Zeyuan Hu's page

Build My First PC

This page contains my note on how to build a PC.

Requirement

I use this PC mostly for research. The requirement is listed below:

  • Large memory. 32GiB at least and with support to expand to 64GiB. This requirement is for building large software projects fast enough. In addition, large memory allows me to work on in-memory/distributed database development and benchmarking.
  • Support for video editing. Streaming support is optional but good to have.
  • Gaming support is not a top priority.

Background

I haven't built a PC before. This section documents background knowledge helping me make decisions on picking parts.

Note

Components not need to research and purchase this time: monitor, keyboard, mouse.

Motherboard

Motherboard connects graphics cards, RAM, the CPU, power supply, and storage drives to allow them interact with each other.

Criteria to consider when choosing a motherboard:

  • Compatibility with other parts, most notably with CPU (CPU socket type), and overclocking support
  • Number of DIMM (Dual In-Line Memory Module) Slots (i.e., memory slots, RAM slots).
  • M.2 compatability
  • PCIe generation
  • PCIe slot size
  • Motherboard form

Detailed notes:

  • CPU compatibility varies greatly between motherboards, since different generations and brands of processors feature different chipsets and socket types

    • chipset: term used to describe a specific hardware configuration of a motherboard. All motherboards with the same chipset have a certain group of features in common, such as the same CPU socket, PCIe generation supported, RAM generation supported, and overclockability. For example, within Intel’s motherboard 500-series there are currently four different chipsets: H510, B560, H570, and Z590. These all have different features, such as different numbers of PCIe lanes, different USB and SATA port counts, and different overclockability.
    • socket type: refers to CPU socket type. CPU socket houses CPU and all major components are connected to the CPU socket. For example, Intel's 400 and 500-series motherboard has a LGA 1200 socket, which supports Intel's 10th and 11th generation CPU.

Note

AM4 has been the standard socket type for AMD since the introduction of their 1000 series (Zen 1) CPUs in early 2017. Additionally, 500-series motherboards are not compatible with 1000 or 2000 series CPUs, despite having the same socket type. Intel's 8th and 9th generation CPUs are only compatible with 300-series motherboards (known as LGA 1151 Revision 2), while 6th and 7th generation CPUs will only work with 100 and 200-series.

  • Ensure motherboard has M.2 slots 1 if deciding to use M.2 storage drive. If a motherboard supports PCIe gen 4, it will usually have at least one M.2 slot that also supports gen 4. This allows for extremely fast data transfer speeds with a gen 4 SSD. Also, make sure to check the bus type supported by the slot (e.g., SATA bus or PCIe bus).

  • PCIe generation: Newer versions of PCIe have higher bandwidth, which translates to better performance. For example, PCIe 4th generation (the newest revision) has twice the bandwidth of PCIe gen 3. However, besides motherboard PCIe generation support, we also need to check if CPU PCIe generation support. Let’s say we have a PCIe gen 4 SSD. For it to transfer data at gen 4 speeds, both the CPU and the motherboard must support 4th-generation PCIe as well. Otherwise the storage drive will only run at gen 3 speeds (PCIe is backwards compatible).

  • PCIe slots have different sizes: typically, x1, x4, x8, and x16. For example, "PCIe 3.0 x4" refers to a Gen 3 expansion card or slot with a four-lane configuration. The bigger the size, the more lanes the slot supports. CPUs support only a limited number of PCIe lanes, and the quantity varies between models. A PCIe x16 slot, for example, uses 16 of these lanes, while a PCIe x4 slot uses only four. Different components use different numbers of lanes. For instance, discrete graphics cards use 16, while PCIe SSDs use four apiece. Also, since number of PCIe lanes that CPU + motherboard support is fixed, some slots share lanes whereas other slots may have dedicated ports. See this reddit's post as an example.

  • Check whether motherboard support PCI Express NVMe drives in the BIOS for the drive to act as a bootable device.

  • There are three types of motherboard:

    • ATX: This is the full-sized motherboard, and comes with multiple PCIe slots and four RAM slots. It costs more and takes up more space than the other two sizes, but in exchange allows for greater customizability; you can have more RAM and run dual graphics cards if desired.
    • Micro-ATX: This is the mid-sized motherboard. It is generally cheaper than its smaller counterpart, and comes complete with two to four RAM slots and one PCIe slot. This should be enough for just about any PC build, since theoretically you could have 128GB of RAM and just about any graphics card.
    • Mini-ITX: This is the smallest motherboard, but it’s typically more expensive than a Micro-ATX. It is usually only used when you need to fit your PC in a very tight compartment.

