When it comes to purchasing your dream PC, you could spend ages looking online, sussing out the specs on offer and seeing whether you can tailor the machines available to meet your needs. Or you could take the plunge and build your own computer from scratch.

Putting together an entire PC isn't as scary as it sounds – and it's well worth the hassle. Your home-built PC will have the perfect spec, since you decide what goes into it. Want a faster processor? Get one. Prefer more RAM? Add some. Looking for extra storage space? What are you waiting for?


PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components

The last resort

Having pieced together your shopping list, it's worth having a scout around online and checking out magazine reviews to ensure you haven't overlooked a deal that matches your specification. If you're building a budget machine, buying a pre-built system may be the most cost-effective method of obtaining the required setup. However, unless you stick with a configuration pretty close to the mainstream, building your own system is probably the only way to go.

Here, we've put together two sample configurations. These should be seen only as a starting point. We'll be advising you on how to piece together your own perfect system, not giving you a prepared shopping list. You'll want to swap some components in order to increase performance or lower costs. That's the beauty of being able to make your own build choices.

Price vs performance

Our first build is a budget machine, capable of decent performance with general office applications, email and web surfing. It costs just £164. This doesn't include a monitor, keyboard or mouse – reusing peripherals from your previous system is one way to save cash on a new build.

Our second configuration is a high-end multimedia system, capable of handling most of the tasks you'll be throwing at it both today and for some time into the future. This PC can handle cutting-edge gaming, video editing and high-definition playback, all without breaking a sweat. We spent £1,448 on our powerhouse, again saving some cash by reusing the monitor, keyboard and mouse.

The components for our budget system, bar the motherboard, were bought from aria.co.uk. We opted for a £41 AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+ processor, a Gigabyte M61PME-S2 motherboard (£32; misco.co.uk) and a 2GB kit of Aria-branded PC2-6400 RAM for £25. We chose a Xen Midi case – which was affordable at £19 and included a 520W power supply – and a £30 250GB Hitachi SATA 7200rpm hard drive with 8MB cache. Finally, our LiteOn DH-20A4P DVD writer cost £15.

The motherboard we chose for this system is home to integrated graphics, saving us some cash on a dedicated card. Similarly, our AMD processor bundled a heatsink. You'll find a more detailed explanation of why we chose these particular components later in the article.

Our high-end system boasted an Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 processor (£172; Aria), an OCZ Vendetta 2 CPU cooler (£26; Aria), an MSI X38 Diamond motherboard (£146; saverstore.com) and a 4GB OCZ PC3-10666 Platinum memory kit (£176; Aria). In order to provide enough power for the system we bought a 1,010W FSP Sparkle Everest power supply (£176; Misco) in a CoolerMaster Stacker 832 case (£158; Misco).

An Asus ATI Radeon HD 3870 X2 graphics card (£281; Aria), two 750GB Seagate Barracuda hard drives (£78 each; Aria) and an LG GGW-H20L Blu-ray writer (£152; Aria) completed the package.

Going shopping

We shopped around to find the best price for each component, but found that buying several components from a single supplier (in our case, Aria) makes keeping track of your orders more manageable. While you may not be able to buy each component at its lowest price on the web, you should at least save on delivery costs.

Next page: assembling your dream PC

Quick links:

PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components

If you're looking for a PC that's perfectly suited to your needs but don't want to pay over the odds for the luxury, your best bet is to build it yourself. We show how to create the PC of your dreams.

Some assembly required

Once your parts have arrived, assembling the PC isn't as daunting a prospect as it sounds. First, you should install the power supply inside the case using the supplied screws.

Next up is the motherboard. In the box you should find a rectangular plate with holes that match up with ports and connectors on the back of the motherboard. This plate needs to be fitted into the hole at the back of the case, typically underneath the power supply. It should click in with minimal force.

Now is a good time to ground yourself, thus avoiding any problems with static electricity, which can cause damage to components. The easiest way to do so is to plug the power supply into the mains with it switched off, then touch a metal part of the case. If you're particularly worried about static, you could invest in an antistatic wristband to keep you grounded at all times.

