I recently built my first gaming/general-use PC and below is a list of the parts I eventually settled on for it.
THE SCOOP: Building your first desktop PC
BUILDING A PC: Safety tips and handy online resources
With any building project, it's important to identify what you want to actually use the machine for and set a budget before diving too deeply into the specifics of different components. I decided early on that this would be primarily a gaming rig, with plenty of room for expansion and a secondary focus on general productivity tasks.
CPU: Intel Core i5-3570K quad-core (3.4GHz). I wanted a good one, and I got it. According to the excellent Tom's Hardware site, spending much more than the $230 (I got mine as part of a package deal at MicroCenter for $190) the Ivy Bridge-based Core i5-3570K costs results in rapidly diminishing returns. Since I'm not planning to overclock at this point, I've left the stock cooler on it, but there are superb after-market CPU coolers available for as little as $30, if I feel like revving this thing up a little harder.
Motherboard: There are a huge number of variables at play in picking a motherboard -- besides simply making sure the CPU is compatible, there are various numbers of connectors for SATA, USB, etc., RAM compatibility issues and so on, making sure the bugger will fit in the case -- and so it pains me to admit that I more or less avoided the whole issue thanks to the aforementioned package deal. The popular ASRock Z77 Extreme4 was the other half of the deal, which I got for $85. (PCPartPicker shows it available at Newegg for $132, including shipping, as of this writing.)
RAM: Happily, RAM is relatively cheap these days, and you can get a fairly high-end product for a good price. I got two 4GB sticks of Corsair Vengeance DDR3 memory (pictured at right) clocked at 1600MHz for $50, which should be able to handle anything I throw at it for the foreseeable future. More than 8GB tends to be seen as overkill for gaming. Also, it looks like a comb.
The major thing to keep in mind with RAM is compatibility. Make sure your RAM is designed to fit into the slots on your motherboard, and that the board can handle its memory frequency.
Case: This is one of two areas in which I consciously overspent. The Cooler Master HAF (High Air Flow) X (pictured at left) is a full tower, as opposed to the more common mid-tower form factor. I could have gotten a perfectly functional case for much, much less than the $180 I paid for the HAF X -- the well-regarded Rosewill Challenger mid-tower costs $50 -- but there were a couple reasons I wanted to go a little bit bigger here.
The first was size and convenience -- the HAF X, like many nicer cases for home builders, has a lot of little tweaks like tool-less drive bays that make common installation tasks less of a hassle, and I liked the idea of having plenty of room to fumble around in on my first build.
The second was cooling. I wanted to make sure the case had good airflow, particularly if I decide to overclock components down the road.
While I admit that the styling is probably not for everyone -- that uber-masculine military/industrial look is a bit silly in some ways -- it's less ridiculous than some gaming enclosures I've seen.
PSU: The second area I overspent on. Reading forums like r/BuildAPC and Tom's Hardware can make you very paranoid about buying a crappy power supply -- new builders are constantly lectured about the potential catastrophes that can result from cheaping out on the PSU -- and I'll confess, I took the lesson a bit too closely to heart. (To be clear, they're not wrong: Ensuring that you have a reliable, well-built PSU that provides enough power to your components is critically important.)
In any case, the upshot was that I bought a 750 W Seasonic X-Series PSU for $136 (discounted via a promo code from $160). As with the case, I could have gotten a perfectly acceptable component for considerably less, but at least the 750 W of power -- far in excess of what I need to run the current setup -- will provide a comfortable buffer if I decide to add a second graphics card for SLI in the future.
GPU: The most expensive single component of the build, at $400, was the EVGA GeForce GTX 670 FTW graphics card, a 2GB powerhouse that's just a minor step below the GTX 680 and 690 at the top of Nvidia's food chain. Given my desired focus on gaming performance, spending big on the graphics card seemed like the right idea, and the GTX 670 gives nearly the same performance as the 680 for considerably less money.
Picking the right graphics card can be a little confusing, given the maze of different OEMs offering their own versions of a given chipset. Again, Tom's Hardware or r/BuildAPC can be invaluable resources, though I recommend doing some serious reading before simply asking either community -- they both get the "which GPU?" question kind of a lot.
Storage: I decided on a dual solid-state drive/hard disk drive configuration for storage early on. The idea is to install Windows and performance-sensitive programs (like high-end games) on the solid-state drive, while retaining a bigger traditional hard disk for media storage and everything else. I got a 256GB Crucial M4 SSD for $219, and a 2TB Seagate Barracuda for $120. (Storage is still unusually expensive, thanks to the Thai floods of 2011, so prices may drop in the future.)
Optical drive: This is one area that even the enthusiasts seem to mostly ignore. The most common advice I got was to just go for a cheap DVD-R drive, which wound up costing me $30. A Blu-ray burner will cost more than $100 -- hardly the end of the world, but definitely something you could trim if you don't plan on using the format very much.
Operating system: As interested as I'd be in a Linux system, serious PC gaming is still mostly a Windows affair. I opted for Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, which I got on Amazon for $90. An important point to consider is that you can't use more than 4GB of RAM on a 32-bit system, so it's almost always a better idea to go for 64-bit these days.
The grand total: $1,381, which I could have chopped down to roughly $1,170 with different case and PSU choices. Still, not too shabby.
A note on buying: I spread my buying out over a couple of weeks, in order to lessen the blow on my wallet. While this is fiscally responsible, it can be frustrating to have ALMOST all your parts sitting around, waiting to be built, while you watch the mailbox for your RAM or whatever -- particularly if you're an eager first-timer champing at the bit to start building.
Email Jon Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.
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