The Past and the Plan
I'm never built a computer from parts before, but I've done various sub-portions of this task - installing RAM, graphics cards, wireless cards, and hard drives, re-partitioning and installing Ubuntu on an old laptop that is now reborn as a websurfing machine, etc. Basically, what I hadn't done before was pick out my own components and assemble a machine.
I'm hoping to get 3 years out of this machine as my primary gaming platform and then have it retire to work as a media server or whatnot. My approximate budget was $800 for hardware not including the graphics card - I have an old card I plan to use until I see whether this whole endeavor catches fire and sinks into the swamp, and I knew going in that this was something easy for me to swap out later. Either I will buy a long-term solution or a medium term one that I plan to replace (and possibly carry over into the computer after this one). This is a machine I plan to live with and upgrade, so I'm not as concerned with minimizing expenses on everything that doesn't directly inflate my benchmarks, especially for stuff that would make my life more difficult as a first-time builder. I decided early on not to mess with any design with either dual graphic cards or water cooling for this reason.
I also made a deliberate decision to break the project up into two weekends. I was certain that there would be something I would need to order, that I would run out of time, etc etc. My goal for week 1 was to install the bare minimum parts I need to confirm that things are working, leaving add-ons, final cable-routing, and actual setup to a second weekend.
As with system builder custom, I will break out separately mail-in rebate values, since these are intentionally designed to be difficult and time-consuming to actually collect.
- CPU: Intel "Sandy Bridge" Core i5 2500K - $220
Based on reviews and benchmarks, this appears to be the sweet-spot on price performance. It's a solid chip that can overclock well, if I get that far. The guys at Tom's tried to put the comparable priced AMD chip in their $1200 build last month and came out much worse off, despite a major investment in graphics.
- Motherboard: Intel Z68-based ASUS P8Z68-V LX: $125 ($10 mail in)
The Z68 chipset supports the integrated graphics capabilities of the Sandy Bridge processors. This can theoretically save power (no need to fire up a graphics card for basic Windows functions), provides extra monitor slots if I try to install more monitors than my graphics card has outputs, and also means that I have a backup option for troubleshooting in the event of a malfunctioning graphics card (which happened to me on my last machine).
It was actually remarkably difficult to get a comparison of what the differences in the various P8Z68 models - the board's fan club has a comparison chart. The -V boards effectively do not have a second graphic card slot - which fit with my plan in any case - but you quickly get down into the weeds on all kinds of numbers like USB 3.0 slots etc, which snowball around to hit whether or not your case actually has extra USB 3.0 plugs to plug those into, etc etc. In the end, I made a judgement call that this board fit my budget and was good enough for my needs.
- SSD (system+program drive): Corsair Force GT 120 GB: $179.99 ($30 mail in)
This relatively splurge immediately pushed me to the high end of the budget. Pretty much everyone agrees that an SSD system drive is a great upgrade. In this approach, you spend about $80 on a 60 GB drive that will take Windows, basic programs, and maybe one MMO (though WoW's 28 GB may be pushing this).
As someone who plays a bunch of different MMO's, I really wanted to have room to share the SSD love with more than the one game, but I couldn't justify the cost. Then this drive went on sale for $150 with the rebate. Even then it's still a bit more of my budget than I technically "should" be spending on storage, but this buys me the space to have my top 3-5 games of the moment on the SSD.
- Data Drive: 500 GB Western Digital Caviar Blue - $80
Gamers tend to covet the Caviar Black model, which has gotten very costly in the wake of flooding in Thailand. Still, I didn't view going without a data drive as an option; even with the larger SSD, there are still going to be 100 GB of game clients I use once a month that are going to have to go somewhere. This was a price that I could afford, and it's still very good from a performance standpoint.
- RAM: 8 GB (2x4GB) Corsair XMS 3 DDR3 1600 - $48 ($10 mail in)
Lots of people just go with the cheapest 4 GB DDR3 1600 kit they can find and call it a day, and I was initially inclined to go along with this. The upgrade to 8 GB turned out to be under $20. I like being able to run in windowed mode with a browser sometimes, this upgrade was cheap, and reportedly sometimes an improvement.
