How to Build a Gaming PC: Step-by-Step Computer Building Walkthrough

By Published March 29, 2016 at 2:30 pm
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It takes our technicians minutes to build a computer these days – a learned skill – but even that first-time build is completable within a span of hours. Cable management and “environment setup” (OS, software) generally take the longest, but the build process is surprisingly trivial. Almost anyone can build a computer. The DIY approach saves money and feels rewarding, but also prepares system owners for future troubleshooting and builds a useful, technical skillset.

Parts selection can be initially intimidating and late-night troubleshooting sometimes proves frustrating; the between process, though, the actual assembly – that's easy. A few screws, some sockets that live under the “if it doesn't fit, don't force it” mantra, and a handful of cables.

This “How to Build a Gaming Computer” guide offers a step-by-step tutorial for PC part selection, compatibility checking, assembly, and basic troubleshooting resources. The goal of this guide is to educate the correct steps to the entire process: we won't be giving you tools that automatically pick parts based on compatibility, here; no, our goal is to teach the why and the how of PC building. You'll be capable of picking compatible parts and assembling builds fully independently after completing this walkthrough.

Video: Build a PC Tutorial – Cables & Assembly Guide

The above video was made possible with support from Corsair, MSI, and Enermax, and is one of our highest-quality videos to-date.

Our text & photo accompaniment to the guide will execute in this order:

  • Components used in video tutorial

  • Required & recommended tools for PC building

  • Pre-build Checklist & ESD Disclaimer

  • Testing the Components Outside the Case

  • How to Install AMD & Intel CPUs

  • Installing the CPU Cooler

  • How to Install RAM

  • How to Install or Change a Video Card

  • PC Build Cable & Power Guide

  • First Boot: Jumping the Power Switch Without a Case

  • Troubleshooting & Validation Guides (previously written)

  • Build the System in the Case

  • Installing a PSU (power supply)

  • Install the I/O Shield & Motherboard

  • Install Storage Devices (SSD, HDD, M.2 SSD, PCI-e SSD, etc.)

  • Power, Front Panel Cables, & Cable Management

  • Installing the Video Card (last)

  • Boot-up & Initial Setup

  • Next Steps & Resources

Components & Options Used in Demo Gaming System

This is a demo system. The parts here were pulled together from our 'inventory' and assembled for use in a production rig in our office, built for use by staff to run video production / lighting / photography tasks with the ability to game (for reviews) as an aside. You may tune parts lists to your liking. The assembly process remains the same, and so this list does not need to be copied. In fact, we'd recommend fine-tuning any build to your needs.

Our PC build guides are a good place to start and offer lists purpose-built for specific tasks or games. Our forums stand as the next best resource, where our staff can assist in tuning component selection for specific tasks (to net the best cost-benefit).

Parts List Name Price Courtesy Of
CPU Intel i7-6700K or
Intel i5-6400
$370
or
$190
GamersNexus
GamersNexus
Video Card MSI GTX 970 Gaming 4G
or
MSI GTX 980 Gaming 4G
$332
or
$465
MSI

CyberPower
Memory 16GB Corsair Vengeance LPX
or
32GB Corsair Vengeance LPX
$80
or
$267
Corsair
Motherboard MSI Z170 SLI Plus $140 MSI
Power Supply Enermax Digifanless 80 Plus Platinum $230 Enermax
SSD OCZ Arc 100 480GB $130 GamersNexus
Case NZXT H440v2 $100 NZXT
OS Windows 10 $87 GamersNexus

Required & Recommended Tools

Tools List Name Price Function
PC Build Tool Kit Anseahawk Pro Precision Set $29 Assembly
(Optional) Anti-Static Wrist Strap Kingwin Anti-Static Strap $5 Protecting components
(Optional) Anti-Static Build Mat Anti-Static Mat with Wrist Strap & Grounding Cord $40 Ensure component safety when out of case.
Only buy if planning to do this with great regularity.

Note: This guide strictly pertains to system assembly and validation. For parts selection and compatibility checking, visit our forums and we'll get you one-on-one help!

Tools, Pre-Build Checklist, & ESD Disclaimer

Electro-static discharge (ESD) is deadly to system components. We've written a few guides about how to deal with ESD – check this one for steps on how to build your own grounding wire for component safety. In the least, pick-up an anti-static wrist strap and ground it to a grounding screw or, worst case, the PSU grill/mesh (PSU off). It's best to find a direct path to ground, of course.

