Who should I trust to build me a new desktop PC?
July 22, 2008 1:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for a new desktop PC, but I don't know much about the companies out there manufacturing them. Who do you trust in terms of value, quality, etc?

About five years ago I built my own PC for the first time and the stupid thing has never quite worked right. I know it's my fault, but I'm somewhat hesitant to try my hand and building from scratch again.

I'm looking for a capable gaming PC (doesn't have to be cutting-edge; I'd like to be able to play Fallout 3 without issue, but I don't need to run Crysis on the highest settings or anything). I have a perfectly functional monitor and speakers, so those aren't a consideration.

I have about $1,000 to spend, although if I could spend less and still be okay (especially on a rig that might be upgradeable down the line) that's all the better.

I'd greatly appreciate any advice on products and manufacturers that you trust. If you have a general idea about the system specs that I would need, I'd appreciate that info, too.

Thanks very much (this is my first MeFi question)!
posted by UrbanEconomist to Computers & Internet (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't actually trust anyone at this point, because it's all crap. Either I build my own, or buy a crappy Dell or HP because at least it's cheap crap, instead of Sony's expensive crap.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:54 PM on July 22, 2008

I built computers professionally for many many years. I built my own computers from 1994 until 2005. But each year things get more tricky...matched RAM pairs, the different variety of items that need to be tested for compatibility...it gets really REALLY hard.

Now as a 30-something professional I don't have the time to dick around with my computer on weekends that I used to have. In my 20s I loved getting "under the hood" with my power system. Now, I just want one that works.

And so I looked at all my options...and bought a Mac. I was a Mac-phobe. I HATED Apple. But with an Intel core, the ability to run XP (or {shudder} Vista), and some of the tightest hardware standards around (and with one of the best warranties) I decided to really look into it.

I priced a Mac and then went to Dell.com and built a system with IDENTICAL specs, and the price was within $100. So I went Mac.

I have not regretted it. Not one crash, not one glitch has happened to me. I run XP using Parallels and Boot Camp for my Windows apps but I find myself going to Windows less and less as time goes on.

I don't work for Mac, I'm not an Apple fanboi...I'm an IT professional who has seen too many people burned by shitty Dells and HPs, and let's not even mention eMachines or the overpriced corner shop's custom built boxes (I know they're overpriced...I worked for the "corner shop" for 5 years).

A friend of mine works for Microsoft and I was talking to him about the horror stories I hear about Vista, and how you can't get XP on machines any more. He told me that the problem with Vista is drivers and the ONLY system that is guaranteed to not have those driver issues is Vista running on Mac hardware. Apple just retains that tight level of quality control that you don't have to worry about it.

Unbiased opinion: consider a Mac.
posted by arniec at 2:00 PM on July 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

My experience with Macs and build-quality (and Windows performance) parallels arniec's -- nobody is as anal and hardcore about the hardware quality than Apple, and you do pay for it -- but I don't think you can build a 'gaming' machine using Mac hardware for $1000. Because of the gaming requirement, almost half of your budget is going to be a video card, and the cheapest Mac you can get with a drop-in video card slot is still $2000 to start.

Building your own is indeed a lot more work than it used to be, with more conflicts and compatibility issues to worry about, and not as much of a savings as the old days, especially since the first three-days-of-frustration driver problem will burn off the money you saved in time wasted anyway.

So I think I will endorse Tomorrowful, because that's pretty much what I do when I need a PC now -- I get whatever Dell or Compaq or whatever happens to be in the cheap-leftover bin at Office Depot for $299 and throw in the best video card I have money for. They're cheap, they'll die on you in a couple years, but so what... they're cheap.

Heck, find the video card first, then get the PC to hold it.
posted by rokusan at 2:22 PM on July 22, 2008

How about some thing like this or this.
posted by WizKid at 2:27 PM on July 22, 2008

I call bullshit on the need for a $500 video card. I just put together a new gaming rig (all parts from Newegg) and there are lots of very nice cards in the $170-$250 range.

The big question is if that $1000 needs to include a monitor and an OS. If not then you can build a very nice machine. If so then you'll need to cut a few corners but could still build a decent one.

You can also save quite a bit if you don't need to buy a new mouse, keyboard, optical drive etc... All those parts add up.
posted by Riemann at 2:35 PM on July 22, 2008

I use PC's at work and Macs at home. The best Windows performance I've ever seen is on my Intel iMac using BootCamp.

