My mission to buy a desktop PC started out simple: I wanted a powerful work computer with support for three monitors. Getting a PC within my budget seemed reasonable.
But then, temptation set in. With a slightly better processor and graphics card, this desktop could play the latest video games. And with a solid state drive instead of hard disk storage, everyday work performance would be breezier. Of course, boosting those specs at any configure-your-own PC site made the final price skyrocket. After days of searching for a powerhouse PC under $1,000, I admitted the truth to myself: If I wanted it, I’d have to build it.
Today, I write to you from my homemade, high-powered rig, built last Thursday. It has a 3.3 GHz Intel Core i5 2500K processor, an AMD Radeon 6870 graphics card, 8 GB of RAM, a 120GB solid state drive and a basic DVD burner. The total cost, after taxes and rebates, was about $920. (I got parts from MicroCenter, an electronics retailer, which meant paying sales taxes but getting everything immediately.)
Building my first desktop PC wasn’t just a means to an end, it was also a learning experience. If you’ve ever thought of building your own PC, here are some things to consider.
1. It’s Not as Daunting As It Sounds
Conventional wisdom on Internet message boards says that if you want the best desktop PC for cheap, you need to build it yourself. I always figured that wasn’t so much advice as it was a way for geeks to boast about their engineering talents. But as someone who lacks said talent, I was surprised by how simple setting up a PC can be. I used a recent how-to from The Verge for general guidelines, and consulted my manuals–mainly for the desktop case and the motherboard–when I needed more detailed explanations. In most components, everything’s labelled well enough to be self-explanatory, and the only tool you need is a Phillips-head screwdriver.
2. Picking Your Parts is the Hardest Part
If you’re building a PC for the first time, the real daunting part is the initial commitment, in which you decide not to buy a pre-made rig and start trying to figure out what parts you need. I spent a lot of time trawling through message boards for suggested builds. Hours were lost obsessing over the balance between power and prices. And after deciding on specs, I still had to pick decent parts, which meant scanning through countless user reviews on Newegg to make sure my power supply and RAM wouldn’t crap out on day one. By the time I’d lined up all my components, the building process didn’t seem so scary.
3. Needed: A New Kind of CPU and GPU Review
I have immense respect for sites like AnandTech and Tom’s Hardware, which churn out exhaustive reviews of graphics cards and processors. But those reviews cater to a highly technical audience, which is to say not me. When picking a processor for a gaming PC, I only need two questions answered: What’s the newest game I can play at the highest settings, and what do I gain by spending $30 more on the next model up? Of course, lots of other variables affect the answer, but I’d love to see more short, sweet graphics card and processor reviews that explain what an extra 0.3 GHz gets you in the real world, not in benchmarks.
4. The Mail-In Rebate is Alive and Well
My big electronics purchases of the last few years–phones, tablets, a laptop and a TV–have come without mail-in rebates, which makes me think that retailers and vendors are doing away with this noisome practice. But when buying individual PC components, mail-in rebates are everywhere–$10 here, $20 there. In total, I’ve got $90 in rebates across five vendors to deal with. My guess: component makers hope it’s enough of a headache that some people won’t bother.
5. There Are Parts You Don’t Think About (And They Add Up)
The specs I bragged about at the top of this story aren’t the only parts of the machine, off course. You also need a motherboard, a power supply, and a case. Depending on your setup, you might also want extra USB controllers, a built-in SD card reader, and a wireless network adapter. And don’t forget about a copy of Windows 7. (Most online retailers sell the OEM version for about $100, which is roughly half the price of a retail copy, but can’t be transferred to another computer.) This stuff can get expensive, quick.
6. Sage Advice: Don’t Force Things, and Build in the Buff
Before building, I asked folks on Twitter if they had any tips. I liked Brian Katz’s advice, which is common-sense but worth being reminded about:
Also, PCWorld’s Patrick Miller had an interesting recommendation:
The Verge’s how-to also suggested stripping down if you don’t have an anti-static wrist wrap. I have no idea if these claims of static danger are overblown, but I didn’t take any chances. I assembled on my kitchen table–where there’s no carpeting around–in my underpants. It was a weird scene, especially with all the electronics strewn about, but at least nothing got fried.
7. You Are Your Own Tech Support
I wish I could say everything went smoothly. Unfortunately, my new PC showed a tendency to get choppy after waking from a few hours of sleep. I tried updating drivers, updating the BIOS, and fiddling with settings, but to no avail. Eventually I reinstalled Windows, which seems to have fixed the problem. Also, one of my fans was behaving sporadically, until I found the lose connection to blame. Calling up the PC manufacturer would have been nice, except in this case, the manufacturer was me. This may seem stupidly obvious, but if something goes wrong, you’re on your own.
On that note, good luck!