Building $1200 PC vs. $2500 PC

My friend Graham was recently talking to me about his plans for putting together a fire-breathing, Quake-stomping, do-it-yourself gaming PC. He mentioned that his budget was around $2500CDN. I started thinking about this, and about how it would likely be possible to build a $1200 PC that wasn't optimized for gaming, but that could run all of todays games well. Plus, a year later, you could put together another $1200 PC, taking advantage of a year's worth of technology advances and price drops. So, here is my guide to putting together a $1200 PC. All prices (in fact, all the components) were ones that I could buy from my local low-price store, OEM Express. All prices are, of course, in Canadian dollars. I'm also going to steal Apple's concept of "Good, Better, Best", with separate totals for each at the end.

Motherboard

For all intents and purposes, this is your PC. Although the graphics cards in systems have become increasingly more powerful/more important, all the technology of a system will ultimately be traced back to the motherboard. I'm only going to be dealing with boards that support AMD processors -- in my opinion, they still give you the best bang for your buck.

Processors

Whatever. Choose as fast as you can afford. Since we aren't shooting for the sky (is that a real saying?), we won't be recommending the very latest, fastest processors (actually, this is made easily, since OEM only carries three Athlon XP processors right now). Mmmm...the "best" is still pretty pricey.

Memory

This section is boring as well. I'll go out on a limb and spec out only DDR333 memory.

  • Good: 256MB ($99)
  • Better: 512MB ($199)
  • Best: 2x512MB ($398)

Video Card

This is the part that's hard. You want something with pretty good performance, which today means at least 64MB of memory. Next, there are all sorts of options -- firewire, tv-out, TV tuner, etc. etc. Since we're not building this PC for any special purpose, but a mix of home uses, we'll want a little bit of everything. This is a section that's going to be easy to argue with. I'm going to say that $100, $200, and $300+ are the three levels to aim for. I would probably choose the AIW 7500 card because of all the bundled features -- RF remote, TV tuner, etc. etc.

Optical Drive

Let's not mess around: just pick a combo (CD-RW/DVD) drive and be done with it... LG 32X10X40X16 CDRW/DVD ($139)

Hard Drive

How many MP3s do you really want to store? How many multi-GB games are you going to install? Before you know it, your hard drive is full and you're scrambling to add another one.

Case plus

You'll still need a few other bits and pieces before you've got a full computer. Case and power supply, $50 - $150 Keyboard and mouse, $50 - $150 Fans, assembly, misc, $50 - $100

Totals

Good: $884 Better: $1339 Best: $2013

Summary

There you have it -- three machines, all with good components, ranging in price from $900 to $2000. The "better" box comes pretty close to $1200, but I'd be happy with even the "good" box. So...what's the point? Well, let's just use a specific example. I bought a PC box that I spec'ed out myself almost exactly a year ago. After taxes (which aren't included in the prices above), I paid pretty close to $1100. Even the "good" box is much better than what I bought a year ago. For example, my board has USB2.0, and I didn't have WinXP drivers for the first 4 months!

Current PC

(note -- this has weird mix of features, mainly because I wasn't sure whether I would be turning it into a server or not, so I skimped in some areas, splurged in others)

  • Motherboard: MSI MS-6380 USB2, AC97, RAID
  • Processor: AMD Duron 1GHz
  • Memory: 256MB PC133
  • Video Card: GeForce2 32MB w/TV out
  • Optical Drive: CD-RW 16x/10x/40x
  • Hard Drive: 40GB
  • Case plus: generic keyboard and scroll mouse, generic case w/ front USB and p/s, assembly was $30 including a 1 year warranty

I've never used the RAID on this board, and I'm starting to feel the pain of both the slow processor and the minimal memory. The system has had everything from Win98 to WinXP installed on it, with Win2K Advanced Server thrown in for good measure. Quite a few games played, and while some of the intense 3D ones (Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Dungeon Siege, Neverwinter Nights -- ya, I like RPGs) can't be run at highest resolution, it hasn't detracted from my enjoyment of them, and, more importantly, they haven't played slowly.