How To Build A PC: From Component Selection To Installation

Step 6: Select Storage

Choosing internal mass storage once meant deciding between the performance of a solid-state drive (SSD), the capacity of a mechanical hard drive (HDD), or the greater expense of both. But as with system memory, advancements in manufacturing and maturing technology put medium-capacity SSDs within reach for most enthusiasts. We're even seeing 256 GB drives under $100. That SSD might not make processing-bound workloads run faster, but they'll certainly launch quicker, access the data they need more expediently, and respond in a way you simply won't experience with a hard drive.

Of course, you'd still need a handful of high-capacity SSDs if you were planning on storing your photo, movie, and game collections on solid-state storage. Fortunately, adding the expense of a 1 TB disk for under $60 makes the combination of just-right SSD and big hard drive more palatable.

The flash-based capacity you'll want depends on what you do with your PC. A Windows installation rarely exceeds 32 GB without additional programs installed, even after many months of collecting temp files, cookies, and other "temporary" trash. Popularly-used apps like the Office suite and Adobe's Creative Cloud software can easily consume many times that much space, and games regularly eat up more than 10 GB each all on their own. Most of us could squeeze Windows and essential programs into a 128 GB SSD without much effort, but 256 GB drives are the sweet spot if you're adding a few games, too.

Mechanical storage becomes critical once you start piling on years of pictures, music, and movies. DVD and Blu-ray disc images consume up to 8.4 and 50 GB, respectively. If you love to archive video, your capacity needs will expand very fast this way. Game install packages can be even larger than the games themselves, and those of us with less-than-perfect Internet access are reluctant to delete source data, even when installation finishes.

Although SATA is the most popular desktop storage interface, other drive form factors are becoming more popular. Among them, mSATA is both widely available and mature. Designed to install onto a motherboard, these have become so common that some companies produce adapters to install mSATA drives into 2.5” bays using standard SATA data and power cables.

Beyond mSATA, we're also starting to see M.2- and SATA Express-capable platforms. They're still not very common, but because they both enable PCI Express-based transfers, the performance of future storage products will outstrip today's SATA 6Gb/s drives. As a reminder, just one PCI Express 2.0 lane gives you up to 500 MB/s of bidirectional throughput. A two-lane link should be theoretically capable of 1 GB/s. Meanwhile, SATA 6Gb/s is rated for up to 600 MB/s, though a more practical ceiling is in the 550 MB/s range.

Though most systems use either one large drive or a combination (a smaller SSD and larger hard drive, for example), other configuration options let you choose between additional performance, more capacity, increased data security, or a combination of these.

RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, a group of methods that allows data to be spread across several drives concurrently. Most enthusiast-class motherboards support at least RAID modes 0, 1, 0+1, and 5. Each array of disks appears to be a single disk to programs other than the RAID utility.

The possible use of RAID affects the number and capacity of drives selected, so a very brief description of these modes is in order:

  • Level 0 divides data into chunks that are spread across two or more drives at the same time, providing up to double the transfer rate (in the case of a two-drive config) and the combined capacity. Because of the way the data is divided, this mode is also referred to as "striping" by in-the-know storage gurus. The major drawback is that if a member drive fails, the array's data is lost.
  • Level 1 mirrors two or more drives so that if one fails, data can be recovered from the other. The major drawback is that because both drives (again, in a two-drive array) store the same data, available capacity doesn't increase.
  • RAID 0+1 allows four (or more) drives to be set up as a "mirrored" set of "striped" drives. In other words, it's a RAID 1 array composed of two RAID 0 arrays. If one striped set (RAID 0 array) fails, data can be retrieved from the other. Total capacity is still limited to that of one striped set.
  • RAID 5 creates parity bits for data recovery. Data and parity bits are distributed across all drives, increasing transfer rate, while sacrificing only the amount of space required to store the added parity bits (the capacity of one drive in the set).

Generating parity bits for RAID 5 requires processing, which means that RAID 5 enabled in software can hog resources. Conversely, RAID Levels 0 and 1 generate little CPU overhead. Gamers with little regard for long-term data storage may choose Level 0 for performance, and anyone with a significant amount of valuable data may choose Level 1.

Tom's Hardware continuously reviews drives and storage controllers, with several of these articles going into additional detail concerning RAID modes, benefits and consequences.

This thread is closed for comments
32 comments
    Your comment
  • AndrewJacksonZA
    "the power supply is actually one of the more important parts of a build"
    Thank you!!