I strongly second arniec's advice: consider a Mac. Windows is very well-behaved if you keep it on a short leash, i.e., don't ever connect it to the internet except to download software updates from trusted sites. Do all your surfing and emailing on the Mac side of the house. Then, after a "getting aquianted" period, you'll find yourself more and more reluctant to fire up Windows, and you'll be a little bummed when you have to use it for those few apps that are not available for the Mac OS (fewer and fewer nowadays, BTW).

You're actually in a pretty lucky situation: you can have the best of both worlds for a while, and see which you like better.

Good luck. Enjoy your new machine.
posted by dinger at 2:39 PM on July 22, 2008

To any of the above suggesting a mac: Could you really get a decent one capable meeting the requirements of the OP for $1000 - the cost of a windows license? I haven't priced them in a while but that seems unlikely.
posted by Riemann at 2:44 PM on July 22, 2008

If a few hundred dollars difference won't break the bank, I recommend a notebook as your desktop machine. 256 megs of video RAM and an on-board ATI or NVidia card will let you run games like Battlefield 2 and Half-Life 2 and GTA just fine (Crysis, not so much).

For build quality, I'd recommend the Lenovo Thinkpads, and Apple MacBook Pros if you prefer Mac OS X.

The Thinkpads with NVidia (as opposed to Intel, ecch) graphics are around $1000.

If you want a regular desktop machine, my advice is to avoid the ultra-low-end $400 desktops due to possible build quality issues. For vendors, I recommend buying from Costco - 90 day no fee return policy, and they seem to carry reasonable machines.

If you're in San Francisco, check out Central Computer for built-to-order machines. They know their stuff, and can put together anything from a completely silent audio workstation (passive coolers on every component) to a multi-monitor gaming rig.
posted by zippy at 3:05 PM on July 22, 2008

I think you should trust yourself to build a new pc. As Riemann said, there are good cards out there with many at less than $150. Without the need for a monitor and other outer peripherals (and copy of xp) you can build a decent machine for <> (add appropriate size HD).
posted by Big_B at 3:05 PM on July 22, 2008

nobody is as anal and hardcore about the hardware quality than Apple

I disagree. I've seen plenty of Apple hardware fail. My Mac Mini's CD Burner/DVD combo drive failed right after the 1 year warranty expired. My friend's Powerbook had an epic hard drive crash. I used Linux on an x86 machine to recover what data I could for her. My old roommates Mac Book Pro just up and died about a month ago. Wouldn't turn on anymore. IMHO, Apple just know how to put the same crap into shinny packaging.

From my experience, most people I know have had problems with Apple hardware than E-Machines. Thats pretty sad. Others will disagree with a passion and I know I hurt your feeling (for some stupid reason). Just remember that opinions are like assholes, and I got one just like everyone else does.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker for shinny packaging too... :P but I'm not naive to think there is anything magical about it.

We have mostly DELL desktops at work, and they have all worked and lasted surprisingly well.

I put together a quad core machine (Q6600) with an ASUS motherboard (PK5 Deluxe I think), and inside an Antec P182 case. It is a quality machine, and I would generally vote that people try to build their own computers if they know what they are doing. If they don't know how to support themselves, I tell them to get a DELL.
posted by nickerbocker at 3:17 PM on July 22, 2008

I've never had a problem with Dell or HP. I used to build my own machines, but the time spent, plus the lack of warranty/hardware support has gotten me to buy from the large vendors. You can usually get things cheaper from Dell or HP then buying yourself, and fit/finish, noise level is usually better than DIY.

I have to disagree with arniec, no way can you find a comparable Mac desktop/laptop for a $100 difference, unless you are paying full price for the computer as well as the exorbitant prices for hardware upgrades. Dell has deals going almost every week.

Mac configurations are usually overkill for 90% of users and by bumping the speed down by 10% you can save up to 40% on the PC side. (You can't buy lower clocked Macs unless you go with refurb.) The thing with Apple is that their price never changes, they just give you the latest and greatest, even if you don't need it.

