Parts Needed

To figure out the exact components for your custom PC, check out manufacturers' Web sites, and study reviews. Hardware Web sites like Tom's Hardware and Anandtech are good places to find motherboard recommendations. Some of the components listed here are optional.

A. ATX case and power supply ($50 to $300): Cases are available in many types and sizes, ranging from plain vanilla to sexy stainless steel or colored cases. The most popular and economical is a midsize tower case with internal space for at least two hard drives, along with three or four externally accessible 5.25-inch drive bays on the front for CD-RW, DVD, and other removable-media drives. Most come with a power supply installed, but if you plan to pack your PC with components, consider getting a hefty power supply rated at 300 watts or more. (See the August Upgrade Guide for details on matching a power supply to your needs.)

B. Keyboard ($15 to $75) and mouse ($10 to $75): Consider USB models for the easiest hookup and versatility.

C. Monitor ($150 and up): If your budget allows, now's a great time to upgrade to a bigger monitor. The 17-inchers start at $150, 19-inchers at $250, and flat-panel LCDs are finally coming down in price, starting at about $400.

D. Motherboard ($100 to $200): Buy a motherboard matched to your processor, with room for growth if you want to upgrade to a faster CPU later. Some motherboards have sound and network support built in. But stay away from models with built-in video. They're compromises, at best.

E. Processor ($100 to $600): A 1-GHz or faster processor can cost less than $200, but lower-end (600- to 800-MHz) CPUs are fine if you have a limited budget. "Boxed" retail CPUs normally include a fan or heat sink and complete installation instructions; a less-expensive OEM version usually ships sans instructions or a fan. (A fan is a necessity and costs about $25.)

F. Memory ($75 to $200 for 256MB): Don't even consider building a PC with less than 256MB of RAM these days. Make sure you match the RAM type and speed (133 MHz) to the motherboard. See "CPU & RAM" in our accompanying story, "Do-It-Yourself Dream Machines."

G. Floppy disk drive ($15 to $20)

H. Hard drive(s) ($90 to $250 each): The bigger, the better is still a good rule of thumb. Drives up to 80GB are readily available. And the newest and fastest 7200-rpm drives offer better performance. Consider outfitting your PC with two drives and reserving the second one for data.

I. CD-RW drive (optional; $150 to $250): A CD-RW drive is a virtual necessity these days. If your budget permits, go for the fastest write speed possible.

J. CD-ROM drive (optional; $35 to $75): A CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive makes copying CDs onto your CD-RW drive a breeze by eliminating swapping discs. Or, if your budget is tight, you can get by with just a CD-ROM drive.

K. DVD-ROM drive (optional, $75 to $150): Necessary if you want to view DVD movies on your PC monitor.

L. Removable-media drive (optional; $50 to $500): Choices range from 250MB Zip drives to 2GB Jaz drives, as well as tape-backup drives. Some devices require a separate SCSI add-in controller ($50 to $100.)

M. AGP graphics card ($75 to $400): Plan to spend more if you work with high-end 3D graphics or are a dedicated gamer. Inexpensive cards are fine for more-mundane computing tasks, and some even come with high-end options such as the ability to run two monitors.

N. Sound card ($30 to $200): Many of today's motherboards carry built-in sound support, which is adequate for many users. However, if you're serious about sound and want extra features such as surround sound or a wide variety of audio connections (such as support for digital sources), you can opt for an add-in card. If you choose an add-in card, you'll need to disable the motherboard's built-in sound (if any); this usually involves working through the setup program or using a jumper.

O. Network card ($50 to $100): If you're connected to a network or have broadband Internet access, you'll need a 10/100 Ethernet card.

P. Modem ($40 to $75): A necessity if you don't have broadband Internet access.

Q. Operating system and software (free to $220 and up): You can save more than 50 percent by purchasing the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) version of the Windows operating system and of major software such as Microsoft Office. Local computer stores that specialize in building systems and online retailers such as TC Computers and Multiwave can sell you OEM software, provided you purchase a piece of hardware along with it. The only trade-off: You won't get any free tech support on OEM products from Microsoft. If you like, of course, you can opt for an alternative, such as Linux.

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