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Gear Reviews

How I Built My Custom Photo/Video Editing PC for Under $800

By Anthony Thurston on May 10th 2014

We talk about new gear all the time here on SLR Lounge, but one side of being a photographer that we don’t talk about too often is the computing side of things. Having a good computer for editing and processing your images or video is an essential piece of any photographer’s kit.

One of the problems with buying stock computers, like sort you will find at Best Buy, is that the vast majority of these are built for general home use. While in many cases these will work OK for photo or video work, if you really want to have an optimal editing experience, these sorts of systems usually won’t cut it. You can go with higher end stock builds designed for more advanced use like photo or video editing, but these can get rather expensive. The best option if you want to get the most bang for your buck is building your own custom PC.

[REWIND: MAC VS. PC – THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S PERSPECTIVE]

custompc-00007

I know some of you are thinking you don’t know enough about computers to build your own, but I assure you, if you can use a screwdriver, and insert a DVD or USB drive, then you can build your own PC. I recently built my own custom system for my photo and video editing, and here is how I did it.

How I Built My Custom Photo/Video Editing PC For Under $800

I should preface this by saying that I have never built a fully custom PC before. I have taken stock systems and added RAM, Power Supplies, Graphics Cards, etc, but until this week, I had never built a full system from the ground up. I wanted to share my experience, why I chose what I did, and talk a little about the build.

custompc-00011

What I Needed This PC For

I do a lot of photo and video editing. My old dual core MacBook Pro from 2011 (my primary system until this week) did well enough for my photo editing needs, but when it came to the video, it just didn’t cut it. My MacBook Pro had been upgraded to a 256GB SSD, and 16GB of ram, but still it would take 40+ minutes to render 5-10 minute videos. Way longer than was acceptable for my needs.

I needed a system that could scream on both the photo editing side, as well as the video editing side. I looked around at PC kits, stock computers, and high end systems, but found that on the budget that I had, my best option was to build my own machine. So, I sold the Macbook and with the money I got for it, I was able to purchase all of the parts I needed to complete my custom PC build.

custompc-00004

The Guts: What Is Inside My New System

Being as I was looking to get the most bang for my buck, I opted to go for an AMD based system. Yes, I know that Intel CPUs out perform the AMD chips, but they are also more expensive. So being as total price was a key factor for me, I decided that I could live with the AMD system.

AMD-Processor

For my processor I decided on a 3.5Ghz 8 core AMD FX-8320 Black Edition. I was able to get the Processor for $150, and it was a big step up from the dual core 2.7Ghz i7 that had been in my MacBook Pro.

ASUS-Motherboard

For the Motherboard, I went with a company that I am a huge fan of, Asus. After looking at several of their motherboards I settled on the ASUS M5A99FX PRO R2.0 for $135. I decided on this motherboard because it offered 4 RAM Dimm slots for a max of 32GB of RAM, SATA 3, USB 3, and plenty of PCI expansion slots for upgrading the system.

Corsair_RAM

As you probably know, RAM is very important for both Photo and Video editing, so I didn’t skimp out on RAM either. I decided to go with 16GB (x2 8GB sticks) of Corsair Vengeance Pro DDR3 Ram at 1866Mhz. Though I full plan on upgrading to 32GB in the future, 16GB was enough to get the system off the ground and would be plenty for 99% of my computer use.

radeon-gfx

Probably the one area where I truly skimped on this build was with the graphics card. I do some gaming, but not a ton lately, and so my graphics card was not a top priority. So, basically for a basic GPU that will handle most the games that I like and still be able to help out with some video stuff I went with the Sapphire Radeon R7 240 2GB DDR3. A decent mid-low end card with plenty of juice for what I needed. I fully plan on upgrading to a pair of higher end cards later on as my motherboard supports both Nvidia SLI and AMD Crossfire.

