Should I Buy or Build a Computer?

With over 90% of Australian households containing at least one computer, and the average lifespan of a computer being 3-5 years, “should I buy or build a computer?” is an important question that all Australian dads should be asking.

Disclosure: This post contains products that have been sent to Blog of Dad for review and ongoing use. All opinions expressed about these products are based on my own observations and/or interactions with the products. For more information visit my Disclosure Statement

When to Buy a Computer

Purchasing a new computer from a large retailer is the path that many Australians take. Most people reluctantly trot down this path when the performance of their current PC becomes unbearably slow, unpredictable or it straight up dies. The new purchase is then driven primarily by price, often with a lot of reliance on the (not always great) advice of the salesman.

This approach might work well for some and it is certainly the least time-consuming method, but for a great many consumers it leaves them with a device that is less-than-ideal for their circumstances. It also leads to far greater electronic waste (a real problem), not to mention the financial waste.

The only time I buy a new computer from a large retailer is when my laptop dies. In a previous article I demonstrated that a cheap and easy upgrade is a far better option from a cost and performance perspective, if a relatively recent laptop is beginning to underperform.

As for the desktop PC? Buy one off the shelf from a big retailer if money isn’t an issue or if you are absolutely, completely terrified of technology. For everyone else, read on…

A little help from your friends…

I have no formal training in the IT field. When I built my first computer (almost 20 years ago), it was a whole new experience. I was nervous about it, but I was fortunate enough to have a knowledgeable friend (also with no training) who had built his PC and was willing to help me.

He helped helped me choose parts and together we worked to build my device. He helped me to differentiate my motherboard from my RAM and showed me that, with a bit of patience and a lot of common sense, building a computer is a relatively easy and extremely satisfying experience.

Of course, the most satisfying part of any build is plugging the thing in and watching it come to life for the first time! Unfortunately, with my first build, when we plugged it in… nothing.

I learnt two valuable lessons right there – firstly, NEVER cheap out on the power supply. Secondly, learning about the different components of a computer empowers you to troubleshoot problems and address those specifically, rather than throwing everything out and starting again. In Australia, computer components are covered by statutory consumer rights like everything else, which means IF you do have a problem with a defective DIY component, you are entitled to a replacement or refund.

I returned my defective power supply and upgraded to something a little more reliable. Sure enough, my new PC came to life! The case (unexpectedly) lit up like a Christmas tree and I was hooked for life. From then on, when the need (…or itch) to obtain a new PC has arisen I have always chosen to build a computer.

These days, you don’t even need the knowledgeable friend to help you get started. The Internet is your knowledgeable friend and, by looking in the right places, you can gain the information and the confidence to begin your DIY journey. Some of the best places to turn for advice include:

PC Part Picker

This website is the Bible for checking compatibility. Compatibility is the key to a successful build as it ensures that all your components will play nicely together. It also has plenty of inspiration in the form of completed builds to get you going, as well as offering some suggestions for complete builds.

YouTube

There are countless step-by-step builds on YouTube that you can watch to learn how to build a PC for the first time. You might be able to find tutorials that use your specific motherboard, which makes life easy. If that level of detail isn’t available, you can almost guarantee that there will be a build on something of the same form factor. Watch a few tutorials and have one handy during your build.

Specialist Retailers

If you are really unsure About building a PC, computer specialist retailers like MWave offer to custom build a PC based on your specification. They have pre-designed options that you can adjust to suit your specific needs, or the option to select every component from scratch. While you do pay a little more this way, it is still a good way to enter the world of PC building and it enables you to get exactly what you want out of your new computer. The process of researching your custom build will provide valuable insight into the ins and outs of how to build a computer, and you might just gain the confidence to DIY come upgrade time.

Tinker with what you have

Given the average lifespan of the home or office PC, it is likely you already have some old computer hardware lying around. I learnt some new skills in my uni days by acquiring two old “broken” computers and taking parts from both to build my own Franken-PC. It’s a great way to develop both skills and confidence before working with more expensive new components. The best way to learn something is by doing!

