10 Useful Tips for Building Your First Computer

So, you’re new to computing, or perhaps you’re just getting ready to assemble your first desktop computer. While it may seem like a daunting task, the key is to stay focused and complete the assembly at a pace that suits you. You’ll notice that as you gain more experience, you’ll become more efficient with your time. Regardless, the task of assembling your own computer doesn’t need to be a challenge (unless you like that kind of thing!).

Below, I’ve listed ten useful tips that you’ll want to know before you get started on building your own computer. The goal of this article is to prepare you for potential obstacles that you’re almost sure to come across, and to help you deal with them in a quick and easy manner.


1)   Magnetized Screwdrivers

A common myth that can be debunked right now is that magnetized screwdrivers can cause damage to the components on a computer motherboard. This isn’t true at all. In fact, I highly suggest that you use a magnetized Philips Head screwdriver for your build. The most common type of screw you’ll encounter is a Philips #2. If you can, I’d suggest buying a multi-bit magnetized screwdriver set, so you’re equipped and ready for anything. You can purchase such a set from eBay or Amazon for $10 USD/£5 GBP.


2)   Motherboards and Anti-Static Bags

You’ve got your shiny new screwdriver set, and you’ve laid out the individual components of your brand new yet-to-be-built computer. The question is, where do you assemble your computer? Yet another myth that I’m going to debunk in this article is that you shouldn’t put your motherboard onto the anti-static bag that it came in. Unlike the first myth, there’s some truth to this one. You don’t want to have the board on-top of the bag while powered on as there’s a high risk of shorting out the electrical components on the board, rendering it useless. However, while powered off, it’s absolutely safe to do so.

For this reason, and to avoid accidental damage, I recommend that you put the anti-static bag to one side, and simply use the motherboard box. Generally, any non-conductive surface is fine; wood, ceramic, plastic, marble and cardboard are all perfectly okay.


3)   Ground Yourself Frequently

While working with electronics, it’s important to make sure you’re on the same level as them electronically as much as possible, otherwise you risk causing damage to the components. There are several ways to go about doing this. I’ll start with the easiest in your current situation.

As you already have the components of your computer build laid out before you, there’s a very high chance that you’ll have the power supply nearby. Great! Plug your power supply into the wall, but don’t flick the switch to turn it on. Touch the metal casing of the power supply whenever you interact with a new component of the computer. If you don’t happen to have the power supply in reach, something large and metal can suffice, but it needs to be larger than the power supply if it’s not plugged in to the mains.

Other options in this area include an anti-static wrist or ankle strap, and an anti-static floor mat. For the wrist/ankle strap, secure it to the air vent in the rear of a power supply that’s again plugged in but not switched on. Using this method, you don’t need to constantly keep grounding yourself.


4)   Gold Contacts on the Components

Gold Contacts on the Components
Gold contacts on a processor and RAM module.

Gold contacts are present on most of the components that make up your computer. Processors, graphics cards, system memory, hard drives and solid state drives all contain these contacts. They’re responsible for providing a reliable constant for electricity to flow freely.

For processors specifically, there may be hundreds of tiny gold pins or contacts on the underside. Older Intel and all AMD processors have pins on the processor, while newer Intel processors have pins on the motherboard. Due to their size, it’s best to handle the processor by its edges. It’s incredibly difficult (but not impossible) to fix any bent pins that may occur due to improper handling.

Don’t touch these contacts. By touching them, you’re not only risking damage to the component, but you’re also spreading the oils found on your skin, onto those contacts; the oil can disrupt the flow of electricity, and cause further issues down the road.

Should you happen to touch these gold contacts, the best solution is to wipe them with a dry lint-free cloth, the same kind used to clean the screen of your phone.


5)   Processor Orientation

Processor Orientation
Showing the golden triangle marking on an AMD A10-7870K (left) and Intel Core i7-4790K (right).

If you’re struggling to understand which way the processor sits in the socket on the motherboard, take a closer look at the markings on the top of the component itself. Whether it’s an AMD or Intel model, you’ll notice a golden triangle in one corner. This golden triangle always points to the bottom-left, and it aligns identically to the triangle found on the processor socket, on the motherboard.


6)   Thermal Paste Application

Thermal Paste Application
How to apply thermal paste to an AMD A10-7870K (left) and Intel Core i7-4790K (right).

One question I receive a lot relates to how much thermal paste (also known as thermal compound) you should apply to the processor of your computer. The exact answer will depend on the size of the integrated heatspreader (IHS) that covers the actual processor core underneath.

Traditionally, what I’ve always followed, is the ‘central grain of rice’ method. Apply an amount of paste equal to the size of a cooked grain of rice, moving down the center of the heatspreader. Don’t worry about not covering most of the surface as when you turn on your computer for the first time, the heat from the processor will spread this out nicely. Thermal paste comes in relatively small syringes and is reasonably expensive, so you’re going to want to be as conservative as possible.

