Getting a cheap computer doesn’t mean you have to get a cheap computer. What I mean is, you can spend less money than you think to get a quality computer.
Keeping that in mind, you have to make sure that you set some objectives whatever your budget is. What do you need your computer to actually do for you? What will the primary use of it be? Knowing those answers will ensure that you have an appropriate game plan when determining what you actually need to build. It is also critical to make sure you balance wants vs. needs. Meaning that I’m sure you really want an nVidia GTX 780Ti GPU … but do you actually need that for an office computer that will only ever see games like Angry Birds? Probably not. Do you actually need 32GB of RAM right away? Sounds cool to brag about, but is it necessary?
Game plan. Stick. With. The. Game. Plan. Determine where you can make concessions in your initial purchase that you can address at a later time. Cannot afford 16GB of RAM right now? No problem, 8GB should be just fine and you can always add more later.
So why am I going into all of this? Well, two reasons honestly … 1) I needed something to write about and 2) my younger sister enlisted me to help her get a new computer for her home office last week. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Let’s start with her objectives …
- The computer is replacing a 5 or so year old Dell desktop that has two LCD displays and perfectly functional keyboard and mouse.
- Her and her husband absolutely require two displays for home office work.
- No real games will be played on the machine, maybe Angry Birds … probably Solitaire.
- Must have a DVD-RW drive.
- Should have lots of storage for pictures and video of their beautiful new baby girl.
- Needs to be cheap, like less than $1,000 cheap.
Knowing what her needs are, we can now begin to consider what options we have. With a pretty big budget of $1,000 you can walk into Dell or Best Buy, or wherever and spend exactly that amount of money. But are you really going to get your money’s worth, and are you really getting the right computer? I personally don’t think so, and I also committed to halving her budget and building something better by picking individual parts instead of a pre-built machine. Not only that, I know that I don’t have to factor in the purchase of displays, a keyboard or a mouse. That gives us a LOT more room in the budget for nice parts. That is, if I really wanted to use her whole budget.
I knew I wanted a few items in particular to ensure that her computer would be fast, power efficient and last her quite a long time. So I added in my own list of technical requirements into her user requirements …
- Should be Intel LGA1150 (Haswell) for power efficiency and future upgrades.
- Should have a minimum of 8GB of RAM to start out with.
- Motherboard must support multiple displays with the on-board GPU.
- Must be as close to $500 as possible.
Now that we have a full set of requirements, both technical and from the user, we can begin shopping for parts. There’s lots of tools out there for price comparing that you can use, my favorite is www.pcpartpicker.com. (That’s what I used when I built my gaming rig a few months ago, which you can see here http://pcpartpicker.com/user/carvsdriver/saved/hLJtt6.) This is the route that I took, I spec’d out my parts, then started looking around at prices and deals.
What I found was, TigerDirect had the absolute perfect bare bones kit for what I was looking for. It quite literally fit all the requirements of the build, literally … every … single … one. Below is a rundown of the parts in the kit (pictured in the featured image of this post):
- Thermaltake Versa H22 Case
- Intel i5-4570 CPU
- 8GB DDR3 1600MHz Patriot Viper RAM
- 1TB Western Digital 7200RPM SATA
- MSI B85-G41 Motherboard (I’m a big MSI fan, plus this board has three display outputs)
- Thermaltake 500w PSU
- 2x RED 120mm LED Fans (that I wound up not using anyway)
- LG SATA 24x DVD-R/W (we added this part in as it wasn’t included in the kit)
Price? Well, this was the best part … $17.99 shipped for the DVD drive and $472.73 shipped for the bare bones kit. Which makes our grand total, for the whole computer a whopping $490.72. Now, before we go further, let’s put that $490.72 into perspective. What can you get a DELL for that much money? And does it fulfill all of the requirements she had?
Dell has a few of different lines of machines to choose from, based purely on price we have limited ourselves to the categories that start at less than what we’ve spent on our kit. So that limits us to just All-In-One’s that start at $349 Small Desktops that start at $249. We can immdiately strike All-In-One’s from the list because they miss the key multi-display requirement. That leaves us with Small Desktops. Guess what? None of the small desktops support multi-display ports either (at least, not naively without some sort of splitter cable nonsense). Not only that, they’re using inferior (slower) CPUs, smaller hard drives, less RAM … the list goes on.
So what would an equivalent Dell actually cost? Well, the Inspiron 3000 comes close, has similar specs at $579. That machine also has 1x VGA and 1x HDMI ports on the back, so two monitors should be no problem. There are certainly some CPU differences, check out the chart HERE and you’ll see some slight variances where it actually matters most, GPU clock speed. The extra 100MHz in GPU clock speed is pretty important considering the need to run two displays. Now, Dell would have advantages here in terms of included software (Windows 8.1) and potentially the warranty. I’m not too concerned with the warranty part, all of the parts in the kit we purchased have manufacturer warranties anyway. The real differentiator here would be customer service … that’s an intangible so we’ll conveniently ignore it. Plus, there’s a Tiger Direct local to me so if I had to exchange anything I can drive to their store.
In the end though, it’s really close. If you back out the cost of Windows 8.1, which is about $95 it is even closer. But what about the future? Can you upgrade the Dell in any way? I’ll assume yes, to an extent. Assuming it has at least 1x PCIe slot and the 1150 chipset that supports all Haswell CPUs. But I just don’t know … and that’s the thing that really separates this for me. I know exactly what is going into the custom built machine – I know exactly what I can do with it in the future. I have no idea WTF is inside that Dell case, which is probably why i’d just assume burn it and start over when it came time to do any upgrades.
Ok, before you get all pissy because you work at Dell – I’m not saying Dell is bad. I’m just saying, if you like convenience, warranties on a full system (shitty customer support), etc then buy a dell. Otherwise, find a computer nerd friend to help you build your own machine to your exact needs and save you tons of money, plus you’ll wind up with a better machine at the end of the day.
To summarize, if you are looking to invest in a new computer for whatever reason, I recommend using the following rules …
- Determine what the computer needs to be able to do on day 1.
- Determine what future needs you think you may have – make sure you have an appropriate upgrade path to get there.
- Shop around. Use an online utility to help find the best prices on any given day.
- Subscribe to mailing lists from places like Tiger Direct and Newegg. These companies have sales, literally every day.
- Make sure you know how to, or are friends with someone that can help you build a computer. If not, do a little research. You’ll find that it’s very easy to put together a computer as long as you take your time and have the appropriate tools (like a screwdriver).
Hope that helps, or was at least somewhat worth the time it took you to read to this last sentence.