The motherboard needs to be mounted on risers, which are small metal pins that screw into the back of the case. Often these risers are pre-installed. Check that each riser lines up with a hole and unscrew and remove any that don't – these could short-circuit the motherboard. Next, lower the motherboard on to the risers and make sure the ports line up with the blanking plate. If everything fits, use the supplied screws to fix it into place.

Adding speed

To install the processor, lift up the lever on the socket and line up the pins with the connectors – they're designed to fit in only one way around. When it's in the right place, pull down the lever to make contact. The heatsink then clips over the socket. A small amount of white thermal paste can be spread between the chip and heatsink to endure good heat transfer. Alternatively, a thermal pad can be installed (remember to peel away the protective foil first).

Check your motherboard's manual to see which slots are in which bank (see our section on processors and memory) and make sure you put one stick of RAM in each. Typically, each bank is colour-coded and grouped together, making it easy to identify. Fold out the tabs at the end of the slot, insert the memory (it will fit only one way around) and then press down firmly until it clicks in place.

You now need to connect the power supply to the motherboard. There will be one long connector that clicks into place and typically a smaller secondary socket, but consult the motherboard's manual to make sure. The case buttons and lights also need to be wired up – this requires you to match up small sockets with pins on the motherboard, although these will often be grouped together. You'll find a diagram showing which wires go where in the manual.

Drive time

Now install your hard drive(s). Most PC cases include runners that simply clip on to the side of the drive, allowing you to slide it into place. But sometimes you might need to secure these runners with screws. Connect the power supply to the drive and use a SATA cable to connect the drive to the motherboard.

The procedure for installing optical drives is similar, but they may use the ATA interface (which needs a wide, flat cable rather than a thin SATA one). You also need to check that the jumper on the back of an ATA drive is set to the master position.

With everything else in place, install a graphics card if you plan to add one, as well as any other expansion cards. You'll need to remove a blanking plate from the edge of the case so you can access the connectors on the back of the graphics card. Line up the card with the slot and press down firmly. Secure it in place. If yours is a high-end graphics card, it may also need to be hooked up to the power supply.

Finally, double-check everything is correctly and securely connected, plug in your peripherals and get ready to start up your new computer. The Bios should automatically detect the correct settings for your components; consult your motherboard's manual should you need to change any settings.

The entire process shouldn't take more than a couple of hours – less if you've done it before – and at the end you'll have a machine built to your exact specification.

Next page: selecting the right motherboard

Quick links:

PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components

If you're looking for a PC that's perfectly suited to your needs but don't want to pay over the odds for the luxury, your best bet is to build it yourself. We show how to create the PC of your dreams.


The motherboard is one of the most important components inside a computer – it allows each of the individual components to communicate with one another and, as such, dictates the main functionality of your machine.

The motherboard doesn't just house the physical slots and connectors to plug in all the different components. It also manages how these different elements communicate with one another via its chipset. The choice of chipset is dictated by the processor; once you've decided which processor you're going to use, you'll be able to find an appropriate motherboard to house it.

PC Motherboard

The brain of your system

It's physically impossible to use an Intel processor in a board meant for an AMD chip, because the motherboard and processor use different sockets.

Intel Core 2 processors currently use a connector called Socket 775 or LGA 775, which refers to the number of contacts on the bottom of the processor. AMD chips use two different connectors, although the older Socket 939 is largely being replaced by the newer Socket AM2. With this in mind, you're better off choosing an AM2- rather than a Socket 939-compatible motherboard as it will provide greater future upgrade potential.

AMD has also recently introduced AM2+. This is physically identical to AM2, but if you want to use one of AMD's latest Phenom chips, you'll need a board that supports AM2+.

Once you've decided on the physical connector, the next item you need to choose is the chipset. You'll find there are many different chipsets available, but your choice of processor will help rule out some unsuitable models.

Choice chips

For Intel processors, your choice is largely split between Intel's own chipsets or those made by nVidia. The chipset needs to be able to support a certain front-side bus (FSB) speed, which dictates how fast the processor can communicate with the chipset.

