Want the challenge and fun of building your own computer? Use our suggested list of components to put together a machine for $700 or $1400.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
We’ve shown you the process of building a computer in our comprehensive Lifehacker Night School guide, but we didn’t recommend specific components in that guide. Here, we’ll walk you through the parts and hardware you’ll need for two different system builds: a mid-range PC for those on a budget, and an enthusiast’s system for gamers and media professionals.
Desktops have declined in popularity relative to laptops and tablets, but they definitely still have a place. If you want a custom system for gaming performance, or simply to improve your own knowledge, nothing beats building a PC from scratch.
These PC builds are designed to optimise your all-around computing experience, with a particular emphasis on PC gaming. Your own choice of components might differ if you have other tasks in mind. What components give you the best bang for your buck depend heavily on what you’re planning to do with the system: your parts may be different if you’re building an HTPC on the same budget, or a super-speedy file server for your home network.
We’ve talked about our own experiences building a system and why it’s important already. If you’re ready to set out on the task of building your own computer, here are the components you’ll need to build the best system you can get for your money.
Build Versus Buy
The debate over whether you should build your own system or buy a pre-built machine is a long-standing argument. One potential benefit is that you can save money, but that isn’t always the case; PC manufacturers often get prices for components than individuals will ever manage. Picture by Adam Snyder
That aside, there are benefits to building your own system that can’t be weighed purely in terms of dollars and cents. Your machine can match your specifications more closely, and you can choose higher-quality components than a budget-minded manufacturer might use.
Building your own PC gives you complete control over that system’s components and extensibility. Assembling your own gives you the ability to make decisions about when and how you’ll upgrade that system in the long run, rather than simply taking what the manufacturer sells you. For example, you can buy into a new motherboard chipset early and wait to spend money on the next generation of graphics card later, giving yourself a timely upgrade when the moment — or your budget — is right.
Ultimately, while it will always be easier to just pull out your credit card and buy whatever’s on sale, there’s something about assembling the components of a system that you’ve selected for your needs, powering it up, installing your favourite OS, and using it every day that’s’ incredibly rewarding.
Choosing The Right Parts
There was a time when building a PC was all about buying the most expensive and most powerful components you could on the budget you had. While that approach is still often adopted, even budget components can be remarkably powerful. If all you are planning on doing with your system is word processing, surfing the web, and some light entertainment such as streaming video or listening to music, almost any system build will work for you. Picture by Edmund Tse
You don’t need to spend a grand on high-end gaming components if you’re putting together a system for your friend who doesn’t know or care what graphics card is going into the box. At the same time, that doesn’t mean they’re doomed to a computer full of sub-standard components. The important thing is to take time to assess what you need. Our suggested builds are like recipes; they will work well, but you can adapt them.
Here we’ll detail two separate builds: a high-end system for enthusiasts and power-hungry users, and a mid-range build that will cost about half as much but still pack a punch. Pricing is indicative, based on quotes from local suppliers via staticICE. Shop around for components, but keep postage in mind: buying from just one or two suppliers can work out cheaper than getting every element separately.
The Sub-$700 Budget System
This budget system will serve you well for everyday tasks, including streaming movies and music from the web, organising family photos, editing home movies, and basic gaming.
This parts list assumes that you’ll need the basic components: a case, a motherboard, processor, memory, storage, graphics card of some type, power supply, and an optical drive. We’re going to assume you have a functional USB keyboard, mouse and display you can repurpose for use with your new system. We’re also not going to include an operating system in the budget; we’ll discuss your options there separately.
Before you blindly buy what we’re about to suggest, take a moment and look at our Lifehacker Night School article on choosing PC components, where we discuss some of the things you should think about before buying your components. For example, our $700 PC here is driven by price considerations, rather than operational concerns like silent operation or lots of expansion bays.
• The case: NZXT Tempest 210, $65
The NZXT Tempest 210 is a roomy mid-sized case that, thanks to its steel body, is both lightweight and should last you longer than a single build. It’s big enough to accommodate all but the largest components, and roomy enough to move your hands around inside. The case is loaded with grips to easily remove drive bays inside without a screwdriver, slots to route your cables through cleanly, and extra fan grills for superior airflow and cooling. Overall, it’s a nicely-designed case. You also get a pair of 120mm fans for your money, an enlarged CPU cut-out to accommodate after-market cooling, and front-side audio and USB ports (including a USB 3.0 port) are a nice bonus in this budget case.
