Black Friday and Cyber Monday are rolling around, and if you’re entertaining the idea of building a desktop PC yourself for the coming holiday season, now is the best time to make your purchase(s). With sales taking place in store (Microcenter, Tiger Direct) and online (Amazon, Newegg, NCIX), it is increasingly easy to find a bargain deal. In this article, I aim to cover any concerns that arise when looking for good deals at the major PC component retailers. I’ll show the steps I have found helpful to getting the best bang for your buck when building a PC.
Here are things you will need to address:
- What is your goal and budget? HTPC, performance gaming, workstation…
- Logistics: online, in person, all from one seller… ?
- Major retailer pros and cons
- Major brand and part breakdown
- Taking advantage of promotional offers
- Compatibility: Bringing it all together
1. Goal and Budget – If you ask any PC building enthusiast what you should get, they will inevitably reply with “What’s your budget?” This is because there is no “one answer fits all” for building a PC. Desktop computer parts are competitively priced, often falling into tiers of quality*. As the price of products increases, so do the number of features, capabilities and extended warranty policies – crucial details that need to be researched before committing to a large order. One feature on a given product might not matter to person A, but to person B it could be a deal breaker. In this guide, I hope to help you find “breakpoints” where you can maximize your cost/performance ratio as well as find out what important features to look out for.
*Use this site to help visualize all the product tiers, not necessarily to pick out your build
2. Logistics – This is the most overlooked step. People pick out the part they want from PCPer (it retrieves prices from major competitors) and put together their build that way, ignoring the fact that there is a shipping charge for each individual retailer. Instead, they could do better by creating a cart of the same products on each store’s website and comparing the total costs including shipping and tax (up to 10% depending on your state!). Often times if you spend over a certain amount ($100-200), the shipping charges are waived – so it may be a good idea to try chunking up your purchase this way. Alternatively you can throw down, join the mob, and try to snag a clearance priced item at a physical store location. You spend time, gas, and risk bodily harm, but the potential savings on something like a large and/or high quality monitor are enormous. Your call.
3. Retailer Pros and Cons – Some sites won’t charge you tax if they are based in a different state than the shipping address you submit. For instance, since I don’t live in California, I don’t have to calculate the electronics sales tax when purchasing from NewEgg. But for Tiger Direct (or what is left of it), since there are stores in my state, I would have to pay an additional 7.5-10% sales tax. A hybrid of these two examples is Amazon – they charge a fraction of the electronics sales tax in your region in response to new laws and/or policy. Additionally, Amazon offers free 2 day shipping if you have Amazon Prime (this is key). On the other hand, even if you are able to get free shipping at Newegg it will take much longer to arrive. It might take up to 10 days if it ships over the weekend.
4. Brands and Parts – Some part manufacturers are more reputable than others, some more affordable. Usually a manufacturer is know for excellence in one or two areas while also having products in other domains. The following section should shed some light on which parts are reliable based on my experience and my observations of others’ experience. I won’t go into too much detail or point to specific products, but I will get across the gist of what you need to know. I’ll organize this list in the order that you should decide on a part, since a part’s compatibility restricts what other parts you can select:
CPU – In the majority of cases, Intel provides the best buy as AMD struggles to catch up. From low end to high end you can choose from the G3250, i3, i5, and i7. Any money you save buying an AMD processor is offset by savings in electricity from Intel’s superior architecture. However, there are good sales on AMD CPUs frequently and you can get a motherboard with it for relatively cheap.
MOTHERBOARD – Highly reviewed manufacturers include MSI, ASUS, Gigabyte, and ASRock. Things to look for: number of USB 3.0/3.1 ports, Memory support (DDR3/DDR4, timings), number of SATA ports and PCIe lanes. M.2 support if you’re buying an SSD that uses M2.
CASE – This is your computer’s home. It protects it from dust, foreign objects, electro-static discharge and sometimes offers a unique aesthetic as a kicker. Popular brands: Corsair, Silverstone, Fractal, NZXT. Important features: removable air filters, number of HDD and SSD mounts, room for bulky GPUs, good airflow, precision milling and design.
