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

So, you are thinking about building your own computer. There are allot of things you have to decide on. So here are a few things to keep in mind when building your own custom-built computer.

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

Building your own system can be quite satisfying, like being able to say "I built it myself". And you can also perform any service on it, since you know where everything is located.

But if you do not plan it out, it can be a nightmare. Like having to return components that are not right. It can be a real headache if you order them online and have to ship them back.

So, let's take a look at some of the considerations you have to think about before you purchase the components for your custom-built computer.

Form vs Function

It is an age-old problem: Form vs. Function. Do you want a system that is really cool looking or takes up very little space (form)? Or maybe a system that can run graphic intense games or can hold ton of components (function)?

Over the years I have built both types of computers for my personal use. My first few were built purely for function, playing games and a ton of storage using a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks).

They were big and not very pretty to look at, but they served the purpose. But systems like that have one big issue: cooling. Trying to keep all of the components cool was tough.

Now a few years ago I decided that I was tired of having to leave the side panel of my computer case off and have fan blowing air in to it. It just didn't look good to me or others that I might have come into my office.

I wasn't playing the games anymore and the size of hard drives had increased, so I did not need to have a RAID any more. So, I decided to start using a case that was more appealing to the eyes.

A custom-built computer based on Form

If you are thinking about building your custom-built computer based on form, then the first thing you have to decide on is the case. They come in all sorts of sizes, ranging from the ultra-small mini-ITX to an ATX bench case.

You can go with a conventional looking case or something unique, like clear Plexiglass. You can get them with a ton of LED's or just plain.
A computer case with a custom finish
You can find them in all sorts of colors or you can apply your own finish.

Custom cases: Faux Stone and Chalkboard
Custom cases: Back in Black
Custom Cases: The Antec Skeleton

Or you can go with something completely open like an Antec Skeleton.
An orginal Antec Skeleton case
It is whatever you want your custom-built computer to look like. Once you have decided on a case, the case will dictate what components you can put inside (motherboard, graphics card, power supply, etc.).

If the case you want to use can hold a micro-ATX or standard ATX motherboard, you can follow the Function factor instructions below. If the case you want to use can hold a mini-ITX or mini-ATX motherboard, finding a motherboard is the next step.

Since mini-ITX and mini-ATX cases are small, the motherboards for them will have limited options for what CPU's (Central Processing Unit) they can use. Remember that the faster the CPU runs, the more heat it will make.

And with smaller mini-ITX and mini-ATX cases, CPU cooling options may be limited to just air cooled heatsinks. It just depends on how much space inside of the case you have available.

When it comes to GPU's (Graphics Processing Unit), you may or may not have room for one. But if you are not going to be using your system for graphic intensive programs like Photoshop, you can easily use the on-board graphics built-in to the motherboard.

In some mini-ITX and mini-ATX cases, you can use a GPU if you use a riser board that comes up off of the motherboard. But keep in mind that some cases can use full-height expansion cards and some can use only half-height expansion cards, so double check the specifications for the case.

When it comes to drives, you will probably have to go with a 2.5" drive, either a (Solid State Drive (SSD)) or (Hard Disk Drive (HDD)). Of course, it all depends on what the case has been designed to hold. The same holds true for a CD / DVD / BD optical drive.

You will also need a power supply that fits the case size. Some cases come with them, so do not. And be prepared to pay a little more the smaller form factor, mini-ITX and mini-ATX, power supplies than micro-ATX or standard ATX ones.

You also need to make sure the power supply has enough of the proper connectors (ATX12V, SATA, PCIe, Molex) for all of the different components. If you are going to use a GPU, make sure you have enough PCI-e (8-pin and/or 6-pin) power connectors.

And lastly, you are going to need some memory modules. Just check the motherboard specifications to find out what type of memory and how many it can handle. You can usually just install one memory module, but I always recommend installing them in pairs (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.). You can get a better price on memory modules if you buy them in twin-packs and quad-packs.

A custom-built computer based on Function

If you are thinking about building your custom-built computer based on its Function, then the first thing you have to decided is what CPU (Central Processing Unit) are you going to use (AMD or Intel).

As strange as it may sound, the CPU will dictate everything else in your computer. For example, let's say you want to build a high-end gaming or 3d rendering machine and you want to run an Intel Xeon or Intel I9 processor.

First, you will need to find a motherboard that has all of the features, like PCI-e slots, you want and the correct socket type for the processor you have chosen to use. Always check the specifications for the motherboard to make sure that the processor you want to use is supported.

