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Common problems to avoid when building your own computer

Are you planning to build your own computer? It can be an exciting project, as you get to choose the components that match your needs and preferences. However, building a computer from scratch can also come with its own set of challenges and errors. In this article, we will discuss the common problems to avoid when building your own computer.

Common problems to avoid when building your own computer

Having built and serviced many custom-built computers, there are certain things I watch out for. The tips outlined in this article are meant to assist you in building your own computer. For the basic steps to building a custom computer, check out How to build a computer.

Choosing components: One of the most common mistakes people make when building their own computer is selecting the wrong components. You must choose components that are compatible with one another. For example, if you choose a motherboard that only supports DDR4 RAM, you won't be able to use DDR5 RAM, no matter how much you want to.

How to find compatible computer parts online

Enough space for components: When building a computer, it's essential to make sure that you have enough space for all the components. If you're building a Small Form Factor computer, make sure that all the components you choose can fit inside the case. It's also essential to make sure that there is enough space for adequate cooling and airflow. Remember, you cannot install a full-size ATX motherboard into a microATX case.

Things to keep in mind when building a custom-built computer

Motherboard IO shield: If your motherboard comes with a separate IO shield, remember you have to install it before the motherboard. Also, be careful when installing the motherboard so you do not bend any of the prongs on the IO shield.

Photo of a motherboard IO shield showing the grounding prongs

These prongs are meant to ground the various ports but often get bent out of shape. Install the IO shield in the case and then test fit the motherboard into the case. If you place the motherboard at an angle in the case, you can get the ports on the back underneath any IO shield prongs that need to be on top of them.

Cable Management: Cable management is often overlooked, but it's essential to keep your computer tidy and organized. Proper cable management can help with airflow, reduce dust buildup, and make it easier to troubleshoot any problems. Make sure that all cables are neatly tucked away and secured to avoid any damage or interference with other components.

Photo of plastic coated wire tie and plastic zip tie side by side

When performing cable management, use only velcro or plastic zip ties. Never use plastic-coated wire twist ties since they contain wire, which, if used too close to any exposed circuit board or bare metal, could cause a short.

Power Supply Requirements: The power supply is one of the most critical components of a computer, and it's essential to make sure you get the right one. A power supply that isn't powerful enough can cause your computer to crash, and one that is too powerful can waste energy and increase your electricity bill. Make sure that your power supply can handle the wattage required by your components.

Also, use a modular power supply if possible. With a modular power supply, you only have to attach the cables required for the components inside your case. For example, if you use only M.2 SSDs (Solid State Drive) for storage, you would not need to attach any SATA cables to the power supply, thus saving space inside the case.

How to estimate the power required for your custom-built computer

Cooling: The components inside your computer generate a lot of heat, and it's essential to keep them cool. If your computer overheats, it can cause damage to the components, shorten their lifespan, and even cause them to fail. Make sure you have enough cooling, either through fans or liquid cooling, to keep your computer running at optimal temperatures.

When it comes to the airflow direction, I usually will have air coming in through the front/bottom of the case and going out through the top/back of the case.
Photo of a case fan with directional arrows highlighted
Case fans typically are marked with the direction of both the fan blades and airflow.

In conclusion, building your own computer can be a fun and rewarding experience, but it's essential to avoid these common problems. Take your time, do your research, and make sure that you choose the right components that are compatible with one another. Always double-check that everything is installed correctly and that you have enough cooling and space for all the components. With the right approach, you can build a computer that meets your needs and performs well for years to come.

What to do when your desktop computer does not start

Is your desktop computer not starting up? Are no lights or fans coming on when you try to start your desktop computer? If so, here is what to do when your desktop computer does not start.

What to do when your desktop computer does not start

Dealing with a desktop computer that won't start can be a frustrating experience, especially if you rely on it for work, entertainment, or both. However, before you panic and assume the worst, there are a few things you can do to troubleshoot the issue.

Disconnect external devices

If your desktop computer is not starting up, it could be due to an external device connected to it having failed. Disconnect all external devices, including USB drives, external hard drives, and printers. Try booting up your desktop computer again and see if it works.

Check the power connection

Next, you will want to ensure your computer is properly plugged in and all cables are securely connected. This may sound obvious, but it's a common mistake that can easily be overlooked. Check that the power cable is plugged into the computer's power supply and an electrical outlet. Additionally, ensure that your monitor, keyboard, and mouse are all connected properly.

