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Mix & Match: Choosing Parts for Your Next PC Build

written by: theinkandpen (Robert Mullon)•edited by: Bill Fulks•updated: 9/18/2011

A comprehensive guide to PC parts and components to help both the budding PC builder and soon-to-be enthusiast.

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    Buying a pre-assembled PC can seem complicated enough nowadays, with technology advancing faster than one can cope. Hence, building a PC can feel even more confusing, particularly for the average user whose knowledge of components is superficial at best. Gone are the days where simple functionality was sufficient – such as browsing, word processing and data processing. The average modern computer needs to provide more flexibility by working across the media spectrum. Browsing, music, Skype, videos and games are all a must.

    Computer Part Selection Guide In truth, building a computer is no more difficult than a form-fitter or shape-puzzle game for toddlers, and once familiarity with acronyms, parts and brands is acquired, it can ultimately result in a fun and rewarding experience.

    PC builds are essentially divided into two types: the flexible build and the specific one. A flexible PC will ideally provide stable all-round performance, without emphasis on one aspect. It may have on-board graphics, a mainstream sound-card, standard I/O functions (keyboard, printer) and internet browsing. A good example is a family PC. A specific build will perhaps be focused for video/audio editing, web development or gaming - essential components will be carefully picked, while others omitted.

    This computer parts selection guide should provide all the information needed for those who are less experienced, thus instilling confidence when attempting that elusive first-time build. It is helpful to have at least some knowledge of how components work and integrate in the standard ATX configuration. The following articles should provide insight on component function without being too overwhelming.

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    The Nervous System: Choosing Your Motherboard

    Circuit Board If an analogy between a PC and the human body is drawn, the motherboard can be compared to one’s nervous system. It provides slots for all other components and ensures communication between each one and the CPU.

    The commonly used ATX form factor makes it easy to fit or replace components. When choosing a motherboard it is particularly important to pay attention to the socket type, which indicates what CPU models will fit and will allow for future upgrades. Popular modern sockets include the LGA775, AM2, AM3, LGA1156 and LGA1366, the last two supporting the i5/i7 series of chips.

    Other important aspects are the types of RAM supported and the type of slots it features. It is preferable to buy motherboards which support DD3 even at slower data rates (800, 1066 MT/s). In the case of a gaming/media system or a more powerful computer, it is advised to buy a motherboard which supports higher DD3 rates (1866, 2200 MT/s) and at least PCI-E 2.0.

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    The Heart: Choosing Your PSU

    Though one can save up on components like the CPU or Graphics Card, perhaps by way of a second-hand purchase, compromising on the power supply unit (PSU) means sure disaster. A generic PSU may seem acceptable for a low-consumption PC, but it is safer to buy a PSU which is energy efficient and has a double 12v rail. Any power supply unit will eventually age and wear down, and with capacitor-aging a generic PSU can actually be hazardous and literally explode. The latter will also happen with an overloaded 12v rail.

    Brands for PSU’s are varied, and the articles below should help in making that choice. Popular brands are Antec, Earthwatts or Corsair, but there are others which are equally respected. Two important factors when choosing your PSU are your processor and your GPU’s power consumption. While considering those two you may always want to use a power supply calculator.

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    The Brain: Choosing Your CPU

    Choosing Your CPU The CPU (central processing unit) is the most important component once the system is up and running, and choosing one nowadays is not simply a matter of “higher clock-speed means better.” Older processors were single-core only, and the higher the clock speed the better the CPU. With the release of dual-core and quad-core processors, complex features are added to the processor architecture that outline the importance of what is achieved per clock-cycle rather than just clock speeds themselves.

    Similarly to graphic cards, there are only two brand names which matter: Intel and AMD. With the release of the 980X hexacore processor and new Sandy Bridge architecture, Intel has the edge once again. If a high-end system is preferred, strongly consider an Intel i7 2600K processor or i7 9xx line. There are all varieties of CPU’s, from low-range budget processors to the top of the line.

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    Add-Ons: Choosing Your GPU and Soundcard

    These two components are not necessarily required. With Motherboards that have on-board graphics, all the computer needs to function is the components listed above. Moreover, modern processors like the i7 2600K come with some graphic capabilities. Some motherboards do not come with on-board graphics and adding a video/sound card is necessary.

    The Video Card market is dominated by two brands: ATI and NVIDIA. Your choice is entirely dependent on preference, as both offer budget to high-performance units. The latest Nvidia models are the GTX 5xx series while ATI offers the HD 6xxx series of cards.

    Sound card brands are a little more varied. Creative, Asus, Audiotrack and M-Audio all offer good quality units. When choosing an audio card it is important to bear in mind whether it will be solely for gaming/music listening or audio production. For the latter, the M-Audio brands are entirely recommended, while the Creative X-Fi Titanium series ensures a great audio experience.

    Video Cards

    Sound Cards