CPU

CPU controls every other component and sends instructions to the rest of system.

Criteria to consider when choosing a CPU:

  • If not having a separate graphics card, CPU needs to have integrated graphics.
  • CPU tiers
  • CPU designations

Detailed notes:

  • There are two main brands to choose from: Intel and AMD. There are many generations of CPU’s (Intel is on its 11th generation, and AMD’s Ryzen processors are on their 5th). However, the most important is the CPU tiers. There are four main categories to choose from:

    • The 3-tier: Intel's Core i3 and AMD's Ryzen 3 processors. These are the cheapest processors, but also the least powerful. These are typically the best choice if you’re looking to build a PC for basic office-type functions. They’re also great for budget gaming; recent i3 and Ryzen 3 processors like the i3-10100 and Ryzen 3 3100 can easily run AAA games at upwards of 144FPS, making them ideal for budget gaming rigs.
    • The 5-tier: Intel's Core i5 and AMD's Ryzen 5 processors. These are considered by many to be the ideal gaming processors; they’re not as expensive as an 7 or 9 category, but get similar in-game performance. An i5 or Ryzen 5 is good if you’re looking to build a high-mid tier gaming rig, or if you need to run office-type software (like word processors, Internet browsers, or spreadsheets) at maximum speed.
    • The 7-tier: Intel's Core i7 and AMD's Ryzen 7 processors. These are extremely powerful processors and are capable of running games at very high framerates when paired with a good graphics card, and capable of running many programs at the same time with no trouble. Suitable for doing things like video editing that will require more cores. They may also be the best option for you if you plan on having a very large number of programs running simultaneously.
    • The 9-tier: Intel's Core i9 and AMD’s Ryzen 9 processors. These are the most powerful CPUs available, and consequently the most expensive.
  • CPU Designations: some CPUs have a letter tacked on at the end (e.g., i7-11700K, Ryzen 3 3200G). These letters at the end of the model denote certain traits. The most common processor suffixes are listed below:

    • (intel) K: means that a specific processor is unlocked, and able to be overclocked. Intel processors are locked by default, and are not overclockable unless they are a “K” model.
    • (intel) F: means that a processor requires discrete graphics to operate. Intel processors come with integrated graphics by default, but F-designated processors lack this feature, and need a graphics card to generate an image.
    • (intel) T: These processors are power-optimized, and generate much less heat than their standard counterparts. They’re also less powerful.
    • (ryzen) G: means that the processor has integrated graphics. These are also known as APUs, or Accelerated Processing Units.
    • (ryzen) X: means that the processor is has a slightly faster factory clock speed than its non-X counterpart. For example, the Ryzen 5 3600x is slightly faster than the Ryzen 5 3600. In other words, it’s overclocked out of the box.
  • Some pointers for performance comparison: Tom's Hardware CPU Benchmarks and Performance Hierarchy Charts, AMD vs. Intel: CPU Value Comparison (2021)

CPU Cooler

A CPU generates a massive amount of heat, and without proper cooling it will throttle and shut down. A CPU cooler helps avoid this by dissipating heat away from the surface of the CPU and blowing it somewhere else, typically the case. From there the air is blown out by case fans, keeping components temperatures low. Thermal paste is applied between the cooler and CPU helps the cooler remove heat from the CPU and keep it from overheating.

Two types of cooling systems:

  • Air coolers: They typically use a combination of a metal heatsink and fan(s) to move heat away from the CPU. All Intel and AMD stock coolers (coolers that come with the CPU) are air coolers.
  • Water coolers: formally called all-in-one (AIO) water coolers. These systems use a constantly cycling loop of water to cool the CPU. Cool water runs by the processor, and heats up as the CPU transfers heat to it. It continues around the loop and is cooled by a radiator, and the cycle continues.

Criteria to consider when choosing a CPU Cooler:

  • cooler's Thermal Design Power (TDP) rating.

Detailed notes:

  • Unless you plan to overclock your CPU (boost the speed it runs at to get better performance from it), the default cooler that comes with your processor should be more than adequate. Most high-end processors don’t come with one though.

