Build your dream PC and not get ripped off

Merry Christmas everyone!  I'm off for the week but I thought I'd bring you something special for the holidays.

Merry Christmas everyone!  I'm off for the week but I thought I'd bring you something special for the holidays.  One of the more common questions I get from friends and readers is "what kind of PC should I get".  My personal preference has always been to build my own PC.  If building a PC is not your cup of tea, I still recommend a custom PC where you select the parts and pay someone a small fee to assemble it because you still get a much better PC for your money.  If you don't know what parts to select, that's where this article comes in handy where I tell you what parts to pick and why I picked them.  Note that I didn't include the monitor, keyboard, and mouse in the configurations because those are very personalized items but I will cover it at the end of the article.

I'll go over three powerful entertainment/game/work computers in the $1000 to $2600 price range that match the performance of PCs in the $3000 to $10000 range without the fancy paint and brand-name plate.  So even if you need to pay someone $100 to assemble and install the software to your liking, you're still going to come out way ahead.  I'm not exaggerating about the $10000 range since they're usually a massive rip-off that utilize expensive components like SLI and high RPM hard drives that don't actually deliver any improved performance. 

The first configuration is for the budget conscious PC enthusiast.  It is the "thousand dollar PC" that most people can afford.  You can actually pay more than $1000 for a piece of junk retail PC with a worthless embedded graphics chip and a slower CPU but why should you waste your money?  Even if you don't intend to build this yourself, pay a local store to assemble the parts for you or ask a techno-savvy teen in the family to do it for you for less money.

Budget conscious enthusiast $1K PC

PartPrice*
Biostar TForce965PT$111
Intel C2D E6600 2.4$310
2x512 GB DDR2 800 MHz$105
Sapphire ATI X1900$141
Arctic Accelero X2 cooler$27
400 GB Seagate SATA 3.0$121
SeaSonic S12 330 Watt PS$61
Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW$76
SoundBlaster Audigy SB0570$28
NEC 18x DVD burner$35
Sub total$1015

*Prices include shipping cost but not sales taxes if applicable.

Motherboard selection:
The reason I pick the Biostar motherboard is because it has very good overclocking potential at a very low price.  Ironically, it performs better than most motherboards at a much lower price.  I also don't subscribe to the idea that a more expensive motherboard is a more reliable motherboard because my experience (and I've dealt with everything under the sun) tells me there is no correlation between the price of a motherboard and the performance or reliability of a motherboard.  If anything, the more expensive motherboards often seem to be more complex with more components to break.  Things like dual gigabit and Wi-Fi capability don't really appeal to me on a desktop motherboard but everyone has their own preferences.  You can always add IEEE 1394 Firewire in a $10 PCI adapter if you need it.  As for a "future proof" motherboard, do yourself a favor and strike the words "future proof" from your PC vocabulary.  Nothing is future proof beyond 12 months in the PC business and anyone who tells you otherwise is fooling themselves.  So long as the Motherboard has the characteristics and features at a reasonable price, it is basically a cheap accessory that houses your expensive CPU.  I have never seen a situation where it makes sense to throw away a CPU to upgrade a CPU using an old motherboard after 6, 12, or 18+ months.

CPU selection:
At this point in time, there is no better value CPU than the Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 CPU PERIOD.  At stock 2.4 GHz it can annihilate any dual core AMD CPU at any price and even the top of the line $1000 AMD FX-62 is trounced in most application/game benchmarks.  But since it can overclock 50% higher (with voltage adjustments and adequate cooling), it makes an already impressive CPU operate at insane speeds untouchable by AMD.  AMD's current Athlon 64 products not only perform slower at stock speeds, it doesn't really have much room to overclock.  At $310 street price, I cannot recommend any other CPU in this PC price range or above.  Since we're using the stock Intel CPU air cooler, we probably won't go past 3.3 GHz even if we crank the CPU voltage up and 3.1 to 3.2 GHz will be the more realistic overclock.  The Intel stock Core 2 cooler is actually one of the best air coolers at any price and it has dynamic temperature-based RPM control which allows it to operate in near silence under most workloads.