How to Build a Computer

Building a computer from scratch can seem like an overwhelming task. There are literally thousands of potential combinations! While this does mean a bit of research is required, the substantial benefit is that you have the opportunity to create a device that perfectly matches your needs now, and can be modified to meet your needs in the future. That is an exciting prospect! The key is to understand the main components and how they all work together.

PNY Ultra-high Performance XLR8 Gaming RGB Memory

Build a Computer – Key Components

Processor (CPU)

When building a completely new computer, I always start with the processor, also known as the CPU. Get this right and you will have a core that could last for years and years, while upgrades to components like RAM, graphics cards and hard drives keep the system feeling like new every few years.

You have two main choices of processor manufacturer – AMD and Intel. Intel ruled the world for a large part of the past decade, but the AMD Ryzen chips have returned much-needed competition to the market in recent years. More competition means better deals for you and me, so everyone wins when both AMD and Intel are strong.

My most recent new build was 3 1/2 years ago, about six months before the first Ryzen CPUs were released. Because of this I have an Intel i7-6700 processor. It is excellent!

Finding the right processor for you depends on what your needs are. If you just need a basic web browser/word processor/light entertainment machine than an Intel i3 or AMD Ryzen 3 might suit those needs well.

Gamer dads (the average age of gamers is now 35, so there are many, many gamer dads) will be after the performance of a decent i5 or Ryzen 5 chip, while those who like to game, but also use their computer for demanding workloads are better suited to an i7 or Ryzen 7. If money is of no concern, go all out with an Intel i9 or Ryzen 9!

Motherboard

The motherboard is the main circuitry that everything in your computer plugs into. There are two main factors that usually dictate my choice when purchasing a motherboard – the chosen CPU and the form factor I want to use.

You must choose a motherboard that is compatible with your CPU. These are identified by “socket”, although even that is sometimes complex. Your best bet is to use the PC part picker website to check compatibility. Once you have locked in a CPU, Part picker will only show compatible motherboards.

The other determining factor is the called the form factor. Motherboards come in a range of sizes. Generally, the larger the board, the more it can do. However, even the smallest Mini-ITX boards these days can support a powerful machine.

My current motherboard is a Mini-ITX board and as you will see in my next article, it packs a major punch.

Micro-ATX motherboards are a great way to build smaller-than average computers, without the technical difficulty that comes with a ring build.

ATX boards are the standard size in most run-of-the-mill computers. They fit inside the standard tower cases.

The final things to consider with motherboards are the brand reputation for reliability, and the included features. To replace a motherboard means pulling your entire system apart, so you really don’t want to be dealing with a dead board. Other features might include things like built-in Wi-Fi adaptors. These are nice to have, but shouldn’t necessary be deal breakers. Once you have decided on the form factor and socket, compare a few models for price and features (and reliability, DON’T FORGET reliability) and go from there.

System Memory (RAM)

RAM is a key component in the speed and smoothness of your new build. How much you need depends on the purpose of your computer, but I would be aiming for at least 16GB in any new build. My current setup contains 32GB of PNY XLR8 RAM, which can deal with anything I throw at it!

New builds will all use DDR4 modules, unless you have found some particularly old hardware languishing in the bargain bin. If you are upgrading an older system, you will need to check if your motherboard takes DDR4 or the older DDR3 system memory.

Not all RAM is created equal and in many tasks, speed is king! My PNY XLR8 RAM has speed in spades, with a clock speed of 3200MHz and overclocking potential. This makes it an excellent choice in new builds or upgrades.

RAM inserts directly into the motherboard. Most ATX boards will have four spaces for RAM modules, while ITX boards only have two. This is a consideration when choosing the motherboard, but realistically the two-slot, 32GB limit of my mini ITX will suit my needs for a while yet.

Storage

This is another part of building a PC that can be a little intimidating to begin with, but a logical approach can leave you with a high performing system that meets all your storage needs. There are three main types of storage and you may just choose to take advantage of all three. I’ll explain them in order of speed.

