PC building guides
Looking for more PC building advice? Check out our build guides:
Budget gaming PC
(~$750/£750) - A good entry-level system.
Mid-range gaming PC
(~$1,250/£1,250) - Our recommended build for most gamers.
High-end gaming PC
(~$2,000/£2,000) - Everything a gamer could want.
Extreme gaming PC
(>$3,000/£3,000) - You won the lotto and are going all-in on gaming.
Prefer to buy a prebuilt than building it yourself? Check out our guide to the Best Gaming PCs.
System building is one of the central tenets of the PC enthusiast community. It’s something we should all aspire to. Here at Maximum PC and PC Gamer, we’ve built rigs and taught others how to craft their own countless times. And with one very good reason: You get a real sense of pride from constructing your own machine, and an even greater one from teaching others how to do it. And with the added benefits of knowing every part that goes into your build, saving some cash, and understanding how to troubleshoot your system if it goes wrong, it’s hard to ignore the advantages that system building brings.
A lot revolves around system building across the industry. From hardware development, to the custom modding scene, to the liquid-cooling community, the gamers, the video-editors, overclockers, Linux users, web developers, you name it—all of them are based around that one basic principle. And for many, it’s what brought them to this community to begin with.
Yet in today’s age of easy-to-construct behemoths, is there really that much hidden knowledge to be discovered when it comes to these builds? Well, from the budding builder to the artisan crafter, a little knowledge can go a long way, and even today, some of us beaten-up techies still learn a thing or two whenever we build a new rig. So, let us impart our knowledge to you. We’ve broken more cases, sheared off more flesh, and destroyed more hardware than you can possibly imagine. Allow us to divulge those secrets, and give you our very best tips and tricks for building your own slice of Dream Machine pie.
Research, plan, budget—those are the first things you need to do when your mind wanders toward building a new rig
Tip 1: Research
A little knowledge can go a long way when it comes to building your perfect PC. And the best place to start is reviews. You can look at all the build guides in the world, but if you don’t know what gear is right for you, you’re going to end up sorely out of pocket, and with a system not fit for purpose. Reviews are a huge source of information. Whether they’re online, on YouTube, or in good old Maximum PC, you can learn how something works, how to install it, and how it performs when push comes to shove.
Second to reviews are manufacturers’ websites. Reading PDFs and install manuals ahead of time will make the build process far easier, and help you set everything up after, too.
Tip 2: Plan
Next up is the planning phase. This is more of an environmental and aesthetic decision-making process than anything else. Figure out how much space you have for your new rig, where it’s going to be situated, what form factor you want, and what chassis is right for you—remember, airflow and ambient temperatures are key.
Then you’ve got to think about what hardware will fit where. Do you want a 240mm AIO up front? Will it conflict with your GPU? What will internal temps be like? Can you install it on the roof? Or perhaps an air cooler is better? All of these things can be answered long before you even take the first step into an online purchase.
Tip 3: Budgeting
Taking the plunge and choosing what hardware is right for you relies heavily on the first two tips. Look at what cash you have and allocate it accordingly. Make sure you buy hardware that’s either appropriate for what you do today, or what you will do tomorrow. Don’t allocate half your budget to cooling and aesthetics if you can get 30 percent more performance out of it elsewhere. And make sure you don’t waste cash (on faster memory kits for Intel, for instance) where you don’t need to.
If a sale is coming up, wait for it—they’re usually worth it. Hell, you can drip feed hardware, too; buy one or two things per month, instead of going all-out in one go.
DIY vs. pre-built
We’re in an odd place with pricing, and that old adage, “It’s always cheaper to build your own rig,” doesn’t always hold true. Lately, a memory shortage and cryptocurrency mining have ruined it for everyone, though at least graphics card prices are finally back to normal. So how can system integrators still offer us cheap pre-built machines? It’s down to preemptive bulk buying. Most companies that offer pre-built systems buy all the hardware they need in bulk, well ahead of time, so for the time being at least, they’re still running off older prices, and can drastically undercut the current market.