You can easily buy a top of the line for $600. Nvidia 8800GTS are down to under $100, and you can get a top end C2D or a C2Quad PC for $450-$550.
posted by wongcorgi at 3:22 PM on July 22, 2008

I used to work tech support at a very large public university, and saw so many computers over the course of three years that if I'd bothered to take detailed notes, I'd have legitimately useful statistics. My experience was that the Apple machines broke significantly less than average, though not even remotely "never." The Dell laptops broke a little more often than average, but that was mostly due to the Inspirons of the time having horrible cooling. I never ran into a Sony Vaio that wasn't having some kind of crazy hardware problem.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:25 PM on July 22, 2008

Also, I would count out Apple as all their "gaming capable" desktops automatically fall out of your price range (cheapest one is $1200, and has a low end $35 GPU).
posted by wongcorgi at 3:28 PM on July 22, 2008

BTW: ATI just released a new line of cards to compete with the $200 range NVIDIA ones. They have very nice specs for the price but do have some pretty severe cooling problems. If you get one of these be sure to have very good airflow in your case and probably an aftermarket video card cooler.
posted by Riemann at 3:44 PM on July 22, 2008

Best answer: If you don't want to build because you haven't kept up with the latest and greatest, you can base your purchases off a list like this one from Ars Technica. If you don't need a new monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. their value system will cost around $700. It's a pretty good time to build a gaming pc; crazy fast video cards like ATI's Radeon HD 4850 can be had for around $150.
posted by PueExMachina at 3:52 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have to disagree with arniec, no way can you find a comparable Mac desktop/laptop for a $100 difference, unless you are paying full price for the computer as well as the exorbitant prices for hardware upgrades. Dell has deals going almost every week.
posted by wongcorgi

Don’t buy into the old argument that Mac laptops are categorically more expensive than Windows machines. Sometimes that’s true—but they’re often on par with, or cost less than, their closest Windows laptop equivalents.

Unless you're talking about 400 dollar pieces of crap wongcorgi is simply repeating nonsense that hasn't been true for years. Ignore it.

From my experience, most people I know have had problems with Apple hardware than E-Machines. Thats pretty sad. Others will disagree with a passion and I know I hurt your feeling (for some stupid reason). Just remember that opinions are like assholes, and I got one just like everyone else does.
posted by nickerbocker

Wait, you mean I can't disagree with you without it meaning I got my feelings hurt? And you add to that with a tired cliche? If you don't have the balls to give your opinions without taking shots at the opposition before they can answer perhaps you should stay on the sidelines.

On topic, apple hardware doesn't seem to have the build quality it had even 3 years ago, but if you buy an emachine with expectations of quality equal to apple you're going to be in for a rude awakening.
posted by justgary at 4:23 PM on July 22, 2008

I have always gone to a place like Sharky Extreme (look for the buyer's guides down the left hand side) and built something equivalent. One of their budget points is 1000 bucks (their Value Buyer's Guide).

In the end, 1000 bucks can get you a totally reasonable machine from any number of sources. Just how reasonable that machine is depends on where you go and how you get it.

With PC gaming, you can have a completely reasonable rig without needing to have the most expensive, biggest, baddest thing out there. If you don't like the idea of building it from the ground up, you can skip the power supply, case, and motherboard selection, and start with a bare bones rig (I went with Shuttle).

If you do decide to build, newegg always has reasonable prices and touts a very large selection.
posted by milqman at 4:27 PM on July 22, 2008

@justgary: How is it nonsense? The notebooks linked in your Macworld article were paid at full price. Like I said, drop the specs on the PC so you're not paying the luxury tax on the marginally faster but top of the line CPU and you'll save at least 40%.

Case in point. That same XPS M1330 from your article with a 1.66ghz C2D is on sale @ Staples for $750. Who in their right mind would pay the full $1400 for the speed bump?

You must be out of date or pretty ignorant to generalize and call $400 laptops pieces of crap. I picked up a Dell 15" Core2/2GB/160GB/DVD burner in May for $450. And it actually came with a GPU (8400GS). Stop spreading FUD.
posted by wongcorgi at 5:34 PM on July 22, 2008

Response by poster: I very much appreciate everyone's comments; thanks so much!

A couple of notes:

I do have a monitor/mouse/keyboard/speakers/etc, I even have several decent hard drives sitting around, so that doesn't need to be a price factor.

While I very much agree that a dual-booting Mac would probably be the best long-term solution, I think such a setup would be out of my price range; I don't have a license for either XP or Vista so that extra cost would have to be applied to any Mac purchase. I do miss my old Mac, though; they are excellent machines.