Remember, that even if a motherboard has the correct socket type, the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) may not support the CPU you have selected. I always go to the manufacturers website and double check the supported CPU's.

Now that you have the CPU and motherboard selected, how are you going to cool the CPU? Air or liquid? Air cooled heatsinks sit on top of the CPU and can get kind of large (tall), so you will have to have a case that has enough room for it.

Same thing holds true for liquid coolers, but they utilize radiators than need to be mounted inside of the case, either on the rear or top. I preferred the top mounted liquid CPU coolers, as the radiators have far more surface area for cooling the liquid than ones that mount in the rear of the case.

And if you are thinking about over-clocking your CPU, then go with a large, top mounted liquid CPU cooler. But remember that over-clocking will in some cases void the CPU manufacturer's warranty, so be careful and keep it cool.

Next thing to think about is the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) / graphics card(s). Most high-end GPU's require more space inside of the case and if you want to use multiple GPU's then you will need a case that is large enough to hold them all.

By now you have a good idea on what size of computer case you will need. You are probably looking a mid-size or full-size tower. Keep in mind that good air flow inside the case is essential. So, having at least one fan in the front and rear of the case is recommended.

Next thing to look at is the power supply. Since you are looking at a mid to full size case, a standard ATX type power supply is what you are going to need. You just need to know how many watts all of the components you want to use will require. A 600 to 700 watt power supply should be sufficient.

You will also need to make sure the power supply has enough of the proper connectors (ATX12V, SATA, PCIe, Molex) for the motherboard and components you want to use. Keep in mind what additional power the GPU (8-pin and/or 6-pin PCI-e) might require. Each PCI-e connection for the GPU is roughly 75 watts.

And of course, you are going to need some memory modules. Just check the motherboard specifications to find out what type of memory and how many it can handle. You can usually just install one memory module, but I always recommend installing them in pairs (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.). You can get a better price on memory modules if you buy them in twin-packs and quad-packs.

As far as drives are concerned, you can usually go with either 2.5" (Solid State Drive (SSD)) or 3.5" (Hard Disk Drive (HDD)) drives. If you are building a high-end system, you will want to go with one of each (an SSD as the first (boot) drive with an HDD for storage as the second drive). A CD / DVD / BD optical drive is completely optional.

With all of that said, you should be ready to assemble your custom-built computer. And if you feel kind of overwhelmed with it all, go ahead and contact a local computer technician for assistance.

How to add an expansion card to your desktop computer

Have you ever wanted to add more USB ports to your desktop computer? Or maybe a video card or wireless (Wi-Fi) network adapter? Here's how to add an expansion card to your desktop computer.

How to add an expansion card to your desktop computer

One of the coolest things about desktop computers is that you can add more functionality to it by installing an expansion card. Expansion cards range from video cards and RAID controllers to USB ports and wireless (Wi-Fi) network adapters. But before you can do anything, you will need to know a few things:

  • What expansion slots you have available in your computer?
  • What is the height (full or half) of your computer case?
  • What are the power requirements for the expansion card you want to install?

But before you can do anything, you need to know what expansion card slots your desktop computer may have available. The most common expansion slot is the PCI Express (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe, PCI-e)) bus type. See #1 and #2 in the installation instructions at the bottom of this article to find out how to open up your computer case to check.

The different PCI-e bus types

Now PCI-e slots and expansion cards come in different bus sizes, varying in the amount of connectors and bus speed. Generally, the more connectors, the faster the speed.

A photo of a PCI Express x16 slot
PCI Express x16 slot (82 connectors per side x 2 sides = 164 connectors)

A photo of a PCI Express x4 slot
PCI Express x4 slot (32 connectors per side x 2 sides = 64 connectors)

A photo of a PCI Express x1 slot
PCI Express x1 slot (18 connectors per side x 2 sides = 36 connectors)

The two different computer case heights

Once you know what expansion slot(s) your desktop computer has available, you need to find out what height (full-size or half-size) your computer case is.

A photo of a full-height expansion slot
Full-height expansion slot

A photo of a half-height expansion slot
Half-height expansion slot

Now a full-size case can use either full or half size expansion cards. If the expansion card you are looking at installing is low profile, the manufacturer usually will include both full-size and half-size mounting brackets. But if the expansion card is full height, you will not be able to install it in a half-size case, so double check it before you purchase it.

