Building your own desktop PC: Choosing the parts

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November 3, 2014

Choose right parts for your self-assembled desktop

Advocates of building your own desktop PC would argue that you save lots of money by assembling the parts yourself as compared to getting them off-the-shelf. I believe this is true even today. Even if the total cost of assembly may not be cheaper, at least you have the assurance of the quality of the parts in your system.

Yet, not many have taken the step of doing so. Right now, let’s debunk the myth that assembling your own PC is difficult. It’s more like assembling blocks of Lego, really. Yes, you’ll be dealing with electrical components and plugging things in the wrong way may damage certain components, but if you bother to read and take the necessary precautions, it isn’t that hard at all.

Today, we shall not take a look at how to piece together these components for there are more helpful guides available such as this. Rather, this article will serve as a guide to help you choose the best value-for-money parts, as befitting the budget theme of this website.

So, without further ado, let’s begin!

The Processor

There’s no doubt the processor is the most crucial component in your system. Without it, everything else falls apart. For the budget conscious, this is the time to make a decision as to what you will use the desktop for. Is it for playing games? Or will you be running some processor-intensive tasks instead?

If you’re looking for to play games at the cheapest possible price, the AMD A10 or A8 range of Accelerated Processing Units (basically a CPU+GPU combined as AMD likes to call it) may suit your needs. It plays most contemporary games at acceptable framerates, as long as you’re willing to trade-off some resolution at times. Graphics performance is similar to an entry-mid-range graphics card. “K” versions of AMD processors allow you to unlock the processor’s multiplier for you to gain some extra performance through overclocking.

However, if you have some more cash to spare, or aren’t that interested in gaming at all, I wouldn’t really put AMD on the top of my list. It consumes more power than an Intel equivalent and it’s a pretty hot processor, and as we know, heat is one main enemy of electronics.

On the Intel side of things, you can get the Pentium Anniversary Edition, which is a cheap, dual-core processor that comes with an unlocked multiplier. Paired with a Z97 Anniversary motherboard, you can unlock its overclocking potential. Truthfully, even when overclocked, it still won’t perform any better than an Intel Core i3 at best, but the extra cost savings as compared to the AMD alternative could net you a much better graphics card.

Otherwise, you might want to just head for the full-fledged Intel Core i5 processors. They aren’t that expensive–a Core i5 4430 costs about the same as an A10 processor and offers much better CPU performance at the expense of GPU performance. The reason why I’m recommending this even for a budget-oriented user is because spending a little more can go a long way. I have been using an old Core i5 processor since 2011, and more than three years later, it’s still more than sufficient for anything that I throw at it. You might save more in the long run by skipping upgrades.

The Motherboard

The motherboard is what controls all the ports and peripherals of your system. It is where you plug in your hard drives, graphics card, et cetera. For budget purposes, a budget motherboard should more than suffice. More expensive motherboards are generally tailored to people who overclock their systems or need all possible features on a motherboard. Rather, you should look out for whether the number and variety of ports suits your requirement. For example, some cheaper motherboards have only a few SATA ports, which may be a problem when adding more hard drives. Some may lack USB 3.0 ports, or have a PCI-Express port that doesn’t run at full, x16 speed (avoid these!). In addition, always look for motherboards that come with full solid capacitors. Old electrolytic capacitors have been known to bloat and burst under certain conditions. From personal experience, ASRock provides pretty stable yet value-for-money motherboards.

The Storage

For a desktop system, my suggested configuration is a large hard disk drive (HDD) and a small solid-state drive (SSD). The large HDD would be to store all your files including music and videos, whereas the small SSD would be to store essential applications and your operating system. SSDs are really fast, but you are mostly restricted to 128GB or 256GB of space unless you’re willing to splurge. On the other hand, HDDs are much slower but you can easily get a 1TB or 2TB drive without breaking the bank.

Meanwhile, you can add a DVD rewritable drive for less than $20 nowadays or a Blu-Ray combo drive for about $40, which is something you could really look into.

The RAM

Unfortunately, RAM is pretty expensive nowadays. A few years back, I would recommend at least 8GB, but it’s too expensive to make such a recommendation today. I think 4GB of DDR3 RAM should be sufficient for most, unless you are planning on doing video editing and the likes extensively. RAM speed makes a difference, but not that much to be significant unless you’re overclocking. Value RAMs should work out fine for most.

The Graphics Card

This is probably the component that you’ll replace the most often if you like to play the latest games. I would suggest nothing over $200, which should put you squarely in the range of the Nvidia GeForce GTX 760 or the AMD Radeon R9 280. Such cards should be able to run all contemporary games at Full HD resolution, though you may need to tone the settings down. The reason why I wouldn’t choose anything above $200 is because you will eventually replace it soon enough anyway. In addition, expensive cards consumes lots of power and generate lots of heat, which would mean you will need a beefy Power Supply Unit (PSU) and ample cooling just to sustain it. The kicker is that in two years’ time, these expensive, power-hungry cards will be obsoleted by a new mid-range card that performs just as well, but is much cooler and more power-efficient, for just $200.

The Power Supply Unit (PSU)

The PSU is something many brand-name manufacturers skimp on, but you absolutely should not. A PSU blowing up may have disastrous consequences–it can start a fire, or, more likely, it can destroy your motherboard, CPU, and everything else with it. Get a quality PSU for a peace of mind. Firstly, ignore the wattage ratings as they could sometimes be overstated. Rather, look at the amperage under the +12V rails, which you can probably find on the manufacturer’s website. When you multiply the amperage of the +12V rail by twelve, you will get the ‘useable’ wattage of the system. Some systems have multiple +12V rails, which means each individual component should not exceed the amperage specified on a particular rail. There used to be a trend towards such PSUs nowadays, but most have reverted back to a single (or dual at most) rails.

I would suggest at least 300W on the +12V rail (25A) for a comfortable experience with a graphics card. You may want to opt for a 80+ Bronze/Silver/Gold/Platinum unit for they are more power efficient. Reputable brands include FSP and Seasonic. It is imperative that you read up reviews of the PSU beforehand as quality differs from model to model.

The Case

Last but not least, the case. I guess cases are pretty subjective–there’s no point buying one that you can’t bear to look at! Important things to note, however: make sure there are ample fan slots (front, back, and perhaps the side and top) for adequate ventilation, check the number and type of ports (e.g. USB 3.0) match your requirements, and make sure you get a case that can fit your motherboard! Ideally, I would go for an ATX case even if you have a microATX motherboard, so there’s more room to work with. Cable management may be an issue with smaller cases.

Conclusion

The above five parts are but the essentials of the hardware of a desktop. Not too many things, ain’t it? There are other components to tack on, like a monitor, keyboard and mouse, and other peripherals like a sound card you may want to add, but perhaps that’s an article for another day. For now, just remember these five items and I wish you all the best in your search!

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