  • Cooler’s TDP rating: TDP actually refers to the amount of heat that a component puts out, but coolers are rated based on how much heat they are able to disperse. A cooler with a TDP of 250W, then, should be able to keep a CPU with a TDP of 250W cool. For reference, the large majority of CPUs are 125W or lower, so a 250W cooler is very powerful. Thus, look up your CPU’s TDP and buy a cooler that can handle that amount of heat. This is only if you bought a high-end processor, or if you’re looking to overclock yours.

Graphics Card

Graphics card is also called GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) or video card, renders the images on the screen.

Criteria to consider when choosing a graphics card:

  • Synergy between CPU and graphics card to prevent bottlenecking

Detailed notes:

  • You won’t need a graphics card for basic office utilities, but for things like gaming, 3D rendering, and high-resolution video editing it’s essential to have a graphics card.

  • The best way to decide on your ideal graphics card is to look up benchmarks and figure out what card will meet your needs.

  • Designations: Graphics cards sometimes have suffixes added to the end of them, which denote better performance than the standard version. For Nvidia, these include "Ti" and "Super", while Radeon cards use "XT." For example, a 1660 Ti or 1660 Super is better than a regular 1660, and a Radeon 5700XT is better than a 5700. In general, "Ti" cards tend to be marginally better than their "Super" counterparts, but the difference is typically negligible.

  • Bottlenecking: If you buy a CPU that is significantly more powerful than your GPU, or vice versa, this can result in a CPU or GPU bottleneck. What this means is that one piece of hardware is maxing out while the other is not using close to its full potential. You’d be better off buying a more powerful CPU and spending a little less on your graphics card, since this way you will get more frames per second at the same cost.

  • Performance benchmarks: Tom's Hardware GPU Benchmarks and Hierarchy 2021: Graphics Cards Ranked

  • Tools: Compare PC Processort + Graphics Card benchmarks

Storage Drive

The storage drive(s) in determine computer's storage capacity. There are two main types of drive: HDD and SSD. Furthermore, the SSD category is broken into 2 types of its own: NVMe and SATA.

  • HDD: HDD stands for Hard Disk Drive
  • SSD: SSD stands for Solid State Drive. SSD retreives information much faster than HDD. Cost more than HDD.
    • SATA: SATA stands for Serial Advanced Technology Attachment, and refers to the motherboard port that SATA SSDs plug into. These SSDs are slower than their NVMe counterparts, but still much faster than traditional hard drives.
    • NVMe: NVMe stands for Non-Volatile Memory Express. More than 5 times faster than most SATA SSDs.

Criteria to consider when choosing storage drives:

  • storage capacity
  • SSD vs. HDD
  • SATA vs. NVMe
  • Compatibility with motherboard

Detailed notes:

  • NVMe drive: check read/write speeds, PCIe generation and its compatibility with motherboard slots (e.g., M.2 Slot with PCI4 gen 4 works best with PCIe gen 4 NVMe drive)

  • M.2 slots may have following specification "2242/2260/2280/22110 M-key", "2242" indicates the size of SSD that M.2 slot supports: 22 width in millimeters and 42 length in millimeters. M-key means M.2 slot supports M.2 SSD with M-key. An M.2 SSD with M key doesn't fit in a motherboard with only B key and vice versa. The key is also relevant to the speed: SSDs with an M key can handle a higher speed than versions with a B key. More detailed explanation in Dell KB.

RAM

RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and the amount of RAM you buy will determine how much temporary data you can store for near-instant access.

Criteria to consider when choosing RAM:

  • DDR Type
  • Capacity
  • Speed
  • Latency

Detailed notes:

  • DDR4 is the latest RAM technology and is about twice as fast as its predecessor DDR3. DDR3 can no longer with modern motherboards.
  • All RAM modules come with an advertised clock speed. 3200MHz (3200 cycles per second) is the sweet spot in price to performance. We recommend this for the majority of users. If you opt for a Ryzen processor you may benefit from faster RAM. 3600MHz is probably your best bet in this scenario.
  • Generally in the RAM’s product description or product title, we can see a number that reflects the CAS latency. It will usually be written as "Cxx" or "CLxx". C16 or less is ideal; you’ll find that the majority of 3200MHz RAM is C16. Realistically, you won’t notice the difference in any RAM below 20, but don’t buy memory with a latency higher than that.

Power Supply Unit (PSU)

PSU is computer’s power source. It directs electricity from a wall outlet to a computer’s motherboard, where it can be distributed to all of the components as needed.

