Is it Cheaper to Build or Buy a New PC?

Article Index

1. Introduction and Goals

2. Choosing and Finding Computer Parts

3. Budgeting and Shopping for Computer Parts

4. Comparing Dell's Price to Build Price




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Is it Cheaper to Build or Buy a New PC?
A quest for the "perfect workhorse computer"

Page 2

Choosing and Finding Computer Parts

I started out my search by doing some price comparisons and shopping around based on my general requirements. Below my search for each major system part is discussed in detail.

2+ GHz processor

In what is usually a hotly contested battle between AMD and Intel for the right to be used on my motherboard, AMD this fall is pretty much a "no show". AMD has been playing catch-up with Intel for the last 6 months and they have not been very successful in manufacturing their faster Athlon XPs.

This is a totally opposite situation from when I built my Athlon system in May 2001. At that time, the fastest Pentium 4 had a speed of 1.6 GHz. The AMD 1.2 GHz Thunderbird was considered to be about equal in performance to the Pentium 4 1.6 GHz, was much cheaper, and used DDR RAM instead of the cost prohibitive RDRAM. So it was a "no brainer" to choose the AMD chip.

Today we have almost the exact opposite situation. AMD has been announcing new Athlons, up to 2800+, that it has not been able to produce in quantity. At the time I was shopping in early October, the fastest AMD Athlon XP that was generally available was the 2200+ (1.80 GHz) with a 266 MHz bus. The retail boxed 2200+ was selling for $170.

Contrast this to the Intel Pentium 4 which was readily available at speeds up to 2.8 GHz on a 533 MHz bus. A retail boxed Pentium 4 at 2.40 GHz was selling close to $200. Also, the Pentium 4 is no longer tied to RDRAM, so I could use more reasonable DDR RAM if I wanted to.

Going with a Pentium 4 solution would give me a lot of choices for my perfect PC, sorry AMD.

Faster motherboard and chipset. Having chosen the Pentium 4, the next decision was to choose the motherboard.

One of my main requirements was that the motherboard support the newer 533 MHz bus. Another requirement I had was that I wanted a board with an Intel chipset as Intel always makes good performing chipsets. I also wanted USB 2.0 ports as I didn't want to buy an additional USB 2.0 PCI card.

I temporarily settled on the ASUS P4T533 which uses the Intel 850 chipset (1066 MHz Rambus RAM), the ASUS P4B533E which supports PC 2100 DDR RAM.(266 MHz), or the ASUS P4S8x which uses a SiS chipset, PC 2700 DDR RAM (333 MHz), AGP 8X graphics port, and serial ATA.

I eliminated my the first motherboard, with the Intel 850 chipset, because RDRAM is still selling at a 25% premium to 333 MHz DDR RAM. I decided my money would be better spent on a faster processor with 333 MHz DDR RAM.

I eliminated the second board, with the Intel 845 chipset, because I really wanted a board with a faster 333 MHz DDR RAM solution.

While the third board had everything I wanted and some extra bells and whistles, like 8X AGP and serial ATA, I didn't really want a board with the SiS chipset.

About the time I decided I had to trade off something and pick one of these boards, Intel announced new updated 850 and 845 chipsets and four new motherboards.

I reviewed Intel's new motherboards, and decided that the Intel D845PESV would fit perfectly with my requirements. The Intel 845PE chipset delivers DDR333 memory support. Plus Intel's new chipsets support Hyper-Threading (HT) Technology, which enables software programs to run as though there are two processors available with only one processor physically in place. Per Intel, HT Technology will be introduced later this year on desktop PCs with the Intel Pentium® 4 processor at 3.06 GHz.

Note that this board does not support 8X AGP. As of this writing, support for the 8X AGP standard is rather sparse. Very few motherboards support it, and there was only one 8X video card available, the $400 ATI Radeon 9700.

Neither did this board support serial ATA which promises increased hard drive speeds. However, serial ATA drives will not be available for a few more months, so this was not really a concern. Why?

I find the average life of my everyday system is about 18 months. I tend not to spend a lot of money upgrading, so I am not really concerned with what is going to happen after I buy my system. If you are always waiting for the next big development, you will never buy a system.

Faster Video Card

I like to play 3D games on my computer to relax and to see how it performs, I am not an extreme gamer, and as long as a game plays well I don't worry too much about frame rate.

As a matter of fact, I have been quite happy with my old GeForce 2 GTS card and I haven't felt left behind in any new game that I have played. How is this possible?
Well if you are a computer game manufacturer, are you going to write a computer game to run well on the 5% of the fastest video cards, or are you going to shoot for good performance on the 80% of mainstream video cards?

So what I want is the best bang for my graphic card buck. Certainly not the newly crowned speed king, the $400 Radeon 9700. One year from now that card will sell for less than $200, and if I feel like I need it I can buy one then.

Right now, I like the GeForce 4 NVidia Ti 4200 cards. You get the performance of the NVidia Ti chipset for a very reasonable price, and the NVidia Ti family is faster than all other graphic cards, except the Radeon 9700.
The 64 MB versions have faster memory than the 128 MB versions, but the 128 MB of video RAM could come in handy for future games. The 64 MB versions are usually in the $150 price range and the 128 MB versions are about $190. I'll probably pick the card that is the best deal.

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