Help me find a desktop PC on a budget
September 13, 2013 11:31 AM   Subscribe

My 4-year-old laptop is dying and I want to replace it with a desktop. What is the least computer I could buy now that would still be upgradeable enough that I could keep it and upgrade it for several years?

Wants/needs

-Windows OS
-Needs to be upgradeable to 16 GB of RAM, preferably 32 (fine if it only has 4 or 8 now)
-Needs to be able to support at least 2 monitors
-I would like to eventually be able to add an SSD
-budget is $800 max right now, preferably under $600

My comfort level with computers I would say is moderate-- I have added RAM to a computer and I think I could add a drive to a computer, but I would probably not be comfortable with a DIY kit.

I am a digital artist (mainly Adobe Suite- Photoshop/After Effects, also Cinema 4D) and will be using the computer mainly for digital art, some light gaming, and general web goofing off. My work computer is a Mac Pro with 16 GB of RAM, so I'd like my home computer to be able to be somewhat comparable (eventually!) in terms of render times.

Since my criteria is mainly not what the computer is, but what it would be upgradeable to, I am having trouble searching effectively. Are there any websites that are particularly good for searching by my criteria? Or any computers that you can recommend that might fulfill my criteria?
posted by matcha action to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
You may take a look through a few of the latest Tom's Hardware Build Your Own guides. And since it's September, they should be doing new ones in the next week or two if you can hold out. They do all the work of what it is now, and you can see if things are where you'd like to be eventually.
posted by deezil at 12:02 PM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'd strongly recommend building it yourself, especially since you say your comfort level is moderate. I built a desktop last year with zero problems and minimal time investment, without ever opening up a computer case previously. There are tons of resources for beginner builders - suggested builds, youtube videos showing every last detail, troubleshooting help, etc. I can point you to the resources I used, if you want, but they're easy to find. I ended up spending about 1000$ before tax and shipping and ended up with a fantastic computer. I think you could do pretty well with 600-800$, particularly if you don't need high-level gaming performance.

If you google things like "budget build" you can find some good options in your price range that will outperform the assembled computers at the same price, plus you can modify it to upgrade things that are important to you. And it's a lot easier to do than you probably think - everything is made to fit together in a logical way, and if you use a build someone else has designed, you don't even have to worry about the parts being compatible with each other.
posted by randomnity at 12:10 PM on September 13, 2013


If you're comfortable adding components to a computer on your own, building one isn't much more complicated than that. I heartily third the suggestion to watch videos/read guides and see if it looks doable for you, because the difference in price and upgradeability is night and day.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:15 PM on September 13, 2013


Get a desktop with a 4th gen intel processor (Haswell), (given your budget, probably an i5), and a mid range nvidia or amd video card with at least a 1 Gb of RAM.

Here might be an example:
http://www.ibuypower.com/Store/Intel_Z87_Core_i5_Configurator

The above will run two monitors easily, game with anything at 1920x1080 for current titles at acceptable framerate, and is $779. The processor will be fast enough for most anything for quite a while, and you can add RAM, an SSD, or a faster video card trivially. The 4th gen intel chips came out recently, so you will be on the start of the upgrade cycle for them. You could go cheaper with the processor, and replace that if you needed to a faster one, but this is a less trivial upgrade.

Note, if you buy this, you will be overpaying. As people have said, you will save money if you build yourself.

I also have to say, your view on how often you need to upgrade may be a bit outdated. I bought a gaming PC in 2009, and have upgrade the video card, and added a blu ray drive. It still plays games incredibly well.
posted by zabuni at 12:48 PM on September 13, 2013


I agree that it's sensible to build your own. It doesn't take much time or expertise, and the gotchas are minimal if you follow a guide that has been vetted for compatibility.

Since no one's mentioned it yet, here's a friendly reminder:

Get a really good case and monitor, because you'll want those to stay constant longer than anything else in the system.
posted by jsturgill at 12:59 PM on September 13, 2013


Unless you buy from ibuypower or cyberpower or another custom build company, basically any desktop you buy readymade will me only slightly upgrade-able and will probably have stupid proprietary parts that are hard to replace.

Building your own is pretty fun, really! MaximumPC has a good budget build that they keep current.