Check the PSU (Power Supply Unit)

If your computer still won't start, the next step is to check for any signs of life. Do you hear any sounds when you press the power button? Can you see any lights on the computer or monitor? If the answer is no to both of these questions, there may be an issue with your power supply.

Now, there are different types of desktop computers: Mid/Full-size Tower, Small Form Factor (SFF), All-In-One, Mini, etc. And with the different kinds of desktop computers come different types of power supplies. Some are external, and some are internal.

External power supplies

Mini, All-In-One, and some SFF computers are actually built on a laptop platform and use external power supplies. Remember that the output from any power supply, internal or external, will gradually diminish to a point where your computer will not start.

And even if you do not turn on and use your Mini, All-In-One, or SFF computer, the power supply is often connected to an AC jack, powered up, and energized. If your external power supply is over three years old, it is probably time to replace it.

Internal power supplies

All Mid/Full-size Tower and most SFF computers use internal power supplies and use the ATX (Advanced Technology Extended) specification for connectors. Mid/Full-size Tower power supplies are the most common and are readily available at your local computer parts store.

Almost all SFF computers that use internal power supplies are specifically made (dimensions, connectors, etc.) for that system. You would have to use the part number on the existing power supply to order another one online.

Note: The following procedures require opening the case of your computer. If you do not feel comfortable taking your desktop computer apart, don't hesitate to contact a local computer repair technician.

Most desktop computer cases are relatively easy to open. Just a screw or two secures the side panel to the case. If you need help determining how to open the case, you may need to find a user manual online. A quick Google search for the make and model of your desktop computer plus user manual should get you a manual. For example: Dell XPS 8950 user manual.

Now, all Mid and Full-size Towers and some SFF computers use power supplies with 20+4 motherboard connectors. You can perform a simple test to check the health of those types of desktop power supplies.

How to tell if your desktop computer power supply has failed

Check for debugging LEDs

If the power supply tests out well, the next step is to check for debugging LEDs. To find out if your motherboard has debugging LEDs, you must find a manual for it. A quick Google search for the make and model of your desktop computer or motherboard plus manual should get you a manual. For example: Dell XPS 8950 manual.

The debugging LEDs correspond to the POST (Pre-Operative Self Test) that happens every time you start your computer. The standard four (4) debugging LEDs are CPU (Central Processing Unit), DRAM (Dynamic Random-Access Memory), GPU (Graphics Processor Unit), and Boot drive.

If your motherboard has debugging LEDs, disconnect the power cord from the power supply and then hold down the power button for 30 seconds. Then reconnect the power cord and watch the debugging LEDs for any life. If your computer shuts down when a particular LED lights up, that is the component that must be looked at.

Reseat the components

If your desktop computer is still not starting, then try to reseat the components: GPU, memory, CPU, expansion cards, M.2 drives, etc. Make sure you disconnect the power cord from your desktop computer and hold down the power button for thirty (30) seconds to discharge any residual electrical current before attempting to reseat any of the components.

In conclusion, if your desktop computer doesn't start, several potential causes should be considered. Following the troubleshooting steps outlined above, you should be able to identify and fix the issue in most cases. However, if you still have problems after trying these steps, it may be time to consult a professional computer repair service.

How to estimate the power required for your custom-built computer

Whether you are building a new computer or replacing/upgrading your existing one, one of the most important considerations is the Power Supply Unit (PSU). The PSU is responsible for delivering power to all the components in your system, including the motherboard, CPU, graphics card(s), and other peripherals. Choosing the correct PSU is crucial to ensure stable and reliable performance and prevent damage to your components.

How to estimate the power required for your custom-built computer

Two (2) components in your computer will consume most of the power: the motherboard and the graphics card(s). The motherboard uses a relatively small amount of energy but supplies power to the CPU, memory, PCIe slots, and USB ports.

