Best Of Tom’s Hardware: How To Build A PC

The editorial team here at Tom’s Hardware has supported new PC builders since 1997 with tips, tricks, and sage advice. Our most complete builder’s guide was published back in 2006. Today’s updates add the best of what’s new to what’s tried-and-true.

Even though the computer industry's primary constant is change, there are several "constant constants" to aid builders in component selection. Tom's Hardware Guide has been a primary resource, covering the latest technologies for over thirteen years. Our community members have answered individual hardware questions for nearly as long, both sources working to prevent common mistakes that might ruin a well-intentioned PC project.

Before you start picking parts, a builder should clearly understand the machine's intended function. General purpose systems that deal with tasks like 2D games, Internet browsing, and document creation will obviously have modest hardware requirements. In contrast, high-end 3D gaming systems require better graphics, better cooling, and a larger power supply. Special applications, like 3D model creation and home theater PC use, should also be considered. These tasks require specialized hardware.

Best Case Scenario

When it comes to cases, size is often proportional to capability. For example, it’s often difficult to stick two dual-slot graphics cards into a case that only had two slots, even if clever marketing departments might try to get you to believe otherwise. In resistance to tricky marketing, let's take a look at a few case sizes and see where they best fit.

Traditional ATX Form Factor Case Sizes
Typical AttributesFull TowerMid TowerMini TowerSFF CubeDesktop
Height21-24 inches17-19 inches12-14 inches7-9 inches3-7 inches
Width6-8 inches6-8 inches6-8 inches8-9 inches14-17 inches
5.25" bays4-93-61-21-21-3
3.5" internal bays6-122-61-21-22-4
Card slotsSevenSevenFourTwo2-7
Power supplyPS/2 or largerPS/2PS/2 or SFXSFX or TFXVarious


Remember that these are typical attributes, and not all cases are typical. For example most current full-sized “gaming” cases fall between the mid-tower and full-tower dimensions listed above.

Full Towers traditionally are tall enough to hold two power supplies, though most early examples had a second hard drive rack where one might expect to find the top power supply. While these have space for up to twice as many drives, the average user (and even most power users) simply won't use the space. A better excuse for the home user to select such a large case is that the upper bays are easier to reach when the unit is positioned on the floor. Cooler Master’s HAF 932 is a good example of a full tower in gaming motif.

ATX Mid-Towers are usually capable of holding full-sized motherboards, full-sized power supplies, several optical drives, such as DVD burners, and multiple hard drives. Well-designed units are well-suited for gaming and video enthusiasts, simply because they support a greater number of expansion cards and hard drives than smaller units. A comparison of current products to our 1996 Gaming Case Showdown would show that good ideas stand the test of time.

Micro ATX Mini-Towers are nearly as versatile as mid-towers in most applications, including office use, where they present a less imposing profile. Mini-Towers typically support 1-2 optical drives and 1-2 hard drives, and microATX supports a maximum of four expansion slots. All of these limitations are acceptable for most users. A recent focus on portable gaming machines has even brought SLI and CrossFire to this somewhat-compact format.

Small Form Factor (originally known as Shuttle Form Factor) cubes typically support a maximum of two expansion cards and only the smallest power supplies. Relying mostly on onboard devices, these space-saving enclosures are best suited to traditional office roles, though several have been designed for home theater use by mimicking the appearance of miniature hi-fi audio systems.

A variation based on SFF aesthetics is the MicroATX cube. Often chosen for portable game machines, the small dimensions again mean restrictions on any attempt at an ultimate performance build. There are still microATX slot limitations, overclocking is compromised by an inability to fit oversized CPU coolers, high-capacity power supplies are a tight squeeze even when they do fit, and extended-length power units are usually out of the question.

Formerly used to raise small CRT monitors up to eye level on flat desks, horizontal Desktop cases are now best suited to home theater systems. These come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and motherboard form factors to match most home theater rack components. Watch out for custom-sized power supplies that may not be upgradeable, horizontal card slots that might require a motherboard with slots to match specific riser types and locations, and half-height slots that severely restrict card selection.

Further selection criteria can be found in a variety of online case selection articles. Once you've got an idea of what size you need, Tom's Hardware Guide Case Reviews can point out the good and bad concerning specific models.

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  • mi1ez
    that 1996 gaming case showndown linked to on page one is 2006. disappointment!
    1
  • mi1ez
    Page 7:

    Or for those of us in the uk, check out
    scan.co.uk
    ebuyer.co.uk
    overclockers.co.uk
    4
  • mi1ez
    Quote:
    Align one hole perfectly with the standoff and affix a screw, then push the board into alignment for a second hole before tightening the second screw.