Rosewill-Case

Now, a custom PC needs a case to hold everything, so I decided to go for a simple, yet functional Rosewill case. The case that I decided on was the Rosewill Challenger U-3 Black, a case with great airflow and plenty of room to hold everything that I had purchased for the machine. I was particularly happy that it had USB 3 on the front panel, as well as Esata for connecting my external hard drives.

corsair-cx500 A custom PC also needs something to power it all. For my needs I decided to go with the Corsair CX500, a solid power supply, by all accounts, that would easily provide enough juice for my system plus plenty of overhead for when I decide to upgrade it further.

tplink-wireless

And finally, the last component for this build was a TP-LINK TL-WDN4800 Dual Band Wireless Card. I hate having to run wires around the house, so having a good wireless card built into the system was important for me.

Now, you may be thinking that I am missing two major components for this build, a hard drive and an OS. Well, I already had 2 1TB 7200RPM HDDs and the 256GB that I took out of the Macbook before I sold it. So I didn’t need to spend any money on storage. As for the OS, I also happen to already own a copy of Windows 8 Pro, so no need to buy that either.

My total damage after everything was purchased was just about $720, and that was with expensive next day shipping.

How It Is Working

custompc-00012

I have had the machine up and running for a few days now and I have not run into a single issue. My Lightroom is running better than it was on my Macbook and more importantly, my video rendering has improved greatly as well. The clip below took me just under 30 minutes to render on my MacBook Pro. That same exact clip (rendered with the exact same settings) with my new system rendered in under 10 minutes. A very welcome improvement.

Final Thoughts

custompc-00013

Is this a top of the line system? No, not even close. But it is still a very capable system, that is still really upgradeable in the future. I am very happy with the performance improvements over that from my MacBook Pro and in the end, it really didn’t cost me anything because I was able to cover all of the costs with the money earned from selling the MacBook Pro.  I still have a couple hundred left over for more upgrades if I want.

As you can see it is really quite easy to build yourself a system based on your own needs. If I was able to do it, you can do it, too.

What are your thoughts on this build? What improvements/upgrades would you make to this system? Would you like more content like this on the site?

Anthony Thurston is a photographer based in the Salem, Oregon area specializing in Boudoir. He recently started a new project, Fiercely Boudoir to help support the growing boudoir community. Find him over on Instagram. You may also connect with him via Email.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Robert Duncan

    Hi, I do cover band videos and photography by practice and I am learning as I go finding what I need on the internet. I have been researching products in my waking time but something keeps bringing me back to your original 800 dollar build. I have a Panasonic DVX100A that I have done perhaps 15 concerts with it even once taking it to a Wedding.
    I enjoy the colors of the panasonic and I want to upgrade to a sensible larger pixel (4K) camera like a Pansonic HC-VX981 because of it’s low price and 4K value. Will this 800 dollar build be enough of to handle the 4K files that in my case will be close to 100 gb for my raw footage of 3hrs from one of these events,?
    Also will this be ready for Windows 10?

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  2. manoj verma

    Hi Anthony,

    Since i need to buy new desktop for graphics and video editing work, i have been looking for best desktop configuration post on internet. Your post seems to be the best and under my budget so far. I just noticed its little old post so i just want to know if its still ok to buy same configuration or there is anything i should update while buying this configuration.

    I would really appreciate your help on this big time. I hope to hear on this from you soon :)

    Thanks,
    Manoj

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  3. Bernard Badion

    Updates? Have you changed out any parts? Would you still recommend this specific build for video editing? Thanks and I enjoyed your writeup!

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  4. Kurk Rouse

    Saw this guy build a beast of a system hope you guys don’t mind me posting the link below

    http://erikjohanssonphoto.com/blog/building-photoshop-computer/

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  5. Joey Sephora

    I went down the same road a few years back. I am now back to an iMac 27 inch and I’m much happier. One of the main reasons was that I got sick of all the clutter and black cable spaghetti on top of and behind my desk. Seeing the photo of your desk there reminded of my old system. I definitely don’t miss that clutter. Although I have to say I really did enjoy building the system. Sourcing each component and piecing it all together, that’s the fun part.