Memory selection:
For this price range, the sweet spot is 1 GB of RAM which is perfectly sufficient for most applications, games, and Vista.  There are people who say that Vista must have 2 GBs to operate but I find that advice to be false since I operate just fine at 1 GB.  The Core 2 Duo specifies two (because of dual channel) DDR2 533 MHz RAM but I selected DDR2 800 MHz memory to because it doesn't cost that much more and it gives us room to overclock the FSB (front side bus).  Cranking the FSB to 400 MHz makes the memory operate at 800 MHz giving us a dual channel speed of 1.6 GHz for the memory.  FSB 400 also gives us the potential to crank the Core 2 Duo E6600 CPU to 3.6 GHz.

Video card selection:
The video card is every bit as important as the CPU when it comes to gaming performance.  While an overclocked Intel E6600 operating at 3+ GHz can use the fastest video card you can buy, we can't do that with a $1000 PC budget.  So for this price range, the biggest bang for the buck is the ATI X1900GT PCI Express graphics adapter.  But to squeeze every bit of performance out of the X1900GT, you will want the after-market Arctic Accelero X2 cooler.  The X2 cooler provides superb cooling in nearly silent operation that is worth every 2000 pennies.  The fact that it uses a native ATI connector means it will plug in to the X1900 without using an extra power connector and have dynamic software-controllable temperature-based fan speeds.  Anyone who owns an X1800, X1900, or X1950 would do well to get this after-market cooler.

Hard drive selection:
The 400 GB Seagate SATA 3.0 drive with command tag queuing is one of the better values for the money in terms of dollars per gigabyte and performance.  Don't buy in to the high RPM hard drive myth and keep it simple.  If you have a little more money to spend, you can always get two of these drives which doubles your performance (for two read/write jobs) and doubles your capacity.

Power supply and case:
The case is a very personal item so this is one of those things you might want to replace based on your own preferences on how a PC should look.  The reason I picked the Cooler Master CAV-T03 (silver or black) is because of its rock solid aluminum construction, lack of finger-slicing sharp edges, reasonable price, and simple elegant looks.  The 330 watt SeaSonic S12 power supply with Active Power Factor Correction is one of my favorite power supplies because of its silence and efficiency.  The power supply is one of the most misunderstood components in a PC and people are always arguing with me that 330 watts is not enough.  The reason the high-wattage power supply myth exists is that people think more must be better when in reality you're just wasting money and electricity.  Most dual-core Core 2 system will barely peak out at 200 watts under the most extreme loads and we have plenty of room to expand with a 330 watt power supply.  Adding 5 more hard drives for example will merely add 50 more watts load to the system.  Smaller power supplies almost always use less power to operate the exact same components compared to larger power supplies and they cost less money.

Sound card selection:
Even though every motherboard sold in the last couple of years have included onboard sound, I can't stand them because of their inferior sound quality even on the more expensive motherboards.  I picked the SoundBlaster Audigy SB0570 7.1 channel because of its superb sound quality at a very attractive price of around $20.  Furthermore, almost every game on the market supports Creative Labs EAX audio processing feature which offers enhanced audio effects at minimal CPU cost.  It also has a nice software suite that comes with it with features like voice-removal Karaoke.

DVD burner:
Since you have to have a CD/DVD drive with any PC you build, you might as well get a DVD burner.  I selected the NEC 18x DVD burner because it's cheap and fast though I'm perfectly fine with any 16x or 18x DVD burner in this price range.  If you have a little more money, throw two burners in the system but make sure you use a separate PATA port or else you won't be able to use both drives at the same time at maximum speed. [continue ...]

 

High-end and ULTIMATE Enthusiast PC

With a moderately better budget, we'll move in to the high-end and extreme space with beefed up CPUs, graphics, and storage but stay in the $2600 or less price range.  I'll only talk about the changes in the system from the previous page.

