Today, Zach’s going to explain his process while trying to find the parts. In the end, we’ll compare the price of building a computer versus buying one from a company.
He’s dividing this into a couple posts, this one being the longest (over 3200 words!). As I said last week, you may not find this useful or interesting now…but just wait until your own computer dies. Building isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds and you might consider giving this a shot!
Note: This post contains affiliate links. To learn more about my affiliates, please see my Disclosure Statement.
Well, lookie here! It’s me, Zach, the husband. And I’m back to talk about a project Chelsey and I worked on. Five years ago I built her a portable desktop, designed with very small but capable hardware that she could easily cart between college and home. It turned out more durable and useful than I thought!
Recently, Chelsey has brought that old thing out since her laptop has been experiencing some kind of issue that makes the Blue Screen of Death appear around once or twice a day, interrupting her work and initiating a flurry of angry text messages. Since she has a nice, anchored place, she has switched to using that desktop I built for her back in 2009 (before we were married. True story!) and wouldn’t you know it, the desktop has decided to start crapping out, too. You see, portability in a desktop (read: small size) does not translate to good airflow and the best components. I wasn’t rich by any stretch, so I worked very hard to get the computer under a certain budget. I think it may have been around $800 with Windows, a monitor, a keyboard, and a mouse.
Bad airflow is a slow death sentence for key computer parts, like your processor and motherboard. We fixed some issues that caused the computer to kick off. You’d be surprised how much difference a good dusting can make! Then the electricity in the apartment went out. This seems to have caused some kind of surge that damaged the power supply of the computer (despite the surge protector she was using). It would power small things like the lights and fans, but the computer itself would no longer come on. I could fix this by installing a new power supply (around $50), but I figured it would be a good time to upgrade, anyway.
So here we are…computer part shopping!
The thought of building a computer is really intimidating to a lot of people. The hardware is complex, and there are so many different parts that go into it. How do you know what to buy? What tools do you use? How do you assemble the thing? Well, in these posts I want to walk you through my answers for each of those questions. I’m not a computer expert by any stretch, but I’ve built a bunch of them, and I’ve fixed an awful lot of problems that have come up in the process. I’ve also done it on exceedingly small budgets, achieving exactly what I wanted in terms of size and performance.
So let’s set down my goal for this machine. Budget-friendly. Good airflow and components. Gaming-level performance. That last one sounds like it should be impossible with the first one, but this is for Chelsey.
She is into games like The Sims (especially with the upcoming Sims 4) and older games like Portal, Left 4 Dead, Diablo and the like. We don’t typically play games requiring the absolute max out of a machine. So there’s a lot of leeway here.
Performance goal: Be able to play games like Civilization 5 and The Sims 4
Budget goal: $500
It should be noted that the budget takes into account that I already have a mouse, keyboard, monitor, and a copy of Windows 7 ready to fire. This is just to build the core machine. Those other things will run you around an extra $250.
How Do You Know What to Buy?
Go to a website like NewEgg and look at the computer hardware section. There are 18 different main sections for computer components, and there are at least 4 subgroups for each of these. It’s a lot of information to dig through. But in reality, what I’ve found is that you need to focus on a few specific categories for a budget-friendly build.
- The processor
- The motherboard
- The hard drive
- The memory
- The video card
- The power supply
- The case
That’s really all you need for the core. I want to go into my process for selecting each one.
Also known as the CPU, this little chip is the brain of the computer, calculating all the processes that are going on. Of all the components that we have to select, this is among the most critical for ensuring longevity and power for years to come. It’s also subject to a HUGE variation in pricing. Newegg has CPUs that range from $25 to $1000, all with their own set of pros and cons. For our budget build, I want to strike a balance between price and performance.
There are two main companies that provide CPUs, Intel and AMD. In general, Intel makes more powerful and well-rated chips, while AMD favors a more budget-friendly build. I always go with AMD in this case, because as a general user or light gamer you’re probably not going to see much difference. And you don’t need to regard AMD as some kind of garbage knock-off company. They make fine processors. That said, I opted to go with something around $100 with multiple cores, settling on this guy.
You’ll notice in the title of that product that it has 6 “cores,” which means it is actually 6 different CPUs combined in one. This can speed things up a lot if programs adequately make use of the technology. What you need to know is you have the option anywhere from 2 to 8 cores at this time. More cores generally means more price, but it doesn’t always mean faster performance.
There are different parts of the CPU that you ought to consider, but this gets more technical. This will be a fine compromise between performance and price!
There’s one other thing that we need to take note of: the socket type. You can see in the product description that this CPU is “Socket AM3+.” For all intents and purposes, this describes what type of motherboard we’ll need. It also clues you into the age of the technology. Socket AM3+ was introduced in 2011 and was used in a variety of CPU types. It’s not the newest technology; that would be Socket FM2. Who cares about these details? When you’re looking for a budget-friendly PC, stepping back a generation or two is a great way to save money while preserving performance.
If you buy the cheapest version of the “new” tech, you may actually be paying for a shoddier version. It’s kind of like buying a gently-used, two-year-old good car like a Chevy Malibu, as opposed to a brand new Chevy Aveo. That’s why we’re going with socket AM3+.
