How to build an inexpensive, high-performance PC for Windows 7

The time is right to start putting together a system that will make Windows 7 shine -- without breaking the bank

Microsoft is set to release its newest operating system, Windows 7, on October 22. "Oh no," you might be groaning, "not another Windows upgrade!"

Those of us who have been through one or more previous upgrades, from, say, Windows 98 to Windows XP or from XP to Vista, have learned that upgrades can be a painful process, fraught with hardware and software compatibility issues that create ongoing operational problems -- or worse, make a PC nonfunctional.

[ Related: InfoWorld has confirmed a critical Windows 7 bug. | Read the InfoWorld Test Center review of Windows 7 RTM. | Get the overview you need in preparing for Windows 7 with the Windows 7 PDF Report from InfoWorld's J. Peter Bruzzese. ]

It's unlikely that the upgrade process will improve with Windows 7. Upgraders -- especially those making the leap to the 64-bit version of Windows 7 -- will most likely suffer through a slew of hardware, software and driver incompatibilities.

The simplest and quickest way to deploy Windows 7 will be on new hardware, avoiding the whole upgrade process. But instead of buying an off-the-shelf PC, I recommend that you build your own system. Building your own gives you the flexibility to get exactly what you want, and it creates a sense of accomplishment -- not to mention that for many of us, it's just plain fun.

One of the most time-consuming aspects of building your own, though, isn't actually putting the system together -- it's the process of navigating through the plethora of processors, motherboards, storage devices and video cards available today.

Microsoft has provided some minimum specifications for Windows 7 (see box). But minimum specs, as they imply, offer minimum performance -- something most users would not be happy with.

I set out to build a desktop system that will run Windows 7 efficiently, support future upgrades and keep a lid on costs. What follows is an explanation of my component picks that I hope will be helpful to anyone else who wants to build a Windows 7 PC. (If you've got any suggestions, don't hesitate to let us know in our comments section.)

The prices given throughout the story are common "street" prices as shown on shopping comparison sites Pricegrabber, Google Product Search and mySimon in early August 2009. Any good shopper should be able to get the components for these prices or less.

Note: This article assumes you already know how to build a PC from scratch. If you need help, Lifehacker offers a good basic tutorial.

CPU
The most important component of a PC is the CPU. Selecting the proper processor can mean the difference between an expensive failure and an economical success. The market is saturated with CPUs, coming in at different price points, performance levels and thermal envelopes (the power required and heat generated by the processor). I took a look at what was available on the market today and combined that information with my experiences with the various CPUs I've tested in the past.

Windows 7 is designed to leverage multiple processors, so more processor cores are better. Choosing a quad-core over a dual- or single-core processor will deliver better performance while not increasing the price significantly.

Super high-end CPUs like the Intel Core i7 Extreme Edition 965 and 975 cost $1,000 or more -- far too expensive for the majority of users. Intel also offers three lower-cost, lower-performance quad-core CPUs under the i7 brand -- the 2.66GHz Core i7 920, the 2.93GHz Core i7 940, and the 3.06GHz Core i7 950 -- but they're still not cheap, ranging from $290 to $600. The Core i7 processors also require expensive support components, further increasing the total price of a Core i7-based PC.

With economy in mind, I chose to use AMD's latest processor, the quad-core Phenom II x4 955 Black Edition. AMD's CPU runs at 3.2GHz and has a street price of around $250.

While not as fast as Intel's Core i7 in raw performance, AMD's CPU is significantly cheaper and outperforms similarly priced Intel CPUs. The 955 also supports overclocking and DDR3 RAM when used with a socket AM3 motherboard.

To increase the Phenom II x4 955's performance, I'll overclock it (run it at a higher clock speed than it is rated for). There are some dangers when overclocking -- you could void the warranty or even destroy the processor. That said, a little overclocking (a few MHz) can boost performance and maximize the value of the processor. (Tom's Hardware offers an excellent guide to overclocking AMD processors if you need instructions.)

Although the 955 is an AM3 socket chip, it is still backward compatible with AM2+ motherboards, which means that you could buy a low-priced discontinued board as a way to save money. In that case, however, you wouldn't be able to overclock the 955.

