Should you build your own PC? Part One

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If you've ever opened the side of a PC and thought wow, look at all that spaghetti, that looks really difficult to do - think again.

Why build your own PC in the first place though? Well it's not for everyone I must admit, but if you want more PC for your money and learn a bit more about PC's, it's not really that difficult a project to take on. Most people will go into a big electrical retailer and be at the mercy of some salesman/woman under pressure to make commission and sell you the dearest PC they can without taking into consideration what you really need.

The biggest money spinner is trying to sell you an extended warranty, which is not always honoured completely and unlikely to be needed over the usable lifetime of the PC anyway. The problem with 'ready made' PC's is the lack of power caused by using cheap components and then overloading it with too much software. A lot of PC's are literally crippled by too much software in a bid to be secure and user friendly.

The base building block of any PC is the motherboard and the majority of major manufacturers PC's are built on cheap, under powered, lacking in feature motherboards coupled with a sub standard power supply that's only just good enough to run the PC. It's OK trying to impress with base specifications like CPU speed, amount of RAM etc, but they never tell you the full story and assume the average user is not very knowledgeable about PC components.

 Main faults of a ready made PC
 1) Poor motherboard - like a building built on poor foundations, you end up with a poor result

2) Barely adequate PSU - A modern PC should have at least a 500W PSU to allow for smooth running and to leave a little headroom for upgrading, especially if adding a modern graphics card (see number 3) In the old days when 300 W was considered bare minimum, most major manufacturers were installing 145 W or slightly larger PSU's and modern PC's will often come with 350W or smaller PSU's

 3) A lot of modern PC's will come with 'on-board' graphics i.e the graphics card is built into the motherboard. This is OK if you're not a games player, but 'on-board' graphics' has one major fault, well two actually because they have little raw graphics processing power too, but the main fault is the memory needed to run these things comes from the main system RAM. The 64, 128, or 256 MB needed is 'stolen' from main RAM, so your 2 GB RAM in a modern PC is actually 2 GB minus the amount used by on-board graphics. It's not a huge problem, but it does impact on overall system performance and can be avoided by fitting a separate graphics card.

4)Overloaded with software you're unlikely to use and up to the whim of the particular manufacturer which software they think you need. It's often crammed with trial and limited use software too, like a 3/6 month trial virus checker that needs to be paid for after that period, if you want to keep using it. It's a deliberate ploy to get you used to a certain bit of software, thinking you'll want to stay with it afterwards.

Advantages of building your own.

 1) It's cheaper, but not by that much because you're using better quality parts and end up with a much more powerful PC. You can build one using similar cheap parts that the major manufacturers do if you want a bigger saving, but unless you have very basic computing needs, I wouldn't recommend it myself.

 2) You get a truly customised PC tailored to your needs and a sense of satisfaction from knowing you've done it yourself.

 3) It's cheaper to upgrade in the future.

 4) You choose what software goes on - or more importantly, what doesn't go on! I think most people don't fully appreciate that Windows especially, has an unwritten limit on how many programs can be installed before it affects system performance - yet I see PC's all the time that have 3 or more graphics programs on, several Office suites and an absolute mountain of security software.

So where do you start?

Forget about mice, keyboards, monitors - they are personal choice, and you can probably use your existing ones if you're upgrading anyway. I'm talking about building the main system unit, or base unit as it's often called.

 If you've got your eye on one of those trendy multimedia PC's that look like a hi-fi more than a PC, then consider having a professional build it for you, because they are basically a pain in the ***. Very cramped to work with and quite difficult to keep cool because of the small case - not the stuff for first time builders.

 So let's look at 'normal' PC cases. You can pick the usual beige type box or get something a bit more exotic with see through windows or unusual case colours like red or yellow. Most will come with the PSU fitted so take notice of the actual wattage, which as I said earlier should really be 500W or bigger. A lot of the better cases come without a PSU and it's probably a good idea to pick one of those because the built in PSU's on some cases are not exactly top quality and if you're building the ultimate PC, buying a quality separate PSU is a good idea. If the case you like already has a PSU, you can easily replace it with a better quality one - just undo 4 screws and fit the new one.

 Next up is the main system board, or 'motherboard' If you're building to a tight budget you could use one of the cheap £30 boards, but to be honest you're just building an inferior PC or a direct clone of what you would buy in the shops (but for much cheaper obviously)and that's defeating the object unless you're after a very basic PC for as little money as possible.

There are literally hundreds of motherboards, so which do you choose? Starting with a good manufacturer like Abit or Asus is a wise move, but there are very few really bad boards, just lots that are missing features that you might need or that will restrict you in the future for upgrades.

 Here's a few pointers for getting a better quality one.
Check that it has 4 RAM slots, this a good pointer on it's own that it's a better than average motherboard.
If graphics/games are important to you, make sure it has a PCIeXpress graphics slot too.
SATA ports are used to connect hard drives and DVD's etc, so you're really looking for one that has at least 4 SATA slots - preferably SATA II because it's a faster interface

 But first you must make the major decision of Intel vs AMD which will affect what CPU you require to fit the motherboard. As a very rough guide, you could say that Intel are better for video work and AMD are better for games, although either will do both quite easily. AMD's are usually cheaper, so if you want to cut down on research, choose an AMD CPU (and motherboard to match)

 Which speed CPU?
 Single core, dual core, quad core, obscure numbering and it all becomes quite confusing. Then you have the 'budget' CPU's which are literally cut down versions of their big brothers and should be avoided if you want a quality PC. 'Sempron' are AMD's budget offering and 'Celeron' are Intels poor cousin. Quad core are still too new (and mostly expensive)for me so a dual core would be a good choice for most people. Avoid the very fastest because the price is mostly out of comparison with the ones slightly slower.

 If I put you in front of a 6000+ AMD and a 5200+ AMD dual core CPU equipped PC, you couldn't tell the difference in real terms, so don't waste money on the very fastest CPU's because you're just paying for R&D costs and getting very little extra for your money. Looking at a current price list I see the 4800+ at £51 and the current fastest - a 6400+ at £107, so that's over twice the price for something like 20% extra performance. If both were equipped with the same amount of RAM, built on the same motherboard etc, you would be pushed to see the real difference in normal day-to-day use. The only time you might notice the extra speed is when doing something CPU intensive like encoding a video or playing a game, although the game would be affected more by the graphic card installed too.

Is the extra £56 worth it? Well it depends on your needs and your budget I suppose. £56 is not that much really, but if you're trying to stick to a £400 budget and £56 saved helps you keep within that budget then you're not losing that much in overall system performance.

 The other way of looking at it is by comparing the slightly slower 6000+ CPU which is £100 exactly - so for £7 less you get an almost identical speed CPU but you're not really saving much, so I would say the 6400 is better value myself. But looking at the one below the 6000 - the 5600, there's almost a £20 saving, making that much better value if you are sticking to a budget and almost £30 cheaper than Intel's similar speed E6550 (2.3 GhZ x 2 making it nearer the AMD 4600+)
The Intel E6550 for £109 or the AMD 4600+ for £43 ; no contest really, although the Intel CPU does benefit from more on-board cache making it, in theory, a faster CPU.

This is getting a bit long now, so I'll call this part one, and continue with part two if any interest is shown
 But in Answer to the title - should you build your own PC?   The answer is yes :o)
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