Powerful & Fast Computer for around a grand
October 1, 2012 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I need a new Desktop PC and I want it to run well. First, what are good combinations of processor and memory? Intel's Ivy Bridge I7 processors look the best, and I'm guessing 10 gb of ram would suffice, or would it? I'm not buying an Apple, but HP? Compaq? Dell? What combination of processor/ram/brand would you recommend for a desktop somewhere around a thousand dollars? Thanks!

I'm pretty sure I want an i7 Ivy Bridge processor, but I don't know if getting 10gb of RAM over 8gb matters at that point, or if getting 16gb over 10gb will make a difference in performance. Is the best thing more gigahertz, or more cores?

Gold star and bonus points for links to actual computers available for purchase around $1000 or cheaper, with suggestions of what to configure on them.
posted by cashman to Computers & Internet (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and solid state drives vs SATA? Also, how much does the graphics card come into play, speed-wise?
posted by cashman at 10:01 AM on October 1, 2012

Best answer: What are you planning on using the computer for?

It's pretty hard to justify a Core i7 at the moment for most tasks as even gaming doesn't really benefit over an i5. If you're not gaming or doing some kind of CPU-intensive work, an i3 is more than enough power.

In terms of RAM, most games don't really use large amounts effectively, partially because they tend to be console ports. RAM is cheap, but most users will not need more than 8 gigs (or even that).

Don't bother with AMD CPUs as they aren't really competitive at any point of the price curve right now.

And personally, I would just build the machine yourself, or use a quality builder like AVAdirect. Mass sellers tend to make crappy plastic stuff with proprietary innards.

Buy a quality SSD, like a Crucial M4, and install your OS on it. Buy a large HDD and use as a data drive. Avoid OCZ SSDs.

The graphics card is extremely important if you're gaming and not that important otherwise.
posted by selfnoise at 10:04 AM on October 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

What do you want it to do? Games? Video editing? Photoshop?

It'll make a huge difference where you put your money.
posted by Oktober at 10:05 AM on October 1, 2012

By the way: Tech Report puts out excellent system guides that may answer some of your questions. Here's the most recent one.
posted by selfnoise at 10:07 AM on October 1, 2012

If you're not up to building your own, Digital Storm, Origin, and Maingear are all solid, respectably custom PC builders.
posted by Oktober at 10:13 AM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

When you say you want a machine that runs well... what do you mean by well? Are you specifically wanting to optimize for some specific purpose, or do just want a machine that doesn't crash? If the later, and building it yourself, you'll find you get what you pay for in terms of motherboards and such. A nice intel processor in an intel board is generally going to work well. JimBob's Discount MoBoCo may have issues. I assume you're going to run Windows, so check the Windows 8 HCL Thingy. The three hardware vendors kind of go back and forth on who has the best hardware configuration and price point, but I've tended to favor Dell as a rule of thumb because their stuff just seems less janky than the others. They have discount stuff that's decent too.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:14 AM on October 1, 2012

A bit of a derail, but relevant to the question-

It used to be the conventional wisdom that one should install "matched" RAM sticks to get the benefit of dual- or triple-channel RAM. I.e., 2x4 GB will give you better performance than 1x8 + 1x2 so long as your applications aren't memory-bound. Does anyone know if that's still the case?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:16 AM on October 1, 2012

Yes, that's correct. You want matching RAM sticks for dual channel, and read your motherboard manual to make sure you install in the correct slots.
posted by selfnoise at 10:20 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

What do you want to do with this thing? A computer for games is a much different machine than one for Photoshop retouching, which is itself different than one for a programmer.

You haven't mentioned a monitor for this. Many people treat the monitor as an afterthought, and just hook up whatever old panel they have sitting around to their new machine. I think that is a mistake. It is worth spending money to get a really, really nice display (high-res S-IPS), and you'll probably be able to amortize the cost of the display over many more years of usage than the computer itself. And you can always take your old display and use it as a secondary monitor; once you've used a 2 or 3 monitor setup you won't want to go back. The number of monitors will dictate to a certain extent your video card choice, and also possibly mobo choice (if you need to have multiple 8x slots to drive multiple cards).

I would get twice as many mechanical hard drives as you need, capacity-wise and set them up in a RAID-1 configuration. They are just too cheap and motherboards have too many SATA ports to not do this. Then you can use an SSD to boot off of, if you want to get fancy. But yeah, avoid the too-cheap-to-be-true OWZ SSDs, they are indeed too cheap to be true.

