Welcome to Part Shoppers Anonymous
the Penny Arcade Computer Build Thread!
(this OP is shamelessly stolen/modified from our missing overlord alecthar, who may or may not be suffering heat stroke from quadfired R9 290X's)
This is your one stop source of all things regarding the purchasing and assembling of computer hardware. We do our best to provide advice about component choice, shopping for components, assembling the PC itself, and even a little bit of troubleshooting for new builds (if you're having issues). To my knowledge no forumer has ever left with a non functioning build. We'll get you there! All at a measly 250% of your original budget!
You're looking at me funny, so I can tell you have some questions. I invite you to stay a while, and listen.
"Why should I build my own computer when I could just have a bunch of underpaid assembly line workers do it for me?"
- Knowledge: Building your own computer is a learning experience. To start with, you'll probably end up doing a lot of research on the current state of consumer computing hardware, along with learning a bit about how various computer components work within a complete system. You'll also gain valuable knowledge about the actual assembly of a PC, something that definitely comes in handy if you find yourself doing family tech support.
- Quality: PCs from companies like Dell and HP are built cheaply. Sometimes this isn't a huge issue. Intel, for example, doesn't sell a separate "from the junk pile" line of CPUs. Hard drives are generally of fairly consistent quality among manufacturers. However, depending on the PC, you may end up with a fairly anemic, or even cruddy, generic PSU, along with motherboards that are generally pretty limited in their flexibility and feature-set, and don't even get me started on the cases they use. Building your own PC gives you complete control over the quality of the components you use.
- Flexibility: A prebuilt PC sometimes comes with proprietary components, or in a case with a proprietary form factor with a weird sized PSU. When you build your own PC, you can select the components with an eye towards whatever degree of flexibility or upgrade-ability you deem appropriate. Because retail component design adheres to certain standards, you end up with a more modular system that can be changed more easily.
- Value: When it comes to a PC with real horsepower, manufacturers believe we're willing to pay a serious premium. Building your own Gaming (or Workstation) PC almost always saves you significant amounts of money.
With all that said, I want to highlight a very important point. If all you need to do with a computer is browse the internet, consume media, and use productivity software like MS Office, there's admittedly little reason not to buy a pre-built machine. Because of the economy of scale, you will almost always get a higher specced computer for cheaper if your budget is less than $400 or so. Quality can still sometimes be an issue, and you won't gain any knowledge, but cheap computers are probably a better deal pre-built.
"You've convinced me to build my own, what's inside the box again?"
In general there are 7 main components to a PC. I will briefly explain what each one is, and give you a little bit of info about the important details to look out for. Don't worry if this seems complicated, or seems to be lacking information, as this is just an overview. Once you post in the thread your fellow forumers will be there to make sure you have everything sorted out before you buy! If you want to know more there are many great resources online, but a great place to start is our very own Alecthar's blog
"Ok I know what a PC is now, but where do I start?"
- CPU: This is the central processing unit. It is the heart of your PC build and is what controls how quickly your computer can perform various tasks. There are only 2 manufacturers (AMD and Intel), and these days Intel is dominating. Pro-tip, over the years CPUs are generally tracked by their architecture (which alludes to how they are designed) and each unique architecture is given a name (Newest are haswell for intel, and Jaguar for amd). There are a multitude of different specs for CPUs, but it's nigh impossible to use them for comparison across manufactures and often times even across different architectures. Generally you will want to go to a place like Tom's Hardware and look actual measured comparisons between the chips to decide.
. . . . If you're looking for high end performance, and the best bang for your buck, you will also want to look out for unlocked CPUs that allow for overclocking. These days it is a very painless process, and can easily give you a 10-30% performance boost for the cost of a bigger heatsink. For intel CPUs, model numbers that end in a K allow overclocking.
