When we sat down to write the Preface for this second edition, we realized that, as they say, the more things change the more they remain the same.
In one sense, things have changed a lot in two years. Almost none of the components we used in the first edition are still available. They've been replaced by bigger, faster, better, cheaper parts. But those are mere details. In a fundamental sense, nothing has changed. The reasons for building your own PC are the same. The decisions you need to make differ only in details. The skills you need to master are the same, and the satisfaction you'll gain from designing and building your own PC is as great as ever.
So, on with the original preface, which we found it necessary to modify only to update information about the system configurations in the book and other similar details.
Building PCs isn't just for techies any more.
It used to be, certainly. Only gamers and other geeks actually built their PCs from the ground up. Everyone else just called the Dell Dude and ordered a system. That started to change a few years ago. The first sign was when general merchandisers like Best Buy started stocking upgrade components. If you wanted to expand the memory in your PC or install a larger hard drive or add a CD writer, you could now get the components you needed at the local big-box store.
A year or two ago, things changed again. Big-box retailers started carrying PC components like cases and motherboardsparts seldom needed by upgraders, but necessary to build a new PC from scratch. Nowadays, although CompUSA, Best Buy, and other local retailers may not carry as broad a range of PC components as some online specialty retailers, you can get everything you need for a new PC with one visit to a big-box store.
And you can bet that big-box stores don't allocate shelf space to products that aren't selling. Building your own PC has become mainstream. Nowadays, even regular nontechnical people build their own systems and have fun doing it. Instead of settling for a mediocre, cookie-cutter system from Dell or Gateway, they get a PC with exactly the features and components they want, at a good price, and with the pride that comes from knowing they built it themselves. They also get a faster, higher-quality PC with much better reliability than any mass-market system. No small thing, that.
Robert visited Best Buy one day and spent some time hanging out in the PC component aisles. He watched a lot of regular people comparing hard drives, video adapters, DVD writers, and other PC components. Some of them were buying components to upgrade their current systems, but many of them were buying components to build new systems.
Robert watched one grandmotherly woman fill her shopping cart. She chose an Antec case and power supply, a Maxtor hard drive, an Abit motherboard, an AMD Athlon XP processor, an nVIDIA graphics adapter, a couple sticks of DDR memory, and a Lite-On DVD writer. He approached her, and the conversation went something like this:
Robert: "Looks like you're building a new computer."
Woman: "Yes, I'm building my granddaughter a new PC for her birthday."
Robert: "Are you worried about getting everything to work?"
Woman: "Oh, no. This is the third one I've built. You should try it. It's easy."
Robert: "I may do that."
If she'd had this book, she might have made different choices for one or two of her components. Still, Dell may have something to worry about.
Goals of This Book
This book is your guide to the world of building PCs. Its goal is to teach youeven if you have no training or prior experienceeverything you need to know to select the best components and assemble them into a working PC that matches your own requirements and budget.
We present six projects, in as many chapters, each of which details design, component selection, and assembly instructions for a particular type of PC. You can build any or all of these systems as presented, or you can modify them to suit your own requirements.
Rather than use a straight cookbook approach, which would simply tell you how to build a PC by rote, we spend a lot of time explaining why we made particular design decisions or chose certain components or did something a certain way. By "looking over our shoulders" as we design PCs and choose components, you'll learn to make good decisions when it comes to designing and building your own PC. You also learn how to build a PC with superior quality, performance, and reliability.
Not that we skimped on the how-to. Each project system chapter provides detailed assembly instructions and dozens of photographs that illustrate the assembly process. Even if you've never seen a hard drive, after reading this book you should be completely comfortable sitting down with a bunch of components to build your own PC.
If you have never built a PC, we hope this book will inspire you to build your first system. If you have some PC building experience, we hope this book will provide the ideas and advice that you need to make the next PC you build the perfect PC for your needs.
Audience for This Book
This book is intended for anyone who wants to build a PC for personal or business use. System builders of any experience level will find this book useful because it explains the concepts used to design a PC to fit specific needs and budgets, and provides the information needed to choose the best components. First-time system builders will also find this book helpful because it provides detailed step-by-step instructions for building a PC, supplemented by numerous photographs that illustrate each step in detail.