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  6. Alben

    Do you do video stuff for the Portland Thorns? Or the Portland Timbers? That’s pretty awesome!!

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  7. Carl Albury

    One thing I noticed absent in your build…that was a video capture car or device. I have a very popular video capture program that comes with a USB capture device and have had zero luck getting it to work with Windows 8.1 PRO on an AMD Quad CPU and 32 GB RAM. Even let a tech try over the net and she could not fix it. I have no problem with still camera uploads via USB but video uploads from my VHS player or other analog sources has been a pain. So, again the question, what are you using to capture video?

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  8. Patricia Knight

    I’ve been building my own rigs for about 11 years now. Glad to see that other photogs do it as well. One thing to add in regards to CPU and Motherboards is that you need to make sure they are compatible with each other before purchasing. Motherboards are designed to fit specific CPU’s.

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  9. carl valle

    Kind of a dumb article really, you claim to have spent $720 and then go on to mention that you are moving from mac to win8, so not only do you need $150 for a new OS, you also need new software. and then you need more ram and new video cards, and you need a monitor – so you really spent a hell of a lot more than what you state. Not only that, you don’t have any hard drive space, and no backup space either so add that in…

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  10. Jamie Craven

    This is a great article, would like to see more things like this in the future and its given me the push I need to think about getting a PC based system as recently I took my macbook pro into an Apple store and they told me the motherboard is failing, so I’m not paying £500 for a replacement.

    Going back to PC’s and this article has been inspiration for me to build one due to the fact I couldn’t find anything in the shops at the right price that convinced me it was capable of doing the job I wanted it to do…

    Would be nice to see a higher end spec system in another follow up article as well

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  11. Paul Tucker

    Anthony –

    I use Premiere as well and I was curious how an AMD graphics card performs in Premiere. From what Adobe says, they only support nVidia graphic cards in CS 6 (not CC) that have CUDA cores – granted, there’s a “fix” you can use to add non-supported nVidia cards to the supported list, but even still they do need to have CUDA cores and meet the minimum specs.

    Does Premiere utilize your AMD GPU for accelerated graphics in editing with the live preview, or are some effects only appearing post-render? Or perhaps I should ask if you’re using CS 6 or CC first.

    CC Specs: http://www.adobe.com/products/premiere/tech-specs.html
    CS 6 Specs: http://helpx.adobe.com/x-productkb/policy-pricing/system-requirements-premiere-pro.html#main_Adobe_Premiere_Pro_CS6_system_requirements

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    • Anthony Thurston

      Hello, Paul. So you got me wondering and so I loaded up Premiere to check and see, and sure enough I am using the Mercury Playback Engine with GPU acceleration (OpenCL). So I guess Premiere is using my card afterall. To your question regarding performance. Premiere works great, very snappy, renders video much quicker that I could on my Macbook Pro.

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  12. shamb

    One thing worth noting is that laptop CPUs are almost always under-clocked in comparison to the same desktop equivalent: just moving from a laptop i7 to a desktop i7 will give you an easy 30% boost once you factor in default mobile speed vs a desktop…. and the desktop is both cheaper and very overclockable/upgradable (whilst the laptop is neither). I get over 60% performance between my Desktop i7 vs my laptop i7 (Alienware Aurora desktop vs Sony Vaio laptop, so both of them are best in class).

    If you don’t want to self build, pick up trailing edge gaming hardware from the ‘bay. I got my Alienware desktop for less than the price of the individual components, so it would have actually cost more to self build (and yeah, it looks cooler in the office too!).

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  13. Daniil

    Depending on software you’re using for your video rendering, you shouldn’t skim on video card. A proper card is not just for gaming. Check with the software to see which cards they support for hardware accelerated rendering. The motherboard chosen seems to be excellent, but for any buyer out there, please please please get the one with fastest FSB (front side bus). That number determines the speed of data transfer between all components in your computer (aka CPU and memory). Most low-end to average desktops sold by dell and in stores usually have really slow FSB resulting in pretty slow computers. CPU power is useless if you can’t deliver data to it fast enough.