M.2 SSD

Most modern motherboards have at least one free M.2 slot. As fast as I’m concerned, filling it with a M.2 SSD, like this one from PNY, is a no-brainer. The price of these has been rapidly falling, while the speed and capacity have both steadily risen. The M.2 SSD is by far-and-away the fastest form of storage. I use my M.2 SSD for holding the operating system (Windows 10) and key programs.

Some larger motherboards have multiple M.2 slots. I’d go ahead and fill them if I have them, but you could potentially fill one now with a large M.2 SSD and leave the others for when you need them. Who knows what capacity will be standard in a couple of years!

SATA Solid State Drive (SSD)

I recently replaced the hard drive in my laptop with a SATA SSD and it made a world of difference to the performance. If you have an older PC and want to dip your toes into the world of DIY, this is the place to start (alongside a RAM upgrade, if possible). While not as fast as the newer M.2 SSDs, SATA SSDs are profoundly faster than spinning disk hard drives.

As with their M.2 cousins, SATA SSDs have steadily dropped in price while simultaneously improving capacity. Their speeds vary, but even the slowest versions significantly outperform the fastest spinning disks.

My PC is built for work, rest and play. While the M.2 drive takes care of the operating system and key programs, my new PNY XLR8 CS2311 SSD is all about the games. Its speed and high capacity makes it ideal for this task.

Hard Disk Drive (HDD)

The spinning disk hard drive made its first appearance way back in the 50s and it has been a vital part of computing since. However, strong advancements in SSDs mean the days of the spinning disk are coming to an end. That being said, there is still a place for HDDs is many builds, especially those that demand large amounts of data storage. From a dollar-per-GB perspective, the HDD is still the value option.

I use a WD 3TB HDD for storing my large amounts of photos, videos and files. Access to these doesn’t need to be super fast. I also back them up to a network attached storage option (Synology DS420+), which contains two WD 4TB HDDs.

The day will come when SSDs have a large enough capacity at a low enough price to consign spinning disks to the history books, but we are not quite there yet.

Graphics Card (GPU)

Now we are getting to the exciting stuff. Many CPUs come with integrated graphics, which allow them to perform basic tasks just fine. If, however, you want to play serious games, then a dedicated GPU is a MUST.

Again, there are two main choices of graphics cards – AMD and Nvidia. While both produce very capable GPUs, the Nvidia-based RTX series are the reigning performance champions thanks to the next big thing is gaming immersion and realism – ray tracing. Ray tracing is a lighting effect that needs to be seen to be appreciated. If you have been paying any attention at all to the next generation of gaming consoles, the ray tracing ability is consistently highlighted as a major reason to upgrade.

PNY XLR8 build a computer

Thankfully, you don’t have to wait to experience the next-gen goodness – just slot a PNY XLR8 RTX 2070 Super, 2080 or 2080 Ti card into your new build or upgrade and live the ray tracing dream!

When choosing the graphics card, it is a good idea to consider the performance of your monitor. If you are looking for top-of-the-line, high framerate 4K gaming then the XLR8 2080 Ti is the beast you need.

If, however, your monitor specifications are more modest, with 1080p or 2K resolution, then the PNY GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER 8GB XLR8 Gaming Overclocked Edition is an excellent value choice. The bang-for-buck that this GPU offers is outstanding and the gaming performance is something to behold! This card is the star of my latest PC – look out for the article coming soon.

PNY XLR8 build a computer

Power Supply (PSU)

Don’t underestimate the importance of a good power supply. I learnt my lesson the hard way (although frying system components is a harder lesson). Generally, the PSU needs are dictated by the specifications of the GPU. PNY recommend a 650W PSU to support my RTX2070 SUPER.

I always look for reputable brands, and use the 80+ standard certification as a guide to efficiency. Another feature worth looking for is modular connections for a clean build, although this is not as critical to performance as the 80+ rating.

