A Guide to Choosing Computer Parts -V2


A Guide to Choosing Computer Parts -By Proximon -Version 2 (old guide can be found here.)

This guide is in need of major revision and I am officially committing to an update :) - Prox, 5/6/17
This parts guide was originally created in 2008 to help most of the people who come to this forum asking what they should buy to build a computer. It's not intended to be a specific parts list, but rather the information you need to begin making informed decisions. It may seem like a lot of text. Well, there's a lot to know and I've tried to keep the size down and keep the language simple.

EVERYTHING on this guide is subject to change. It is up to date as of March 13, 2013. :welcome:

Much of the information in this guide came from regular contributors to this forum, by way of discussions, arguments, and advice. It is all supported by research. More information comes from various tech sites across the internet, including this one. ( I always keep an eye on this board, and what you see here reflects the current ideas.)

Other General Guides

No other current guides at this time.

When you are ready to make a post and ask for advice, please use THIS format.

Table of Contents

You can use the links below to jump to the right section, or just scroll down.

Choosing a CPU
Choosing a Motherboard
Choosing Memory
Choosing a Case
Choosing a Power Supply
Video Cards
Sound Cards


Choosing a CPU

The very first decision you need to make is which processor to use. Intel and AMD both have good options at various price points, and lately AMD CPUs have seen improvements that make them very competitive, whether you are looking for a gaming or general use CPU. For many years AMD CPUs were only rarely recommended.... usually when they became so cheap that a very low budget PC could be built around one.
[strike]The fastest CPUs for the system builder are also Intel. There is no debate here, it's been this way for some time now. If you last built a machine in 2005, this may come as a shock, but it's true. Currently the strategy from AMD is to avoid going head to head against Intel on performance, instead focusing on value. Sadly, they seem to be falling behind even in the value department. There is always hope this will change.
Tom's Hardware has this large and complete CPU guide stickied in the CPU section. I recommend you read it, it's a little out of date but still relevant.
Also, there is the monthly GUIDE done by Paul Alcorn from TH. I feel I need to add a comment to this however. It covers what is useful in TODAY'S games... Not what you might need next year. All CPUs become obsolete at some point, and the less power you buy today the sooner that will happen for you.

And while we are at it, I think I'll say a bit more on this subject. There was a time, not so long ago, when overclocking was best left to only the most knowledgeable and those with deep wallets. These days, it's only a very small step from designing and assembling your own PC, to overclocking it. The gains to be had are LARGE and the risk is far less than it once was. I have to say there is still some risk, or I'll get sued or at least hated... but there is more risk in just building your own computer in general than overclocking it. There is also a certain amount of knowledge to be gained in the process, that will benefit the average user.
Intel now offers a kind of "insurance" for overclockers:
This means you can tweak your performance guilt-free.

Number of Cores
The debate about the number of cores needed for gaming has heated up a lot lately. However, we were having those debates almost 9 years ago If you do not know for certain that your professional software can use that many cores well, you should find out before throwing money at the extra cores.

This needs to be said. There is a disturbing trend here at TH lately to recommend CPUs based on today's needs. This is folly. My experience shows the average user keeps a CPU/platform for around 4 years, and much can change in that time. Buy more CPU than you need, if you can afford it. Just don't spend huge amounts on a CPU that is only slightly better than one far less expensive.


Choosing a Motherboard

Motherboard Chipset
We will now get into the specifics of motherboard choices. When we talk about motherboards, the first and most important thing (after CPU socket) is chipset. The chipset of the motherboard will determine how the board handles all the various parts that get plugged into it. If your CPU is the brain of the computer, the chipset is the spinal cord. So, we classify motherboards by the chipset on them. I use chipset in a broad way here, and it can include more than one chip (or controller) on the same board.

Advanced: Learning about the voltage regulation of a motherboard will take you a very long way in evaluating the quality of that board. For a truly masterful guide to this subject see this Hardware Secrets Article.