To determine the appropriate wattage for your PSU, you must first consider the power requirements of your components. Here are some guidelines to help you estimate how many watts your PSU should be:

  • CPU: The power consumption of your CPU depends on its model and clock speed. Generally, high-end CPUs require more power than budget models. You can find the power requirements of your CPU on the manufacturer's website.
  • Graphics card(s): If you plan on using a dedicated graphics card(s), these will be one of the most power-hungry components in your system. High-end graphics cards can consume up to 450 watts under load, so check the manufacturer's specifications before choosing a PSU.
  • Motherboard: Your motherboard's power consumption is relatively low compared to other components, but it still requires some power. Make sure to choose a PSU that can provide enough power for all the motherboard components, including the CPU and memory.
  • Storage: Hard drives and SSDs consume very little power, so you don't need to worry about them when choosing a PSU.
  • Other components: If you plan to use other components, such as a sound card, network adapter, or USB devices, make sure to factor in their power requirements when estimating your PSU wattage.

Now, some online power supply calculators can estimate the power requirements given the specifications of the components. You can use these websites to calculate a rough estimate of the amount of power your computer will require. Here are a few online power supply calculators.

Newegg - Power Supply Calculator

PC builds - Power Supply Calculator

Cooler Master - Power Supply Calculator

Once you have a rough estimate of the power requirements for your components, add some extra headroom to ensure stable and reliable performance. A good rule of thumb is to choose a PSU that can provide at least 20% more power than your estimated requirements.

In conclusion, choosing the suitable PSU is crucial to ensure stable and reliable performance for your computer. By estimating the power requirements of your components and adding some extra headroom, you can choose a PSU that meets your needs and provides room for future upgrades.

Defining confusing computer hardware verbiage

Have you ever looked at the specifications of a computer and wondered what all of that information meant? Technical jargon can be confusing. So here is some of the most common computer hardware verbiage defined.

Defining confusing computer hardware verbiage

The vocabulary that the computer industry uses can be confusing at times. The different technical jargon can make your head spin. So here are the definitions for some of the most commonly used technical verbiage.

Motherboard

Chipset - An integrated circuit that controls data transfer functions - Chipsets are designed to work with specific CPUs and provides communication between the CPU and the other devices connected to the motherboard. Chipsets have a direct role in determining system performance

Form Factor - The physical dimensions of a device or component - Motherboards come in various form factors: from the ultra-small mini-ITX to a full-size ATX. Always verify what motherboard form factor your computer case can hold.

CPU Socket - It holds the CPU and provides mechanical and electrical connection between the motherboard and processor - AMD and Intel use completely different socket types (Intel uses LGA and AMD uses sWRX8, sTRX4, etc.). Be sure to confirm the CPU socket before purchasing a new motherboard.

Memory Slots - It holds memory modules and provides mechanical and electrical connections between the motherboard and memory - Desktop and laptop motherboards usually have 2 - 4 memory slots. Server motherboards can have up to 32 memory slots.

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

Core - A Core is a separate processing unit inside the CPU that executes the instructions that the user initiates, such as running programs and completing complex calculations - All modern CPUs have multiple cores to run several processes simultaneously.

Thread - A thread is a sequence of programmed instructions - You will usually find two (2) Threads using one (1) Core. This is where the term multithread comes from.

Generation - A CPU Generation is the average time between product release cycles - This period is usually one (1) year.

Clock Rate - The frequency/speed that the CPU operates at - The higher the clock rate is, the faster a CPU can process instructions.

Memory

Type - The physical interface that connects the memory module to the motherboard - Memory modules come in various types, from the standard DDR (Double Data Rate) to Double Data Rate 5 (DDR5).

Speed - The frequency that the memory operates at - Memory speed is measured by transfers per second. For example, PC5-38400 can handle 4,800 transfers per second.

Capacity - The amount of data the memory module can hold - The capacity of a memory module is always a multiple of 2 (2, 4, 8,16, 32, 64, etc.).

Column Address Strobe (CAS) Latency - The delay in clock cycles it takes between when data is read and when it is available for use - When selecting memory, always use modules with the same CAS latency. Using memory modules that have different CAS latency can cause system instability.

Hard Disk Drive (HDD)

Form Factor - The physical dimensions of a device or component - HDDs come in 3.5" or 2.5" widths. The height of 2.5" HDDs can vary between 7MM and 9MM.

Capacity - The amount of data the drive can hold - HDD capacity can vary from Gigabytes (GB) to Terabytes (TB).

Interface - The physical connection between the motherboard and HDD - All HDDs utilize a SATA interface connection.

