Thinking about building my own gaming computer. So many questions

I’m aware that this is possibly the worst time ever to build your own PC, what with the worldwide parts shortages and price hikes. I’m looking at this as a project for 2021, where hopefully some key parts become available in the spring or summer.

All told I’m looking to spend $2 grand, but I need to reserve at least $300 to $350 of that for Windows 10 Home OEM and Office 19 Home&Business. (Boooo on not including Outlook in the regular Office 19 Home.) That leaves around $1500-ish for parts including tax and shipping with enough left over for unforeseen costs or (preferably) a modern game or three to showcase the new system.

I’m expecting this new computer to last 8 years without significant upgrades. My current computer (i3 3220, 8g ram, GeForce GT 630) was a $500 budget box from Newegg I bought back in the summer of 2013, so that’s 8 years. And that one was crappy when it was brand new! It still does the job but it’s pretty clearly upgrade time. I did upgrade the power supply and add a second HDD to it a couple years after I bought it to help prolong its useful life.

I’m a casual gamer and occasionally edit large media files in the 500 to 1500 mb range. I prefer running at a modest 1920x1080 resolution, so I shouldn’t really need that much raw power.

I do not have any interest in overclocking, LED lighting, glass side panels, or really any bells or whistles. I’m not much of a gamer but would like to be able to play games reasonably well. Low settings is fine, but at the same time I would enjoy being able to try out modern games on high settings or at least mid settings.

My current computer is functional but extremely loud. All the fans are always running at 100%, and the cheap case rattles if I screw the side cover on either too tightly or too loosely, and it gradually changes over time so I have to keep futzing with it just to stop it from screaming. Super annoying. It was also highly unpleasant upgrading the power supply and adding a second HDD because the case is cheap crap. And the second HDD I added (1 TB) is already almost 60% full, so I want bigger drives on the new computer.

Given all that, I want to spend my money on a nice case, quiet fans, good size hard drives for lots of media files, and an overqualified power supply that will barely notice the draw and thus stay quiet itself. While I’d prefer a 4TB HDD for my D: drive, it’s looking like 2TB will have to suffice. (Two M.2 drives plugged directly on the motherboard, woohoo!)

I’ve been messing around with the custom PC builder on Newegg. Here’s what I have so far after poking around for a few days. The linked list will change as I update it, so for posterity here’s my initial thinking, plus the questions it raises for me:

My Custom PC Build on Newegg

Intel i5 10400 $180
I’ve been brand loyal to Intel (and Nvidia) since the early 90s, and would like to remain so. My gaming needs are modest, so going this route saves me $90 (compared to the 10600) to spend on other parts, like a quieter case and fans.

Cooler Master Hyper 212 Black Edition CPU Air Cooler $40
When I type “recommended cooler for i5 10400” into google, this one comes up directly as a google answer. Seems like a no-brainer. Do I need to buy and apply thermal paste? If so, what kind of paste? I’m shuddering in fear at the very idea, but maybe youtube videos can show me the way.

** Gigabyte H470 ATX Motherboard** $130
I don’t foresee ever wanting to mess with overclocking anything, or having two video cards. All I care about is having two onboard slots for hard drives, have a native USB-C connector (since the case will have one on the front panel and my phone has one too), the board fits in the case, and it’s fully compatible with the i5 10400. This seems to be the right choice, and saves me another $70 (compared to a Z490) to spend elsewhere. I did read that Gigabyte was a good brand for motherboards. Can anyone confirm or deny?

16GB (two 8GB sticks) G.Skill Memory $80
This is plenty, right? Also, I can just use two 8gig sticks and leave the other two slots open on the motherboard, right? But they have to go in in pairs? So in two years I could plop in another two 8gig sticks in the two empty slots and I’m good to go for 32GB? And since I’m not overclocking, just cheapo slow memory is fine? As to that, the same comment I read that said Gigabyte is known for motherboards said G.Skill is known for memory. I’m putting a lot of faith in that one random comment; thus this thread.

