How to design and build your own PC -- a computer from individual parts

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The goal

My kid plays computer games. He says his current one is shit. But I don't want to spend $1500 on a new one. So can we do better by building our own - using some parts kicking around? I'd like to get the price to half of that - about $750.

Let's start thinking:

Obviously, it needs to be good enough to play games. Will he get the top end? No way. The bottom end? Nope. I could not stand the whining. So it has to be a compromise.

To do this, let's start with the graphics card and find one that hits the so called 'sweet spot' So that's what I type into a search engine and quickly find recommendations from about the beginning of the year for a gaming graphics card that gives the best bang/buck.

I quickly home in on: GTx 560 from chat in Whirlpool.

Type into the Google search engine:

GTx 560 price site:.au

and see what comes up. ( I use the modifier site:.au to get Australian retailers )

The cheapest I find is $200. Typical $330. You have to shop around!

Other parts

The motherboard is the most important part because its build quality and performance affects everything. The graphics card can be replaced. The motherboard dictates what kind of memory you can use, how many extra cards it will accept and how much memory or how many disks you can install.

Lets first look at all the parts that we will need for a complete system:

Computer parts

part
Purpose
Motherboard
It's the main component
Graphics card
You need this for games. The one on-board will not handle the load.
CPU
The central Processing Unit. Aim for twin core at least these days. Mid-range because most of the hard work is done by the graphics card
Memory
There is DDS2 and DDS3 go for quality and go for no more than 4GB because Windows 7 32-bit home won't use any more than that.
Disk Drive
Consider Solid State for speed - but only if it is a decent size. It will be expensive. So it will probably be better to get a large fast ordinary serial drive.
Keyboard
He can buy his own. I'll supply a second hand one.
Mouse
Ditto to the keyboard.
Monitor
He can use the existing one.
PSU
You nede a quality Power supply for reliability - particularly with gaming graphics cards.
Case
If there is money available - get a flashy case to make him think it goes faster - especially if it has a red-stripe or a window to look at all the guts.

Motherboard choice

Asus P8Z68-M-Pro seems to be available for about $140 from a very cheap source. But let's look at the specifications to see if it is suitable. I know the Asus motherboards have a decent reputation.

Search for

Asus P8Z68-M-Pro specifications

What's important:

  • True SATA 6Gb/s Support
  • Quick and simple overclocking in the mouse driven BIOS - not that I recommend overclocking as it can limit the lifetime of the parts but many gamers to it anyway.
  • Supports Hard Drives over 2.2TB - This is not a bad idea since hard drives are getting so much bigger these days but to take advantage -you need a 64-bit operating system.
  • When no discrete graphics are needed, the graphics card is put in idle mode to lower utilization, heat, fan speed and power draw down to near zero, making the system more environmentally-friendly.
  • Intel® Smart Response Technology boosts overall system performance. It uses an installed fast SSD (min 18.6GB available capacity) as a cache for frequently accessed data. Harness the combination of SSD-like performance and response with hard drive capacity, that's 4X faster than a HDD-only system. This means he could use his existing hard drive as an extension to a solid state drive - but that depends on the price of SSD.
  • 100% All High-quality Conductive Polymer Capacitors - this is important for reliability as it's often the capacitors that dry out and cause system failure over time.
  • LGA1155 socket for Intel® Second Generation Core™ i7/ Core™ i5/ Core™ i3 Processors
  • Supports 2-channel (4 DIMM) DDR3 memory and 16 PCI Express 2.0 lanes. This provides great graphics performance.

Slots

The motherboard has

1 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (blue)
1 x PCIe 2.0 x16 (x4 mode, black) *1
2 x PCI

HDMI output ( for plugging in to the big TV )

uATX Form Factor
9.6 inch x 9.6 inch ( 24.5 cm x 24.5 cm )


Disk drive

I found an Intel Solid State Disk SATA2 40G drive for about $100. This means he can keep his existing disk drive and the system will still fly like a bird.

Memory

The motherboard supports DDR3 which has two transfers per cycle of a quadrupled clock and that implies more data rate. So we look at DDR3 memory. I'll assume we will buy Windows 7 home edition which will be a 32-bit operating system only, so there is no point having more than 4GB of RAM. DDR3 memory provides a reduction in power consumption of 30% compared to DDR2 modules the maximum recommended voltage is 1.575 volts.

installing it in pairs triggers dual channel mode which doubles your memory bandwidth.

So we will need two modules for best performance. These will cost a minimum of $45

4G Kit 1600 Kingston HyperX Blue

CPU

People fret about the CPU clock speed. In reality - there are many more limiting factors that affect overall performance. So we don't need to max-out on the CPU as far as price is concerned. The motherboard supports Intel i7 and that would be great, but this costs too much. The range in price is huge - from $50 to $400 for the intel 1155pin chip in various speeds. So we can sort of work out what the budget can stand. Let's pick Intel i3-2120 and see what people are saying about it.

Intel i3-2120

Search for the keywords:

Intel i3-2120 review

It turns out that the i3-2120 is the same as the i3-2100 but for a little extra clock rate, and none of the benchmarks can see a difference. The i3-2100 is about $125.

This is not a CPU that can be overclocked (thanks to ServandoSilva for this information). But it's in the 'value' end of the market.

What's the tally so far?

If I get the cheap price on the graphics card, then we are staring at about $600 so far.

I have a case that will do just fine. I doubt the power supply is any good. This is going to cost a bit because the quality of power supplies varies a lot. Since I already did a really good lot of research in the past, I am going to dive right in now and recommend a Corsair PSU. This will be worth the money.

