How hard would it be to build a $500 PC with my son?
August 22, 2014 6:38 AM   Subscribe

I have $500 and need a PC for my son. He plays TF2 and similar games but not the newest cutting edge graphics-power-needing marvels. I could buy one, but would it be a worthwhile dad-son project to build one? How many hours would it take, ballpark?

I don't get a lot of time with my son, but I'm up for a project beyond making another Pinewood Derby car. He's a smart tween who loves playing modded kids games like Minecraft and Terraria, and he plays TF2. I think he could benefit from knowing more about how it all works.

I am pretty patient and willing to Google for help if I run into roadblocks. If you've built a PC, can you estimate how long it should take? I would need everything, down to the OS.

What resources would you use? How to pick the hardware, get good instructions on how to assemble? I see Reddit has some boards that can help when you're in motion.

What I don't want is to get halfway and hit a roadblock. All thoughts appreciated, and thank you for your time.
posted by sacre_bleu to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I've built three PCs. It's not as hard as you might think. The parts are all standardized -- they snap together like Lego blocks. Well, not quite, but almost. You do have to make sure that the components are compatible with each other. You might look at PCPartPicker.
posted by alex1965 at 6:46 AM on August 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Computers are incredibly easy to build these days. They're almost too easy... you may not find it a super satisfying "big" project. It should take an hour or two tops.

I like Tech Report a lot... here is their most recent recommended build guide, and one the first page there is a detailed video showing all the steps.

I'll drop this Ars Technica guide in too since it goes a bit cheaper.

Let me know if you have more specific questions about parts etc.
posted by selfnoise at 6:48 AM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You should absolutely do this. It's not too hard, and it is a good learning experience. I've helped my daughter build several electronics projects, and it's always been a good experience for both of us, even when we've temporarily hit snags. (I think that it's really fairly valuable for a child to see their parents hit a snag or make a mistake in a project and then learn, reason or hack their way around it.) The actual build time is likely to be only a couple of hours at most - it will likely take you longer to make decisions as to what components to buy.

Some resources:

* Lifehacker: How to Build a Computer From Scratch
* Tom's Hardware: Budget Gaming PC Example and Build
* Maximum PC: Recommended Builds

Some other good resources on building inexpensive gaming boxes are AnandTech and ArsTechnica.

Good luck!
posted by eschatfische at 6:51 AM on August 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

From a pile of boxes of parts to a built computer that hasn't yet turned on could be an hour or two. Installing the OS, and getting your core programs into place (in this case, Steam and TF2), will depend on the speed of the machine (SSD and fast memory games OS-loading much faster than it used to be, but this is the part where the install will make you watch and wait, so it's boring.

Note that Steam can let you back up your games locally, "Back up local files" in the right-click menu on the game's entry in the steam library. Do that and transplant the result to the new PC for faster restoration. You'll still have to install and update Steam, which means about 125MB downloaded-- nothing huge, but I don't know your connection.
posted by Sunburnt at 6:51 AM on August 22, 2014

I've built a few PCs, though not in a couple of years. The thing that takes the most time is researching all the parts to make sure they're going to work together and do what you want. The actual building only takes a couple of hours. Add to that another hour or two to install the OS and then some time tweaking things, which your son can do on his own once it's all working.

Don't underestimate the need for a good case. A case that has easy access to the insides and slide-out/snap-in hard drive rails will save you a ton of time and frustration.
posted by bondcliff at 6:51 AM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I say go for it. I built a PC recently without really knowing what I was doing, and it wasn't all that hard. Once I got all the components together, it took me maybe two evenings...a couple hours or so each night.

I used PCPartPicker to figure out what components to buy and which were compatible. They have a forum too, and I got a question answered there.

Beyond that, I used a guide found on Lifehacker, a book from the library, and the instructions from the motherboard I bought.
posted by Leontine at 6:51 AM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

I built my own PC as a teen, and it gave me a nice accomplished feeling. Definitely go for it.
posted by snorkmaiden at 6:57 AM on August 22, 2014

Best answer: Logical Increments provides a good list of recommended PC builds and starts out at around US$ 240.

