Best desktop for the wallet


I had a project today by my uncle. With one price, I had to get for him a good custom-built desktop (only the CPU chassis) for his family to do work and play games on. With the budget in mind, I set off my usual routine to finding the best components to suit his use.

Below is a simple article where I share the important factors that I have learnt throughout my years of building custom-built PCs. Hope its useful!

What is it going to be used for?

First off, we will have to find out what the desktop is going to be used for. No point busting your wallet on the ‘best of the best’. Ask about usage hours, what type of work, photograph sizes he is using, what camera he is using, any sound system preferences, monitor sizes, etc.

What I got from my uncle:

  • Video editing (a lot)
  • Photograph editing (lots of 18 megapixel photos)
  • Gaming (be able to play any game you throw at it – at least for the next 5 years)
  • Monitor size: 19″ (gonna get a bigger one)
  • PS/2 for keyboard
  • Movies (lots of hard drive space to store movies to playback on their home media centre)
  • Office work (duh!)
  • At least 4 USB ports at the back (to connect to current devices)
  • USB Ports in front; cause the chassis will be under the table

The chassis is gonna be tucked under the table, in its own shelf – will need proper ventilation. =)

I’m also looking out for upgradability options during the life of the desktop. I’ll explain more below.

So what do I need?

Here comes my favourite part of the project – researching!

  1. First stop: Chipset

    Between AMD and Intel? I prefer Intel. They save power, are pretty efficient and are leading the pack.

    Heading over to Intel.com, the chipsets are organised into different categories. They even have a ‘Help me choose a chipset’ option.

    For this project, I went for the Mainstream Desktop Chipsets option – due to budget constraint – and picked Z68.

    Each chipset has its own traits, and these traits are a guide to deciding which motherboard you will need. Manufacturers tend to add additional features into the board for marketing purposes or enthusiasts.

    On Intel’s Z68 page, you will see a block diagram that simplifies what features the chipset is capable of.

    All seems good. Decent features I shall say. Remember, pick the chipset with features that you need and use. You wouldn’t want to be spending on components that you don’t use. We can use that extra cash saved on other components.

    Now, to find a motherboard with this chipset, I won’t be looking for motherboard options with a lot of overclocking features – as this PC won’t be used to set world records – well, maybe some features. Will be great to overclock and squeeze some speed before the PC dies out in the last few years of its life. This overclocking is optional and up to your preference.

    Overclocking: The process of making a computer or component operate faster than specified by the manufacturer by modifying system parameters.

    I made my first overclocking at the age of 9 – a 65 Mhz intel processor overclocked to 90 Mhz…and destroyed the CPU in the process. Hahahaha…

    Among the motherboard manufacturers, I have a preference for Asus or Gigabyte motherboards. Their boards are made of quality components and can last up to 5 years or more – unless you screwed things up.

    After looking around and comparing reviews for motherboard performances, features, ease of use (hardware layout for components on the board and included softwares) and price, I settled for GA-Z68XP-UD3.

  2. Processor

    Looking at Intel’s list of processors, you will see that they are already categorised into 3 tiers (i3, i5 and i7) in order of performance and features included in the processor. They have other models too, like Xeon, Atom and Itanium, but these aren’t for mainstream use. As like the Chipsets, they also have a ‘Help me choose a processor’ option. Feel free to use that option, it gives a good guess.

    For this project, I picked the i7. The 8 threads will surely benefit the video and photo processing. You can add the different processors to the comparison table. Here’s one for the i7 Processors.

    Comparing the different models of i7 processors (2600, 2600K, 2600S, 2700K & 3930K), the main differences I’m looking out for is the number of Physical Cores, Threads, Cache, Wattage, Memory Compatibility, Socket, and Integrated Graphics (if needed). For my case, I’m planning to use a dedicated graphics card, so the Integrated Graphics is not so important. Again, with the budget constraint, I went with the i7-2600 model. This processor includes an integrated graphics processor inside the CPU.

    The ‘K’ after the 4-digit numbers indicates an ‘unlocked’ model, whereby you can overclock processor speed, maybe beyond 7 Ghz (if you have the proper components). Do I need that? No. i7-2600 can be overclocked up to around 4 Ghz, if need be. But I’m not going to do that either.