    Disclaimer – I’m a software engineer with photography hobby and have put together quite a few computers.

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  14. Christian Roblin

    I just do NOT understand people who want to edit video and purchase anything other then a Nvidia card. Of course, if you live on the moon and still use FCP 10, I guess it would not matter… but seeing that the majority of people here use Adobe products to begin with, WHY (in gods green earth) would you purchase a card that is NOT accelerated in Adobe’s pervasive media encoder environment?

    I just don’t get it.

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    • Joey Duncan

      It’s because most people aren’t computer people and don’t understand the difference. They listen to other people like them they don’t fully do their research because they don’t know what they are looking for. They know photography or video, not tech.

      In my job I see it everyday people buying $30K+ GPU systems and call in for help on how to do the simplest things. It’s the way the real world works.

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    • Anthony Thurston

      This card was just a starter. I plan on upgrading to a couple of higher end Nvidia cards and running SLI, just didn’t have the budget for that right now.

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  15. Tommy

    I often find it amusing when photographers spend so much time learning about photography and they have zero interest in learning about the computers they use.

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  16. Gavin Hardcastle

    You sold your slow Macbook, built a screaming PC and still had change left for more toys. Music to my ears Anthony, music to my ears. Very helpful post that I will refer to when my PC starts feeling slow.

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  17. Rick

    You really should put more weight on the graphics card. Don’t assume they’re only for gaming. e.g. on my 2012 12-core Mac Pro, I have a total of 32 OpenCL “compute units”. That’s one compute unit per core and the ATI Radeon HD 5870 has 20. Combined, this gives me around 600 Gflops of computing power. Applications such as Photoshop can leverage OpenCL which gives a serious boost.

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  18. Thomas

    Why are your monitors stacked vertically? I have multiple monitors but never considered putting them above each other. How do you use them like that? Is it better than having them side by side?

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    • Anthony Thurston

      I like them vertical. Plus, my desk is rather small and with the large computer case on the desk like it is there isn’t really room for them to be side by side.

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  19. Ustas

    On my computer performance test in WinRAR 5.0 is 8325
    Intel i7 4770
    Asus B85M-E
    8Gb
    SSD 120Gb
    HDD 3x2Gb
    How much you got?

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  20. Yasar

    Many thank s for writing the article in teh right time, IThis would have been a complete article, if you would have mentioned which would be the best and ecomoic harddrive. Please let me know which opperating system would be best for this configuration. (os in which hard disk and Back up in which hard disc)

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  21. Waqas Zafar

    Great article on OEM system building.

    As being a MAC user, how would you respond to the claims that MAC is industry standard and Windows platform is unreliable and way slower than MACs. Is it myth or is it really true?

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    • Anthony Thurston

      I think that is garbage. Both OS’s are quick when paired with the right hardware. Where windows runs into problems is that anyone with any system and throw it on there, think about all the different hardware configurations that it has to try and be compatible with. OSX on the otherhand doesn’t have the problem, it is compatible with specific hardware with only a few variations thanks to Apple’s mostly closed system.

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    • Waqas Zafar

      I have never used a MAC platform and always have been a Windows user. I have recently upgraded my system from “AMD Athlon X2, 8gb DDR3 ram, Sata drives and 512mb Nvidia Geforce 7300” to “Intel Core i7 4th gen, 32gb DDR3, Sata drives and 1 Gb Nvidia Geforce 210” and was expecting much better performance but I was disappointed. This was my first Intel based platform but it didn’t do for me. I think Intel CPUs are way over rated….

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    • Yann

      Discussing which best is between MAC OS and Windows (or any release of linux or unix or whatever), is like discussing which best is between Nikon and Canon (or Sony, Fuji, Pentax, Leica or whatever). The most important is that you get the best out of your gear and that you really enjoy it but it never ever will make you a better photographer.

