How to build a cheap, reliable desktop computer for every day use.

For a tech nerd, it is hard to beat the excitement of bringing home a brand new shiny computer. That is except for maybe building one yourself.

Some people question why even bother building computer yourself. What could possibly make it worth the trouble? For me, part of it is the satisfaction building one myself. I also like the fact that I can build a computer to my exact specifications. I can ensure that I can expand my machine going forward. I can ensure that I have quality components in my computer.

The truth is you can go to Best Buy or Newegg.com or lot of other places and buy a fairly nice computer for little to no money these days.  But with these cheap computers you get whatever cheap components the manufactures put in them to get the price down. This includes motherboards with very limited expansion capacities. You may have only one slot for expansion cards in your brand new computer.  You may be limited in the amount of memory you can put in your computer.  You may not be able to put as many hard drives in your computer as you want to someday.   Which, for some, is fine.  For me, I like knowing that I can expand my computer to keep it up-to-date as my needs change.  I don’t like buying a computer every year.  Maybe my expectations are too high, but when I purchase/build a computer I expect it to last 5-10 years.  By building a computer, I avoid the lower quality components in the of-the-shelf systems and I am able to ensure my computer is built with reliability and performance in mind.

So where do you start?  Actually building a computer, once all of the components arrive at your doorstep, really isn’t that hard to do.  If you can snap together Legos, you can build a computer.  The difficulty comes in selecting the right components.  What is a reliable motherboard?  What socket type do I want?  What chipset?  What memory should I use?  The list goes on and on.  Answering these questions takes research.  Lots, and lots of research.  So much research, that the average person can easily become overwhelmed and lost in tech jargon.

So, the purpose of this article is not so much to teach you how to decipher all of the techno mumbo jumb0 and become and expert computer builder.  I’ve already done the homework for you.  You get to cheat on the final exam.  I want to show you how to build a $400 computer that will fit your basic computing needs and give you room to grow.

Processors

I find it best to start with the processor.  It is the brains of the system.  And selecting your direction now helps narrow down the remaining components.  You basically have two choices, Intel or AMD.

Right now, Intel is the way to go.  Ten years ago, I would have told you to build (and I did build) AMD machines.  But, the “i” series of processors from Intel are the best available today for the average (and above average) computer user.

Because we are building a computer for every day use and not a CAD workstation or an all out gaming machine, a dual core i3 processor will work just fine.  So, one would think that decision would be enough to select a processor.  But, Intel likes to release product on a tick-tock cycle.  So, without going into too much detail, that means there are multiple processors with the “i3” name.  You’ll want a “3rd Generation”, or an “Ivy Bridge” version of the i3.  This is the latest and greatest.  It includes all kinds of features like better integrated graphics (you don’t need to buy a graphics card), lower power consumption, etc.  It is a little more “future proof” vs. an older Sandy Bridge (2nd Generation) i3.

Processor: Intel Core i3-3220 Ivy Bridge 3.3GHz LGA 1155

Motherboard

Next comes the motherboard.  If the processor is the brains, this is the body.  The reason I select the processor first is because it determines the socket type for the motherboard.  In this case, we selected an Intel i3 processor, which is an LGA 1155 socket.  That is the first step in narrowing down the hundreds if not thousands of motherboards on the market.

After that, comes size.  As long as you’re not trying to build a tiny computer to fit on the shelf, I suggest going with the ATX size.  The bigger motherboard gives you more room for expansion slots and allows components to be spaced a little farther apart.  You’ll appreciate that when assembling the computer.

The next is the chipset.  This used to be a collection of little computer chips referred to as the North Bridge and South Bridge, but most have combined these onto one chip, so its just called the chipset.  You couldn’t invent as many different names as there are chipsets available.  So cutting through it all, look for an Intel H77, Z75 or Z77 chipset.  Out of these three, select the Z77.  All of them integrate USB 3.0, support built in GPUs and RAID, etc.  The “Z” chipsets give more overclocking options.  The Z77 is the latest and greatest, makes your computer a little more future-proof and doesn’t really cost that much more than the others.  If you really need to go on the cheap, the H77 is the way to go.  But for this build, I’m suggesting the Z77.

With these two choices made, you’ve narrowed the selection way down.  It’s time to pick a manufacturer.  Every motherboard from every manufacturer will have stories of boards that arrive dead associated with them.  The best you can do is pick a reliable brand.  The big names are ASUS, MSI and Gigabyte.  You can take a risk on some of the smaller brands, but sticking with the big names lowers the risk a little.  After this, it comes down to the number and type of expansion slots you want.  Then, it comes to prices.  The board for this build has plenty of room for expansion and is well priced.

Motherboard: MSI Z77A-G43

Memory

The type of memory is dictated by the motherboard.  You need to make sure that the type of of RAM is supported by your motherboard (the mobo specs should tell you exactly what RAM is supported).  The motherboard above supports 240pin dual channel DDR3 PC1333 RAM.

Now, it’s up to how much memory you want in your computer.  For most typical computer users, 4-8GB will be plenty.   Again, picking from the bigger names is usually better; PNY, Crucial, Corsair and Kingston.  Here, I am using 8GB of Crucial memory.

Memory:  Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333

Hard Drives

You’ll need at least one hard drive for your new computer.  You can reuse old hard drives if you have them.  I recommend two hard drives – one for the operating system and one for you data.  For this build, I’m trying to keep costs down, so I’ll be using only one hard drive.

