Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Guide to Build Your Own PC.

Assemble Your PC.

Whether you're buying your first desktop PC, or going to build another PC, the all-important "configuration" is the foundation. Everything rests upon this - whether your computer is reliable or keeps crashing, whether it runs fast or seems to always drag its leg, whether it is physically easy to use or is a hunk of metal you dread having to mess with, and whether it is the latest hardware worth your money or is obsolete hardware from years ago.

The luxury of being able define the configuration you want in your PC, of course, is only possible if you are getting an "assembled" computer. So you could shop for the components and put it together yourself. Alternatively, you may opt for the safety net of giving the configuration to your favourite computer shop and ask the dealer to build it - the upside is that you can fall back on the dealer for support and be free to install the OS and software yourself, the downside is you would pay slightly extra for the service.

Buying components online is a good option and helps with getting an idea of prices to expect.

Scroll further down if you want to jump right away into my recommended configuration for a budget PC, a high-end PC and a mid-range home entertainment PC that offers maximum bang for the buck. Before that, I shall outline some information that you must know before buying, for each individual component that plays a part in your computer. I have positioned the components by order of ease of selection - from the input devices being an automatic selection to the Processor/Motherboard being the hardest to decide upon.

PC Components To Consider

Keyboard

You cannot truly use your PC without this input device, despite the arrival of touchscreens. However, there is a good reason offices opt for mechanical keyboards for a good feel while typing, and home users can pretty much pick any keyboard that looks nice on the desk. As long as it has 104 keys (or more for multimedia keys) and feels comfortable in use, any keyboard will do. Get a keyboard that connects through a PS/2 port and avoid buying a USB keyboard, unless you already have a PS/2 keyboard stashed away for emergencies if/when the BIOS does not like USB input.

Mouse

You use this input device 99 per cent of the time, when using the Windows OS. So make sure the mouse you buy feels good when nestled in your palm, not too large and not too small. Needless to say, optical and USB are the preferred specifications here, met by any available mouse. A wired mouse will be more responsive than wireless, and spare you the bother of batteries. Even if you play games and a "gaming mouse" sounds attractive, remember that the incremental quality improvement may not be worth it.

Optical Drive

DVDs are dead and all that... but hey, not really in India. If nothing else, an optical CD/DVD drive is good for installing the operating system, watching movies, and transferring data that's already present on a disc. They are cheap and offer a cheap way to write discs to give to others, besides having a huge existing legacy. Be sure to get a DVD Writer drive with a SATA interface for smooth data transfers. Avoid buying costly retail bundles with software (such as Nero/CyberLink) that you don't really need anymore.

Hard Disk Drive

In many ways, the HDD is the PC, from a consumer point of view. Even if the whole of the rest of the PC is dead, all you really need to get back to normal is the hard drive and the data you stored on it. As such, it makes no sense to short-change yourself on such a crucial component. Get a drive with double the storage capacity you expect to use, since the space will fill up soon and easily. Get a fast drive from a good brand with easily accessible support centres. Avoid buying from a less well-known brand if the price difference is just Rs. 200-300.

Solid State Drive

Think of this as a faster hard disk. If you can afford it, why not? But since standard spinning hard drives still offer more capacity at low prices, use an SSD as a boot drive, in conjunction with a HDD to use for pushing out data you don't immediately need.

Cabinet

Also known as tower, or computer casing. The cabinet is simultaneously the skin and the bones of your desktop. Get a bad one, and you find the machine being rickety and unreliable in operation. Be sure to get one that supports the internal components properly and gives the right features for you externally. Avoid getting mesmerized by the "tool-less" racket - you'll still find yourself wielding a screw-driver even in such a cabinet.

Power Supply Unit(SMPS)

Also known as a PSU or SMPS. A good power supply unit will add many years to the life of your components, and contribute to stable operation (as against instability and inexplicable crashes). It is important to know that the Wattage number quoted on the box is the maximum the PSU can provide, in bursts of micro-seconds. If your PC is projected to consume 300W, get a PSU rated for 30 per cent higher than that.