    DO NOT install your motherboard like this. Have all the screws in place before tightening.
    3
  • mi1ez
    Quote:
    The newer 8-pin versions were originally meant to address phenomenally power-hungry Pentium D and Prescott-based Pentium 4 processors, but many modern AMD and Intel processors are efficient enough to once again work from 4 pins.


    However, when overclocking 8pins will give you far more stability and is highly recommended.
    2
  • 13thmonkey
    'windows rarely exceeds 16Gb even with temp files'

    Except for the fact that the hibernate file =RAM size say 4Gb, and outlook files (can't be moved from C:) another 1Gb, then know ing how to move personal folders and swap space to another drive, I'd suggest that rarely exceeds 25Gb might be more appropriate.
    0
  • kyzar
    13thmonkey'windows rarely exceeds 16Gb even with temp files'Except for the fact that the hibernate file =RAM size say 4Gb, and outlook files (can't be moved from C another 1Gb, then know ing how to move personal folders and swap space to another drive, I'd suggest that rarely exceeds 25Gb might be more appropriate.


    Do you mean the Outlook pst can't be moved from C? I've three customers in the building here that I've moved all the 'local' Outlook data to a network drive...
    0
  • 13thmonkey
    kyzarDo you mean the Outlook pst can't be moved from C? I've three customers in the building here that I've moved all the 'local' Outlook data to a network drive...


    I investiagted that for a while and found nothing to help, but I guess it can be done though. I was running a 30Gb ssd as a system drive (vista 64) and it kept creeping up to 25Gb+ will all folders on a different drive etc.

    However in an article about building a system to have the fairly advanced need to move certain systems files around or turn them off, without actually stating that you'll need to do it is a bit of a discrepancy, i'd bet that 90% of people that know how to run a light installation of windows already know how to build, and that 90% of those that don't know how to build but might want have limited windows installation/customisation skills. So it appears that the article is aimed that software literate but hardware illiterate people, seems like a really small group to me.
    -1
  • mi1ez
    Anyone checked these comment out in the forum? they're under "Windows 7 Versus XP: Which Belongs On Your Netbook?"
    0
  • waxdart
    Now I’ve stared to want to edit the home videos and make something. I’ve been thinking its time to upgrade my whole rig. No idea what I want to get. Not even too sure I can be bothered to self build of get a premade. A few years ago the margin was just in favour of self built. No idea these days. Any ideas?
    Price range is cheap as poss without being crap.

    Editing HD video and games is the point. Looks like I’ve got a few weeks read.
    0
  • drkw
    To Waxdart: A 4-core CPU for fastest rendering.
    Also an Nvidia 8000 series card or ATI HD46xx upwardsfor accelerated render.
    0
  • drkw
    To Waxdart: A 4-core CPU for fastest rendering.
    Also an Nvidia 8000 series card or ATI HD46xx upwardsfor accelerated render.
    0
  • Alatheia00
    For UK readers, from personal experience the cheapest retailers are pricelover, ebuyer, tekheads, for pc components all customer service was similar across these companies. When purchasing a monitor be sure to compare prices online as i am currently looking for a 23" Dell SP2309W and ebuyer are selling it more than £20 higher than ebay (I know grey area, however the chap has sold several thousand items and has a 99.5% record. My best advice is shop around use online forums to ask questions, motherboards.org and be patient resist impulse buying. Here are some more etailers from the UK, Misco, dabs, pixmania ( really cheap on selected items), oyyy.co.uk (good for monitors), scan, aria ( Has a hd 5830 up for £160). Best of luck.
    0
  • Alatheia00
    For UK readers, from personal experience the cheapest retailers are pricelover, ebuyer, tekheads, for pc components all customer service was similar across these companies. When purchasing a monitor be sure to compare prices online as i am currently looking for a 23" Dell SP2309W and ebuyer are selling it more than £20 higher than ebay (I know grey area, however the chap has sold several thousand items and has a 99.5% record. My best advice is shop around use online forums to ask questions, motherboards.org and be patient resist impulse buying. Here are some more etailers from the UK, Misco, dabs, pixmania ( really cheap on selected items), oyyy.co.uk (good for monitors), scan, aria ( Has a hd 5830 up for £160). Best of luck.
    -1
  • sam_p_lay
    For UK, Microdirect, Novatech and Saverstore are also good, as well as CCL. Aria are excellent, check out the 'Superspecials' and 'Deal4Today' sections. Got a Gigabyte EX58-UD3R (usually £140+) there for £120 and a Core i7 920 D0 (usually £200+) for £170. Other than those, eBuyer, Dabs, Scan and Overclockers are the first ports of call, and I have seen great prices on Pixmania.
    0
  • sam_p_lay
    Overclockers are great for memory (saw 6gb OCZ DDR3 1800 CAS8 on there for £105), and Scan are excellent for mobos, as well as a great selection of cases. Aria Superspecials also had a 1gb XFX Radeon 4870 for £80 a couple of weeks ago!
    0
  • andybird123
    for UK users; stay well clear of SCAN.co.uk

