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Buying all the parts to build a PC is all well and good – but what does it take to put them together? Really, it doesn’t take anything special to assemble a PC, and certainly nothing that can’t be found around the house. There are a few tools that make life easier, though, and those should be found in any self-respecting system builder’s toolkit.
What tools do you need to build a PC?
Required Tool #1 – Screwdriver
Computers are held together with screws and, luckily, nearly all types of screws used in computers are Phillips-head. The number-one most important tool for PC building is a Phillips-head screwdriver with a big bit, helpful to avoid stripping the head; a long shaft also aids in keeping the handle out of the way when working in tight spaces—it’s a good idea to keep a short screwdriver around as well, for the same reason.
Flat-bladed screwdrivers usually aren’t much use for unscrewing anything, but they’re great for getting extra leverage and prying things apart (but only if there’s no better way to access your objective). Laptop disassembly often requires thin “ice pick” flat-bladed screwdrivers to separate the plastic housing. A hex driver could also be useful for hexagonal motherboard standoff screws or some CPU cooler screws, but standoffs rarely need to be taken out or installed these days. Most gaming-grade cases come with standoffs pre-installed. They’re also (semi-) naturally tightened down when other screws are inserted into them.
Required Tool #2 – Anti-Static Equipment
Anti-static equipment should be used for any serious PC assembly. Touching a grounded case or another grounded, metal object occasionally will eliminate most risk of electrostatic discharge, but better safe than sorry.
There are several products that can eliminate electro-static discharge (ESD)—an anti-static mat can be placed on the floor of the workspace, allowing unrestricted movement, but they can also be awfully expensive for a hobbyist builder. The most cost-effective method is to purchase an ESD wrist strap and either clip it to a grounded object or plug it into the ground socket of any wall outlet.
In US outlets, the ground socket is the round “mouth” at the bottom of the plug, NOT the flat “eye” slots. Wrist straps are simply a wire that provides direct skin contact to a ground, and they can be easily found for around $5, or homebrewed with a piece of cable.
Short of an anti-static mat – which is not required – we’d recommend building on hard, non-insulating surfaces. The best options are counter-tops (just be careful of scratching them), hardwood floors, or – if necessary – a deconstructed cardboard box. Just don’t build on carpet. That’s a major insulator and will build-up a static charge on your body, which could damage components.
Required Tool #3 – Light Source
PC cases are full of shadows, and screws love to roll into the darkest corners. A bright desk lamp with a long, pose-able neck is handy, but nothing beats a cheap headlamp for direct illumination. It may look silly, but a headlamp will always point in the right direction, and it doesn’t require an extra hand to hold it. A flashlight will work in a pinch, but it will also make multitasking much harder.
Required Tool #4 – Zip or Twist Ties
Cable management is essential to keep dust accumulation low and airflow high—and even more importantly, it makes things look nice. Zip ties are the best way to keep cables in place, but they’re also only good for a single use. Cables that might be moved around in the future can be tidied-up with black twist ties, which are practically invisible, nearly as secure, and far easier to remove.
Required Tool #5 – Pliers
Unfortunately, sometimes the heads of cheap screws get stripped. When this happens, sometimes the only option is to use a pair of pliers (carefully). Needlenose pliers have a wide variety of uses, and they often include a wire cutter, which can be used to snip the excess off of cable ties.
Optional Tool #1 – Extra Screws
As a general rule, desktop computers are held together by just two types of screws: high and low threadcount. Low threadcount “6-32” screws are the most common by far—they’re the ones used to keep side panels in place, attach graphics cards to the back of the case, and hold together any internal case pieces. Less common are high threadcount “M3” screws used to secure any internal drives, like HDDs, SSDs, and optical drives. Every toolkit should include at least a couple extra screws of both types, and a few of the longer sharp-threaded screws used to attach fans to the case (old pill bottles are just the right size for holding spares).
Optional Tool #2 – Thermal Paste
Most CPU coolers come with a patch of thermal paste already applied (or a spare packet), but there’s no guarantee that it’s high-quality or fresh. Swabbing-off the provided thermal paste and applying a new layer ensures that the paste is soft and that the correct amount is used. A small tube of thermal paste should go an extremely long way for the casual builder, so there’s no need to buy more than one.
Optional Tool #3 – Rubbing Alcohol
For cleaning off old thermal paste or any other PC components, rubbing alcohol is the easiest solution. It’s a strong enough solvent to dissolve grime, but it evaporates quickly and without leaving residue or causing corrosion. This makes it ideal for wiping-down metal contacts inside keyboards or elsewhere. Allow sufficient time to dry before applying any kind of thermal paste. High alcohol content solutions dry in a matter of seconds to a minute.
Optional Tool #4 – Extra Parts
If possible, it’s also a good idea to keep old components around for testing. If a new PC doesn’t boot up, often the easiest way to find out what’s broken is to replace the PSU, RAM, or other components one at a time with old ones that definitely work.
Be sure to hang onto the manuals, too – and to check them regularly. Whenever encountering a stumping point, there’s a good chance it’s answered in one of the manuals; don’t fight with the build and try to force things, just check the guides.