It seems to be slightly geared towards gaming and hovering over a part will give a brief description of what kind of performance you can expect.
posted by Gev at 6:59 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hate faffing with technology, I just want it to work and not think about how it works ever. I assembled in an afternoon. My tech loving husband did all the research on parts etc for me & ordered the things though as that is the real time sink. I just assembled. The research could be fun for you and your son to do if you both have that sort of mind, the cost benefit weighing discussions my husband and BIL had over power supplies & graphics cards etc for me kept them in conversation topics for weeks.

The assembly really is a lot of tab a into slot b, and there are lots of great YouTube videos if you get stuck. I've assembled ikea furniture that took me longer to work out. *glares at her detolf*
posted by wwax at 7:11 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you live near a Microcenter you could go there and talk to someone in the parts department. They can guide you by recommending parts to avoid compatibility issues. They generally also have the best prices for CPU's by far.

Oh and is extremely useful.
posted by Poldo at 7:12 AM on August 22, 2014

Absolutely worth it. But one wrinkle is that once you're done putting it all together, even before OS installation, it's highly advisable to run diagnostic tools to check that your CPU and memory are error-free. That can take a while (overnight, maybe) and may show errors, which mean returns and rebuilding. It's very likely that you have a spiffy new machine playing tf2 in a few hours, but it might be longer. But for me, I would hope that the detective work to figure out whether something is wrong is a great father son activity and a great way to encourage his investment in the box.
posted by Pacrand at 7:13 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Every desktop PC I've owned since high school I've built myself. Things have gotten much, much simpler in recent years as manufacturers are moving away from individual boards for individual functions and integrating most of it on the motherboard. I still enjoy doing it, and I think it would be a good project.

I think you should give yourself a full day to go from boxes of parts to working computer on your desk. It's not hard to put all the pieces together, but it can be frustrating to have to go hunting for the one card or cable that wasn't seated properly and is messing everything up. Windows installations still take a couple hours, but on the bright side you won't have to deal with swapping disks out to install all the device drivers - it's pretty much set and forget.

All the advice above is good. Some thoughts from the last time I built a computer:
-If you're comfortable installing Windows (assuming you're going that route), buy the OEM version of Windows 7. It's a bit cheaper than the retail version, but you also don't get any manuals or technical support - just a DVD in a sleeve.
-On that note, you probably still want to get a DVD drive. You don't need a floppy drive anymore; if I remember correctly, XP still needed one for the installation but Win7 does not.
-Make sure the power supply is sized properly for your setup. The part picker websites should help you with that.
-Definitely get a solid state drive to put the OS and programs on. SSDs seem to have gotten pretty cheap, so you probably could just go with one large drive; I opted for a smaller SSD and a second platter drive for data storage.
-I agree that you should spend some time thinking about the case. If you want to turn this into even more of a project, you could also do some case modifications (adding lights, cutting out designs in the sheet metal, adding windows to see those sweet lights...).
-Think about how you're going to move your data over from your old machine. This could be as simple as putting it all on a USB stick. If your son uses Steam to manage his game library, all of that will be taken care of automagically when he installs Steam on the new computer.

And don't put the case together until you've powered the computer on and made sure it all works! My biggest frustration has always been jumping the gun and having to tear the thing apart again because I misplaced a jumper or something equally dumb.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:15 AM on August 22, 2014

Best answer: As other have said, it's an afternoon's work. The software install can take as long as the hardware though. can be very handy: it's sort of a Steam for utility programs.

Be careful of static when building. Nothing like zapping a hundred-dollar part to kill the mood. Spend $5 on an anti-static strap, and clip off to something grounded. Don't build (or handle the parts directly) in a room with carpet.

Give yourself plenty of space. A clean desk or dining room table is about right.
posted by bonehead at 7:17 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's fun and a whole lot easier than it was in the IDE days. Building the PC from assembled parts will probably take half an hour to an hour. Installing the OS and applications to get up and running another two hours maybe.