Spend on a very good power supply with a bit more power than you think you'll need. Look at reviews on cases, because price seems to have little to do with how easy they are to build in. For motherboards and RAM and hard drives, buy brands that have good reputations for reliability (and read reviews). Newegg's reviews have been very helpful when I've built machines over the years. Especially on monitors that I never would have looked at but ended up loving. And monitors are easy to upgrade, except for the money.
posted by monopas at 1:55 PM on September 13, 2013


I'd probably build my own because that's what I always end up doing. Keep in mind that your options for upgrading over the space of several years are likely to be pretty limited. CPU, RAM, and motherboard are essentially a matched set, and will make up a significant portion of the cost of the base system. By the time you get 3-4 years out, its pretty likely that RAM and CPUs that work with each other and fit your motherboard will be out of production and you will end up paying a premium for obsolete technology or replacing the whole set.

Upgrading the graphics card and the HDD/SSD will likely be practical for a longer period, and the case and probably power supply, could have a long life.
posted by Good Brain at 2:05 PM on September 13, 2013


Windows OEM licenses are generally way cheaper than anything you can buy, so if you want a legal version, it's worth looking at commercial products as that price difference can offset what you save building yourself. I recently bought a Dell XPS 8700 that meets all of your requirements. The motherboard/CPU may not be easily upgradeable (I never bothered to check) but in all likelihood by that it becomes out of date I'll want something entirely new anyway. I've seen them on sale for as little as $650 with a highish end quad core 4th generation i7 and OK video card. If you're more concerned with rendering time (you really do want a Haswell i7 for that) than playing games, that would be fine. It ships with a hard drive but there's plenty of space to add an SSD and then use the HD for storing media.
posted by Candleman at 3:17 PM on September 13, 2013


What do you want to be able to upgrade?
  • Hard disks or SSDs - make sure that there are spare SATA ports on the motherboard and drive bays. This usually isn't a problem on pre-built systems.
  • Memory - just make sure that it has spare slots before you buy it. This is often not a problem on pre-built systems, though checking the manual before buying is a good idea.
  • Graphics card - These are power-hungry devices, so make sure that you either plan to upgrade your power supply at the same time, or make sure to get a computer with a beefy enough power supply in it already (you can probably ensure this is by buying the computer with a gaming-class GPU, though obviously checking the specs before you buy is a must). At this point, it is probably worth your while to consider building your PC instead of buying pre-built, unless you go with an OEM that makes computers with off-the-shelf parts.
  • CPU/Motherboard - Usually these are the hardest components to upgrade as they often must be upgraded together due to changing sockets and other considerations. If you want to be able to do this well, I'd definitely recommend building instead of buying.
In your case, you say you want to be able to upgrade the memory and add an SSD, which most desktops can handle, even the ones from the huge manufacturers. That said, building a PC is not very hard to do these days, if you're willing to take some precautions on making sure not to static-damage the components and you don't mind the (usually smallish) risk that some individual component won't work properly on your setup.

If you're risk averse or just don't want to deal with putting the pieces together but still want maximum upgradability, make sure to buy from a company that uses standard off-the-shelf components. Monopas mentioned iBuyPower and CyberPower as examples, though I'm sure there are more; you might also try looking for a local computer shop. You'll definitely pay a bit more than what you would from a major manufacturer though.
posted by Aleyn at 5:08 PM on September 13, 2013


Just want to say thank you all so much for the extremely helpful answers. I am not sure what I will do yet but I feel much better about my options. I am still nervous about putting my own system together, and am not sure the savings are worth it after factoring in a new copy of Windows, but it is great to hear that it is not as intimidating as I would think. I am leaning towards the iBuyPower/ CyberPower options and am playing around with what I can afford on their sites.
posted by matcha action at 6:24 PM on September 13, 2013


Take a look at this (relatively) recent Lifehacker guide.
posted by lollusc at 9:24 PM on September 13, 2013


Memory - just make sure that it has spare slots before you buy it.

Also check the memory speeds the motherboard supports. If the memory it accepts is going out of production soon, it's going to get expensive. Easily to the point of being cheaper to just get a new motherboard and new RAM. Caveat: big name prebuilts like Dells might well use fucked-up power systems and motherboards so you can't replace them.

I am still nervous about putting my own system together

The only part that is harder than legos is attaching the cpu heatsink, and even that's pretty easy.

not sure the savings are worth it after factoring in a new copy of Windows

But you'll also get a clean copy of windows instead of one that's infested with a billion kinds of crapware Dell or whoever got paid to dump on you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:39 PM on September 13, 2013


Before I put together my own desktop a couple years ago, I was also really nervous. In the end, I watched some good YouTube videos and had a knowledgeable friend watch me while I did it. I bought him a pizza and saved probably $150 in markup.

