Building a Back to Uni/School Budget Computer for the First Time

Building a computer from scratch has long an ambition of mine but I was apprehensive due to my lack of knowledge when it comes to computer hardware. Instead, I have often ended up buying a laptop, but these become outdated quickly and were no longer suitable for my data science needs. This is the best part about building a computer yourself; you are the one who to decides exactly what the computer is built for!

This post outlines the process I went through deciding what components to use, how they are put together and what you can do to cut costs whilst still ensuring everything works. In this build, many of the items were purchased for 50% — 70% of their recommended retail price, as shown in the table below, with no performance issues.

What do I need to get started?

Patience, and lots of it!

Of course, if cost is not so much of an issue for you then you can order many of the items directly and get them all within days. However, if you want the best deals it may take a little while of online bidding or clearance sales but perseverance often pays off in what you can find. To give a general idea, my build took between 3 to 4 weeks from start to finish and this includes some delays in postage.Y

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Do your research!

There are many components available but not all are compatible or optimal. This can be overwhelming at first as there are hundreds if not thousands of PC components and it can be easy to get lost. However, there are some amazing resources to help and discuss these in more detail in the next section.

Have a plan and stick to it!

When searching for components it is helpful to know exactly what build you are going for rather than just being drawn in by what is available.

And that’s it!

Aside from a few tools and some handy work you’ll be ready to build your own. Some builds can be a little tricky but, and this was certainly not normal for me to use, the component manuals will be your best guides.

Where do I look for help with my build?

PC Part Picker is extremely useful for finding compatible parts and would recommend reading the reviews in detail to understand the benefits and flaws of each component:Pick parts. Build your PC. Compare and share. — PCPartPicker United Kingdom
Building your own PC and need ideas on where to get started? Explore our build guides, which cover systems for all…uk.pcpartpicker.com

There are plenty of written guides out there and the instructions included with many components often help with the building aspect but I found YouTube to be an amazing resource with many creators offering detailed advice on building computers and will list some of my favourites:

OzTalksHW

Oz provides a great source for budget builds of all specs and, if you are willing to risk it, demonstrates the cheapest components available by importing directly from China.

RandomGamingHD

Another budget build creator who often tests the performance of older components that are still available and functional and even saves old graphics cards from being destroyed in his local dump.

KristoferYee

A YouTuber who interestingly started out as an amateur film maker found his niche showing PC builds, calling out sellers that overprice components on the used market and showing, with a bit of luck, the deals you can get buying second hand items.

These were the main channels I used but there are many more out there and you can often find videos specific to your build and even specific components.

What do I want my computer for?

This is entirely up to you but for my purposes I wanted something that fit the following criteria in order of importance:

  1. Powerful enough to run data science models
  2. As cheap as possible
  3. Quiet and low power consumption so that it can be left running overnight
  4. Subtle aesthetics and transported reasonably easily
  5. Upgradeable in the future

Your own needs will be different, but I wanted something that can be left to run some of my machine learning models overnight but am not able to spend a fortune doing so. Therefore, both the cost of the items and the electricity bill for running the machine were considered in the build.

Power consumption is something that you may not have even thought about but, when you consider many home bitcoin mining hobbyists are being put off due to the cost of running their machines being more than the about they are mine, it may be worth thinking about if you are footing the bill.

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Once you have decided what is important to your build then you can start to consider which components are best. To fit my criteria, I decided to go for the smallest build possible that would be powerful enough for the time being and would be easy to upgrade later if needed that is also cost effective.

What components are required?

Building a computer these days is remarkably simple, contrary to what you may think, and is often compared to piecing Lego pieces together. I was surprised how much simpler the process what and even with no experience was able to get it all to work.

To create a full computer, you will need the following parts:

– Processor (known as CPU) and cooler

– Graphics Card (known as GPU)

– Motherboard

– Memory (known as RAM)

– Storage (known as hard drive)

– Case

– Power Supply (known as PSU)

Which components should I buy?

Processor and Graphics Card

My build revolved around AMD’s new Ryzen processors. Not only are these a great budget alternative to Intel’s range but they have also released two processors that also have integrated graphics; the Ryzen 3 2200g and the Ryzen 5 2400g. This means that they can run games and match performance of mid-range graphics cards without needed a graphics card at all!

Therefore, I was able to exclude needing a separate graphic card entirely from the build reducing cost by at least £150. Of course, this will never meet the full performance of a separate processor and a high-end graphics card combo but is a great budget solution if reaching the maximum graphics performance isn’t a priority and will be more than enough for some games.

Case and Power Supply

With both the CPU and GPU covered, I then considered the aesthetics I wanted from the build. I decided that a small and attractive case was important and focused on the Fractal Node 202 as the perfect solution. Not only is this case small (approximately the size of a PS4 or Xbox One) but also comes with a built-in power supply unit. However, in selecting this case I needed to consider some important challenges:

– Will the provided power supply be good enough in terms of power output, efficiency and safety?

– Will this cause compatibility issues with my other components?

First, the case’s power supply provides 450W of power and because we do not have a separate graphics card this is more than enough to supply the components. You can check your build with this calculator and my build was calculated to approximately 200W and closer to 400W with a graphics card. The power supply is also bronze certified which basically ensures that it’s efficiency to supplying energy to the computer is reasonably good and not wasted as heat which is good for energy costs. This also provides some safety assurances, there are some cheaper cases that also include power supplies available but without certification it is a risk that could damage your pc and home electrics.