RTX 3060 TI Video Card $470
Hahahahahaha! It’s hard to even list this without laughing, as if it were possible to buy this at any price, much less at the list price of $470. Maybe by Black Friday if I’m lucky. But let’s say I go with a temp video card for a couple years, then when everything is back to normal maybe I pick up a 3070 for $300. I’m talking like two or three years from now; that might be reasonable, yes? With that in mind, I’d like the finished build to allow a simple swap out, replacing the temp card with a 3000 series down the line. (Need to be sure it will fit in the case, etc…) Note that if that ends up being the case, the only number that matters for this current budget is the temp card. The upgrade in two years would be a separate budget. Then again, if that ends up being the case, it’s probably an even 50-50 chance I’ll just stick with the temp card for all 8 years and call it good enough.

Fractal Design Define 7 Compact Black ATX Silent Mid Tower Computer Case $100
My biggest problem in general with pre-builds is that to get a decent video card you have to get a gaming build, and those are all gaudy lights and glass side panels. Me no likey. I want a simple black box. Ideally it’d have a DVD writer, but I’ve made peace with the idea of going full modern and just getting an external DVD writer for $25. Originally I penciled in the larger, nicer version of the Define 7 series ($170) but it’s a touch too long for the space I have. Plus one of the reviews complained that the optical drive bay only had front screws, so the back of it just hangs there torquing the case. Screw that. I’m going with a “driveless” concept so I can skip all the cabling anyway, so an external DVD writer is actually better for what I want. This case will fit all my stuff, yes?

be quiet! Silent Wings 3 PWM Case Fans (1 each 140mm and 120mm) $45
The compact Fractal case listed above says it comes with two fans, one 120mm and one 140mm. Reviewers seem to agree that the Fractal cases are quieter but the stock fans are shit, and that bequiet fans are the gold standard. In total ignorance, I’m thinking I just replace the two fans that come with the case with these bad boys. Does it work like that? Will that be enough cooling? Do I need more fans? I know nothing whatsoever about fan placement or theory in general. Much help needed here.

Seasonic FOCUS PX-550, 550W 80+ Platinum Power Supply $120
Is 550W enough to largely ignore the expected load of this computer while I’m browsing the internet or using MS Office? When just futzing around, I want this computer silent. My original thinking was a 650W, but the Newegg custom PC thingy keeps saying my build with the 3060 TI ends up under 200W, so 550W should be plenty? Will a temp card use more power than a 3000 series? (Is that one of the things that makes the 3000 series better? Running cooler and quieter?)
I have no idea about positioning or size or fitting in the case at all. Can anyone confirm this power supply would work with the case listed above? (Of course this could be moot as it may be out of stock for a while.) Also, this is a nice power supply, yes? Is “platinum” noticeably better than “gold” for this system? (Worth paying for? Overkill?)

Two WD Blue NVMe M.2 PCI-Express SSDs (1TB system, 2TB user) $340
I’m unclear on much of this. I need PCI-Express to get the faster speeds of M.2 drives, yes? Sata will land me at regular mechanical drive speeds? Also, the H470 motherboard says it has two NVMe M.2 slots, meaning I can plug both of these in and get a 1TB C: drive for Windows, programs and games, and a 2TB D: drive for user files? And because they both go directly into the motherboard, I don’t have to bother with cables, not even power cables? And skipping the optical drive means essentially no cabling at all? (Gotta power the motherboard and fans, of course, but still.) If that’s the case, hell yeah! In a perfect world I’d rather get a 4TB mechanical D: drive for like $180, but for an extra $50 (but sadly only 2TB instead of 4TB) I get to just plop them into the motherboard and not cable anything AND they will read and write much faster AND be noticeably quieter? Do I have all that right? Is this a good way to do it, do you think?

That totals around $1500 for parts, but is of course a very tentative first pass. Suggestions welcome, anything from tweaks to wholesale changes.

My biggest areas of concern are the case fitting everything, the two drives fitting in the motherboard and just working, and of course the dreaded thermal paste. (Can I take it down to a repair shop and pay a pro to just do the thermal paste bit?)

I haven’t followed any of this stuff for years, but I can tell you this: If you can put your own toothpaste on your toothbrush, you can handle thermal paste.

Well that’s reassuring, thanks!

I used to build my own setups back in the early 90s through early 00s, but have bought full systems the last couple computers I bought, I think around 2006 and definitely 2013.

How do I install Windows (ie: boot up the computer the first time) without any optical drive? I guess I load Windows onto a flash drive and boot to usb? Can you boot to a flash drive? (I don’t know if my current computer could; I just use its DVD writer if I have to boot to an emergency disk.)

I’m super excited at thought of not having to plug any cables into any drives, or even use any drive bays. I really hope that works out.