- GPU: This is the graphical processing unit. As the name implies it controls how pretty things will look, and what games you can play. The first important decision for your GPU is onboard versus discrete. These days Intel and AMD are offering combined CPU/GPU chips that are really pretty good. For everything besides gaming and graphic intensive work, these combined chips offer the best performance at the cheapest price. If you're building a HTPC for example this is definitely the way to go. Interestingly this is the one area where AMD is leading, as their APU line (their terminology for the combined CPU/GPU) tends to have better GPU performance with similar CPU performance than the corresponding intel products. A top of the line AMD APU will be good enough to stream any video content, watch blurays, and even play some older games at moderate settings.
. . . . If, however, you are looking to game or do a lot of video editing/other graphics intensive work, then a discrete graphics card is the way to go. For the purposes of gaming, the rest of your system is mainly an effort to get out of your video card's way. The price of a solid video card reflects that; for gaming PCs the video card will be the most expensive single component you purchase. For discrete GPUs there are again 2 manufacturers, AMD (formally ATI) and Nvidia. Unlike CPUs the GPU race remains relatively tight, and there's really good deals to be had with either brand. To make things more confusing AMD and Nvidia don't actually sell graphics cards themselves, instead the sell the designs (or base hardware) to other companies who build them and sell them to consumers. This means that for any given GPU model (say the Nvidia GTX 760), there will be several different vendors selling that exact model (like this GTX 760 sold by EVGA). Different vendors can have different coolers, different amounts of overclocking, and different build quality, so be careful with who the exact card is coming from.
- Motherboard: The motherboard is the complex circuitry that connects all of your fancy parts together. Buying a motherboard is all about quality, compatibility, and options. The two most important compatibility issues are getting the right socket for your CPU, and getting the right size for your case. Whatever CPU you are interested in getting should have a corresponding socket number (like LGA 1150 for Haswell based CPUs), and you absolutely must get a motherboard with that socket. Motherboards also generally come in a few different sizes (or form factors), with the most common being: ATX, micro-ATX, mini-ATX, and mini-ITX. The key here is to make sure that you Case specifically says it is compatible with the form factor you choose. For quality purposes you generally want to stick to the 4 main manufacturers: MSI, ASUS, ASRock, and Gigabyte. Finally, it's all about the options. Make a list of everything that you want to hook up to your pc and what type of connection it needs (USB 3.0 vs 2.0, HDMI vs DVI vs Display Port, esata, ect...) and find yourself a motherboard that has all the necessary connections. Other things to consider are SLI/crossfire compatibility (which allows you to run 2 GPUs simultaneously for Nvidia or AMD cards respectively), PCI-E 3.0 vs 2.0 (and x16 or x8), CPU overclocking compatible, onboard GPU compatible, soundcard capabilities, and Ethernet capabilities.
- Memory: This is often referred to as the RAM or Random Access Memory, and it controls how many things you can do at once. These days there are basically 3 rules to follow when buying RAM. (1) Buy DDR3: Only legacy sockets from AMD and Intel support DDR2. This is a compatibility check with the motherboard so always look at the motherboard specs to verify, but almost everything these days uses DDR3. (2) Only 1 RAM specification is worth worrying about: 1600Mhz. Slower and you may seem some changes in performance for a cheaper price, and faster is mostly just a waste of money. Timings largely mean nothing. (3) Buy 4-8 GB and as many DIMMS (or sticks) as channels on your motherboard. So if your motherboard supports 2 channel memory, get 2 sticks of 4GB Ram (for 8GB total). RAM is cheap so lean towards more rather than less, but for most people anything more than 8 GB will be wasted.
- Hard Disk Drive/Solid State Drive: This is where all of your software and data is stored. If you're budget can swing it the most effective setup is to use a smaller SSD (60-120 GB) for your programs and OS, and a larger HDD (500 GB - 4 TB) for media storage. Not all SSDs and not all HDDs are created equal. For HDDs the spindle speed (typically 5400, 7200, and 10000 RPMs) dictates how quickly you will be able to access your data, with higher RPMs giving faster access. For purely data storage the speed tends not to matter that much, but for programs/games loading will be much faster. Any SSD will be far quicker than even the best HDDs. Most importantly for both you want something that is reliable, so check the comments/reviews for any particular model. Just keep in mind that every single model ever created will have some small number of drives that fail and those will be the bulk of the people leaving comments.
