Where You Can (and Can't) Afford to Skimp When PC Building

Updated on December 14, 2016
If you happen to be born with an extra kidney, congratulations! You can afford this rig. But for the rest of the world, follow this guide to a cheaper performance PC.
If you happen to be born with an extra kidney, congratulations! You can afford this rig. But for the rest of the world, follow this guide to a cheaper performance PC.

General Tips

While later on in the guide, I'll go into detail on specifics for different types of users, there are some overarching rules of thumb that you can follow if you're looking to build a PC on the cheap.

1. Shop around.

When you're on a budget, and even when you're not, always look at all the main websites to get a few bucks off of any part. And while it may not seem to be a lot at once, it really adds up. For example, saving $8 on a motherboard plus $4 on a CPU plus $8 on a power supply equals $20, which can get you a pretty dang good keyboard and mouse combo.

2. Don't worry about 80 Plus.

When you're buying a power supply and looking at the certifications (80+ Bronze through Titanium), it's much more important to go for the power rating and reliability than the efficiency. An 80+ Silver doesn't provide enough of an efficiency improvement over an 80+ Bronze PSU to warrant going with a brand with less-reliable products. Brands like EVGA and Seasonics are well known for reliable PSUs at a reasonable price, while Corsair's low end tends to be of inconsistent quality.

3. Refurbished can be good as new.

While there's no doubt that buying used components is a bit like gambling (especially if you buy your parts on Craigslist), you can often find manufacturer-refurbished cards that perform just as well as they would new--albeit for a bit shorter lifespan. And since most budget-minded PC builders tend to try to "sweet spot" their rig and intend to replace it with a new "sweet spot" rig in a couple years, the extra usable life may not matter to you as a user.

4. Form over function.

While most enthusiasts, myself included, love LED lights (especially the RGB strips) and other little details, the truth of the matter is both harsh and simple. The aesthetics have to be the first thing to go. And the fact of the matter is, if you save even more money by buying a windowless case, nobody's ever going to see the parts anyway. So don't worry about how that blue GPU that's on sale for 30% off clashes with your red-and-black motherboard and RAM. All you need to show off is the screen.

5. Store brand is fine.

Yes, I know. You've been eyeing that STRIX graphics card with RGB lighting and the triple-fan cooler. Or maybe it's that new Samsung SSD that's supposed to write files 2.5% faster than the last generation. Whatever it is, you can likely find a version from a smaller brand that won't let you down without breaking the bank.

For some people, spreadsheets and compilers are the main reason for computing.
For some people, spreadsheets and compilers are the main reason for computing.

If You're a Productivity User

This section is for you if you're the type of user who:

  • has one monitor in portrait for code (or would if you could afford a multi-monitor setup)
  • have a perfectly-organized filesystem for two thousand spreadsheets
  • uses the homerow more than the WASD keys
  • never uses more demanding graphics than embedded video

As a user who mainly focuses on traditional computing applications rather than gaming or multimedia, you have no need (and probably no desire) to kill benchmarks. But at the same time, there are definitely places you shouldn't skimp, as you'll see marked improvement from investing more money there.

Cut Corners: Graphics Card

Since you don't do much GPU-intensive work, there's no need to drop $400-600 on the newest graphics card with the best cooler. A card from a couple years ago, like a 750 Ti or an R7 260, will be more than sufficient to run YouTube videos, and costs a fraction of the amount at $100. I don't recommend going lower, as many graphics cards older than this may need adapters to connect to modern monitors.

Cut Corners: Power Supply

Since you won't be needing an insane amount of power with only a basic GPU, you can afford to go with a much cheaper power supply, like a 450W 80+ from EVGA for under $30. This will have plenty of power for your system, while keeping with EVGA's excellent overall quality.

Splurge: CPU

As a productivity user, most everything you will run, from Excel to Visual Studio Pro to Quickbooks, is heavily CPU dependent. Because of this, I suggest you go ahead and splurge on a new Skylake processor (though you don't need to bother with the unlocked processor unless you're overclocking) and a Z170 motherboard to pair with it. While it may seem at first glance to be a bit much, the i7 6700 is a powerful CPU featuring plenty of processing power to allow it to be viable for years to come. Case in point: My father bought a tower with the top-of-the-line Pentium IV processor when it first came out, and the processor (though not the Windows 2000 OS the machine ran) has proved to be adequate, even today.

It's Complicated: System RAM

What I mean when I say "It's Complicated" here is actually kinda complicated: do both. When it comes to the memory speed or the brand, just grab any old stick of DDR4. At this point, they're all pretty good, reliability-wise, and the average user will see little to no performance improvement by shelling out the cash for 3200+ MHz sticks of memory. On the converse side, though, don't hesitate to get a lot of it. Many programs are horrible about taking up RAM space and not giving it back, so going ahead and buying 16GB of it is a good idea.

The well-worn movement keys any PC gamer knows so well.
The well-worn movement keys any PC gamer knows so well.

If You're a Gamer

This is the section for gamers of all stripes, from casual RTS players to hardcore MOBA players. If you're concerned with response times, frame rates, and graphics quality, then your priorities and skimping locations are much different than the productivity user above.

Cut Corners: CPU

I know, we're gamers. We love the fancy new tech like the Skylake i7 series or the new Broadwell-E processors for the X99 chipset, but the simple fact is that we don't need nearly that much for gaming. In fact, unless you're running very CPU-intensive games, you'll likely be able to get away with running your system from an i3-6100 and the stock fan. If you have the money, of course, the 6500 is well worth the upgrade. But for most sweet-spot rigs, the unlocked K series is too much premium for too little performance.

Cut Corners: RAM

I know, RAM is important. Don't crucify me here until you hear me out. While no computer will POST without it, gamers will not see a significant increase when upgrading from 8GB to 16GB of DDR4 RAM--at least for the present. So just grab a 2x4 kit or a 1x8 kit and forget about it till it's time to upgrade your whole rig.

Splurge: Graphics Card

As you're focusing on gaming with this build, and gaming is primarily a graphical experience, it makes sense to spend as much as 30-40% of your build here. In other words, the main reason you cut the little corners elsewhere is to allow for more headroom here. For excellent performance at 1080p, look at an aftermarket GTX 960 or an R9 380 to handle your graphical needs, perhaps upgrading to a GTX 970 or R9 390 if the money's there; if you're even more strapped for cash than that, the GTX 750 Ti and R9 370 are both also very viable at 1080p settings.

Play the Middle: Power Supply

Basically, when you're picking a power supply for your rig, don't worry about the certification past 80+. Instead, worry about headroom (get plenty more watts than your rig is rated) and brand quality. An 80+ Bronze from EVGA or Seasonics will serve you much better than an 80+ Gold from Store Brand B, and you'll also be able to get a bigger PSU for the same price, meaning upgrades to other components won't require a concurrent PSU upgrade.

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