Help me build a desktop
December 23, 2003 11:03 AM   Subscribe

I want to build a desktop computer for under $500 (not including the monitor) if I can manage it. The catch is, I need quite a bit of power. Right now I'm looking at Athlon 64, but this will be the first computer I've built, any advice\experience is appreciated. [more inside]

I intend to use it primarily for graphics, both traditional (photoshop, Corel Painter, illustrator, flash, etc) and 3D (most likely 3ds Max 6, because Max is what I'm most familiar with).
Since I am a poor student I'd like something that can be upgraded over time, and is powerful enough now that I won't feel compelled to upgrade for at least a year.
I know the biggest exspense will be the video card, and maybe the ram, but I don't know much else. Thanks.
posted by Grod to Computers & Internet (20 answers total)
By "quite a bit of power" do you mean overall performance, or you literally need a high-output power supply to provide electrical power to a long list of drives, cards, etc?
posted by scarabic at 11:33 AM on December 23, 2003

The former.
posted by Grod at 11:34 AM on December 23, 2003

One question - is this system going to replace a prior setup?
If so, certain legacy items, such as the cd and hard drives could be used as auxillary accessories, or even holdovers until you can get the parts you may later afford/desire.

Athlon 64 processors will pretty much break your budget, as they're hovering in the US $235-735 range. Figure in the motherboard and RAM, and your video card will have to wait awhile.

If your comfortable with the idea, you could consider a consolidated motherboard, with onbard video and audio; there are some brands which make upgrading to a different AGP card a bit tricky, so it's best to check the manufacturers' list of onboard BIOS processors for compatability.

Another set of questions come to mind - are you planning to do your graphics work with a digitizer tablet? If so, your present budget's not going to allow for it. In addition to OS compatible drivers, the issue of weither you prefer a stylus, CAD puck or even a trackball controller is something you might've pondered.
posted by Smart Dalek at 11:36 AM on December 23, 2003

well, it is pretty easy to build a computer for under $500 if you don't include the monitor. i am a big fan of asus and i use their integrated boards that include sound and nic. this also means less pci cards to buy, if any. also, i have found that intel's hyper threading is quite nice. don't know if you are an intel hater or not, and i have never had any problems with linux support on any of asus's boards yet, though i don't know if that is an issue for you.

the best way to keep things cheap is to use to find the parts you are looking for cheap. just remember to try and order as many things from one place, or you will get screwed on all the shipping costs. also, antec makes great power supplies with the wires wonderfully wrapped together to keep from forming a nest of wires in your computer.

if you have the extra money, lay down a bit more for the case. nothing fancy mind you, there is no real need for windows and lights and the such. but there are cases that are better designed than others, with the placement of internal drives, removable slide that allows you to detach and slide the motherboard out, handy little screws you can grasp with your fingers and the like.

last words of advice: read the directions carefully. an anti-static wristband is not a bad investment, especially if working on carpet. don't force ram in if it won't go, check to make sure it's not backwards. try to keep your fingers off as much as you can, try and just touch the sides. don't over screw (just screw till tight. if you over screw, you can strip it, and the tiny shards of metal that result can cause shorts on your boards). don't use magnets (magnetic tip screwdrivers, little wands to pick up things you dropped, etc).

other than that, good luck. if you run into any problems or have any questions, feel free to email me any time. i like to help.
posted by chrisroberts at 11:37 AM on December 23, 2003

Well, my current setup is an old Inspiron 4000 from dell. It actually copes just fine with Photoshop, etc, and manages to run Max without to much fuss, but is slow as hell when it comes to rendering. I have an old Wacom Digitizer II (8x10) and I love it. I've used the new ones and don't have any strong desire to replace it.
I desire speed, stability, and upgradablity, and my interest change dramtically from year to year.
posted by Grod at 11:43 AM on December 23, 2003

If your budget is $500, an Athlon 64 is out of your range.

That said, you don't need a 64-bit processor to get some good power.

You could go with, say, an Athlon XP 2500. You should be able to get a good board with that chip on it for about $200 or so.

Harddrives are cheap these days - $99 for 160GB on pricewatch as I type this.

The problem with putting yourself in such a tight budget is the little things that get you. You're going to want a CD-ROM, a floppy, and even a case with a power supply. You're probably looking at $100 or so for those three. RAM will cost you maybe $100 if you're looking to get big. And that leaves you with no videocard.

