That feeling of piecing together a computer from scratch, after hours of painstaking research and waiting on parts to be shipped, is among the most satisfyingly nerdy. Like restoring an old Chevy, or building a house—ok, maybe not. For beginners, the endeavor might seem overwhelming, insurmountable. Yet it’s not so difficult if you do your research and prepare.
Ralph and I, knights of the Irvine office, one day said, “Hey, we should build a gaming PC.” At the time, he and I were making do with an iMac and MacBook Air, respectively, content to barely scrape by on machines designed for menial work tasks. But we both wanted more. Neither of us had experienced the joys of proper PC gaming; the community is a passionate bunch, maniacal even. It was time to make the jump.
We had nothing to lose.
Building a PC is a deeply personal journey, an experience that varies from person to person. As such—like anything in the tech world—we may disagree on the choices made here in this build. For mine and Ralph’s purposes, we wanted to put together a (relatively) cheapish build that was designed specifically for gaming after a long day of work—and sometimes during.
The two of us have stuck to consoles for all the latest AAA titles, but Steam has proved to be a wonderful resource for cheap games. And, like most stories involving first-time PC builds, it began with a Portal 2 sale.
What we’ll do here is take you through, step-by-step, how and why we chose parts for our rigs. It took some doing: trips to the local computer store, crawling sites for sales, sending back rebates, but we managed to complete our journeys. Full credit goes to Ralph, TechnoBuffalo’s First Commander at the Irvine office, for carefully researching and choosing parts for our build.
An Unexpected Journey
Our intentions from the start was to build a cheap gaming PC that could easily run old(ish) games. Following our time with Portal 2, we immediately jumped on a Left 4 Dead 2 sale, and we’ve been hooked ever since. So, with that in mind, we came up with a rough idea of what we wanted to buy, and where we wanted to save. What we ended up with is something in the mid-range category—nothing that’ll blow anyone’s eyebrows off, but respectable enough.
Since this was our first experience with PC building, we wanted to take things slow, ease into it. There are certainly rewards for going all out, but frankly we didn’t have the resources to go that route. However, because our needs were very specific—gaming only—it was easier to sift through the enormous catalog of options and decide exactly what we needed.
What we found along the way is that there’s a very vocal online community willing to share their experiences with others who want to build their own PC. There’s never going to be a universally perfect build—perfect for you, yes—just like there will never be a perfect phone, or perfect tablet. Technology advances at a ruthless rate, so what currently works now might be out of date in the next few weeks, or even few days. Such is the nature of the industry.
What We Chose
In all, we wound up spending around $600, with many of the big items hovering around the $100 range. From the beginning we tried to hold the important pieces—graphics card, motherboard, processor—to a set of standards. We didn’t want to dig into the bargain bin, but we also didn’t want to take out a second mortgage just to be able to afford the individual parts. What we found was a compromise between wallet-friendly components and enough power to suit our needs.
Remember that your needs might not necessarily match ours—or maybe there’s a specific component you prefer over another. We wanted to share our experience because this was our first time, and thought others on the fence of PC building might benefit. It has been about a month since our rigs were put together, and they seem to be holding together quite well. Neither of us has strayed very far from L4D2—some Sim City, Dead Island, TF2 and Hitman—but otherwise nothing too demanding.
We kept our builds to the bare minimum—an optical drive wasn’t necessary, and a few other parts we ignored frankly because we didn’t need them. What we did need, just like any other build, was a case, motherboard, graphics cards, processor, memory, power supply and storage. I’m assuming you know full well that a computer needs a mouse and keyboard, too. Luckily for us, we had some OCZ SSDs hanging around the office (one of the few perks), so we didn’t have to go out and buy that.
Before we jumped into any decision, a lot of research was done through Google, forums and various websites, checking and rechecking to see how a particular part would fit into what we wanted to accomplish. Actually choosing the parts was made possible through sites like Hardware-Revolution.com and LegitReviews.com, while piecing the components into an actual working computer was a result of watching NewEggTV and Duncan33303 on YouTube.
Sites such as Lifehacker, which has covered computer building extensively throughout the past few years, is an excellent resource to check before you jump into anything on your own. There, they have builds broken down by price ranges, lessons detailing exactly what part does what and why, and how each component affects a particular aspect of your build.
With that said, the parts below are exactly what went into our computers. Prices (at the time of purchase) are listed with each. Rebates and the like might vary.