    Or rather, let's do what the cool kids are doing and rather post a GIF:
    https://giphy.com/gifs/the-office-thank-you-michael-scott-1Z02vuppxP1Pa
  • Eggz
    Great piece for a lot of first-time builders. This should have a sticky somewhere on the site so it doesn't get buried :-)
  • jkhoward
    Quote:
    "the power supply is actually one of the more important parts of a build" Thank you!! Or rather, let's do what the cool kids are doing and rather post a GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/the-office-thank-you-michael-scott-1Z02vuppxP1Pa


    Seriously, not enough people realize how import a good PSU is. I am working with someone is heavily overclocking an i7 and two 970 in SLI as well as 4 SSD and a few hard drives, a bunch of fans, with a 750W PSU.
  • jkhoward
    Also... I am digging the age of some of these images.
  • blackmagnum
    This article brings back embarrassing memories. https://giphy.com/gifs/the-office-thank-you-michael-scott-1Z02vuppxP1Pa
  • alidan
    Quote:
    Quote:
    "the power supply is actually one of the more important parts of a build" Thank you!! Or rather, let's do what the cool kids are doing and rather post a GIF: https://giphy.com/gifs/the-office-thank-you-michael-scott-1Z02vuppxP1Pa
    Seriously, not enough people realize how import a good PSU is. I am working with someone is heavily overclocking an i7 and two 970 in SLI as well as 4 SSD and a few hard drives, a bunch of fans, with a 750W PSU.


    unless i'm thinking wrong, isn't that within the power limits of a 750? im even assuming that each gpu is 300 watts and i know they shouldn't hit that even with the most aggressive of ocs

    granted there is a distinction between a good psu and a bad one, but im just assuming its a good one.
  • chimera201
    Motherboard slots haven't evolved much. Wished every slot was like a USB slot
  • turkey3_scratch
    612443 said:
    Seriously, not enough people realize how import a good PSU is. I am working with someone is heavily overclocking an i7 and two 970 in SLI as well as 4 SSD and a few hard drives, a bunch of fans, with a 750W PSU.


    Your point being... ?
  • renosablast
    Steps 1 and 3 should be combined, and step 2 comes after 1 and 3. You better worry about the CPU and motherboard combo compatibility before you worry about a graphics card.
  • renosablast
    Sorry, meant steps 2 and 4 before 3.
  • Dark Lord of Tech
    I love when you see a $1500.00 build with top quality components and then they have a $40.00 PSU listed with it.
  • Outlander_04
    IMO the very first component selection for a gaming build should always be the .... MONITOR.
    Decisions on where and how to spend the rest of the budget can only be made once you know the resolution , and whether its 60 Hz, 144 Hz or whatever else is available
  • MasterMace
    Gonna throw in my disagreement on the priority, mentioned nice and early in the article. The first thing you pick is never your case. There's 3 things you can decide to be your starting point when building a pc to make it a smooth ride; either, 1. Budget. 2. CPU 3. Graphics. By picking 1 of these 3 things as your starting point, you can have a very smooth build process. Does that mean you buy your case last? No, I've seen plenty of builds where the case arrives first as a way of storing the items, but when you want a solid build, your case is last priority, as it has no impact on your performance and restricts the size of your items.

    Even if you wanted to build an odd form factor, like an itx, you would still pick the cpu or the budget before the case.
  • Thank you for explaining ESD correctly. I have been annoyed with articles over exaggerating about ESD a lot. So just touching something metal can help? Well, next time I think I'll set a PC on my wooden desk instead of the carpet.
  • kunstderfugue
    Quote:
    I love when you see a $1500.00 build with top quality components and then they have a $40.00 PSU listed with it.


    The XFX TS Bronze 550 comes down to $43 ish from time to time and that's a mighty fine PSU to power a single graphics card build.
  • nitrium
    Quote:
    "the power supply is actually one of the more important parts of a build" Thank you!!