Criteria to consider when choosing a PSU:

  • Wattage
  • Modularity
  • Brand
  • Efficiency

Detailed notes:

  • Wattage: when choosing a power supply, the primary consideration should be its wattage. The safest method is to use NewEgg’s Power Supply calculator or a similar tool to see exactly how much power your system will drain. Multiply this number by 1.3 and then round up to the next multiple of 50. That’s the power supply wattage you want. Example, if Newegg's estimates that total system wattage will be 600W, then we buy 800W PSU (\(600 * 1.3\) and round up to the nearest multiple of 50). This is a good rule of thumb to use in order to account for any sudden spikes in energy usage that may occur. Most calculators estimate based on a component’s power draw at low usage, rather than at max load. Ten times out of ten, you’ll be better off having too much power rather than too little.

  • Modularity: Modularity means, essentially, the customizability of a power supply.

    • Fully modular means that every single power cable can be removed, allowing you to only use cables that are needed.
    • Non-modular power supplies have all of the cables built-in, and you are unable to remove them. This means that, with non-modular power supplies, you will probably end up having excess cables that aren’t connected to anything that are still taking up space in your case. The only benefit is that non-modular PSU's are cheaper.
    • Semi-modular (a hybrid between non-modular and fully modular) is recommended and most practical: The essential cables, such as the ATX cable 2 that powers your motherboard and your CPU cable, are built in. Other cables like the 8-pin used for most graphics cards are modular, so you can use them if needed, but not have extra unused cables in your case.
  • Brand: recommend EVGA or Corsair PSUs. Cheaply-built power supply has the potential to ruin the rest of your components, start a fire, and generally wreak havoc on your system.

  • Efficiency is measured by "80-Plus" rating. When a PSU sends power to your computer, some percentage of the power from your outlet never reaches the computer, and is instead released as heat. The more heat is released, the less power reaches the computer and the less efficient the PSU is. If 18% of the total wattage coming from the wall is lost in transit to your PC, your PSU is 82% efficient, and thus would earn a Bronze rating. See 80-Plus rating chart. Normally, stick to Bronze rating unless the maginal efficiency improvement (efficiency improved / cost difference) is significant. For example, 9% jump in efficiency at full load with $75 cost more, it would take nearly 10,000 hours, or over a year, of your computer running at full speed to save the $75 extra you spent on the Titanium (assuming a $.12/kwh electricity cost).

PC Chassis

Chasis (also called case, tower) holds all of the components inside, and is the hub to which user connects almost all external cables. These include display cables like HDMI and DisplayPort, USB connectors, Ethernet cables, audio jacks, and more. Computer cases come in three main sizes: Full tower, Mid tower, and Mini tower.

Criteria to consider when choosing a case:

  • Need
  • Case with fans (=> good airflow)
  • Compatibility between case and motherboard
  • Cable management (less important)

Detailed notes:

  • Unless you need to store your computer in a very small compartment, Mid or Full towers are the best option. If you get a Mini tower you’ll probably need to get a smaller form-factor ITX motherboard, which will cost you more money than a standard one.

  • If you need a case with a CD/DVD tray, SD card reader, or anything else specific make sure to ensure that the one you order has those features.

  • Look for a case that comes with fans installed, as this will help keep your entire system cool and allow for good airflow. Ideally, you’ll have at least one in both the front and back. Alternatively, you can buy extra system fans if your case is compatible.

  • Ensure getting a case with a good airflow. This requires actually taking a detailed look at case or its pictures.

  • Cases will have a set list of motherboard types they support so, for example, a smaller case probably won’t support a full-sized ATX motherboard.

Tools

My Choice

  • CPU: AMD Ryzen 9 5900X 3.7 GHz 12-Core Processor

  • CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-D15 chromax.black 82.52 CFM CPU Cooler

  • Motherboard: MSI MPG B550 GAMING EDGE WIFI ATX AM4

  • Memory: Crucial Ballistix 64 GB (2 x 32 GB) DDR4-3600 CL16 Memory

  • Storage: SK hynix Gold P31 1 TB M.2-2280 NVME Solid State Drive

  • Case: Fractal Design Meshify C ATX Mid Tower Case

  • Power Supply: Super Flower Leadex III Gold 850 W 80+ Gold Certified Fully Modular ATX Power Supply

  • Graphics Card: A friend gives me a used graphics card

Reference


  1. For M.2 storage drives or WiFi/Bluetooth expansion cards. Learn more here

  2. Corresponds to Motherboard Power Connector (i.e., ATX Power Connector) on the motherboard. 

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