Personally I would max the RAM in the machine. All modern OSes will use whatever memory the machine has available; if it's not in use by applications (to prevent swapping) it will be used for disk cache. And RAM is faster than even a good SSD, and it's a lot easier to take advantage of. I think that 8GB is a minimum for a new machine today; if you can get 16GB, great. The only exception is if it's a gaming machine where you'll only ever be running one application at a time and there isn't a lot of disk I/O to accelerate. The big hidden benefit to me of having machines with ample RAM has been an ability to painlessly use many virtual machines. If I want to install some shifty piece of software, I just open one of many old XP VMs, and do the dirty work there. I know people who will spin up a new VM for every project, and basically use them as "virtual desktops" ... when they're done with that project they just put the VM away, safe in the knowledge that if they need to work on that again, they can just resume the VM and everything will be exactly as it was when they shut down. Depending on the nature of your work that may not matter to you, but it's really nice if you have to use a lot of weird, mutually incompatible tools that cruft up your system.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:20 AM on October 1, 2012

Best answer: * Latest Core i5 Processor
* 16GB RAM
* SSD hard drive large enough for the operating system (128gb is my recommendation), or if you can swing it a 512GB drive - I am personally a fan of Samsung 830 series SSD's.
* Secondary hard drive for big data (music, video, video games)
* 1 generation old Video card, doesn't matter AMD/ATI vs Nvidia, just get something one rev behind the current price sucking monsters.
*Asus Mainboard

Adequate power supply to run the above, so probably 650w minimum. I built this machine about 3 months ago with the above, cost I think 900 bucks all in and can basically do anything i ask of it.

Beyond that, you've covered 99% of "slow" systems from a hardware perspective, you don't really need more processor than a Core i5 in most cases, RAM is super cheap so 16 gb is fine and the SATA hard drive will eliminate most of the i/o bottlenecks which is what most people associate a slow system with.
posted by iamabot at 10:23 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tom's Hardware runs a regular feature that might work as an answer to this question.
posted by dosterm at 10:26 AM on October 1, 2012

Response by poster: I'm using it for browsing. Like 20 tabs open at a time browsing. I'll have itunes open from time to time, but typically I have mefi open, a bunch of google products, then news webpages and search engines, mlkshk and other sites.

Right now I can barely view YouTube videos. Vimeo isn't even possible to view, though I can listen to the audio. I do the standard things you should do to keep the computer clean and running fast, but it's just time for a new machine, and my frustration has hit the point where I just do not want to have to deal with waiting long periods of time to switch between tabs, or for pages to load.

So I want a solid state drive for sure, then? Also, I'd love to build it myself, and I'd be fine until something went wrong with it after initial use, but at this point, I don't think I'm going to go that route.
posted by cashman at 10:55 AM on October 1, 2012

The SSD and enough memory will make the biggest difference then. 8 gigs is more than enough for that. Video card is relatively unimportant and you might even try using onboard since Ivy Bridge's implementation isn't bad.

Any i3 will be able to handle what you want. I think Kadin is on the right track: build only to what you need and use the extra cash to buy a sweet monitor.
posted by selfnoise at 11:00 AM on October 1, 2012

I agree with the above - I'd go with 8 gigs of RAM at first, but make it 2x4GB so that you can easily expand to 16.
SSD for sure - if you're primarily browsing, size shouldn't be too big a concern but if you can swing it, 128GB is a nice size.
I wouldn't worry about processor speed - I'd suggest going for an Ivy Bridge i3 and trying out the build that way. You can always add an external video card if you feel it's necessary, but I'd bet you'll be happy with a good SSD, 8-16GB of RAM and the onboard video.
posted by hot soup at 11:12 AM on October 1, 2012

I'm using it for browsing. Like 20 tabs open at a time browsing. I'll have itunes open from time to time, but typically I have mefi open, a bunch of google products, then news webpages and search engines, mlkshk and other sites.

What you're doing should not be slow or stuttery on any reputable store-bought modern machine. Go to Costco, buy their cheapest machine with at least 6GB, and you are done.