With hard drives, it is important to know what interface you’re using.  Any more, all motherboards use the SATA interface (rather than PATA or IDE).  There are two speeds, 6Gbps and 3Gbps.  Knowing what you have available on your motherboard will help this decision.  The mother board above supports 4 of the 3Gbps drives and 2 of the 6Gbps drives.  But don’t worry too much as you can plug a 6Gbps drive into a 3Gbps port and a 3Gbps drive into a 6Gbps port.  The down side in these scenarios is that performance will be limited to the 3Gbps component (either the drive or the port).

As with the components above, sticking with the big names is usually better.  I’ll take it even a step further and recommend one brand.  Out of all of the hard drives that I’ve purchased over the years, the only brand that I have not had fail on me is Western Digital, specifically their Caviar series.  There are different “colors” in this series.  The “black” is the high end.  The “blue” is for your everyday computer.  The “green” is more energy conscious at the expense of speed and performance.  And they make a “red” specifically for RAID arrays.  I recommend the “blue” for your operating system drive and the “black” for your data drive.  Or, if you want the ultimate in reliability for your data drive(s), go with two “red” drives in a RAID 1 array (but that is another article…).

Hard Drive: Western Digital WD Blue WD2500AAKX

Power Supply

There are all kinds of specs to talk about with power supplies;  number of +12V rails, active vs passive PCF, wattage, number and type of connectors, fan size, form factor, etc.  Basically, you want one that matches your motherboard (in this case, 24pin ATX), has enough wattage to power your components (around 200W would be sufficient for everything above), has enough connectors to allow you to grow (mainly looking at SATA connectors here, but you might be concerned about powering additional video cards, etc) and accepts the correct input voltage (120VAC in the US, 240VAC is other regions).

In the spirit of keeping things simple, I’m just going to recommend a power supply for this build.

Power supply:  Thermaltake TR2 W0070RUC 430W ATX12V

Case

The computer case holds all of your goodies.  And that’s about it.  Some considerations are number of bays, front panel accessories (USB ports, power buttons, audio connectors, etc), form factor (in our case, ATX) and size (for most desktop applications, you’ll be ok with a mid-tower).  You can get into nice-to-have features like removable drive bays, replaceable expansion slot covers, case fans, case alarms, locking cases, etc.  But for a budget build, you just need a case.

Case: DIYPC DIY-5823

Optical Drive

There are a wide variety of optical drives.  You can get anything from the basic CD reader, to a drive that can read and write Blu Ray discs.  Because you’ll probably need a drive of some sort to load your operating system, I’ll recommend one here.  If you’re interested in burning discs, you can dig into specs on read and write speeds.  And you’ll need to make sure that the drive is the correct interface (in our case, SATA).  This is a budget build, so I’m going with a simple, as cheap as they come CD/DVD burner.

Optical drive: LITE-ON DVD Burner

And… that’s it, you have a computer!  That’s not to say that there are not a few other things you might want.

PATA Controller

If you have some older PATA hard drives that you want to use, and you’re power supply supports them (as the one listed above does), you will need a controller to connect the drives to.  You’ll also need to make sure that the card is compatible with the expansion slots you have on your motherboard (in this case, PCI).  This controller also has the benefit of hardware RAID.

PATA controller: HighPoint RocketRAID 454 PCI IDE Controller Card

USB 3.0 Expansion Bays

On the motherboard selected above, there is an extra USB 3.0 header with nothing to connect to it.  If you select a computer case with USB ports on the front (or rear) panel, you would connect these here.  Since we did not, and we have extra drive bays, we’ll be using a drive bay expansion to add an additional USB 3.0 slot as well as a multimedia card reader.

Expansion bay: VANTEC UGT-CR935 USB 3.0 Multi-Memory Internal Card reader

 

Summary

And that is the end of the story.  With all of the components above, you should have a well built desktop PC that serves you for quite a long time.  You might be wondering, why didn’t I talk about cost of each of these components?  I promised a well built computer for around $400, right?  Well, that is because the cost of components changes every day.  For each of the items, I included a link to NewEgg.com.  Their website has a lot of great tools for narrowing down your selection, finding specifications and reading up on consumer reviews.  And while they often have great prices, they are not always the lowest.  To ensure you find the best price on your computer components, be sure to “build” your system on pcpartpicker.com.  This site lets you build your system by selecting components, then it goes out and finds the best price from a large number of vendors.  I saved right around $100 using this site on my last build.

With that, lets look at the cost of this build as of today.

Processor: Intel Core i3-3220 Ivy Bridge 3.3GHz LGA 1155 – $109.99NCIX US
Motherboard: MSI Z77A-G43 – $84.99Amazon
Memory:  Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1333 – $32.00NewEgg
Hard Drive: Western Digital WD Blue WD2500AAKX – $52.05 – Amazon
Power supply:  Thermaltake TR2 W0070RUC 430W ATX12V – $43.99NewEgg
Case: DIYPC DIY-5823 – $15.99NewEgg
Optical drive: LITE-ON DVD Burner – $17.99NewEgg
PATA controller: HighPoint RocketRAID 454 PCI IDE Controller Card – $34.99NewEgg
Expansion bay: VANTEC UGT-CR935 USB 3.0 Multi-Memory Internal Card reader – $24.99NewEgg

Grand total:  $416.98

So, a little above the $400 flat figure, but take out the PATA controller and the Expansion bay and you are in the 300’s.  Not bad for a machine that should last for years to come.  Happy building.

 

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