Quality brands with a strong reputation include be quiet!, SilverStone, Corsair and EVGA.

Case

Cases are the external shell of your new computer and they come in all shapes and sizes – from the bog-standard black (boring) tower, to the extreme. The range is ever-expanding, which means you should be able to find a case to suit your specific needs and tastes.

My original case for my current build was the excellent SilverStone Sugo Series SG13. I chose it for its tiny footprint and ability to fit inside my entertainment unit for an inconspicuous use of my small living space.

However, with the latest upgrades my computer has grown up a bit, and my thirst for graphics performance means I need a case with space to accommodate my powerful (and long)  PNY GeForce RTX 2070 SUPER GPU. Not only does the case need to fit the GPU, it also needs to ensure adequate airflow for cooling.

Pure Base 500DX Build a computer

Enter the be quiet! Pure Base 500DX. While this case can’t sit inside the entertainment unit, it’s subtle good looks blend into my living room rather than standing out like a traditional PC tower. It still has a relatively small footprint, but it is big enough to accommodate my new GPU easily.

The airflow of the be quiet! Pure Base 500DX is excellent, thanks to the mesh front and top, as well as the three included Pure Wings 2 fans. And because this is a be quiet! case, I know it’s not going to make a lot of noise and disrupt draw unnecessary attention to its self during use.

That being said, sometimes its nice to draw attention to a custom-built PC in the right ways. After all, you have put a lot of hard work into choosing the components, plugging them all in and routing your cables in the neatest way possible. You should be proud of what you have achieved and show it off, every now and then. Be quiet! appreciate this and thoughtfully include addressable (controllable) RGB lighting, both on the frond and inside the case. This tasteful inclusion is a subtle way to draw attention to all your hard work when you want to show it off, but it can also be turned off when you want to eliminate unnecessary distractions.

Pure Base 500DX Build a computer

In addition to looking good, the be quiet! Pure Base 500DX is also easy to build in, which is important for those new to DIY. Look out for the full review coming soon.

Peripherals

Good quality keyboards, mice, headphones and speakers last generations of builds. I still have a set of Creative Labs 5.1 speakers that I purchased for my first DIY PC, nearly 20 years ago!

If it is time for you to consider a keyboard and/or mouse upgrade, there are some extremely impressive options available.

If gaming is your entire reason for building the new computer, than dedicated gaming peripherals are a natural fit. But because my needs are work, rest and play, it is the all-rounders that have my attention.

In particular, the Logitech MX series would have to be the most innovative and clever mouse and keyboard combinations on the market. As someone who works across laptops and the PC, this setup just makes sense. Logitech are a brand that I have used many times over many years, so I know that I can trust their products for quality and reliability.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, chances are you are really entertaining the idea of building your next computer. Great! It is such a satisfying experience to use something daily that you have put together yourself.

As you contemplate your new build, I’ll leave you with some parting words of advice, based on my amateur experiences of building my own computers for nearly 20 years:

  • Enjoy the process leading up to the build. A big part of the fun is researching components and achieving the bang-for-buck build.
  • Safety always comes first when working with electrical equipment. Always turn off your computer from the power before you begin working on it and handle your new components according to their user manuals. Work on hard surfaces and always remember that static electricity is the enemy.
  • Be patient with the build and take your time to do it right.
  • Be firm when building, but never force components into place. Modern PC components are well designed and there is a clear and specific place for every component, as well as a specific orientation.
  • If in doubt, watch the video. I can almost guarantee that someone, somewhere has made a YouTube video demonstrating just about every facet of PC building.
  • Avoid joining the arms race. There is always going to be something better, faster, more powerful (and a lot more expensive) either already released or just around the corner. Carefully consider your needs and your budget, and set up your build accordingly. Remember that things like graphics cards and RAM are easy to upgrade down the track, so buy something to suit your needs now, rather than worrying too much about what you might need later. i9 and Ryzen 9 processors sound amazing, but is that really where your needs are at, now or into the future? Aim for bang-for-buck and you will be just fine!
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