Cost of processor: $114.29
Now you need something to attach that processor to. The motherboard creates the circuit that allows all your different parts to interact. It is obviously very important, and there are, again, a LOT of options. How do you begin to whittle the selection down? Well, we already got two key considerations. One, we are using an AMD, not an Intel, processor. Second, we have an AM3+ CPU. These will take away a lot of the choices. There are currently 179 AMD motherboards on Newegg, only 57 of which are AM3+.
Next, I sort by “best rating” and look for something within my budget. Typically, I aim for the $75-$120 range for this type of build. You can find more expensive, but it’s not necessary. More expensive motherboards tend to have components you won’t need unless you’re a tinkerer: lots of access to the BIOS, heat sinks, and other bits that you will never, ever use.
When choosing, I have a few favored brands that have worked out for me. Asus and Gigabyte have done great things for me in the past, so I looked for a Socket AM3+ in one of these flavors. I settled on this $80 Asus board with integrated sound (you can tell because it has the earphone jacks) and a nice selection of eSATA and USB 3.0 ports. These will allow for connection of devices that Chelsey might be interested in in the future. These are pretty standard nowadays.
The most important things I like to make sure about are the Socket type and the reviews. If a lot of people are complaining about dead motherboards then I think twice. This one had 4/5 stars on NewEgg, which is common for motherboards. 21% of the reviewers found the motherboard dead on arrival and had to have it replaced. This is a free process if you buy from a reputable source, and it’s just kind of a fact of life. There are lemons, especially with motherboards. It’s a bit frustrating, but overall it’s not that big a deal.
Cost of motherboard: $80
The Hard Drive
Hard drives are really straightforward. Find the fastest, biggest one you can in the budget you have. There are two major types, spinning disc and solid-state. Just forget about solid-state here. They’re monumentally faster and more durable, but they cost several times as much. A 120 GB solid state drive from a good brand is around $70. Much better than it was a few years ago, but still higher than I’d like.
What I found was a so-called hybrid drive. This combines the storage capacity of a spinning-disc drive with some capabilities of a solid-state drive. From a great brand, Seagate! It costs $78, but it has 1000 GB (1 terabyte) of storage available, which Chelsey should never be able to fill up. Yes, please! I made sure to get the 3.5” version, not the 2.5.” The latter form factor is for laptops, and I don’t want to mess with special enclosures and stuff to make the 2.5” drive fit.
Cost of hard drive: $78
Also known as RAM, this is what that the computer uses when performing different tasks. Back when I was graduating high school, more RAM meant the difference between a piece of garbage and a “lightning” quick machine. I upgraded 128 MB to 256 and was blown away at the difference. Fun fact: that extra 128 MB stick cost me $125 back then. Today, RAM is nothing. Just buy Kingston, two 4 GB sticks, and it’s $80. Boom, done. You don’t need to worry about getting more RAM, since you’re never going to use it, unless you’re into professional tasks like heavy video editing and whatnot, in which case you just need to buy or build a more powerful computer altogether. And having more RAM these days won’t make any difference.
So to refresh: In 2004, 128 MB ran $125 (What a score! What a difference!). Today, 8000 MB will run you $80.
Cost of memory: $80
The Video Card
The video card always gives me trouble. This, like the processor, has a wide range of prices and capabilities. If you’re playing games (not web-based), it’s a necessity. The problem? Cards range from $10 to $3300. For the price of the very best video card, I could build 5 decent machines. My range is the same as all the other components, in the $50-$100 area. But you don’t want to mess this up!
I’ve always had fine luck with this price range, without any trouble playing games I wanted to play. Side note: If you’re not going to play games that you need to install (ie, from Steam or a disc), then you can afford to go cheap here, really cheap. You could even select a motherboard with integrated graphics. The way you can tell the graphics are integrated is if you see the ports you need to connect a monitor. This can save a lot of money, but I’m not looking to skimp in this build too much.
So looking through the cheaper cards, something pops out at me. Many of the cheaper, well-rated ones don’t have fans. If you look at the reviews for these cards, most people are using them for something called “HTPCs.” That is, home-theater personal computers. These are basically like more powerful versions of a DVR, with some more capability. This is not the kind of computer I want. Games will tax a video card more than recording a show will, so we need more active cooling.
I looked for a video card with decent power (More than 1 GB VRAM), but it’s easy to get bogged down in too much technical garbage here, too. The one I settled on is described as “Radeon R7 250 2GB 128-Bit DDR3 PCI Express 3.0 HDCP Ready CrossFireX Support Video Card.” That’s a lot of not-so-necessary information. The important stuff? It has a fan for cooling, and it has the right port for attaching Chelsey’s monitor. (It’s called VGA, and it’s the blue-headed cable that your monitor uses.)
This is in a state of transition, as some of the cards now only have the HDMI output (the larger, more complex-looking port on the card I selected). I want to reuse that old monitor, though. I didn’t fret over selecting the video card THAT much, as MSI is a good company, it has that fan for cooling, and it’s well-rated. It will do the job.
