In February of this year, we were using a second hand computer that was getting just a little too dated. It ran a Pentium II 200 MHz processor, which wasn’t keeping up with even such programs as those in Microsoft Office. On the good side, the computer contained a number of recently upgraded components, such as a 30 Gig Western Digital hard drive and an EVGA GeForce2 MX video card. We decided it was time to trade up. One option was to buy a brand new computer. If we went this route, we would have probably spent about $1,500 and bought a computer from Dell. Instead, we decided to build our own computer, using some components from the original. In total, we spent just over $300.

Building your own computer is not for everyone. You don’t have the benefit of technical support or a warranty if the computer doesn’t work. You don’t have sure knowledge that all the pieces will work well together. On the other hand, it can be pretty fun, and the end result is a computer that is made up of higher quality components. If anyone is interested in trying to build a computer, we suggest reading the Anandtech web site for a while to understand the latest advances in computer hardware components, and read the Anandtech Forums to understand the experiences that individuals have had in similar projects.

Picking the components

athlon 1700+We started the process of building our own computer by choosing a computer processor. The computer processor, also known as the CPU (for Central Processing Unit), is the brains of the computer. While many people buy Intel processors, a company called AMD makes CPUs that work equally as well. Further, an AMD processor that performs as well as an Intel processor can be quite a bit cheaper. At the time that we were shopping, the AMD Athlon XP 1700 processor was selling for just $120 and performs as well as a Pentium 4 1.7 GHz processor. The Pentium 4 processor was selling for around $230 at the time. Today, Intel makes the fastest CPU available for a Windows-based personal computer, but if you’re shopping for the best value, an AMD processor is still the best bet.

DDR SDRAMThe next step was to choose the computer memory to go with the CPU. The 256 MB of SDRAM that we had in our original computer was in perfectly good shape. However, it used an older technology and it was going to hold back the CPU. The performance of a CPU can be limited by having memory that cannot supply data quickly enough. Older 66 MHz, 100 MHz or even 133 MHz SDRAM just doesn’t run quickly enough for today’s newer CPUs. Intel addressed this issue by recommending that systems use the expensive RDRAM made by Rambus. It supplies as much data as these CPUs could wish, but it’s pretty pricey. AMD chose a different route and paired up their processors with DDR SDRAM. DDR (for "double data rate") SDRAM transfers data two times for every time that regular SDRAM transfers data. It is not quite as quick as RDRAM, but it is still good enough to not be the bottleneck in the computer system. We bought our 512 MB of DDR SDRAM from Crucial Technologies at the lowest price that it has ever been. Each of our two "sticks" of 256 MB memory cost $30. Since that time, prices have surprisingly gone back up, and the same memory will cost $75 per 256 MB stick. Today, RDRAM is still the fastest kind of memory, and a top of the line system using an Intel processor is still paired up with RDRAM; however, Intel has recognized the value in using the cheaper and more than adequate DDR SDRAM, and so many (Intel or AMD) systems these days are sold with DDR SDRAM instead. The lower-end, budget systems on the market these days continue to use the older SDRAM. These systems should be generally avoided.

EPoX 8KHA+ motherboardWe had our CPU, and we had our computer memory. What we needed next is a motherboard to plug everything into. The motherboard from our original computer could use a Pentium II processor, and SDRAM, but it wasn’t going to work with our new Athlon XP processor and DDR SDRAM. After a bit of shopping, we ended up buying the EPoX 8KHA+ motherboard. A number of people on the Anandtech Forums had good experiences with the motherboards, and in several motherboard comparisons by hardware review websites, the 8KHA+ faired quite favorably. There were other motherboards that were cheaper, but they seemed to be finicky — too many people seemed to have trouble as they tried to build their computers around these cheaper motherboards. Other motherboards were more expensive, and supplied such features as built-in RAID controllers. We just didn’t need these extras. What we needed was a board that was simple to get running, and that performed well, and we found that in the 8KHA+. It came with reasonable quality sound (better than the standard AC97 on most systems), 5 PCI slots for expansion boards, and support for 1.5 Gigs of memory. The board was $90.