If you can steal the CD-ROM and floppy and maybe even the case from your old Dell, that'd ease your strain a bit and give you a bit more money to buy a good quality video card.

The short answer is, there is no short answer. Building a strong performing box requires a lot of time and research to pick pieces that come together well. My suggestion is start doing some reading up on what's available. Read some reviews (try for example) and spec out what parts will work well with what, and then start spending your money.
posted by christian at 12:18 PM on December 23, 2003

"but is slow as hell when it comes to rendering"

If that's the weak point in your current system, why not get a cheaper second computer which you can use as a dedicated rendering box? With that you can save on many parts since they wouldn't be needed. A great video card won't help you render to files. And you won't need the high specs on the processor since you can let the box churn while you do modeling with lower res test renders on your current system.

An all in one box is nice, but not as efficient, and much more expensive.
posted by y6y6y6 at 12:25 PM on December 23, 2003

in my experience, it's usually memory rather than brute cpu force that slows me down. i don't do photoshopping, but i do process large images, and while i can wait 20-50% longer for a slow cpu, once the image is so large that the system starts using swap (eg pixelmapping posters at printer resoln), jobs never finish. so i'd put more emphasis on memory than cpu.

oh, and a fan went on my asus mobo. which was rather annoying. i'd suggest trying to find one that didn't have additional fans (this was a fan for the support chipset, not the main cpu). i don't know how common these are, but if you're pushing clock limits with the latest chips i suspect they're something to check for.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:31 PM on December 23, 2003

y6, you have a good point, but my current system is a laptop, running Windows ME, and at this point it would be easier to have a new system than to try to upgrade to 2000/XP, that and I really, really want a new system :)
Anyone have specific hardware reccomendations, things they've used for similar work?

I should note that $500 is nice but I can go over, the problem is I figure I'll just have to replace it in a handful of years. I'd spend more if upgrading would be cheaper in the long run, but its hard to predict how technolog will go.
posted by Grod at 12:31 PM on December 23, 2003

The Budget Box in the Arstechnica System Guide should give you a fair overview of the various components you should be looking at in your price range (though even it is ~$600 w/o monitor). As scarabic said, forget about the Athlon 64; a CPU+Mobo combo for that will set you back almost $500 on its own.
posted by boaz at 12:34 PM on December 23, 2003

Also, don't skimp on the case; it'll probably last longer than any single other component you buy, and the really cheap ones are horrifically bad. If you need to cut back further than the Budget box, drop the modem, get cheaper speakers, buy a slightly slower CPU and/or get an nForce2 motherboard with integrated graphics.
posted by boaz at 12:53 PM on December 23, 2003

Whoops. That's "As scarabic Smart Dalek said"
posted by boaz at 1:23 PM on December 23, 2003

(Hi boaz) can watch your local Craigslist like a hawk - sooner or later either all the components you want will come up (or close enough) or you may even find someone who's selling a custom built rig. You can certainly do about 1/2 nominal used value, and so put together or buy a $1000 computer for your $500.
posted by troutfishing at 2:00 PM on December 23, 2003

Seconding the Ars Technica recommendation and ample memory (512 should be enough for just about anything currently). Try Tom's Hardware for hardware reviews. Also keep an eye out for great pricing on components on the deal boards; to get you started, here's a very decent case that was just published on Ben's Bargains.
posted by vers at 2:13 PM on December 23, 2003

A good place to go in the Northwest USA would be PC Club. They have prebuilt systems, and they have a duron system for $399, that if you upgraded to a 'Barton' core 2500+ XP proc and 512MB DDR33 Ram, 5 bucks over 500.

Let's be honest here. You are a student, you could "find" a copy of XP lying around, moral obligations aside. This may save you $100, and since you aren't a business it isnt really a huge sin. Just promise yourself you'll buy it when you have more money.
posted by Keyser Soze at 2:19 PM on December 23, 2003

to get you started, here's a very decent case that was just published on Ben's Bargains.

I can personally vouch for both this case, which I bought for my brother when his computer's power supply died a year or so ago, and this merchant, pretty much the only computer parts shop I frequent anymore. Free shipping on cases is an excellent deal on its own since their weight and size makes shipping them quite expensive normally. I found this case for $55 but paid about $20 shipping when I bought mine.
posted by boaz at 3:24 PM on December 23, 2003

I am in the process of building my first PC too. I am trying to for something that doesn't become obsolete right away, nor do I want to go over $1000 if possible.

