Back in early November, I mentioned that I’d redirected the ~$1,500 difference—between the Intel processor I ended up using in my workstation computer “build” and what a more expensive (and fully functional, versus the you-get-what-you-pay-for lower-priced dud I ended up with) AMD Threadripper alternative would have set me back—toward three “entry level” computers that I then donated to a local charity for “back to school” recipients. I’ve subsequently built five more, actually, which I passed along in early December for the charity’s clients’ Christmas gifting-to-their-families purposes. And as promised back in November, in this post I’ll share some details on these fiscal accomplishments so that you can follow in my assembly footsteps (for yourself and/or subsequent handoff to others) if you wish.
It’s important to note upfront that these aren’t under-resourced or otherwise lame systems in any way; admittedly, nobody’s going to play ultra-high-resolution, high-framerate, high-quality-setting leading-edge games on them (without first also dropping a discrete graphics card in the available x16 PCIe slot, that is) or do heavy-duty video editing at real-time rendering throughputs…but that was never the point. They’re perfectly adequate for school and office functions, Zoom meetings, and even mainstream games at HD resolutions and modest frame rates. Also, unlike their precursors, I made sure that they were spec-capable of subsequent upgrade from Windows 10 (which I installed) to Windows 11 to maximize their usable lives.
One thing I don’t recommend, in the spirit of minimizing your frustration level, is buying system building blocks off eBay, unless they come from well-known merchants (such as Newegg or Best Buy, both of which use eBay as an adjunct to their own retail websites) or are extended warranty-inclusive at no extra charge by virtue of inclusion in eBay’s Certified Refurbished section. I’ve personally just had too many bad experiences with people who sell open-box gear as new and used gear as open-box (and new), the goods inevitably arriving nonfunctional and/or with missing parts. And unless you discover what’s amiss within 30 days of receiving the item (eBay’s Buyer Protection program) you’re SOL, unless the seller takes pity on you (which, given the circumstances, is unlikely in such cases).
Conversely, although you can score the estimated prices I’ll shortly list by keeping an eagle eye out for conventional retail sales (and buying in bulk when you find them, if you plan to assemble multiple systems), you might drive yourself crazy and/or end up waiting a long time to complete a build if you go down this path. Here’s a Middle Way suggestion instead; peruse Amazon’s Warehouse site (echoing a recommendation I’ve made before), as well as looking through the factory-refurbished inventory at Amazon subsidiary Woot! (a somewhat tedious process, I admit, given that the merchant doesn’t offer a search engine on their site—I assume by design to encourage browsing—but at least they categorize things).
This purchase approach doesn’t guarantee success; just recently, for example, I received a claimed “like new” motherboard from Amazon Warehouse that had obviously been installed and then removed from someone else’s “build” and returned, minus a few important pieces (but including a few non-important extra other pieces from some other motherboard—in intended exchange?). And then there was the “factory refurbished” motherboard from Woot! that still had a mounting plate glued to its backside from its previous owner:
But in general, from my experience, the quality you’ll get using this approach is much higher on average than going the eBay route, and at lower prices than buying brand new (especially if you can catch one of Amazon Warehouse’s periodic further-markdown promotions). Plenty of stuff that I bought from Amazon Warehouse in claimed “like new” condition ended up being actually new, still factory sealed (i.e., Amazon resells of customer-remorse returns prior to opening). And don’t quote me on this, because your mileage may vary, but although Amazon Warehouse and Woot! both also have 30-day return policies, I’ve found both merchants to be fairly liberal in as-needed stretching the accepted-return time periods, especially for long-time customers.
The last big-picture guidance I’ll offer, and as I write these words I already realize more charitable readers may disagree, is to calibrate the quality of what you assemble and deliver to the circumstances of the recipient. If you’re building a Christmas present for one of your kids, then sure, go with all-brand-new components (and don’t break or even mar anything when putting it all together, either). But when you’re building a system for subsequent donation to someone who otherwise wouldn’t have one at all…maybe it’s just me, but I’m comfortable going with a gently used-and-returned computer case that has a few slight scratches and/or bumps on it, versus a pristine alternative that’s twice the price. And a clear acrylic or (even fancier) glass side is superfluous when there’s no RGB lighting inside, yes?
