People often ask me whether or not a new computer they have decided to buy is a good deal. They will show me a print out from the Dell website displaying a fairly low quality system with some meaningless bells and whistles which is being sold for several hundreds of dollars too many.

Now, for many this cost is acceptable, especially in light of the warranties and service contracts that major vendors (like Dell) provide.

For others, like myself, one extra cent spent is one cent too many. This writeup is for us starving students and for those who are, financially speaking, riding Greyhound and want/need a computer.

Before I go into the selection and purchase of the computer itself, I will give a brief description of all the parts needed for an x86 system. They are:

The cheapest way to get a new computer is to buy all of these parts individually and then assemble them. The rest of this writeup will be about choosing parts.

The first thing to think about is that you do not need the new hotness. No matter how tempting it may be to get the latest CPU, graphics card or laser cannon, remember that you will probably never use anything like the full power of any of those components during the computer's lifetime.

The second thing to keep in mind is that although people often talk about building a system around a CPU, we are going to build a system around a motherboard. A good motherboard (as of fall 2004) will be inexpensive ($40-70), have two ATA buses, onboard ethernet, USB 2.0, onboard sound, 1 AGP slot, 2-5 PCI slots and good BIOS. Motherboards that currently fit those specifications are the ABIT NF7 (what I use) and the ASUS A7V600. www.newegg.com is the vendor I recommend most for motherboards.

Both of the motherboards I mentioned are Socket A, which means they are for use with AMD's Athlon and Duron processors and some of their Sempron CPUs. AMD's CPUs perform better than Intel's and are less expensive. For our purposes (office applications, internet use, music and light gaming) we only need a CPU with a clock speed of about 2 GHz. Currently, the Sempron 2200+ and the 1.8 GHz Duron seem to fit the bill ($45-60 on newegg). If a faster clock speed is required, the BIOS of most good motherboards makes it very easy to overclock the CPU. For me, it was only a matter of a few keystrokes to run my Athlon XP 1700+ (a 1.47 GHz CPU) at 2.0 GHz (disclaimer).

Because OEM CPUs do not come with a heat sink or fan unit, it is necessary to buy a HSF (heat sink/fan) unit. Copper is a better conductor than aluminum and a copper heat sink will do a better job of moving heat off of the CPU. A good, copper HSF should be available for between $20 and $35 (once again, see www.newgg.com). Once the system is up and running, temperatures of 30 to 60 degrees Celsius should be considered healthy.

Now for the graphics card, video card or GPU. Video cards range in price from $20 to $600, but you will probably want something in the $80 to $120 price range, depending on what you will do with your computer. If you plan to do some gaming (Unreal Tournament 2004, Half Life 2, etc) you will want a 128 bit AGP 8x card with at least 128 MB of DDR memory. If you want to plug your computer into a TV or projector. you will want a card with S-Video output. If you just want to go about your business and watch the occasional movie, then a more modest card will fulfill your needs. An example of a good, all-around video card is the nVidia GeForce FX 5200. The $50, 128-bit, 8x AGP Rosewill GeForce FX 5200 with 128 MB of DDR and VGA, DVI and S-Video output currently available from newegg.com is a perfect example of a very good but relatively inexpensive video card.

One more thing about the video card: it's not entirely necessary. Some motherboards have onboard graphics, that is, there is a VGA port right on the motherboard. If you don't need great graphics support, buying one of these motherboards will be cheaper than buying a seperate video card.

The hard disk should be internal, have a capacity of about 60GB, have an EIDE interface, have a cache or buffer of at least 2 MB (8 MB for gaming), spin at 7200 RPM and cost about $60.

Not everyone needs a floppy disk drive these days, but if you do, it will run you about five bucks. Most everybody will want at least a vanilla CD-ROM drive if not a CD-RW, DVD-ROM or even a DVD-RW drive. The speed of optical drives of all flavors is measured is multiples of real-time audio. Most modern CD-ROM drives, for example, have speeds of 52x, or 52 times real-time. One of these will set you back about $15. CD-RW drives (CD burners) with read and write speeds of 52x and rewrite speeds of 32x cost about $20. Combo drives (CD-RW/DVD-ROM drives) cost about $35. CD-RW/DVD-RW drives cost about $50.

The power supply or PSU is the part of the computer that plugs into mains power and supplies the other components with juice. A 350 Watt unit should be fine. Good ones cost about $35, and buying a good one is worth it...it doesn't get much worse than having one bad component fry every other component you just bought.

The case is the box that all the components fit into. I've been assuming you want an ATX desktop machine. I would suggest spending about $25 on the case. It doesn't have to be fancy or have a window or anything like that, but it should have at least one fan.

Assembling a computer sounds intimidating at first, but it is actually quite simple. Putting all the parts together reminds me of playing with Lego blocks. Really expensive Lego blocks. It is important to follow all of the instructions for assembling your parts. If they're aren't any instructions to follow, go online and search for information on assembling OEM computer parts. Pay special attention to the CPU and HSF installations; it is quite easy to accidentally crush the CPU core, or to improperly install the HSF so that the CPU overheats and destroys itself when you power on the system.

Everybody fucks up sometimes, and you may accidentally break, lose or static some part. Some of the parts I talk about are cheap enough that another one can be bought. For others, it may become necessary to lie, cheat, kill and otherwise do everything in your power to receive an RMA (Return Merchandise Authorization).

Okay, so you have a brand new system sitting on your floor. It's time to install an operating system.

Since this is an x86 (a 686, specifically), there are quite a few OSes to choose from, namely:

Most lusers will go immediately for Microsoft Windows. It's a cakewalk to, ahem, obtain Windows, so find a friend with an XP Pro or a 98SE install disk and find a good serial number to use.

For the budget conscious, moral and intelligent Everythingian, one of the Open Source OSes will be suitable. This is not the place to argue the benefits of having a real operating system, but I think that Debian GNU/Linux is one of the best free operating systems out there, and it's definitely my preference.

Don't pay more than you have to.

Updated on 2005-09-03

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