Building a new PC for the holidays – cheaper!

December 5th, 2011 in .PC Components .Products
Suds McSoapdish
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So it’s the holidays, you may be spending more time at home, and there are a tonne of big new games to choose from. Or maybe someone special in your life wants/needs a new desktop PC? Time for a build, which nowadays means just putting parts together. The following build list tries to do several things:

  1. Save money. Some people have IMF-sized budgets for their new PCs, but I’m assuming that’s not the case for most, so this build is somewhat modest.
  2. Avoid compromising performance. As much as possible, that is. There’s always a stronger, faster, “better” PC out there, but there’s no end to that.
  3. Future proofing. Again, within reason. Complete future proofing is technically impossible, obviously, and there are always newer technologies and standards in the pipeline. If we always wait around for those, we’ll never get to build a new PC.
  4. Offer great performance in normal desktop computing (web browsing, office productivity, social media and so on), HD content (online streaming, optical media), and of course, run the latest games in 1920 x 1080 (mid to high settings).

Begin with the core

First, your new motherboard and CPU. For various reasons, AMD products are generally significantly lower price than their Intel counterparts, so if you’re trying to go the cheaper route they offer an excellent choice.

For your mobo, go with the ASUS M5A87. This is a bona fide AM3+ socket ATX platform, so it’s reasonably future proofed and can take the recent FX CPUs, as well as more established Athlon II and Phenom II processors. The CPU can be up to 140W in power, so that’s more than enough, and the board comes with USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/s. It supports 2-way NVIDIA SLI or AMD CrossFireX. This is great for what we need, even without getting into ASUS-specific extras like Turbo Key, MemOK! and others.

The CPU: go with a Phenom II X4 955. This is a powerful quad-core 45nm part, requiring 125W from the board. It runs at 3.2GHz, and has 2MB of L2 cache plus 6MB of L3 cache. It’s the archetypal Phenom II X4 CPU in my view, and is tremendous value for money.

Everyone wants the power

By all rights you should start with the case and the power supply when assembling a new PC, but that’s not as cool as talking about the motherboard and CPU first. Anyway, if there’s one area you really don’t want to cut corners it’s the power supply. A good PSU means a stable, reliable and long lasting PC, while a bad one can spell doom via crashes and ultimate failure. Generic power supplies are very hit and miss, so why risk it? I’m going with a Seasonic X660 for this build, a fully modular design that’s acclaimed by both users and media. I think 600+ watts are more than sufficient in our case, and Seasonic are so reliable, that won’t be an issue. If this power supply proves too costly, you can also consider similar offerings from Enermax and Silverstone, but they’ll likely cost you the same.

Case in point

The case, or chassis as many like to refer to it, is another sleeper area that’s often taken for granted. Cheapo cases use poor materials, sharp corners that really do become a hazard, awkward tooling, and bad airflow. We’re going with the Cooler Master Elite 335U, a nice mid ATX case that has everything we need, especially ample room for big graphics cards and plenty of fans. It’s made of steel so it’s not the lightest, but it’s very durable and I like the bottom position for the power supply: generally easier to install than a top-loaded PSU, I find.

Image courtesy Cooler Master

You are your memory

While it’s true 16GB of DDR3 is fast becoming the standard, and indeed RAM prices have dropped, we’re trying to reduce expenditure here and keep to realistic performance needs. So, 8GB of 1333MHz DDR3 is enough for now. Get some nice Kingston ValueRAM and you’re set.

Room for storage

Recent flooding in Thailand and around the Bangkok area in particular has caused a lot of strife, including loss of life, suffering and property damage. With many hard drive suppliers buying parts from Thai plants and/or assembling hard drives in Thailand, another effect of the flooding are higher storage prices. While recovery is ongoing, prices are quite high as of this writing, so keep that in mind.

Image courtesy Seagate

Mechanical hard drives are still much cheaper than solid state offerings. And while the speed, quietude and reliability of SSD can’t be denied, for a realistic build like this, SSD is still too much of a luxury. So we’re electing to get the Seagate Barracuda 1TB, with a 32MB cache and 7200RPM performance. It’s nice and fast, and 1TB is plenty of room.

Spin that media

Optical drives are mandatory for now if you’re a serious movie watcher, so it’s time for a Blu-ray drive. DVD simply doesn’t make the grade anymore, and a Blu-ray writer like the ASUS BW-12B1ST does everything you need for a decent price and at 12X speeds. While it’s eminently useful as a data burner, what I love most about this drive is the excellent Blu-ray playback, and also the DVD upscaling.

Graphics time

Once more, we’ll go with an AMD-derived product. The ASUS Radeon HD 6870 reference card offers amazing performance for a very nice price, and while it’s a no-frills sort of card it does get the job done. All current PC games will run in at least 30 frames in 1920 x 1080 and high settings, and since this card is fully DX11 compatible, that should remain true for the immediate future. The reference design can be hard to find now (it’s been out for over a year), so you can always go with the ASUS DirectCU version of the 6870. The Barts GPU with its 1120 stream processors has surprising horsepower, while the 256-bit memory interface (1GB GDDR5) enables zippy data handling. This is really an impressive card for the price of admission.

Put it on the screen

If you already have a monitor or TV, then you’re in luck and can save on the most expensive item in this build. However, if you don’t, get the ASUS 24T1E. A 24” LCD TV, it doubles as a monitor and hooks up to that 6870 graphics card via HDMI so you get great video and audio, all through one cable and with no external speakers needed. This TV has two HDMI ports, meaning it’ll work great with your games consoles or HD cable box. In fact, the very extensive rear I/O has every kind of connection you really need, including headphones. Sure, LCD TVs are generally less sharp than their LCD monitor relatives, but the multiple functionality is more than enough to justify the switch to TV, and I personally find the quality to be so close, any advantage a dedicated PC monitor may offer is unnoticeable.

That’s it, our build is complete. The time horizon for this PC is a minimum 12 months to first upgrade (most likely RAM or graphics card). The CPU may be fine even 18 months from now, and at any rate that motherboard should be fine with new AMD processors for the next couple of years.

Let us know what you think of this build and if you have any other ideas!

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