Thomas Soderstrom, A.K.A Crashman, wrote an excellent article for TH covering motherboard choices. It is now a bit old, but still has good data. You will find a bit more opinion and links to external sources in my guide, as I'm not in anyone's employ... that's in no way a knock on Crashman, he does excellent work. I just felt the need to point out potential differences. I make assumptions based on who I think is reading my guide. Crashman does not have that luxury.

Intel CPU Boards
(in order of current new build popularity)

Intel Socket LGA 1155 (Most recent mainstream socket. Supports both Sandy bridge and Ivy bridge processors. Individual older boards may not support the Ivy Bridge processors)

Panther Point Chipsets (coincides with the release of Ivy Bridge processors, but also supports Sandy Bridge processors)
These chipsets ALL support onboard graphics. They all have native USB 3.0. They have PCI-E 3.0. Whether a manufacturer implements all those features on a budget board is another matter, but in most cases they do.

Supports overclocking and onboard graphics (with appropriate CPUs only). The most feature rich chipset.

Just like the Z77 chipset but a few less features, especially SSD caching that is present in Z68 and Z77.

No overclocking but it does support SSD caching. Normally the most feature rich non-overclocking board.

This is a "business class" chipset with no overclocking or SSD caching, but some enterprise features. It may be found at a good price for budget builds, and has great features for budget oriented gamers too.

Cougar Point Chipsets (coincides with the release of Sandy Bridge and the LGA 1155 socket. Many motherboards with this chipset can support Ivy Bridge CPUs, but will need a BIOS update to do so.)

- Intel Z68
This chipset offers a couple features found in P67 and H67, but combines them. It is able to OC but is ALSO able to support the built-in graphics of SB CPUs. It is able to use a small SSD drive as a HDD cache, speeding up performance. If you are a gamer and have enough money to buy a larger SSD (80GB or more) then this choice doesn't give you anything really and you can stick with P67. Note though that Z68 boards do come in very deluxe models. Perhaps having that backup graphics option will be something some people will want. Most gamers building an Intel rig will get one of these.

- Intel P67
The chipset that most gamers buying Intel used to get. Supports the newest LGA 1155 CPUs. Does NOT support the graphics built in to those CPUs. Does support overclocking. Supports dual PCI-E slots running at x8/x8, but look carefully at the specific motherboard as some will not have this feature. SLI or Crossfire. SATA 6GB/S support but no native USB 3 support (But most boards will still support USB 3 using another chip). Still a very good choice, especially if a price is much better than similar Z68 board.

- Intel H67
The new LGA 1155 chipset for those that want the built-in graphics of the new CPUs. Does not allow for CPU overclocking, but memory can be overclocked.

- Intel X79
This is for socket 2011 CPUs. It offers more features and is strictly high-end. There are not many compelling reasons to use these boards and CPUs currently, as almost all gamers will not benefit from these features. Machines that must do double duty 3D rendering as well as gaming might be one use. Perhaps as video cards develop over the next two years, and place a larger demand on motherboard resources, this platform will get more recommendations. If you have very deep pockets and a desire to show off, perhaps. (NOTE: Recent studies indicate that the extra PCI-E lanes available may indeed benefit those gamers that are using two high-end video cards)

- Intel P55
This was the previous gen chipset for desktops, and used discreet graphics cards. No reason to buy this for a new system now, as the newest chipset and CPUs offer such a large increase in performance... unless you find a very good deal. these boards and CPUs still outperform AMD options.

- IntelH55, H57
This is the previous gen chipset for desktops that only needed onboard graphics. No reason to buy this for a new system now, as the newest chipset and CPUs offer such a large increase in performance.... unless, again, you get a very good deal.

-Intel x58
The x58 supports LGA 1366 i7 quad core or 6-core CPUs from Intel. This is now obsolete, not recommended as it has been replaced by sockets LGA 1155 and LGA 2011. It's still a VERY nice platform and owners of these boards and CPUs have little need to upgrade.

- Intel Q57
LGA 1156 chipset intended for corporate applications.