You may not even need tools to build a PC
In the end, the only required tool for putting together a PC is a Phillips-head screwdriver. However, tool-less assembly is becoming more and more popular with case designers, which makes even a screwdriver unnecessary most of the time. Still, it’s best to be prepared for any eventuality. It’s not necessary to go buy a fancy toolkit, but it’s worth spending some time before you build a PC to collect all the required tools and set-up a proper workspace. – GamersNexus
Building a PC is easy – yes – but there are enough components and enough small tricks that it’d be easy to overlook a minor, critical aspect of assembly.
The most common mistakes pertain to anti-static procedures and grounding, though we’ll also talk about overkill on PSU selection, needlessly high-end chipset or CPU selection, “cheaping out” on some components, and incorrect installation of components within the case.
What are the common mistakes when building a PC?
Common Mistake #1 – Not Following Anti-Static Procedures When Building a PC
When we talk about “grounding”, we’re referring to the process of discharging static electricity (from the builder) into a safe ground – which sinks the charge and pulls it away from the user. This prevents electrostatic build-up and discharge into components, which will damage computer hardware (and there is such a thing as “latent ESD” – not all damage is immediately visible).
It’s advisable to take some sort of grounding safety precautions. A simple anti-static wrist strap is a good first step, and they’re cheap – a few bucks – but you’ve also got to use it properly. A lot of folks like to simply clip the anti-static strap to the case, but that doesn’t guarantee much of anything. For starters, most cases are painted, and paint is not as conductive as a proper ground via direct metal or copper contact. It’s also sort of “floating” without a real route to take the charge, and if you’re building on carpet, the case is sitting atop insulators.
The best method for grounding oneself without over-spending on lab-grade equipment would be to buy a banana plug receptacle that connects to the third prong in a wall outlet. The third prong (the circular, fat one) is a grounding pin, and delivers no electrical charge in US outlets. Connecting the anti-static wrist strap to this (remove the alligator clip to reveal a banana plug) will provide a known, direct path-to-ground that ensures no static discharge into components.
My team (in the GamersNexus labs) has its own solution – we build our own grounding cables and clip the anti-static bracelets to the exposed copper grounding wire. This approach is effectively free – everyone’s got a spare power cable to mutilate – but it does require carefully following instructions (bend those hot pins and DO NOT connect to an outlet, for one, and clip the hot wires, for two) and five minutes of work.
A mid-step to proper grounding would be to connect to the PSU grill, toggle the PSU switch to ‘off,’ and then connect the power from the PSU to the wall.
Many users just assume the anti-static bracelet will inherently dissipate static charge by merely connecting it to any vaguely metal surface. That’s not the case.
Common Mistake #2 – Going Overkill on the PSU When Building a PC
Very few PCs require more than 600W of efficient power, and yet it’s so common to buy more than necessary. PSU selection is an entire, massive article on its own – but we’ll recap the common mistakes here.
Modern PC power supplies do not draw more power from the wall than is necessary to run the system (after factoring-in loss through inefficiencies – mostly converting AC to DC). To this end, buying a 1000W PSU for a 300W-draw system might not seem ‘bad’ at its core – the PSU just won’t pull the power it doesn’t use, right?
Well, yes – but there are efficiency metrics that matter, too.
Other than the fact that going heavy on wattage is sort of a waste of money, it’s also less efficient. Power supplies (general rule, here) are often most efficient when loaded approximately 50-60% of their total power output. This is where 80 Plus numbers are validated. There’s also a lot more to PSU selection than wattage; if you’re allocating budget toward more watts, but not buying something properly high-end, it’s possible that the PSU lacks more important features – like over/under-voltage and current protections, cooling, modularity, and validation.
TDP has increasingly been dropped with generations, and the new, smaller process nodes will continue that trend. Wattage is not in as much demand as, say, when the GTX 400 and HD 7000 series cards were on the market. Don’t overbuy on wattage, and don’t fall into the trap of “I’m just giving room for future upgrades.” If you’re legitimately upgrading in the future, only GPU or major CPU changes will draw a significant amount more power.
Common Mistake #3 – Building a PC with Needlessly High-End or Mismatched Components
Somewhat related to the previous “common mistake,” another one is mismatched component selection. It’s easy, again, to “want the best” and over-spend on components which will never be properly utilized in the build they’re thrown into.
The easiest example is with K-SKU CPUs (from both AMD and Intel). K-SKU CPUs are designated as overclocking chips for both AMD and Intel. The i5-6600K and AMD Athlon X4 880K are both meant to be overclocked, if deployed in their ideal environments. The “K” signifies an unlocked multiplier, used for increasing the frequency output (BCLK * multiplier = operating frequency). If overclocking is of absolutely no interest, there’s not much reason to buy a K-SKU chip.
Common mistakes when building a PC are always changing
The advancement of PC hardware moves at an accelerated rate. For example: we’re currently in a switch-over period between DDR3 and DDR4 RAM. Z97 / Haswell builds and AMD builds (as of this writing) are on DDR3 and will not change, with Skylake and HW-E/BW-E builds now on DDR4. This means you should check hardware compatibility with every component before making a purchase and ultimately building a PC. – GamersNexus