The end of last year saw a lot of exciting new hardware for the enthusiast PC building scene, with one of the most notable GPU wars - possibly ever - between AMD's RDNA2 Big Navi cards and NVIDIA's Ampere-based RTX 3000 series of GPUs. Plus, with AMD's new Zen 3 chips arriving barely two quarters after their market-stirring Zen 2 chips, it comes as no surprise that there's been a boom of interest in custom-building for this new generation of gaming PCs. This, of course, has equally encouraged a flurry of new enthusiasts to the community too, hoping to build their first ever dream gaming system.
But as a newbie to the world of custom-building, or even just as someone looking to upgrade their graphics card or CPU, things can be a tad overwhelming at first. If this happens to be you, then fear not, as today we'll be kicking off with our first post in a short series covering the basics of custom-building, discussing all you need to know when it comes to components, specs and all that lovely confusing jargon (which as you'll soon see, isn't all that confusing once you have the basics down). Even if you're not fresh-faced and bushy-tailed when it comes to enthusiast tech, why not have a read through anyway? It's always good to get a refresh, and you might learn something new along the way too.
So sit back, grab a drink and a snack, and I'll walk you through all the need-to-know you could ask for.
Before you even start thinking about components and their associated specs, there are three very important questions you need to ask first, since they'll guide your decision-making process when it eventually comes to picking your pc parts later.
This is going to be the most important of the three questions, since it will set your expectations of the custom-building process to come. There's no point in building (or even buying for that matter) a £700 PC if you're expecting the performance of a £1200 PC. In the same vein, if you want that Custom PC to be lightning fast, you'll need to consider component types and features where it's appropriate; choosing an HDD storage option, for example, will keep your operating system running relatively slow by today's standards, so you'd definitely be looking at SSDs and NVMe M.2 storage options. There's no good in deciding this after you've settled on a hard budget because you'll probably end up disappointed - and that's the very last thing you want if you've spent a few hundred quid and a couple of hours picking components, and building the whole thing, only to find it doesn't perform how you were hoping.
Ultimately, you have to be sensible here and if you already have a rough figure in mind, then consider your budget to a degree too. But you will also have to be realistic. We always recommend figuring out what you want first, then finding out what you need to achieve that - it will help give you a ballpark figure on what sort of budget you'll be looking at for your desired level of performance, or else help you re-evaluate potential PC specs to either raise or lower that budget figure as necessary. Which, to an extent, links directly to our next question.
Form factor is a term that simply refers to the size of your PC and the type of Motherboard you'll be picking (more on that later). But in essence, you need to consider the size of the PC you want, and more importantly, the space you'll have wherever you're intending to put it. If you've got all the space in the world, then you could happily go for a full tower case to house everything, but if you've only got a small space to slot all that hardware, you may need to consider midi towers or even smaller ITX cases.
Similarly to our first question though, it's a good thing to consider prior to setting a hard budget, since more often than not, form factor will affect pricing - full tower systems usually house full ATX or "E-ATX" motherboards (the largest form factor), which generally have more features than other motherboard sizes, so you pay a little more for them. On the other hand, Midi-towers and Micro-ATX (the middle men of the form factors) cut back on those extra features and require less materials since they're smaller, meaning they're also generally cheaper.
But once you get to ITX (the smallest of the form factors), even though they may have the same or marginally less features than a Micro-ATX, those features are being packed into a considerably smaller space, making the engineering of the boards trickier and as such, increasing the price again. Equally, the smaller the form factor you choose, and the higher-end the components you eventually pick, the more you'll need to consider things like thermals. Hot PCs are unhappy PCs, and countering this heat will translate into additional costs; smaller PCs mean less airflow, which means increased heat build-up, exacerbating the issue.
Form factor will also dictate the size of the components you will actually be able to fit - if you've seen a huge, 315mm+ graphics card that you like, chances are it won't be fitting in an ITX case anytime soon.