AMD offers several other processors under the Phenom name, which can save you a few extra dollars, but at the cost of performance. The other Phenom models widely available today range from the older 2.6GHz Phenom X4 9950, which goes for around $160, to the 3.0GHz Phenom II X4 945 at around $215.

Motherboard
Having selected the Phenom II x4 955 for the CPU, I wanted a motherboard with an AM3 socket and DDR3 RAM. Several manufacturers offer appropriate motherboards, ranging from an $85 Gigabyte GA-MA770T-UD3P to a $200 Asus M4A79T Deluxe ATX. The wide variation in price is due mostly to features and options. For example, the bargain-basement Gigabyte motherboard does not have onboard video and features only one PCI 2.0 slot.

Because I was looking to maximize value without sacrificing future upgrades or performance, I chose a motherboard that includes the latest chipset, offers plenty of expansion options, supports overclocking, and features onboard video as well as integrated sound. My choice: the $150 Asus M4A78T-E system board.

The M4A78T-E offers a plethora of connectivity options and onboard ports that should please even the most fickle of system builders. The board sports HDMI, DVI, VGA, USB, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet and a slew of other connectors.

In my experience, Asus has always offered high-quality products, with top-notch instructions and support. And system builders will appreciate Asus's specialized features that help to speed assembly, such as the Q-Connector kit, which simplifies the process of plugging in the various case LEDs and switches.

Graphics
When Windows Vista shipped, most experts advised PC buyers to get a discrete graphics card to handle its increased graphical demands. Thanks to motherboard manufacturers using more powerful integrated graphics processing units (GPUs) and better chipsets, however, the performance of onboard graphics has improved a great deal in the last year.

Today's onboard graphics paired with Windows 7 will offer a perfectly acceptable computing experience for most users, with enough oomph to watch HD videos and graphically intense presentations -- and you can save several hundred dollars by not buying a separate graphics card. If you decide to dive into the world of high-end gaming or video production later on, you can always add a graphics card to boost video performance.

RAM
RAM is the easiest component to choose here. I opted for a kit from Kingston Technology (model P/N KHX12800D3K2/4G) that comprises a pair of 2GB, 1600MHz DDR3 modules for a total of 4GB of RAM. This should prove enough to run the 64-bit version of Windows 7, as well as Virtual PC's XP compatibility mode, very efficiently. The Kingston kit goes for around $115.

CPU cooler
It's important to pick a CPU cooler that can control the heat generated by an overclocked processor. What's more, the cooler needs to have some intelligence about it to inform users of heat-related problems. That led me to a liquid cooling unit from CoolIT Systems. A liquid cooler is a good idea for those who want to experiment with overclocking; installation is pretty much the same as with a standard heatsink/fan.

Available for about $70, the CoolIT Domino A.L.C. is one of the lowest-priced prebuilt liquid coolers on the market. The cooler's LCD display shows CPU temperature and fan speeds and can be adjusted to reduce noise and power consumption.

Hard drive
Computer storage tends to be a lot like closet space -- you can never have enough. With that axiom in mind, it's important to select a hard-disk drive (HDD) that is large enough to meet all of your storage needs, yet is still reliable, offers great performance, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg. Although solid-state drives (SSDs) are all the rage these days, they are prohibitively expensive for building an economical system, and their advantages, such as low power use and small size, are often wasted on desktop systems.

Hard drives come in all shapes, sizes and interfaces. For most users, a traditional 3.5-in. hard drive using a SATA interface is the way to go. Prices per gigabyte have come down significantly of late, and hard drives of 500GB or more have become the norm.

After looking at the various hard drives on the market, it became obvious that it was pretty hard to beat Western Digital's WD Caviar Green series of hard drives. I chose model WD10EADS, which provides a terabyte of capacity for $120 or less. The unit offers a 3.0GB/s SATA interface and 32MB of cache, making it speedy enough for high-demand applications. The WD drive is also very quiet, uses very little power and doesn't generate a lot of heat -- all factors that help to create a reliable and quiet PC.

