Building a Gaming PC in 2019

Components

I wanted to assemble a system that would handle 1440p gaming well and be upgradeable to higher-end CPUs. For this build, I went with the newer AMD Ryzen CPU and the latest X570 chipset motherboards. I recommend www.pcpartpicker.com for building out your own system on paper and getting an idea of whether components will fit together as well as different options.

Parts list for build

Tools and Sundries Needed

Medium-sized Philips screwdriver

Zip ties

Cardboard or other non-conducting flat surface

USB flash drive for installation

Anti-static wrist strap (optional)

Scissors (optional)

Craft knife (optional)

Needle nose pliers (optional)

Overall Approach

I like to bench-test everything before installing the parts into the case. This lets me test that everything works and that the motherboard powers on and goes through its power-on self-test (POST). Sometimes motherboards or other components are faulty and it is a lot easier to return the item when it hasn’t been installed! You don’t have to do this, but these instructions will assume that you will bench-test first. What this means is that I don’t bother installing the video card, SSD or cooler until after I’ve bench-tested.

Once I’m happy that everything works, I then start installing parts into the case. This lets me route everything neatly and I can then hide all the loose cables and bind them to strategic case locations using the zip ties. The NZXT case is exceptional for having routing guides and other features specifically for hiding cabling. Since it has a transparent glass side, tidy cables are required for pleasing aesthetics. Even if you can’t see the inside, neat cabling means that airflow is less impeded and an errant cable can’t get caught in a fan to mess up cooling.

Components ready for assembly

Preparation

I lay the cardboard down on a workbench or table so that I have a non-conducting surface to work on. This lets me place the motherboard directly onto this surface and bench-test it. My dining table has a metal top, so this be disastrous for testing and even a wooden workbench might have some errant bits of metal filings or wire strands floating around. Static electricity is the enemy of electronics, and if you live in a very dry climate, you’ll be familiar with getting static shocks when you touch grounded items. You definitely don’t want to use a surface where static can build up, and if you are prone to static, wear an anti-static wrist strap to ground yourself.

I opened the case and organized it so that I could access the wires coming from its front panel switches. In my situation, this was easiest by using the case as a workbench and laying the cardboard on top of it.

Initial Assembly

Step 1: Connect case front panel to the motherboard

There will be several cables in the case. One of these goes to the front panel and is for the power switch, power LED, hard drive activity LED, speaker (if present) and reset switch (if present). My case only had the first three (no speaker). These will need to be connected to the front panel header (group of pins) on the motherboard. For the LED connects, polarity is important — if you get it wrong, the light will not illuminate. For the power LED, this is obvious but less so for the hard drive activity LED. Take note of the polarity markings on the plugs, the motherboard and the motherboard manual. If the cable has colored wires, the ground wire (negative) is probably a consistent color and often black. My case came with a plastic assembly that arranges and clamps the plugs into position making insertion into the motherboard a little less fiddly. If you need to remove the plugs from this plastic assembly, there is a small latch that you can pull with your fingernail. Be careful — this is the only thing holding the plug in place so you don’t want to snap it off.

Step 2: Connect the PSU to the motherboard

The particular PSU that I’m using is fully modular, which means that it does not have any cables attached until you snap the ones you need in. The advantage is that it can make for a little neater build and it is a little easier to fit into the case because you don’t have any trailing wires. There are also semi-modular PSUs that have the motherboard power cables permanently connected and since these cables are always required they are probably a good option too.

There are two motherboard power cables and both are keyed so that they cannot be inserted incorrectly: a 24-pin main cable and a 8-pin EPS12V auxiliary cable to connect to the CPU voltage regulator modules (VRMs). The main cable usually connects at the front of the motherboard, and the auxiliary cable connects near the CPU. With a modular PSU, you should make sure that you connect the PSU end of the cables to the correct sockets. On my particular PSU, the end of the cables that connect to the PSU have narrower tabs than the end that connects to the motherboard.