Smaller form factors, and especially ITX, can also be trickier to build in with their less forgiving internal space, and so most people will likely opt for that Micro-ATX middle man, but it's definitely something to have a think about. Once again, you need to be realistic with your budget (and building confidence), and this is another big thing that will affect it beyond just the capability of the hardware you're after.
Once you've settled on the former two questions, you're ready to start thinking about your budget. You know how you want your system to perform and in what size case, but it's here where you can start to decide whether these original requirements you've set out are achievable with the cash you actually have to splash. The answer may well be yes, in which case, tally-ho chaps. But if not, then now is the ideal time to think about either holding off and saving up, or deciding where you might be willing to make compromises. It's at this point that you'll be grateful you thought about question 1 and 2 beforehand.
For example, perhaps you had the space for a Micro-ATX but wanted to try for the smaller ITX solely for aesthetic reasons. Well, if your budget isn't quite making the cut, consider changing the form factor, and it may well be enough to make up the difference. Or perhaps you've decided you want a whole load of storage right off the bat? The great part about building something custom is you can build the foundation now and upgrade later, and storage is one of the easiest things to add to a system at a later date. In fact, you might be surprised just how many compromises can be made if you need to, but we would always recommend keeping the answer to that first question in mind - sometimes it's just better to wait until you've got an extra £100, or even £20-£50 lying around; it might seem nominal in the grand scheme of your budget, but it can make quite the difference, and especially so at the lower-end.
The last thing to consider, and something that may even crop up after you've started hunting for components, is when to actually buy those components? Now? Or wait to see if there's a sale soon? Is something new coming out that will imminently replace what you're looking at? Will it be better and cheaper all at once? Or will it be better but more expensive? Perhaps it isn't of concern as you're hoping it means the part you're looking at now will get cheaper as it becomes end-of-line? These are all very valid questions but, more often than not, they're also incredibly unhelpful.
Truth is, there is never really a 'right' time to buy per se. 9 times out of 10, the answer is to just buy now. If you know what you're after and the parts you want are available, then strike while the iron is still hot, because it is almost inevitable that at some point down the line, there'll be something better, something cheaper, something newer and so on. If all of us in the enthusiast community just kept waiting, well, there wouldn't be one. None of us would have a PC and I'd be writing this with pen and paper, just dreaming longingly of RGB and 120fps... not that I need those for Word of course...
Every so often, once in a blue moon, there are changes in the market so significant, and so close to the point in time you're looking to purchase, that it would be silly not to wait. The end of last year was a perfect example of exactly that. In around August/September, we were only 2-3 months away from what turned out to be some of the most game-changing hardware (quite literally) that we have seen in the last 5-10 years. Big Navi did indeed live up to it's name and NVIDIA's RTX 3080 and RTX 3070 offered insane performance for the MSRP. Then came Zen 3, which firmly knocked Intel out of the Gaming CPU throne, as well as continuing to smash graphs for producitivty and multithreaded workloads. So, if you were in the market for a PC last summer, and didn't need a PC pronto, the best thing you could have done was just wait it out to see what would happen.
Last year aside, it's always a good idea to do some research about the current PC hardware landscape. Even just a quick browse through YouTube can give you a rough idea of what's hot right now, the best options for components on different budgets, and whether or not there's anything new, exciting, better or cheaper, arriving imminently. So, to reiterate - don't wait forever, or you'll never build a PC, and don't jump the gun if there's something good that's clearly on the horizon.
With all of those considerations out of the way, where exactly should we start? Well, I'm going to go through everything in the same way I would when picking components for myself, and I'll explain why that is along the way. I'll also round up all the keywords and specs that make up the jargon for those components, giving you a handy definition and explanation for each. Hopefully by the end, I'll have busted some of the pesky specs and what they mean, so whenever you need to go looking for a part, you'll know exactly what you want to keep an eye out for.
Feel free to head on over to part two of this series, where we'll cover the ins-and-outs of Graphics Cards, the most important component in any gaming system...
Posted in Guides & How To
Author - Danny Adams
Published on 10 Sep 2020
Last updated on 11 Jan 2021
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