Budget PC Build recommendations

Tax season is around the corner and I’m considering getting a new computer with my refund this year. My current system is around 5 years old, and is struggling to handle modern games on even low settings. I’m not a hardcore gamer, but I really want to play Skyrim. I’ve also played World of Warcraft and Star: Wars the Old Republic, and I’m considering checking out Guild Wars 2. Otherwise, I mostly use my computer for web browsing, document editing, and watching streaming videos on Netflix. The closest I get to graphic editing is using IrfanView to crop and resize photos.

I’m looking to stay somewhere around the $900 range for a system with OS. I don’t need any peripherals.

I’ve built my own computers in the past, but frankly, I don’t want the headache this time around. I’d rather just get something that will work out of the box. I’ve been reading tech blogs and scrutinizing reviews and benchmarks trying to familiarize myself with the current generation of hardware, but it’s hard to tell where I’m going to get the best bang for my buck, because the articles are usually written with the enthusiast gamer in mind. I’d like some advice from the collective brainpower of the Dope to winnow through the chaff and narrow things down for me a bit.

So, my questions are:

  1. Recommendations on a site to buy my computer through? I’ve seen ibuypower.com recommended in other threads when I did a search. Are there any other places I should be looking at?

  2. CPU: AMD vs Intel? I’ve seen that the current generation of AMD FX chips seem to lag well behind Intel’s Ivy Bridge chips in performance tests. But for my price range/usage, does it matter? Can I go with an AMD CPU to save some money and use it toward a better video card? Which CPUs should I be looking at in my price range?

  3. Video Card: Nvidia vs. Radeon. Which cards should I be looking at in my price range? Where do I get the most bang for my buck?

  4. RAM. 1333 mhz vs 1600 mhz? Will I see much of a difference in performance? Is 8 GB sufficient for what I want to do?

  5. Hard drive. I have a 1 TB sata drive in my current machine that’s less than a year old due to a hard drive crash last March. My plan is to get a 120 GB SSD in the new machine as a drive for my OS and a few core applications, and then use my current HDD as a storage drive. Is this a sound plan?

  6. OS. Windows 7 or 8? I use Windows 7 at work and like it. I’ve been hearing mixed reviews about 8.

  7. Is there anything else I’ve overlooked and need to consider?

Thanks in advance for your advice and recommendations.

First, aim at the “market peak” of performance, not the leading edge. The stuff that’s 10x better than two years ago but 2x worse than what maximum dollars will buy right now.

  1. You really can build it yourself if you buy quality commodity parts. Between NewEgg and Amazon you can get brand name parts for everything, cheap. Very few builders use quality parts in every slot unless you pay through the nose; they’ll put in an Asus mobo and EVGA video card, then use generic crap everywhere else. Every part has to work all the time; putting crap RAM in a name-brand mobo gets you nothing. Throwing in a noname power supply gets you junk.

  2. I have had better luck with AMD than Intel but usually go with whichever is cheapest overall. The higher-performance Intel stuff has been insanely expensive in recent years (returning from a max of around $3-400 for a killer CPU to $1500-2000). I’d say go with AMD and choose the maximum-performance low-power CPU (45-50 watts) you can afford. (Runs cooler, uses less power, takes the load off the power supply and does not limit your computing power unless you’re doing max-power stuff. Throwing another 50-100 watts at the CPU is just a waste for most users.)

2a) Motherboard: Asus, Asus or Asus. Based on 20+ years of building experience. Choose a board that fits your CPU (almost certainly an AM3+ 4-core, unless you really want to save money) and has a full slate of onboard features. The mobo video on these is surprisingly good, so unless you want gaming/movie/CAD power you can probably get by with it - try it, and you can always plug in a higher-power card later.

  1. For mobo built in, doesn’t matter. For a plug-in card, I’ve always had better luck and more bang for the buck with Nvidia; if you stay with them you can upgrade and replace cards almost effortlessly. ATI tends to go for the gamer’s edge in each cycle by obsoleting earlier drivers and technology, making it kind of a PITA to upgrade or replace. I’ve had nearly all of my problems and bad luck with ATI as well.