AMD CPU Chipsets

Most of the modern AMD chipsets now come in an AM3+ flavor - what that means is that the motherboards use DDR3 and both AM3 and AM3+ CPUs can be used in them. This gets confusing and we really don't want to be confused, do we? For new AMD builds, you will probably want an AM3+ board and DDR3 now.

AMD 990X, 890GX
This AMD chipset supports crossfire at x8/x8 and SATA 6GB/USB 3.0. The 890GX has a very slight onboard graphics improvement over 790GX, depending on who you ask. The 990X does not have onboard graphics.

AMD 990FX 890FX
More bandwidth for the PCI-E slots (for your multiple graphics cards). Should have all the bells and whistles and will usually cost a bit more.

AMD 970, 870
Will normally have just one PCI-E slot and no onboard graphics. A great budget choice.

An older chipset, but still many sold. Much like the 890GX but with no support for USB 3 or SATA 6GB/S

AMD 790X
Like the 790GX but without the onboard graphics.

AMD 880G
Popular budget board with onboard graphics. May have SATA 6GB/s and USB 3.0. Still used for new AMD budget builds.

Other Motherboard Considerations

There is a lot more on a motherboard than the AMD or Intel chipset. Audio chips, SATA controllers, USB chips, heatsinks... it can be a long list. Currently, USB 3.0 and SATA 6GB/s are new standards that are not yet available on every board. Check for these and do not omit them from your budget, if you are too poor to afford them you are likely better off buying used parts.

Integrated graphics?
There are times when you just don't want a separate graphics card. Many computers just need to run office apps, or play a few movies occasionally. Fancy gaming video cards are not wanted. This is a good time to consider AMD actually. The A-series AMD processors have built-in graphics that can even do moderate gaming. I will not cover this in detail here, as most of our visitors are building rigs that could use a bit more GPU power. Ask us which onboard graphics motherboard is right for you, and we'll help.

What about SLI?
SLI means running two or three Nvidia graphics cards linked for increased gaming performance.
Crossfire means running two or more ATI Radeon cards linked for gaming performance.
SLI/Crossfire FAQ by Maziar
Many P67 and Z68, Z77 boards and all x79 boards support both crossfire and SLI. 890GX and 890FX run only crossfire, not SLI. Most 990FX boards should now support both CF and SLI.

Expansion slots?
Can be important, and a key part of planning out your computer. A large video card that is placed on some boards might block access to parts of the board you need. Two large video cards may make it impossible to install that sound card you want. Look at the expansion slots, imagine your cards and where they will be.

All modern boards come with built-in wired networking ability. Only certain boards come with built-in wireless functionality, so you may need to buy a wireless add-in card. The onboard wired Ethernet will be all that most people need.

See the sound card section below.

Hey, there are all sorts of things that can be plugged into a motherboard. PATA, SATA, USB, eSATA, Firewire, the list goes on. Make sure you know what you need, and what you do not. Make sure you aren't paying extra just for some fancy port you will never use. Some people really do need 8 USB ports. Many of your ports are accessed in the back of the board, and some are internal – meaning they accept cables from the front of your case.


Choosing Memory

Most new builds will now use DDR3, unless you are using an older AMD CPU for some reason. (or the PII 920 and 940, which are DDR2 only)
Historically, timings, also referred to as latency, have been more important than the frequency of the RAM. So for instance, DDR3 1333Mhz 7-7-7-20 would be better or equal to DDR3 1600Mhz 8-8-8-24. That has changed now with Sandy Bridge and a builder should buy frequency first then latency. 1600Mhz with a latency of 9 would still be faster than 1333Mhz with a latency of 7. How important is it outside of benchmarks? Just a little bit. Don't spend a lot on faster RAM if you need the money somewhere else.

