Last year I built a computer. The day I pulled out the precision screw-drivers, grasped my cigar, and poured a rum & coke, was January 11th 2016 it was that day I assembled my build. But like a nocturnal scribe, digging away the deep lithosphere of the internet, I spent a couple months doing research. I started planning my budget in the summer prior, started reading resources in October, then started my serious research in November, and bought the parts in late December and early January. The following rows of text is a reflection of that. This piece you are about to read, or about to close the tab on – is about the process I went through building my computer, research, a little bit about the build and the final part list is at the bottom.
If you’ve hung around any DIY, build a computer scene you’ve probably heard about the benefits of building a computer, like you’ve heard you’re going to hell from a priest. The old maxim about saving money on building your own big rig was alluring. I’ve looked around at some cost-benefit analysis of store-bought PCs and DIY builds, it would seem a pattern is clear: low-end cheapies at the store are difficult to beat in price. Manufacturers can source parts cheaper than us, they can source Windows cheaper than most of us, and stores can subsidize their cost by pre-installing spamware on your computer (like Norton anti-virus trial). But higher end computers, you’re almost always better to go your own way. Of course I am a man who hates spending money and I run a website about frugality. I was hooked like a trout, obsessed with brewing up my computer in the cauldron of ideas. Brewed ideas I did. In 2014 I was had a PS3 I had since 2007, unfortunately it was dying. Some games wouldn’t render right, an ugly square manifested itself in GTA V if I played more than about ten minutes. Like an actor on a Life Alert commercial, my PS3 had fallen down and wasn’t really getting back up. My desktop PC was showing some sea rot too, barnacles were growing on the case and she wouldn’t swing to starboard like she used to, I guess I shouldn’t have take her into the bathtub. Modern games were sluggish, like a booze cruise on the 401 at rush hour. But before I could fork over a couple gold bars on a computer I had to jump through the largest bureaucratic hurdle I ever envisioned: Research. Not just reading reviews on NewEgg, but doing actually research a la nerd style.
Research, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Buying shit without doing research is like trying the sampler drug pack at a high-school party. You might get some of daddy’s Tylenol , or you might get some LSD that might trick into thinking Donald Trump is a pretty cool guy. I also hate getting ripped off, so doing an ounce of research prevents a kilogram of disappointment later on. I went full nerdom and made a document over forty pages. It was a compendium of reviews, benchmarks, reviews and observations I had. But I never finished it, and like anything written at Trump University my research report will never be published. And let’s be real, a lot of people stop doing research beyond reading reviews. My research was imperfect, but it was a pretty damn good stab into the dark. I’m no noobie, but the world of DIY PC was an exhausting chore, a place that resembled a mythology book, with a litany of websites doing their own benchmarks and producing wildly different results, then you have the most nauseating element: the fan boys. Symphony orchestras of cults who surround themselves with totems made of silicon and circuity.
See that sweet “missile” to the left? That’s no mere missile, that’s the Titan II, the largest ICBM that the US ever made, and it carried the most powerful warhead the US ever produced (W53). It’s so awe-inspiring, jaw dropping, heart attack inducing death machine. I was reading about nuclear weapons just before this project, and the only thing I could really think of was the dazzling power of the the intercontinental basaltic missile, so I named my forth coming PC “TITAN II” and my research thesis was titled “Operation Titan”.
In defining my goals I took in account what I already had. I wrote up the details of my last computer, which I will omit in this article for brevity sake, but if one of my 8 readers are interested I had a Gateway DX 4300, an off the shelf PC from Best Buy, purchased in the hay day of the great global recession of 2009. So what the hell do I do with a computer? Well besides writing my “lil blog”, I do like to indulge in the world of gaming. Plus I’m a pseudo-photographer so I need something that can run Lightroom and Photoshop, and I even put on my film hat and made a so called “video”. So writing a blog, hell I could do that with a flip phone, so it’s easy to meet those specs, but gaming? Like Donald Trump serving up the pink slip to the swamp, I decided to divorce my console life. I was lugging around a PS3 for ages and it did me well, but like cats, consoles become obsolete. Sony became an abusive spouse and if you want to game online on a PS4 you have to spend lavishly, an annual subscription called Playstation Plus, dressed up as something hip and cool, look at these free games you get with Playstation Plus™? How much is Playstation Plus, a whooping $70 a year, $70 dollars to play the games you already bought, on an internet subscription you already have, you have to pay $70 or play all by yourself in an age where every developer is pushing online play like LinkedIn pushes out daily emails begging you to sign up for connecting to your colleagues (remember Sim City shoehorning online play?). So let’s pull out my dusty calculator that I’ve had since grade 11 chemistry and see the costs of a PS4.