Motherboard

With these decided, I then had to find a compatible motherboard. This was the trickiest part and was the only main component I ended up buying at full price due to the limited options. Because of the case size I was forced into needing the smallest style motherboard available, known as mini ITX. Furthermore, because AMD’s processors that functions as a CPU and GPU are new only a certain range of the newest motherboards work out of the box. Therefore, I decided to purchase MSI’s new B450I Mini ITX motherboard with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B07FNMLCTC/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o01_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1


This purchase felt like a huge risk as there were no reviews for the product at the date of making this but I was able to find a few early testing YouTube videos that confirmed it should be compatible with the processor and so I decided it was worth taking the risk as it was close to £100 cheaper than any alternatives.

Internal Storage

With this motherboard I was then required to purchase a specific type of storage style known as M.2 often used in laptops. I would highly recommend using an SSD storage device for the main system and a good summary can be found herebut in short SSDs run much faster. You can always add on large HDD drives if you need more storage but using an SSD as your main device will improve boot time and even file load times in windows. I was able to purchase a 250GB Samsung 960 evo SSD on eBay which is more than large enough space for the operating system and basic usage.

Memory

I then had to purchase some memory (or RAM) and again needed to check compatibility. Understanding RAM can be a little tricky but will do my best to summarise my findings.

RAM has three measures of quality, the first is a category of DDR2, DDR3 and DDR4 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DDR_SDRAM) and to work with my motherboard I required the DDR4 type.

The second measure is the memory speed denoted by the MHz amount and because we are using AMD’s Ryzen 5 2400g processor it is advised to use two sticks of at least 3000MHz for ideal performance.

Lastly, I needed to decide the amount of memory needed between 8GB, 16GB or 32GB. As ram is currently expensive, I decided 8GB should be enough for my use and it can be upgraded easily later if needed.

Cooling

Lastly, you will need to consider how to ensure all the components remain cool and do not overheat. Because this build doesn’t include a graphics card it makes thing a little simpler but processor cooling is incredibly important. AMD’s Ryzen 5 2400g comes with a stock fan included which is great for budget builds but because my case is so thin this was unlikely to fit. Therefore I decided to purchase a thinner fan unit that includes thermal paste and will be more than enough to keep my components at a good temperature.

The picture below shows all the components before assembly:

It can be hard to suggest which items you will want to purchase as you will need to carefully consider what your requirements are and therefore which components you will need. However, I hope this provides some insight into the process I went through in my build so it may help yours.

My advice is to decide on one or two of the components you need to have, such as the fastest processor, best graphics or attractive case, and then use this is your starting point to find the other compatible components. As mentioned before, PC Part Picker does an amazing job at advising which components will work well with your build and reviews offer even more advice.

How can I save money?

I was able to purchase many of my components for 50%-70% of the retail prices by bidding on eBay and clearance sales. This took longer than simply purchasing new but with a bit of patience and smart selection you can get most if not all the components required at a lower cost than their retail price.

I purchased the case, SSD M.2 hard drive and RAM on eBay and the AMD Ryzen processor from CeX (a UK retail store). Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, the motherboard had to be bought at full price due to how new the product is.

The final prices are summarised below:

In total, my build cost approximately £470 and I saved between £200 to £250 on the components by buying carefully. Furthermore, not only was I able to get an amazing deal through some luck online on the AMD processor, but I saved at least an extra £250 (Nvidia RTX 1060 6GB) by not needing a graphics card in the build in the first place.

The processor purchase was a risk as the item had little to no info in the description online and thought it may have been a mistake. However, the processor arrived and works perfectly though it came without any packaging or the stock cooler fan but that is not an issue for my build seeing as the stock fan wouldn’t have fit into the case anyway.

The cost could have been reduced further if I had decided not to fit it into such a small case but it is still far cheaper than any laptop alternatives, pre-built configurations of similar performance or even a new phone and was amazed at the deals I was able to find.

How do I put the components together?

Now you have all the parts, you will need to piece it all together and will often be in a certain order so they fit correctly. The alignment depends on the products you have bought and the type of build, but it is likely the motherboard and case should come with a good description of the process. Otherwise, I found videos online for the case I was working on to ensure my process was correct.

For my build, the process was the following:

1. Install the CPU into the motherboard,

2. Apply thermal paste, attach the CPU fan and plug into motherboard

3. Install M.2 SSD

4. Install RAM

5. Place motherboard (with port guide) inside case

6. Attach power supply cables to designated motherboard sockets

Aside from some tricky alignment problems I found the last step to be the hardest. Most of the cable matchings were obvious but it took me a while to figure out where to connect the cables from the case’s front power switch but was able to find the solution online easily and using the motherboard manual. Also, please make sure to take care when connecting the power supply and working with electrics, the last think you want is to give yourself a shock accidently!

Which operating system should I install?

For usability, I ended up install windows 10 which can be expensive but was able to find a cheap activation key on eBay. To install for the first time I followed the following guide to run window’s instillation from a USB stick:

http://www.tomsguide.com/faq/id-3694993/create-bootable-usb-installer-windows.html

If you are really pushed for budget, then Linux is a great alternative that is completely free and has some amazing interfaces these days. If you feel up for a challenge you could even install a Mac IOS onto the computer to create a ‘Hackintosh’ but was not something I was interested in.

Final thoughts

I had a lot fun both building the computer and bidding for the components online. It took some time but was worth the patience and would highly recommend doing this for anyone interested in upgrading their hardware and hope you find this useful for your own build ideas.

As with any online bidding, be patient and careful when looking for good deals to ensure you aren’t buying poorly describe products that do not work. Furthermore, make sure you do your research on which components are compatible and keep a clear aim in your mind for the type of build you’d like.

Lastly, you may want to consider the market prices. For example, I chose to avoid using a graphics card as prices are at an all time high and Nvidia’s most recent range will be releasing soon so it is likely the prices for older products will fall. If I was patient I could have waited for the motherboard price to fall and saved myself even more but that is a trade-off you will have to decide for your own builds.

Thanks

Phil

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