Gadgematch 3: Buy a new PC vs. Build Your Own System

Preface: I’m going to alter the Gadgematch approach ever so slightly this week to cover the recent decision I had; Buy a new desktop PC or build my own system. With respect to the masses that probably wouldn’t think about or dare to build their own system, I hope to cover my decision with a bit of a tutorial-like twist and detail the supplies and steps you will need to build your own system.

 VS.

Gadgematch#3: Buy a pre-built system from Dell/HP/Gateway or build my own PC. 

When the power supply died on my discontinued Dell Dimension 4700C, I had no real options but to see if Fry’s or MicroCenter could sell me a replacement. I learned a hard lesson that because it was a Dell, it was custom and the form factor could not support any readily available accessories. I had a choice to either buy a new system, and potentially run into the same issue in 2 years, or build my own. I took a heavy look at my options, which I often do.

The Dell 4700C was a slim line form factor, chosen because its small size gave us much more desk space. Surprisingly, there aren’t many more options today for the slim PC than there were 2 years ago. HP makes a nice, somewhat affordable model and Dell’s new version of what I had is much improved. But I was worried I’d run into the same problem when something went wrong with that system. So, I explored the more standard mid-size tower options. As pictured above, I looked at the following models:

  • Dell XPS 410 – For around $1200, this very respectful performing model is also very pricey. I am a big Dell fan, but it will take me a few desktop system purchases to get over the power supply issue I just had. That being said, I could easily recommend this system as I could other Dell products like the laptop I just bought.
  • HP Pavilion d4790y – I’m not a big fan of HP systems. To me, they are badly re-packaged Compaq systems and I have never found them to be very good on performance. My previous work laptop was an HP and it couldn’t hold a candle to my Dell laptop. Their desktops seem just as bit clunky, but recently, they seem to be offering some pretty good features. Still, at $1100, I don’t think they’re discounted enough below the clearly superior Dell.
  • Gateway E-4610D – I honestly didn’t know Gateway was still around, but was pleasantly surprised to see this value-oriented company still offering systems. They receive no points for design, but for $1000, seemed almost right on with features and primed for a budget.

After nearly committing to spending $1000 on a new PC, I went back to MicroCenter one last time to try and get a new power supply. While looking through the components section of the store (aptly named “BYOPC”), I couldn’t help but begin checking out prices of computer parts. Matching spec for spec as close as I could to the systems above, I was actually able to piece together a system for under $600. Here’s the grocery list:

  • Board: Gigabyte Micro ATX 945GZM-S2 motherboard – $69.99
  • Case: CoolerMaster RC-331-KKR1 w/350 Watt power – $49.99
  • CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo Processor E4300 – $149.99
  • Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar 200GB SATA-300 – $54.99
  • Memory: Buffalo 1GB DDR2 – $74.99  
  • Optical: Pioneer 18X Lightscribe DVD-ROM – $49.99
  • OS: Windows Vista Home – $99.99
  • Media Reader: 3.5 Internal 8-in-1 card reader – $19.99

So, if you’ve never built a system, you’re probably wondering how to put it together. Here are the simple steps I follow. Those with experience should be able to complete this in about 30-45 minutes. It can get very easy!
* These steps are not meant to be followed exactly and if you’ve never built a system before, you should find someone you know that has first. I won’t be able to support you, but please let me know if you choose to build your own system and succeed as a result of this post.

  1. Get your tools ready. A Phillips screwdriver, a static-guard wrist band (if you have one and you tend to get shocked a lot), a sturdy table and some spray-air (for dust removal).
  2. Unpack the case and remove both sides for access. DO NOT PLUG IT IN YET.
  3. Unpack the motherboard and inspect it for any issues. Lay out the static-free (silver) bag and place the motherboard on top.
  4. Unpack the CPU and the included CPU fan. On the motherboard, open up the latch where the chip will go. Use the spray air carefully to remove dust from the chip area as well as off the prongs of the chip itself. Carefully hold the chip and place it on the motherboard. Latch it up very carefully.

  5. Remove the paper from the bottom of the CPU fan. (If you have thermal paste -recommended-, clean off the thermal tape and replace it with the paste. This will improve conductivity.)
  6. Spray the top of the chip and the bottom of the CPU fan. Carefully place the CPU fan on the chip and latch that into place.
  7. Connect the CPU fan power cable to the motherboard.
  8. Flip the case on its side and carefully mount the motherboard inside the case. Unravel the power supply cords and plug the motherboard cable (square) into the motherboard.
  9. Unpack the Optical Drive (DVD). Slide that into the top IDE slot. Attach a power cable. Attach the IDE cable from the drive to the motherboard.
  10. Unpack the hard drive. Slide it into a lower 3.5 slot in the case. Attach a power cable. Attach the SATA cable form the drive to the motherboard.
  11. Unpack the media (card reader) drive. Slide in into an upper 3.5 slot in the case. Attach a power cable. Attach the internal USB cable to the motherboard. (You may need to consult the motherboard manual to find out where to attach this, as it is not obvious.)
  12. Attach the case cables (power up, CPU activity, etc.) to the motherboard. Once again, consult the board manual as this can get complicated.
  13. Connect your monitor, keyboard and mouse to the back of the computer.
  14. Close the sides of the case. Plug it in and TURN THE SYSTEM ON.
  15. Place the OS CD/DVD (Windows Vista) into the drive. You may need to restart the system.
  16. Follow the instructions for installing the OS.

Believe it or not, these are the only steps I followed this time around. Building your own system has gotten dramatically easier in such a short time. It had been nearly 4 years since I built my own system.

Conclusion: Building a system can me intimidating and inconvenient, but also tremendous fun. It’s basically like ordering a delivery pizza vs. buying your own ingredients (like at Trader Joe’s, or TJ’s as my colleague Allen would say) and cooking it yourself. The result can be gratifying for budget and ego. You have control over how much or little technology you add. Every time you use the PC, you have a certain pride in knowing you built the computer and know it like no one else.

Stores like MicroCenter and Fry’s make it so easy to ‘grocery shop’ for system components, and after putting the pieces together, the Bios and OS software are so smart these days, there’s really very little you need to do once it’s all together.

chuckstar

4 Comments

Paulius Uza

There’s a third option – buy the components and let THEM build it for you. Costs about 20$ here.

chuckstar22

Ah, but that takes the fun out of it. Really, you are right. For an extra $20-30 online, you can buy the parts and have them assemble/test the system for you before shipping it.

Other notable places to buy parts for building your system I’ve purchased from are mwave.com, newegg.com and directron.com.

Rob Abbott

Building it yourself = fun (for most people)
Buying the parts online = no instant gratification/build

Going to MicroCenter or XYZ PC parts store (like Fry’s) and being able to replace your family computer in less than 2 hours…Priceless

Something your kids or wife would appreciate.

Ash

Latching your cpu/heatsink/fan onto the motherboard is one of the scariest things ever if you have to apply any pressure at all.. 🙂

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