Although BTX is coming soon, I feel the ATX design wont die away soon, so based on that I've created the following priority list. All prices are from

Case & Power Supply

A good roomy case is vital in my opinion, because good airflow will cool your machine and generate less noise from fans trying to pump air around. A good power supply is vital, because you want a steady voltage from a unit that runs relatively cooler, and gives you the best efficiency. In the long run a good power supply and a roomy case with all the cables neatly organised will not only save you money on your electricity bill, but also reduce ambient noise. If I had to pick a case right now, it would be the Antec Sonata or Antec 37000BQE. I'd eventually upgrade the power supply to Seasonic Super Silencer, but for now Antec's power supplies are good enough. Right now I'll probably spend about $93 for the Sonata, which comes with a 380W Power Supply.


I'd get a really good motherboard, because I want a stable system, with everything I need right now (firewire, USB, LAN), to everything I may need in the future SATA, USB 2.0 and Gigabit LAN. While some manufacturers stuff their boards with a lot of features, and throw in add ons, they might not be up to the task when it comes to stability and BIOS updates. I am getting the Asus P4C800-E Deluxe i875 Motherboard for $179


I *really* like the concept of Hyperthreading, and I've had very good luck with Intels, so I'll be getting the Intel Pentium 4 2.6C Ghz 800Mhz FSB Retail for $169


A memory from a reputed brand will run far more stably than generic modules. It's always best to check with your motherboard manufacturer's to find which brands and models are compatible. Although I want to run memory in dual channel mode, I want to stay within my budget and keep very near future upgrades in mind, so I'll be getting a Corsair XMS Extreme Memory Speed Series 184 Pin 512MB DDR PC-3200C2PT - OEM stick for $108

Video Card

I don't want to break the bank on this one. So I am going with what's been said to be the best value buy, an Sapphire ATI Radeon 9600 Pro 128MB DDR Retail for $153. A side advantage is that the card is passively cooled, so that's one less noise source in your machine.


Everyone has their preference when it comes to HDs, some want speed, some want reliability, some silence, and many want all three. I am going to opt for a relatively future ready Serial ATA generation 1 drive. I'll be getting a Samsung 120GB 7200RPM SATA Hard Drive for $109. This drive runs fairly cool, and quiet, and is relatively fast too. One immediate advantage of SATA is tiny flat cables, so the airflow in the case is not blocked as much as flat IDE ribbons.

Floppy drive

You can reuse an old one, or just get a new one. It's best to have one in your machine, because you never know when you need it, and it's not too expensive. For $8 I'll get a MITSUMI D359M3 1.44MB 3.5INCH Floppy Disk Drive.

I think my total adds up to about $820 plus shipping. Eventually I'll add a second 512MB memory stick so that I can run dual channel DDR400. Then I'll look at changing the heatsink on the CPU to something from the Zalman family. After that I'll get around to getting a DVDRW +/-.
posted by riffola at 9:34 PM on December 23, 2003

You can reuse an old one, or just get a new one. It's best to have one in your machine, because you never know when you need it, and it's not too expensive. For $8 I'll get a MITSUMI D359M3 1.44MB 3.5INCH Floppy Disk Drive.

at my work we are transistioning to a floppy-less world, as most of the laptops do not have one, nor do we have externals for them. we use usb flash when it's neccessary to sneaker-net, and bootable cds when we need to bypass the hard drive os.

the only time i can recall this being a real pia was a redhat 8 installation with special raid drivers that *insisted* on loading the drivers from the floppy.
posted by lescour at 8:09 AM on December 24, 2003

lescour, yes that's precisely why it's better to have a floppy drive than not. Once I've built my computer, and I'm ready to install the OS, I'll need a floppy drive to install the SATA drive just before XP starts to install. Also a floppy drive is handy if your motherboard doesn't support web based BIOS updates.
posted by riffola at 9:34 AM on December 24, 2003

1. The consensus appears to be that 64bit cpu's aren't worth it right now, and won't be for several more years.
2. Do AMD chips not have their own equivalent of hyperthreading?
posted by Grod at 10:14 AM on December 24, 2003

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