A new PS4 starts at about $370 CAD, and $500 CAD (not withstanding sales) for the “pro”. The pro is for 4K gaming, and remember the time one of the best defenses for consoles was that you would be insulated for 5-7 years before being pushed to upgrade? Yeah you can throw that idea out the window since the pro arrived on scene, now there will no doubt be a class of PS4 plebs and PS4 bourgeois, and the PS4 plebs will not overthrow the bourgeois they will just beg their parents for the PS4 Pro or push carts at Walmart and spend a month of wages on it.
To play online for five years it’s $350 just for online play. Oh wowzers a little more than just a $70 inconvenience fee. $350 just to play online and get some “benefits” from Sony. That’s the price of a new tablet, a new phone, a couple months of groceries, a good used bike, etc. Or you know, I can play online for no additional cost on a PC.
Let’s snap that shutter and get the full picture of price here:
Basic PS4 full cost: $720
PS4 Pro full cost: $850
You can of course try to buy used. Maybe you’ll be lucky and have a friend who will sell you one for $50. But a quick look on Ebay/Kijiji shows that you can reasonably assume you can fetch a mint PS4 for $300 (plus usually a couple controllers and games). But buying used? You might get bed bugs ew.
So checkmate atheist, $720 for a basic PS4, that’s just the basic console bundle, and 5 years of online play. You are in dece computer specs at that price, why blow three quarters of a grand on a limited PC in a box that can really only game and watch Dynasty Warriors on? So anyway, I gotta stop talking about my ex, back to goals and PC building:
To assess acceptable gaming performance, I set an acceptable FPS range for gaming, 40-60 on top tier graphics, I find acceptable. Yeah that’s right, I can GAME at below 60 FPS and be satisfied, not blown away but satisfied. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume if I can pull off those gaming feats I can run Lightroom et el without much effort, i.e., if I achieve that I’ve achieved my other objectives.
That’s my approach, unlike Tea Baggers I know the word compromise, I can make thoughtful compromises to get what I want and not have to sell a damn kidney and liver to get it, or you know, have more money later on. So if this wasn’t made clear, to start to build a PC, especially when looking through dollar store optics, define your goals first. This is what I wrote in Operation Titan
Gaming: Modern capable gaming abilities to play current and next generation games and acceptable standards.
Productivity: Does not take much to achieve this criterion, just enough storage and storage to hold all appropriate files. Monitors and software are mostly responsible for achieving this.
Media: Storage dependent, with good ancillary hardware.
Storage needs: minimum 1 TB Ram: At least 8 GB at DDR3 or better GPU: Must be able to play current games at decent specs at least ~40 FPS or higher
Outputs: at least one HDMI and something to hook up a VGA. An adopter could be used to hook up secondary monitor.Network: Modern wireless, but will probably use wired connection
Pretty basic right? But it gives you a good start.
There’s this neat resource called pcparkpicker. It’s a website, you sign up put parts together in a list, the site like some sort of grand wizard tells you if parts are incompatible and gives a nice cross section of prices from different vendors. Of course my Firefox is loaded up with security like a libertarian farm, and the affiliate links didn’t work (they use affiliate links when you link to the vendor’s webstore) so I had to go through the Sisyphean process of copying and pasting the name of the part into Google plus the store name. Then usually (I’m staring right in your egg carton NEWEGG) I would click on the first link, detecting I’m from Canuckistan they would suggest their Canadian site, redirect me to the HOME PAGE and not the page of the part, meaning I would have to SEARCH again in their shitty search bar. This was the spine of my investigations, like a shitty Noir movie in LA I would get my leads from pcpartpicker and then would do additional research, such as benchmarks, etc. Other resources like Logical Increments lay out parts in a table, sorted by relative performance brackets. That was an excellent starting point for research. Especially if you are clueless to the what the modern racehorse of PC parts is looking like.