Revolutions Per Minute (RPM) - The speed at which the platters inside of an HDD spins - The faster the HDD platter spins, the quicker data is transferred.

Cache - The embedded memory that acts as a buffer between the motherboard and drive - Normally, the larger the cache, the better performance you will get from the HDD.

Solid State Drive (SSD)

Form Factor - The physical dimensions of a device or component - SSDs come in various physical forms (sizes); 2.5", M.2, and U.2. M.2 SSDs also come in various widths and lengths. The code that follows M.2 is that particular drive's width and length in millimeters. For example, an M.2 2280 has a width of 22MM and a length of 80MM.

Capacity - The amount of data the drive can hold - SSD capacity can vary from Gigabytes (GB) to Terabytes (TB).

Interface - The physical connection between the motherboard and SSD - There are primarily three (3) types of interfaces; SATA 3, PCI-e 3, and NVMe. What type of interface is determined by the form factor. 2.5" drives use SATA 3, and M.2 drives use either PCI-e 3 or NVMe. M.2 drives also have key notches; B key, M key, or both.

Memory Type - Most SSDs use NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) - NVMe has become the default standard memory for most SSDs produced.

Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

Power Requirements - The amount of power required to operate the GPU - Most GPUs require one (1) PCIe 6 or 8-pin power connector, with some high-end graphic cards requiring two (2) PCIe 6 - 8 pin connectors.

Interface - The physical connection between the motherboard and graphics card - Most GPUs require a PCIe x16 slot using the same PCIe version (2.0, 3.0, 4.0, etc.) as the motherboard.

Memory - The physical amount of memory that is embedded on the graphics card - Graphics cards use a type of memory designed explicitly for processing graphics called Graphics Double Data Rate (GDDR). There are multiple versions of GDDR, including GDDR3, GDDR4, and GDDR5.

Speed - The frequency that the GPU operates at - GPU clock speed is how many processing cycles it can execute in a second.

Power Supply Unit (PSU)

Type - PSU types are based on the different computer case form factors - The majority of PSUs are ATX form factor, as it is the most popular case type.

Power Output - The rated maximum wattage that a PSU can deliver - A PSU output can range from 400W to over 1500W.

Modular / Non-Modular - The type of physical connection for the different power cables leading to the various devices - Non-modular PSUs have all of the device connections physical attached, Modular PSUs have separate cables for each type of device, so you only have to connect the cables for the devices you need to power.

How to tell if your desktop computer power supply has failed

There may be a time when your desktop computer does not start. There could be a few reasons why it does not start. The first thing that comes to mind is a failed power supply. Here's how to test your desktop power supply.

How to tell if your desktop computer power supply has failed

Living in Phoenix, we have one thing that takes a toll on a desktop computer. No, it is not the heat; it is the dust. Since our environment here is so dry, we get a lot of dust.

How to clean the dust out of your computer

And since dust does conduct electricity, power supplies tend to fail. Even if you routinely clean your desktop computer, they still only have a life span of around 3 to 5 years.

So, if you press the power button, your desktop computer does not start, and there are no lights that light up, then you may have a failed power supply.

Now, if you do not feel comfortable working around electricity or inside of your desktop computer, please contact a local computer technician.

How to test your desktop computer power supply

  1. Disconnect the power cord that comes from the outlet to the power supply.
  2. After you have disconnected the power cord, open up the case and touch any metal part of the power supply or case to discharge any remaining energy.
  3. Make a note or take pictures of the connections that lead from the power supply to the devices. Once you have documented all of the power leads, then remove all of the connectors (SATA, Molex, PCI-e, ATX, MB, etc.) that lead to all of the different devices and motherboard.
  4. Create a jumper from a piece of thin gauge wire or paper clip.
  5. Plug the power cord back into the jack on the back of the power supply.
  6. Using the jumper you created, connect Pin 16 to either Pin 17 or Pin 18.
    Motherboard power supply connectior
    If the power supply fan starts to run, the power supply has an output voltage and is in good condition. If the power supply fan does not spin, it is time to replace it.

If your power supply has failed, make a note of what type and how many connectors your existing power supply has.
Common desktop power supply connections
Also, check the stated output of your existing power supply from the label on the side.

I also recommend that you use a tape measure or ruler to measure the dimensions of the power supply, (Width x Height x Depth) as you will want to get as close as possible to these for the replacement power supply.

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