High-end Enthusiast PC

PartPrice*
MSI P965 Platinum$141
Intel C2D E6600 2.4$310
Two 2x512 GB DDR2 800 MHz$210
eVGA GeForce 8800 GTS$436
R120 liquid CPU cooler$69
Two 400 GB Seagate SATA 3.0$242
SeaSonic S12 380 Watt PS$85
Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW$76
SoundBlaster Audigy SB0570$28
NEC 18x DVD burner$35
Sub total$1632

Motherboard change:
For the high-end PC, we'll go with a premium motherboard with a few extra features and top-rated overclocking performance with the MSI P965 Platinum motherboard.  People may want to consider this motherboard for the budget-conscious system because of the extra features like IEEE 1394 Firewire ports and 7 SATA ports versus the 4 on the Biostar motherboard.

RAM boost:
The RAM was simply doubled from the previous configuration to 2 GBs.  No other changes were made.

CPU cooler change:
The Cooler Master R120 liquid CPU cooler is an entry-level water cooler that is ideal for people who want the benefits of water cooling without the hassles of cutting tubes and sealing leaks.  It is a self-contained pre-sealed solution that can be considered liquid cooling for sissies.  The 120 mm fan and the liquid radiator allows it to cool the CPU at extremely low RPMs while drawing heat out of the chassis at the same time.  This means fewer overall moving parts and less noise on the PC.  Even at lower RPMs, the R120 cools better than the most expensive air coolers operating at the loudest and fastest RPMs and should be considered by anyone who wants a silent PC that also happens to overclock extremely well.  By jacking up the CPU voltage on the Motherboard, the R120 should be able to push a Core 2 Duo E6600 2.4 GHz CPU up to 3.6 GHz while maintaining a reasonable noise level.  While it's not the most powerful liquid cooler on the market, it is the simplest way to get water cooling and it is superior in performance to any air cooler.  With a price that rivals air coolers, it is the ideal CPU/Chassis cooler.  Note that some motherboards may force you to mount the 120 mm fan on the outside of the case while the radiator sits on the inside of the case (my friend Erik found out while building his PC).

Video card change:
The video card has been changed to the second fastest video card on the planet; the NVIDIA 8800 GTS.  NVIDIA pulled off a massive leap with the 8800 product line that obsoletes any previous products (even dual SLI solutions) from NVIDIA or ATI.  At this point, nothing can touch the 8800 GTS except the NVIDIA 8800 GTX.  With this kind of video card, you'll be able to use massive 30" LCD monitors with ultra-high resolution.  Note that the Accelero X2 cooler no longer applies to this NVIDIA product.

Added an extra hard drive:
The easiest way to improve a PC's storage is to get a second hard drive.  Do NOT use RAID mirroring or striping since that's a waste of an extra spindle.  Having two independent hard drives allow you to perform two independent read or write operations at once without any performance impact per operation.  RAID striping can't touch the dual-operation performance levels of two independent drives.  RAID mirroring is often confused for backup when it shouldn't.  RAID mirrors provide up-time guarantees that are irrelevant to non-server applications and it should never be confused with backup.  Backup is something that the host computer ordinarily doesn't have access to and RAID mirroring doesn't qualify.  If any human errors or malicious software damages the data, a RAID mirror doesn't help you.

Power supply upgrade:
While the 330 watt power supply is perfectly sufficient for this high-end PC, I opted to go for the 380 watt power supply to maintain the same kind of expansion margin.

Now it's time for our ULTIMATE $2600 PC that can beat any $10000 PC from 6 months ago and match most modern $10000 PCs without the fancy paint jobs and the name-brand logo.  This system is not that much different from our high-end system, but it does use a faster CPU and the fastest consumer video card on the planet.  With this PC, you're ready to smoke any system on the market short of a quad core PC.