  2. Whatever’s sitting on that “market peak” level. If 1600 is only $5 more than 1333, duh. If 2000 is $100 more than 1666, duh again. Minimum 8GB and if a 3-stick 12GB set is not significantly pricier (your mobo has to support it), then duh for the third time. Windows is a whole different OS when it has scads of memory to work with. Oh - BRAND NAME RAM.

  3. Buy two 1TB units and set them up RAID-1 using the mobo firmware RAID support. You will never again be crippled by a sudden drive failure. Cheap, cheap, cheap insurance. I haven’t built a system in 10 years without a dual boot drive.

  4. I’d stay with 7 but you might want to get hands on with 8 and see if the Win 7 emulation works for you. I just bought a laptop and went around the block to get one with Win 7 because I didn’t want another stranger among the household systems; just cleaned up an OS patchwork two years ago. Win 8 is 99% a different desktop and can be set up to look like Win 7, so in the end it doesn’t really matter for an individual user. If you can save any significant amount of money buying Win 7 Business over anything Win 8, I’d say go with the full-power Win 7. (I hate the Home version stuff’s limitations.)

  5. Brand-name power supply. That means Antec, for me. The other brands like CoolerMaster are good but have a wide quality variation between complete junk and max gamer-grade hardware. A decent power supply in the 650W range (probably the minimum for a system these days, depending on CPU and video card - ask once you’ve selected those and I can give you a more precise figure) is around $100-125. Spend less and you’re likely to have problems, a short lifespan and possibly a lot of fried hardware. This is one place that builders often cheap out, and it will cost you.

I’ve built well over 100 systems from mini-box cheapies to hardware RAID-5 servers over the last… erm erm erm… 25 years. You’re going to get different advice from people who have built two gamer systems. Caveat lector.

Just caught this sentence. In one word: don’t. Box stuff is tinfoil garbage, especially at the price point you’re seeking. Take a weekend, build the system, and you’ve got another system you can repair and upgrade yourself for nickels instead of finding out a replacement Dell mobo is $400 two years from now. Or that their video card is a proprietary form factor and another $400 for a then-inferior replacement.

Standard components mean a long, long upgrade and repair life. Very few builders use all standard configurations.

Thanks for the input, Nitropress.

For the sake of clarification, I don’t intend to buy a system from Dell or any other manufacturer that has a tendency to use proprietary parts. I’ve built my systems from scratch in the past, and always with name brand parts. If I go with a custom build site this time, it’s definitely name brand parts the whole way through.

You do raise a good point that I currently have a working system on hand, so I don’t need to be in a hurry to get my new machine put together. My days off are erratic, so having a weekend to devote to a computer build is most likely out of the question, but yes, I can certainly work on it over the course of a few days.

I’ll have to do some more browsing on Newegg and see what the price difference is between ordering the parts myself and getting a pre-built system. I took a look at ibuypower after my initial post, and it does seem to be able to build a system with name-brand parts throughout using their configurator. I’ll have to do a parallel build between filling a shopping basket on newegg and putting the same parts into a configurator and seeing what the end difference (including shipping) is.

Other opinions are welcome, of course.

Price it out on PCPartpicker.com - much easier:
Here is an example of what you can get for <$900 using all quality components (Seasonic built power supply, non-cheap motherboard, reasonable case). Compare this to what you can get at the system builders.

As far as your questions

  1. Ibuypower.com isn’t bad - but if you can build it yourself, do.

  2. AMD CPUs are fine, but you have the budget for the best value CPU overall, the i5-3570k. AMD’s best CPU out there the FX-83XX series are not as good overall. And getting an aftermarket cooler allows overclocking, which you want to do - you get an easy 25% increase in speed on the i5-3570k without doing anything but setting the multiplier from 34 to 43 in the BIOS. It won’t be unstable, cause issues, etc.

  3. Video Card: Nvidia vs. Radeon. Which cards should I be looking at in my price range? Where do I get the most bang for my buck?
    This is the real question. At your budget probably the best bang/buck card is the AMD Radeon 7850. On the build below I included a 2gb card because it was $3 more than the cheapest 1gb card I could find, but if you can find a 7850 1gb for 150 it is an even better value. NVidia cards are generally overpriced in the midrange - the 660 TI and higher are good cards but in your price range you get more for your in AMD. Your equivalent card for the 7850 is going to be the GTX 660 which is slightly worse in most games.

