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Anyone here ever built their own computer and have some advice to offer? I'm fed up with my HP laptop, and really, Dell has been no better. Although I have an iPhone, I'm not about to shell out the money Apple seems to think their computers are worth.

Starting early next year, I want to build a quad-core machine with some awesome graphics capabilities. The hope is to have a machine that won't be truly obsolete for 4-5 years.

I've shopped around newegg.com and tigerdirect.com for some parts, but what I've found is that I'm a bit more over my head than I expected. They sell "kits", but to me, if I was just going to buy a boxed kit, I'd just buy something from one of the big manufacturers. I want this to conform to my needs, not what someone else thinks I need.

I'd also like to possibly begin this as a hobby and maybe build computers occasionally for family and friends. Am I nuts for wanting to start off building a high-end machine for my first time and not using a kit? Also, does anyone have any advice on what to look for with specific parts? I've ascertained that I need to buy the motherboard and processor at the same time and probably the memory too, but that's about as good as I've gotten. I know little to nothing about cooling systems, power supplies, boxes, video cards, sound cards, etc. I think I can figure out a hard drive and CD drive setup.
 

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If you have an IM program you use, I could help you out there. It's really hard to put this sort of stuff into a forum post or two. I'd be glad to help you though.
 

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It's not that hard but there is a lot to know. I built a quad-core computer from scratch without a kit; I ordered all of the parts separately for the best prices I could find on the web. The best places (IMO) to shop for computer components are: Amazon, Ebay, and NewEgg.

MOTHERBOARD

FIRST decide what kind of processor and RAM you want to install and then find a decent mobo that supports it. The very first thing to look for is a decent but affordable mobo. I bought this mobo (ASUS P5Q Pro Turbo) off of Ebay used. And the guy who sold it to me barely used it at all. It looked brand new and for about $70.

PROCESSOR & RAM

I had already decided that I was going to go with an Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 @2.83 GHz before I purchased the mobo. I also went with two Corsair DDR2 RAM sticks for a total of 4 GB RAM @800 MHz. Which (IMO) is good enough for playing most PC games. You will pay the most money for a decent processor than any other component of your PC. I think the Q9550 cost me $300 on the mark brand new.

GRAPHICS / VIDEO CARD(S)

I wanted to build a standard gaming rig, so I needed an above average video card. I went with a GeForce GTX 460. Don't buy anything lower than that and don't waste your time with ATI cards as they do not support Psyx and the GeForce cards have better performance overall. A new 460 will cost you about $140. If you've got your eye on a video card, use this chart to see where it ranks in comparison to the GTX 460:



SOUND CARD

Whatever. Not that important.

HARD DRIVE(S)

I wanted a fast HDD with a decent amount of space for a relatively low price. When shopping around for an HDD, you want to buy a SATA HDD and not an IDE HDD. SATA HDDs are easier to hook up to a mobo and the wiring takes up almost no space at all. Also make sure it's rpm is at least 7200. I went with a used Seagate 750 GB HDD @ 7200 rpm for $40 off of Ebay.

POWER SUPPLY UNIT (PSU)

Again, if you're building a gaming rig, then you want to make sure every component is getting enough juice from your PSU, and you don't want your PSU crapping out while you're playing a high-end game. You shouldn't purchase a PSU that has less than 750 watts (IMO). I went with a used Corsair TX 750 watt PSU for about $80 and I've been using it for over 2.5 years now.

DVD / BD PLAYER

Whatever.

COMPUTER CASE

Whatever looks good to you. Just make sure it's well ventilated and big enough to hold everything.

HEATSINK & THERMAL PASTE

I didn't want to shell out a bunch of cash for one, so I went with an Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro Rev. 2 for about $30 I believe. Idle temps for all four cores are around 35°C. And peak at around 70°C while gaming. There are much better coolers out there. As for thermal paste, you want to go with either Arctic Silver 5 (pretty much the standard) or OCZ Freeze Extreme Thermal Compound which is a good deal better than Arctic Silver 5. It will drop your temps about a good 10-12°C more.
 

