Homebuilt noob looking for lots of general advice

I'm running a 3.5 year old rig now and am going to replace it in the next six months or so. I'm reasonably tech savvy, but I'm not a hardware expert by any means and I've never built my own system before (one of my greatest failings as a nerd.)

Anyway, I'm not really sure if I even want to try building my own or if it would be better to go for a quality custom pc builder. My last system was a Monarch, but they tanked majorly and I probably wouldn't buy from them again even if they still existed. I've heard good things about Puget, Velocity Micro, etc...

But still, I feel like I could probably do a lot better for the money by building it myself.

I'm looking to spend in the $1200-$1600 range. I'm happy with my Samsung Syncmaster 204BW, so I won't be needing a new monitor. I'm also considering taking my 74gb raptor out of my present machine and transplanting it into the new one. I don't generally keep a lot of media or more than 2 games on my PC at once, so the size hasn't been a problem for me. I imagine it might become an issue in a few years, but it would be easy enough to upgrade when the time comes. That said, I'm still running XP pro and I should probably upgrade to Vista.

So some basic questions:

1. Given my pricepoint, how much can I expect to "save" by building it myself? I'm going to spend the same amount of money either way, so when I say "save" I mean the difference between how much would I have to spend from a builder to get an equivalent system to what I can build in my price range.

2. How difficult is a typical building process? How many hours can I expect to spend before I get the thing stable, ballpark?

3. What is the risk of a "critical failure" in which a new builder botches something badly enough to require part replacement?

4. What is the difference in reliability between home and pro built?

5. What kinds of tools (beyond the basic screwdriver and such) will I need?

6. Is it realistic to think that I can successfully get a decent OC on my first try given intelligent component selection?

Any other basic information about the process would be very much appreciated.

FWIW, I'm mainly looking for a gaming PC -- I typically play mostly MMO, competitive RTS, and casual FPS. Ideally I'd end up with enough power to handle very large scale pvp encounters on MMOs (currently Warhammer Online), good performance on high settings for RTS games, and at least respectable performance on decent settings for FPS. I do not need to have silken performance at absolue max settings for the newest FPS games or anything.

Ideally, my goal is to stretch each PC I buy out for about 4 years. Obviously it's impossible to predict what system reqs will look like 4 years down the line, but so far this rubric has worked for me over my last 2 purchases, each of which performed great in the first few years, and lagged a bit in the last year or so while maintaining playability.

Thanks in advance for your replies, I really appreciate it.
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  1. Alot depends on whether you need the software that's essentially free with dell, hp, etc. I gutted my $199 compaq presario with different $20 motherboard (to get 4 memory slots), leftover 350w power supply, and used core2 duo cpu bought off a hardware "for sale" forum. I still saved some money over building my own, as the vista license came with the pc. The dell q6600 systems with 3 gigs of ddr2 were an especially good deal even if you didn't overclock them. I don't know if dell will repeat these specials with the newer 8xxx series cpus. They already advertised a core i7 with 4 gigs of ddr3 and 23 inch monitor for around $1000. Try building your own for that much. And the dell and hp boards are largely micro atx or atx format, so changing them out is much simpler than past systems.
  2. 1. The amount of money depends on what you buy from who you buy. Alienware is a complete rip off and no one should ever buy from them. Dell is not my favorite, neither is HP being that I work at a store where we see plenty of HP's and Dells. Building a pc yourself will generally save you anywhere from $500 up to $1000+ depending who you buy from.

    2. The building process is not difficult at all. There are many guides that explain in full detail. One of the first, and still my favorite, is the TechReport guide in this link http://techreport.com/articles.x/13671. There are also many youtube videos that are helpful.

    3. The risk of critical failure in which you have to RMA depends on what you buy and how you install and configure it. Buying cheap parts is a risk and isnt likely to pay off. A few other things such as overclocking will void your warranty and if it breaks, your out of luck. Installing parts incorrectly or static electricity (not a big deal) might break your parts but in any case, parts that you buy from good manufacturers have their own warranties such as Kingston which has a lifetime warranty in case your memory ever dies.

    4. A home built computer can be just as, if not more reliable than a pro computer if you build it correctly. A poorly assembled machine will definatly not be reliable. But I have never trusted machines from anyone that I've bought from because every part has its own lifespan and can die and any moment.

    5. Basic tools I suggest are needle-nose pliers, Wire cutters, flat/phillips-head screwdriver, and wire-ties for cable management.

    6. Once again, it depends on what parts you buy. I bought an Intel brand board and I cannot overclock with it unfortunately plus I'm currently using a stock cooler for my E8500 so I wouldn't even try to overclock my pc. But if you get a stable motherboard and a good cooler for your CPU, you can definatly overclock it well.

    Some other information I would just like to say. For a good gaming experience with MMO, RPG, and FPS games, a good card I'd recommend would be a 9800GTX+ or a 4850 depending on your budget.
  3. I have no idea what software I'd need to build the system other than possibly the OS if I decide to get Vista.
  4. You should definitely build it yourself! It's really not that difficult, although it can seem overwhelming when just reading about it and then when you have a mess of parts sitting in front of you :)

    1. to put a dollar amount to how much you can save is pretty hard, because that also involves time spent and testing, and also piece of mind that you know you installed something right. Generally, by buying the parts individually online, you will save enough money to make it worth your while - especially once you're done and you realise you actually had a good time building it :) Since you aren't building right away, pick out a couple computers from a local store or online etailer and then break down the pricing for the parts on newegg or ncix or wherever you're going to shop and see what the differences can be.