They say they put the wedding ring on the ring finger because it leads straight to the heart (News flash all veins lead to the heart sickos), and they say the CPU is the heart of the computer. Sure it is, and if you want to find a partisan battle ground look at the damn AMD vs Intel debate. If you didn’t pass Semiconductor Corporate History 203 I have the cliff notes here. AMD and Intel have been slugging it out like Mike Tyson and George Foreman for the past couple decades. AMD has taken a big sabbatical to make chipsets for mobile devices, leaving Intel to thrash the scene with a hegemonic influence in the hive minds of DIY PC building enthusiasts. Over a year ago when I was doing this research it was actually nearly impossible to find anyone on a place like /r/buildapc to support AMD devices, FX chips. Why? Because they are older and “suck at single core performance”. Which at the time went against resources they had on their own sidebar (like logical increments). In fact every resource I found, like the benchmarks below, which are somewhat objective, show FX chips at being competitive and EXPLODE the competition via one of my most important virtues: bang for your buck. I’ve grown to hate this term because every builder claims they are getting bang for their buck as they buy some gawdy i7. Even though the FX 6*** series was one of the best bang for your buck chipsets, even though it lagged behind in OVERALL performance. Bang for your buck and “best performance” are not the same thing. Bang for your buck is a function of money per performance unit. Of course if you wanted a mini-gun in your rig you’d probably go with something like a high end i5 and i7. But my goal was frugal. It was so implicit that I did not even have to state it in my goal statement.
ANYWAYS, I had to get that out. I strongly considered an i5 processor for the longest time, I’m not a (((Shill))) for AMD, so I’m really ambivalent as towards which giant mega corporation I should support. But if vote for you wallet means anything today (it’s a broken concept that only works in the most serious of breaches of corporate citizenship and then only sometimes) my vote would go towards AMD. Intel is inching to domination in the field and we all know from microeconomics 101 that monopoly is bad, plus Intel locks up their chips and makes you pay extra for an overclockable chip (the K variant). I don’t support terrorism.Now haters, here is my corollary. If I was doing this project right now, I would probably consider an Intel processor more-so, or I would wait to see how the famed AMD ZEN fares. Yeah haters, it looks like AMD is posed to launch a new chip soon. Let’s hope to cracks the market like James Bond cracked Fort Knox. So I mentioned benchmarks before, because I looked high and low for benchmarks. It was one thing to feel something, it was another to see how they perform. I even stretched and found some Whetstone benchmarks from those astronerds at MilkyWay@Home. (FYI I’ve been know to dabble in astronerdness).
Check my table 1, these are processors I was considering, it’s an excerpt from my OP Titan document, Passmart and Futuremark are two large benchmark websites.
Table 1 – Benchmarks of prospective CPU processors.
So let’s look at table 1 for a minute. One of the hair-pulling annoyances of PC building was the lack of really a good benchmark. Futuremark and Passmark are two large benchmarking websites. You can see that their results are inconsistent. The FX 8320 and FX-6300 are scored the same on Futuremark but show a huge difference on Passmark, the i5-4460 scored lower than the FX-8320 on Passmarks but then are scored the exact same on Futuremark. What is an garage researcher supposed to do? All you can really do is read into their methodologies on how they made these benchmarks. Too bad there was no super universal test to score those CPUs and say YES this is the best or NO this is a flaming piece of trash enclosed in a septic tank. Computer performance is predicated on so many different things that it’s hard to tease out. I found some Whetstone Benchmark, a floating point type benchmark. I added it in to boast my computer sci credentials.
Table 2 – Whetsone Benchmarks from Milkway@home
So here’s a hard fact of life guys. CPUs get hot, so hot that if it didn’t have a cooler on it it would melt down like Three Mile Island. Everyone squawks about getting after market coolers, and I was almost persuaded to get one. But I decided to do the sensible thing and added a Rain Meter widget on my desktop so that I could monitor CPU temps, and it never really get hots enough for me to warrant the extra expense of an aftermarket cooler. So I saved a little bit of money and just used to the stock cooler that came with the unit. I hope one my 8 readers says “I hope your CPU burns down your cardboard house because you’re too cheap for a CPU cooler”.
The other cooling element is case fans. I had a friend who went fan crazy and filled every port on his case with fans. I didn’t buy a single fan, but as one my previous article shows, you can get a 120 mm case fan for under $10 if you look hard enough.
I did look at some benchmarks, but since this era of graphics card is so last year, I’ll skip that over because I already gabbed about benchmarks in the previous section. What I did a little different here, I did the most non-objective research in the world: watch Youtube videos. I actually watched videos of people playing games with the same hardware combination that I was looking at (namely CPU+GPU) and I looked at games I intended to play. I watched a few different people’s uploads to try to get an “average”. That’s basically it on that front. The reviewers would note the settings, I’d watch a long video look at FPS dips and on my way.I identified the GTX 960 and Radeon R9 380 as my strong contenders. In Canada, they were basically the same price, but the Radeon R9 380 4 GB had a “good” sale, and I went with it. Plus the stew of Nividia cultist was off putting. I liked being some sort of ATI leper because it triggered so many Nivida master racists. As I said before I’m pretty removed from corporate worship, but I like to the give a point and a nudge towards the guy who offers stuff up to spec but isn’t a oozing sewage pipe of corporate sludge.
