Building a Computer - The Essential Components

By: Christopher Andreae
December 29, 2010

When it comes to building a computer you want to last a good amount of time you should consider what components should be cutting edge or high quality, and what components you can save a few dollars on by using less expensive technology.

In my experience the following components are the heart and soul of any computer. Having to replace one of these components is either cost prohibitive or labor intensive. To lower the chance of this occurring i suggest spending more on the following components:

The case - Make sure the case you pick is roomy and well ventilated. Unless you have a specific need for an ultra small computer footprint, a solid mid-tower ATX case should do the trick. 


In the photo above we see a rather cramped looking setup intended for use as a home theater PC. While the case is currently adequate for the application, it may encounter cramping issues down the road as new advances in technology begin to fill those PCI slots and drive bays.

This picture shows a mid tower setup with plenty of open card slots, drive bays and available fan mounting locations. 

Next up - The Motherboard!

Socket 498, socket T, socket whaa?  It can be a little confusing at time to keep up with the hardware changes that result from technological advances. Picking the right motherboard is key to future-proofing your PC. Before running out and buying the best and a little research on what is coming down the pipeline, and if the motherboard you are considering will be compatible. This is of the utmost importance since every upgrade you will do during the lifespan of your PC has to do with this component. 

I might also note here that a lot of large manufacturers take advantage of this when planning their lineups. To note a current scenario: Intel is transitioning from the LGA755 (Socket T) platform, made famous by the core 2 duo processors to its new i-series, which use a different socket, chip set and memory standard than their predecessors. Yet i cringe when i see the number of computers from the big guys that have Socket T motherboards. You have to remember though, these companies want you to buy computers, not components...and do their best to make them as unfriendly to upgrade as possible. 

Interestingly enough, AMD has made its new AM3 series of CPUs compatible with previous models' sockets, making it possible for your aging motherboard to keep up with the times. I should point out this is merely a current phenomenon...i favor neither AMD or Intel as they both have their ups and downs. In the past AMD has released a sequence of sockets rather quickly that made your old motherboard...older...faster. 

So what do i suggest? At this point in time it is best to go with an AM3 or LGA1566 motherboard for mainstream to mid-high power computing or the LGA1366 motherboards if you must have the best. 

Moving on, consider the power supply (psu) you will be purchasing. 
The PSU is a rather slow-to-change component that has a lot of workarounds to keep it up to snuff for the latest gizmo's. My suggestion here is to buy a reputable, high-efficiency power supply that can put out a little more juice than you currently need. Do a web search for "power supply calculator" to find out what your current power requirements will be, and add about 20% to it...that should be plenty of power for future improvements.

To summarize - here are a few rules of thumb:

1 - Make sure the case you buy is roomy enough for later additions and proper ventilation, and is durable enough to last you a few years. can always use the case again for your next build as long as a feather didn't happen to crush it.

2 - Do some research on upcoming processor technology and buy a motherboard that will more likely than not support "the next big thing." I tend to buy the newer motherboards and buy an affordable processor for it. Most of us don't need the fastest CPU out there, and it is a rather simple component to replace down the road...IF your motherboard jives with it.

3 - Check out power supply calculators and see what you need in watts for your proposed setup. Add 20% or so and buy THAT wattage power supply range. Note - opening your shiny new power supply and exclaiming "wow, it's light as a feather!" Is NOT a good thing....normally.

If you future proof your case, power supply and motherboard you can tailor the rest of the components to your current needs and budget without risking a rapidly approaching end of life for your shiny computer.

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