- PSU: This is the power supply unit, and as the name implies it powers your PC. There are 3 basic factors to consider for a PSU: modular/non-modular, wattage, and quality. A non-modular PSU will have all of the cables permanently attached and can be a pain to keep organized compared to being able to remove unnecessary cables. Wattage is the amount of power your PSU can supply and you generally want your computer to run close to but not at the maximum rating for your PSU. To see what that would be before you buy your PSU, just find any online wattage calculator, put in the parts you want to use, and viola. Finally there is the quality, which is sadly hard to determine and doesn't respond well to the kind of "pop it in our test rig and benchmark it" style of reviewing that most PC component review sites tend to favor. Alecthar's blog has a nice rundown on good review sites and a good vs bad listing of manufacturers.
- Case: This is where you put all those things above. Don't underestimate the importance of a good case. A Good cable management system and layout can make building a PC a vastly superior experience, as well as giving longevity to your build through superior heat management. Also that shit should look badass. The only requirement though is that you find a case that is large enough to house all of your components (this is not a trick, often times GPUs, PSUs, certain types of memory, and some optical drives will not fit in a particular case), and can accept the form factor for the motherboard used.
- Other: This is just a list of other parts to keep in mind, that you may or may not need. Additional fans, optical drive, soundcard, wifi card (or usb dongle), monitor, keyboard, mouse, cables (fan cables, sata cables, ect...), aftermarket CPU heatsink (necessary for overclocking), and zipties (or other cable management device).
Here are a few questions you should ask yourself when you're ready to start researching parts for your new PC. Once you have some answers to these questions, post them in this thread and others will jump in to fill in the gaps and get you well on your way to completing your order! Don't be intimidated if you don't know any of the answers though, as any questions (no matter how basic) are always welcome. In general though, the more information we have about what you want and how much you're willing to pay to get it, the better the advice you'll get.
"I'm totes ready to buy, but everyone keeps posting this PC partpicker thing. Where do I actually get my stuff?"
- What kind of computer do you need? The 4 basic categories are: standard gaming PC, HTPC, server, and a serious Workstation.
- What's your budget for this project?
- What needs to be included in that budget? Do you need a monitor, keyboard and mouse to go with it? Are there components from a previous PC that you are carrying over to the new build? What about an operating system (like Windows 8.1)?
- What are your performance needs? For games, what resolution do you game at, and what kind of performance do you want to see there? For professional tasks, what are you doing and what kind of numbers would you like to see?
- Do you have any partiality towards specific manufacturers, like Intel/AMD, AMD/NVIDIA, or perhaps specific vendors?
- Do you have any specific needs? That is, are you looking for quiet operation, small form factor, significant upgrade-ability, or other specific features?
There are a number of solid online purchasing options available to US consumers. My personal favorite is Newegg
, though there are other options like Tiger Direct
, and (of course) Amazon
. Brick and mortar buyers can find some components at big box retailers like Best Buy and Fry's, though I've found that prices from online retailers are significantly better than these stores. The exception to that seems to be Microcenter, which often has great deals on processors and motherboards in particular.
From the veteran Canadian shopper an_alt:
when it comes to Canadian supplies, NCIX.ca used to be the undisputed champion. So far as I know, they're still a good company, but they didn't have the best price for any part I saw. Newegg.ca usually had the best prices including shipping on my current build, vuugo.com often had good prices though their website seems a bit sketchy, and directcanada.com has some good prices and worked fine for me in the past.
Online retailers in the UK include Ebuyer
, which apparently has a wide selection of components, Novatech
, which also does custom systems and apparently has some fans in UK PC forums, and dabs.com
, a site recommend by our very own Big Isy, who cited their frequent free shipping/free game deals.