    Some of you may say ‘2600K is only $20 more dollars dude. You can overclock it to 5 Ghz!’

    I’d rather use that $20 on other components. With overclocking comes heat, and that is bad for the CPU. Unless you are willing to spend on aftermarket CPU coolers or heat sinks. =)

  3. Dedicated Graphics Card

    Next will be the Graphics Card. This could be the most expensive component in the whole PC. You will have to be careful in picking the right one. It may make or break your budget, power supply, or may not even fit into your chassis.

    I will first head to TomsHardware.com, to have an overview performance ranking of cards in the current market. I love their dynamic charts. They keep it constantly updated too. From the latest chart of 2012 cards, it doesn’t really matter which benchmark you choose. The better ones will spend most of its time at the top of the chart.

    Generally, I will look at a few models from the top (excluding SLI or CrossFire configurations), and pick the 3rd or 4th models from the best card in the market – they tend to be more value for money. AMD and nVidia cards generally have models that are comparable with each other (i.e. HD 7950 and GTX 580 have similar performance). It’s your pick then, to decide between these two brands. nVidia cards perform well in the gaming scene, as most games are written for these graphic chipsets. AMD tends to fare towards the budget conscious (may be changing). AMD cards are power-hungry too. I tend to fare towards efficient power consumption with almost silent noise levels.

    For this project, I picked the GTX 560 chipset. At the price point and performance you will get, it fits nicely within the budget.

    Next will be to look at the different models (by differing manufacturers) of the same chipset – in this case, the GTX 560. As cards of the same chipset comes in different configurations, I will need to first decide the amount of Video Ram I need. This is determined by the monitor screen size. Since my uncle said that he may be increasing his screen size in the future, I got for him a 2GB model – enough for gaming on a 24″ (1980 x 1200). If he needs more resolution (multi-screens), the Z68 chipset supports SLI/CrossFire; he has the option to add another card to the system.

    After spending an hour looking and comparing the different configurations of GTX 560, I finally settled with MSI GTX 560 Ti Twin Frozr II/OC 2GD5.

    Pretty decent framerate on Battlefield 3 at Ultra graphic settings. This video is simultaneously recorded as-is and running on an i5 CPU, thus it lags at heavy-processing parts of the game. Without recording, add 20 more frames per second to the game. On an i7, you have 4 more threads than i5, giving you more performance.

    Having the option to overclock the GPU is a good option to have, prolonging its service life. MSI GPUs include the AfterBurner application that simplifies this process. Their proprietary cooling fans are designed to be 20% more efficient too, keeping your GPU cool and quiet.

  4. Memory (DIMM)

    As the Z68 runs on dual-channel, it’s best to find a memory kit – where the memory modules are of the same specifications and model, and made by the same manufacturer. This will reduce compatibility issues and inconsistencies, which can cause softwares to crash or give that memorable blue screen on Windows.

    Let’s look at our selected motherboard: GA-Z68XP-UD3

    On Gigabyte’s motherboard page, they’ve listed specification for which the board is compatible with:

    • 4 x 1.5V DDR3 DIMM sockets supporting up to 32 GB of system memory
    • Dual channel memory architecture
    • Support for DDR3 2133/1866/1600/1333/1066 MHz memory modules
    • Support for non-ECC memory modules
    • Support for Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) memory modules

    Similar to the specification Intel has set for the Z68 chipset, but with additional features added in by the manufacturer:

    • Faster speeds of DDR3 2133/1866/1600/1333/1066 MHz memory modules
    • Support for Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) memory modules. These ‘profiles’ are defined presets set by the DIMM manufacturers.

    You can read more about the XMP features over on this page.

    For the current project, I wanted the desktop to have at least 8 GB of RAM for adequate editing of videos and photos. If you are building a gaming rig, 4 GB would suffice. Of course, your PC will benefit with more memory modules – and this may burn unnecessary holes in your wallet too.

    Now pick a speed you want your memory to run on. Compare it against its cost and you’ll settle with one – surely. For this project, I settled on 1600 Mhz. I’m also looking at memory modules that support XMP, so that I don’t have to tweak the voltages and clocking speeds in the bios to achieve the speed.