H61/H67/P67/Z68 H77/Z77 RAM (Most new builds)
RAM for the i5/i7 LGA 1156 and 1155 CPUs and MBs is purchased in pairs. It is DDR3 and needs to have a voltage at or below 1.5V.
RAM for i7 LGA 2011 builds is purchased in sets of 4 normally, and can be 1.65V but should be less.
RAM for the i7 LGA 1366 CPUs and MBs is purchased in sets of 3. It is DDR3 and needs to have a voltage at or below 1.65V.

AMD RAM RAM purchased for an AM3+ board should come in sets of two. There is no need to use faster than 1333mhz, and voltage is not a big issue. (The newest AMD processors do support faster RAM speeds. I can't say at the moment how that might impact system performance.)


Choosing a Case

With modern CPUs, chipsets, and video cards getting hotter, adequate cooling becomes more and more important. While the CPU fan or the video card fan must do their jobs well, the case itself and the fans moving air through it must provide adequate cool air to those parts.

When looking at a case picture in an online store, you may not have the correct impression of its size and looks. Getting a case that you like to look at IS important. If you can't see the case you are interested in personally, I suggest looking for a video as these give a better idea.

A good computer case is not, actually, one with lots of holes in it. It's a case with carefully placed holes with fans behind each hole, pushing air into the case or pulling it out. Ideally, air will be pulled into the lower part of the front of the case, and exhausted from the top and rear of the case. Picture the air moving through the case like a river.
Some cases seem to be quite successful using different methods of air cooling though, and hopefully more actual thermal tests will be done in the future.

Most builders will want a roomy case, to fit any potential part and to make building easy. Most "mid-tower" and "full tower" cases are roomy enough, but some can be too limiting. Pay close attention to the forward edge of the motherboard and how close it comes to the hard drives. Cable routing possibilities can also be crucial to the enthusiast that wants a nice looking build.

Do not forget front ports! Get the ones you need, including USB 3.0


Choosing a Power Supply
PSU=Power Supply Unit

This is the most overlooked part of a computer build and the most important.
A computer power supply does far more than you think. It has to communicate with your motherboard to coordinate power needs. It has to adjust to varying power demands, all the while maintaining stable power in exactly the right amount. It has to do this in a range of temperatures and over a long period of time.

* A cheap power supply can fail spectacularly taking your entire computer with it. Just don't buy ANY PSU without consulting the experts. *

Picking the right PSU can take some education. Here is a guide that will steer you to the right PSU, while helping you learn as much or as little as you would like along the way.

Linked from that guide you will also find a list of the most frequently recommended PSUs.

Other features to look for in a PSU:
-Efficiency. This one is getting to be important, especially if you have to pay your own power bills. An 80% efficient PSU that needs to supply 400W will pull 500W at the wall. Also, the more efficient a PSU is, the cooler it runs. These PSUs generally have an "80 plus certification".
-Active PFC. An active PFC power supply is generally a good indicator of quality, although not complete. Active PFC units will have no input voltage selection switch, because they sense the input voltage and adjust automatically.
-Cable types and length. Many power supplies have difficulty reaching everything in the larger cases.
-Heat generated. Tied directly into quality and efficiency though, so it takes care of itself.
-Noise generated.

Generally, you and I can't say what a good power supply is. We do not have the knowledge or equipment to test PSUs properly. Most of the reviews written are done by people who do not have the knowledge or equipment to do it right. There are a few places where you can get good reviews of computer power supplies. This is a list of the best:

Hardware Secrets

If you still want to learn more about PSUs, you should start here.
This masterful PSU tutorial is worth an hour of your time also.

To see what the actual power draw a certain video card has, see this TH article. However, newer cards are not included. There is also this list, which I use extensively: Atomic MPC forums

How much power do you need? Less than you might think, but I strongly recommend you get more than you need. Here is a link to a PSU calculator:
PSU calculator
Buy your PSU like you buy your case. Plan on using it through 2-3 builds. Allow for plenty of margin.

I will say this about power supplies. If you are like many of us and will keep the same case for a while, don't buy your PSU to last a year. Buy one that will last 5-6 years, through about 3 builds.



See also the section on cases.