Intel processors generally need an 800MHz, 1,066MHz or 1,333MHz FSB, but for future-proofing it's wise to choose a chipset that can work with at least a 1,333MHz FSB. Such chipsets include Intel's X38, X48 and P35, plus nVidia's nForce 650i, 680i, 750i and 780i. At the top end, a handful of the latest processors require a 1,600MHz FSB. However, there are few of these and they're also very expensive; 1,333MHz support is probably sufficient for now.

There are fewer restrictions when it comes to choosing a chipset for an AMD processor, and you'll find many options available from AMD itself (these are actually ATI chipsets) and nVidia. As we mentioned above, a board with an AM2+ socket is necessary to support the new features of AMD's new Phenom chips. Otherwise, you can simply opt for an AM2 board.

If you're looking to increase the 3D performance of your machine by installing two graphics cards, you'll need to take this into account when choosing a motherboard. If you plan to use nVidia's scalable link interface (SLI) system then you'll need a compatible nForce chipset, while ATI's Crossfire requires a suitable Intel or AMD chipset.

Defining ports

The motherboard also provides a vast array of connectors, so it's worth having a quick check whether there are any particular features that you want. All will come with USB, for example, but some can support up to eight or more sockets, which cuts down on the need for external hubs. Hard drives now connect via SATA, but you'll also find removable drives that use external SATA (eSATA), which is faster than USB or FireWire.

PCI Express is the current standard for expansion cards and supports a number of different slot sizes. However, you'll generally find long x16 slots, which are used for graphics cards, and short x1 slots, which are suitable for other cards. You may also find a PCI slot for older expansion cards.

Next page: Processors & memory

Quick links:

PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components

If you're looking for a PC that's perfectly suited to your needs but don't want to pay over the odds for the luxury, your best bet is to build it yourself. We show how to create the PC of your dreams.

Processors & memory

Your choice of processor will have a huge impact on your final PC in terms of its specification and performance. It will dictate which motherboard options you can choose from, as well as what memory you can use. The processor to opt for is also dependent on the amount of money you have to spend, with chips ranging from as little as £20 to more than £700.

Processors and memory


In the past, the processor housed a single CPU, which performed all the calculations required by your PC. Most processors now include more than one CPU in the same package. Referred to as multicore, these processors are able to complete tasks more quickly.

Most multicore processors are dual-core, but it's possible to get triple or quad versions too. Adding more cores to a dual-core setup will improve performance, but this boost won't be as noticeable as the jump from single to dual. This is partly because applications haven't been designed with large numbers of CPUs in mind – although this is changing. Some tasks are better suited to quad-core computing than others.

Intel's Core 2 range covers everything from entry-level dual-core chips running at 1.8GHz (for around £65) right up to 3.2GHz quad-core models, which will set you back £700. There are also cheaper Pentium dual-core processors, but these have a low 1MB Level 2 cache, compared with between 2MB and 12MB for the Core 2.

A small cache memory can result in low performance and is to be avoided unless your budget is really tight. The Core 2 Duo E4700 is a good choice for mid-range PCs at £85. If you're after a more powerful setup, the Quad Q9300 is a speedy quad-core chip that's available for around £165.

AMD is particularly competitive at the lower end of the market, and its Athlon 64 X2 4600+ dual-core chip is a bit of a bargain at £40. The firm's new Phenom range, which offers not just conventional quad-core processors but also triple-core models, is also aggressively priced. The Phenom X3 Triple-Core 8650 is available for just over £100.

Memory games

Your choice of processor and motherboard will dictate what memory you can run. At the moment, AMD supports only DDR2 RAM; its Phenom chips are expected to add DDR3 support later this year. DDR2 RAM is much cheaper to buy, but DDR3 offers improved performance (in theory) and better upgrade options in the future.

A 4GB OCZ Platinum memory kit will set you back around £80 for a DDR2 version and more than twice that (around £175) for a DDR3 version, but the latter offers greater bandwidth. At the cheaper end of the scale, an Aria-branded 2GB DDR2 kit can be bought for £23, which is perfect for a budget machine. While Vista will run with only 1GB of memory, you'll notice a huge benefit from installing 2GB and it won't cost you much more to do so.

