Written by Lucas Coll
Every student needs a PC for school work, whether it’s a laptop or a desktop. But you should never overlook the classic custom-built desktop computer, as it offers an incredible amount of comfort, utility, ease of upgrades, customization, and future-proofing.
Building your own PC is the best way to maximize the performance of your computer and to ensure that you’re getting the most for your money, but it’s no small undertaking. But don’t worry if this is your first PC or if you’re operating on a budget. If you could use some direction, this back-to-school PC build guide lays out everything you need to know to assemble a machine that will help you start the school year right.
The main factors to consider for any PC build are budget and use cases. These two things are the primary guidelines for your build; i.e., what parts you choose, what case form factor you use, what peripherals you’ll add to the computer tower, and so on.
Cost is almost certainly going to loom large when doing a back-to-school build, as students are typically on a budget. However, one decision you should make right off the bat is whether to install a discrete graphics card. A dedicated GPU is likely to be the most expensive component of the entire build, costing at least as much as (and typically a bit more than) the processor.
Whether you need a discrete GPU boils down to one of two things: Running demanding visual design software (such as for editing and rendering videos or doing 3D modeling work) and, more commonly, gaming. It’s no secret that many students love to game, and a proper GPU helps with that. However, students who use their computers to run demanding visual design software will also be well-served with a dedicated graphics card. Just know that this will raise your budget ceiling.
Another consideration for your back-to-school PC build is case size. Is this computer going to be sitting in a tight space, such as on or under a desk in a small dorm room? This might put a lid on how large the finished tower should be, so we won’t be using any jumbo-sized cases here – mid-tower cases are the order of the day.
Finally, reliable internet access is a must. An Ethernet connection will probably be available, but it may not, and depending on living circumstances, wired internet might not be ideal. That’s why we recommend a motherboard with built-in Wi-Fi, which precludes the need for adding a Wi-Fi card later on down the road. It’s a small additional expense but the convenience is worth it.
Now that we’ve got some specific criteria nailed down, let’s dive into some components that would be a good fit for our back-to-school PC build.
Our general build outline calls for a versatile workhorse computer that can tackle work and play, isn’t too expensive, and offers enough modularity to accommodate various budgets. We’ll be factoring in a discrete GPU (although this is optional), and we’ll fit everything inside an ATX mid-tower case with sufficient storage for work files and a Wi-Fi-enabled motherboard for wireless internet connectivity.
Now that we’ve got a basic framework for our back-to-school PC build, let’s dive in. We’ll start with the CPU: For a work-focused PC, we recommend the Intel Core i5-12400 or the AMD Ryzen 5 5600G processor as a baseline. These are very capable current-gen mid-range CPUs that will handle workloads with ease when backed up with good RAM.
If you have room in your budget, then the Ryzen 7 5800X or Core i7-12700K (one of Intel’s newer 12th-gen Alder Lake processors) are worthy upgrades. The stock coolers are also fine for the purposes of this PC, but if you want to add an aftermarket CPU fan, any cooler compatible with the AM4 and LGA 1700 sockets will work. All of these CPUs except for the Ryzen 7 5800X feature integrated graphics, so that one will need to be paired with a discrete GPU.
For RAM, we think 16GB is the sweet spot, but you could slide by with 8GB if you’re not going to be doing heavy gaming or running demanding software, though you’ll probably see some slowdowns. In either case, make sure it’s a dual channel kit (i.e. two sticks), and we recommend a clock speed of at least 3,200MHz and CAS latency of 16 clock cycles or lower. Paying attention to these specs will maximize your RAM’s efficiency, which is especially important if you’re only using 8GB. However, memory is cheap enough that we suggest paying a little more for 16GB. Whichever you choose, the G. Skill Ripjaws V dual channel 8GB RAM kit and 16GB RAM kit are both affordable options.