Usually, the longer a memory standard has had to mature, the cheaper it becomes to produce, so the market stays ahead of the system integrators. But given current circumstances, that’s just not possible.
That’s not to say that system integrators don’t provide decent systems. Some of the best machines we’ve seen come from the likes of Falcon Northwest, Digital Storm, and others. After all, when your livelihood revolves around building bespoke, powerful machines, you’re going to learn a thing or two about putting together a stunning rig. Couple that with extensive parts and labor warranties, and they immediately become very attractive propositions, especially if you don’t have the time or inclination to build your own.
Tools of the trade
Nowadays, all you need to build most systems is a good old trusty Phillips head screwdriver, but here’s a selection of the other frequently used tools and handy gadgets we turn to in our PC-building escapades.
Magnetic bowl: You can pick up this handy Park Tool magnetic bowl for a little under $10 from Amazon. Amazingly useful for storing all your bolts and screws, you can attach it to anything metallic, at any angle, without the worry of losing any of the stuff inside. Plus, rub your screwdriver up against the bowl, and voila—magnetic screwdriver. That’s science, folks.
Isopropyl alcohol: For less than $4, this is one of the few liquids that won’t kill your hardware if it gets on it—99 percent alcohol is fantastic for cleaning off cruddy thermal paste, and is generally a good cleaning agent to get rid of smudges on almost anything (aluminum included). Just don’t rub it on soft plastic stickers and the like. Or inhale it. Or get it on your skin. Or try to drink it. Seriously. Just be careful.
Thermal paste: We stick with one brand: Noctua’s NT-H1 Thermal Compound. It’s a non-conductive thermal paste, with a satisfying consistency, which doesn’t spill out all over the place. You’re not going to see revolutionary changes in temp with a higher quality paste, but you will see some. Just make sure you don’t use conductive paste, but if you do, be careful when applying it to your CPU. If you want to splurge, try Thermal Grizzley's lauded Kryonaut paste.
Screwdriver & socket set: A decent set of screwdrivers will make builds far easier. Get a good kit with a variety of different sizes. Whether it’s torque screws, tiny M.2 screws, standoffs, Allen screws, or even proprietary hex screws on the back of GPUs (here’s looking at you Nvidia), a good set will cost you about $40, but potentially last a lifetime.
Cable ties: Amazon will happily sell you 300 of these for about $9, and they are, by far, the most useful PC building accessory you can own. Whether it’s tying up spare cables, strapping cables to your frame, or jerry-rigging all sorts of mounting procedures for less-than-amiable products, the humble cable tie is clean, easy to use, and one of the most versatile tools on the planet.
So, you’ve bought all the hardware, your tools are prepped—what’s the next step to ensure your build is as easy as it possibly can be?
Tip 1: Case stripdown
The first thing to do (other than lay out all your hardware, and take a shot for Instagram, obviously), is strip your case down to its frame. Carefully unscrew, pop off, and remove every panel you can find. You can also remove the dust filters and any hard drive cages you don’t need. Doing this improves airflow, makes your build infinitely easier to manage in the early stages, and stops you manhandling and potentially damaging some of the more aesthetically pleasing panels (damn you, brushed aluminum).
Tip 2: Panel storage
It's smart to keep your part boxes, at least for a year or so, until the warranties run out. That said, there’s an immediate use you can make of the box your chassis came in. The larger side panels and glass windows can slot carefully into your cardboard case box, between the polystyrene packing material, to ensure they don’t get damaged or lost. You’ll know where they are, and you can rest assured they’re not going to fall over or get scratched during the build process.
Tip 3: Meditate
Not really, but you should visualize where your hardware is going to go. This is a great time to do a test fit—place your hardware where you think it’ll go, and check there won’t be any problems or conflicting parts. Imagine your cable routes, check there’s enough room for your fans; it’ll save time in the long run.
Tip 4: Replace the stock fans
Most stock fans are more than adequate for providing some sort of cooling, but if you have an eye for detail, you prefer more performance-oriented fans, or you’re just after something that’s a little quieter, replacing those stock polypropylene blades now is definitely the best decision. With unfettered access to every area at this point, it’s easy to route the cables behind your case, and install them without worrying about the chassis being too heavy when everything’s inside.