Optical drive
For most users, a generic internal DVD/CD burner would probably be adequate, but the goal of this project is to build a PC that can leverage Windows 7 to its fullest extent. That means it needs to be able to handle all of the common types of optical media -- CD/CD RW, DVD/DVD RW -- and take advantage of the CPU and motherboard's ability to process high-definition (HD) content, which translates to supporting Blu-ray media.

I chose an LG Super-Multi Blu-ray Rewriter (model GGC-H20L), which costs around $125. While that may be steep for an optical drive, the GGC-H20L can read Blu-ray discs as well as HD DVD discs. The drive also reads and writes to all of the popular DVD and CD formats, uses a SATA interface and features LiteScribe technology, which allows users to burn labels directly onto CDs.

Power supply
Choosing a power supply was a relatively straightforward task. Using common "green" guidelines to narrow down the field, I looked for a power supply unit that complies with the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive and features 80 PLUS certification for energy efficiency. I also wanted a unit that would generate very little noise and could provide enough power for the addition of components down the road.

I decided on a 750-watt Corsair TX750W, which goes for about $120. The TX750W proved to be very quiet and has integrated cable management, which makes routing power cables simple -- all of the cables are removable and system builders need only attach the required cables for a system.

Case
With all of the components selected, it was time to consider a case. There are dozens of case manufacturers and hundreds of cases to choose from. To thin the herd, I looked for a full-size case that met a few specific needs: it had to be attractive, it had to be easy to assemble and access, it had to have good airflow to keep components cool, and finally it had to reduce noise.

I selected the Antec Nine Hundred Two, which costs about $130. While there are cases that cost less than half the price, it's hard to beat the expansion options offered by the Antec case. The case has room for several hard drives and several optical drives, and it's very easy to disassemble to add new components.

The results
Assembling the system took about 35 minutes. After adding a keyboard, mouse and monitor, I installed the Release Candidate version of Windows 7, which took another 15 minutes or so.

(The Windows 7 RC is available to the general public, but you must download it before August 20. Subscribers to Microsoft's TechNet and Microsoft Developer Network sites can get their hands on the final Windows 7 RTM code starting today.)

Windows 7 did an excellent job of identifying the components and installing the appropriate drivers from its installation DVD or over the Web via Microsoft Update. Some components, such as the motherboard audio and video, did require installation of the manufacturer's specific drivers from the installation discs that came with the hardware. All told, getting all the drivers installed took about 10 minutes.

I tested the system using PerformanceTest 7.0 (64-bit) from PassMark Software. The system rated an overall PassMark score of 1151.3 and a CPUmark score of 4025.6 (CPUmark is a subset of the PassMark rating that focuses only on raw CPU performance). I was able to safely overclock the system to 3.8GHz, which increased the PassMark score to 1322.5 and our CPUmark score to 4951.4, a worthwhile increase.

For not much more than $1,000, I constructed a high-performance system with minimal compromises, while still using top-of-the-line components. The case also has room for additional components, such as a high-performance video card, more RAM and additional hard drives, and the power supply has enough oomph to support such extras if I want to add them later on.

As a comparison, I also tested a system built with an Intel Core i7 965 CPU, an Intel DX58So motherboard, an Asus EN9800GTX+ video card and other high-end components. That system offered an overall PassMark Rating of 1679, roughly a 22 percent performance increase over my AMD test system. That performance increase came with a high price tag, though: The Intel Core-i7 system cost about $3,000 to build.

Is a 22 percent performance increase worth an extra $2,000? For the majority of users, the answer is no.

For those wanting to keep costs down even further, choosing some lower-level components than I did could easily shave $300 or more off of the total price. The areas to target for savings without sacrificing performance include the case, power supply, optical drive, hard drive and CPU cooler.

Next: Choosing the perfect notebook for Windows 7

Frank J. Ohlhorst is a technology professional specializing in products and services analysis. He writes for several technology publications.

This story, "How to build an inexpensive, high-performance PC for Windows 7" was originally published by Computerworld.

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