• The power supply: Antec NEO ECO 520W Power Supply, $75
Many beginning PC builders overestimate how much power their components will actually need. At the same time, you don’t want to buy a power supply too weak for the components in your build, or buy one from a flaky manufacturer or a no-name brand. Stick with trusted vendors on this one, and spend a little more if you have to. This 520-watt power supply from Antec should be more than enough for our components, and Antec is a trusted name.
• The motherboard: ASRock Z77 Extreme3 LGA 1155 ATX Intel Motherboard, $140
This LGA 1155 board is rock solid, reliable, and sports high-end features without costing too much. You’ll get 6 USB ports (two of which are USB 3.0), four 3.0Gb/s SATA ports and two 6Gb/s SATA ports, gigabit Ethernet, and on-board sound, so we won’t need to pick up a separate sound card. It packs on-board video, (so you could ditch video card below and save some more money), but you’ll need a CPU that supports integrated graphics processing, since the board won’t do it for you alone. Still, this is a great, upgradable board that’s perfect if you want to upgrade to a more powerful processor, or an solid state drive (SSD) that can push data through those 6Gb/s SATA channels.
• The CPU: Intel Core i3-3220 Ivy Bridge 3.3Ghz Dual Core Processor, $130
We chose Intel for our budget board. You could sub this out for an AMD processor (and AMD-compatible motherboard) if you wanted to, and we actually had a long discussion about basing this budget build on AMD’s new Trinity platform, which sports some seriously solid integrated graphics performance at a low price. However, we ultimately landed on the Ivy Bridge Core i3. It’s a solid processor that fits in our budget, offers better gaming performance than you might think, and will tackle almost anything else you throw at it better than the AMD would. If you aren’t a gamer but run a lot of CPU-intensive processes such as converting or editing video, we recommend upgrading to the Core i5-3570. It will give you a bit of extra power for those tasks, and its integrated graphics mean you can ditch having a video card altogether and stay under budget.
• The memory: G Skill 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3 1333 RAM, $20
You need to ensure RAM is compatible with your build and comes from a reputable manufacturer. This RAM gives us both of those things while still being easy on the wallet. G. Skill is well-known and makes high0quality desktop memory. Our board is dual-channel, so we want to make sure we take advantage of it, and 4GB of RAM is enough for our budget everyday PC. (That said, extra memory is one of the cheapest, simplest upgrades you can undertake.)
• The storage: Seagate Barracuda 7200 RPM 1.5TB SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive, $100
The impact on hard drive prices from the Thailand floods hasn’t been quite as bad as expected. This $100 1.5TB model is a solid 7200RPM drive, and won’t blow our budget. Shopping around definitely pays with drives, since specials pop up regularly. Whatever you choose, note the warranty details and make regular backups. Every hard drive fails eventually; it’s just a question of when.
• The graphics card: AMD Radeon HD 7750/Nvidia GeForce GTX 550 Ti, $130
We’re offering up two suggestions here to try and keep AMD and Nvidia purists from waging war in the comments. Both of these cards pack enough power for everyday tasks, full HD video, and more than casual gaming. You won’t be cranking up Dishonored or Battlefield 3 to maximum settings here, but you will be able to play with modest frame rates. If you’re not gaming at all, you won’t even notice — streaming and local video will play silky smooth.
• The optical drive: ASUS 24x CD/DVD Burner, $25
Optical drives are cheap and widely available. Spending a little more will allow you to watch Blur-ray movies as well, if that’s a consideration.
With A Little More . . .
We know that $700 is pushing the limit of “mid-range”, but we wanted to make sure we got quality components that offered a solid all-around build. You could cut the price by swapping in a cheaper processor (such as the AMD A10-5800K or a Sandy Bridge Intel G850) or opting for a less powerful motherboard. If you go AMD, note that you’ll need an AMD-compatible motherboard as well.
If you have a few more dollars to spend, consider upgrading the RAM in the system from 4GB to 8GB. If you’re interested in gaming, you might want with a beefier graphics card than the ones we opted for above, such as the AMD Radeon HD 6850 or the GeForce GTX 650 Ti 2GB model.
Another option is to upgrade the RAM and also add an SSD for your operating system, reserving that 1.5TB for secondary storage. You can pick up a 60GB SSD for around $60.
The Sub-$1400 Enthusiast’s PC
If performance rather than budget is your concern, this build offers a good starting point. If you’re a fan of PC gaming, have to play the latest releases as soon as they’re out, have multiple high-resolution displays, or just want the beefiest box you can afford, this is the way to go.
As with our budget build, we’re going to assume you have the basic components, including a keyboard, mouse and display. Again, remember to consider your use case before buying and adjust accordingly.