One thing we would say is that you should wait until later to install any AIO liquid coolers, because the waterblock and tubing will only be a nuisance during the installation process otherwise. Also, if the top of the chassis is pretty tight, it might be worth holding off on those, at least until you’ve had the opportunity to plug in the motherboard power cables, and any other fan cables you’re going to need.
Tip 5: Pre-thread your cables
When working with more budget-oriented cases, with little cable management room, pre-installing and threading your cables ahead of time is a smart way of making a cleaner, tidier build, without necessarily breaking the bank. One particularly problematic cable tends to be the eight-pin EPS, or CPU power. For cases without any cable routing room, you can actually lay the CPU cable under the motherboard itself and into the top left-hand corner of the case.
Then, after you install and secure your motherboard down (not forgetting the I/O plate, of course), you can plug in and install your CPU cable, keeping it out of the way and tidy in the process. In pricier options, and with modular power supplies, now is the perfect time to decide what cables you’re going to need, and pre-install the lot, tying them to the back of the chassis where you can, using the cable ties we mentioned earlier.
Making sure your rig can handle the thermals thrown around inside is imperative, so how can you alleviate these conundrums ahead of time?
Tip 1: Right fan for the right job
If you're looking at maximizing your cooling efficiency, selecting the right fan for the right job is critical. There are two types of fan design: static pressure fans (with fat, thick blades), designed for high-pressure environments, where they need to push air through radiators or heatsink fins efficiently; and airflow fans (with multiple skinny blades), which are designed to move as much air through a system as quickly as possible, but without the same amount of force as their static pressure cousins.
At the very high end, you’ll find some static pressure fans that can shift as much air as an airflow fan, but that comes at a cost ($25-plus per fan). Noise is also a factor. The bigger the fan, the slower the RPM usually, and the less noise. Typically speaking, if you’re after a quiet rig, look for fans that operate below the 1,200rpm mark. You can control faster fans through the BIOS or a fan controller to go slower than the advertised speed, but you may encounter coil whine because of it.
Tip 2: Cooling with style
So, how do you cool your processor? Well, it’s down to personal preference and your CPU. With most mainstream, locked Intel processors, you can get away with the stock heatsink. If you prefer things more chilled, grab an aftermarket air tower. But there’s nothing to say you can’t use a 240mm AIO on a Core i3 or Ryzen 3. Any Intel K series processor at an i5 level, or Ryzen 5 or higher, should be cooled by a substantial tower solution or a minimum of 120mm liquid cooler ($50 or more). If you intend to overclock, this is a must. For Core i7 or Ryzen 7 and higher, with overclocking, use a 240mm AIO or $70 air tower. If you’ve not got much space, or limited intake, we recommend an air cooler over the all-in-one.
Tip 3: Air pressure
You've got the right fans and CPU cooling, next up is internal case air pressure. There are two trains of thought: balanced and positive. Balanced means you’re drawing (roughly) as much air in as you are pumping out, while a positive setup means you’re drawing more air in than you’re pumping out. Positive, in theory, stops dust entering through unfiltered areas, while a balanced system is better for airflow and temperatures. We’re talking four or five degrees at most. Try both: Using benchmarking tools, put your system under strain, read the resulting temperatures, and decide which you prefer.
Tip 4: Fan orientation
We all slip up from time to time. So what’s in, and what’s out? In short, you can always identify the back of the fan (the area air is being pushed out of, as opposed to drawn into) as the part of the fan with the fan guard attached to it. If that doesn’t help, it’s the part that the fan cable typically comes out of.
Accessorize your cooling
OK, we’re talking about RGB. Why, when it’s something we actively try to avoid? And how is it related to cooling? RGB fans are all the craze right now. We’ve seen plenty of LED fans in the past, but they typically only featured one color, and not the crazy cornucopia of rainbows that are now the norm across the industry.