More generally, spend your money on: 1) RAM, like 6 - 8GB, 2) a faster internet connection, if yours is slow (< 5Mbit/sec). A slow connection will cause the Vimeo issues you describe. SSD only if you have money left over and really, really want it.
posted by zippy at 11:38 AM on October 1, 2012

Just wanted to add that the kind of spyware \ bloatware that the average Windows computer gathers over time can have a huge impact on performance. Many of your symptoms sound like they could be OS related rather than you hitting the wall on what your hardware is capable of. You might consider trying Ubuntu Linux (or some other linux distro) on your PC (System76 sells Ubuntu desktops and laptops and have a great reputaion).

If your budget is $1k you might also consider giving a imac or mac mini a look. They should be very zippy for web browsing and would get you out of the spyware target-rich environment that Windows is.
posted by machinecraig at 12:21 PM on October 1, 2012

How about a Dell Inspiron 660 Desktop? Core i5-2320, Windows 7 Home Premium (64 bit), 8GB RAM and 1TB HD.

Or the HP Pavillion p7-1380t? Core i5-2320, Windows 7 Home Premium (64 bit), 6GB RAM and 1TB HD.

Both retail for $550 without a monitor and both would be more than adequate for your needs.
posted by mr_silver at 12:29 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So if I get 6gb of memory with the system and I want to add RAM, I should go for another 6 gb stick?

I would get twice as many mechanical hard drives as you need, capacity-wise and set them up in a RAID-1 configuration. They are just too cheap and motherboards have too many SATA ports to not do this. Then you can use an SSD to boot off of, if you want to get fancy.

I kind of got lost trying to follow. Can someone explain this further? The systems I'm looking at all seem to come with a SATA hard drive. I should try to get a SSD add on, and boot from that?

I'm still looking at the i7 processors but if there is no increase in performance, I won't waste the money.

I'm sure there are some lingering virus issues on my machine, but by and large I keep it fairly clean, thanks to folks like deezil. My next askme was going to be on precisely that - how to set up the new computer I'm about to buy so that it doesn't get clutter. So that it autodeletes everything possible, so that it doesn't get bogged down.

If it isn't clear, I am seriously tired of having slow browsing issues. My mind works pretty fast in a number of directions and I want to be able to do about 15 things at once, right when I'm thinking about it, with minimal lags or delays.
posted by cashman at 12:45 PM on October 1, 2012

I would get twice as many mechanical hard drives as you need, capacity-wise and set them up in a RAID-1 configuration. They are just too cheap and motherboards have too many SATA ports to not do this. Then you can use an SSD to boot off of, if you want to get fancy.

This doesn't really make sense so I wouldn't worry about it. Your OS drive needs speed: buy an SSD. Your data drive needs capacity(for music, movies, docs, pictures): buy a HDD. Back both up. Don't mess with RAID unless you need it, which you don't. RAID is a technology that allows drives to be either mirrored to one another in real time, used by the OS as one virtual drive, or both. Back before the days of badass SSDs this was a good way to get a bit more performance or (in the case of RAID 1) to mirror the drives for 100% uptime. It is NOT a backup method, however, and I really don't think a non-technical user should even mess with it. A large retailer isn't going to sell you a machine with a baked in RAID array anyway.

You want to install your operating system on to the SSD. I'm not sure if resellers like Dell, etc will offer that in their machines as an upgrade but make sure that's the way it is set up. That will make a lot of core operations much faster and a moderately sized drive is fine if it's just holding the operating system. The data drive doesn't need to be as fast unless you are doing something like editing a lot of HD video. You don't want to use the SSD to hold your data as that's not really what they're for and it could theoretically reduce the life of the drive. Also, having all your data on one drive and the OS on the other makes backup simpler.

There is absolutely no reason for you to buy an i7. I agree they are shiny. :) Like I said, even gamers don't buy them. They are excess power for no good reason.

Think about it this way: your machine is only as fast as the slowest component. Modern intel CPUs are ludicrously fast and efficient, but things can only run as fast as the data can be accessed. That's why the SSD is crucial.
posted by selfnoise at 1:09 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

By the way, what are the specs on your current machine?
posted by selfnoise at 1:11 PM on October 1, 2012

Response by poster: By the way, what are the specs on your current machine?

What are the specs on an abacus?

I'm not sure if resellers like Dell, etc will offer that in their machines as an upgrade but make sure that's the way it is set up.

