If you’re thinking about building a new desktop PC, there are plenty of important things to consider. Should you go with an Intel or AMD CPU? Are integrated graphics enough, or do you need a dedicated graphics card? What about picking a hard drive over an SSD? However, if your budget’s tight, you certainly can’t opt for the best of everything.
By making smart and cautious decisions, you can wind up with a surprisingly capable system without spending more than you need to. We already touched on the money-saving idea of scrounging parts from an old PC. Here, we’ll guide you through some basic things you should keep in mind when choosing your components. These tips should serve you well, whether you’re building a $300 budget PC, or a multi-kilobuck gaming powerhouse.
Don’t overpay for your motherboard
High-end motherboards are decked out with flashy heat-sinks, and a slew of slots, connectors, and pin headers than you’ll probably never use. Most of the highest-priced boards are built for extreme overclockers anyway. These mobos are loaded up with a multitude of features that aren’t worth deciphering, unless you’re a hardcore DIY-er.
Unless you’re building a high-end, high-priced system, you can usually get a motherboard with a sufficient amount of features for under $150. Some things you probably want in your motherboard include USB 3.0 ports, SATA III (6GBps) ports, at least one PCI-Express x16 slot (in case you want to drop in a graphics card for gaming), Ethernet, and perhaps built-in Wi-Fi.
Don’t get a more powerful processor than you need
For basic computing tasks, even a modern, budget-priced processor is fast enough. Unless you’re frequently doing CPU-intensive tasks, like editing or trans-coding video, or some other kind of serious media creation projects, even an Intel Core i3 processor is plenty powerful enough. Keep in mind; desktop CPUs are generally much more powerful than their similarly named laptop counterparts.
If you’re a gamer, the money you’d save by getting a lesser CPU is much better spent on a graphics card. In general, you can skip the Core i7s, and opt for a Core i5 (or a decent AMD FX chip). Anything more than that isn’t really going to improve your gaming experience in any appreciable way, unless you’re also opting for a very powerful graphics card, like AMD’s $1,500 Radeon R9 295X2.
Unless your budget is very tight, get an SSD
Mechanical hard drives are cheap and spacious, but solid-state drives (SSDs) are very, very fast. From sub-10-second boot times (in Windows 8, anyway) to near-instant program loads, an SSD can make a PC feel speedy like nothing else.
I’ll put it this way. For everyday computing and productivity tasks, I’d much rather use a system with a good SSD and a Core i3 processor than a PC with a mechanical hard drive and a high-end Core i7 CPU. An SSD makes that big of a difference.
Though SSDs are certainly more expensive than hard drives, they have never been cheaper than they are today. For instance, you can pick up an SSD with 120GB of storage for under $80, or a drive with twice that space for about $150. Of course, if you have a large media library, that may not be enough to store your stuff, and you probably don’t want to spend around $500 for a 1TB SSD.
But that’s the beauty of rocking an upgrade-able desktop. There’s almost always room for at least a few drives. So, you can grab both an $80 SSD and, say, a $60 1TB hard drive now, or buy one drive now and pick up a second drive later when you can afford and/or need it.
Either way, you should start with the SSD. You’ll want to install your operating system and most of your programs on it too. Once you see how fast your new system is, you’ll thank us.
Don’t buy more (or faster) RAM than you need
RAM prices can fluctuate quite a bit. As of this writing, they’re fairly high, making the 4GB I’d generally recommend to be a bit of an investment, starting at about $45.
The good news is, unless you’re a content creator working with large files, or you like to have loads of browser tabs open, you don’t really need much more than 4GB. For a good mid-range machine, 8GB is plenty.
Even serious gamers don’t need more than that, as most modern games can’t currently access more than 2GB of system memory anyway. The amount of dedicated memory on the graphics card (as well as that memory’s speed and bandwidth) are much more important for good gaming performance.
Likewise, in nearly all cases, it’s not worthwhile to pay extra for faster (higher-clocked) memory, either. Sticking to the basic 1,333MHz is fine for almost all builds—with one exception. If you’re building a system with integrated graphics (be it Intel or AMD), paying for faster RAM will give you higher frame rates. This is especially true when it comes to modern AMD APUs.
If your system is going to be running on integrated graphics, you may want to pay a bit extra for faster RAM. You shouldn’t pay too much more though, because you’ll generally get significantly better gaming performance by opting for a dedicated graphics card—even a low-end one that’s priced under $100.
Don’t skimp on the power supply (but don’t overbuy, either)
The one part you definitely don’t want to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for is the power supply. There are plenty of no-name power supplies available for as low as $20. Some low-priced cases even come with these power supplies as well. But unless you absolutely can’t afford it, you’ll want to spend closer to $50 for a PSU from a reputable brand (companies like Thermaltake and Corsair come to mind), who also hopefully have US-based support teams.
I’ve personally seen low-cost power supplies burn out for no apparent reason the minute they’re plugged in. Plus, when a power supply goes spectacularly bad, it could fry your new components, or even potentially set your house on fire. So, you should get something that costs a bit more from a company you put some trust in. It doesn’t hurt to heed the user reviews on sites like Newegg.com and Amazon, either.
On the flip side, you shouldn’t buy more power than you need, either. There are plenty of power supplies available with 750-1,000, or even 1,500-watt ratings. However, unless you’re building a gaming PC with at least one graphics card, or a multi-card setup, you simply don’t need that much power.
A basic system with a mid-range CPU and a couple of drives should run just fine on a 300-watt power supply. If you think you might buy a graphics card down the road, you should spend a bit more, and get a PSU that’s rated for 450 or 500 watts. Anything more than that is overkill for most builds.
You don’t need a graphics card unless you’re serious about games or content creation
Modern desktop integrated graphics are much, much better than they used to be. AMD generally still holds a strong lead over comparable Intel chips. However, even Intel’s graphics on their current Core series CPUs is good enough for HD media playback, and some modest gaming as well.
Of course, if you want to play games like Titanfall at 1080p (or higher) with all the settings switched on, you’ll want to invest in a dedicated graphics card. Likewise, if you’re using Adobe’s Creative Suite (or other pro-grade software) to render video, graphics, or complex images, a dedicated card (as well as an SSD and lots of RAM) can make for a much better experience.
If you’re in one of the above two camps (or both), you should consider picking up a card from AMD or Nvidia. These days, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 750 Ti-based card is a pretty solid mid-range option, though cards based on AMD’s Radeon R7 260X are no slouch either, and some can currently be had for around $130 online. The rest of us can get by just fine without a dedicated graphics card, which allows you to opt for a smaller case.
Skimp on the case (if you don’t care about looks)
Cheaping out on your PC’s case is also a good way to go if you want to save some money. If you’re going to stick your tower under your desk, there’s certainly no need to spend around $100 or more on a fancy, flashy chassis.
You can pick up a utilitarian PC case online for less than $20. Sure, it will probably be made of cheap, glossy plastic and thin steel. It may also have sharp edges that could cut you while you’re assembling the system. Nevertheless, a bargain-basement case will suffice for a basic PC build.
The fans included with low-end cases (if there are any) may be louder than the ones shipped with pricier shells. You may want to swap them out. Keep in mind that the fans in your old PC might be nicer than whatever comes with a new, bargain-basement case.
Of course, if you’re building a high-end gaming PC stuffed with $2,000 or more worth of parts, you probably don’t want to throw them into a budget-priced box. If that sounds like the system you’re putting together, you should find something you find that’s both attractive and affordable. There are currently 826 PC cases listed on Newegg, and a surprising number of decent options are priced in the $50-$75 range.
What do you think of our PC parts buying guide? Do you have any tips that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.