My son is really into computers and is approaching an age where it’s fully appropriate for him to begin learning the internals of computers and how they work. We’ve been without a desktop system for quite some time now as a family and I thought it would be a great time to teach him how to build a computer and also provide the family with a new computer for homeschooling, media, or gaming.
I don’t want to spend a fortune on this machine, seeing as we have a number of Macbook Pros in rotation at our house that are currently used every day. So here’s the list of requirements we came up with that seemed to make sense for our particular build:
- Needs to be inexpensive, under $1500.
- Expandable in the event we want more RAM or a second video card.
- Quiet. I don’t want to hear my computer. Having used macs for so long, I’ve been spoiled by how incredibly silent they are.
- Easy to access and build out. I plan to have my son handle much of the build himself so I wanted to find a case/motherboard that is easy to work with and access.
What’s changed since the last time I built a computer?
Because I haven’t built a computer since 2004, much has changed over the years, while much has stayed relatively the same. I came into this process expecting to learn a lot about the various components and technologies that have been invented and/or improved upon over the years. Some of the components that have changed include magnet-powered case fans, liquid cooling systems, and beautifully-designed computer cases. For the most part, the components themselves and how they are installed seem to be the same, while the individual parts are much more advanced than they were back in the day.
Checking for Compatibility the Easy Way
One of the greatest tools I’ve come to love is the website PC Part Picker. I had never used this website before and once I found it, I immediately saw some conflicting parts on the list we had begun to compile. Once I noticed that, I swapped out the case and the processor cooling system with compatible parts. You can see our current build list here.
Additionally, we’ve stuck mostly to the ever-valuable tonymacx86 list of components for this build, though we did deviate a bit on a few recommended components like the case and power supply.
Our Parts List (So Far)
Phanteks Enthoo Pro M Mid Tower Chassis (Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $69.99
The first thing on any list for a build like this should be the type of chassis you want to utilize, as this affects everything you will decide to put inside it. The case we settled on was the Phanteks Enthoo Pro M, a simple mid-tower chassis with a small window on one side. We liked the look of this chassis along with the price and ease of installation for the various parts.
It comes with a number of hardware items that can be attached as needed. We don’t have many things to install right off the bat, but I like the prospect of adding peripherals we may need down the road.
We started off looking at some mini-ATX cases based purely on how they look but realized we wanted a little bit more flexibility in the installation and future expansion of the system, so we settled on the Phanteks.
Gigabyte LGA1151 Intel Z170 ATX DDR4 Motherboard – Refurbished (Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $89 (after $30 discount for motherboard/processor combo from Micro Center)
UPDATED: The motherboard we selected was directly from the tonymacx86 June 2017 build list and has a number of features we wanted to see in a motherboard at a price that was far below what appeared to be typical. We also got a good deal on it because we bought both the motherboard and processor through the same place, Micro Center.
We also wanted a board with USB 3.1 to take advantage of the data transfer rate for any external storage or other peripherals we might add in the future. It also will support the Kaby Lake processor, which we might upgrade to in the future, so it’s nice to not need to replace both the motherboard and processor when that time comes.
Intel Core i7 6700K 4.00 GHz Unlocked Quad Core Skylake Desktop Processor (Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $279.99
One of the bigger questions I had was “do we need the best Skylake processor or can we get by with one of the i5s?” Ultimately, we decided since we aren’t installing the newer Kaby Lake processor, we wanted to get the fastest Skylake processor possible so we settled on the 4Ghz i7. We ended up finding a nice deal on it at $279.99, which is $30-40 cheaper than it currently is almost everywhere.
With Apple set to release a new series of iMacs with upgraded processors, it is entirely likely that the Kaby Lake processor will soon be supported but we didn’t want to wait to find out.
EVGA Gigabyte Geforce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB SSC (Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $162.36 (included a free Rocket League license)
UPDATED: We had purchased a used graphics card on Amazon hoping that it would pan out but we ended up never getting a ship date or confirmation on it. That made it difficult to know if the deal we got on it was legit or when it would actually arrive. We searched a bit online for a 6GB or 8GB card but couldn’t find anything in our price range, as it appears every bitcoin miner in the world has purchased all the mid-range video cards on the Internet.
Regardless, since we’re not sure how much gaming we’re actually going to be doing, we found a nice deal on a solid GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, which brought our total budget back down closer to that $1000 number. Obviously, repurposing an old SSD, mouse, and monitor helped the budget significantly, but the video card could’ve been a huge chunk of our total spend. We may still upgrade if we decide we want to do some serious gaming or add Virtual Reality components to the build.