    2. It's not difficult if you've read a guide or two, but even then it's pretty much just a matter of putting the right plugs into the right holes; for the most part, things just don't fit where they aren't suppose to so it hard to screw up majorly in that regard. Motherboards are pretty well labelled, so even when it comes to plugging in fans between the labelling on the board itself and the manual, it shouldn't be a big deal. Watch a youtube video on how to apply thermal compound onto the CPU and heatsink you get so you can see how to do it best. Post back here when you're chosing parts and I'm sure someone can tell you what to search for (Direct Contact heatsink video for example).

    Depending on how tidy you want to make the cabling inside your case, it can take anywhere from 1 to 3 or 4 hours to put a system together. And honestly, you'll probably get it all together and realise you should have routed cables differently for better airflow, or you might need to re-seat your heatsink if the CPU is running too hot, so I'd budget a couple extra hours.

    3. Critical failure is highly unlikely unless you build it in the bathtub. Make sure you aren't drinking/dripping anything on to your parts, try not to build on carpet (Static), don't use magnetic screwdrivers. Sometimes a little pressure is necessary to get things to click into place, but if something won`t fit it`s pretty obvious so it`s hard to physically break anything.

    4. an anti-static wrist strap from your local hardware isn't a bad idea for a first time build, otherwise just be sure to ground yourself by touching the metal chasis of your case frequently. standard screw drivers and some beer is about everything else you'll need. maybe some extra zip ties to keep the wiring clean.

    6. (Almost) everyone should be trying to OC these days, pretty much every CPU out there has at least some easy overclocking potential. Get a decent heatsink, preferably a direct contact one like a Xigmatek, Sunbeam Core Contact, or OCZ Vendetta 2, make sure you have good air flow in the case, and make sure you understand the math and options behind the overclock so you dont fudge the wrong numbers. That can take a bit of researching, but it'll just click at some point and you'll go "ohhhhh!" check out what some other ppl get with the same processor, that's always a good place to start. then figure out the math/settings they used, and theres lots of guides around that can help with that.

    For a 20" monitor you should be fine with a 4870 with a P45 board and Core2 Quad if you want longevity; then there's i7, which is more pricey. but the Phenom II's coming in January (hopefully) look to be REALLY interesting, and AMD motherboards are cheaper as well. So keep your eyes on that over the next month or two to see what happens! Make sure it's a quality Power Supply like Antec, Corsair, or PC Power & Cooling, most important part of the computer is the PSU. Get the 64 bit version of Vista so you can utilize 4gb or 6gb of memory you end up getting.

    Hope that helps, good luck!
  5. If you Google the "how to build question" you'll find lot's of videos and advice online. It's really pretty straight forward since you do have some experience with computers. Come back to the forums with any questions during the build. A major warning is: control and eliminate static shocks, get a wrist strap. You have to choose either Intel or Amd as a cpu and platform. That will help with choosing the mb. If you start now searching the tech sites you get an idea of the different pieces you might want. The whole tech world is waiting to see how the i7 systems from Intel really perform. The same goes for the new Phenom II x4s. Over the next 3-6 months we'll all have a good idea about this. The question about the gpu is a bit tougher. What games will you play? If you get a mb that will support either sli of cf then that will give the new system a longer life cycle as you can start with one uber gpu and add a second one later. Look here on Toms. They have done several builder articles at different price points and will give you some pointers. Another issue is the OS. Windows 7 is out there on the horizon. How good it will be is unknown at the moment. Opt for the 64bit vista if you buy now or wait for or replace with windows 7 IMHO. I am not a big sound card fan since the onboard sound is pretty good for gaming. If you are wanting actual component advice I'll give it a go, others will also I'm sure.

    Cpu - intel current models: Q9300, Q9450, Q9550 ascending order quads. E8400 c2d duel core.

    Amd- 9950 be 125wt.

    MB- Look for a name brand with the included amenities you want. And nothing you don’t need. Ie: wifi onboard if you want wireless so you don’t have to get a wireless card. CF or SLI slots if you think you’ll want to go that route. Good cooling solutions of the mb bridges and such. My Asus mb has onboard cooling of the memory included.

    Gpu Nvidia - 260 gtx, Ati hd 4870 1gb.

    Mem low latency 4-4-4-12 name brand on sale DDR2 2x2gb=4gb, DDR3 if you go for the new stuff.

    PSU - Get one from a top maker. Get it on sale. 600-700 wt range more if you think you might add a second VC. SLI or CF capable. Research required.

    Don't go cheap on the MB or the PSU.

    You could use your old drive if you want to but there are many much larger and fast drives for under $100; maybe the raptor for the OS and another for data? Learn how to overclock your system you’ll get much more performance out of the parts. The E8400 and the Q6600 will overclock very well and compete very well with their much higher priced brothers. As stated above the new products are arriving now. Depending on your budget and the reviewed and benchmarked performance the new stuff is where you should probably be looking. Remember opinions are like you know what, we all have them and hopefully some of the forums members will offer some good advice and pointers.
  6. The intel instructions that come with the CPU tell you to install the motherboard, then the CPU and HSF. Don't install the CPU, HSF< and RAM before you the motherboard in the case.

    I always breadboard a new build before I put the parts in the case. Breadboarding simply means to assemble all the parts on an insulated surface and test them before you install the parts in the case.
  7. Some people do put the RAM and cpu on the motherboard before it goes into the case its up to you that some times it easier sometimes tehy just get in the way
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