  4. RAM. 1333 mhz vs 1600 mhz? Will I see much of a difference in performance? Is 8 GB sufficient for what I want to do?
    Little difference in performance unless using integrated graphics on an AMD APU (ie A10-5800k, etc). But DDR3-1600 is essentially better quality RAM and there is virtually 0 price difference.

  5. Hard drive. I have a 1 TB sata drive in my current machine that’s less than a year old due to a hard drive crash last March. My plan is to get a 120 GB SSD in the new machine as a drive for my OS and a few core applications, and then use my current HDD as a storage drive. Is this a sound plan?
    Should work fine. SSDs are so much faster than spinning disks that I usually recommend getting the cheapest 120/128gb you can find, as I have done below. Sticking with a specific model is usually a bad idea because their prices goes up and down so much. (Just avoid OCZ Vertex 2, and update the firmware before you use any SSD).

  6. OS. Windows 7 or 8? I use Windows 7 at work and like it. I’ve been hearing mixed reviews about 8.
    Honestly, they are about the same. Buy whatever 64-bit OEM is cheaper. I listed Windows 8 below because you save $4 over Windows 7.

PCPartPicker part list: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/wdRX
Price breakdown by merchant: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/wdRX/by_merchant/
Benchmarks: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/wdRX/benchmarks/

CPU: Intel Core i5-3570K 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor ($169.99 @ Microcenter)
CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus 76.8 CFM Sleeve Bearing CPU Cooler ($19.99 @ Newegg)
Motherboard: ASRock Z77 Extreme4 ATX LGA1155 Motherboard ($127.99 @ Amazon)
Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws X Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory ($39.98 @ Outlet PC)
Storage: Crucial V4 128GB 2.5" Solid State Disk ($79.00 @ B&H)
Video Card: XFX Radeon HD 7850 2GB Video Card ($172.08 @ NCIX US)
Case: Corsair 300R ATX Mid Tower Case ($59.99 @ Amazon)
Power Supply: XFX ProSeries 450W 80 PLUS Bronze Certified ATX12V / EPS12V Power Supply ($44.99 @ NCIX US)
Optical Drive: Samsung SH-224BB DVD/CD Writer ($15.99 @ Newegg)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8 (OEM) (64-bit) ($87.99 @ NCIX US)
Total: $817.99
(Prices include shipping, taxes, and discounts when available.)
(Generated by PCPartPicker 2013-01-06 16:06 EST-0500)

Sorry better link - it chucked in microcenter when I clicked to get the text. If you have a microcenter nearby, go buy the CPU & Motherboard from them instead of from this list.

PCPartPicker part list: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/wdRX
Price breakdown by merchant: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/wdRX/by_merchant/
Benchmarks: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/wdRX/benchmarks/

CPU: Intel Core i5-3570K 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor ($204.99 @ Newegg)
CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus 76.8 CFM Sleeve Bearing CPU Cooler ($19.99 @ Newegg)
Motherboard: ASRock Z77 Extreme4 ATX LGA1155 Motherboard ($127.99 @ Amazon)
Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws X Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory ($39.98 @ Outlet PC)
Storage: Crucial V4 128GB 2.5" Solid State Disk ($79.00 @ B&H)
Video Card: XFX Radeon HD 7850 2GB Video Card ($172.08 @ NCIX US)
Case: Corsair 300R ATX Mid Tower Case ($59.99 @ Amazon)
Power Supply: XFX ProSeries 450W 80 PLUS Bronze Certified ATX12V / EPS12V Power Supply ($44.99 @ NCIX US)
Optical Drive: Samsung SH-224BB DVD/CD Writer ($15.99 @ Newegg)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8 (OEM) (64-bit) ($87.99 @ NCIX US)
Total: $852.99
(Prices include shipping, taxes, and discounts when available.)
(Generated by PCPartPicker 2013-01-06 16:27 EST-0500)

This. Don’t go AMD for gaming, they have great cheap processors, but are not the best choice for gaming.

