Get Ahead When You Build Your Own Computer

If you've been kicking around the idea of building your own computer, it actually isn't a bad idea. It's easier than you might think, and you can probably come out with a system that gives you more kick for your money, than you'd see in retail, or those made-to-order places. There are mainly two ways you're going to see the benefits here:

1. You can see the money you're going to save on this right up front. Just do a search on Cnet.com under "Compare Prices" for any random PC component you see in the stores, and you'll know what I'm talking about. In most cases, you'll cut out the full-retail markup, and then some. You'll find brand new, sealed, in-box items lower online than you'll ever find in any store.

2. The quality of the parts you're getting is much better than what they put in pre-assembled, store-bought computers. You'll know which brands mean quality. You could have a Creative sound card and a video card made by ATI or nVidia; the price difference is negligible, and we're dealing with quality and performance standards that dwarf any no-name components they put in store bought systems, so they can keep their costs down. Many times, computer manufacturers like just use a cheap motherboard that has everything, your sound, video, etc., integrated into it; you get a third-rate version of everything.

Here are the main parts, or the basic building blocks for what you'll need when you build your own computer.

1. A Motherboard. I talked about this a little earlier. All computers have one, but a good motherboard is just a fast connector that'll hold lots of memory and extra slots for expansion components. Steer clear of motherboards that have "built-in" this or "integrated" that, because they're almost always of lousy quality. It does help to have all your USB ports, keyboard plugs etc., on your motherboard, however. I have an onboard LAN that works pretty well, since a LAN is a LAN, but there were some driver issues with it when I put it together.

2. The Processor, or CPU. This is the "brain" of your computer. The kind of CPU that you can get depends on the kind of board that you picked out. The market is pretty much Intel Pentium 4 or AMD. Most people who are interested in higher power and long-term use tend to opt for the Intel.

3. Video Card. This is easy. Your motherboard either has a PCI Express video slot (newer and faster, but no real benefit yet) or an AGP 8X slot. Are you a hardcore gamer or someone who just uses a PC for a little email and word processing every now and then? This is the major question that'll tell you the video card you need. Obviously the more intense and rigorous your video and graphics demands, the more video memory your card will need.

4. Memory. Memory or RAM (Random Access Memory) is easy too. The main size ram you'll find that goes with what's still the most common new computer motherboard size (the Pentium compatible, socket 478) is the standard DDR 184 pin memory stick. Whether you need DDR 333, DDR 400, or DDR 533 (mhz, frequency and speed really) depends on the board you chose. Some handle all of them, some handle just a few, so be sure to read that part of the box, (or online description).

5. Sound Card. This is probably one of the easiest parts to pick out and add. Most standalone sound cards you'll see out there (the best way to go) are pretty good in the digital sound that they'll give you. I would go with Creative Labs, who I mentioned earlier, because they've been around since the mid 80's; they've got this right. Almost every one sold and made today is the PCI slot, the most common motherboard slot, so it's pretty hard to pick a sound card that won't work.

6. Hard Drive. This is your main storage on your PC. It holds all of your files, games, pictures, operating system, everything. I would make sure I had at least 160 gigs of space, even if I weren't a power user. This sounds like a lot but you'll find that just in everyday PC use, that space gets eaten up fast. There are a few quality names out there that most people know, like Western Digital and Seagate.

7. Chassis / Computer Case. It's good idea to get a case that comes with the power supply already in it, so you won't have to deal with the annoyance of buying one separately and fitting it in. Plus, the power supply warranty (and they do go out sometimes) is by the same people who made your case, so they're easy to track down. The only big consideration is that you need to get a case that supports the new generation boards (socket 478 and 775 for power users) because the power supply has this special 4-pin plug that any motherboard made in the past 5 years needs or it won't even boot up. But still, the biggest part of your computer case selection is going to be cosmetics and personal style, so pick one you like!

8. Other Drives. Once the main parts are together and your system's up and running, you can pick and choose what extras you like or need ? everything from CD or DVD burners to MP3 hubs and advanced audio hookups. With a little smart shopping, and little close attention to quality brands, you can build one affordable, high-performance PC in a snap!

Phil Moyers, owner of Build Your Own Computer Plan shows computer novices how to save a ton of money by putting together fast, high performance PC's of their own with handpicked, quality parts.

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