ULTIMATE Enthusiast PC

PartPrice*
MSI P965 Platinum$141
Intel C2D QX6700 2.66 GHz quad-core CPU$1130
Two 2x512 GB DDR2 800 MHz$210
BFG GeForce 8800 GTX$597
R120 liquid CPU cooler$69
Two 400 GB Seagate SATA 3.0$242
SeaSonic S12 430 Watt PS$98
Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW$76
SoundBlaster Audigy SB0570$28
NEC 18x DVD burner$35
Sub total$2626

CPU change:
This system uses the quad core Intel Core 2 Duo QX6700 2.66 GHz quad-core CPU which is the fastest single socket CPU on the planet!  With the R120 liquid CPU cooler, we're hoping for a 3.8 GHz overclock with a jacked up CPU voltage and a 400 MHz FSB.  The Intel QX6700 managed to smash AMD's newest Quad FX system on nearly every single test without requiring you to buy a $500 motherboard and a $200 800 watt power supply.

Power supply upgrade:
While a 380 watt power supply is sufficient for this extreme PC, I opted to go for the 430 watt power supply for expandability.  That allows you to load more hard drives and DVD burners.

Video card change:
The video card has been changed to the  fasted consumer video card on the planet; the NVIDIA 8800 GTX.  This video card is such a monster that it requires two power connectors in addition to the power it draws from the PCI Express slot.  While that may seem excessive in terms of power draw and heat, it's not nearly as bad as two older video cards in SLI configuration.  While the price seems excessive, it's half of the price of SLI solutions from six months ago yet it delivers the fastest game scores of any consumer grade video card. [continue ...]

Peripherals for your dream PC

Display monitors:
For the person buying the budget $1000 PC, they'll want to consider the cheap 19" LCDs that sell for $200.  For the high-end system, 22" LCDs have become the biggest bang for the buck at around $400.  For the ultimate gaming and entertainment PC, consider the Dell 24" or 30" LCD at around $750 and $1300.  Just make sure you use the DVI port (that would be the wider port) and cable, not the old DB-15 analog port.

Precision Mice:
You can't be a gamer, graphics design artist, or PC enthusiast without a precision laser mouse.  This is where something like the $60 2000 dpi Razer Copperhead Laser mouse comes in.  Also don't even think about using any old mouse pad.  Try one of these $30 precision mouse pads.  Don't even think about using a wireless mouse if you're a serious gamer since they don't react as quickly and they're a lot heavier than a wired mouse.

Sound system:
Any game and entertainment system should have some kind of 5.1 surround sound speaker system.  For the budget conscious, you can try these sub-$100 Logitech 5.1 speakers.  For those who can afford a $300 THX certified 5.1 speaker system, try the Logitech Z5500.  I personally have an older model Logitech THX 5.1 speaker system and I'm pretty happy with the sound I get from them and I would even consider them for a cheap living room system.  THX certified speakers usually cost a lot more than $300.

Keyboards:
Keyboards are a little trickier to pick since there is such a variety in models and price.  I personally prefer something simple and relatively inexpensive and the only thing that matters to me is accurate speed typing and speed maneuvering in games with a solid tactile feedback.  I actually prefer the old-school Focus 2001 keyboard from the 90s for rapid typing but they're hard to find and you may need to use an old AT to PS2 keyboard adapter to make it work.  Colleague and friend Justin James actually got himself the exotic $300 Kinesis Advantage keyboard based on my recommendation for something to help with his wrist pains which forces you to type symmetrically using all of your fingers.  But for the health of your fingers and hands (especially if you make your living on the computer), $300 is a small price to pay.  But for most ordinary tasks, I use the simple $30 Logitech Media Keyboard Elite.

Operating system license:
A real cheap way to get the Vista Premium license is to buy Windows MCE (Media Center Edition) 2005 OEM edition for $110 and get a free ($20 shipping) coupon for Windows Vista Premium edition.  This way you get a licensed OEM copy of both operating systems.  According to colleague Ed Bott, anyone who assembles their own hardware qualifies for the OEM license so it's perfectly legal to buy OEM software at half price whenever you build your own PC.