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The problem is, Bulldozer's release should be coming around soon. There's still a quarter of a year to go until his build, so looking at specific parts right now isn't going to be useful when it can change quite drastically in the near future. Also, new GPU series might be coming soon as well since it's been quite a while since the GTX5** series and HD6*** series were released. (Kepler is 2011 on NVIDIA's keynote slide)



I wouldn't go with eBay for computer parts though, the lack of warranty is the main reason why. If you don't mind the lack of warranty, you might be able to find older parts there for cheap. Newegg is your best bet in my opinion, I've never liked Tiger Direct due to prices. (I don't know about the states, but they're consistently the highest priced store for everything I search for price matching)
 

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Just buy the bits separately on the cheap, and Google/Youtube is your friend for tutorials on building. I built my first PC a decade ago, and it was much easier than I expected... it's even easier now. Just read-up online for a week and then free up a whole weekend to slowly do it step by step.

It only gets a bit difficult/frustrating when something won't work at start-up. Learn what different PC speaker beeps mean etc so you can diagnose. Some video cards don't like certain motherboards etc, even if they're technically compatible. Research all your components before buying. It's a fun venture and you'll learn a lot.
 

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Toms Hardware has articles on how to build your computer and the price ranges for specific parts to meet your needs. They also know that the parts will be compatible with each other. As for the building process, you can either build it yourself using Internet guides, or take it to a PC tech and they'll build it for you for about 100-150 dollars. Don't take it to Best Buy, they charge about $300.

http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/overclock-cpu-ssd,3027.html

This is a good place to start off, the computer in that article is considered mid-range, about $1000-1200. It'll run all of the current games today.
 

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So I tried writing a guide here, spent about 20 minutes on it, then realised Gunny was right, and the best way to do it would be over an IM program.

HOWEVER, in order to out do gunny, I'm gonna copy a few guide from the somethingawful forums.
 

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THE GENERAL SYSTEM FAQ (OR, THE QUESTIONS YOU'RE GOING TO ASK SO READ THIS)
Updated 9/23/2011

Question List (scroll down for answers)
1. Are prebuilt systems any good?
2. What's the best way to future-proof my system?
3. How many cores should I get?
4. Intel or AMD?
5. What socket types are there?
6. What's up with Intel's different chips/board models?
7. ATI or Nvidia?
8. What brand video card should I buy?
9. Should I crossfire/SLI?
10. Can I use a 2.0 PCIe card in a 1.0 PCIe slot?
11. How much RAM do I need?
12. How much wattage does my PSU need?
13. What kind of motherboard should I get?
14. Do I need a sound card?
15. Do I need aftermarket cooling?
16. Should I get 10k/15k rpm hard drives?
17. Should I get a Solid State Drive?
18. Is Win 7 worth upgrading to?

1. Q: Are there any good prebuilt systems?

A: If you'll only be doing things like Office apps and Internet browsing, prebuilt systems can offer a price advantage. The more powerful you want your system, the more advantageous it becomes to build your own - it's very hard to find a pre-built "gaming" computer with good parts at a good price.
If you buy prebuilt, stay with big name companies like Dell, HP, etc. Smaller vendors will cut corners on important hardware, overcharge you for the parts they install, or both.
The Dell Outlet has particularly great deals on lower-end hardware.

2. Q: What's the best way to future-proof my system/make it run top end games for 5 years?

A: YOU CANNOT FUTURE-PROOF. Buy parts with the best price-to-performance value for your money now, and save the rest. Anything you buy today will be outclassed by what's available in 2-3 years, regardless of if you spent $1000 or $4000.

For example, if someone tried to future-proof a gaming system three years ago, they would have gotten an Core 2 Quad 9400, dual 9800GTXs, Raptor hard drives, and paid ~$3000 for all of it. Today, it would creamed by a $1000 system picked from this guide.

A $1000 system (excluding monitor/OS), is fully capable of running current games at full settings at 1900x1200. If your system costs more than that, you're probably overspending somewhere.

3. Q: Dual-core, Quad-core, or higher?

A: 4 core chips are what most people need. Anything higher than 4 cores (like the i7s, or Phenom II X6) add ZERO performance in gaming/general desktop work - these chips are only beneficial in heavy multimedia or scientific applications. Dual core chips should be reserved for basic computing tasks like office apps/Internet browsing/HTPC usage.