Any guidance given here will be out of date long before you’re able to buy a video card good enough to justify the effort.

Yeah, you’ll use a thumb drive. You can boot to it.

Well actually, the 10th gen chips come with onboard graphics (Intel UHD 630) that are noticeably more powerful than the video card in my current computer (GeForce GT 630) according to this benchmark.

Technically I could get everything except the video card and be able to comfortably run everything I run right now without any video card at all. Then when video cards come back to the world I could grab one and pop it in.

Many questions I asked in the OP aren’t necessarily part- or time-specific:

Is thermal paste a definite requirement? Or do modern coolers come with it somehow pre-applied?
Is Gigabyte a good brand to go with for the motherboard?
Is G.Skill a good brand for memory?
Do memory sticks have to be put in in pairs?
Is it fine to leave 2 of 4 memory slots open?
If I’m drawing 200W or less of power, is 550W a big enough power supply that the load will be small enough to barely need any cooling? Or would 650W be a better bet?
Is a platinum-grade power supply enough quieter than gold to justify the extra few bucks, or in practice are they essentially the same amount of noise?

EDIT: The upgrade isn’t just for games. I haven’t even actually played a computer game since before the pandemic. But I do edit media files, and lately the 600mb audio files I’m editing take 3+ minutes just to open in Audacity. Improving that sooner rather than later would be a net gain even if my gaming situation were essentially the same with the onboard chipset graphics.

You absolutely need thermal paste. A few coolers may have a cooling pad pre-attached but the 212 line doesn’t and the definite norm is to apply your own. It’s very easy; you just put a pea-sized dot on there and put your cooler onto it. Some people use the same amount but in a small line or whatever. Frankly, it’s one of those things that some people probably worry more about than they need too: dot, line or “x” – it’s always evenly smushed when I remove the cooler later.

Gigabyte and G.Skill are both good reputable brands.

You want to install RAM in pairs because it is “dual channel” and the system performs better with 2x sticks to access at once. You can get away with a single stick and it won’t ruin your world but it’s designed to run in pairs. Leaving a pair of empty slots for future upgrades is fine. 16GB is fine for now. Even when we move on to DDR5, you’ll still be able to buy DDR4 sticks just like I can still buy DDR3 retail now.

Nvidia recommends a 600+ watt PSU for the 3060ti. PSU ratings for Bronze, Gold, etc aren’t related to noise but rather efficiency. Most brands you recognize are probably fine, just go with a 600 or 650W Gold rated supply from a name you’ve seen before.

No, any SSD will be far, far faster than a mechanical drive even using standard SATA instead of NVMe. Even a 2.5" SSD you plop in and attach via cables. An m.2 NVMe is faster than a SATA SSD drive but not considerably slow. If a traditional HHD is like riding a bike and an SSD is like driving a car, an NVMe is like driving a somewhat faster car – nicer but not nearly as life changing as your last step up. However, in case this is what you meant to ask, there ARE drive sin the m.2 “stick of gum” form factor that aren’t NVMe and just work as SATA drives. You’ll still get SATA SSD speeds out of them but not the full potential. For the record, you’ll still be attaching all the case wires and power cords and fan cords, etc so adding in a SATA cable seems inconsequential but you go with what you want.

Fair enough, but that’s not a gaming PC. As you note, if this is more of a daily driver that occasionally can game, then that changes things.

Quick answers:
Thermal paste is a must. Most come pre-applied but I think the general consensus is that it’s not the best quality, so is an area where an upgrade is useful.

Yes, memory should definitely be matched. Empty slots are no problem but hey, add more.

Can’t comment specifically on those brands since it’s been a while since I rolled my own. Gigabyte used to be a first rate brand, but things can change fast in this space and sometimes even within brands there’s a lot of variation. I’d dig in on the reviews.

I’d consider a larger power supply. You don’t want to be using 80-100% of its capacity all the time. Seasonic are fantastic, can’t go wrong with them.

Yeah, that’s what I was getting at. When I looked at m.2 drives, half of them say sata and half of them say PCI Express. Trying to figure out which kind of m.2 to get.

Elsewhere I read that they are not interchangeable; any given motherboard slot will fit either one or the other, but not both.

ETA: Am I correct that an m.2 drive connects to and draws power from the motherboard directly, meaning that they don’t need cables of any kind?