Uninterrupted Power Supply(UPS)

Under Indian conditions, a UPS is a must. Allocate a tenth of your PC budget to the UPS, and you'll reap handsome rewards. Would you rather save Rs. 3k now and lose 30k (worth of components) later, or simply be diligent to get "insurance" upon the money already spent? The USB monitoring facility of good UPSes will allow you to set system policies for the action to take, upon electricity brown-outs or black-outs. Avoid getting a UPS if your home/apartment is already backed by a home UPS, since two such devices in series will kill the second one in the line (your PC UPS).

Monitor

The monitor is worth springing a good bit of money for. It is typically the one component that does not get attention or changes between system upgrades, so get a good one at the time of purchase. Since it is all LCD these days, larger is better, as long as you can afford it. Avoid 3D and touch-screen for now despite the hype, you aren't really losing much on this count, besides, multiple technologies are competing and the winner is unclear. This recommendation of course, assumes you don't want to spend on it as a hobby and want every single Rupee to be worth it.

Speakers

This is an area that has changed scene sharply since I bought my PC. You don't even need to shell out big amounts for the comfort and quality of a known brand. The big brands are now competing even in the low-price segment and manage to actually deliver value for the small premium they command. Any good 2.1 speaker set does well now for songs and movies, if you aren't quite a picky "audiophile". To get the most value, don't hanker for buzz words like Dolby/DTS, and avoid the "PMPO" Wattage, you want the RMS Wattage rating instead (a speaker may be 200W PMPO, but only 25W RMS).

Graphics Card

We now come to an over-rated part of the modern PC. A good discreet 3D graphics card can certainly be a great addition to your computer for gaming. However, integrated graphics have been doing a pretty good job for a long time now. If you get a good motherboard and processor, you may find most older games run just fine at lower resolutions and effects without a graphics card. Once you do get into the graphics card trap, nothing is ever enough, as larger monitors, more effects, and newer games keep demanding more to play a current-generation game.

RAM

System memory, or RAM is far more important than people think. It is the one clearing-house that determines if your PC experience is fast or slow. Some operating systems have even been sacrificed at the altar of RAM, because they required too much of this critical resource at their time of launch. If your PC feels slow and all your other components meet a certain minimum threshold, adding more RAM is the easiest way to speed it up. The good news is that RAM is cheap now, really cheap, even for seriously fast modules, so stuff in as much RAM as your budget can justify, from a good brand.

Processor

The so-called "brain" of the computer, this component is ironically the least important now. I find AMD offering great value for money at the lower-end and Intel offering great performance at the mid- and upper-ranges. We are at the point where the consumer can stop caring, and get an awesome processor at just about any price point. The processor family is relevant only to the extent that your choice of processor will impact available options for the motherboard and RAM. The bad news is that the same does not ring true for enthusiasts - processors are more difficult to choose than ever before, and every small parameter/requirement you set will throw up a new set of problems and compromises to make.

Motherboard

We now come to the point-of-no-return, the turning point, the eternal dilemma... you get the idea. This could be thought of as the "heart" of the computer and is the most important component. Every turn you've taken in your choice of configuration until now, and in turn, every motherboard you consider, will influence each other. I can only say, consider your configuration and budget and accordingly select the best motherboard you can afford. Depending on its quality for the segment, it will be the foundation of a solid PC build, or the root-cause of a persistently troublesome PC.

Recommended Configurations

Making sure the components below are also widely available in smaller cities of India, was a big factor during the course of compiling the lists below. If you have input/feedback/queries, please Put your Comment. All prices are true at the time of writing, and are verified across vendors.


In the many tussles between lower price and a much better product priced slightly higher, I have sided with the better product. You'd want items that are current and still offer very decent performance, to be able to ride into the future without bumps. I consider quality and support to be big factors for you as well.


I listed the above configuration with a heavy heart, since at least a few components are crashing below the threshold of being branded and similar anywhere in the country. You can mix and match of course. Note that I am not mentioning configurations for really low budgets, as that can be volatile - every single Rs. 100 note matters at a certain budget-point, and this story cannot do justice to that here (a 15k config would prompt requests for 14k and 18k configs). In any case, I suggest Netbooks (13k price) nowadays to those who want even lower priced machines.


Note that the number you see in the "Total" field above may look scary in the case of a high-end PC, but it still does not contain all the good stuff one can get for PCs. It is not quite an all-out configuration, because the intention remains to extract every last drop of value for your hard-earned money. You can mix and match between the three configurations, of course.

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