4. Q: AMD or Intel?

A: Intel once again has the "best performance/value" slot with the i5 2500K, while AMD's Athlon/Phenom IIs offers great performance for those on a budget. We have zero brand loyalty here, we buy best bang for the buck.

5. Q: Oh god I don't understand all these motherboard sockets/chips help!

A: Here's a list of current motherboard socket types. Any new system you build should use one of these:

  • AM3/AM3+: Works with all AMD AM3 chips, some boards claim compatibility with AM3+ chips. Uses dual channel DDR3 Ram.
  • LGA1155: Works with the i3/i5/i7 2XXX chips. User dual channel DDR3 Ram. Intel's current gen tech.

6. Oh god I don't understand all these different Intel chips/boards help!

A: I don't blame you, Intel's current artificial market segmentation sucks. Here's a brief overview:


*Z68 supports IG but some board models do not include it.

For most users this boils down to:
Want to overclock? K chip with P67 board.
Don't want to overclock? Non-K with H67 board.
Want integrated graphics? Non-K with H67 board.

7. Q: ATI or Nvidia Video Cards?

A: Both companies currently have great products with competitive prices. Which brand is largely a matter of minor preferences and best price/performance ratio.

8. Q: What brand should I buy once I've decided on a video card?

A: Specific models of video card (Geforce GTX460, Radeon 6850, etc) are usually functionally identical no matter the brand. There are two major factors when deciding. Price, which is easy to see, and warranty, which can vary from 1 year to lifetime replacement depending on brand. Other differences which are not as important include type of cooling, factory overclocking, and bundled games.

9. Q: Should I SLI/Crossfire?

A: Generally no. SLI gains are impressive, but very few people need the performance increase compared to a single high end card. A single ~$200 card will handle everything at 1900x1200 and below. Dual card solutions not only include the cost of two cards, but also adding in a SLI/Crossfire enabled board, a bigger PSU, and sometimes additional cooling.

SLI is good for is people who game at extremely high settings like 2560x1600, multimonitor gaming, or gaming in 3D. SLI can be a good upgrade, but usually only when you haven't planned your current build correctly.

10. Q: Can I use a PCIe 2.0 video card in a PCIe 1.0 slot or vice versa? What about PCIe 2.1?

A: PCIe versions are all fully compatible in all "directions", and any combination of versions work without performance loss.

11. Q: How much RAM do I need? What speed? What timings?

A: 4 Gigs is fine for gaming/typical desktop use, but with RAM so cheap 8 Gigs is the current sweet spot. DDR1333 is fine for most people, and you won't notice any difference with faster speeds/timings. DDR31600 can give a small speed boost (~2%) for people doing video encoding work.

12. Q: How much wattage does my PSU need?

A: Wattage is not the most important choice when buying a PSU. The power supply is the only part of your system that can destroy everything else in your computer, so you want to buy a well-constructed unit from a reliable brand. We recommend Corsair (non-Builder Series), Seasonic, Antec (Earthwatt series), and XFX PSUs - all of these companies build quality units. Other brands may cut corners or give deceptive wattage/amperage ratings, and saving a few dollars on cheaper units isn't worth the risk of blowing up your system.
(Note that there are other companies that build good PSUs but it's impossible to give a comprehensive list.)

A general wattage guideline:

- Onboard video/no PCIe power plug on the video card: 300w
- 1 PCIe power plug on the card: 400w
- 2 PCIe power plugs on card: 500w

13. Q: What model/size motherboard should I get?

A: Buy motherboards based on the features you will use. If you don't need RAID/multiple PCI slots/firewire/etc, then don't pay extra for them. MicroATX boards are also now as full-featured as full ATX boards and there's no reason to avoid them.

The Quick Pick boards are solid board with enough features for most users. You shouldn't spend more than what those boards cost unless you have a unique need.

14. Q: What sound card should I buy? Should I use my old one?

A: Onboard sound is now very good, and you'll be perfectly happy with it. Discrete audio cards are reserved for people doing audio production work, or high end audio setups.

15. Q: Do I need aftermarket cooling (ie heatsinks, watercoolers, VGA coolers, hard drive fans)?

A: Stock cooling is fine, and can even handle mild overclocking. Aftermarket cooling is mainly for high-end O/C (ie getting 4Ghz out of a 3Ghz chip), or noise reduction. If you're reading this guide forget about watercooling entirely.