Our very own Tef put together a very thorough buying guide for Australians:
Online retailers (Australia-wide)
- Based in Melbourne, these guys are as close to an Australian Newegg as you will find. PCcasegear are known for their reliable service and good RMA (returning faulty equipment) policies. They have a somewhat decent range of equipment, for Australia and while generally pretty cheap, there certainly are cheaper options out there. For people in Melbourne, you can also visit their store front and pick up the parts personally.
- A cheaper alternative to PCcasegear that is still reasonably reliable. MSY does suffer from a limited range and volume of stock on occasion. As of October 2011, they do not have a delivery system in place (in progress, according to MSY) so you will have to pick up the parts from their brick and mortar shops. Fortunately, they have numerous store fronts around the country, so finding one nearby shouldn't be too hard to do. Be aware that when you're shopping online make sure you set your store location to the store that you'll be picking the parts up from. MSY filter their displayed products based on what shop you've selected and it's very annoying to get to the checkout and realise all your parts are only available in far north Queensland.
Other Australia-based Online Retailers
www.mwave.com.au www.megabuy.com.au www.umart.com.au
- These are some other notable budget PC shops. They'll ship anywhere domestically and are usually competitively priced. Do note that they're budget resellers (particularly in the case of megabuy) and their customer support and shipping status/timeframes may not always be as great as what you'll find from MSY/PCcasegear.
An option exists to purchase parts overseas and ship them in yourself, thus avoiding the mark-up from Aussie vendors. www.priceusa.com.au
is the only vendor the writer has experience with and therefore is the only one this writer is prepared to recommend with confidence. There are several caveats associated with international orders, namely that support/returns will be more difficult due to distances and there is a potential for longer lead-times on orders (though this is not always the case). Recommendations for overseas shipping would be that you don't order cases and possibly PSUs from overseas, as the associated hikes in shipping costs make this expensive (it should go without saying that you should do your own research on this point though, as it may be more cost effective depending on where you can buy domestically).
There also exists the option of organising a deal through the PA forums. This will be more difficult as it will require the forumer to takes reception of your goods and then ship them to you themselves. You will need to organise such a deal between yourselves and please be aware that this is an imposition on people and you certainly shouldn't expect people to firstly jump at the chance to help you out and secondly do this for you without some kind of repayment (*cough*steam wish lists*cough*). Moral of the story is that it may be an option for you, but don't count on it. It maybe be worth your while sending an extremely polite and well-written PM to the lovely JWashke (his PA forum handle) as he has mentioned that he MAY be available to help out his poor Australian brethren.
Purchase Support and Services
are two good price comparison sites that you can use to find who's selling what and for how much. The former is probably the highest quality of the two; just make sure you're looking at the Australian version (i.e. .au at the end)
While ostensibly a forum for PC overlockers, forums.overclockers.com.au
has a surprisingly good quality sub forum relating to the state of PC part purchasing in Australia. They are a good location for solid advice on retailers (after PA, of course!). The author recommends against the Whirlpool forums, as their wiki isn't really up to date and the quality of posts is, shall we way, subpar. Their wikis and forums sections on networking and all things internet are fantastic, however, and are highly recommended for questions pertaining these matters.
Failing all that, send a mention or a PM towards Tef or chrishallett83, both Australian forumers, who are usually more than happy to offer advice.
Below are some additional resources to help you out. Welcome to PC building!
Quick Links to Alecthar's Component Guides:
Processors and Motherboards
HDDs and SSDs
PSUs and Cases
Alecthar's List of Good Online Resources:
- A great site with in depth reviews on loads of tech.
- Not my favorite site in the world, but their monthly roundups of SSDs, CPUs, and GPUs are useful, and they have some good comparison tools.
- Solid PSU reviews, and also some solid motherboard and video card reviews.
- Basically some of the best PSU reviews out there.
- One of my favorite non-PA forums. There's loads and loads of good info here, from optimizing SSDs to overclocking to in-depth information on motherboard VRM setups.