Answer by Jae Alexis Lee, technology enthusiast and longtime manager:
My inbox overflows with questions about how to build a computer for X budget or if someone should buy part Z or Y. Frequently you hear veteran PC builders say, "Building a computer is easy and anyone can do it," but they too often write off the knowledge that allows them to build PCs "with ease." So what are the mistakes that new builders make? These are the top five things I get the most questions about where new builders can go tragically wrong.
Building with cheap parts.
I want to be really clear here: There's a difference between parts that are a good value for budget builds and parts that are simply cheap. I love budget builds that are refined to give you everything you can want on your budget but don't leave you holding the bag on something that's going to blow up in your face months down the road. Where I see new builders getting into trouble is when they don't anticipate the impact of the cheap part down the road. The $20 case manages to be a basic box that you can shove all your parts in... then, come summer, I get frantic messages wondering why a system is overheating and crashing. Worse than the cheap case is the cheap power supply... just because it belts out lots of watts of power doesn't mean that it meets your needs and power supply failure kills more system boards, CPUs, and graphics cards than just about any other component failure.
Advice to new builders: My general standard for a PSU is to get one that is 80+ Bronze certified or better. Likewise, when you're looking at your case or system board, don't sort the list of available components by price and just pick the cheapest one because it doesn't seem to matter. A few extra dollars here and there can stop you from having to spend even more to replace things when problems manifest themselves down the road.
Not paying attention to details
A system board is a system board, right? Wrong. The problem is, in many ways, new builders aren't certain how to compare all of the features involved in any given part. This results in some special awkward nightmares where you have a pile of parts show up from Microcenter or Newegg and then, in the midst of building things ... something doesn't work. People get system boards that don't have enough fan headers and then have to spend more money on a fan controller or wiring harnesses. They buy cases only to learn that the mounting points for 3.5" drives don't also have mounting points for 2.5" SSDs so they then have to rustle up an adapter. Radiator incompatibility, not enough room for a tall CPU cooler... all of these things crop up when first time builders miss the little details about what makes one part different from another and they all cost money to fix.
Advice to new builders: Take some time when you're ordering parts to double check things. You can't always get all the details you might need from retailer websites like Amazon or Newegg, but in general, the manufacturers are very good about providing highly detailed specifications that you can check. Don't hesitate to hit up Corsair or MSI or whoever's website prior to clicking "Add to Cart."
This kind of piggybacks off of the building with cheap parts bit. I see people bending over backwards to afford a GTX 1080 and then pairing it with the cheapest Pentium processor they can buy or throwing in a $1,000+ i7-5960X and getting a $15 air cooler to put on the chip. There's so much effort put into having the best of something that they give themselves problems that prevent them from actually getting all the performance that the high end part offers.
Advice to new builders: If you feel like you've needed to make sacrifices to get a really awesome part in your build, step back and see how many of those sacrifices go away if you replace the really awesome part with something that's close, but not quite as awesome. I love FTW and K|NGP|N editions of GPUs, but is it worth giving up on an SSD for the 2-5 FPS they'd get you versus an SSC edition of the same card? Do you need the Evo Pro 950 SSD or can you make do with a more basic SSD and re-invest the money elsewhere?
When you buy everything at once to build a new PC, I promise you, you're going to have parts left over. An SLI bridge that you don't need that came with your motherboard, or extra SATA cables, a dozen case screws of various sizes that you didn't wind up needing, heaps and piles of manuals. The amount of stuff you have left at the end of the build isn't insignificant. Novice builders frequently get rid of this stuff only to find that a year or two later they do need that SLI bridge or their computer won't boot and they don't know what the flashing code on the mother board means. All of a sudden the manual sounds like it'd be really useful to have, but it's long gone.
Advice to new builders: Save the box your system board came in. Into that go your manuals, receipts (in case you ever need to have something replaced under warranty), extra cables, left over thermal compound, case screws ... all of it, into the system board box. System board boxes are the perfect shape for holding all of the manuals and driver CDs while still having enough room for the other stuff and now all of the items associated with that computer are in the same place should you ever need them.
A lot of first-time builders make little mistakes that come back to haunt them later on. Forgotten thermal paste (or too much / too little thermal paste), CPU coolers that are over-tightened, wiring run so taunt that over time it deforms system board headers, wearing wool socks on shag carpet while handling components. Again, like many of the things above, this is about the little things that can trip a person up and have consequences down the road that aren't always apparent because, hey, the system booted, right?
Advice to new builders: If at all possible, invite a friend along that's done it before when you sit down to actually assemble so you have a little experience on hand as you mount and wire everything up. Failing that, there are several excellent Youtubers who have produced wonderful step-by-step tutorial videos and it can help to have at least a good video that you can pause, rewind, and replay as needed while you're building.
Building your first computer can feel overwhelming with hundreds of parts to choose from, dozens of acronyms, and a plethora of little details that can make your life rough down the line if you don't get it right. More than anything else, I'd encourage first time builders to take their time and if at all possible, bring some help along for the ride on your first one.
Custom built PCs offer up some of the best performance per dollar and the ability to get exactly what you want. While the task might seem intimidating at first, if you take your time up front to make sure you've got everything that you need and that it will all work together and take your time in actually putting it together, you'll get a system that will last for years and that you can point to with pride and say: "I built that, and it's awesome!"
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