My first PC build, and why you should try it yourself

I recently bit the bullet and built my first desktop. I’d been using laptops for years because I frequently need to travel or otherwise move my computer around – enough so that I’d like it to be powerful – so I’d invested in beefy laptops that were frequently used as desktops, but sometimes not. I bought a $2000 Dell with a 2GHz Core 2 Duo and a GeForce Go 7900GS – that was a fantastic machine. And my Macbook Pro has 6GB of RAM, a 2.4GHz C2D and a 9600GT (aside – I’m a NVidia man because of the Linux support).

But my Mac laptop spent a lot of time on my dorm room desk, as expected, and it started growing tentacles. By the end of last semester, I had:

  • Power
  • Audio (to a nice set of 2.1ch speakers)
  • Video – mini DisplayPort to DVI, my Samsung running at 2048×1152
  • ExpressCard eSATA card, to a 1TB drive (with VM images, ISOs, Time Machine backup)
  • EyeTV Hybrid TV tuner
  • 7 port USB2 hub
    • USB microphone
    • Another tuner
    • Mouse
    • Printer
    • Keyboard
    • iPhone cable
  • Another 1TB drive, over FW800

Using my laptop as a laptop meant disconnecting everything. Surprisingly, OSX is quite pleasant about it – close the TV recording app, unmount both disks, eject the eSATA card, and Bob’s your uncle. But it was still a hassle – TV wasn’t recorded, and it just felt like I was using it as a desktop. Plus, when I actually was, all my games were sluggish – the 9600GT just isn’t really cut out to run that resolution.

So having come to the realization that my laptop… wasn’t, I decided that my inadequate laptop-as-desktop would be just fine if I let it be a laptop, and that I should get my first proper desktop since 1998 (a AMD K6-3D at about 300MHz with 32MB of RAM and a 4GB HDD!). I toyed very briefly with simply buying one from Dell, but I wanted to have some fun.

So I went over to Newegg, my go-to parts supplier, and ordered myself $800 worth of kit. In typical Newegg fashion, it was here in 2 days. Here’s the specs:

  • MSI p67-based mobo, with a LGA1155 (Sandy Bridge) socket. Integrated USB3, USB2, NIC, 7.1ch audio, BIOS overclocking support, 6Gbps SATA, plenty of PCIe and PCI ports, and one PCIe x16 slot
  • EVGA GeForce 460GTX, factory overclocked. Two DVI-DL outputs, and a mini-HDMI (with adapter) output, 1GB of GDDR5
  • Intel Core i5-2600K at 3.3GHz, stock cooling. This is an unlocked quad-core chip
  • Rosewill case with 3 huge LED fans, eSATA/USB/audio front panel, and filters over all the openings
  • 4GB DDR3 at 1333MHz, now 8GB
  • Bog-standard DVD±RW, and a fast-ish (7200RPM) 1TB HDD drive
  • Antec 750W PSU

The build was very easy, even for this first time builder. Anyone who understands the basic structure of a computer, and is just a little bit handy, would have no trouble.

And boy does this thing fly! 120-220 FPS on Team Fortress 2, 80-140 FPS on Portal 2, both with full settings and 16xCQAA. I’m using my 5.1 surround sound speaker system and my Samsung monitor as mentioned above.

But did I do better than Dell? Well, I customized the parts as closely as possible, and yes – their best match was approximately $150 more. But they did not allow me to avoid a Blu-Ray drive with this high-end configuration, and only offered 2 discrete graphics cards – a lower mid-range NVidia and a super-high-end ATI that’s only a little better than my card.

So why can I do better than Dell? My first instinct would be that we ought to come out the same, because their overhead would be offset by their huge purchasing power. When you buy 100s of thousands of Intel processors a year, I’m sure you can do better than retail. But the by-nature limited set of choices means that you must pay for features you will not use such as the Windows tax – I already have a copy of Windows through the MSDNAA program, so paying for another one is a waste of money.

What did I learn from all this? Well, aside from getting an infinite amount of flexibility, you can save a lot of money, and you understand every component in your system. Plus, you can buy to upgrade! I’ll be moving to a Core i7 before too long, and probably 12GB of RAM for VM work.

Give it a shot!

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