I'm in the Washington, DC area, if you have location-specific suggestions.

Do people really trust eBay enough to buy computers from there? Maybe I'm just still twice shy after being once-bitten by an eBay sale gone wrong.
posted by UrbanEconomist at 7:17 PM on July 22, 2008

Okay, good gaming cards are cheaper than last time I cared, I guess. So I still say get a cheap-ass "brand-name" box... hell, pick the best WARRANTY period if you want to be really safe, and then drop in one of those $250 gaming cards.

Spend the rest on RAM.
posted by rokusan at 7:31 PM on July 22, 2008

Best answer: ignore the people arguing about buying a Mac - they're not in your pricerange, not for what you want. you have $1,000, so you'd be looking at a Mac mini or a refurb Macbook and a Windows license (as you noted); neither of which are gaming machines as they have integrated video. you'd need to move up to a Mac Pro or a newer iMac, and those would still be fairly expensive (you'd need a later-model iMac for the video card). yes, I love all mine, but people suggesting a $2,000+ laptop for a $1,000 budget aren't paying attention.

my suggestion would be to follow the Ars Buyer's Guide - that link takes you to their new one for summer gaming (it's also linked above) - and buy the parts from NewEgg (don't forget an anti-static wrist strap). I'd maybe also check out Dan's Data for some advice on video card too, to supplement the Ars article. buy a good power supply - good not meaning 1500wt, but good meaning good manufacturer. buy a new hard drive and use one you have for a backup. and spend some money on a case - a nice Antec or something. a good PSU and a good case can outlast your motherboard, CPU and video card - and, a good PSU can help keep your machine supplied with clean power and therefore extends the life of your components. bad power can mean odd problems.
posted by mrg at 8:12 PM on July 22, 2008

Best answer: Now that decent motherboards have everything on them already building your own is pretty easy. Asus or Gigabyte motherboard, Intel C2D CPU, Generic DDR2-800 RAM, Nvidia 8800 or 9800 series video card and a HDD and DVD burner. Throw it all in a case and you're away. The guide PueExMachina linked to really is pretty good.

Personally I wouldn't go near a Mac if I wanted to play games on it, their video cards are abysmal even in the expensive machines, but that's just me (although I notice you can now get an 8800GT, the minimum card I'd bother getting for gaming, in a Mac pro from a low low $2450).
posted by markr at 8:21 PM on July 22, 2008

You sound like me a few months ago. :P

I'm not sure if this is a US-only thing, but I built my PC (with gaming/Vista specs in mind) for about 447.95 U.S. dollars (I spent about MYR1495 on my new PC). This was the rough specs:

ATHLON AM2 X2 5000+
WD 250 GB 16MB SATA2

I ended up saving a lot more because I dropped the soundcard for the generic card (which works fine for me) and spending the savings instead on a good graphics card. So yes, I'd say build your own machine if you can. I didn't actually have any issues with compatibility though, both on my Windows bootup AND my Ubuntu (I've got two OS).

Suggestion: If you're running linux in the future, skip NVidia and go to ATi, which has some open source drivers. That was my mistake using NVidia for Ubuntu.

Hope this helps.
posted by Naoko Kensaku at 8:32 PM on July 22, 2008

Desktops are for the office. Get a Mac laptop.
posted by w0mbat at 11:52 PM on July 22, 2008

Which won't meet his requirements of being capable of playing games or costing under $1000.
posted by markr at 12:33 AM on July 23, 2008

Don't listen to wombat. First build yourself a nice desktop. Macs are for people who know they want them.
posted by yort at 9:24 PM on July 24, 2008

I bought a MacBook Pro last year (my third Mac), thinking it would make a good gaming PC (under Boot Camp). It was slow and hot, and not nearly as fast as I expected. I would not recommend a Mac laptop for gaming - the video card is just too slow. It's a great laptop for everything else, though.

I now have a home built desktop machine just for games and watching the occasional video. The performance is fantastic, and I don't even have the latest and greatest generation video card. If you really are interested in games, stick with Windows (XP if possible).
posted by kenliu at 11:16 AM on July 27, 2008

I recently built my desktop. I just took a couple of days to read the buying guides at anandtech.com and tomshardware.com. Really good info
posted by jackson5 at 10:04 AM on April 24, 2009

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