you to install the CD-ROM driver even without the CD-ROM being fully installed.

Get at least a 40X ATAPI compatible IDE and not a proprietary interface. If you buy new, this will not be a problem.

You may wish to get a CD-RW, which enables you to write a disk. These are very handy for doing back-ups. You should back-up our work frequently.

An alternative to a CR-ROM is to get a DVD player. The price is about the same. You will be able to use it as a CD-ROM, plus you can watch DVD movies and use DVD software on your computer. DVD-RW's are available but they remain pricey.

Floppy Drive

Some people think they don't really need a floppy disk drive, only to find they have to install one later. Might as well to do it straight off. Make sure the pins are all intact.

Keyboard & Mouse

There is now a trend to replace the current standard PS/2 port to the up-and-coming USB port. More features are possible with USB, such as expanded keyboard capability (additional buttons) and a mouse with a scroll wheel.

If you want to use a older keyboard or mouse and the port you need isn't there, you'll need to get an adopter. If you're buying new, it's a good idea to buy the keyboard and mouse after you buy the mobo to make sure everything will easily plug in.

There are three main styles of mice:

The "standard" Microsoft Mouse is the most popular. It usually comes with two buttons, but some have three. They come in right- and left-handed versions. Most people find the standard mouse to be comfortable to use. But not I.

The mouse I have been using for years is the oval designed Logitech Marble Mouse, which has a large red marble or trackball. Instead of moving the mouse around on the mouse pad, the Marble Mouse remains stationary. The curser is moved by rolling the red ball around on your fingers or palm. I find it very convenient, considerably faster, and very much easier to use than a standard mouse. In fact, I now find standard mice to be awkward to use.

Another type of mouse that is popular is the IntelliMouse. It's a standard mouse with an additional wheel between and parallel with the two buttons. When you roll the wheel back and forth, you scroll up and down the screen without having to click on any scroll bar.

Cables, Screws, & Washers

Cables, screws, and washers will come with hardware you buy. Check and make sure you have them all. Sometimes a different cable may be needed. Check and make sure the CD-ROM has its audio cable.

When mounting a drive into the case, you can actually crack it by using the wrong size screw. Never make due with a wrong sized screw.

Make sure you have a supply of screws and computer washers in all the sizes you will need. Check to be sure the "stand-off" screws came with the mobo. (These are screws that raise the board 1/8th inch from the plate when it is attached in the case.)

A Few Words About Operating Systems

Operating systems differ widely in their ability to install easily. If you're a newbie to O/S installations, there are a new things you should be told.

Windows 95 installation requires some working knowledge of DOS. New installation of Windows 98 also requires knowledge of DOS, but not if the installation is an upgrade. This is an important consideration in selecting which O/S to select. Expect a Windows 95 or Windows 98 installation to be at least a tad frustrating. Blame it on Murphy's Law.

Windows NT and Windows 2000 installations are just plain difficult. These should only be attempted by those with experience.

Windows ME, oh my, why? In my opinion, if you already own Windows ME, do yourself a favor and forget you own it. I have, as have many others fed-up with constant crashing.

Windows XP is a very fine operating system. It is usually easy to install and provides a very stable environment. It has loads of features and it is inexpensive. Recommended

Windows Server 2003 is also easy to install, is even more stable, with more features, but alas it is expensive. For some people, Windows Server 2003 makes sense. But for most people, for now, Windows XP is Number 1.

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