Enlight 7237 caseThe final piece we needed to purchase was a new computer case. Our original case in perfectly good shape. It was easy to work with, and had plenty of space for everything we needed to put in it. What we needed, though, was a power supply that could provide enough power for these newer computer components. A computer can use high quality components, but if they aren’t provided a good, clean, steady line of power, the machine will still be unstable. Our original case contained a 200 W power supply that may have been sufficient, but we decided to play it safe. A new case, bundled with a new 340 W power supply, was only $35. We bought the Enlight 7237 case. It’s roomy, it provides good air circulation to keep the computer components cool, and we had read good reviews about the case from others who were building their own computers.

With the exception of the DDR SDRAM, we bought all of the components from Newegg. Newegg is well known for their competitive prices and exceptional customer service. If a component doesn’t work, they are very helpful with returns and exchanges. An additional benefit from buying everything from a single place is that it saved on shipping costs. The one disadvantage of buying from Newegg is that they are based in California, so we had to pay tax on our order. Our order was for a $130 CPU, a $35 case, and a $90 motherboard. When we added in the $60 we spent on computer memory at Crucial, we came to a total of $315.

Assembling the computer

Once everything arrived, it was time to build our new computer. It was pretty straightforward. We plugged the CPU into the motherboard, and attached the heatsink and fan, which help keep the CPU cool. We plugged in the computer memory. From our old computer, we took out the video card, and plugged that into one of the PCI slots in the motherboard. At this point, we wanted to test if things were assembled correctly so far. We plugged in the power connection from our case, even though the motherboard had not been installed into the case yet, and we connected the monitor. We turned on the computer, and it went through its startup routine. Of course, since we hadn’t installed a hard drive with an operating system, it would not boot up all the way, but it the display on the monitor indicated that everything was fine so far.

We installed the motherboard into the case by screwing it in with a number of small screws that came with the case. We transferred the network card from the old computer, and we attached the floppy drive, the hard drive, and the cdrom drive from the old computer. Add to that the monitor, keyboard, and mouse from the old computer, and we had a complete, new system. The only tool we needed was a small Philips-head screwdriver.

The hard drive already had Windows XP Professional installed, but with so many new components, we felt it safer to completely reinstall Windows XP. We popped in the CD, turned on the computer and followed the instructions, and we were soon up and running. It was surprisingly simple. Okay, we have had to look into some strange issues now and again. Our hard drive was not running at peak speeds at first, and we had to diagnose why. Our sound would occasionally stop working, but we found the cause of that problem, too. The need for these tweaks should not be viewed negatively though. We’ve learned more about how to keep a computer running smoothly in the process, and we’re in a much better position to deal with computer problems now, than if we were dependent on telephone support from a computer vendor.

What would the complete system cost?

We used a number of components from our original computer, and it did save us some money. If we were to have purchased every component new, here’s what the cost breakdown would have been (in the prices of the time — these have gone down in all cases except for the price of computer memory):

Component Type Component Price
CPU Athlon XP 1700+ CPU $130
Memory Crucial 512 MB DDR SDRAM $60
Motherboard EPoX 8KHA+ Motherboard $90
Case and power supply Enlight 7237 case with 340W power supply $35
Video card EVGA GeForce2 MX $40
Hard drive Western Digital 30 GB hard drive $50
CDROM drive Sony $25
Keyboard and mouse Generic $25
Network card Generic $15
Monitor Dell P991 $250
Total: $720

Overall the price is well under what a comparable system would have cost, and we had a lot of fun building it, too.

What’s happened since, and what’s next?

Since we initially built the computer, we’ve added a CD burner (PlextorWriter 12A/10/32 for $25), a DVD drive (Lite-On 163s for $35), and a new 80 Gig hard drive (Maxtor, bought on sale this Thanksgiving for $30). We don’t really need to upgrade anything else on the computer for a little while, but we do have some ideas of what we would consider upgrading:

  • A new video card to play newer computer games: either an Nvidia GeForce4 4200 card (under $100) or the newer ATI Radeon 9500 Pro (under $200, and just newly available)
  • A video capture card to record TV onto our new hard drive like one can with TiVo: the LeadTek Deluxe TV2000XP for $60.
  • A Microsoft Natural Elite keyboard, which splits the key arrangement in half to allow one’s hands to be positioned more naturally while typing ($45)

There may be other things in the future. We’ll just have to see what comes up.