Step 3: Install the CPU

The CPU goes into the large square socket. These sockets have a lever mechanism and it needs to be unlocked or opened to allow for the CPU to be inserted. The CPU can only be inserted one way. The arrow on the CPU must be lined up with the one on the socket. Take a good look at both of these before trying to install to make sure that you orient the CPU correctly. The pins on the bottom of the CPU are fragile and you do not want to bend — or worse — break one. The CPU should just drop in. Once it is in place (double-check this), re-engage the lever to secure the CPU. You can install the heat sink now or do it once all the other components are in place. I choose to do the latter because heatsinks are large and unwieldy and can also impede access to the other areas that you need to work on.

Step 4: Install the RAM

Depending on the motherboard, you will have two or four sockets for RAM and you’ll generally have either two or four sticks of RAM. It important to install RAM into the correct sockets. I’m using two 16GB sticks for a total of 32GB and my motherboard has four sockets. You’ll see that the motherboard actually indicates which sockets to use first if you’re only using two sticks. If this information is relevant to you and isn’t printed on the motherboard, it should be in the manual.

The RAM sticks are keyed so that they can only be installed one way. Line up the stick of RAM with the socket, make sure it is oriented correctly and then push down firmly on each end to lock it into position. The tabs at each end will snap in to lock the RAM into place. To remove it, slide each tab out to unlock it. This will also eject the RAM slightly from its socket.

Step 5: Install the SSD

For storage, I am only using an M.2 SSD. There are two M.2 on this particular motherboard. One is directly connected to the CPU and the other goes through the X570 chipset to the CPU. Since I only have one SSD, it makes sense to install it into the socket that is directly connected to the CPU because that will likely be slightly faster.

The first M.2 slot is covered by a heatsink, so this needs to be removed before the SSD can be installed. There are also markings on the motherboard at different lengths. Test fit your SSD and see which marking it lines up with. You’ll want to install the standoff (supplied with the motherboard) at this position so that the SSD is space between the SSD and the motherboard. Then the SSD can be screwed down using the supplied screw. Finally, the heatsink can be re-attached (note in my case, there was plastic film over the heatsink that needed to be removed.)

Step 6: Install the CPU heatsink

CPUs get hot and if they get too hot, they will stop working. A heatsink is a cooling device that removes heat from the CPU. There are two main types of heatsink: air-cooled and water-cooled. This PC will ultimately use a watercooling but for initial testing, I opted to use the stock air-cooled heatsink that came with the AMD Ryzen CPU. For the initial test, I am just going to see that the motherboard POSTs (passes its power on self test) and go into the BIOS to make sure that everything is detected properly. In my experience, for testing only you could do this with no heatsink because the CPU is not on for any length of time and if it gets too hot, it will shut down to protect itself before damage occurs. Not everyone agrees with this especially when dealing with an expensive CPU, so it is definitely recommended to use a heatsink even for this short test.

Some heatsinks like the big Noctua air-cooled ones could be placed on top of the CPU and not fastened for the purposes of testing. If you do this, make sure that the heatsink cannot tip over or move in some way so that it could short out anything on the motherboard. If this is your first build, play it safe and install the heatsink properly.

Some third-party heatsinks require assembly prior to use (we’ll also see this with the water cooler), and in some cases the bracket assembly on the motherboard needs to removed and replaced. Refer to the instructions that came with your heatsink if this applies to your situation.

Thermal paste is used between the CPU and the heatsink to enhance the thermal interface (i.e. it makes heat transfer more efficient). The stock AMD heatsink has thermal paste pad already applied but other heatsinks may not have any and you’ll have to apply it yourself (we’ll see this when I install the water cooler later). It is a good idea to make sure that the CPU is free from grease by wiping the surface of the CPU package with some isopropyl alcohol. This will insure the best thermal interface.

On this motherboard and with the stock AMD cooler, there is a lug on each side of the CPU socket that the heatsink grips. Once situated over the lugs, there’s a plastic lever that clamps down the heatsink. Pushing the lever into its locked position takes a surprising amount of force, so be prepared.