16. Q: Should I go with Velociraptor/15K/10K RPM Hard Drives for maximum speed?

A: No. 15k/10k drives don't benefit gaming/desktop usage patterns and cost far more. If you want faster than a 7200 drive look as SSDs instead.

17. Q: Should I go with Solid State Drives (SSD) for maximum speed?

A: SSDs do offer great performance increases for disk-bottlenecked tasks like booting Windows and loading large amounts of data (game levels, large photo collections, etc). BUT, your money should go to cpu/ram/video card first, and finally a SSD should your budget be able to include it.

Note that there is no reason to pay extra for SATA III/6Gb drives - you will never notice the difference.

Example:
Let's say a program takes 10 seconds to load on a HDD. 2 seconds of that is cpu-bound and won't change. A SATA II SSD is 25 times faster than the HDD, so now the program loads in 2.3 seconds. The "superfast" SATA III SSD is 100 times faster than that HDD, so it loads in 2.1 seconds. Will you notice (or want to pay for) that 1/5th of a second difference?

There are two "avoids" in SSDs right now. Any OCZ drive, and other drives using the Sandforce 2281 controller. What controller isn't always easy to find, so if in doubt, the Quick Pick list has SSDs that have alternate controllers.

18. Is Windows 7 worth upgrading to? 32 or 64 bit?

You should absolutely buy Win 7 64bit. Windows 7 is more secure, has better driver support, and runs better than XP on new hardware. Compatibility is not an issue unless you're running incredibly old peripherals. And a 64 bit install allows you to use more than 3G of ram, which is a hard cap on 32-bit installations of Windows.

Additionally, it may be cheaper than you think - check the parts picking guide on links to Microsoft's student discount site. These are "upgrade editions" but it's easy to do a full install with only an upgrade copy.
 

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Quick Picks
Updated 10/6/2011

THIS IS NOT A COMPLETE LIST, NOR IS IT MEANT TO BE.
Everyone's needs in a computer are different. The parts below are a list of the "best values" for the average user who is gaming/doing general desktop work. This list should be a starting point in your research, not a definitive guide to what you should get. Changes, corrections, additions, and comments are always welcome.

Intel CPU


AMD CPU
NOTE: All three chips are very close in performance, you should not be paying more than $20 more than the current price of the X4 640 when choosing a chip.


HTPC CPU


Intel Motherboard


AMD Motherboard


HTPC Motherboard


Memory


Graphics


Hard Drive

Solid State Drives


Optical

Cases

 

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Quick Picks Cont.

Power Supplies

Notes:

  • Because of the massive disparity between Corsair's Builder Series power ratings and their actual 12V+ output, if you are looking at a Builder Series power supply other than the one on this list buy one tier up or not at all. They are not rated accurately, unlike the old Corsair power supplies, and are of lower quality.
  • The Earthwatts 430D and 500D don't use top-mounted 120mm fans like most other power supplies, so if you are relying on the power supply fan to dump hot air out of the back of your case (like a graphics card without a blower design) you might want to try something else.
Picks:

Aftermarket Cooling


TV Tuners

  • Hauppague HVR-2250 PCIe dual tuner supporting NTSC/ATSC/ClearQAM
  • Ceton InfiniTV 4 PCIe Encrypted CAM 4 channel tuner (only tuner available right now that you can use cablecard with)

Operating System


HTPC Prebuilt


LCDs
In general, most LCDs will be fine for the average user, and price is the biggest driver. You can also check the SA Monitor Megathread for thoughts and suggestions.

The Intel "Sweet Spot Gaming/Performance" System
-Intel i5 2500K
-Asus P8P67 (P67 ATX)
-8 Gigs of DDR3
-560Ti or 6950

The AMD "Sweet Spot Gaming/Value" System
-Phenom II X4 840
-MSI 970A-G45
-8 Gigs of DDR3
-Nvidia GTX 460 1G or Radeon 6850

Recommended Vendor List
In the U.S.:
NewEgg,Amazon

Canada:
NCIX,Canada Computers, DirectCanada

Europe:
SCAN Computers, Aria

Japan
Tsukumo, Twotop

Feel free to post about other reputable vendors in your region.
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
You guys are awesome. So much appreciated. Definitely gives me plenty to get started with.