- Power Supply: Corsair TX-650 V2: $90 ($20 mail in)
The power supply is one of those components that system builder challenges tend to skimp on, while experienced builders caution that this is a highly important part that can fail catastrophically and greatly affect performance in the mean while. Throw in a touch of uncertainty about how much power my as-yet-unselected final graphics card would require and I was stuck on this one for a while. Then a well-reviewed model with enough juice to fill my needs went on sale. One thing you don't get in this price range is "modular" cables - it's apparently cheaper for them to build one model that leaves dozens of excess cables hanging out in the case than to make the cables fully detachable.
- Optical Drive: External HP 24x DVD burner 1270e - $30
This is an unconventional choice - most people go with an internal drive that transfers data through a faster SATA port on the motherboard, rather than a slower USB port. This difference for me is that I don't get my software on souvenir coasters anymore - my current laptop doesn't have an optical drive and I've done fine without for almost a year and a half. I also don't use the computer for watching DVD's when I could be watching them on the TV instead.
Bottom line, I need this drive only when I go to re-install windows, or perhaps an MMO recent enough for the client disks to still be worth using (e.g. SWTOR if I get it in the near future). In exchange for a slight drop in speed, I have one fewer thing to install internally, and, more importantly, I have a drive that can be shared amongst the present (and possibly future) computers in the Armadillo household that do not have working optical drives (my Alienware, my wife's Macbook Air, my old Dell desktop whose drive broke several years ago) for the price of one internal drive. Your mileage may vary but this was an easy choice for me.
- Case: Antec Three Hundred Illusion - $70
This choice baffled me for a disproportionate amount of time precisely because it is relatively hard to measure objectively. You can get a case for $30-50, but it's likely to be hard to work with and require additional purchases. You can get a case for $150, but that really doesn't make sense in the budget range I was aiming at. In the middle are compromises, but it's hard to tell which of these compromises really matter. There's also so much personal preference involved that every case has someone who swears it was a pleasure to work with and someone who hated it.
In the end, I decided to go by popularity. I liked the look of this case, and I liked what I read about it in the September edition of Tom's $2000 build. Unlike the entry level version of the Antec Three Hundred, the Illusion comes with a pair of intake fans. I actually had to go back and make a slight switch to my planned motherboard at this stage - I'd been planning on paying slightly more for the P8Z68-V LE, which has headers to support two front USB 3.0 ports, but this case only had USB 2.0 ports. It's actually remarkably hard to get an answer to a seemingly simple question like "does your case have USB 3.0 ports", but it seems like the answer in this price range is generally "no".
- CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus: $29
I chose this based on overwhelming popularity, and the fact that it was paired with the case I finally selected in the linked build at Tom's.
- Anti Static Wrist Band: $5
Waste of money? Perhaps. Do I look silly clipping my wrist to the metal case? Perhaps. If this is snake oil, at least it's a bit of snake oil that only cost me $5 and that I can reuse for all my future computer building/modification needs.
- Monitor, Keyboard, Mouse, Wireless network card, and Starter Graphics Card: Hand me down's from past systems ($0)
There are a few miscellaneous cable purchases yet to be added to the total, so realistically I'm slightly over where I was aiming, primarily because I jumped on an SSD deal that was a bit of a reach for my budget.
Overall, so far I am happy with all of my choices, though some gave me headaches during installation (tomorrow's topic, this one is already long). I will say that I was definitely struck by how difficult it is to get all the answers about what types of plugs your components have/need, etc. I've also probably made a number of mistakes that some of you may be laughing at me for as you read this.
Even so, I'm glad I embarked on this project. I definitely feel like I know more about computers in general and what makes mine in particular tick. Maybe knowing exactly how to reinstall and even replace components at will can eventually save me some money. All that aside, it was actually kind of fun. If the end result is a solid mid-end computer - which, incidentally, will be far more than I would have gotten for the money through any other approach, I'll be happy.