In addition to the builds above, you might look at reddit's pc-master-race builds for cheap builds. Note that their totals aren't accurate; you'd need to add a Windows license which might run you andwhere from $0 if you're willing to be illegal to $10 if you have good connections through work to $100 from Newegg and the like. Also a keyboard and mouse (and maybe xbox controller) unless you have spares sitting around.

You can get by without a dvd unless you happen to know he'd want software that's not available for download. You can (legitimately) download the Windows installer and load it from a thumbdrive, though you might need to use a working PC to get that set up and running.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:31 AM on August 22, 2014

Here's the build my buddy helped me with last fall. (Some prices and links may be outdated) It's over your budget, but I'll tell you a few things my buddy told me:

You can go with an i5 processor and do just fine. Most modern games rely much more on the graphics card than they do raw processing power.

He chose the GTX 760 for me because it hits the sweet spot on the performance vs price curve. It's powerful enough to run most new games at High or Ultra settings, but it doesn't break the bank.

Going with an SSD makes a huge difference in load times. It's definitely worth the price if you're considering it.

I let him do the assembly, but I sat right next to him and asked questions and observed. Everything is plug and play. If I were to do it again, I'd feel confident building my own.

Good luck!
posted by Fleebnork at 7:47 AM on August 22, 2014

It's fun and a whole lot easier than it was in the IDE days.

Oh yes. The amount of stuff that you get from the motherboard alone these days is incredible, and saves a lot of time and grief on self-builds. (I like Gigabyte motherboards because their manuals tend to be very thorough, with clear diagrams of what gets plugged where.)

The hardware guides at places like ArsTechnica will be your best guide to getting compatible kit. You don't need to dive too deeply.

Don't skimp on the case for a first self-build: decent cases have pre-installed fans, good power supplies, simple connectors, no sharp edges and nice things like removable motherboard plates so you can screw it down outside the case, slide it in, and secure the plate with a couple of screws.

The fiddliest bits are the least technical ones: screwing the motherboard down, running the power cables, snapping in the CPU cooler/fan, hooking up the various wires for fans and case lights/power/front USB. They mainly require patience and following the instructions to the letter.

It's a few hours' work if you're being appropriately slow and deliberate about each step.
posted by holgate at 7:47 AM on August 22, 2014

Some of the time estimates (posted above) seem very low to me.

When I built my first PC, it took me a lot longer than an hour or two. I think I spent something like 3 or 4 hours doing research on which parts to buy. Then, when the stuff arrived in the mail, I spent a few hours un-packaging and reading instruction manuals. When I started assembling, I ran into some minor problems with assembly (the CPU cooler was difficult to install, and I had to watch some videos on the manufacturer's website). Then, when everything was assembled, I had to do some troubleshooting, as the computer wouldn't boot. After some reading and Googling, I found out that the RAM wasn't pushed all the way into the slots, despite the fact that the clips were in place. Anyway, the building process probably took the better part of day.

So, the overall total (including research) was something like 10 hours. Subsequent builds were faster.

By the way, if you don't have a magnetic screwdriver, you should probably get one. It makes it much easier to screw-in the tiny screws.
posted by alex1965 at 7:48 AM on August 22, 2014

I built one about 2 years ago using advice from Toms Hardware (the "Best x for the money" articles are great). I also used Silent PC Review because I wanted to ensure that the computer didn't sound like a jet engine during use.

I bought all the parts from Amazon (them directly so I could take advantage of their great returns policy). I did go and check out the case in person first though and the place selling it was only £5 more expensive than Amazon so I picked it up at the same time.

Bear in mind that if you already have a PC then some parts (CDROM and hard drives) can be taken from that to reduce your costs.
posted by mr_silver at 8:03 AM on August 22, 2014

Best answer: Nthing "this is a relatively easy, fun thing to do" - I've built a number of computers, and upgraded them, too. There are so many resources now, and plenty of places with live chat where people know answers to every issue you might run into while you're building your computer.