Organization of This Book
The first two chapters of this book are a short but comprehensive course in planning the perfect PC and choosing and buying components for it.
Chapter 1, Fundamentals, focuses on things you need to know, things you need to have, and things you need to do before you start to buy components and build your new PC. This chapter explains the advantages of building a PC versus buying one (YOU control quality, performance, reliability, and quietness of your components); provides design guidelines; and explains the inevitable trade-offs in performance, price, size, and noise level. We list tools and software you'll need, and provide a detailed tour of the motherboard, the most important and complex PC component. Finally, we provide detailed troubleshooting information in this chapter, because it's easier to avoid problems if you know from the beginning what to look out for. After you read this chapter, you'll be prepared for the next step, actually buying the components for your new PC.
Chapter 2, Choosing and Buying Components, tells you everything you need to know about how to choose and buy the components you need to build your new PC.
We explain the important characteristics of each component and how to choose among alternatives. We also recommend specific components by brand and model number, and provide alternative recommendations for those with different requirements or smaller budgets.
The final six chapters detail project systems, any of which you can build as-is or modify to suit your particular needs. The introductory section of each project chapter is a design guide that explains the choices we made (and why) and how we decided to implement them. Following that is a detailed section on selecting components, with specific products listed by brand name, and a bill of materials at the end of the section. In each case, we list alternatives for those with different needs or budgets. The bulk of each chapter is a detailed guide, with numerous photographs, that shows you step-by-step how to build the system.
Chapter 3, Building a Mainstream PC, teaches you how to build a general-purpose PC that is a jack of all trades and a master of...well, quite a few, actually. In the standard configuration, this system combines high performance, top-notch reliability, and moderate cost. Depending on the components you chooseand how much you're willing to spendyou can make this system anything from an inexpensive entry-level box to a do-it-all powerhouse. And it's also quiet, particularly if you build it in a midrange configuration. In a normal office or home environment, you can barely hear it running.
Chapter 4, Building a SOHO Server, focuses on building a reliable, high-performance SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) server, appropriate for anything from an inexpensive server for a home office to a serious server for a small-business network. Because these requirements span a vast range, we take particular pains to detail alternative choices and configurations that are appropriate for different environments. We emphasize reliability and data safety regardless of configuration, because a server failure is as disruptive for a home office as for a small business. Accordingly, we emphasize such features as redundant disk storage and reliable backup.
Chapter 5, Building a Gaming PC, is all about building a gaming PC on a reasonable budget. Some devoted gamers spend $3,000, $4,000, $5,000, or more to buy or build a fire-breathing PC optimized for games. That's fine if you've just won the lottery, but most gamers can't justify spending that much on their systems. We set out to design and build a seriously fast gaming system that's a lot easier on the wallet. By paying careful consideration to component choices, we were able to design and build a system that offers about 90% of the performance of the extreme systems for about a third of the price.
Chapter 6, Building a Media Center PC, shows you how to build a PC that provides TiVo-like DVR (Digital Video Recorder) functions, without the monthly subscription or the DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) "features" common to commercial PVR units. For not much more than the price of a combination TiVo/DVD writer and program guide subscription, this PC substitutes not only for a commercial DVR unit, but also for an AV receiver, CD-ROM player, DVD-ROM player, DVD recorder, 5.1 home-theater speaker system, and a gaming console. Talk about bang for the buck.
Chapter 7, Building a Small Form Factor (SFF) PC, shows you how to build a full-featured PC that is small enough and quiet enough to fit in almost anywhere. Depending on the components you choose, you can make the SFF PC anything from an inexpensive secondary system suitable for a dorm room or child's bedroom to a primary general-purpose system to a home theater or PVR system to a barn-burner of a portable gaming system to a dedicated "appliance" system or small server.
Chapter 8, Building a Budget PC, shows you how to build a fast, reliable PC on a minimum budget. For only $300 or so (not counting external peripherals), it's possible to build a system with high quality components that matches or exceeds the performance of last year's mainstream models. We designed this budget system to be capable of running Windows Vista with at most one or two minor, inexpensive upgrades. It's ideal as a secondary systemor even a primary system, if your needs are modestand can be upgraded incrementally to add additional features.
