Top 5 Tips for Building Purpose-Focused Computers

As a computer technician, one of my favorite things to do is build a computer. I love the process of selecting the right components, the smell of new PCBs, and the unique challenge each computer brings to the workbench. For your career as a computer technician, and to help you pass the CompTIA A+ certification, you need to understand how to select the appropriate components to suit the customer’s specifications and needs. To give you a head start, I’ll share my top 5 tips for building a solid computer every time.

Tip 1: Know the Purpose

This is always the first task. It’s crucial to determine what the computer will be used for—its purpose. That will help you to select the appropriate components that fit within a solid price-to-performance range.

If the computer is being used for a CAD design workstation, the components selected will be very different than a home theater PC or a thin client.
During this phase, be thorough in the questions you ask. If you’re not sure what to ask, start with the most obvious question: “What will you be using this computer to do?” From there, you can hone in on specifics, such as what types of programs will be frequently run on the computer, how much the computer will be used each day, how many people will be using the computer, etc.

Once you know the computer’s purpose, you can also ask about the price range the customer is wanting to stay within. For higher-end CAD machines or Gaming PCs, the price range may need to be a bit higher due to the increased cost of those components.

Computer technician installs system of computer. Assembling PC
Tip 2: Know What Components are Important

You can’t build a purpose-driven computer without understanding what components are necessary for those tasks. As I mentioned above, the components selected for one computer may be overkill for a different computer or still yet underwhelming in another build. Let’s look at a few examples:

CAD design workstation
These computers are very taxing on the CPU, graphics processor, and RAM, so you would want to select a multicore CPU, high-end workstation grade graphics (think NVIDIA Quatro), and the maximum amount of RAM. This will also likely require you to select a high-end motherboard.

Virtualization workstation
These workstations don’t require much graphical power, but it’s going to be a CPU and RAM hog, so the most important components to focus on are selecting maximum CPU cores and maximum RAM. With these types of workstations, you’d likely want to go for something like an Intel Xeon processor or one of AMD’s new Threadripper CPUs.

Home theater PC
For this type of computer, it doesn’t have to be exceedingly powerful, but it needs to be compact and able to fit into a living room setting. HTPCs are usually ITX form factor. These machines typically have extra components such as TV tuner cards, surround sound audio, and HDMI outputs (mostly standard nowadays).

Tip 3: Double-Check Component Compatibility

Once you know the purpose and the components you need to have in the system, the fun can begin. However, the build will be a failure if the components you select aren’t compatible. A handy tool to help you out is PC Part Picker (https://pcpartpicker.com/)—I use it frequently to double-check compatibility. You don’t want to accidentally buy an AMD motherboard when you need one with an Intel chipset. That would be a rookie mistake!

Eventually, you will get to the point where you can check compatibility on your own without using a tool, but to start, using a tool like PC Part Picker will prevent headaches in the future. An added benefit is that it also helps you select the correct power supply wattage because it keeps a running tally of all the components you’ve selected. I sometimes use it just to verify the wattage before buying an underwhelming power supply.

Tip 4: Consider Price to Performance

Why would you want to buy a 6-figure race car to drive around a crowded city where you’ll never get the car up above 35 MPH? The same goes for computer components. It is not wise to select a $1000 graphics card and pair it with a $150 CPU and $69 motherboard. You’re going to get bottlenecks with that graphics card, and its potential will be wasted.

Every system has its own sweet spot with minimal bottlenecks among the components and where the system will function at peak efficiency. For example, if you’re building a gaming computer for a starving college student who just wants to game at 1080p, you don’t want to select an Intel Pentium processor with an Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti graphics card. You’d be better to go with a solid Intel Core i5 quad core processor and a respectable GTX 1050ti. Remember, you can always upgrade a graphics card down the road, but you can’t always upgrade the CPU later unless the chipset and socket requirements are the same.

Also, even if a client gives you a ‘sky’s the limit’ budget, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy the most expensive of everything. Always consider the purpose and select trusted brands with proven performance. The client will likely thank you if you can come in under budget with a solid and reliable system that does everything they want. And they’ll be more willing come back to you for future upgrades and service. A bonus!

Tip 5: Build and Verify System Validity

Any system builder/technician worth their weight in gold will get the system set up and perform a series of performance and burn-in tests to ensure all components are functioning within optimal parameters. These are often in the form of synthetic benchmarks. They place maximum loads on the CPU, RAM, and graphics processors to ensure everything is working and nothing is throttling unnecessarily. For a purpose-driven build, this will likely also include installing the necessary software for the specifications. You can work with the client if they already have copies of the software. As a system builder/integrator, you can often get discounts on the required software if the client doesn’t currently have it.

Lastly, once you’re satisfied that the system is stable, it can be a nice touch to include documentation of the benchmark results for the client, so they can see the stability and know that you took the time to test everything.

We will explore many additional tips and bits of information in future posts to help you develop into a trusted computer technician. Do you love building computers too? Share why you enjoy building computers in the comments below.

Alesa Little
Career Step Instructor

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