CPU Cooling
Many of us hate the current stock Intel system of push-pins used to attach the CPU fan to the motherboard. The stock fan itself is actually OK, but the push-pins create uneven pressure or fail completely, often. If the budget is tight and you do not intend to overclock, by all means stay with the stock CPU fan. Otherwise get a top-rated CPU cooler, and one that does not use the push-pin system at all.
The AMD system still works very well for stock clocks.
Top CPU heatsinks.

Water Cooling
Your CPU, GPU, and even other parts of your computer can be cooled using a water system similar to what you might find in a car or motorcycle. There are advantages to this. Water cooling is more effective, allowing for better overclocks. It is usually quieter. It looks cool.
It requires a bit more knowledge and aptitude than PC assembly in general, and many simply feel it's too much work. If you are interested in learning more, there is a great Guide with links here.

Closed Loop Water Coolers
This is the new trend, and a welcome one. These coolers require careful research before purchase, because they require a place to mount the radiator inside the case. Case and cooler must be compatible. They will cost more than air coolers. Most of them will cool as well or in a few cases better than air coolers.
So what is the advantage? They place less stress on the motherboard, as there is no large weight hanging off the CPU area. They can be quiet. They do not block the view of the motherboard or interfere with tall heatsinks on the RAM. They require no maintenance, but probably will not last as long as an air cooler.


Choosing a Video Card

A video card is also called a GPU, which stands for Graphical Processing Unit.
IGP is Integrated Graphics Processor and sometimes is used to talk about the built-in graphics of a CPU or motherboard.

An office machine does not normally need a video card. An IGP works fine in this case. Video cards are needed for moderate or heavy gaming, and also for professional applications such as CAD and Digital Content Creation.

Gaming Cards
This is covered very well and simply right here at TH, and I have little to add to this simple, direct write-up done every month:
TH Guide January 2013
What this article does not address is overall system cost of the various solutions, but it has improved in this and mentions overall cost in some spots. But then, that's why we have this forum ;)
Also not covered in the TH guide are more transitory deals and special overclocked cards that might be better choices for some. When dealing with non-reference video cards, be cautious and read real reviews, not newegg user reviews.
If you intend to use 2 or three high-end video cards in a new system, along with surround/eyefinity monitors, you may want to look at the newest x79 motherboards.

Other uses for video cards

Video cards are also used as processors, just like your CPU. This is because they are very good at certain types of calculations. So in some cases people who don't really need a strong video card will buy one for the computational power... but they already know that some program they are using, or will use, will make use of it.

Open CL This can be used with both NVidia and AMD products.


Choosing a Sound Card

With CPUs getting more powerful with more cores, and memory cheaper, the old argument of performance enhancement doesn't make as much sense. At one time using a PCI sound card such as a Soundblaster helped your computer run better while playing those demanding games such as Quake II :p

These days, inboard sound can be found on every motherboard you will buy. It works, and does not noticeably slow your computer. Occasionally it fails to work, just like other parts of your motherboard. Your motherboard will produce surround sound that will probably sound just as good to you as some fancy Audigy sound card.

Different sound solutions do produce different sounds. Very expensive headphones might NEED a high end sound card to sound right. Some speakers NEED a good sound card or external amp. If you really think you might be an audiophile, then go for a good sound card. It won't hurt anything but your wallet.


Choosing Storage

Hard Drives
Currently HDDs are somewhat expensive due to floods in Thailand last year damaging manufacturing. This is slowly resolving.
There are many things to consider when picking a hard drive for your system. You may even need to decide if you want a traditional HD or one of the new Solid State Drives (SSDs). Or both.
Speed is important, but can be determined by many things. In traditional platter-based drives the platter density, the amount of built-in cache, the RPMs of the platters, the firmware, and other things could determine the speed. There is no telling without viewing benchmarks. HDDs that claim to run on SATA 6GB/S ports are not any faster than the older ones.
Then there is reliability and support. Many, many years ago (15 or so) I called a company about a hard drive that was clearly failing. 2 minutes later I was told a new drive was on the way. It arrived 3 days later with a return box for the old one. No questions asked, just respect. While that company probably does not have that level of service any more, they still get my business. Good thing they are still the most popular HD company ;)
Also, these days we worry about power consumption and heat generated. Another important factor.
Here is a brief simple page on hard drives: http://www.hard-drive-help.com/technology.html


