So you need a new computer, but you don’t want to spend a boatload of cash. Or maybe you want to play those new games and your current machine is starting to show it’s age. Maybe you just want to get the most bang for your buck. Or perhaps you just want to give it a try. No matter your route there are some pretty basic steps to follow and some things to keep in mind when it comes to building your own PC.

 

Start by defining your budget. If you’ve only got $500 to spend, then you’re looking at a fairly tight budget and you’ll want to look at these components a little differently than you would if you had $3000 to spend on a new high-end workstation.

Define what you want to do with this new computer. Are you writing papers? Or do you want to play the biggest and baddest games? Do you spend a lot of time watching HD videos from Netflix or Youtube? Do you edit your own HD videos? Are you just checking Facebook, and surfing websites? All of these questions factor in to how much potency the components of your computer need to have when all is said and done. It should be no surprise that writing papers and surfing the web require less from your computer than watching HD content. Games and HD video editing take the most resources.

Pick a CPU, Motherboard, and RAM. The CPU or processor of the computer is where all of the programs get run. Dual-Core, Quad-Core, Quad-Core with Hyper-threading, 6-core and 8-core Processors all exist, but not all of these are for everyone. Dual-Core processors sit at the bottom of both cost and performance. As the name suggests, they have 2 physical processor cores on the same die (in the same package, if you will) which share the workload. Nowadays, 2 is the fewest cores you can get, as modern operating systems recommend you have at least a dual-core system. Dual-Core machines do well with basic tasks like word-processing and web surfing, and draw less power for the energy-conscious consumer. Quad-Core machines are the good middle ground. Having four cores, they really work well with multitasking, and They’re usually sufficient to handle all current games.

This point brings us to a fork in the road, however, because Intel and AMD (the two main CPU brands) have 2 different approaches to getting more performance in the top tier model. Intel offers Hyper-threading. This essentially doubles the number cores, because the operating sees the computer as having twice as many cores as it physically has. Another advantage of hyper-threading in Intel processors is that it will spread the load from intense applications to take advantage of more of the processing power available to it. AMD’s approach is to just add more cores. This approach is lower cost, yet allows for massive multitasking, and great support for programs written to run on multi-core computers.

For discussion’s sake, lets say I need a system for sending emails, word processing, watching videos, writing code, video chatting, and the occasional bout of Minecraft, and current 3D games all for around $750.

So processor-wise, I could no doubt get away with a dual-, or triple-core. But because I dislike waiting, and I want my computer to last a while, I would choose the Intel I5-2500k. It is a quad-core Intel processor, without hyper-threading and it’s not unreasonably priced. You can view the Processor here: http://bit.ly/i22rw2

The next step in building a computer is to choose a motherboard. Most importantly, make sure the board  you choose is the same ‘socket’ as your CPU. If it isn’t, your computer is just going to be a pile of parts forever. As motherboards go, it’s probably not the best idea to sort them “Price: low to high” and buy the cheapest one. Cheaper boards are made with cheaper components. Cheaper components are more likely to fail. Decide if you need features like 8-channel audio, 10-SATA ports (for connecting optical and hard drives), or USB 3.0. For the average user, 2 channel audio for connecting speakers, and 2 SATA connections will be sufficient. USB 3.0 would be great to have, but it isn’t necessary. Also, it’s good to look at customer reviews, just to see what other people think.

For my computer, I’ve chosen the Gigabyte GA-H61M-SPRV which you can view here: http://bit.ly/AuZZul  It’s a mid-low end board, because it lacks some of the features of the higher end boards on the market, but the brand has worked pretty well for me in past builds, and I feel like their build quality is high enough that I’ll be okay buying from them again.

After the CPU and Motherboard, your computer is going to need RAM. Random Access Memory is where your computer stores running applications and services. The faster your RAM, the quicker your computer will respond to switching applications and performing operations. The more RAM you have, the more programs or more complex programs you can have open before your computer starts to slow down. To properly choose RAM, you’ll want to refer to the specifications on your motherboard. Because the motherboard holds the RAM it dictates the form factor of the RAM. Another difficult factor of picking RAM is picking the proper clock speed.