GPU – You have two choices, AMD or NVidia. People get very religious about this component, as it is the most important part for video games. AMD has historically had more competitive pricing, though NVidia GPUs consume less electricity and are slowly taking over the market. Both companies have recently released a line of cards and there are great options from both manufacturers. You’ll want at least 2 GB of memory on your card, the rest is up to you. This part can cost anywhere from $125 up to $625.
RAM – Reliable brands: Kingston, Corsair, GSKill, Crucial. RAM shouldn’t be hard to decide on. Get DDR3 1600/1800+ MHz, or DDR4 if you’re buying the latest processor. Most reasonable people agree that you can’t tell the different between the RAM speeds since the differences are so minute. 8 GB is fine for most usage, pairs of 8 GB go on sale frequently and can be had for relatively little.
PSU – Or power supply unit, this is where the life force of your PC comes from. It also is responsible for not frying your motherboard and every component attached to it. The prototypical mistake of new builders is to cheap out on this part and spend $20 instead of $40 or more. Get bronze certified or better. SeaSonic, EVGA, and certain Corsair models provide good units. Check out this site for in-depth, neutral reviews.
STORAGE – Solid state drive prices are continually falling making it possible to have in midrange builds. Otherwise a 1 TB hard disk drive is typical. For failure rates, the data seem to support Western Digital over Seagate by a decent margin, but you don’t need to feel pressured to buy WD – just have a data back up plan ready. To get an idea of what to pay for SSDs, look at the historic price trend: I bought an SSD nearly two years ago for 50 cents/GB and it was a great deal (at the time). Now, you can find SSDs for 25 cents/GB.
Edit: Apparently there is a supply chain shortage of material needed to make most SSDs, keeping prices from falling. You could buy now, or wait 6 months and save a chunk of change.
PERIPHERALS (Monitor, keyboard, mouse, mic, etc) – These parts are typically universally compatible and I believe an average consumer can reason their own way through here. For monitors, I’ve heard good things about LG and ASUS, and have an Acer myself. If you’re buying a high end GPU, then a high quality display is in order. For a keyboard, you can step it up to a mechanical – but this is usually an enthusiast preference. They don’t offer anything immensely different other than LED lit keys and better tactile feedback. Mouse – important for gaming to some, $50-$75 dollars spent here rather than $15 gets you quicker response times, but again, the difference will be scarcely noticeable. You can pick up a nice Logitech wireless mouse(uses a single double A battery) for around $50. Works great for desktop use with the possibility of using it with your laptop as well. Other than that, there’s no shame in using the mouse from your old computer.
5. Current Promotional Offers – Another part of the ordering process some people forget about. Promotional offers sometimes refund $10-$25 from your purchase if you jump through the necessary hoops. The most common are mail in rebates, which should be valued less than their refunded amount since they take up your time and require printing and postage (I like simplicity: say the odds that you actually mail it in are the same as flipping a coin. So divide the rebate amount in half). Other times you get a pre paid card or credit refunded to your bank account. One of the most overlooked ways to save is by checking your bank to see if they offer coupons or extra cash back spent at certain stores (another 5-10% potentially).
6. Bringing it all together – This step isn’t nearly as intimidating as most people think it is. Go to the PCPartPicker website, it lets you add all the parts together and automatically checks compatibility for you. Note: you might want to double check the clearance dimension inside the case to make sure there is room for your GPU, it should say how many inches there are. Once you’ve completed your build list, it tells you how much each part costs from various websites. For reasons I mentioned before, it is rarely a good idea to buy and ship each part separately (especially if it is only a dollar or two cheaper). Finally, make sure you check the price graphs that PCPer provides – they can give you an idea of whether a “sale” or “25% off” is really as good as the store would have you believe. Some stores have been known to inflate their prices in conjunction with some big sale, resulting in the same price (but far more sales for them). Good luck!
Conclusion: Full desktop PC builds tend to fall in the $500-$750 dollar range (budget to mids), with most spending roughly a grand. Occasionally people spend an upwards of $2,000, but that is more of the exception. The point is, a 10% sales tax translates to $50-$75 tacked onto your cost. Shipping should be free, but if you order from multiple sites and don’t get free shipping, it can cost you another $25 easily. Total your order before finalizing and remember to build or check your parts within a month of when they arrive so the store return policy doesn’t expire and leave you unprotected. Cheers!