The first edition of this book was conceived one day in late 2003, when Robert received a phone call from Mark Brokering, vice president of sales and marketing for O'Reilly Media. Mark had decided to build a new PC rather than buy one, and he'd picked up a copy of Robert and Barbara's book, PC Hardware in a Nutshell.
Mark had lots of good questions about which components to choose and, later on, questions about assembling his new system. At some point during the back-and-forth of emails and phone calls, Mark commented, "You know, we really need to do a book about building a PC." And so this book was born.
The working title was Build Your Own Computer. None of us thought that was a great title, but none of us could come up with a better one. Then one day Tim O'Reilly weighed in. "Why don't we call it Building the Perfect PC?," Tim asked. Duh. It always seems so obvious after the fact.
In addition to Mark, Tim, and the O'Reilly production staff, who are listed individually in the Colophon, we want to thank our technical reviewers. Ron Morse has been building PCs for more than 20 years. Jim Cooley has built and repaired computers from San Francisco to Athens (Ohio), with the occasional stop in Bangalore. Brian Bilbrey started with vacuum tubes and wire wrap, passed through S-100, ISA, and PCI buses, and was last seen tunneling into a quantum future. All of them did yeoman duty in finding mistakes we made and in making numerous useful suggestions, all of which helped make this a better book. We're entirely responsible for any errors that remain.
We also want to thank our contacts at the hardware companies, who provided technical help, evaluation units, and other assistance. There are far too many to list individually, but they know who they are. We also want to thank the readers of our books, web sites, and message boards, many of whom have taken the time to offer useful suggestions for improvements to this book. Thanks, folks. We couldn't have done it without you.
Finally, we want to thank our editor, Brian Jepson, who contributed numerous useful comments and suggestions.
We'd Like to Hear from You
We have tested and verified the information in this book to the best of our ability, but we don't doubt that some errors have crept in and remained hidden despite our best efforts and those of our editors and technical reviewers to find and eradicate them. Those errors are ours alone. If you find an error or have other comments about the book, you can contact the publisher or the authors.
How to Contact O'Reilly
Please address comments and questions concerning this book to the publisher:
There is a web page for this book, which lists errata and other information. You can access this page at:
You can also send us email. To be put on our mailing list or to request a catalog, send email to:
For comments on the book, send email to:
For more information about books, conferences, Resource Centers, and the O'Reilly Network, go to:
How to Contact the Authors
To contact one of the authors directly, send mail to:
We read all mail we receive from readers, but we cannot respond individually. If we did, we'd have no time to do anything else. But we do like to hear from readers.
There is also a web site for the book, which includes updated hardware recommendations, buying guides, and articles, as well as errata, archived older material, and so on:
We also maintain a message board, where you can read and post messages about PC hardware topics. You can read messages as a guest, but if you want to post messages you must register as a member of the message board. We keep registration information confidential, and you can choose to have your email address hidden on any messages you post:
We each maintain a personal journal page, updated daily, which frequently includes references to new PC hardware we're working with, problems we've discovered, and other things we think are interesting. You can view these journal pages at:
Much of the information contained in this book is based on personal knowledge and experience. While we believe that the information contained herein is correct, we accept no responsibility for its validity. The hardware designs and descriptive text contained herein are provided for educational purposes only. It is the responsibility of the reader to independently verify all information. Original manufacturer's data should be used at all times when implementing a design.
The authors, Robert Bruce Thompson and Barbara Fritchman Thompson, and O'Reilly Media, Inc., make no warranty, representation, or guarantee regarding the suitability of any hardware or software described herein for any particular purpose, nor do they assume any liability arising out of the application or use of any product, system, or software, and specifically disclaim any and all liability, including, without limitation, consequential or incidental damages. The hardware and software described herein are not designed, intended, nor authorized for use in any application intended to support or sustain life or any other application in which the failure of a system could create a situation in which personal injury, death, loss of data or information, or damages to property may occur. Should the reader implement any design described herein for any application, the reader shall indemnify and hold the authors, O'Reilly Media, Inc., and their respective shareholders, officers, employees, and distributors harmless against all claims, costs, damages and expenses, and reasonable solicitor fees arising out of, directly or indirectly, any claim of personal injury, death, loss of data or information, or damages to property associated with such unintended or unauthorized use.
Thank you for buying Building the Perfect PC. We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it.