    I've used them twice, both times i bought an "own brand" scan item that arrived DOA and took weeks to get any kind of response and refund.
    0
  • 13thmonkey
    andybird123for UK users; stay well clear of SCAN.co.ukI've used them twice, both times i bought an "own brand" scan item that arrived DOA and took weeks to get any kind of response and refund.


    used them lots, returned items, not had any trouble, refunds take a while with anyone including amazon... I think own brand is generally an issue, although with nvidia etc. its just a re-badge.
    0
  • mi1ez
    ^+1

    Never had a problem with scan before. I never buy own brand products where my PC's involved!
    0
  • wildgunman999
    I'm almost ready to start buying, but I'd like you good folks out there to check my components and tell me if I'm straying. My pc is to be used as an office /word processor pc, but I do a li'l bit of video editing and I generally want a pretty good and fast system. My list includes:
    1. AMD Phenom II X4 Quad 955 Core 3.2GHz Processor 4 x 512 KB Boxed - Black Edition
    2. Gigabyte GA-MA790X-UD3P Motherboard Phenom II X4 Socket AM3 AMD 790X ATX RAID Gigabit Ethernet
    3. Kingston ValueRAM Memory DDR3 Non-ECC CL8 DIMM 1GB (need two)
    4. Western Digital Caviar Blue 250 Gb 7200 Rpm Sata-ii Internal Hard Drive
    5. Samsung SH-S223L/BEBE Internal 22x DVD Writer Drive SATA Lightscribe - Black (OEM)
    6. Corsair VX Series, 450 Watt, ATX, PS/2, Power Supply, UK Version (CMPSU-450VXUK)
    7. Asus EAH4350 SILENT/DI/256MD2(LP) Graphics Card Radeon HD 4350 256MB PCi-E DVI VGA (90-C1CM1F-H0UANAKZ)
    8. LG L1734S 17 inch LCD TFT Monitor 1280x1024 700:1 5ms - Black/Silver
    9. Hercules Muse LT PCI sound card
    10. Edimax EW-7128G Wireless LAN PCI Card 802.11b/g 54Mbp (Ralink)
    11. Antec Three Hundred Midi Case


    I know i'll need a few extra fans for the case, but will I need a CPU-cooler, or will I get one with the processor? And do I need a 'controller', or is it bundled along in there somewhere?
    Even more importantly, can someone confirm that these components are compatible?
    Would appreciate any help, guys.
    0
  • wildgunman999
    I'm almost ready to start buying, but I'd like you good folks out there to check my components and tell me if I'm straying. My pc is to be used as an office /word processor pc, but I do a li'l bit of video editing and I generally want a pretty good and fast system. My list includes:
    1. AMD Phenom II X4 Quad 955 Core 3.2GHz Processor 4 x 512 KB Boxed - Black Edition
    2. Gigabyte GA-MA790X-UD3P Motherboard Phenom II X4 Socket AM3 AMD 790X ATX RAID Gigabit Ethernet
    3. Kingston ValueRAM Memory DDR3 Non-ECC CL8 DIMM 1GB (need two)
    4. Western Digital Caviar Blue 250 Gb 7200 Rpm Sata-ii Internal Hard Drive
    5. Samsung SH-S223L/BEBE Internal 22x DVD Writer Drive SATA Lightscribe - Black (OEM)
    6. Corsair VX Series, 450 Watt, ATX, PS/2, Power Supply, UK Version (CMPSU-450VXUK)
    7. Asus EAH4350 SILENT/DI/256MD2(LP) Graphics Card Radeon HD 4350 256MB PCi-E DVI VGA (90-C1CM1F-H0UANAKZ)
    8. LG L1734S 17 inch LCD TFT Monitor 1280x1024 700:1 5ms - Black/Silver
    9. Hercules Muse LT PCI sound card
    10. Edimax EW-7128G Wireless LAN PCI Card 802.11b/g 54Mbp (Ralink)
    11. Antec Three Hundred Midi Case


    I know i'll need a few extra fans for the case, but will I need a CPU-cooler, or will I get one with the processor? And do I need a 'controller', or is it bundled along in there somewhere?
    Even more importantly, can someone confirm that these components are compatible?
    Would appreciate any help, guys.
    0