Agreed. I don’t know why that stupid newegg custom build calculator thing says my build would only be drawing 165W. Clearly a mistake, yes? Maybe it’s just not counting the video card since it’s unavailable.

If 600W is recommended for the 3060 ti, I want to go I think at least to 750W. The goal is to keep the load to a low percentage to keep things quiet. Would probably be utterly silent during the temporary chipset phase before video cards become available again.

I changed up the PSU but I’ll change it again based on this. If I can find a PSU that’s in stock, it’s not out of the question I might actually buy this thing this weekend. Now that I know I don’t need to waste money on a temporary card, but could actually be up and running somewhat soon, I’m starting to get pretty excited. That’s when impulse buys happen; help me not make mistakes!

That’s correct. m.2 is a form factor so you have SATA m.2 drives and NVMe m.2 drives. The NVMe ones are using the PCI express lanes. I was under the impression that you could use a SATA m.2 in any slot (though it would be slower) but I’ll admit it’s nothing I’ve looked too deeply into since I always just bought NVMe drives.

When you buy RAM, I’d buy something with 30000+ speed. It’s not as important with Intel as it is with AMD but it is better. You don’t really have to “overclock” it, you just go into BIOS/UEFI and toggle “XMP” (Extended Memory Profile) to on. Intel only specs memory speeds up to 24000 (?) so the board will default to that unless you give it permission to use the full memory speed.

You can easily buy a Win10 key for under $15 from various places. They’re legitimate keys, just bought in bulk from OEM system partners or possibly other nations with cheaper rates. I haven’t paid over $20 for a Win10 key in ages across 8-10 systems. You can also find them as low as $2-3 but those tend to be sketchier “cracked” keys that might stop working. Honestly, even if my $15 key stopped working, I could do it five more times and still come out ahead on the price of a retail Win10 box from Micro Center or Best Buy.

Great to hear about Windows. Saving 80 bucks could really help a lot for other places, considering my current built is I think $100 too expensive.

(Typos and weird phonetic typing is because now I’m dictating these replies on my phone.)

Anyone know anything about case fans? I read that the larger the fan the quieter because it moves more air and can thus spin slower.

Can I use just two 140s instead of a 140 and a 120 in the fractal define 7 linked above? One of those default fans is a 120 and there may not be room to replace that with a 140.

Would two 140s be sufficient? Both without a video card, and with a 3000 series. I’m guessing yes and no, respectively, but have no idea what kind of additional fan cooling I’d need to add above and beyond what comes on the video card itself.

I also have no sense of strategic positioning of fans simply from literal ignorance.

The case in question can hold up to (7) 120mm fans or (4) 140mm fans. Larger fans do generally make less noise as they can move the same amount of air with slower speeds. Without deeply studying the case or anything, I would probably want two in the front and one exhausting in the back. The reason is because the bottom front fan will blow fresh air under the GPU for it to suck up and exhaust with its own fans/blower. The top front fan will provide air for the CPU cooler to run through and exhaust out the back. That should be fine for a non-overclocked system.

Edit: It looks as though two of the potential 140mm fans would be mounted on top for a radiator. So you’d be looking at two 140mm fans in front and the 120mm on the back exhausting in addition to the GPU exhaust. You’ll have more air going in than actively getting blown out but that’s no big deal – excess air will just leak out the various vents, cracks and other openings.

Without holding you to it, you think that would be good even after the video card is added?

Video cards tend to be the first thing I upgrade after a few years since I build my own machines. My strategy (YMMV) is to get a video card powerful enough for what you do for a few years and look to upgrade.

I’m building a list for my new build. Maybe I’ll post it for comments too since there’s a lot of good feedback here on the OP’s.

Yeah I’d like to see your build. At this point I’m just trying to sponge up all the information I can since it’s been decades since I’ve built a machine.

In terms of gaming, it’s kind of like music for me. I’m 50; I’m not looking for new music. Much like I mostly listen to '90s music, I mostly play the original age of empires, rise of Rome, starcraft, Halo. I think the newest game I actually play is starcraft 2.

Aside from starcraft 2, my budget box from 2013 screams through all those other games. Just lightning fast.

Also star control 2, which I believe is from 1991!

Should be. Worst case scenario, you crack the box open at some point and put another fan in there. If the GPU has its own source of fresh air and isn’t stuck venting in warm air from inside the case, it should be fine.