I'm leaning toward a Pavilion at this point. I'm not sure if I can order the configuration you specify. So if I have to just order it with say a 500GB SATA hard drive, I then buy a solid state drive on my own, install it, and then I can set up the machine to boot on the SSD?
posted by cashman at 1:18 PM on October 1, 2012

So if I have to just order it with say a 500GB SATA hard drive, I then buy a solid state drive on my own, install it, and then I can set up the machine to boot on the SSD?

Yeah, you can do that, but you'll have to reinstall the OS. If you're buying a prebuilt PC, that means booting into Windows, burning the "recovery DVDs", and then hooking up the SSD.
posted by dobi at 2:40 PM on October 1, 2012

Honestly, if you aren't comfortable building your own PC, then I'm not sure you'll be comfortable buying a PC and then installing your own SSD and reinstalling or migrating everything for your boot drive. I also have my doubts that HP or Dell support are going to be very useful if you go that route.

An SSD is worthwhile though if your goal is a snappy, responsive system

Further, I don't know that you really even need a second hard disk for data. SSDs are to the point that with a little shopping, you can get a good SSD drive for $0.75GB. A sub $200 drive could be all the storage you need for quite some time, unless you have a lot of photos/video/audio.

I would suggest getting a 1-2TB internal or external disk for backup, and if you outgrow your SSD, you can start moving your media to it and add another backup drive.

RAID is not a good idea for a desktop. If you are going to have two drives, you are better off using one as the target of a real backup, which protects you from a wider range of data-loss scenarios than a RAID will.

My rough outline of specs would be:

Ivy Bridge generation i3 or i5 CPU
No video card (use the CPU integrated video)
8 GB RAM (2x4GB)
128GB SSD if you already know you need an HDD for media, ~180-256GB HDD if you are pretty sure you won't need a separate drive for media.
DVD or BlueRay drive.
posted by Good Brain at 2:56 PM on October 1, 2012

Neither of the computers I linked to have SSD's but this isn't such a big issue as the chances are that these computers will be so much faster than your old computer that you'll still be happy.

If you want a SSD in the future (and bear in mind that, as awesome as they are, millions of people every day manage to use a computer just fine without one) then you can either fit it yourself or ask a friendly computer geek to do it for you.

The HP machine has a second empty hard drive slot which (with a low cost adapter) could easily accommodate a SSD.
posted by mr_silver at 3:11 PM on October 1, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks all! I guess my next askme will be questions about what I did wrong in installing a solid state drive.
posted by cashman at 3:25 PM on October 1, 2012

SSD is just like a regular spinny HD, there is nothing fancy about it from an install perspective really in a modern case.
posted by iamabot at 7:17 PM on October 1, 2012

In my opinion SSDs are getting to the point where they are essential. Nothing else you buy will do as much to make your computer feel fast an SSD.
posted by markr at 3:07 AM on October 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Browsing (not the switching between tabs part, that should be pretty much instant) can be seriously affected by your internet speed, too. So even with your fancy new computer, if you're using dialup, your browsing experience won't improve very much. In my experience: Cable>DSL>dialup. Not sure what options you have/are using for your internet connection.
posted by Grither at 3:55 AM on October 2, 2012

I do not suggest you build one yourself. Sometimes you'll make a price decision over quality and get a DOA motherboard or other component and have to return it (I once got three in a row, thus destroying the cost -- and then some -- that I was trying to save. Aside from that then you have to work with each manufacturer differently, and it's far easier to play dumb on the phone if you bought the machine as a whole instead of piecing the thing together (people are less likely to help you out if you're in there messing around with everything, then there's no guarantee for them of what you have or have not done).

I personally bought an Area Aurora 3 years ago and the thing runs like a beast.

Do not, I repeat DO NOT buy cheap. You get what you pay for and if you want to buy a cheap model it will last you two years before seriously degrading. Spend what you can afford, but also maybe a bit more.
posted by zombieApoc at 5:39 AM on October 2, 2012

Sometimes having open multiple tabs can slow down any computer. The problem is the browser which could have a memory leak or becoming unresponsive and freezing up. Also browser's plugins and extensions could have memory leaks or other stability problems.

When tabbed browsing came out I used to do have many tabs open. Now I just keep open what I actually look like.
posted by AdamG8GXP at 6:59 AM on October 2, 2012

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