Since this heatsink has a fan, it needs to be connected to the CPU fan socket on the motherboard. The fan connector can only be installed one way and since everything is out in the open here, it is easy to do. However, when the motherboard is in a case, it is a lot harder to plug in the small connectors and easy to connect them “offset” so that the entire connector is not seated properly. This particular fan connector has four pins, which means that the motherboard will control its speed (PWM fan).

Step 7: Install the video card

The build will have a video card for better video performance for games. You can install this now or you can jump to Step 8 to perform the test (using the motherboard’s built-in video chipset.) Ultimately you’ll need to install the video card, but it will need to come out before you put the motherboard in the case, so this step is up to you.

Carefully insert the video card into the long PCIe slot. Refer to your motherboard manual to determine which one. In this case, I’ve used the one that is directly connected to the CPU and you can see that the slot has metal around it so that the large heavy card cannot break the plastic PCIe connector. As you press the card home, a retention lever will snap into position to lock the card in place.

The video card requires its own power cable from the PSU. This particular one requires two so I’ve used the appropriate one that came with the PSU and routed it to the card. It attaches in exactly the same way as the motherboard power cables.

Step 8: Plug it in

All the components required for testing are installed, so a keyboard and monitor can be connected and the PSU plugged into AC power. I use a USB keyboard that has a built-in trackpad so it combines keyboard and mouse functionality. However, for the purposes of this test, only a keyboard is really required — and even that is optional if you just want to see if it turns on.

Flip the switch on the PSU and you might see lights on your motherboard if it has them (not all of them do). This should tell you that power is present on the board. Now you can press the power button on the case and you the computer should go through its POST and enter the BIOS (you may need to press the appropriate key on the keyboard repeatedly to do this). You can check the system information in the BIOS to make sure that everything is identified correctly. Specifically, make sure that the amount of RAM is correct, the SSD is identified and the CPU information is correct.

Final Assembly

Step 9: Installation of PSU into the case

The case I chose opens from both sides, which makes component installation very straightforward. The PSU goes at the bottom and this particular case has vents and a filter on the bottom so that the CPU fan can vent outwards. Disconnect all wires from the PSU and carefully place it into the case, making sure that its fan vent is positioned over the bottom vents of the case.

The PSU is fastened to the case using four screws. Your case will come with an assortment of hardware and three or four different types of screws. Refer to the instructions supplied with your case to determine which ones are for the PSU. Depending on your PSU and your case design, there may be a few different fastening options and some of the holes in the case may allow for some wiggle room.

Step 10: Installation of the motherboard into the case

Your motherboard may have a thin metal plate called an IO shield that goes around the sockets on the back. This metal plate needs to go into the cutout in the back of the case. Make sure that you have it in the correct orientation so that the motherboard sockets will line up correctly. To install it, push it into the case cutout from inside the case. It is secured by friction (you’ll see little nubs on the sides) and I find it is easier to do either the top or bottom first. You may need to push quite hard on the edges (be careful, they are sometimes razor sharp), and may even need a rubber or plastic mallet. Higher end motherboards like the one that I’m using have this built in.

Disconnect all the cables going to the motherboard. If you’ve followed along, this will be the two PSU cables, the front panel header and of course the keyboard and display cable.

If you inserted your video card, you should now remove it. Remove the power cables by pressing the release on the plugs. There is a small lever at the edge of the PCIe slot (it looks like the ones at the edge of the RAM slots) and you’ll want to slide this open so that it releases the video card.

You may wish to remove the heatsink depending on the kind that you are using. In my case, I removed the stock AMD heatsink because I am going to replace it with the water-cooling unit. Once I removed the heatsink, I removed the thermal paste from the top of the CPU using isopropyl alcohol. If you do not or cannot remove the heatsink, be very careful moving the motherboard. Most heatsinks are heavy and you do not want to bend the motherboard because that could break one of the circuit board traces.