There was a similar question late last year; I posted a bunch of the resources I used, including some of the relevant videos, late last year. Many of them are constantly updated, so it's still worth checking them.
posted by jiawen at 2:13 AM on September 14, 2013


I've been able to get super cheap desktops by looking for scratch and dent on Dell's outlet. Here. The last scratch and dent desktop I bought didn't have any cosmetic issues that I could find and is going on like seven years strong. It was an excellent bargain.

Building yourself is a good option. NewEgg's YouTube channel has posted some video tutorials on building your own system, which includes easy stuff like installing a video card and some of the less straight-forward things, like where you plug everything into your motherboard. I've built a couple desktops and it's surprisingly easy, actually. I did it using YouTube videos, Google searches, my motherboard's website to check compatibility for RAM, there are calculators online to estimate how powerful a power supply you should buy etc and the motherboard manual. I would recommend buying your parts from NewEgg.com -- good prices, helpful reviews and they have some custom-build hardware bundles that take away some guesswork. I was able to shop around a lot and find good prices on everything. I build a system with 8GB RAM, an i7 processor and a SSD for Windows 7. It's also kind of a fun little project to buy everything and then put it altogether.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:09 AM on September 14, 2013


Timer ran out, but it appears the top three videos on NewEgg's YouTube is their tutorial on building a computer. Here.

Still, if you don't want to build, I recommend looking for scratch & dent computers because they will be marked down a lot but work fine. (I personally wouldn't risk refurbished computers though.) And nothing really beats good old-fashioned price comparison shopping.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:17 AM on September 14, 2013


Trying to buy from Dell Outlet was what pushed me over into building my own computer. The machine I bought had a video card that made an electrical buzz whenever it rendered anything in 3D (as in polygons, not glasses) and the hard drive completely failed after the first weekend. Then they tried to "replace" it with a computer that had a slower, single-core processor and half as much memory. That's a worst-case example, but still, be careful.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:32 PM on September 14, 2013


Oh yeah, those newegg videos are the ones I used a year ago! They were perfect for a total noob like me. Definitely recommended if you end up building. I watched them through once before starting and then replayed them as I built it. I also bought most of the parts at newegg, minus a couple I found cheaper elsewhere.

I found it a fun process and it's nice to know now (roughly) what all the parts in my computer are for. It was a little nerve-wracking at times because I was afraid of damaging parts or ordering defective ones, but it was all really straightforward. I didn't have any problems and I'm really glad I did it. I'm hoping to upgrade it as needed over the next few years (still running like new for now) and I think having built it myself will make it easier to do that, since I'm familiar with all the parts in there.

Also, would highly recommend starting off with an SSD, unless the budget is really tight right now. The difference in startup time is insane with Windows running on the SSD (assuming you keep your startup programs trimmed). I got a 128GB one for about 100$. You can always buy hard drives for storage later, or use an external if you have one already.
posted by randomnity at 12:48 PM on September 14, 2013


Watching those newegg videos now-- they really are great. You guys almost have me convinced. I'm not sure I'll be saving any money (I have a bad habit of thinking, 'oh, that part is only $5-$10 more-- that makes more sense, and as a result the build I am pricing out is already at the top of my price range) but I will at least have a computer that is what I need now, will be able to be upgraded, and will have a clean copy of Windows. I will post my planned build on the Tom's Hardware forums once I have it finalized a bit more. Thanks again to everyone who answered; I'll report back with an update once I either have it built or decide to go another route.
posted by matcha action at 7:12 PM on September 14, 2013


Final update: I decided to build my own. I used PCpartpicker and the kind people on the Tom's Hardware forums to choose a newish AMD processor (according to them, faster than Intel for 3D rendering and stuff?) and compatible parts. I spent about $750 including the OS. Putting it together was for the most part pretty painless. I had one moment when I first tried to turn it on that scared me-- everything looked like it was booting fine, but nothing was showing on the display-- but once I realized the motherboard gave me error codes, I was able to fix the problem quickly.

It is a little loud, which I still need to look in to, but I have never seen any computer boot as fast as this one does-- Less than 10 seconds. I haven't tried any graphics stuff yet but I'm planning on it this weekend. Internet browsing is significantly faster than my previous computer.

I'd just like to say thank you to everyone for giving me both good answers as to my options if I didn't want to build my own, and for those of you who convinced me that I could do it. Not only do I have the computer I want for a price I can sort-of afford, but I have an enormous sense of accomplishment (yes, even though it was like putting legos together) and I feel like I've learned an important skill that will serve me well for years to come.

Thanks AskMe :)
posted by matcha action at 1:16 PM on October 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


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