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Building your own PC, Part 1

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We've all been there.  You're standing in the electronics store, inspecting placards, eyes narrowed as you try to decipher what it is you need.  You're buying a computer.

The pre-built PC is an outgrowth of a couple of factors, neither of which takes in to account the growing knowledge base of today's consumer.  Initially, computer manufacturers were marketing an item that was beyond the ken of most consumers, and it was out of necessity. After a number of years, when the personal computer entered mainstream life, these same manufacturers needed to corner the market, so to speak, and force consumers into a very small number of options when it came to owning and upgrading their PCs.   But between the increased knowledge of consumers and the simplification of hardware components and their interaction, building a PC tailor-made to your needs is well within even the most inexperienced user.

The first step in building a PC involves doing a little homework.  To know what you need, a quick course in hardware components can do a person wonders, when buying a pre-built machine or recognizing the parts you need for your do-it-yourself project.

There are five main hardware components in any computer:  the optical (DVD/CD) drive, the processor, or CPU, which does the heavy lifting when it comes to information, the hard drive, which stores all that information, the memory, which assists with the transfer of that information, and the motherboard, which brings all the pieces together.

Now that you’re armed with a little information, it’s time to make your initial choices regarding hardware, and that’s where to buy it.  Today’s consumer has a lot of options when it comes to purchasing, but it can be intimidating.

If you’re lucky enough to have a Frye’s Electronics or another massive component store near you, this is a great choice for a beginner.  As a general rule, the staff tends to be at least somewhat knowledgeable about the products they sell, and can address component compatibility issues with you in-store.  For those intrepid folks out there without access to a warehouse style electronics store, a conventional electronics store, such as Best Buy, can easily serve your needs.  Be forewarned, however; these types of stores will generally not have a very large selection of components, limiting your options severely.

For someone with a little more knowledge regarding the compatibility of components, online retailing is a fantastic resource.  Websites such as newegg.com and tigerdirect.com offer competitive pricing and service, in addition to having a vast array of products to choose from.  The drawback to these benefits is two-fold.  First, one must practice care when purchasing components in this fashion because sites like this often don’t directly address compatibility, so a consumer has to know what to look for.  Second, while these sites will generally replace a defective item, the return process is somewhat lengthy and could hold up your build-out for up to several weeks. 

It’s important, however, to go in to this situation armed.  In the next installment of our multi-part series on the intricacies of building your own PC, we’ll delve into how to determine if the components you’ve chosen are compatible, and what peripheral items you’ll need to get on your way.

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