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Building a Budget PC

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There's a school of thought among some PC builders that it's better to put together an inexpensive machine every 6–12 months, rather than build one expensive PC every 2–3 years. To that end, Paul McFedries shows you how to build a PC when you're on a tight budget.
This chapter is from the book
  • Frugality is the mother of virtue.
  • —Justinian, Corpus Juris

IN THIS CHAPTER

  • Design Goals for a Budget PC
  • Choosing Parts for the Budget PC
  • Putting Together the Budget PC
  • Powering Up
  • Final Thoughts

If you built (or just read along with) the previous two projects, you saw that their price tags were a bit on the high side: $1,700 for the high-performance PC (Chapter 13) and $1,900 for the killer gaming PC (Chapter 14). Those aren't cheap PCs, but in both cases I made significant compromises to keep the prices down! With top-shelf components throughout, these machines would have had our credit cards smoking thanks to price tags in the $4,000–$5,000 range.

One of the key things about a PC that many system builders forget is that no matter what hardware you use, the machine will eventually become obsolete. Yes, you can future-proof a machine to a certain extent by giving yourself room to expand, by buying high-quality parts, and by picking parts at or near the high end. However, all you're doing is delaying the inevitable.

With that in mind, there's a school of thought among some PC builders that it's better to put together an inexpensive machine every 6–12 months, rather than build one expensive PC every 2–3 years. With this strategy, you get fresh hardware fairly often, and you get the joy of building your own PC more frequently. Of course, this approach assumes you're looking to build just a general-purpose computer rather than one designed for a specific purpose, such as a home theater PC or a gaming rig.

With that assumption in mind, this chapter shows you how to build a PC when you're on a tight budget. I set out some design goals for the budget PC; then I take you through the parts I chose to meet those goals, from the computer case right down to the memory modules. Then, with the parts assembled, I show you step-by-step how to build your budget PC.

Design Goals for a Budget PC

This is a budget PC, so we need start with a budget, which I'm going to set at $400. That total is high enough that we won't have to resort to shoddy parts but low enough to be affordable to many. Within the constraints of that budget, we can set the following goals:

  • Thrifty, not cheap—The key to building a solid budget PC is to avoid the lowest-of-the-low when it comes to parts. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for when it comes to computer components, so a PC built from the cheapest parts would end up exactly that: cheaply made. I guarantee you the machine would either not work or work poorly, and neither is acceptable in this build. Our goal, instead, is to look for good bargains on well-made, brand-name components.
  • A solid performer—The budget PC needs to be a all-purpose machine, which means it needs to do email; web surfing; some light gaming; and business-oriented tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, scheduling, and contact management. Nothing here is going to push the machine to its limits or require specialized hardware. This PC doesn't need a quad-core CPU; tons of RAM; a terabyte or 10,000 RPM hard drive; or high-end video and audio cards. All this bodes well for our budget.
  • No instant obsolescence—Even though we're not spending a lot of money on this PC, and even though we're operating under the assumption that we'll build a replacement for it before too long, we don't want this machine to force us into building a replacement in just a few months. We need to select components that are good enough that this PC will perform well for as long as we want it to (at least a year).
  • Get good value for the money—The secret to reaching our design goals while staying within budget will be to get the most bang for the few bucks we're going to spend. That means not only buying brand-name parts for their high quality, but also looking for those components that provide excellent value for the money, whether it's extra features or extra performance.
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