The best thing you can do (short of a direct-to-ground cable & strap) is to build on a surface which doesn't insulate static electricity. A hard table (wood) with hard floors is the best combination. Carpet (especially with socks – take those off) will generate a charge on your body if dragging your feet. Do not build on the carpet or similar materials. Most motherboards and GPUs will ship within a body of anti-static foam – that can be used to host parts when they're out of the box.

Testing the Components Outside the Case

External-from-case assembly is a build process we strongly encourage for all levels of system builder. Computer hardware has a high rate of DOA components – enough that there's a good chance of getting hit with them as your building career stretches ever onward. Building outside of the case only takes a few minutes, grants easier access to the backplate (CPU cooler) and RAM, and validates components before cabling effort is involved.

The bonus is that, once complete, most of the steps don't have to be repeated. CPU cooler installation is often one of the most frustrating processes of any PC build – largely because it's nigh-impossible to get access to the screws once the board is mounted – and external installation accelerates things. RAM can be left socketed, too, and the CPU fan cables can also be left connected.

This section of the guide will walk through those initial, out-of-case build steps. Much of this will apply to installation within the case (final build), so follow along closely.

First, orient the motherboard such that the rear of the expansion slots (rear I/O & rear of PCI-e slots) nearly hangs over the edge of the table. Place the motherboard on top of an anti-static surface – like the foam that often comes with motherboards – or non-conductive hard surface. An anti-static mat or anti-static foam would be ideal. Do not place the motherboard on an insulating surface.

How to Install Intel & AMD CPUs

how-to-build-pc-cpu-1

(Above: See notches in CPU substrate).

CPUs are installed into motherboards using a CPU socket. The “Socket Type” is what defines a compatible CPU and board, though there are extraneous compatibility checks to make for optimal pairings (e.g. Intel Z-series chipsets with K-SKU CPUs).

The idea is the same between AMD and Intel, but execution is marginally different.

A metal arm holds the socket cover down, and a plastic shroud will cover Intel sockets to protect the pins. AMD installs its pins on the CPU, while Intel takes an LGA approach (land grid array) and hosts its pins in the CPU socket on the motherboard. Whichever surface-mount technique your CPU uses, take great care not to bend the pins.

Pop-out the plastic shroud, if one is present. Line-up the arrow on the CPU (gold arrow in the corner) with the one on the socket. With Intel, line-up the indents on the CPU with the notches/nubs that stick up from the socket housing. With AMD, you can double-check by referencing blank spots on the underside of the CPU (absence of pins) with blank spots in the socket.

how-to-build-pc-cpu-2

how-to-build-pc-cpu-3

how-to-build-pc-cpu-4

Drop the CPU into the slot. Do not push. Drop. If pressure is required, something's wrong – inspect it, make adjustments, try again.

Inspect briefly to ensure that the CPU (AMD or Intel) looks properly seated and is not off-level.

If all looks good, close the latching arm and lock it into place. Some pressure will be required, but you should not feel any serious resistance. Lock the arm to hold the CPU into place.

Congratulations! That's part one done.

Installing the CPU Cooler

how-to-build-pc-cooler-1

There are dozens of CPU cooler mounting brackets. CLCs have gotten simplified as CoolIT and Asetek have dominated the market, each company using bracket standardized across their brands (see who buys from these suppliers here) – but coolers are still not globally standardized.

Check the manual or guide that comes with the cooler. That's the first thing to do. Follow that. A few points of advice, though:

  • Extreme series sockets (X99) do not presently require backplates for any CPU coolers we've installed. These are often the easiest for CPU cooler installation.

  • Non-Extreme Intel motherboards will require a backplate. Install this before mounting the board, to make life easier.

  • It is often easier to remove RAM for this process, if you already installed it.

  • AMD motherboards already include a backplate. Some CPU coolers will include a replacement – use that.

  • Ensure that the screw tension is NOT warping the board. Over-tightening the backplate and CPU cooler will cause the board to warp in a non-straight line, which is bad for components. Do not over-tighten.

  • “Monkey tight, not gorilla tight.”

  • If not pre-applied (as on a CLC), apply dot of thermalpaste centrally on the CPU (grain of rice to pea size). Allow the tightening of the CPU cooler – done with opposing corners – to spread the compound. More here.

Be sure to connect the CPU cooler's power cable when done with the installation process. This goes into CPU_FAN headers on the motherboard, not SYS_FAN or CHA_FAN headers. For liquid coolers, check the manual to see how the pump wants to be powered.

How to Install RAM

how-to-build-pc-ram-1 

Memory is easy. To install RAM, first check the motherboard (or manual) for which slots to use “first.” This will often be listed on the board as “DDR4_1 & DDR4_3 first” (or similar). If saturating only half of the total memory slots, it's important to use the correct (alternating) slots to ensure multi-channel configurations are active. Read more about multi-channel configurations and the impact of dual-channel speeds on gaming in our research article (note: very little gaming impact, if any).