Test fit the motherboard into the case and figure out where you will need to screw it in. The attachment points are standardized, but not all boards use all of the attachment points. Most motherboards have these attachment points clearly indicated (I’ve highlighted in red the ones on my board), and have bits of exposed metal around them to act as grounding points.

Carefully inspect the motherboard and identify all the different headers that will need to be connected (fans, front panel controls and ports, etc.) Now is a good time to think about how you are going to neatly route the various cables to these motherboard headers. The picture shows the headers that I need to connect on my motherboard. The advantage of test fitting and inspecting this way is that we can immediately see that I need to re-route the rear case fan cable for a clean build and it is easier to do so while the motherboard can still be moved.

Once you have a plan, you can fasten the motherboard to the case. First, make sure that the IO ports at the back of the motherboard are lined up with the cutout in the back of the case. For motherboards that use an IO shield, there are grounding contacts that need to touch the outer metallic parts of the motherboard ports.

Now you can carefully fasten the motherboard using the screws that came with the case (refer to the instructions that came with your case to determine which ones to use). Do not tighten the screws fully until they are all inserted. This will give you some room to seat the motherboard properly. It is quite common to have to hold the motherboard with some force so make sure that a hole is lined up properly. Make sure that you do not cross thread or overtighten the screws.

Step 11: Install the video card

The video card is a double wide card and will require two of the blanking plates at the back of the case to be removed. Once you’ve done this, follow the instructions in Step 7.

Step 12: Installation of the motherboard into the case

With the motherboard installed, you will have a whole bunch of cables to route and plug-in. For some cables, it might be easier to gently grip the plastic connector in a pair of needle nose pliers and insert it into the motherboard header. This is all entirely dependent on your case, so I’ll just show you what it looks like for my build. The NZXT case is specifically designed with routing guides, which makes it fairly straightforward to obtain a tidy result. You’ll want to use zip-ties to bunch up and attach cables to different points of the case so that they don’t move around. This is where the scissors, craft knife and needle nose pliers may come in handy.

Step 13: Install the water-cooler

I’m using a 240mm all-in-one (AIO) water-cooler. It comes with a radiator, two fans and the water block that goes on top of the CPU where the heatsink would go. The first step is to prepare the case, which only has one position at the front for radiator installation. There is a removable frame that snaps and screws into place so all of the water-cooler assembly can be down out of the case to make things easier.

Take a good look at the radiator and fans so that you can plan how you want to route the coolant lines and the fan cables. You may want to test mount the fans and radiator and then pop them in the case to see how the routing will work.

Attach the radiator to the frame using the screws supplied with the water-cooler kit. Then install the fans. Most fans have arrows on them to indicate airflow and for this installation, we want the air to be sucked in through the radiator, so the airflow should be into the case. Opinions differ as to whether it is better to exhaust the air out of the case versus sucking in cold air, and based on reviewing some of the information out there, I opted to install the radiator/fan assembly this way.

The water block replaces the CPU heatsink and mine needed to be prepared for the AMD AM4 socket. Your AIO kit will come with a variety of fittings that need to be used based on your CPU choice. Refer to the instructions that came with the kit to determine which fittings need to be used and always try to test mount.

Unlike the stock AMD heatsink, this water block does not have a thermal paste pad, so I applied a small amount of thermal paste to the CPU package. I used a latex glove to spread the paste out to create a thin film all over the surface of the CPU package. Prior to that, I cleaned the CPU package and the heatsink portion of the water block with isopropyl alcohol. The water block attaches to the same lugs on either side of the CPU as the stock AMD cooler, but rather than using a lever to secure the assembly, it uses screws. While these look like thumbscrews, they really are not and you need to use an appropriately sized screwdriver to tighten them. Make sure that you orient the water block correctly so that you aren’t snagging the coolant tubes. Tighten the screws gradually and alternate sides so that there the force is spread evenly. Pay particular attention to making sure that the screw threads bite (you may need to press down on the top of the water block as you are screwing them in).