We get it: Some folks enjoy being able to light up their rig in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. But when you’re trying to do it with fans, you have to include an additional cable that connects elsewhere (either into a fan controller, an included RGB controller module, or directly on to the motherboard). That’s another cable to route, and added bulk to work around the back of your rig.
It’s something you need to take into consideration if you plan to invest in these things. As far as performance is concerned, there’s a minimal impact on the fans. Admittedly, some blades do have to be constructed from a more transparent polymer, to allow the LED light shine through, but that’s all there is to it. Static pressure, airflow variants—they’re all there, albeit not to the standard of some of the more premium offerings.
If you’re itching for both performance and the ability to take part in the RGB phenomenon, Phanteks will sell you an RGB fan frame (which, admittedly, even we think is cool). Known as the Halos series, they come in both aluminum and plastic variants, and light the blades up in a very smooth pattern, while remaining pretty classy in the process—however, they only fit 120mm or 140mm fans right now.
General build tips
Brushing up on the basics is a smart move from time to time—things change, methods adapt, and standards morph.
Tip 1: AMD CPU installation
Outside of Threadripper, AMD has stayed with the PGA (or pin-grid array) setup—the interconnect pins between the motherboard and CPU lie on the processor, as opposed to the mobo’s socket, meaning fewer broken boards. To install your AM4 processor, match the golden corner on the chip with the corner on the socket. Lift the retention arm on the socket, carefully slot the processor into place, push it down firmly in the middle until it’s secure, then bring down the retention arm to lock it into place.
Tip 2: Intel CPU installation
To install any LGA processor, lift the retention arm out and up, then lift up the bracket, leaving the protective plastic covering inside. Line up the processor’s golden triangle with the etched triangle on the socket, gently drop it into place, then give it a tiny wiggle to make sure it’s secure. Bring the socket bracket back down, securing it under the Torx screw, then bring the retention arm down, and lock it in place. The plastic cover pops off on any LGA 115X platform, but you need to give it a bit of a tug on the 2011 sockets.
Tip 3: Thermal paste application
If you're building a Ryzen or Coffee Lake system (or any mainstream CPU build), a small pea-sized dot of paste in the center of your CPU is all you need. If it’s a larger processor—one of Intel’s Extreme Editions, for instance—use two pea-sized dots, and three for Threadripper, down the center. This should be enough to ensure that any CPU heatsink, fan tower, all-in-one, or water block has sufficient thermal interface material to transfer heat away from the CPU die, across to the outer extremities of the heatsinks.
Tip 4: Memory installation
Installing memory correctly is fairly straightforward. Find the notch on the bottom of each stick of memory, line that up with the notch in the memory slot on the motherboard, and carefully push it into place, making sure the clips on either edge of the memory slot are sticking up—these click into place once each stick is secure. Be sure to populate the color-coordinated memory slots, to ensure dual-channel or quad-channel support is operating correctly. If uncertain, refer to your mobo manual.
Tip 5: M.2 installation
Installing the world's latest and greatest M.2 PCIe SSDs varies depending on which motherboard you’re installing them on to. Some come with heatsinks, some don’t. But the basic theory is pretty simple: Use a small screwdriver to unscrew the tiny Phillips screw that holds the M.2 down, line up the M.2 connector with the slot, and push it into place until it clicks in. Then line the end up with the mounting point at the other end, and secure back down with the tiny screw. You may have to move that mounting point depending on the length of your PCIe SSD, and there may be an additional heatsink you need to add before resecuring it (remember to remove the thermal pad’s sticker first), but that’s all there is to it.
Tip 6: PCIe installation
When it comes to installing graphics cards and other add-in PCIe cards, first remove the rear PCIe covers from your case. Then, carefully line your card up with the PCIe slot on your motherboard, and gently push it into place until it clicks down. Make sure you install your GPU into the topmost PCIe slot for the best performance. There are different lengths of slot suitable for different purposes. PCIe x16 are the longest slots, designed for GPUs. You may find that some slots that look like PCIe x16 slots are actually x8 instead. You can decipher this by identifying whether the pins inside the slot go halfway or all the way to the end.
On the next page, we've got some advanced building tips and troubleshooting advice.