  1. Locate correct slots for RAM, if only using half of the slots (or one slot).

  2. Pop-out the push pins on the left and right sides. Use your thumbs and apply light pressure.

  3. Line-up the notch in the underside of the memory with the notch in the motherboard's memory socket.

  4. Evenly seat the RAM into the slot. Apply light pressure (with thumbs) on the outsides of the stick.

  5. Observe 'pop' or 'snap' noise as the pins/clamps snap into place. RAM should no longer be loose. The pins should be all the way down.

how-to-build-pc-ram-2

How to Install or Change a Video Card

how-to-build-pc-gpu-2 

how-to-build-pc-gpu-1

The video card will be removed after initial testing so that we can install the system in the case, but pre-build necessitates dGPU testing. If using an IGP (integrated graphics), skip this step.

  1. Orient the board so that the video card's rear I/O panel will be just barely hanging over the ledge of the table.

  2. Line-up the top PCI-e (or appropriate) slot with the video card's PCI-e footing. Lower the card into the slot, then apply light pressure until the clamp makes a 'pop' noise (similar to RAM socketing noise).

  3. If it feels like too much force is required, stop and inspect.

  4. Ensure that the VGA is supported well enough to stand-up straight.

If running multi-GPU or custom configurations, check the manual to ensure that the correct PCI-e slots are being used.

PC Build Cable & Power Guide

motherboard-diagram1

We only need a few of the cables for an out-of-case build. For this process, it's just the essentials:

  1. If using a modular PSU like our demo system's Digifanless Enermax unit, connect the 24-pin, 12V EPS (4- or 8-pin), PCI-e, and SATA headers to the power supply.

  2. Locate the 24-pin power header on the side of the motherboard. Will be near the RAM and USB3.0 connector. Connect 24-pin power to this slot; ensure the clip lines-up with the plastic outcropping on the housing.

  3. Locate 8-pin power header near the CPU (this is the one that most people overlook). Connect 8-pin header to this slot. The power will be 4+4, not 6+2; if it is 6+2, you've got a PCI-e cable. This will not work. Ensure it is the appropriate 12V EPS connector.

  4. Locate power headers on video card, if present. Some cards (like a low-end 750 Ti or similar) will not require PSU power and can run entirely on the power provided through the PCI-e slot.

  5. Locate L-shaped power cable (SATA) and connect it to the SSD. No force should be required. Find SATA data cable (smaller L-shape) and connect from SSD to motherboard.

  6. Front-panel cables from the case will not be used at this time.

  7. Connect the power cable from the wall to the PSU. Ensure PSU SW is set to '0' (off).

  8. Make sure that no screws or metal components are causing bridges or touching the components. Make sure you are not touching the components.

  9. Set switch to '1' (on).

how-to-build-pc-24pin

how-to-build-pc-8pin

USB2/3, front panel switches and LEDs, and HD audio are not required at this time.

Connect peripherals (monitor, keyboard, mouse) for testing. If you have a PC_SPK (PC speaker) that came with the case or motherboard, connect that to the correct spot on the board (near the bottom / near the front panel controller). This is not the same as a desk speaker. A PC speaker communicates with the motherboard firmware to fire beep POST (power-on self-test) codes if something does not work.

First Boot: Jumping the Power Switch Without a Case

To get this Franken-build working, we'll have to find a way to power-on the motherboard without the case's power button. Some motherboards now include on-board power and reset buttons – you could use one of those, if it's present. If not, we can easily jump the PWR_SW header with a screwdriver to trigger a start signal. Our previous guide goes into depth on this, if curious.

  1. Locate PWR_SW pins on motherboard front panel controller (FPC). Use manual if not clearly marked. This is almost always in the bottom-right corner, but sometimes is bottom-center.

  2. Use screwdriver to jump ONLY the PWR_SW pins (connect them physically using the metal end of the screwdriver as a bridge). This will cause electricity to travel from one pin to the other, which will jump the system to life.

  3. Remove screwdriver immediately from the circuit. Leaving it here will eventually trigger a shutdown (equivalent of holding power button to turn off a PC).

Does it boot? If the fans spin-up, that's a good start. Check BIOS (hit 'del' several times while booting) to make sure all the memory is detected and that the CPU is correctly detected.

Troubleshooting & Validation

If the system doesn't boot, use these troubleshooting resources:

Continue to the next page for assembly within the case (and conclusion).


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Last modified on March 29, 2016 at 2:30 pm
Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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