This will take some getting used to, but don’t apply too much paste as it will have the same effect as if you didn’t apply any at all (an overheating processor!).


7)   Inserting and Removing System Memory (RAM)

Inserting and Removing System Memory (RAM)
The memory slot latches are colored white in this diagram. The latches open away from the slot on either side.

Firstly, it’s a good idea to understand which memory slots to occupy first. In a four-slot configuration like this, the motherboard will support a dual-channel mode, where the two 64-bit system memory bus interfaces are used simultaneously to increase memory performance. You don’t need to concern yourself too much with this, but something to keep in mind is that in dual-channel mode, programs that rely on more system memory will perform better (due to more bandwidth for data). In such a configuration on a motherboard, you’ll usually see two colored slots, and two black slots. If you only have two memory modules, you should occupy the colored slots first.

To correctly insert system memory (RAM) modules, open up the memory slot latches at either end (some motherboards may only have one per slot). Next, take note of where the notch in the module is located, and match it accordingly to the notch in the slot. Gently lower the memory module into the slot, evenly. Press firmly with the thumb of both hands close to either end of the module, until you hear the latches click back into place.

You have successfully installed a memory module. Repeat this process for the remaining modules. To remove, simply open up the latches and pull the module out of the slot, gently.


8)   Fans: The Direction of Rotation and Direction of Airflow

Fans: The Direction of Rotation and Direction of Airflow
Blue signifies cool air, and red signifies warm air.

Two more questions I commonly receive relate to computer case fans; “What direction do the blades rotate?” and, subsequently, “What direction does air flow through the fan?”

Take a look at the fan housing. You’ll notice two arrows; one points perpendicular to the fan’s orientation. This arrow is showing which way the air passes through the fan. The other arrow points out the direction the fan spins.

Additionally, you can also use the structure of the fan and its housing itself to work out which way the air flows. On one side, you’ll see the fan completely, without obtrusions, and on the other side, you’ll see a central hub that contains the mechanics for the fan to rotate, along with its spokes for structural support. The side of the fan without any obtrusions is the side in which air flows through, and is ejected through the other side where the central hub is located. This maximizes airflow.


9)   Air Pressure Inside the Case

Air Pressure Inside the Case
An example of an almost balanced positive air pressure. Blue signifies cool air, and red signifies warm air.

This one isn’t something I’d expect you to understand straight away, but it’s an important factor in computer assembly, and I felt it necessary to cover it. As a pre-warning, it will involve some mathematical calculations, so I apologize in advance!

Depending on the configuration of the fans in your computer case, you’re going to end up with either negative or positive air pressure. The fans themselves can be configured in either an intake or exhaust position, depending on whether you want to pull air in, or push it out.

There are many reasons why you’d want one or the other, and what you choose will also have an affect on the amount of dust that accumulates in the computer case, and the efficiency of the heat transfer. Ultimately, the best solution is one where the air pressure is almost balanced, leaning slightly in favor of positive air pressure inside the case.

To do this, you’re going to want dust filters for the intake fans, the fans that pull in air to cool down the system. You’re also going to want to take note of the maximum airflow ratings for the fans you’re using. This figure is measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM, or ft³/min) and is supplied either on the box, or in the manual. You’ll also find this information on the manufacturer’s website, if you’re without official packaging.

Now, if you have a case that will accept multiple fans in the same areas (which is likely most mid-tower and full-tower cases), and you plan on using more than one fan in the same area, you’ll need to take that into consideration for the calculations.

To achieve an almost balanced positive air pressure environment inside the case, the total airflow rate figure for the intake fans needs to be slightly above that of the total airflow rate figure for the exhaust fans. I’ll be updating this section in the near future to include an online tool that will calculate this information for you, so stay tuned!


10)   Power Supply Placement

It’s important to position the power supply in a way that doesn’t prohibit airflow going into the unit’s fan, potentially suffocating it. This will vary from case to case, but there are generally two positions for a power supply in a mid-tower or full-tower sized case — the rear bottom (most common), and the rear top.

It’s more likely that your case supports its power supply at the bottom of the chassis, located at the rear of the case. In this position, it’s best to have the fan facing up, and the air vent pointing towards the rear of the case. You’ll also access the power switch from here.

The other less likely scenario is that your case will have mounting points for your power supply at the top, again, located at the rear of the case. Here, you’ll want the fan facing down, and the air vent pointing towards the rear of the case.

In both instances, the fan acts like an intake fan, pulling in air from inside the case, and extracting it through its air vent in the rear. That’s why it’s a good practice to maintain an almost balanced air pressure environment inside the case, as explained in tip 9, so you minimize the amount of hot air that the power supply’s fan pulls in. After all, you can’t cool down with hot air!

There are ten useful tips for people building their own computer. Whether you’re an absolute beginner, or an experienced computer builder, I hope I’ve provided some insight into the wonderful art that is computer building. Let me know in the comments section below if you have anything I’ve potentially missed out that you feel should be included or answered.

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