The water-cooler has cables from each fan, a cable for the pump in the water block and the same number of cables for the RGB LEDs in the fans and the water block. The AIO kit comes with a variety of accessories but because my motherboard is equipped for such a kit, I only used the Y-splitter for the two fans. For this kit, the water block power cable is not connected to the CPU fan header on the motherboard but instead to the one next to it (labeled CPU Fan 2 in the picture). It is also a three pin connector (which means that it runs at a single speed) so one pin of the motherboard header will be exposed. The four-pin connector (variable speed) at the end of the fan Y-splitter cable is connected to the CPU Fan 1 header on the motherboard. This makes sense because usually the heatsink fan speed varies according to temperature. In the case of an AIO water-cooler, the pump should run always run at the same speed but the radiator fan speed can vary based on the temperature.

Step 14: Test the build

Now that everything is wired up, double check your work and make sure that errant cables are not able to snag any of the fans. Plug in the keyboard, monitor and AC cable and power the system on. If you connected the RGB LED functionality, you should see the various devices illuminate like the RAM, radiator fans and water block.

As you did in Step 8, you can check the system information in the BIOS to make sure that everything is identified correctly. There will be a page that shows fan RPM and you should verify that you are seeing readings for all the fans that are connected (remember that the two fans attached to the water-cooler radiator looks like one fan due to the splitter).

Step 15: Attach the WiFi antenna

The motherboard I’m using has built-in WiFi and comes with an external antenna. The antenna attaches to two small brass threaded connectors at the back of the case. Tighten the antenna fittings to finger tight. Without the antenna attached, you will be unlikely to receive a usable WiFi signal.

Step 15: Update the BIOS

Take a note of the BIOS version and go to the motherboard manufacturer’s website to download the latest version if needed. Make sure that you download the one that is an exact match for your motherboard and save the BIOS file to a USB flash drive. You should be able to update the BIOS from the flash drive by restarting the machine and finding the BIOS update section in the BIOS.

Step 16: Install Windows

On another machine, download Windows from the Microsoft site and create bootable USB installer. Once the USB installer is ready, insert it into a USB port on your new build and start the computer. It will probably boot from the USB by default but if not, you can configure this through a boot menu or in the BIOS — refer to your motherboard documentation.

Once Windows is installed, run Windows Update several times to get all the latest bits.

Step 17: Install system utilities

Chances are that Windows has all of the necessary drivers for the motherboard essentials. For AMD chips, download the AMD Chipset Drivers. Your motherboard manufacturer’s website will also have some useful utilities to download, namely a BIOS updater, a performance optimizer and an RGB LED controller. I used the RGB LED control software to set them all to a neutral white that matches the case and because the watercooler radiator fans and water block are connected to the motherboard, this same utility controls their color too. Your video card chipset manufacturer’s website will have the latest drivers and utilities for your video card and you should download those too.

Congratulations! You’ve built a gaming PC!

Troubleshooting

No power

Make sure that all the power cables from the PSU are connected to the motherboard and the PSU is switched on. Make sure that the power button from the case is connected to the motherboard.

Won’t POST

There are many reasons why this could happen. Some motherboards have a small display that shows POST codes. Others rely a built-in speaker or one that it in the case to indicate what is wrong through a series of beep codes. Either way, you will need to refer to the motherboard manufacturer’s website to determine what the code means — some are specific to different BIOSes.

Reset the BIOS to its defaults using either a push button or jumper on the motherboard (refer to the motherboard documentation).

Try different things like removing the RAM, SSD, video card, etc. to see if you can get the motherboard to POST through process of elimination.

If all of this fails, start Googling!

No video

This happened to me. For whatever reason, the onboard video output was not working, but I got video when I inserted the video card. Try connecting to the monitor to a different output.

Builder of media technology services and a videography, cinematography, photography, gadget, IoT, AI, auto and aviation geek.

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