Ballistix Sport LT 32GB Kit (16GBx2) DDR4 2400 MT/s (PC4-19200) DIMM 288-Pin (Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $229.99
We wanted to make sure that when we bought the RAM for this machine that we only filled two slots out of the four available in order to expand to 64GB in the future. We’re not entirely sure if it’ll be necessary but we wanted to make sure to keep our options open at the very least.
Crucial m4 512GB 2.5-Inch (9.5mm) SATA 6Gb/s Solid State Drive (Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $???
OK, so this feels a bit like cheating because we actually pulled this drive out of an old 2010 Macbook Pro that had been upgraded to SSD years ago. It did help us stay way under budget as we avoided spending at least $250 for now and will be able to spend some money on extra storage in the future.
Samsung 850 EVO 500GB 2.5-Inch SATA III Internal SSD (Amazon)
In addition to the existing hard drive we pulled, I found a great deal on the recommended hard drive from tonymacx86.com. I picked up a used 500GB Samsung 850 for about $50 less than it is currently selling for most places. I’m planning to use this drive for our Mac OS X install while the other is for Windows gaming.
BitFenix Whisper M 80 Plus Gold Full Modular 550W PSU
Price at time of purchase: $79
I don’t know much about these new-fangled power supplies. The ones we used back in the day weren’t nearly as efficient, modular, or complicated. They simply plugged into the motherboard which powered everything from hard drives to video cards. These modular PSUs now have built-in surge protection and energy efficiency that puts the old models to shame.
CRYORIG H7 Tower Cooler (Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $34.99
The three major criteria I had for a cooling system for the processor were:
- It works well.
Fortunately, the CRYORIG H7 appears to match all these criteria well. I researched liquid cooling and double fan systems that seemed to be massive, but this one appears to tackle all the items I care about for a really great price. I may upgrade to a better system down the road, but I want to see how this all works first and make tweaks from there.
Apple Broadcom BCM94360CD – 802.11 A/B/G/N/AC + Bluetooth 4.0 (OSXWiFi.com)
Price at time of purchase: $119.99
OK, so because we purchased a bluetooth Apple keyboard and also want all the Mac-specific features to work, I went ahead and spent the extra money to purchase the Broadcom wi-fi card that supports Handoff, Continuity, and baked-in drivers for macOS. I don’t want to have to fiddle around with getting native functionality working properly so we’re hoping the high price tag on this card will help me avoid the possibly lengthy time it might take to get everything working properly.
Logitech Performance MX (updated version: MX Master 2S on Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $???
I already had this mouse from years ago when I actually used a mouse (I use the integrated trackpad on my Macbook Pro these days, thanks RSI!) so I’m going to use this as the primary mouse for this new system until I figure out whether I want to use a trackpad or something else.
Apple Magic Keyboard 2 – Refurbished (Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $69.99
UPDATED again: After originally purchasing a wired mechanical keyboard, I realized I was too attached to Apple keyboards with their extremely low profile keys and compact design. That’s why we ultimately decided to swap keyboards to the Magic Keyboard 2. I wanted a bluetooth keyboard that could be put away neatly and easily while keeping the Mac familiarity.
Two Cougar Vortex 140mm Case Fans (Amazon)
Price at time of purchase: $17.90 each
The Phanteks case we bought has one case fan included but I was hoping to add a couple more to ensure it is staying cool in there. I had concerns that adding more fans would increase noise significantly so I did some research on case fans that are quieter than most. I found some advice that the Cougar fans are extremely quiet and last quite a while so I picked up a couple of the larger 140mm fans. Also, I believe the motherboard I picked up only has three 4-pin fan connectors so I wanted to limit the number of fans for that reason as well.
Future Components & Peripherals
Having purchased all these items so far, I still have a few components that need to be added. The following list is not exhaustive by any means, but holds a few question marks that we’re still seeking guidance on.
I’m extremely interested in snagging one of those fancy curved 4k monitors but I’m not quite sure it makes sense yet as the technology is relatively new. I’ve looked at the offerings from Acer, HP, Dell, etc. and it seems like the Acer Predator 34″ Curved UltraWide QHD is the best option out there right now with it’s 4k resolution and 144Hz refresh rate but it also comes in almost equal to my budget on the entire computer build-out. Some advice here would be awesome. Is it worth it?
We have no idea what’s good in this area, nor do we envision doing a whole lot of VR gaming in the near future. This is lower on the priority list and, honestly, not something we’re in need of immediately.
I’d really like to add some fun lighting that isn’t gaudy or cheesy but puts out a nice ambiance that goes with the rest of the room nicely. I’m looking for advice on good, cheap lighting options.
Next Steps: Building the Machine
We will be getting all the components in over the next week or so and will start the build probably over the weekend. My son is extremely excited about building the computer and has already enjoyed taking out the old SSD from my old 2010 Macbook Pro. Seeing the motherboard and internals has gotten him excited about the whole concept of building a computer.