Check the expansion card power requirements

Now everything that you plug into your motherboard requires power. The drives, processor and even the memory modules require a certain amount of power. Check the specifications for the expansion card you want to install and find the how much power it requires.

Next thing you need to check is how many watts your power supply delivers. This is crucial. Normally there is a power output table on the side of the power supply inside of your desktop computer that tells you what the maximum DC output is.

A photo of a typical desktop power supply output table
A typical desktop power supply output table

If your computer is a low-profile or Small Form Factor (SFF), knowing what the power output is critical. Most SFF computers have smaller power supplies (physical size) that have lower power output. Generally, SFF power supplies have less than 300 watts of output, which may or may not have enough power to run an additional expansion card.

And to top it off, the expansion card you want to install might even require more power than it can get through the PCI-e bus, thus requiring an additional connection or two from the power supply.

High-end video cards are known to require an additional PCI-e power plug(s) from the power supply. If your power supply doesn't have enough PCI-e (6 or 8 pin), Molex (4 pin) or SATA (15 pin) connections, you will need to upgrade your power supply.

A photo of a video card that has both 8-pin and 6-pin PCI-e power connections
A video card that has both 8-pin and 6-pin PCI-e power connections

So now that you have got the require information and purchased your expansion card, it is time to install it.

Installing an expansion card in a desktop computer

Installing an expansion card is relatively easy. You may or may not require tools, as some computer cases are tool free. At the most, you might need a Philips head screw driver to get the side of the case open and to secure the expansion card to the case.

  1. Disconnect the power cord from the computer. After disconnecting the power cord, place your hand on any metal part of the case to discharge any residual energy. Never work on a system that is plugged in and energized.
  2. Open up the case. This usually means having to take the side panel off. Take a look at the back of the case and find out what side all of the motherboard connections are on. The side panel you need to remove is on the opposite side of these.
  3. Remove the expansion slot cover panel on the back side of the case. Some panels are secured with a screw, some are stamped right into the metal back of the case. If it is a stamped panel, you will have to work it back and forth to break it off, so be careful not to cut your fingers doing it.
  4. Install the expansion card. Most cards will slip right in, but make sure the notched edge of the mounting bracket slides down into the slot in the case. Sometimes you have to give it a little push from the outside of the case to get it in. Once it is in place, secure it down.
  5. Replace the side of the case, connect the power cord and power your computer up.

If Windows doesn't automatically install the driver for the expansion card, you may have to use the installation disk that came with it. If the expansion card did not come with installation media, just go to the manufacturers website and download it.

Using a drive adapter or docking station to access a drive

When it comes to repairing computers, there are times when I have to be able access Hard Disk Drives (HDD), Solid State Drives (SSD) or CD/DVD drives outside of a laptop or desktop case. That is when I need to use a drive adapter or docking station. So here are some of my favorite drive adapters and docking stations.

Using a drive adapter or docking station to access a drive

Having a power supply or motherboard fail can be a real pain in the butt. Not only can you not get your computer to start up, but you cannot even get to any of your documents or settings. That is when having a second computer and a drive adapter or docking station comes in really handy.

Using a drive adapter or docking station can convert a HDD or SSD drive to a USB device. And if you use a drive adapter, you can actually connect a CD/DVD drive to a ultra-thin laptop and use it a record or playback CD's or DVD's.

Now I have several different drive adapters and docking stations that I use for different uses. The majority of them are USB 3.0 but I do have a couple that are USB 2.0.

The easiest one to use is a drive adapter that attaches directly to the back of the device. This is the type I use to connect a CD/DVD drive to ultra-thin laptops that do not have CD/DVD drive. I also use it with desktop computers with CD/DVD drives that do not work.

Photo of a single drive adapter
Photo of a single drive adapter

Now the majority of drive adapters and docking station can only work with Serial ATA (SATA) drives. The one pictured above not only works with SATA drives, but also with 2.5" or 3.5" Parallel ATA (PATA) for those 'old school' drives.

And the cool thing about this drive adapter is the power supply for it uses a standard Molex connector. You can use it to power up any older device that has a Molex connection.

Photo of a single drive docking station
Photo of a single drive docking station

The most common docking station is for a single SATA drive. The nice thing about docking stations is they have power buttons, so you do not have to disconnect the USB connection first before disconnecting the power supply.