Now for the specifics. First, CPUs. Even entry-level processors nowadays from AMD and Intel come with quad (physical) core processors, and some even also offer additional hyperthreaded virtual cores, so I’m totally comfortable using them versus beefier, pricier ones. Moreover, “clock-unlocked” CPUs are not necessary. And given that even the cheapest discrete graphics cards cost a couple of hundred dollars, I’ve instead standardized on CPUs with integrated graphics cores; as I mentioned earlier, the recipient can always drop a discrete graphics card upgrade in the computer later if necessary. Note, too, that the combination of low-end core counts (I can’t believe I’m calling a quad-core CPU “low-end” but that’s reality nowadays!), spec (vs overclocked) speeds and integrated graphics allows for the use of inexpensive low-wattage power supplies, cost-effective “stock” air coolers (versus liquid cooling systems) and one-to-few case fans (which may already be included with the case you acquire).
Next, memory, both volatile (DRAM) and nonvolatile (flash). DRAM first. In a follow-on writeup, I’ll share the specifics on the tests I did with one of the systems prior to donation, wherein I leveraged various DIMMs I had in inventory to vary DRAM speed, total capacity and one-vs-two memory channel population and benchmarked the results using both Windows’ built-in Experience Index and several SiSoftware Sandra tests. Here are a few sneak-peak photos:
Perhaps obviously, getting the system memory speed and capacity right are particularly important when using a CPU with integrated graphics, since a portion of the DRAM will end up finding use as the GPU frame buffer (versus a standalone frame buffer on a discrete graphics board). To wit, all the systems I donated contained either two 4 GByte DIMMs or a single 8 GByte DIMM. And the motherboards were four-DIMM slot, dual-channel microATX models, with one two-slot mini-ITX exception, all with plenty of room for future capacity expansion.
Now for mass storage. I did go with SSDs, instead of slower but more cost-effective (on a price-per-bit basis) rotating-storage HDDs. But, although all the motherboards offered at least one M.2 NVMe SSD slot, I stuck with lower-cost (and still more-than-sufficiently speedy IMHO) separate SATA-tethered drives. Baseline capacity was 160 GBytes, sufficient for the O/S, the LibreOffice suite, and a few other applications plus data, but in most cases I spent a few more dollars (or not, depending on what deal I found at the time) on 240 GByte variants, for extra capacity headroom. Note, too, that I didn’t add optical drives to these systems, although in a few cases the PC cases (see what I did there?) offered bays for them. Optical drives would have only added to the BOM, they’re increasingly uncommonly used nowadays, and the recipients can always add them later via external USB-tethered or bay-based (as appropriate) units.
Last but not least, operating systems. As previously mentioned, all of the systems are upgradeable to Windows 11, but I stuck with Windows 10 both for comparative-cost and recipient-familiarity reasons. Specifically, I put Windows 10 Home on them, and went with OEM versions (which you can regularly find sealed on eBay for ~$30, and I’ve never had trouble activating) versus retail versions which will set you back ~3x that price.
So, let’s add it all up. Not included in the following BOM (bill of materials) list, but included in what I donated, were LCDs…I regularly see refurbished 21.5” FHD displays on eBay and Woot! for around $90. What follows are rough estimates of the average prices I paid for each “building block” across all eight systems I’ve recently assembled and donated (I should also note that the DRAM and SSD prices in particular are even lower now than at the time I did my builds):
- CPU: $100
- Motherboard: $80
- DRAM: $25
- SSD: $25
- PSU: $40
- Case: $50
- O/S: $30
- Webcam: $25
- Speakers: $20
- Keyboard and mouse: $25
- As-needed case fans and other minutia: $10
- Total: $430
Can you do better than this? Sure, especially if (as I noted earlier) you tediously wait for occasional jaw-dropping deals. Here, for example, is a system comparably equipped to those I assembled, which I stumbled across at the end of July last year at the local Walmart:
Keep in mind when you look at that $472.27 clearance (vs $569 normal) price that it includes a 23.8” FHD LCD (and doesn’t require assembly sweat equity). A few weeks later, the price tag had dropped more than $100 further, to $349 (still presumably including an Acer warranty):
C’est la vie. I’m still an advocate of going the build-it-yourself route, if only for the “satisfaction of an assembly job well done” end-result factor along with being able to tell others (if you know each system’s recipient personally) “I made this”. The fact that I enjoy doing these builds (as long as they work at the end, that is) also helps. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
—Brian Dipert is the Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.