Solid State Drives are becoming common in builds with a budget of $1000 or so. Generally they will not help your game run smoother, but will help with virus scans, installations, large file transfers, game level load times, and of course boot times.
Here is a good monthly guide done in the same style as CPUs and GPUs:
Best SSDs For The Money: January 2013

Optical Drives

In recent years, there has been a lack of solid testing done on DVD burners. Read speed on both CD and DVD, write speed on all types of media, and other factors need to be considered. Error handling varies as well. Some drives will choke horribly while playing a DVD movie that has a small scratch, while others barely stumble at all.
We have assumed that most drives were good these days, but a recent test at Maximum PC showed some significant differences.
In general, you will want a drive that has a SATA interface and will read DVDs at 24x.
Blu-ray burners are approaching affordability and will probably now be considered for higher end builds. Blu-ray combo drives, that play Blu-ray but can burn DVDs and CDs, are a good buy for mid-range builds. 12x Blu-ray can be affordable now and gives great performance. Be aware that Blu-ray drives do not usually ship with the software needed to play disks, and this can be expensive.


Choosing a Monitor

The most popular monitors these days are widescreen LCDs. LCDs are easier on the eyes than the old CRTs, weigh less, and take up less space on the desk. Indeed, you will have a hard time buying a new CRT.

The resolution of your LCD monitor will determine to some degree how much video card power you need. You probably do not want to game on a 30" 2560 x 1600 monitor using an $80.00 video card. A GTX 680 is probably far too much card for a 15" monitor.

Many people are interested in the 22" or 24" widescreen monitors these days, as they provide good value. You can choose to buy one of the lower cost offerings, or pay a bit more for some good improvements in color, response, and contrast. Few good reviews are done on lower cost LCDs these days. Past useful guides are now getting too outdated to link.

This has always been an item I preferred to buy locally. There is nothing like seeing a monitor in a shop, and being able to return it if there is something wrong. Shipping costs and such mean that you can actually pay less locally. So, if you can, get a list together of a few you would like and go hit the stores for them.

Recently I bought a new monitor and had a very narrow list I wanted. I used an online seller but chose one with an excellent monitor return policy.


Other guides and links

Well, that covers the important parts. Yes, there are more parts to think about, but nothing I needed to write up here.

Following is a link to a very extensive list of online retailers, organized by country and continent:

Finally, I would like to provide a few links to help some of you learn how to assemble a PC correctly:

Here is a GOOD step-by-step. Really good. If you encounter anything in any other links that contradict this, THIS is the right one. Sadly, no pics:

Tecmo has a very good guide up now, with pics, and it very well could be the best around:

Driverheaven has a great guide up now with pictures:
The very nice case makes it look a bit too easy maybe, but it's a nice system using great parts.

Here is a tutorial with pictures that shows how to put together a cheap PC. All parts are cheap and you should NOT use the PSU they use:

This you tube video has some good points, and is done with fairly modern equipment, all new. The case he is using is a micro-ATX case from Antec:

Finally, I have my own method for applying thermal paste to Heatpipe Direct Touch (HDT) coolers such as the Xigmatek or Sunbeam CCTF...



You are welcome to make suggestions for improvement of this guide.

However, DO NOT ask me for advice on your build in this thread. Start your own thread and send me a private message with a link to it.


Feb 12, 2009

On an i7 LGA 2011 build, is it required to use RAM in sets of 4 or will a set of 2 DIMMs work?


Well, I think over 4 years is long enough to leave this guide untouched. There appears to be some major changes, finally, and leaving it up unchanged would now be wrong. I will start getting up to speed and hopefully in a few weeks will have a new version ready.

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