Christmas project: build a new PC for $700

We make use of Christmas deals to build a cheap, yet speedy desktop PC

The end of the year is usually as good a time as any to build a new budget PC. Many stores put on specials before they shut for the holiday period, and some also provide free delivery depending on how much you spend. We did some shopping around this month and came up with a nifty little performance-based configuration for $700 that can be used for everyday tasks, in addition to more demanding ones such as editing videos, photos, music and converting files.

We opted for an Intel-based system and settled for a third generation Intel Core i5-3470 CPU, along with lots of RAM and storage space, which were our requirements for this particular build. And when we say a lot, we mean a lot compared to what we would have installed in years gone by for a typical home system: 16GB worth of DDR3 SDRAM and a 2TB internal hard drive. These components on their own were not expensive: $89 for the G.Skill Ripjaws Z RAM and $97 for the 7200rpm Seagate hard drive. Our CPU was also on special for only $191 and we installed it in a Gigabyte motherboard featuring an Intel Z77 chipset for $99.

All of this stuff was placed in a cheap-as-chips case that came with a 420W power supply for $65. When building a cheap performance-based PC, you have to cut some corners and we cut corners with the case and PSU. Usually, we recommend you don't (especially for the PSU), but since this is a project that required spending as little money as possible for a good configuration, we had to get an inexpensive housing for it.

We chose a CoolerMaster Elite 335U case, which is a mid-tower ATX case that has plenty of room for hard drives and optical drives. It's made out of soft metal though, which bends easily, so you'll want to be easy on it. It has two USB 2.0 ports at the front, along with audio ports, and these connected easily to our Gigabyte motherboard, which has connections points for them.

The Gigabyte motherboard that we selected for our build is the GA-Z77MX-D3H, and we chose it mainly for the $99 price tag, but also because it has everything we need, including the highly-capable Intel Z77 chipset, in a small, micro-ATX form factor. For us, this form factor is ideal because we don't require many internal expansion slots. Plus it leaves heaps of room in the case for airflow — this is also aided by the fact that our configuration is so sparse.

The board has eight USB ports on its rear port cluster (two being USB 3.0), which means we can hook up plenty of external drives in addition to input peripherals and things like a Wi-Fi adapter or digital TV tuner. Internal USB ports allowed us to hook up the two USB 2.0 ports on the front panel of the case, for a total of 10 ports. Serial ATA ports are plentiful for our needs, and, in fact, we only ended up using one of the two available SATA III (6Gbps) ports; there are also four SATA II (3Gbps) ports.

Graphics in our system are handled by the CPU, which features Intel HD 4000 graphics processing, and this is perfect for everyday Web and document-creation tasks, as well as viewing high-res photos and even for running some games at low-to-mid detail levels and low resolutions. It also keeps the power requirements of our system low, which is important when using a generic power supply that might struggle with higher loads. That said, if we want to upgrade the graphics at a latter date, we can do so through the motherboard's PCI Express x16 graphics slot. In fact, this board has three full-sized PCI Express slots and even supports dual-graphics card configurations (SLI and CrossFire), although a much better power supply than the one we opted for on this build will be needed to run such a setup. A small, PCI Express x1 slot is also present.

The only fans in this system are on the half-height CPU cooler that shipped with the processor, and the 12cm fan that came installed in the rear of the case, which means it runs fairly quietly. There is plenty of space for more fans on the side and at the front of the CoolerMaster Elite case, but unless more hard drives or a discrete graphics card are installed later, we don't really need to think about adding more cooling.

Putting this machine together was a piece of cake due to the small number of parts that we used. The first step was to prepare the case with the required amount of stand-offs for our motherboard, and also to make sure that we placed stand-offs in all of the hole locations that our motherboard required. We then installed the backing plate on the case for the rear port cluster, which clipped in very easily.

Before mounting the motherboard in the case, we installed the CPU and the CPU cooler, as well as all four of our RAM modules. Installing those components on an already-mounted motherboard in a case with a soft metal chassis would have lead to a lot of bending, so we felt it would be better to plonk these components in place while they were out of the case. In particular, installing the RAM with the board mounted in the case would have led to some bending in the motherboard (and case) as there were no stand-offs located underneath them to take the load. The location of the power connector on the right edge of the motherboard also meant that once the motherboard was mounted, we had to be very careful not to bend the board when plugging in the power cable. We had to use one hand to support the board as we plugged it in.

The hard drive was installed in the tool-less drive bay at the front of the case, although we had to remove both side panels in order to securely mount it. Instead of screws holding the drive in place, the CoolerMaster Elite case has little tension clips that fit into the drive's mounting holes and then tighten. We had some trouble getting the drive to fit into the case's drive bay; it felt a little tight and we had to bend the metal a little to get it in. This is another of the drawbacks of using a cheap case.

Once everything was in place and connected up, including our front panel connectors for the power button and lights, it was just a matter of making all the wires neat and keeping them away from the fans. We didn't go overboard with this at all and mainly only tied up the wires from the rear fan and the front panel connections to keep them out of the way. We left the drive power cables loose in case they'll be needed in the future.

We opted to run the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Pro on this machine, which we got for $140. Because we didn't install an optical drive in this machine, we downloaded an ISO of the operating system and placed it onto a 4GB USB stick. We downloaded the proper Windows 7 Pro (64-bit) ISO file that we required and then ran the Windows 7 USB/DVD download tool to create the bootable USB stick using the ISO file that we downloaded. Installation took only a few minutes off the USB stick and we used the product key of the Windows 7 Pro DVD that we purchased to activate Windows 7 once it was installed.

The lack of an optical drive also meant that we had to download all of the required drivers for our motherboard from Gigabyte's Web site. Generally, we recommend you do this anyway when installing a new board as it means you'll get the most up-to-date files. Of course, we had to use another computer to download all of these drivers (and Windows) and then transfer them to our new computer via USB.

We purchased the parts for this machine from Mwave, which had the best prices we could find at the time of writing and it cost us $702 all up, including $11.50 for shipping to a Sydney metro area and a "payment handling charge" of $12 (which we were only informed of after we hit the "pay" button on our order). We placed the order on a Friday, got the parts on Monday and it took us only about an hour or so to build and have it up and running. We then tested it for a 24-hour period by running 3DMark11 and looping video files, as well as opening up to 100 browser tabs, most containing Flash, to make sure that it ran without problems. It ran smoothly and quickly and, thankfully, there were no blue screens of death, which can usually be an indicator of bad hardware.

The purpose of this article is to just show you one of the types of basic, yet quite speedy PCs that you can build on a budget over the Christmas break if you choose to go down the do-it-yourself path. There are many other types of configurations you can consider depending on your budget and how much you shop around. We chose Intel for out PC, but don't count out an AMD machine, which can also be built for a very low price while offering potent CPU performance.

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Elias Plastiras
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