An Engineer’s Guide to PC Builds

Shaun Mayby Shaun May, EIT

In addition to being a commissioning engineer at Wood Harbinger, I am a landscape photography hobbyist and freelancer. I aspire to capture the highest quality images of the most beautiful and rare natural moments… sunrises, sunsets, and the stars from remote locations, and in addition infuse digital art to bring the viewer into these visions. Pouring my heart and soul into this work, I strive to equip myself with top-of-the-line gear and to streamline my workflow. For software, I work in Adobe Photoshop and have recently started using Adobe Premier Pro for video editing.

I decided I needed new hardware last Fall. I had reached that critical point where my eight-year-old mammoth laptop just wasn’t cutting it anymore. As I started researching new computers, I remembered my brother had told me that building a PC was easy. As an electrical engineer, I was very encouraged by the recommendation. I love to create and have a knack for technology.

I recently completed my PC build. Now let me tell you, building a PC was so much easier than it had ever seemed! I recommend it, no matter your technical level; PC assembly is plug-and-play. The key is to plan your build and do a little research to ensure component compatibility. Plan to spend a few hours on research and sourcing components and 4-8 hours assembling your first PC.

Who Can Benefit?

  1. Video gamers, and more recently, virtual reality (VR) users. (VR has blown the minds of those who have used it and will do so to the masses over the next decade.)
  2. Photographers/Videographers
  3. Graphic digital artists
  4. Musicians

The beauty of building a PC is that the owner is in control. It is particularly cost effective for those wanting graphic-heavy horsepower. But it’s also useful for a simple machine as well. You pay baseline costs for the components that matter to you and hop out of the “obsolete-computer-in-five-years” cycle. For example, you will not need to upgrade your motherboard for some time. RAM is inexpensive and easy to add-on. Hard disk memory even more so.

Parts and Pieces

Machine Body

Case

Aka the “tower”. Here you can go big, or small. I recommended a large box with strong linear design, good ventilation, clear windows to peek under the hood, that’s pre-wired, and has space for add-ons. My machine has room to breathe, a solid recommendation from a heat rejection standpoint, as keeping the machine cool is a top priority. Most cases are equipped with built-in fans and all you need to do is connect power from the power supply.

Liquid Cooling

If you’re going to be using your computer for heavy processes, additional cooling may be a good idea. A pumped, chilled fluid can be used to transfer heat out of the case to prevent overheating and improve performance. How neat!

Power Supply Unit (PSU)

The PSU plugs into your wall electrical outlet, and connects to all components in your machine to distribute power. I recommend oversizing it a little bit for future capacity.

Mastermind

Motherboard (MOBO)

This is your computer’s skeleton, so to say. All your components in some way connect to the MOBO, and this allows them to communicate with each other. The central processing unit (CPU) for instance, which is square in shape, mounts directly onto the MOBO, establishing a 2-D grid of connections.  This makes sense because the CPU is the central workhorse and therefore benefits from shortest distance/shortest travel time/highest speed communication. An intuitive sense of the computing and circuits is not required to assemble a PC.  MOBOs are shipped with step-by-step directions and diagrams which clearly guide the assembly process.

This is a fairly standard component.  I recommend getting the latest USB 3.1 communication ports, and ensuring compatibility with components to install onto it.

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

This is the brains of your computer. It executes the instructions provided by software or you, the user. Every function of your computer passes through the CPU. Don’t go cheap on your CPU.

Random Access Memory (RAM)

RAM is like short term memory. Having more of it improves calculation speed, such as in photo and video editing. Think about the math whiz you know who can store ten numbers in her head and bust out amazing calculations in seconds.  She has a lot of RAM up there.

RAM is cheap. 2 x 16 GB cards = 32 GB of RAM is about $170. Those performance gaming level speeds will rip your face off (for little cost too)!

Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

This is where the gaming nerd shows his true form.  This component is crucial for displaying high quality video displays for games and videos but these babies come at a price. $600 for top of the line.

Hard Disk Drive (HDD)

My tower has about ten slots to slide in hard disk drives. I’m currently using one 3 TB drive. These are super easy to install: simply plug in communication to the motherboard, plug in power to the PSU, and you’re up and running. I recommend that you get a spare for redundancy, or use portable USB drives like I have, too.

These days, storage is shifting into the cloud for sharing. Use this option to back-up and share your music, videos, photo archive, and other media.

Solid State Drive (SSD)

Solid state means printed circuit board, as opposed to spinning hard disk drive. Electronic technology, including smart phones, has progressed to using primarily solid state drives. Solid state technology is faster, more durable, and more reliable.  I recommended you run your operating system and key software on your solid state and leave the heaping media piles to the hard disk. 512 GB SSD was sufficient for me. 1 TB would add headroom and therefore convenience…for a price.

Operating System

You have to have one. Common options for a PC include Windows and Linux. Ubuntu is a free, open-source option based on a version of Linux. The only question is… do you want to use your computer, or your computer to use you?

Peripherals: Become cyborg

Optical Drive (Blu-ray compatible)

This is your disc read/writer. You will need it to pop in your software disk and bring your machine to life. You’ll probably download everything else off the internet, won’t you? Optical drives are becoming obsolete—many tablets and laptops don’t come with these anymore. But they can still be handy.

Keyboard

I like the mechanical ones that go “clack clack clack.” Why? To let my neighbors know I’m working. And also, because the physical finger-to-switch mechanic triggers neural responses that accelerate typing and push button key response. You can also get digital projection keyboards?! I would not recommend this… someday.

Monitor

Get that fast response for gaming. Get that high res for image reproduction. Two monitors is a good idea for workflows, many of us can get by with just one.

Mouse

Much like the keyboard, an extension of the body. Find the right fit, ergonomics, speed, and control. Don’t let you, “User!”, be the bottleneck in workflow efficacy!

To Build…

Simply put, each component needs to communicate and each component needs power. So, each either plugs directly onto the MOBO, or has two cable connections: one for power (from PSU), and one for communication (to MOBO). Step-by-step sequenced directions come with the MOBO and guide the user through assembly and wiring—truly plug-and-play.

Knowing my use pattern guided my selections. My machine is built around high performance gaming and video editing.  For simple word processing and web browsing, we could easily build a machine for $400.  The point is, no matter what you’re using your computer for, you will save money building your own.

First boot of my new PC!

Bonus Content: +100 to Nerd

Here’s the specs from my PC build:

System Unit Price ($) Spec Spec Spec Notes
Central Processing Unit (CPU) Intel i7 $350 4.00 GHz 6700K, 1151 socket
Motherboard (MOBO) Gigabyte Intel Z170 $170 6 Gb/s USB 3.1
Random Access Memory (RAM) G.SKILL Ripjaws $170 2 x 16GB
Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) GeForce GTX 1080 $600
Hard Disk Drive (HDD) HGST $160 3TB 6 Gb/s
Solid State Drive (SSD) Samsung $370 512 GB M.2
Power Supply Unit (PSU) Corsair AX860 $180 860W
Case Corsair 760T $180 Windowed Full Tower
Cooling Corsair H60 $60 Liquid
Optical Drive Pioneer BDR-XD05B $93 Slim Blu Ray
Monitor BenQ XL2430T $350 144Hz 1ms 1920×1080
Operating System (OS) Windows 10 Pro $140 OEM
Keyboard Steelseries $100
Mouse Razer CLG $100
Headset Sennheiser GSP 300 $150
Total $3,490 Date 9/14/2016
includes tax
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