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Building a Computer for the non-Gamer

by Grim322
January 9, 2006

Most of the information you see today about computer hardware is based upon how fast it can go, graphics acceleration and such. The truth is, if you’re like me and use your computer for web surfing, email, and word processing, you don’t need all of that expensive super fast hardware any more than you need a Indy 500 race car to go to the grocery store.  Whether you are buying your computer or building it, you’ll have more money to spend for the things you really need if you don’t waste it on the things you don’t need.


... the CPU 

Let’s start with the CPU. There are Pentium 4 and AMD 64 bit processors that are close to (or over) 4ghz that can set you back close to $1000 for the processor alone - you don’t need them. You are looking for reliability and stability, not blinding speed. I find the 75% rule handy. Processors become affordable at 75% of the speed of the fastest, so start looking between 2.5ghz and 3ghz for the right price range. You also probably don’t need a Pentium 4 or AMD 64 unless you are into extremely heavy graphics applications. A Celeron or Sempron processor will work just fine. I recently built a system with a 1.8ghz Duron that is surprisingly fast and a real workhorse. I don’t usually recommend overclocking, but the Duron can easily go to 2ghz. 


.. motherboard

Now for the motherboard, find one that has on-board LAN and on-board sound (5.1 if possible). 5.1 sound will let you add surround sound with a woofer, great music and nice sound for DVD playback. The speakers are not that expensive.

I like to get on-board graphics when building a system because it is easier to troubleshoot, but I’m flexible on that. You want the option to add a graphics card; most motherboards will have a 4x/8x AGP graphics slot or a PCI Express slot on the newer boards. As far as brand of motherboard, do your homework and check reviews. You will find that you don’t need to buy the cheapest (those will be the ones with the bad reviews), but you also don’t need to spend much over $100 for your board. I have found deals for motherboards under $50 that built very nice computers. 


.. graphics card

As I stated earlier, I like on-board graphics to set up my system, but I add a graphics card once I have it running to improve the performance.  You can spend several hundred dollars on a graphics card to get the extreme accelerated graphics for modern gaming.  I’m putting in a graphics card to free up my CPU and memory from performing graphics functions.  I have found that I can get what I want in a graphics card for under $75 (either Radeon or GeForce). I even had a favorable experience with an XGI Volari 3 card that cost $25. Volari doesn’t try to be the fastest 3D game card out there. They try to be a very good card for photo and DVD viewing. When I ran them on a benchmark test, the Geforce 5200 and Radeon 9200 killed the Volari on 3D acceleration, but the Volari almost doubled their performance in 2D graphics (just what I need). 


.. case, power & drives

I like to use a standard ATX case with at least a 400 watt power supply.  Good ventilation is important for proper cooling. The most important is an exhaust fan in the upper rear of the case. An intake fan near the lower front is optional. As you add fans, you will also add to the noise output of your computer, non-gaming computers shouldn't run extremely hot, so don't get carried away.  I’ll use some of the money I saved earlier to buy dual optical drives - a DVD ROM and a DVD/CD burner.  Floppy drives are optional these days, but I still put them in.  I like to start with 512Mb of memory (you can add more later if you think you need it, you probably won’t). 

Let your budget determine how much hard drive you can afford. I like at least 80 Gb.  If you do a lot of digital photography, you can consider using 2 hard drives - a 40 Gb for your operating system and programs and a second drive of 80 Gb for digital photos and mp3.


.. operating system & savings

All you’re missing now is the operating system. I will assume you are going to put in Windows XP.  If you have a Windows 98 or ME installation CD, you can save a few dollars by buying the upgrade edition.  I recommend a clean installation, but that can be done with an upgrade version if you have a previous version on CD to verify that you qualify for the upgrade.  The previous version does not need to be installed, just put the disk in the drive when asked.  Another way to save on the operating system is to buy the academic version if you qualify (you or a family member needs to be a college student).  XP Pro can do some things that XP Home can’t, but most of it is business related, so you really don’t need XP Pro.  However, sometimes I find an XP Pro upgrade edition cheaper than the XP Home full edition, so shop around. 

Take your time, ask questions when you need to, and you will end up with a computer that fits your budget and does what YOU want it to.

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