    While not unimportant, it gets far too much attention on the forum's here. PSU's are only relatively rarely the cause of issues, and I'll go out on a limb and say that virtually ANY modern 650W PSU (even ultra-cheap China garbage) will reliably power a single GPU and CPU, regardless of model or how much OCing you do to them.
  • Crashman
    269694 said:
    Quote:
    I am working with someone is heavily overclocking an i7 and two 970 in SLI as well as 4 SSD and a few hard drives, a bunch of fans, with a 750W PSU.
    unless i'm thinking wrong, isn't that within the power limits of a 750? im even assuming that each gpu is 300 watts and i know they shouldn't hit that even with the most aggressive of ocs granted there is a distinction between a good psu and a bad one, but im just assuming its a good one.
    You're exactly right. We've been using high-quality power supplies in most of our System Builder Marathon machines, and dual 970s was in one of the builds. The super-high recommendations you see from other sites are a response to most builders using mediocre-quality units.
  • Crashman
    416912 said:
    Gonna throw in my disagreement on the priority, mentioned nice and early in the article. The first thing you pick is never your case. There's 3 things you can decide to be your starting point when building a pc to make it a smooth ride; either, 1. Budget. 2. CPU 3. Graphics. By picking 1 of these 3 things as your starting point, you can have a very smooth build process. Does that mean you buy your case last? No, I've seen plenty of builds where the case arrives first as a way of storing the items, but when you want a solid build, your case is last priority, as it has no impact on your performance and restricts the size of your items. Even if you wanted to build an odd form factor, like an itx, you would still pick the cpu or the budget before the case.
    Exactly wrong. The first thing people do is say "I want a LAN box" or "I want a media player" or "I want a big gorgeous office PC". They're picking a case SIZE when they make those FIRST statements, so size comes first in the discussion.
  • beoza
    Quote:
    416912 said:
    Gonna throw in my disagreement on the priority, mentioned nice and early in the article. The first thing you pick is never your case. There's 3 things you can decide to be your starting point when building a pc to make it a smooth ride; either, 1. Budget. 2. CPU 3. Graphics. By picking 1 of these 3 things as your starting point, you can have a very smooth build process. Does that mean you buy your case last? No, I've seen plenty of builds where the case arrives first as a way of storing the items, but when you want a solid build, your case is last priority, as it has no impact on your performance and restricts the size of your items. Even if you wanted to build an odd form factor, like an itx, you would still pick the cpu or the budget before the case.
    Exactly wrong. The first thing people do is say "I want a LAN box" or "I want a media player" or "I want a big gorgeous office PC". They're picking a case SIZE when they make those FIRST statements, so size comes first in the discussion.


    I have to agree with you on this Crashman. Whenever I go to build a new system for friends or relatives I always ask what they're going for in terms of use. I like to go with the Form follows function principle which is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.
  • Libero
    Quote:
    Gonna throw in my disagreement on the priority, mentioned nice and early in the article. The first thing you pick is never your case. There's 3 things you can decide to be your starting point when building a pc to make it a smooth ride; either, 1. Budget. 2. CPU 3. Graphics. By picking 1 of these 3 things as your starting point, you can have a very smooth build process. Does that mean you buy your case last? No, I've seen plenty of builds where the case arrives first as a way of storing the items, but when you want a solid build, your case is last priority, as it has no impact on your performance and restricts the size of your items. Even if you wanted to build an odd form factor, like an itx, you would still pick the cpu or the budget before the case.

    Quote:
    Sorry, meant steps 2 and 4 before 3.

    It is same meaning as define a purpose and choose a case. When you buy a computer you must know what the purpose for first example for home/office, web browsing, gaming or multi-tasking. Budget also is depend to each person. So it is not CPU or GPU before case.
  • James Mason
    I wish the pictures of PSU weren't just all Corsairs. That leads people to believe that all Corsair PSUs are "good" PSUs, when we know a vast majority aren't, and the ones a new builder are most likely to be definitely aren't.
  • Crashman
    297651 said:
    I have to agree with you on this Crashman. Whenever I go to build a new system for friends or relatives I always ask what they're going for in terms of use. I like to go with the Form follows function principle which is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose.

    It is same meaning as define a purpose and choose a case. When you buy a computer you must know what the purpose for first example for home/office, web browsing, gaming or multi-tasking. Budget also is depend to each person. So it is not CPU or GPU before case.
    Yeh, I should have just kept his last statement and deleted the rest before responding:
    416912 said:
    Even if you wanted to build an odd form factor, like an itx, you would still pick the cpu or the budget before the case.
    What he's saying is even if you choose a form factor first, you're still buying the other parts first. Which is a backwards way of saying that the order of the article, form factor first, makes sense...and he still wants to disagree...

    The problem is that one needs keep a general concept of the case in mind when picking the actual components. One can often pick the exact case to fit that concept at the end, but the "Define a purpose" leads immediately to form factor, and chopping the article off there only to come back to case selection doesn't really make sense.
  • Bjorn_2
    I miss one important piece of advice: do not install anyhting but your primary drive before installing Windows. I have recently gone through the nightmare of trying to aggregate Windows onto my primary drive when replacing my SSD for a bigger one. It seems that if you have multiple drives installed, windows will happily use all for various purposes. So feel free to install everything but please, before installing Windows, disconnect your secondary and other drives.