• The case: Corsair Carbide Series 400R, $115
The Corsair Carbide 400R is a great choice: sleek black, made from lightweight steel and plastic, and offering 6 expansion bays and 8 PCI slots on the rear. It has top, rear, and optional front and side case fans to keep your system cool, and a front-side I/O panel for power, USB 3.0 and audio. You won’t get a power supply included, but the 400R is a robust case that will stand the test of time.
• The power supply: CORSAIR Enthusiast Series TX650 V2 650W High Performance Power Supply – $120
Corsair also makes good power supplies, and 650-watts of juice should be enough to power even the most demanding components. It’s also quiet, and offers enthusiast-level power output at a reasonable price. There are more expensive power supplies out there, but this one gets the job done without being overkill.
• The motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-Z77X-UD5H LGA 1155 Intel ATX Motherboard, $250
It’s not cheap, but this board delivers the goods. The board supports Intel’s latest Core processors, and even offers a few tools for overclockers. The board also has built-in support for Crossfire (AMD) and SLI (NVidia) for high-end gaming with multiple graphics cards, sports 6 USB 3.0 and 4 USB 2.0 ports, on-board HDMI, dual gigabit Ethernet, supports on-board RAID, has 9 SATA ports (5 at 6Gb/s and 4 at 3Gb/s) and packs built-in audio and video. It’s definitely a high-end board for a system builder who needs the features and isn’t concerned overly concerned the budget. If you don’t need all of that, you could save a few bucks and drop down to an ASUS P8Z77-V variant.
• The CPU: Intel Core i5-3570K Ivy Bridge 3.4Ghz Quad Core Processor, $230
Intel’s Core processors are still the clear market leader. We choose the i5 since the only notable difference between the i5 and the i7 is the hyperthreading, which you’d only miss if you’re doing high-end video encoding. The 3570 packs incredible power at decent power consumption, and while you could definitely swap this out for a high-end AMD, we think this i5 is the best choice.
• The memory: G Skill 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3 1333 RAM, $35
On an enthusiast PC and given the modest price difference, 8GB of RAM makes sense.
Let’s be clear, 4GB of RAM is probably sufficient for most systems, but this is an enthusiast’s PC. Depending on what you use the system for, you could scale back to 4GB, but if you’re going to do serious gaming, you’ll want the extra RAM.
• The storage: Crucial M4 128GB SATA III MLC SSD, $130 + Western Digital WD Black 1TB 7200RPM SATA 6Gb/s Hard Drive, $110
For an enthusiast build, deploying both SSD and a conventional hard drive makes sense. We’ve pointed out numerous times that an SDD is one of the best upgrades you can buy for your computer, and when building from scratch keeping your operating system on your SSD definitely makes sense.
• The graphics card: AMD Radeon HD 7950 or NVidia GeForce 660 Ti, $350
You might not need such high-end cards if you’re not looking for gaming performance. Since many the major titles that have come out this year haven’t created serious performance strain for current graphics cards, we wouldn’t blame you if you opted to scale back to a more affordable video card. That said, either of these cards will give you impressive performance.
• The optical drive: ASUS 24x CD/DVD Burner, $25
We meant it when we said in the budget section that the optical drive that you buy doesn’t really matter. Again, if you’re planning to watch Blu-ray video on your enthusiast PC, you’ll want to spring for the appropriate drive, but if you’re not, we can’t find a better optical drive and disc burner for the money.
For A Little Less . . .
Sometimes building an enthusiast’s PC is more difficult than building a budget one because you have room in the budget to buy high-end components, but you don’t want to go overboard or make decisions that waste your money. We hope this sub-$1400 build walks the line between spending good money on components that matter without spending too much on the ones that don’t.
If this is too costly, the biggest money sinks here are clearly the video card and the processor. While you could bump down a more affordable motherboard, you’ll save more by choosing a less powerful and high-end video card. Consider the AMD Radeon HD 7850 or the Radeon HD 6850. If you’re an Nvidia fan, consider the NVidia GeForce GTX 650 Ti.
Choosing Your Operating System
We haven’t included the cost of an operating system in our calculations, because your needs will vary. If you elect to use Linux, your cost is essentially nothing.
The situation for Windows is rather complicated now that Windows 8 has appeared. Windows 8 is a great operating system, but Microsoft has not made it easy to pick up a full version for individuals to install on a new system. You can purchase an OEM/system builder model, but technically that’s not supposed to be sold to individuals. That said, if you purchase it from the same supplier that sells your motherboard, you’re unlikely to get called in.
The other alternative is to install an existing copy of Windows 7, Vista or XP, then upgrade it for a snappy $39.99. You can’t run that older Windows license on multiple machines, but you can always use Linux on your older machine.