I've had a few instances where people ask me something like "isn't building a desktop computer fairly easy", or "do you build computers in a special way", or something else. The answers to those two specific questions are yes and no. However, there really is quite a bit more to designing a computer that is configured for YOU.
It's true, building a desktop computer (we're not talking about rackmount stuff here, nor the crazy-small ITX rigs that require elf hands) is relatively easy. The motherboard aligns in a certain manner in the case, the CPU has visual aids for mounting, the memory only goes in one way, as well as the video card. Of course, if you've never built a computer before, this all seems much more daunting, not to mention the horror of dropping your $600 video card on the floor by accident. So you ask, Chris, what really goes into what you do? Well, quite a lot, depending on what you want your computer to do.
Gaming computers typically have a smaller budget than workstation-grade systems. This is due to the lower cost of hardware, and the lesser amount of hardware. Gaming computers are built to play games, run your internet browser, open Word, make that spreadsheet, watch a movie, the list goes on and on. It's also crucial to remember that gaming computers are not ONLY gaming machines, they're still fully functioning computers. That being said, you don't need a $500 video card for a Facebook machine.
Gaming computers typically have a heavy cost associated with the video card, and to a lesser extent, the processor. The CPU is in charge of feeding the video card, so you want to make sure you have the right CPU for your workload (part of my job). The motherboard is the central hub, what everything connects to. These typically have 2-4 memory slots, 2-3 slots for PCI devices such as video cards, 1 socket for the CPU, and a handful of ports for storage devices (I'm skipping a few things here, bear with me). The motherboard needs to be compatible with your CPU, support the memory that you will need, have enough PCI slots for you, support any advanced functions you might want (multi-GPU support, overclocking, etc), and hopefully be robust enough to last several years. The GPU is the most important part of a gaming PC, obviously. There's a difference between gaming on High at 1080p at 60fps on Rocket League, and gaming at High at 1080p at 60fps on Crysis 3. One is fine with a $150 video card, one needs a $300 card. Your workload is extremely important when picking out components.
There are a few areas that are often forgotten about though. Namely, efficiency, noise, lifespan, futureproof, physical tolerances, cooling, power draw, and reliability. These tend to all be connected in some manner, so I'll do my best to explain.
Efficiency is best explained with power supplies. If you have an 250W 80+ PSU, that means you'll end up with 250W DC on tap to power your system. The 80+ means that it's 80% efficient at 20/50/100% loads. This translates to 312W from the wall (AC), losing about 62W as heat. Jumping to an 80+ Bronze gives us a 250/294W comparison, and going to an 80+ Platinum gives us a 250/272W comparison. Having a more efficient power supply means less additional heat in your case/room, less power drawn from the wall, and money saved over time. Power supplies are also most efficient in the 50-75% load range, so while a 500W unit for a 460W load would technically work, a 650W unit would put you at 70% of your total power capacity, instead of the 92% at 500W. Having more power on tap, allows the power supply to work less, create less heat and noise, and live longer. See, that covered several factors right there!
Noise is more than just your stock case fans being loud. Noise also relates to GPU fan noise, PSU fan noise, water pump noise, HDD spin-up noise, and yes, case fans. While some people don't care too much about noise, or plan on having their computer in an already-loud area, I work very hard myself to eliminate noise where I can. Not hearing your computer is a good thing. I recently asked a client how his new server fans were doing, and he said jokingly..."what fans, I can't hear anything in there!" That's a good thing to hear (or not hear....). Noise might seem like a low factor, but my theory goes like this; if you have the budget to eliminate noise where possible, do it.
Lifespan and reliability go hand in hand on most occasions. If something isn't reliable, it won't last long. If something will last 7 years without having a single issue, that's pretty reliable. Some of the best power supplies have 10 year manufacturer warranties, which is pretty incredible. Reliability also tends to mean more when designing a workstation computer, as the client will be using the computer to get work done, to make a living. Here's an example; you can work around a slower processor that's reliable, but there's no point in buying a hot-rod processor if it overheats often. In situations where time is money, reliability reigns king. Put the right part in the first time, and there won't be a need for a second time.
Futureproofing is a term that gets thrown around a lot unfortunately. To give an example, I bought a GTX 760 video card, for about $230. A few months later, I bought another 760, for about $230 (a game I played needed more GPU power to hit the visual performance mark I wanted). Now, there was double the core count (not double the memory, more on that in another article), but also double the power draw and heat output. Thankfully, my game supported multi-GPU (some don't). Had I gone with a single $560 card initially, I wouldn't have to worry about power draw, heat output, and the build would have looked cleaner. Futureproofing means buying the best possible thing you can, to save yourself from headache in the future. Sure, a $100 Ryzen 3 1200 is a decent CPU for 1080p gaming, but if you plan on getting into gaming+streaming in a few months, get the $200 Ryzen 5 1600 instead.
Physical tolerance is pretty easy to understand, but can be difficult to verify in some instances. I find this most often when messing with watercooling radiators and the associated fans.
Finally, cooling. Cooling can be a rather complex topic, as it can relate directly to reliability and power draw. Air cooling is more reliable, is less labor intensive, but is less effective. Water cooling is slightly less reliable (more parts that can fail), is more labor intensive (custom loop), but is more effective. That being said, a big air cooler is quite capable of cooling even the most powerful CPUs (when not pushing a big overclock). A part with a bigger power draw is going to need additional cooling, that's just simple physics. Cooling really comes down to a few factors; performance, reliability, maintenance, and style. I mention style because come on...who doesn't like looking at this...
Even after this article, I've really only scratched the surface of what goes into designing a custom computer. When I make a spec, every part has a reason for being selected. Of course, there's no point in putting 10 $25 fans into a computer that's primarily used for Facebook and Gmail, and the same rationale goes into automatically selecting a beefier cooling setup for an i9-7980XE CPU.
If you have a question about any of this, or something else, feel free to message me, email me, or get in touch via Morse code. If you request a quote from us, I'm always more than happy to explain in detail why I chose the parts I did.
Thank you for staying with me through this entire article, you rock!