Cost of video card: $80
The Power Supply
This is one of the most annoying components to me, since it doesn’t impact system performance but is absolutely critical (read: dead computer up above). I like to look for Rosewill or Cooler Master power supplies, and I like to aim for under $50. For my sake, the only thing I can interpret of the specifications is the power output. In this build, I settled on 460W.
It will do the job. You can get more expensive, more efficient modules, but I have never had much trouble with going this cheap on a power supply. The fact that we’re using budget components like a small processor and a cheaper video card mean we’re not sucking up huge amounts of power. If you were spending thousands on a video card, you may need this size of power supply for that card alone! In which case, you’d need to brush up on your tech. In this setting? This power supply will do just fine.
Cost of power supply: $40
Part aesthetics, part function, the case is the only means you have of expressing your creative side. The first computer I built for Chelsey used something very similar to this. I then proceeded to paint the case red, not knowing what I was doing. Of course, Chelsey could now do a better job, as her recent chair project shows.
Now that we’re building a less-portable device, I can step up in size. I’m most comfortable with the so-called “mid-tower” sizes. These are about standard for your Dells and other home computers. I also wanted red, because Chelsey digs red, in case you couldn’t tell.
Ultimately, we selected this one. You’ll notice the price, $45. It is possible to go cheaper and maintain quality, but those are more plain. I wanted this splash of color. This case was also well rated for things that are hard to tell without looking for yourself. Sometimes the placement of certain drive bays can make it really tough to get all the connections right.
This case is big enough that it will suit the motherboard, which is of the “ATX” form factor. This is very standard. Most motherboards are either ATX or micro-ATX. A case of this size can support either one. It also comes with several fans that you can install to improve airflow further and an attractive front-plate with connections for your headphone and USB devices, all of which Chelsey expressed an interest in.
These pieces are usually of little importance, especially in this day and age. They are also often cheap, or you already have one floating around. The major piece I’m talking about here is the CD-ROM drive. It still comes in handy, but so much software is distributed digitally that you don’t need one. Still, I have a disc-based version of Windows 7 to install, so I’m happy to find that the CD-ROM from Chelsey’s old computer can be cannibalized. Even so, a new CDROM drive, if you really want one and can’t steal, runs around $20.
The other extra for this computer is some type of networking card, which allows the desktop to use Wi-Fi. Almost all motherboards come with an Ethernet jack, so if you put your computer in a room with the Internet modem, you’ll have no issue. You’re not moving this thing around all over the place, so wireless is not essential. However, Chelsey’s computer will sit on her desk in our living room (our modem is in the guest room), making it a necessity for us. I found a well-reviewed card for around $20 that supports the type of wireless network that we have.
This ends the most interesting and, arguably, the most challenging part of building a PC. You want to make sure you get the correct parts lined up. Otherwise, you’ll go to install and realize that your FM2 processor doesn’t fit into the AM3 motherboard socket (which can seriously undermine your credibility in the eyes of your boss…trust me, I know!). If you do your homework, you can make sure to get just the right level of performance while balancing cost.
In total, this PC build cost us a total of $555.12. It’s a touch beyond the budget I was shooting for, but I think it’s going to be a very nice computer once we get it assembled.
Building vs. Buying
It’s difficult to say how much it would cost, exactly, to build a similar machine through a company like Dell, since they don’t use the same parts. I went to HP’s website, where you can still customize machines and compare prices.
This desktop included the following:
- Windows 7
- An Intel Core i7 processor (4 cores, 3.5 GHz, 8 MB Cache; compare to our 6-core, 3.5GHz, 8
- NVidia GeForce Card, with 2MB VRAM (similar enough to the card we chose)
- 8 GB RAM
- 1000 GB 7200 RPM hybrid hard drive (very similar to the one we got)
- DVD drive
- Keyboard and Mouse
- Wireless card
- 300W power supply (compared to our 460W)
- HP support, probably for 12 months
Note a few important things here. There is NO monitor included here. That adds at least $115. You also get a bunch of trial software garbage, what is known as “bloatware.” These are things like Microsoft Office trials that you don’t want and can slow your computer down immediately.
In terms of performance, it looks like this computer will be similar to ours. The only thing you really get out of this deal is the support. Woohoo, you get to deal with HP’s (or Dell’s, or whoever you deal with) customer support. I’ll pass on that and use local shops if there’s something I just can’t do myself. It’ll probably cost less in the long run.
Price? $778.99. If you add the monitor, that brings it up to $893.98.
So $779 versus the $555 that we paid. We got what looks like a better processor and a much nicer case, without the bloatware. Frankly, I’m much more excited for the machine we’re building than the one we can get from HP.
And that’s it for the purchasing and showing how much you can save by building your own. If we didn’t care about playing heavy-duty games, then we could easily lop off $100 by buying a cheaper motherboard with no video card. You can also get a cheaper hard drive if you don’t care about speed or huge storage, saving around $30. That’s the beauty of building for yourself. You can customize to your exact needs.
Next time, we’ll talk about what you need to do once the packages arrive!