The Corsair TX650 is about $120

So that brings us to $730

Let's compare that with a new system.

Compare specs with Aspire X3990 - AT958

$698

It has a nice case. It's Perfect For Everyday which implies strongly that it's not a gaming PC. It has an Intel i32100 CPU which is the same as our proposal. It has 4GB which is the same. The keyboard and Mouse are included but they won't be anything special. It has a 1TB drive but not SSD. The graphics card is Radeon HD 6450 (512MB) which is low-end. This is why it is not for gaming. It comes with Windows 7 Home Premium - we would have to migrate our Windows-XP installation or buy.

It's hard to compare of course, and I am not sure what the motherboard is like. But the price is fairly close. If we add a better graphics card, it will put the machine into the same kind of performance range except for the SSD hard drive, and I am sure that feature will greatly improve overall performance.

Using the GTX-560 adds another $200 and brings it to $898, and assuming the motherboard would take advantage of an SSD as a cache, then we add another $100 which brings it to $1000.

So it looks like it's possible to upgrade a system, re-use some parts and pay about 75% of the retail price but we have no idea of the quality of the power supply, and that is very important when the graphics card is sucking on the juice. Upgrading the power supply would bring it to $1100.

However, this is not for everyone. You get no warranty with home-built systems, and the pre-built ones are guaranteed to use compatible parts. It's quite easy to buy separate parts that don't quite operate together properly. Then again, upgrading a shop-bought system yourself usually voids the warranty - so you would need to get them to upgrade it.


Parts and costs for the upgrade

Part
Notes
Cost
Case
Scavange
0
Monitor
Existing
0
Keyboard
Existing
0
Mouse
Existing
0
PSU
Corsair CX 500W
77
Motherboard
Asus P8Z68-M-Pro
138
CPU
Intel i3-2120
139
RAM
4G Kit 1600 Kingston HyperX Blue
45
SSD
2.5" SATA2 40G
99
Mass Storage Drive
Existing
0
DVD R/W
Existing
0
Speakers
Existing
0
Sound card
On board
0
Graphics card
1G GTX560 Gainward
192
O/S
Migrate existing Windows XP
0
 
 
$ 690
Exact pricing at time of writing. This leaves some room to buy a flashy case.

The build

Assuming you are going to build a PC from parts, there are a few precautions that you need to take. These are:

  • Don't over-tighten screws - that can break the motherboard.
  • Always use anti-static measures. This is a fairly involved thing to understand, and I have only ever seen one technician do it right. (I will write an article on that sometime).
  • Check for short-circuits before powering up.
  • Don't break the Motherboard when installing the CPU - some of those pressure-type Heatsinks can take a lot of force to install them and you don't want to stress anything.
  • Don't split apart the CPU from the heatsink once it is installed. This messes up the thermal conductivity between the heatsink and the CPU core.
  • Don't bend any pins.
  • Don't obstruct cooling.
  • Ensure drives are mounted firmly - otherwise they might vibrate.
  • If you buy a special case, it might not come with fans so make sure it has at least one case fan. Bigger fans move more air at lower tip-speed and therefore they are quiet.

The Solid State Drive:

The drive is 2.5 inch (normal drive bays are 3.5 inch) so you can either find a mounting kit or use some ingenuity. Since it's solid state, it won't vibrate, and it does not generate a lot of heat. So one suggestion is to use some decent padded double-sided tape and simply stick it either to the case, or in one of the drive bays. If anyone has some other ideas, then please let me know.

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Comments 7 comments

ServandoSilva profile image

ServandoSilva 4 years ago from Somewhere between my Laptop and my Desktop

That CPU won't give you any overclock at all since it's not an unlocked processor. Also, it would help to find the final table with the model and prices.

Overall, that system will consume between 100 to 300 watts, so you can also save some money on the PSU by going to a 500-600 watts PSU and still have space to upgrade in the future.

Thanks for the information.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

Thanks for the great feedback ServandoSilva. I will add that table at the end and correct the misinformation about overclocking. I will also take a look at the PSU.

Great comment.


ServandoSilva profile image

ServandoSilva 4 years ago from Somewhere between my Laptop and my Desktop

No problem :)

I work at ASUS, and I've been for almost 10 years in the DIY PC market. For that reason, I recommend that if you're planning to use the discrete GTX 560Ti graphics card, then go for the P8P67-M Pro instead of the P8Z68-M Pro. That will also save you some dollars.

The reason you can't overclock is because of intel's second generation Core iX processors that won't allow anybody to overclock unless they're Unlocked (Example: Core i5 2500K) series.Even that, the Core i3 you're recommending is an excellent choice for a powerful machine and will allow you to game without problems with the mentioned GPU.

Keep working! I'll follow you.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

Brilliant. I see the P8P67 is $112 on my price list so it does save a bit. Is the only difference regarding on-board GPU?

I also downed the PSU a bit more as I am aware that a heavier-loaded SMPSU wrt maximum rating is usually more efficient. (I may as well save some pennies on electricity!)


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

I added a note at the end about mounting the 2.5" SSD.


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 4 years ago from SE MA

Do you own a migratable XP? If it is an OEM version, you probably do not have the legal right to use it on another computer.


Manna in the wild profile image

Manna in the wild 4 years ago from Australia Author

Hi Pcunix. Yes - we bought the full version, not OEM. But you make a good point for people who are 'upgrading' a store-bought system.

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