Onto the motherboard: As we mentioned, we want one with built-in Wi-Fi. We’re also shooting for four RAM slots and at least four total fan headers, including one for the CPU cooler. An AMD4 socket is necessary for our AMD CPU picks or an LGA 1700 socket for the Intel processors. You can take your pick from these selections and can further narrow your criteria to account for things like USB and PCI Express ports, Bluetooth connectivity, etc. Just double-check the fan header count to make sure your chosen motherboard supports your desired cooling setup. Your motherboard may need a BIOS update in order to work properly. This is easy to do but something to be aware of going in.
Graphics cards are a broad field so we won’t go too in-depth here (We have a comprehensive guide, as well as an NVIDIA and AMD buying guide). Chances are good that if you’re doing this back-to-school PC build with some gaming in mind, then you already have an idea of what GPU you’re looking for or at least how much you’re willing to spend. If not, we can still provide some guidance. If you don’t plan to add a discrete graphics card, then feel free to skip on to our hard drive selections; just know you’ll need a CPU with integrated graphics processing capabilities.
The GPU is likely to be the single most expensive part of your build. However, a stand-alone GPU is amongst the most important components if you intend to game or do any sort of graphically intense work, such as photo or video editing. For a back-to-school PC build where affordability is a factor, we’ll keep things in the $200-$300 range with the Nvidia GeForce GTX 16-series GPUs and the entry-level AMD Radeon RX 6000-series GPUs. If you want to splurge a bit, you can probably slide in with a GeForce RTX series card like the RTX 3050, but beefier cards might be a stretch depending on your budget. The Radeon RX 6600 and 6600 XT aren’t out of the question, either. For this build, your choice of GPU (if you’re using one) will boil down to what you want from your system and how much you’re willing to spend.
Next, storage: You want more than the bog-standard 256GB SSD, as you’ll run out of space quickly if you’re storing large work files and installing productivity software, and especially if you’re using your PC for gaming. A 512GB SSD isn’t a bad sweet spot, but 1TB is even better. We prefer M.2 PCIe Gen 4 SSDs over the older SATA SSDs as they are faster (not to mention easier to install, as they sit right on the motherboard), and they are not much more expensive than SATA SSDs nowadays. You can opt for a 2.5-inch SATA SSD to save a little money, but likely at the cost of slower read/write speeds.
We’re sticking all this hardware into an ATX mid-tower case. This is our favorite case form factor for most builds, as it’s not too bulky to fit into tighter spaces (just keep an eye on ventilation) but it still provides ample space in which novice builders can work. The Corsair 5000D Airflow, available in black or white, is a favorite. The NZXT H510 Flow (also offered in black or white) is a more budget-friendly alternative that boasts tempered glass paneling. If you want to go even smaller, you can opt for an ATX mini tower case, but we only recommend this if this back-to-school PC build isn’t your first.
Finally, the power supply and case fans. This back-to-school PC build will be well-served with an 80+ Bronze certified PSU in the 550-watt to 650-watt range. The EVGA 650BQ 650W 80+ Bronze PSU is a fine fit for our purposes. It’ll provide ample power to the system and it’s semi-modular, so you can remove some unused cables for a cleaner finish with less clutter.
Case fans are pretty straightforward. Pick a motherboard with at least four direct fan connections including the CPU cooler header; any more than that and you’ll need fan header splitter cables which will add to your cost and result in extra cable clutter. There are a lot of 120mm or 140mm cooling fans for you to choose from and these are the most common case fan sizes. Check and see which size your case supports; some can do both. Some cases also come with a fan or two pre-installed. Cooling is a complex topic (one we’ve talked about in our Cooling Guide), but the most important concept is airflow. You want fans pulling cool air in from outside the case, with the other fans pushing warm air out of the case. Ventilation around the case is also important.
This back-to-school PC build guide allows for a lot of customization and variation to suit different needs and budgets, but hopefully it’ll help you start off your build project – and the new school year – on the right foot.
Ah yes, so I can do my algebra homework and definitely not do any gaming. I remember having this conversation with my parents and losing sorely. Still, good recommendation!
No gaming, only homework 🤐
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