A few years ago I scoffed at the notion of a SSD. Because they were expensive. But the prices have gone down quite nice and I realized I really like shutting my PC off and turning it back on and NOT have to wait five minutes. Plus I didn’t want to wait a five hundred hours for Photoshop to boot up. So a SSD helped me achieve the productivity part of my goal. I also have a billion different documents just hanging out on my drive looking for a hand out, so I had to get a conventional drive as well, good thing they are about $50-60 a TB now so it wasn’t really a big expense.
I remember when I was super naive about computers. Me lads and I would talk about how super fast a computer would be if we had 256 gbs of RAM. But ram doesn’t work like that. And I found RAM to be one of the most boring components to research because there were so many different similar sticks of RAM. I went with 2 x 4 GB sticks for redundancy, because my target was 8 GB. The reasoning being if one RAM stick broke down like a spaghetti strainer in one of those infomercials, I would still have one more stick left. The only thing I paid attention to was the CAS. But in the end I just bought one of the cheapest GB/$ ram sticks.
Everyone barks that if you get a shit tier PSU it’s game over for your rig. Probably. This is one thing I entirely missed in my research, I’m actually a little surprised. I’m looking at my table of contents in Operation Titan and I don’t see a chapter on PSU, so shame on me. That’s not to say I didn’t do any research, it just means I didn’t record my research.The big thing to consider for your PSU is make sure you get one that can power your rig. The next thing to consider is if you want it to to be oozing with tentacles (non-modular), which means that each power cable is permanently attached. You can get semi-modular which means it will have a few tentacles attached, usually the good ones, the one’s that you’ll need no matter what and you can connect the tentacles that you need. Then you have full on removable tentacle mode, which means you can detach each and every single cable from the unit. I went with semi-modular. Fully modular usually cost more $$$ and I’m not about spending more money just so I can have “neat cable” management. There is a huge artisan thing going on in DIY PC about cable management. The argument is that if you neatly arrange your cables you can increase air flow, I researched and found a mixed picture for that. But people who are buying $2000 computers with LEDs and oil cooling want the cables inside to look nice. And yeah, neat cable management looks nice. The last thing you can consider for PSU is the rating, bronze, silver and gold: all related to efficiency. I went with a bronze because $$$. But if I was building again, I might’ve considered spending more to be a little more energy efficient, or maybe not, would the power savings cost offset the increase cost of the unit? I guess the last thing (for real), is how reliable the unit is. Unfortunately there isn’t an objective report that shows the reliability of units, so people usually judge off brands and this is mostly anecdotal. When my PSU died in my DX4300 I bought a cheapie PSU from Best Buy (Dynex) and it served the unit well for the rest of it’s service life.
How can you be a big time bawler with a little no-LED case? A case is mostly for show, something you can easily save money on. My specs for this were simple: cheap, had the bays to fit my equipment (namely a SSD bay), and was white. White, not because I’m about white power, white because it fit in with the whole ICBM thing I had going on. The Termaltake case I got has been great, it even came with blue LEDs which I didn’t really require nor want, but it lets me know it’s on, if I forget if my computer is on or off. Funny unrelated story, Canada Post didn’t want to deliver it to my house, so I had to pick it up in a Canada Post Outlet inside a Canadian Tire. I tried walking out the front door hauling this massive thing and the cashier at the front door of Canadian Tire thought I was a thief.
“Uh sir can I see your receipt?” She said,
The lady trying to pay with her debit was totally frozen, everyone stopped their daily toil to stare at the master thief himself. I gave her a puzzled look, not sure even what to say, so I put the case down on her cashier work station. The box had a picture of some sort of snow trooper on it and didn’t even look like a Master Craft air compressor.
“You guys even sell these?” I said, somewhat surprised.
“Oh sorry” she said and I walked out. Kids, that’s how you steal PC cases from Canadian Tire.
Another component I remember struggling with because there was about three that had similar specs and were similar prices that I identified for potentially buying. For a MOBO you need to understand your other components (it’s why I saved picking a MOBO until last). The mobo socket will determine your upgradeability which is something I had a big debate about. The biggest disadvantage of buying a FX chip meant that it would be basically eliminate my chance of upgrading later on, because AMD had quit the AM3+ socket and AM4 socket will be for the new Zen processor. I remember it being suggested to me to start with a cheap i3 and if I needed more fire power get an i5. But, that would add huge costs later down the line, and as my PS4 cost benefit analysis shows, I like having an eye for costs down the road. In the end, I decided to be stoic upon the coast with a raging sea below me, and accept the fact that I will not be able to upgrade my CPU. It’s something I’m sure many will disagree with, but that’s OKAY. I think my rig will last me 5-8 years no problem. At the end of it I will be looking for a more substantial upgrade, like a new GPU, CPU, DDR5 RAM. At that point it’s a entirely new build and not a small incremental upgrade. I can probably use my current rig as a home server or something when I build a new one.