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    • Matthias

      I dont use Mac a lot myself but I’m familiar with BSD and I’m earning my money as an IT admin. In our company one mac makes as mouth trouble as about for lenovos combined and our dell video cutting notebook is way faster than any of those MacBooks. But I guess if you have no it staff to your disposal it’s easier with the mac. Im

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    • Lior

      There used to be a difference maybe 10 years ago but now it’s all the same. MAC’s use intel CPU’s just like the PC’s only you end up paying more for the same harware. I’ve worked on both MAC’s and PC’s as a graphic artist for years and prefer PC’s because of how easy and affordable it is to upgrade my system and keep it viable for years without having to run out and buy a new expensive system every two years, and with Win 7 there really isn’t much of an advantage to OS X. Also, the PC hardware and software markets offer much greater variety and competitive pricing something lacking in the MAC world.

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  22. Adrian S

    I did consider AMD far inferior to Intel but it looks like they are not far behind. Also Asus gave me a lot of headake, I was a fan but not any more. I have crashed Asus laptop, Asus video that blue screens, and a gaming motherboard (about $400 at it’s peak) that is not working to specs. For me it’s just a dark cloud. And this is exactly what’s the problem with custom builds. If you’r not an expert your system might simply crash because the RAM you picked causes errors on motherbord.

    On the other hand Apple did test the compatibility of all components used in their system, and you had a very stable system. Since they rushed the switch to Intel CPUs, I feel this is no longer true. But they do use the best components they have, so don’t sell your MacBook yet. If you have one.

    You can always upgrade your desktop, just pick the best CPU and MB for your needs. Also you might want to consider Raid 1+0 for video production.

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    • Stan Rogers

      There are *significant* differences between AMD and Intel CPUs, but whether or not they’ll be apparent to you depends on the software you’re running and the environment you’re running it in. It happens to be the case that a mains-powered desktop machine used for photo and video editing is pretty much architecture-agnostic once you get beyond the x86/AMD-64 instruction set part of the picture. That is, it doesn’t much matter *how* you get the speed or how much power it takes to get it, and the real limiting factors are I/O and memory. Other tasks (things that can or cannot be trivially parallelized or that either rely upon or abhor long pipelines and/or deep caches) and other environments (small form factor or battery-powered machines, for instance) are a little more sensitive to the differences between processors. Apple didn’t “rush” to Intel (though there was some urgency to ditch PowerPC); they made the best overall choice for a much wider number of use cases than yours, and heat management and battery life in their portables was a big part of that choice.

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  23. Maarten

    Cool! I went for the same CPU, it’s a beast out of the box compared and can easily be overclocked way further if you prefer and it’s not so expensive either. Yet I went for a slightly cheaper mainboard the M5A97 R2.0 which suites my needs perfectly. A Intel 510 SSD for programs and OS, 2x Seagate Constellation ES 500GB HDD’s, one for simple storage (music, VM’s etc.) and one pure and only for cache/scratchdisk. Using your HDD’s that way makes quite a difference in resource-heavy applications for me. Photo’s are all on a 4-bay self-built NAS (< € 300 without disks I believe?) running linux and RAID5.

    I remember back when I was building my PC that I was looking for a simple but good graphics card that wasn't too expensive, since I don't game often and only use it to accelerate Photoshop and other CUDA/OpenCL applications. Instead of picking the cheapest card (which would do fine) I went for a Quadro K600, the entry level Quadro card with Kepler GPU. Still a rather low-budget card despite it being a Quadro card but I went for it mainly because it's energy efficient, small (can fit in low-profile slot if you'd like) and can display 12-bit over DisplayPort! Together with my Dell U2410 screen connected to the DisplayPort I get a nice 10-bit view, goodbye banding in grays and colours!

    Thanks for sharing though!