Photo of a multiple drive docking station
Photo of a multiple drive docking station

You can also get docking stations that can hold more than one drive. These come in handy if you are cloning one drive to another. They can also be used to recreate failed RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) arrays.

The down side to docking stations is you can only connect 2.5" or 3.5" HDD's or SSD's to them. If you want to connect a CD/DVD drive, you will need to use a drive adapter.

Using either a drive adapter or docking station is just like using an external drive. Just attach it to a USB port and power it up. Most computers will automatically install a driver and assign it a drive letter. From there you are ready to go.

Security and your computer

With the recent outbreak of data encrypting malware, keeping your computer secure is a major issue. There isn't just one thing that you can do to secure your computer, but multiple. So here are few ways to make sure your computer is as secure as possible.

Security and your computer

Operating system security

Is your device up to date?
Is your device up to date?

Keeping your operating system up to date is essential for security. Microsoft does a pretty good job of issuing patches and updates for Windows, especially when a new vulnerability is discovered.

But if you are not keeping your OS up to date with patches and updates, you could be making your computer vulnerable to any current or future exploits. And if you are still using an OS like Windows XP or Windows Vista that does not have support from Microsoft anymore, you need to upgrade your OS.

If you have turned off Windows Update, turn it back on. And if Windows Update is not working correctly, here is how to fix it.

Troubleshooting Windows Update problems

Anti-virus security

Is your anti-virus up to date?
Is your anti-virus up to date?

A good anti-virus program is required for security. You can get an anti-virus program that has all of the bells and whistles (firewall, identity protection, custom browser, etc.). Or you can get one with just a virus scanner. Either way, you have to have some form of protection.

Now Microsoft has been including an anti-virus program inside of Windows for a while (Windows Defender) and it works fairly well. But there are plenty of other anti-virus programs out there, including a security suite your Internet Service Provider (ISP) may provide.

But if you want to know how they all stack up, just go over to the independent IT security institute AV Test. They test all of the most popular anti-virus programs on a regular basis. They also cover multiple platforms too (Windows, Mac and Android).

AV-TEST | Antivirus & Security Software & AntiMalware Reviews

I personally like using a layered approach to my computer security, using different programs that complement each other.

How to use layered security to protect your computer

Web browser security

Is your web browser up to date?
Is your web browser up to date?

Having a secure web browser is mandatory in my book. And since web browsers have really become targets for online exploits, you need to know your browser is safe and secure.

I personally like the fact that Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox check for updates when you start them up. And they also get updated more frequently than Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge does.

There are two (2) things I like to do to my browsers to improve their security:

  1. Disable Adobe Flash. Hackers have been exploiting Adobe Flash for years now by getting bogus Flash ads into third-party ad networks.
  2. Anti-virus. I prefer an anti-virus program that integrates into the browser using an extension or add-on.

And since ads also are becoming an issue, I will sometimes recommend using an ad blocker like Adblock Plus. They have a version for almost every browser you can think of.

E-mail security

Is your e-mail secure
Is your e-mail secure?

E-mail is currently one of the most popular ways to spread malware. You have to be very carefully with what e-mail attachments you open. Knowing how to spot a piece of spam e-mail is essential.

How to spot a piece of spam e-mail

I personally use the anti-spam program Mailwasher to filter out the junk and spam from my e-mail. I also have configured my anti-virus program to monitor Mailwasher for viruses, even though Mailwasher by default renders all mail in text format and cannot open attachments.

But when Mailwasher does download a suspicious attachment, my anti-virus program will scan it and flag it as such. I use the Pro version, but Mailwasher does have a free version that is sponsored by advertising.

Eliminate spam from your inbox with MailWasher

Password security

Are your passwords secure?
Are your passwords secure?

Reusing passwords is a big security no-no. It's nice to be able to easily remember your passwords, but it can be a nightmare if someone were able to guess them. That is why you do not want to use the same password over and over again.

If you are like me, coming up with a unique password for every different place you log into can be really hard. Luckily there are password generators that can make it easy to create really secure passwords. One of my favorites is the Norton Identity Safe Password Generator.

Norton Identity Safe Password Generator

Using the Norton Identity Safe Password Generator, you can create passwords up to 32 characters long that have mixed case letters, numbers and punctuation with no similar characters.

Now that you have generated a secure password, why not test it out. Gibson Research Corporation (GRC) has a bunch of cool security tools on their website, one of them being Password Haystack.

