Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Configure an awesome custom PC for 1000 dollars or less.

Every three months or so, people I know will ask me, "Hey what computer should I get?" and every three months I recommend that they build their own, but warn them not to go crazy. Of course everyone wants the latest and greatest, but often it is just a waste of money to have all that power today. Remember it's a computer, not a personal arms race. From the top of the line PCs that cost 3000 USD to the bottom of the barrel that cost 300 USD, I can almost guarantee that you will want to start upgrading something three years from the date of purchase. I feel that a three year upgrade path makes a lot of sense for gamers since I have noticed that every three to four years there is a defining title that pushes computer hardware. Examples include Quake 3 just before 2000, Doom 3 in mid 2004, Crysis in 2007, and Metro 2033 in 2010. 

For everyone else, one would expect the top of the line three years ago to be today's midrange and the past midrange to be today's low end. 

Well, not exactly. 

For the rest of us there is usually some technology that comes along and changes the way we work. The explosion of Flash back in 2006 thanks to sites like Youtube, and HD video which started getting pushed in 2007 have made video cards and CPU's from three years ago inefficient by today's standards. Dual core CPU's that were a luxury in 2006 are now almost a requirement. 1 GB of RAM was good enough as well, but it is now on its last legs.

Starting today, I will post every build that I configure online and try to justify it. The target is to build an awesome computer for less than 1000 dollars. It must also have some degree of future proofing so that in three years you can use some of the parts from this build. It must also play all of today's games at a reasonable resolution and detail with out slowdown. Today's build is going to be an AMD based system due to a motherboard recall that has significantly hurt availability of Intel Sandy Bridge based motherboards. At this rate, I expect it to be April until I can recommend building an Intel based PC.

Since this is the first build that I am posting, and since the date is February 21st, 2011, I will call it Version 1.022111. (Build #.mmddyy)

AMD System Build Version 1.022111

CPU: AMD Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition Six-Core Processor 3.2 GHz Socket AM3 (200 USD)
Motherboard: ASUS M4A87TD EVO Socket AM3 (110 USD)
RAM: Any (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 for a total of 8 GB (100 USD)
Video Card: ASUS ENGTS450 or any Nvidia GTS 450 based card (125 USD)
Hard Drive: 1Tb Hitachi Deskstar 7200 RPM drive (59 USD)
Optical Drive: Anything with 24X DVD-R and Lightscribe (20 USD)
Power Supply: Antec TruePower New TP-550 550W (70 USD)
Total Base System Cost: 734 USD

Additional Items:
Keyboard: Any (30 USD and up) otherwise Razer BlackWidow Mechanical Keyboard (80 USD)
Mouse: Any (10 USD and up)
Speakers: Built into the Display listed below, otherwise M-Audio Studiophile AV 40 (130 USD)
Display: ASUS VW242H 23.6-Inch Widescreen LCD Monitor (180 USD)
Operating System: Ubuntu 10.10 or Win 7 Home Premium 64bit (Free or 100 USD)
Complete System Cost: 959-1234 USD


CPU: This 200 dollar Phenom II X6 1090T has six cores so in certain applications it can be pretty competitive with entry level Intel Core i7's, but it is significantly cheaper. Think of it as a top of the line Core i5 and you get the idea. Only with this you get six cores instead of four. This 1090T I recommend is pretty much the top of the line from AMD except for the newer Phenom II X6 1100T. However I can't recommend that version since it carries a 40 USD price premium over the 1090T and the main difference is a 0.1 Ghz clock speed bump. As for future proofing, this processor can be overclocked since it is the unlocked Black Edition. If its gaming, image editing or video encoding you do, the Phenom II X6 1090T has you covered.

Motherboard: GIGABYTE or ASUS tends to make top tier boards these days, but in terms of future upgrades, this 110 dollar ASUS M4A87TD EVO caught my eye. It supports a max of 16 GB of ram which will probably never be necessary within this computer's life expectancy of three years. It's got a couple USB 3.0 ports that will probably start to become necessary two years from now. Until then, it has an eSATA port, a bunch of USB 2.0 and a IEEE 1394a port to keep you going. It has SATA III 6.0Gbs/sec support which will be useful for when SSD's start to mature within three years. This board even has IDE and standard PCI slots just in case you brought some parts from three years ago to today. All in all, a well balanced board that will easily last three years.

RAM: The motherboard has 4 slots and supports up to 16GB of RAM. This means that we want a 4GB stick in each slot to prevent future waste. Ever since operating systems have gone 64bit, I have noticed a significant increase in the amount of RAM necessary to be comfortable. So get 2x4GB of DDR3-1600 sticks for now and enjoy your 8Gb today. A few years down, buy a second set to fill all four slots. the 8GB kit should cost around 100 dollars no matter what brand you go with, just try to get sticks with a heat spreader on them

Video Card: An Nvidia GeForce GTS 450 is good for playing today's game titles at 1080p without hassle. These cards should cost no more than 130 dollars no matter what brand you end up getting. Try finding a card that has HDMI, DVI, and VGA ports. This ASUS ENGTS450 that I have pictured has those ports. If you need a new video card in the future, there will be plenty of options then to swap for.