I do have IM programs, but I haven't signed on in ages. If that changes, I'll let you know. I really do appreciate it though.

As far as use, I do some gaming. I honestly got hacked off at my HP laptop when I couldn't run Civilization V due to video card limitations. 4-5 years ago, this was a top-of-the-line machine. Even still, the only spec that it didn't hit for that game was the video card. Ultimately, I'd like to run an entire in-home entertainment hub from it...using it to power media content for my televisions, Xbox, phone, etc, while providing some gaming capabilities and supporting work functionality.
 

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The main problem right now is the time frame that it's going to be done. If it was going to be purchased this week it would be quite simple to recommend a build to suit his needs. However, with Bulldozer hopefully coming out before his build, there's going to be new stuff come 2012. With that said, TSMC's 28nm process for GPUs is said to only really start late 2011, so I doubt the new NVIDIA series of GPUs will be out to retail until a couple months into 2012. (I don't know anything about what's going on with GlobalFoundries and AMD)

And after all that, a question came to mind. What are you looking to spend here?
 

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maximumpc.com also sometimes has build articles, for some budgets. they had written a few for 600$, 800$ and 1k+ builds - might be worth looking into if you have not decided an anything yet.

not hoping to advertise too much, but MAXPc's forums are a good place to look, as well. everyday, someone wants to build a new computer, and looking around there might give some neat ideas..

i only mention it because i was hanging around there for a long time before this forum.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
I really appreciate all of the responses here. As far as budget goes, I'd like to stay around $1000 for all of the hardware components. That's not including a monitor as I already have a great one. I simply need to build a beast. I'll actually probably have around $2000 to spend and could come up with more here and there, but would love to stay below as I'll have to buy an operating system too (not comfortable going with Linux or anything open-source). The $1000 does not have to include an operating system, however.

So what is Bulldozer exactly? Is this something with the video card?
 

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Bulldozer is AMD's new line of processors which is supposed to surpass Intel's current Sandy Bridge (Core i7 2600k) performance crown, at about the same (or lower) price point. What it means is either you go Bulldozer, or Intel drops prices enough to compete with Bulldozer and nets you a cheaper and/or better performing computer. This is all assuming it comes out anytime soon though, it's been referred to as the "Duke Nukem Forever" of the CPU world.

If bulldozer does what AMD says it's going to do, it will net you a much cheaper computer mainly due to the motherboard. AMD motherboard prices for higher end stuff is usually much cheaper in relation to Intel. I got a 990X chipset board for $125 which is Bulldozer ready, so all I'd need to do is buy a $300ish chip and I'd have one of the fastest CPUs around.

As for $1000, I don't think you'll get quite what you want. I think if you extended that to about $1200-1300 you could do pretty well for yourself. It's up to you though, I can give you a quick build when it comes down to the time of you buying it, show you the different options?
 

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I have not built one but I've been thinking about it. I was considering upgrading what I have but my version of Vista will not transfer to a new system (it cam with the PC, IOW).

I wouldn't say you're crazy but if you want a gaming system that isn't going to be obsolete in a year you're going to spend a lot of money.

One thing I would definitely recommend from a layman's POV is that you want a MB with a great BIOS menu with just about every conceivable setting and really good instructions for it all. There's nothing more frustrating than a crappy BIOS when you want to do something that's even the slightest bit unorthodox.

As far as that goes, don't skimp on the MB. Period. That's probably going to be the part you're going to keep the longest if you're going to build a system and upgrade/replace parts periodically. Along with the CPU, the MB is the heart of the system.

It also pays to put some thought into the case and especially cooling. As heat is a major enemy, you really can't go wrong with extra fans as long as they don't add too much noise (but you can always upgrade them to fans designed to be quieter).

You probably won't regret maximum expandability if you're planning on keeping this thing for a minimum of five years. Extra hard drive bays may not seem like a necessity right away but they're nice to have.

One final thing. If I was going to spend some major cash on a new computer, I'd definitely look into a quality surge protector/UPS. Who wants to have their brand new pride and joy fried in a storm or something?
 
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