    You don’t have to be picky with memory modules. Just pick one that fits your budget. Do look at the features included. I settled with Corsair Vengeance 8GB Dual Channel Kit CL9. If you notice, different DIMMs come at different timings (CL numbers). The smaller the timings, the faster the memory will be – but in the real world, the performance gain is negligible.

    This kit (4GB x 2) of memory modules include an XMP profile at 1600 Mhz.

  5. Storage

    The price of HDDs have been going up since the flooding at Thailand. Generally, I prefer Western Digital HDDs, as they tend to last longer than other brands I’ve used.

    Note: I’m referring to their internal HDDs, not their external options (those are crap).

    To stay within the budget, I’ve settled with 1.5 TB of space. My uncle has his own external hard drives that he can use to backup files and movies. Our motherboard has an option to add a mSATA to speed things up. If you are taking this budget route, the choice of HDDs isn’t going to make any major difference. As HDDs are mechanically are slow, mSATA is basically a slot for a mini SSD drive which is used to cache frequently used files, speeding up the whole system on a budget.

    If you are opting to go SSD, do adequate research on those. SSDs are pretty new in the consumer market – quality and performance varies greatly between manufacturers.

    I’ve also picked a DVD writer for basic optical media reading and writing. DVD writers are dirt cheap nowadays, any will do. BluRay is not important to have, unless you buy a lot of BluRay Movies or want to burn BluRay media.

    We use cloud storage like Dropbox or Amazon Web Services nowadays.

  6. Power Supply Unit

    I personally use a PSU wattage calculator to give a guide on how much I need to boot the PC. There are several PSU calculators out on the internet, but my favourite will be on Cooler Master’s website.

    Remember to key in the maximum speed of your CPU under ‘overclocking’. All Intel CPUs are capable of overclocking on its own when under load. As for my i7-2600, the speed can hit 3.8 Ghz (according to Intel). I’ll round it up to 4 Ghz for some headroom. I also set the motherboard to a ‘High End – Desktop’ option – again, for headroom.

    My way of calculating the wattage will be to multiply the wattage given by the calculator by 1.2 if you are using a 80 Plus Certified power supply unit. Higher values (1.4 to 1.6) if you are using a non-certified power supply.

    For this ATX desktop we are building, the calculator shows that we are hitting around 450 Watts. Multiply this by 1.2 and you will get 540 Watts. Lets round it up and find a 600 Watt certified power supply.

    Going through reviews on the web, I settled with FSP’s Aurum Gold 600. With it’s gold certification, it shouldn’t give any problems in the next 5 years.

    Note: Power supplies wear out pretty fast during its service life. Having ample headroom will help prevent outages when the efficiency drops over time.

  7. Chassis

    In order to find the best chassis for these components, we need to look at the size of these components and whether they can all fit nicely.

    As the motherboard is of a standard ATX size, the Aurum power supply is pretty small, and the GTX 560 card is not too long, I settled with a standard ATX chassis. You can also get a bigger chassis that supports EATX or even Ultra ATX, but that is unnecessary. A good ATX chassis with a proper design and layout for ventilation, installation, and cable management is what I need.

    Through the years, I have had experience with chassis brands like Lian-Li, Cooler Master, and SilverStone to name a few. If you want a lifelong chassis, get one that is made of Aluminium and flexible enough for additional features. Aluminium is free from rusts and easy to clean with a water spray down.

    The GA-Z68XP-UD3 supports USB 3.0 ports in the front and rear, thus getting an ATX chassis that supports this feature would be great. The FSP power supply we are getting is not modular, so there should be ample room around the PSU for storing cables we won’t be using.

    The first site I visited to browse and look for possible candidate was Cooler Master. As I have quite a tight budget, I can’t go with Lian-Li or Silverstone as they are aluminium chassis, which are pretty expensive. The chassis I’m getting has to be able to fit under a table on its shelf, thus I stuck to a mid-sized chassis.

    When looking around for reviews, videos and ratings, I stumbled upon Cooler Master’s Storm series of chassis. A press release about this chassis was on the front page of Cooler Master’s website.

    The design quickly caught my attention and I went straight into my list of candidates. As it turns out, at the current price it was quite a good deal.

I hope this article can help guide you to your next desktop purchase should you choose to build it yourself. The whole system came in at around US$1,160.

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