For my demo build, I’m going to plan on 8GB of RAM which is more than enough to do massive multitasking. The kit I’m choosing to use is a 2 x 4GB kit, so it will leave 2 of the 4 DIMM slots (RAM slots) on the motherboard empty, if I ever choose to upgrade again. You can view the Ram here: http://bit.ly/fVHXNB

 

(Optional:) Pick a Graphics Processor.  If you want to do extensive gaming, the built-in graphics capabilities of the motherboard are definitely going to leave you wanting more. A dedicated video card will help cure that fix. Two brands have the market edge right now, nVidia, and ATI. nVidia cards have the ability to work with some games to help with physics calculations. Both vendors have support now for OpenCL, which helps leverage the dedicated GPU to run extremely complex programs faster and more efficiently. With Graphics Cards, there’s really no right answer, but there is a religious devotion of people who either built with an AMD video card or an nVidia card.

For the purpose of this computer, I’m choosing to use a ATI Radeon HD7770 based XFX brand graphics card. Which you can view here: http://bit.ly/AuAOT

 

Pick a Hard Drive and Optical Drive.

Hard Drives are where your computer stores everything. The operating system and all your programs, pictures and videos, music and movies. All of it gets stored to your hard drive. Drives are now available in capacities up to 4TB – Terabytes(4000GB –  Gigabytes) but those drives are still a little too pricy for most users. 750GB Drives are becoming the norm for users, as they’re relatively cheap, and they provide quite a lot of space for the average user.

Beyond the amount of storage, the rotation speed and cache play a part in making the drive respond faster. The lower the rpm, the lower the sustained read or write speed will be. The more cache a drive haves benefits the drive for random reads/writes, so you won’t see much performance boost while y0u’re using the keyboard.

For my demo build, I’m looking at a refurbished Seagate 750GB. Refurbished drives are ones that have been rebuilt, because they were shipped with manufacturing defects and are sold at a reduced cost. You can view the hard drive here: http://bit.ly/xWahqt

 

 

Optical drives can be chosen based on exactly what you want/need. If you want to watch blu-ray movies, you’re going to need a blu-ray drive. If you just need to burn CD’s, you’re probably just going to want to get a DVD-burner, because CD only drives are going the way of the dinosaurs.

For this build, a DVD-burner should be exactly what I need.  You can view the DVD drive here: http://bit.ly/l1DqiJ

***Just a note here, for Optical Drives and Hard Drives, Make sure you choose the correct connection type that will connect to your board. Remember the SATA Connections from the motherboard? Make sure if you got all SATA on your motherboard that your optical and hard drives are SATA as well.***

Pick a Power Supply and Case.

Newegg.com, an online vendor, has a useful Power Supply Wattage Calculator which you can view at this link: http://bit.ly/jSRaUI and help you use to calculate the wattage that you’ll need to have available on your power supply.

 

For simplicities sake, stick with ATX towers and power supplies. ATX is a defined standard for the size of computer parts, and many vendors sell cases that bundle compatible hard drives in cases. For beginners, that’s probably the best route. The case will fit, and in many cases, the power supply comes preinstalled, so that step is already done for you.

My test build, according to Newegg.com’s Wattage Calculator recommends I get a power supply that can provide at least 377 watts. I feel safest about rounding up to 500W and going from there. There is a case that I’ve used before on a previous build that comes with a 500W power supply preinstalled, and it is a fairly quiet case to boot. You can view that case here: http://bit.ly/13Rb6S

 

 

Summary!

So my test computer had a budget of $750. I was able to get a Quad core Intel Processor, 8GB of DDR3 RAM, a 1GB dedicated Graphics Card, 750GB hard drive for a total price of $735, shipped from Newegg.com.

The realization here is that you could get something similar from a boxed pc vendor like HP or Dell, but this machine would have a substantial bit more power over a pre-made system, and with this you get the joy of opening all those boxes and assembling them.

 

 

–Jonathan Briggs

Mac Lab Tech Support

 

Did I confuse you somewhere?

Here are some links that you might find useful:

SATA Revisions (Forgive my Wikipedia-ing, it’s the simplest comparison I could find)

USB 3.0 Vs USB 2.0