Cooler Master HAF 912
Many cases I’ve noticed look as though they’re primarily designed to stand out, to be that centerpiece of your room. That’s great—a lot of them look awesome, and come with plenty of features. But that’s not our style. We wanted something functional and low-key, a case that would blend in and fade away. When considering our options, one of our biggest criteria was the case’s size. When you’re used to lugging around an 11-inch MacBook Air, it’s a little overwhelming to purchase something that you need a forklift to carry. What we found is the perfect compromise between size, functionality and looks: Cooler Master HAF 912.
For a full rundown of this case’s specs, check out the link here. What ultimately won us over is that the HAF 912 is relatively compact, while still providing enough options for our needs. For the price, the 912 offers plenty of flexibility—excellent cooling, flexible cable management, more than enough expandability, long graphics card support, etc.—without going over the top. Another important aspect was the fact that the 912 is something Ralph and I can use in the long term if we ever decide to upgrade our systems. ($50 after rebate)
Kingston HyperX 4GB DDR3-1600
Since our rigs were built with one purpose in mind, gaming, we didn’t need insane RAM designed to handle heavy multitasking. Instead, we kept it simple and went with 4GB DDR3-1600, Kingston HyperX, which only cost $32 from Micro Center. And since we stick to older games (for now), we don’t even really need the amount we put into our builds. If/when we start getting more serious, and maybe even move over to perform more intensive tasks, RAM is extremely simply to upgrade, especially when all it requires is to snap into place. ($32)
Often an overlooked feature of a build, the motherboard essentially determines what your rig is and isn’t capable of. Again, since we had a very specific purpose in mind, choosing a capable motherboard wasn’t too difficult, but it’s important to keep longterm flexibility in mind. Since our cases were mid-tower, there was a lot to choose from. But there are certain considerations to take into account when ultimately choosing one.
The MSI H77MX-G43 won out due to a number of factors, including compatibility with our processor using the LGA 1155 socket, USB 3.0 support, Windows 8 compatibility, 4 RAM slots, endless SATA ports, PCI Express 3.0 and, above all, a fair price at $80. Not only is the motherboard very accommodating to our needs, it runs very cool and has the ability to overclock if we wanted (we don’t). ($80 after rebate)
GeForce GTX 650 Ti
The graphics card is probably the marquee component of any rig, and is often the first thing someone will ask about. In the most basic terms, the GPU is what handles graphics, and what outputs everything onto a display. Some processors come with integrated GPUs, but since our rigs are being built for gaming, we chose to go the dedicated route to ensure those zombies look smooth and beautiful.
For this, we spent plenty of time scouring forums and reading reviews to get an idea of what card to go with. There are a lot of big names to choose from, but we wound up choosing Nvidia’s MSI GTX 650 Ti, which offers enough power and performance for a relatively cheap price. High-end cards can get incredibly expensive, and I think we landed on a choice that is a nice starting off point. Like I said, our gaming needs aren’t to play the latest titles at max settings, so the GTX 650 Ti is more than capable of getting through an online L4D2 match. ($120 after rebate)
Intel Core i3 3220 Processor
If there’s any point that causes more division between folks when building a rig, it’s the processor. If you thought people were passionate in the mobile market, choosing a processor for a PC can be downright terrifying. When choosing a chip of your own, you’ll want to take note of clock speed and number of cores. Basically, clock speed determines how many commands your processor can respond to in one second, while cores deal with how many sets of commands it can perform at once. For our purposes, we went with an Intel Core i3 3220 dual-core processor.
