Adam Fields (weblog)

This blog is largely deprecated, but is being preserved here for historical interest. Check out my index page at for more up to date info. My main trade is technology strategy, process/project management, and performance optimization consulting, with a focus on enterprise and open source CMS and related technologies. More information. I write periodic long pieces here, shorter stuff goes on twitter or


How to choose a computer from parts

This is adapted from a response I wrote to someone on a mailing list asking for help in picking components for a home-built machine. I’m a big fan of this – you can tune the parts to your liking, you get an intimate sense of how things fit together, and it’s substantially cheaper than buying the same machine from a vendor.

When I actually get around to buying a new machine (maybe some time in the next few months), I promise to document the process of assembling all of these pieces and put together a guide for that.

This is primarily intended as a jumpstart guide. Yes, you can do lots of research and handpick all of your components for the most performance, but that’s not the point of this. The point of this is that with fairly little work, you can assemble a PC that’s on par with what you can get pre-assembled, for a fraction of the price. At a certain point, the amount of work it takes to figure out what to get is counterproductive, but I strongly feel that it doesn’t need to be that difficult, and the basic choices are much simpler than that. You can get into the details of which chipsets are better later, if you ever care (probably not).


My process for this is as follows:

Go to newegg. Use their motherboard selector to find a motherboard.

Pick the options you know you care about (RAID, fast front-side bus, processor type (intel or AMD), onboard lan, slots maybe). Leave everything else set to "any". Double check the options and make sure everything you care about is listed, otherwise keep looking. Everything the motherboard is compatible with will be listed in the description.

I’ve done this for you below, but the process is always the same – pick a motherboard, pick a processor that works with it, add some ram and storage, pick a video board, and then get a case to put it all in.

This one looks nice:

It’s a P4, with SATA raid support, 800Mhz FSB, 4 DIMM slots, 8x AGP, and gigabit ethernet and audio onboard. (Note: AMD is a perfectly viable alternative, if you want to go that route. It’s personal preference. I’ve never built an AMD machine from parts, but it’s much the same. I’ve never had any trouble with the pre-built Athlons I have.)

Now, you’ll need the following other things, which all depend on which motherboard you picked:

1) CPU. Pick anything that fits your slot and speed. The motherboard description will help you out here.

This one will match with the motherboard (P4 3Ghz):

2) RAM. Again, match the speed to the motherboard. Get as few DIMMs for as much RAM as you can, within your price range.

For this motherboard, you need DDR400 (PC3200) RAM. Maybe two of these:

3) Hard drives. Basically up to you. Match to the connectors (IDE/SATA) on your motherboard. There’s pretty much no excuse not to get SATA RAID for a new machine these days.

I’ve always had good luck with Samsung drives, so let’s get two of these:

4) You’ll probably want a CD/DVD/+/-/R/RW or something, if you don’t have one from an older machine. I like this one:

5) Video board (if you have no onboard video – I would recommend getting a standalone video board). This is up to you. If you just want a server, a $30 or cheaper video board will be plenty. If you want to play games, consider a high-end ATI or Nvidia.

Here, I want to splurge, so let’s plop down a Radeon 9800 with 256MB:

6) Case. Any case that matches your motherboard form factor will do. Options are up to you.

And something with a window and lights:

And, optionally:
7) Sound card (if you have no onboard sound)
8) Network adapter (if you have no onboard network or want wifi)

That should do it. I can’t guarantee that the parts will all work together, since I haven’t tried it, but I’ve had no problems with this process in the past, and as long as the specs match up, you should be fine. For the record, this list of components came out of my shopping cart – this is what I’m considering getting for my next box (and why I took the time to put together this list). This machine will cost a little more than $1000, and you know what all of the components are. It should take 1-2 hours to assemble.

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