Excellent advice, guys. I’ll definitely be looking more into pcpartpicker more and seeing what I can get for my money.

If you want someone to put a machine together for you, I used to work for a custom computer builder and can vouch that they’re stand-up guys who do quality work. They use mostly parts that have already been recommended in this thread. (Asus motherboards FTW. And yes, stick with name-brand parts all the way around.) They definitely charge a premium for it, but they’ll put together exactly what you want and support it like it’s their baby.

This sounds like tech-woo. I’ve heard both arguments (Use only Intel for gaming, use only AMD for gaming) over the years and there never seems to be any hard data under the recommendation.

Benchmarks with less than 5% total difference don’t count.

Nobody has seriously advocated an AMD gaming CPU since the Athlon days. An Intel chip will wipe the floor with AMD’s best offerings in lightly multithreaded gaming.

http://www.anandtech.com/show/6396/the-vishera-review-amd-fx8350-fx8320-fx6300-and-fx4300-tested/5

Perfect Benchmark to illustrate the point.
Which is not that Intel chips will wipe the floor with AMD.
It is that Intel’s BEST chips will wipe the floor with AMD in gaming. If your budget is enough for the i5-3570k, AMD has nothing for you.
On the other hand, at a lower budget where you are comparing say, an i3-3220 to an FX-4300, FX-6300, or A10-5800k it isn’t as clear at all. The AMD chips are going to give you similar gaming performance, better multithreaded performance, and much higher power usage (and increased performance and ditto for power usage when overclocked - not an option for the i3).

The 3570K is as low as $169.99, and the 2500K is as low as $149.99 (I actually bought it for $99.99 a couple of months ago). There is hardly any need to consider an AMD chip.

Those are loss leader prices at Microcenter, not regularly available prices to the public on the internet. The tray price from intel on both those chips is higher than that. And when you buy an i5-3570k you generally want a more expensive z77 motherboard as well. Dropping to an i3-3220 or an FX-4300 can save $100-150 total on motherboard + processor prices.

I have two PCs at home that can run Skyrim. One has an AMD CPU and the other has Intel. Both have almost identical performance.

If you are on a budget, there is no clear answer to the AMD vs. Intel question. Which one is better varies each month, and it all depends on which one you can get for the better price. When I built one PC, the AMD was cheaper. When I built the second one, the Intel was cheaper.

One thing that’s not getting enough attention in this thread is the choice of graphics cards. If you focus on CPU performance and ignore the graphics card the performance of games like Skyrim is going to suck. The graphics card and the CPU together determine the performance of the machine. I built both of the above PCs on a budget and the two things I spent a lot of time agonizing over were the CPU and the graphics card.

Don’t look at systems that have built-in graphics on the motherboard. Those work fine for some things, but gaming isn’t one of them.

On my two machines, the newer one has faster RAM. It didn’t seem to make much difference overall in performance.

The hard drive performance in games doesn’t matter much. The only place it shows up is how long you wait for load screens between levels. During actual gameplay the game plays out of RAM and rarely touches the hard drive.

For the OS I would stick to Windows 7 if you are running older games, as the greater the windows version difference from when the game came out the more likely you are to run into compatibility problems. Windows 8 is also mainly to switch everyone over to tablets. Most of its features are for touch screen tablet type stuff. If you are playing games this doesn’t apply to you and the user interface will actually be more difficult for you.

I’m definitely not looking at onboard graphics for this build for the reasons you and others in this thread have laid out, engineer_comp_geek. I’m looking at reviews of the NVidia GTX 600 series and Radeon 7000 series models to figure out where I get the best bang for my buck. I suspect, though, that this might come down to who has the better sale when the time comes for me to actually pull the trigger and make the purchase, since the promos will be different a month or so from now.

I’ve been hearing that Windows 8 is optimized for tablets and smart phones, and frankly, that functionality does nothing for me. And, historically when getting a new OS, I’ve always waited around a year after initial release for Microsoft to work out the problems with their new OS and release a service pack before I put it on my machine. I’m still on the fence for 7 vs. 8 right now, but I have five or six weeks to make a final decision. I’ll have to do some more reading on the subject. I work with win7 daily, I know that I like 7, but it might be worth making the jump to 8.