You won't be able to fit DDR2 memory in a DDR3 board. Although the slot size is the same, there's a notch in a different place on each board to prevent exactly this.

Most motherboards support dual-channel memory, which splits the memory slots into two banks and boosts performance by allowing the processor to read from both. For this to work, however, you should buy matched memory pairs – two 2GB sticks of the same spec rather than a single 4GB unit, for example – and install one in each bank.

Next page: Hard disks & optical drives

Quick links:

PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components

If you're looking for a PC that's perfectly suited to your needs but don't want to pay over the odds for the luxury, your best bet is to build it yourself. We show how to create the PC of your dreams.

Hard disks & optical drives

With the bulk of your PC now taking shape, you'll need somewhere to store the operating system and your files. You'll also need an optical drive in order to install software and back up important data.

You'll find two different types of connector for drives inside a modern computer – the older parallel ATA interface (often known as IDE, ATAPI or simply ATA) and the newer SATA interface.

Hard drives

Getting connected

SATA was designed to solve many of the problems with the original ATA interface; it's also faster. The maximum speed ATA can achieve is 133 megabytes per second (MBps), while the latest version of SATA can support transfers up to 300MBps.

ATA is more complicated to set up if you have two drives on the same cable, as one has to be set as the master device and the other as slave. The cables are also quite bulky and can obstruct airflow within the case. SATA, on the other hand, supports only one drive per connector and uses thin cables.

You'll still generally find one ATA interface, which is designed for hooking up optical drives – although now you can get SATA versions of these too. For hard drives, stick to SATA for better performance and support from motherboard manufacturers.

The two main factors that affect hard-drive performance are how fast the disk spins and how big a buffer it has. Faster drives also tend to be noisier; if you're trying to build an especially quiet system then you may have to sacrifice a little performance.

Swings and roundabouts

The majority of hard drives on the market spin at 7,200 revolutions per minute (rpm), but Western Digital has a range that spins at 10,000rpm. However, a 74GB version costs roughly the same as a 750GB 7,200rpm drive, so they're not particularly cost-effective. The data buffer can vary from 2MB up to 32MB, but you should be looking for at least a 16MB buffer; 8MB if you're on a tight budget.

You can also buy drives that use flash memory rather than spinning platters. These are much faster than normal disks, but are prohibitively expensive and limited in capacity. The largest generally available is 64GB, which will set you back around £700, while even a 16GB model costs more than a one-terabyte (1TB) traditional drive.

Buying such a large-capacity drive is not as cost-effective as buying several smaller models, however. You could easily purchase two 750GB drives for the price of a single 1TB model, giving you an additional 500GB of storage for the same money.

Read the latest hard drive reviews here.

Combined storage

Most modern motherboards support the Raid configuration. This allows you to either combine two drives into a single storage volume and access it more quickly (Raid level 0), or mirror the contents of one disk (Raid level 1) so that you'll always have a backup copy of your files in case one drive fails.

For a budget machine, you could opt for a drive as small as 80GB. But, given the price difference between such a drive and a 250GB model, the latter makes far more sense.

Finally, you'll need an optical drive. You can pick up a DVD writer, which allows you to store 4.7GB on a single disc, for under £20. Blu-ray Disc can fit 25GB on a single disc, but it's quite expensive – you're looking at around £150 for a writer.

Read PCA's reviews of the latest Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD drives here.

Next page: Graphics cards & monitors

Quick links:

PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components

If you're looking for a PC that's perfectly suited to your needs but don't want to pay over the odds for the luxury, your best bet is to build it yourself. We show how to create the PC of your dreams.

Graphics cards & monitors

Most of your system's components are in place – now it's time to think about getting an image out of it. The main choice you have here is whether to install a discrete standalone graphics card or to opt for a motherboard that has integrated graphics.

A standalone card will be more expensive, but will result in better 3D graphics. A modern integrated graphics chip will be sufficient for use with Windows – and should even be able to handle Vista's eye candy – but you won't be able to play the latest games or turn on the highest detail settings.