Since we aren’t busting through tons of video, or editing multiple photos, we stuck with something that we knew would handle gaming without issue. If you’re attached to a particular brand, you can always sub out our choice for AMD. But the i3 we chose offers some pretty excellent gaming performance, which is what we cared about most when making a decision. Processors, like graphics cards, can get insanely expensive, and the choice we went with was within our budget while offering plenty of power. ($100 after rebate)
Corsair CX 430W Power Supply
It might seem like an afterthought component, but your power supply is one of the most essential. One of the bigger names in the biz is Corsair, and the CX series has been received quite well among the community as being reliable and efficient. Our rigs aren’t designed to be overly demanding, so wattage wasn’t really that big of a concern. And since our model is 80 Plus Bronze certified, it has that little extra oomph for more serious tasks. Plenty of cases come with power supplies already built in, so obviously your choice will depend on your case and other components. ($30 after rebate)
OCZ Vertex 4 256GB
This is the part where small perks of the job come to the forefront. It just so happened we had two spare OCZ SSDs lying around (one was actually in an old MacBook), so we thought, hey, why not use those? We could’ve opted for a typical hard drive, which in all honestly would’ve given us much more space. But SSDs are fast, and very efficient for the meager tasks we expected of our rigs. Of course, a typical hard drive is the more cost effective way to go. When considering your options, size is obviously a big factor, while speed is also something to consider—speed will ultimately determine how quickly your computer launches, etc. We’re running Windows 8 on SSDs, so suffice to say everything is lightning quick. ($200, but we already had these lying around)
For case cooling, sound and networking, we kept it clean and simple. Since our cases are devoid of clutter, cooling isn’t so much an issue, while using the onboard audio is fine since all we rely on are headphones. Networking, too, is straight out of the box, with both rigs plugged directly into a nearby router—faster ping (sometimes). We opted not to purchase an optical drive because everything we need is already online (thanks Steam!); I’m already used to life post-optical drive after having used a MacBook Air for the past year and a half. I haven’t once needed one.
This also served as a small experiment for Ralph and I to use Windows 8, which we’ve had passing experience with on the Surface Pro (and RT). Microsoft has gotten a lot of flack for the Metro UI—we prefer to jump right into the desktop—but Windows 8 so far doesn’t seem half bad, and we haven’t run into compatibility issues thus far. There are quirks, sure, but overall solid for simple gaming.
Get Out There, Do Your Research
As with anything, it’s important you don’t compulsively buy every component you see just because. The online community is very active, and will likely help with any questions and concerns you have regarding a rig you want to build. Plenty of well-known websites, Newegg.com in particular, has a pretty vocal user base that can help with figuring out the right parts. Of course, the Internet is an endless vacuum, and there are hundreds and hundreds of places to get feedback from.
We actually bought our parts from a few different places to take advantage of prices and rebates, helping us save that extra buck or two. Rebates might seem like a dead end, and extraneous work, but it actually adds up to be quite a bit. Always price compare to make sure you’re getting a good deal, and also compare similar products to ensure you’re making the right decision. It’s important to be patient when searching for parts, as prices fluctuate quite a bit.
When you do shop around, make sure the parts you choose are compatible with one another, especially the motherboard. It’s easy to get something just because it sounds good, only to find out they don’t quite match. To that end, when you do get all the requisite pieces, don’t be afraid when piecing your machine together. Often parts are difficult to snap into place—there were numerous times when we had to (almost) forcefully push a piece into place. Be delicate, but not to the point where you’re afraid to piece your rig together. As long as you follow resources such as Duncan33303 on YouTube, you’ll be fine.
Before you head out to your nearest store, think hard about your needs. If you simply want a rig for casual Web browsing and email, you don’t need an i7 processor. We had a clear vision with our build, and tried to stick to a specific budget since we only use our new PCs for gaming—and only after work for a few hours a week. When it comes to saving a few bucks, you might want to consider ditching an optical drive and sticking to a few stock parts —don’t ignore those rebates, either.
Also: ensure you have the proper tools when putting your machine together, and take your time. We know the feeling all too well of getting the necessary parts in and wanting to quickly throw your rig together. It’s important you follow guides and don’t skip steps thinking you know what you’re doing. We lucked out and put our machines together on the first try—you can have that same success if you do research and follow instructions.
The process can be very overwhelming, especially when you run into trouble and can’t quite get that piece to fit, or don’t remember where something goes. There are a lot of pros to building your own machine—complete control being one of them. When all is said and done, have fun with it. This was a new journey we eagerly took knowing there would be obstacles, but the rewards have outweighed any issues.
Gaming on a proper PC thus far has been great, and having full control over our systems means they’re exactly how we want them. Of course, the entire process was a long one, especially with the rebates. But you’ll eventually wind up with something you built from scratch, which is a great feeling in of itself. So far, performance has been wonderful and, as Ralph says, our “geek cred” is higher now. Maybe.
Again, I can’t stress how important it is to check resources such as Lifehacker’s Building a Computer from Scratch lessons, YouTube tutorials, forums, NewEgg reviews and other excellent resources available. Be safe, be patient and happy building.