So Where *Do* You Begin?

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A Stonking Motherboard, Earlier Today

Going back then to my guide to making your own computer, it’s at this point that I’m supposed to say something wise like: “Before choosing the parts for your PC, ask yourself what you’re going to be using it for”, or “Decide now how much you really want to spend”. To my mind however, the only sensible answers to these questions are:

A) Everything! And

B) As little as I can possibly get away with.

PCs are meant to be flexible, inexpensive and upgradeable computing machines, so let what you can get be the guide to what you should get; what happens to be available at a good price now. Perhaps memory is really more important than that crazy amazing video card, but if the card is on sale at a great price now, memory can always be upgraded later. Seek bargains, go with the flow. Though bear in mind that by a bargain I mean something that’s cheaper than it usually is, not the kind of part that’s always cheap. Reliability is everything in a computer, so quality is worth paying – or at least waiting – for. Look out for brands with a track record, read all the reviews you can get your hands on.

So you could say that the place to start is wherever you’re at. See a bargain? Start! But from another point of view, your real starting point is the motherboard. Virtually everything else slots or plugs into it – as you may guess from the photograph – so more than any other it’s your motherboard that will define what components you’ll be able to use. It’s crucial therefore to have a nice one. But what goes into the choosing?

One choice is between the two major makers of processors, the chips that sit at the heart of a computer. Intel you will surely have heard of; AMD perhaps not, though they offer the chip design Goliath some degree of rivalry. Indeed – though l may be lynched for saying this – I suspect their David status may help explain their lasting popularity with system builders. Their image is not so sleek and corporate as Intel’s.

AMD have been technology leaders from time to time – producing the first 1 GHz processor, developing the 64-bit architecture that Intel themselves later adopted – but I think Goliath has it all over them just now. Processors have to fit into a socket on the motherboard, the design of which usually changes with the technology. Intel however have just introduced a new generation that are largely compatible with the socket – known as LGA 115 – used by the previous. That means these boards can use processors ranging in price, to go by Dabs.ie, from €35 to almost ten times that much. That is a hell of a range of options.

And that means you can get a cheap one now and upgrade at least once, perhaps more, over the lifetime of that motherboard. Which is exactly the route I chose, purchasing a dual core, 2.7 GHz Celeron G555 – a processor that could by no means be described as feeble –  for only €50. So you may have a particular reason to prefer some other family of processors, but to my mind that LGA 1155 socket is the thing to look out for in a motherboard right now.

But there’s more…

The Leviathan Takes Form

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Still Life With Celeron, by the author

To build a good system cheaply, you need the help of a friend: Sheer damn luck. You’re going to have to find bargains.

But this is the sort of luck that only happens when you’re ready for it. You can’t get good deals until you know exactly what you’re looking for, so the magical serendipity comes only after the painstaking research.

This article aims to save you some of that. To start with the basics then, the minimum you’ll need for a PC is:

Video card is in brackets because many motherboards and processors have video built in. You have the option of adding one (or more) for demanding tasks like gaming.

Similarly, audio and wired networking usually come integrated these days. (Be aware though that Wi-Fi isn’t so common.) You may notice I’ve left out speakers, on the basis that they’re not strictly necessary – and of course there’s a good chance you’ll have passable speakers or at least headphones lying around somewhere. Can we cut the bill down still further? Well, you may be able to do without the monitor. If your motherboard or video card has an HDMI output you can probably plug it straight into your new flat panel digital TV. And if you happen to have a portable USB DVD drive, that should do the job fine. (And arguably is a better investment than a built-in one, which these days is going to spend most of its time idle.) If you want you can add these pieces, and much more besides, as and when you have the money. This expandability is the nicest aspect of the PC architecture, and it’s worth exploiting while it’s still here to be enjoyed.

It is essential therefore to begin by planning for the future. You’re building a good-but-inexpensive system now with a view to transforming it into an amazing-but-still-not-too-expensive system over time, so you need to start out on the right track. There’s no point in saving money on say a cheap motherboard if the memory it takes won’t be made any more. A component is no bargain if it’s only compatible with others that are expensive, and to an extent every component of a PC is dependent on, and so must be compatible with, every single other.

Which brings us to the obvious question: Where the hell do you begin?