Password Haystack

Password Haystack is a brute force password calculator that will tell you how long it will take to guess any password. Go ahead and enter your favorite password and see how long it can take to guess it. You may be surprised at how little time it can take to crack it.

How to perform a clean Windows 10 installation

Doing computer repair for a living, I see quite a few computers that could really benefit from a clean, fresh installation of Windows 10. Usually it is a system that was upgraded to Windows 10 from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1.

How to perform a clean Windows 10 installation

Then of course there are times that the registry has gotten corrupted or the hard drive has failed. But whatever the case, a clean, fresh installation of Windows 10 is always a great way to get your computer back to tip-top shape.

Now you might be thinking that just performing a reset of Windows 10 would work perfectly fine. And in most cases, you would be right. But if your computer originally came with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, you could have problems. Let me explain.

When you bought your computer new, it came with a hidden recovery partition that had all of the installation files for your version of Windows. If that version was Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, the files got replaced when you upgraded to Windows 10.

The recovery media issue with upgrading to Windows 10
The recovery media issue with upgrading to Windows 10

But the problem that I have encountered is the upgraded recovery partition sometimes doesn't work. So, when you try and reset Windows 10, it fails. A clean installation of Windows 10 fixes that issue. And with a clean, fresh Windows 10 installation, you will know that everything will work as it should.

The only down-side to a clean Windows 10 installation is the fact that you have to reinstall all of the programs you personally installed. But if your system will not boot, then it is kind of a moot point. You would have to reinstall them anyway.

Backup and inventory

So, the first thing to do is backup your computer. You will need an external drive that is fairly large (I use 1GB and 2GB drives myself) and a blank CD/DVD (system repair disk). Here's how to use Windows Backup that is included inside of Windows 10.

Backup your files with File History and Windows Backup in Windows 10

Second thing to do is to take inventory of the hardware and software inside of your computer. Use a program like Belarc Advisor to create a list of hardware and software in your computer.

Make sure you print a copy of the results. You can also save a copy to an external drive if you like. But a printed copy will work the best, as you can check off items that you take of after the reinstallation of Windows 10.

Create the Windows 10 installation media

This step is fairly easy. All you have to do is download the Windows 10 media creation tool. It is a stand-alone program that does not require installation to run. Just double-click on the program and you are ready to start.

Windows 10 Media Creation Tool options
Windows 10 Media Creation Tool options

You will need either a blank DVD or 8GB USB drive to create the bootable installation media. If you run the media creation tool on the same computer as you are going to reinstall Windows 10 on, it will automatically select the recommenced options.

Clearing the hard drive

Now comes the time to wipe the drive, or at least the partition where Windows 10 is installed. If you have a Dell or HP computer, they have diagnostic partitions, so you may just want to wipe just the OS partition only.

Keep in mind that if you upgraded from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, the recovery partition that came with your computer to restore factory settings no longer functions. Sometimes it might be better to just wipe the whole drive clean and be done with it. But that is completely up to you.

I personally like to use the disk wiping tools included on the Ultimate Boot CD (UBCD). All you have to do is download the most current ISO image and burn it to a CD. You can also create a bootable USB drive too. The instructions are on the UBCD website.

Now to boot up your computer up on the UBCD may take a little work, since it is built on a version of Linux. If your computer has Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) enabled, you will have to go into the BIOS and disable it temporarily.

Installing Windows 10

Now that your drive is wiped clean, it is time to install Windows 10. If you are using a DVD, turn your computer on, eject the DVD tray, insert the Windows 10 DVD you created and then restart your computer. If your using a USB drive, just plug it in and start your computer.

Since there is no operating system, your computer will search all available media for a boot record. Once it finds the Windows 10 media, the installation will begin.

During the installation of Windows 10 you will be prompted for your product key. Windows 10 is a little different from previous versions of Windows, in that the product key is not stored on your computer, but on the cloud. Microsoft calls it Digital Entitlement.

With Digital Entitlement, you do not need to enter your product key during installation. Just click on the I don't have a product key link on the bottom of the screen. Once the installation is complete, Windows will automatically activate the first time your system can get online.

From here all you have to do is install the programs and features you want. Then sit back and enjoy your clean, fresh Windows 10 installation.

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Geeks in Phoenix is an IT consulting company specializing in all aspects of Computer Repair / PC Repair / Laptop Repair. Since 2008, our expert computer repair technicians have been providing outstanding Computer Repair, Virus Removal, Data Recovery, Photo Manipulation and Website Support.

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