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  24. Max

    I was in a similar position some time ago and eventually chose to go with a company called chillblast to build mine for me. There’s a great site called pc part picker which is like a comparison site for computer components. Having used that site to find where was cheapest to get the parts it actually turned out cheaper to have those guys build it for me, and I got a warranty. I don’t know what their prices are like now but just thought I’d point out that you can still get a custom pc built for cheap by others, sometimes cheaper as in my case.

    I’m not sure if pc part picker works in the US but I imagine there is an equivalent.

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  25. Frank

    Building a PC is like lego for adults. It is very easy as long as you follow the instructions. Most pc cases and mobos already have the grooves and icons indicating what piece goes where.

    There are great channels on youtube with hours of content on educating/informing on building custom pc’s like tigerdirect, newegg, and ncix. Above all, you can start on reddit/r/buildapc thread.
    A custom pc tuned for photo/video does wonders for your workflow.

    The other benefit is running dual OS, so you can reap the benefits of windows and macs.

    Happy building

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  26. Darryl

    Anthony,

    I develop websites and support small businesses with IT in my business, and often crossover between technical and creative. When I built my most recent workstation I bought exactly the same CPU as you, because my research showed that the 8 core AMD loses out to the Intel for gaming, but is actually faster when it comes to rendering, which is more important to photographers.

    I have yet to put it to a real test as the web pages I have been developing since building it have not had video in them, but I have been running Lightroom, Dreamweaver, Acrobat Pro, 3 browsers and several other miscellaneous programs, including sometimes Photoshop; and Lightroom has responded instantly, even when batching multiples images for a web page.

    I agree with you that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a high capacity system.

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  27. Howard

    I actually have been building my own PCs before I got into photography but I’ve always wanted a Mac because I don’t know of any video-editing programs that look as intuitive as Final Cut. Do you have any recommendations on PC software? I know there’s Adobe Premiere, but I took one look at it and just got scared away. Maybe I need to man up and actually dive right in?

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  28. LPMurph

    It’s actually not that hard. If you are even slightly technically inclined. Look, buying something ready to go is awesome for most people. If you are somebody who is on a budget, then you should really look at building your own rig. Nobody needs a MacBook Pro, if you want one and have one awesome. I prefer my PC that I’ve built for myself. It runs amazingly, I can maintain it myself, and when I need to upgrade, I upgrade parts instead of the entire unit.

    Like all things, it’s not for everybody. BUT it is for many more people than actually do it.

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  29. Hanssie

    Um…yeah. That still sounds really difficult. Thinking I will just have to keep my Macbook Pro for a while longer haha

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  30. Terry Sweeney

    Wow that sounds easy, but what’s the catch? How do you hook all the components to the right stuff? And a DVD writer or is it a external ? What about getting high res image on the monitor? What kind of monitor?
    Did you follow a utube?
    Thanks

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    • EJ

      everything is easily connected, just like lego pieces.
      everything is literally plug and play these days.

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    • Andrew Nease

      If you can build a simple lego set, you can build a computer. There are very comprehensive guides online to building one. Probably my favorite is Newegg TV’s guides. I was super daunted by the process the first time I built a computer, but once you do it the first time and realize just how plug and play everything is, you start to realize how beneficial easy upgreadeability is, and how amazing a power to price ratio you can get by doing it yourself.

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    • Darryl

      Building a computer is both easy and hard. The actual assembly is no harder than a kego kit these days as nearly everything can only fit in one place. The flip side is getting a set of components that all work together and work well together is not always that easy.

      I built a high end i7 system for a client a couple of months back (video rendering) and the physical build took about 4 hours where normally it is less than 1. The design process to work out what components to use took nearly a week. Normally I work off proven combinations with slight variations and the design process takes about 10-15 minutes after the client has decided what sort of system they want.

      The other major gotcha is electrostatic damage. I very rarely go inside a PC without an electrostatic strap and the PC earthed. It is possible to damage components from handling them, but the damage to not be evident until the PC has been running for a while.

      So the actual assembly is easy, but there are other things to worry about.

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