A standalone graphics card will also draw more power and require additional cooling, thus making your machine louder. nVidia has recently introduced hybrid SLI technology, which aims to combine the benefits of both options. The idea is that when you're just running Windows applications and don't need advanced 3D capabilities, the system uses the integrated graphics. As soon as you fire up a game, however, it switches to the standalone card instead. Hybrid SLI currently requires very specific components to work, however, so you'll have limited hardware choices.


Double helpings

If you find that one graphics card doesn't provide sufficient power to run the games you want then, depending on the model you choose, there is the option of adding an additional card to help matters. nVidia's solution is known as SLI, while ATI calls its CrossFire. In addition to two compatible cards, you'll also need a motherboard with two 16x PCI Express slots and a certified chipset. If you plan your system carefully, you can buy a single graphics card now, then add another at a later date to boost the system's graphics performance.

Hooking up two graphics cards inside one system is generally seen as an enthusiast activity for those who want to get the absolute maximum in 3D games performance, but both ATI and nVidia have recently released single-card products with two graphics processors. These products effectively create a dual-card setup, without the need for two individual cards.

nVidia's solution is called the GeForce 9800 GX2 (we've reviewed the GX2 here), while the ATI product is the Radeon HD 3870 X2 (reviewed here). Both cards are expensive. Unless you're a dedicated games player, you'd probably be better off with a single card.

Read the latest graphics card reviews here.

Seeing results

Digital visual interface (DVI) is the standard for connecting graphics cards and displays. If you're building an entertainment centre, however, look for a card that also includes high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI). DVI and HDMI use the same signals to transmit video information, but the latter also carries audio and is more compact. HDMI is a standard feature on HDTVs and is frequently seen on computer monitors.

When choosing a display, it's worth considering what you'll be doing on your PC to ensure you choose the most appropriate resolution support. If you're only going to be using Windows applications, for example, a 1,680x1,050-pixel resolution will provide plenty of desktop space.

If you're thinking about also fitting a Blu-ray drive, you'll need a display that can stretch to 1,920x1,080 – sometimes referred to has 1,080p. Blu-ray movies are encoded at 1,080p so you'll need a screen that supports at least that to make the most of it. The Eizo FlexScan HD2441W (tinyurl.com/3t93gs) is ideal for an entertainment machine as it supports both HDMI and 1,080p playback.

Read the latest flat-panel display reviews here.

Next page: Power supplies, fans & cases

Quick links:

PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components

If you're looking for a PC that's perfectly suited to your needs but don't want to pay over the odds for the luxury, your best bet is to build it yourself. We show how to create the PC of your dreams.

Quick links:

Power supplies, fans & cases

Once you've chosen your motherboard, processor and memory, you'll need something to put them all in. All boards and cases use the ATX standard, so you needn't worry about a certain board fitting in a particular case. A standard ATX case can also accommodate a smaller Mini ATX or Micro ATX board, as the connectors and slots are in the same place.

The ATX specification covers the power supply, and this may be included with a case when you buy it. One thing you need to pay attention to, however, is power-supply load, which is dictated by the number of watts the components in your system need to run. If you don't have a powerful enough unit then you could damage the components or experience random crashes.

For a budget PC, a 400-500W power supply should be sufficient. For a high-end machine, you'll need something far more powerful, such as an Everest Module 1,010W unit. This should provide plenty of power even if you want to run two graphics cards in an SLI configuration (see the graphics card section) or include multiple hard drives.

PC cases

Brains and beauty

Many case choices come down to whether you like the look of a particular model, but looks aren't always the most important thing. Other aspects to consider are the number of drive bays – both for hard drives and optical discs – and space for additional fans to assist with cooling. If you're put off by the noise of loud fans whirring, consider buying a case with special material inside to dampen the hum. It's also better to opt for larger fans if noise is an issue – these don't need to spin as quickly (and loudly) as smaller ones.

You'll need a heatsink and fan to cool the CPU. If you buy what's referred to as a ‘processor retail kit', you'll find the necessary parts are included. Although these are sufficient to adequately cool the chip, you might prefer to buy an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) processor (just the chip on its own) and choose a more efficient or quieter heatsink and fan of your own.

Quick links:

PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components