punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

Rolling Your Own

When I started to build my own systems, it was a lot cheaper than buying them outright. I once built a system for $500 that would have cost me $1300 in 1997. But as the prices got cheaper, this no longer became the case. You can now get a fairly good desktop for about $399 from Dell. Even if I bought the cheapest and crappiest parts, I doubt I could beat that for the same specs. And Dell has a warrantee. They save by buying in bulk, and outsourcing what they can to other countries.

Two days ago, hot off a tax refund where I thought I'd have to pay, I paid off some debt, and I got my first new Windows system since 2001. My old 1.8ghz machine has been pretty reliable, but I always said I'd look to a new machine when games I really want won't play on the old one, or it died outright, whichever came first.

Damn you Serious Sam II!

I looked at gaming-level machines and nearly sprayed my drink all over the keyboard. To get some powerful, brand-name stuff in your system, you're paying about $2000 on up with Alienware or Dell's XPS systems. No way. My tax refund wasn't THAT big. Besides, I had to pay off some debts and fix Christine's system, too. So I wondered, "Could I build a system a lot cheaper?"

Yes. But it took a lot of research.

The first thing was the CPU. Since I wanted to have something that could play the games of today, I wanted something powerful. I usually buy what I call "the sweet spot" of price points. Like if I have the following selection (x1 doesn't mean anything, but x2 is "better than" x1 in my demonstrative example):

- CPU power x1 = $110
- CPU power x2 = $180
- CPU power x3 = $200
- CPU power x4 = $210
- CPU power x5 = $220
- CPU power x6 = $510
- CPU power x7 = $950

I would get "x5" in this case because it's the most powerful without spending a lot of money. Yeah, x7 is the best, but x7 will be $250 next year, and x5 will be only $150, so I lost less money.

I always used to buy Intel. I only have 2 AMD chips, a K5x133 and Athlon 800, and that last one was a gift. The K5 gave me so many problems back in 1996, I turned my back on AMD. But about 2 years ago, AMD started to size up to Intel. Now their chips run faster, use less power, and cost a lot less than their Intel counterparts. But the "GHZ" scale is no longer a good comparison, because it doesn't matter how fast the damn thing runs if it can't use that data. So while the Pentium 4 3.2 (3.2 ghz) seems faster on paper than an Athlon 3700+ (2.2 ghz), in speed tests, the "3700+ San Diego" completely smoked the P4 until the P4 goes up to 3.4 ghz. It's also a 64-bit hyperthreading chip with a 1mb front-side bus (bandwidth it connects to the motherboard and peripherals like video card and so on) and L2 cache (stores most recently used memory processes without recalculating, thus saving even more processing power). So while the P4 has a high speed, if it can get the data to anything else, it's like having a sports car stuck in traffic. The AMD chip I got uses a lot less wattage than a P4, too. Gamers have been raving about it, and Alienware puts it in their system.

I also got a matching ASUS socket 939 motherboard (that can handle the front end bus and L2), and that had a deal with some Abit RAM. So I got 2gb of RAM. I usually get PNY or Corsair, but the Abit came highly rated. DDR400 (pc3200) speed, which is what the motherboard takes.

Next, because it was a gaming computer, I wanted a decent card. I didn't want as "great" card, but I wanted one that could play all he modern stuff reasonably well, with some room for future games for the next few years. I settled on an NVIDIA 6800 chipset with 256mb Video RAM, which was at the "sweet spot."

I could have used my old case, but they had this nice one with a HUGE 240mm fan on one side. With all that power, it's sure to put out some heat, and CR has a similar case by the same company, and it was pretty well put-together. I also got a decent Antec power supply; having lost several boxes to bad ones, I have learned my lesson.

Thanks goes to Tom's Hardware that helped me make these decisions. They had easy-to-compare charts using some of the games I wanted to play. They also showed me what I needed to know about "AMD vs. Intel" in my decision for the bottom line: speed. Maybe I can't play all the games at 1600 x 1200 with all the antialiasing and shadows and alpha blending, but I can have them at 1024 x 768, and save $500 on the CPU and VGA card combo. And when the card gets old, I can swap it out later. Also some thanks goes to Newegg's ratings and some other ratings on other boards and online vendors.

I already had a new hard drive, monitor, floppy, keyboard, mouse, and speaker system. I didn't have to pay for those. I could have stuck with a used CDROM as well, but a new high speed DVD-RW was only $40.

So how much did my whole system cost? Let's just say less than $900. That also includes WinXP Pro and some games. A comparable system from Alienware was $2800 without games. Dell didn't have all the options I wanted (and no AMD), forced me to get stuff I didn't want (like a monitor), and came to roughly $3100. Of course, both systems had OMG video cards, and huge hard drives (200gb compared to the 80gb drive I will be using), but if I did get the huge hard drive and the same video, my price would have been maybe $1200. Not only was it cheaper, but my "devalue" loss will be less in one year. I am guessing my system could be built for $700 in a year, and the OMG would be about $800, so my system devalues 50% slower.

Yeah, I'm a geek. It must have taken me several hours over a few days to plan all this out. But it's kind of fun, really. And the reward is saving money, and having a slick system you know you built yourself.
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