Hard Drive: Hitachi's used to be more expensive than the competition, but recently I have been seeing a 1 Tb Hitachi Deskstar 7200 RPM for less than 60 dollars which makes it an attractive deal. If you need more space, I feel that a hard drive is one of the easiest things to upgrade in a desktop PC so this is one of the few items that is okay to cut back on today. In the future, we can expect 3Tb hard drives, and really high quality SSD's to be the norm, so I would wait for that train to come. In general, any 7200 RPM will do, but try to avoid Seagate since they seem to have a ridiculously high failure rate these days.


 Optical Drive: Any drive with 24X DVD-R and Lightscribe will be excellent and these can be found for around 20 dollars. You still need the occasional CD for installing programs and a lot of movies are still on DVD's. I would avoid Blu-Ray entirely because of its crazy DRM schemes, and high cost. To watch movies, its best to just get a dedicated Blu-Ray player or a PS3 and be done with it. That way you can avoid loading the terrible playback software Blu-Rays require. As a storage medium, I just don't see Blu-Rays taking off. SD cards and USB flashdrives are getting very big, and various online storage programs seems to be growing faster than the use of Blu-Ray discs.

Power Supply: Even with the most beefy video card and processor, you hardly ever need more than 450W on a power supply. The exceptions would be if you were building for a computer that had multiple CPU's or Video Cards. For today, I am recommending the 70 dollar Antec TruePower New TP-550 550W. It has enough wattage to get through any task even if you add several hard drives. It is rated with an 80+ Bronze Certification which means that it will always run at at least 80% efficiency. In general, you can't go wrong with any PSU that has a 80+ certification, but this one had the best balance of power, design and price.


Case: The case can be either the most important part or the least important one depending on how you look at it. Cases are completely personal so choose whatever one you like. I chose the 50 dollar NZXT GAMMA because it was cheap but also included an eSATA port on the front panel. It has holes in the back in case you upgrade to a water cooled system It also has lots of space for fans so the airflow should be good. In general, cases over 100 dollars are showy and cases cheaper than 30 dollars are just lacking in features or quality.

This should bring our total base system cost to 734 USD. If you take advantages of rebates and sales, I bet you could get that down to 700 dollars. This will leave around 300 dollars for the rest of the system. If you already have your own keyboard, mouse, speakers, OS, and display you are done. Otherwise continue reading.

Keyboard: You can find these from 30 dollars and up. Ultimately they should all work, but for a sturdy peripheral, I recommend the Razer BlackWidow Mechanical Keyboard. It's good for gamers because it has a lot of possible macros you can set. It's good for everyone because of its mechanical Cherry MX Blue keyswitch, which makes it a joy to type on.

Mouse: I have no specific mouse to recommend, but mice start at 10 dollars and just go up from there. You don't need to get a mouse with insane DPI unless if you play first person shooters on ultra sensitivity or something. Anything Logitech or Razer makes should be fine for a mouse.

Speakers: The display I listed below has built in speakers that should be fine for every day use, but if you want a quality setup get the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40 pictured above for around 130 USD. Don't worry about the fact that it doesn't have a subwoofer since these speakers are quite beefy on their own.


Display: The ASUS VW242H 23.6-Inch Widescreen LCD Monitor (180 USD) seems to be ideal for the job. It has three of the most common ports which are VGA, DVI, and HDMI. It does 1080p so you could even plug in a Playstation 3 or something to this monitor. it is pretty much 24 inches, and has built in speakers as well. For less than 200 dollars, I think it's a great value.

OS: I recommend Ubuntu 10.10 over any other OS. It is very easy to use as long as you don't expect it to be a drop in replacement for Windows and its free price is also attractive. There are new things you may have to learn, but if my grandma can do it, so can you! However for gamers it may be easier to stick to Windows. If you go the Ubuntu route, I have found that a lot of Windows games do work in Ubuntu using free software called Wine, but you would have to look into that more closely to see if the game you want to play will work. If you must, get Windows 7 64bit Home Premium since it will be supported for another three years and it also supports 16GB of RAM, which this build could eventually use.

That's it for now. If you stuck with Ubuntu, a cheap keyboard, mouse, and speakers this should bring the total to 959. Which is just below our magic 1000 dollars. If you went all out, expect to pay around 1234 USD. I'm guessing most people have at least a keyboard and mouse lying around, so even if you just got the monitor and the Windows license, you are looking at spending around 1054 USD. Taking advantage of rebates and sales and I bet this drops to 1000 dollars as well. Once the new Sandy Bridge motherboards come back to stores, I will be configuring an Intel CPU based PC and posting that build.

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