Usually forgotten in many builds. Retail Windows can cost over $100. If you’re resourceful you can get it for $0 or really cheap $30-50 through a sketchy third party. Or you can get Linux. I won’t say what I did.
You can be savage and salvage your old computer. Why not? I did it, and saved probably $100, with one simple trick, a Philips head screwdriver (also known as a star). My old computer had a WIFI adapter, a CD drive and a 1 TB hard drive. You can be a liberal hippie and recycle. I know many people are forgoing CD drives like they are forgoing marriage before sex. But how was I suppose to install my 6 CD set of GTA V with a no CD drive? Was I suppose to copy the 1 and 0’s by hand? I’m frugal not that frugal. Of course I had what I already owned written down in Operation Titan, I had the full specs either from Gateway.com or from SIW, and I wrote them down, I knew exactly what I was getting from my old PC.
That’s it folks. I basically started a word document and hit the pavement looking for specs and reviews, benchmarks like I went on about above. In the end I got to about forty pages of sweet research. It was fun and it was frustrating to build a computer. You can look at specs, but then you start digging in to what the specs actually mean and you find a damn library filled with contradictory notions. Add in fanboy fetish and all of sudden extra cores on an AMD chip are more meaningless than life itself. Other things are hard to get, if not impossible. I wanted to look at failure rates for components, I got a little bit lucky when one data server company did a study on it’s hard drives and explored the failure rates of certain drives, pretty neato but it’s hard if not possible to find a study on GPUs and failure rates, or PSUs and failure rates. In the future, I would spend more time trying to understand specs, benchmarks and better state them in my research.
Final Part list
SO if you were hoping to see this at the start of the article, social experiment on you! It’s at the end. It doesn’t account for salvaged parts, tax or the one or two packages I got ripped off into paying shipping. It also does not account the ~$30-40 dollars I got back in mail-in rebates.
|Case: Thermaltake Commander MS-I Snow Edition ATX Mid Tower Case WHITE/BLACK 1X3.5EXT 5X3.5INT No PSU||64.26|
|CPU: Amd Fx-8320 125 Am3+ 125 16mb 3500||198.09|
|GPU: MSI Radeon R9 380 4GD5T OC 980MHZ 4GB 5.5GHZ GDDR5 HDMI DisplayPort
2x DVI PCI-E Video Card [R9 380 4GD5T OC
|Mobo: GIGABYTE GA-970A-DS3P (rev. 2.0) AM3+ AMD 970 6 x SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 ATX AMD
|Cooler Master G650M 650W 80+ Bronze Semi Modular ATX Power Supply [RS650-AMAAB1-US||97.99|
|G.SKILL Ripjaws X Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) Desktop Memory Model F3-12800CL9D-8GBXL||54.99|
|Sandisk SSD Plus 120GB||53.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200RPM 64MB Sata 6GBPS 3.5IN Internal Hard Drive – Oem||60.69|
For my 2 readers that are American, let’s put it in freedom units (USD): $898.95 CAD equals roughly $638 USD. The reason I note this is, is because a lot of Frugal DIY PC articles were quoting prices for around $500-600 but I always noted they were American. So if I translate to good olde non-gold backed US dollars, I’m really not too far off from the bare-bone frugal builds that some of the articles I read at the time were getting – and my build is not bare bones. Computer building isn’t cheap, but it’s something I use quite often. I didn’t blow out my bank account buying it, in fact I started budgeting for it in the summer prior, when I started to seriously consider building a PC.
So it’s one year in, how did it go? Pretty good, no break downs, nothing. I built the damn thing in about six hours because I took my time to take in my gar and sip some rum and coke. Performance on games is exactly what I expected so no real big surprises. There’s not much to say about that.
Next build, my goal is to actually complete my research report and have it available. Maybe in 5-8 years from now or so. Stayed tuned my 8 readers, hopefully by then I’ll have 20 readers.
Ultimately the too long, didn’t read is this: I defined goals, researched, built it and it works 100 percent exactly as I expected it to. I’m not disappointed at all in the build and it has help filled my needs. If anything, I might be more than I need at the moment since my all time gaming is at a new low.
P.S. WordPress dashboard here has terrible table management. I spent too much time editing the HTML to get the tables to look right, so next Thanksgiving, please mail me your thanks because i spent like 20 minutes editing the HTML for the tables.