My suggested steps for the building process:
  1. Spend a few nights or a weekend with your son to research what you want and where to buy them. If you can find a local place with good prices, and knowledgeable staff, all the better
  2. Design it around what your son does now, and then see how you can extend the life of the computer by increasing the power supply, harddrive capacity, graphics card, RAM and CPU, within your budget
  3. Once you've bought it all (including the anti-static strap), set things up a table, away from carpets, and
  4. Have a computer near-by, with all the information about the complete building process and set-up you'll need, and also ready to join a builder's help chat room (check them out in advance, to make sure there are people there who will respond to your questions - some times, people just idle and don't sign off)
  5. Put on your anti-static straps, and get to building!
  6. Once done, run diagnostics on the CPU and memory - sometimes they'll be fine under light loads, but the issues become apparent under heavier loads (read: while playing a game)
  7. Install your OS
  8. Download all appropriate patches and updates for the OS
  9. Install all your son's programs
  10. Download patches and updates for programs
  11. Have fun!
If you or your son are concerned about any part of the installation process, you can spend some time looking at tutorial videos.

And now you'll have a computer your and your son can repair and upgrade yourselves, knowing how it all went together.

Fun/handy things to include in build, if they aren't already included in the case: front panel USB ports (3.0 or 3.1), SD card reader, and audio jacks.

Word of warning: there are mixed thoughts with motherboards that have onboard this or that: one view is that it decreases the stuff in the case, while the other is that you could have the integrated soundcard or internet interface fail and require that the whole MoBo is replaced, instead of a single piece that is relatively inexpensive. If you're going for a larger case, I'd side with separate components.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:09 AM on August 22, 2014

I built my first computer a few months ago and found it much more easy and trouble-free than I expected.

The thing that made it so much easier: I watched a YouTube computer assembly video straight through before building, (I think I used the NewEgg one), and then I loaded it up on a tablet so that I could refer to it step-by-step as I went through the assembly process.

I think the actual assembly took about 3 hours, and then some extra for installing the OS.
posted by Jeanne at 8:25 AM on August 22, 2014

n'thing do it! I built my first one this summer and am thrilled with the results. You can 100% fit in the budget with the option to upgrade later.

One recommendation - go small! Parts and cases have substantially come down in size, so as long as you're willing to be a little patient with cable routing you can get a powerful PC that can sit on your desk compactly. I used a Cooler Master Elite 130 case, which was the smallest one I could find that also fits a full graphics card and CD bay. The only reason I can see to go bigger is for overkill things like water cooling or multiple graphics cards.
posted by Wulfhere at 10:22 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a mac person and hate building pcs, but still think this is a worthwhile project for the kid, because knowing how computers work and how to troubleshoot is a valuable life skill to have.

You might want to consider creating a steambox rather than a windows box, because the future of pc games is heading that way, you can hook it up to your tv like a console, and knowing how to install and maintain linux is an even more valuable skill than knowing windows.
posted by empath at 11:31 AM on August 22, 2014

Response by poster: Great advice. Thanks, everyone, Mefi comes through again.
posted by sacre_bleu at 1:35 PM on August 22, 2014

I see reddit is mentioned, but not the specific subreddits. buildapc is the one you want. Very helpful community, and you can get lots of useful information without even posting.
posted by aloysius on the mixing boards at 11:40 AM on August 23, 2014

I just wanted to drop a non-question-asker follow up in here... I was actually building a new system of my own when this question appeared and the recommendations for Pc Part Picker were super useful... that's a great site not only for planning but for seeing the best price quickly. By splitting my order between 2 vendors based on prices I was able to save about 50 bucks and thus fit an extra 4 gigs of RAM into my budget. Thanks!
posted by selfnoise at 8:24 AM on August 25, 2014

FYI: Ars Technica has just updated their system guides, recommended lists of components at various price points. IMO, this is one of the better considered lists out there.
posted by bonehead at 7:43 AM on August 26, 2014

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