Building a PC is simple.
Figuring out what you want to build is harder.
I’ve written dozens of articles about building PCs. In many, I’ve included comforting aphorisms such as “set a budget and stick to it”. The most common one, though, is “understand your needs”.
What does “understand your needs” really mean, though?
Consider the idea of a PC for a moment: a general purpose computing device, suitable for a large array of compute tasks. These range from simple, including web browsing and word processing, to the complex, such as video editing, compiling code, and running PC games. Most users expect their personal computers to run a variety of tasks. The home office user may occasionally edit home videos while their kids may fire up an MMO. We expect a lot out of our PCs.
So when planning your PC build, think about what you actually do. Most people tend to focus on the primary use: “I’m a gamer” or “I just want to browse the web”, not realizing they’ll be using their PC for a multitude of tasks.
Instead of simply thinking about the main usage model, create a list of all the ways your new PC may be used. Then identify the top three usage cases. For example, a home office user might have a list that looks like this:
- Strategy games
- Photo editing
- Web surfing
Email simply requires a good internet connection, and the most modest PC can handle that chore. Creating complex models using a spreadsheet, requires decent compute power and a healthy pool of memory. Our mythical user also plays strategy games, so will want reasonable graphics power, but probably doesn’t need a bleeding edge graphics card.
One aspect often overlooked is connectivity and I/O. One user may need to attach a dozen USB devices, while another needs dual LAN ports, while a third user attaches external RAID arrays via Thunderbolt. Or maybe your have four DisplayPort monitors, so your graphics card needs to handle four simultaneous DisplayPort connections.
The priority order might be different. For example, if photo editing is number one or two, storage becomes a priority, with a good CPU a slose second — those raw images take up a lot of room, and some photo editing tasks launch a lot of threads. If high end, AAA gaming lies at the top of the list, the GPU becomes the key component.
Setting up a list like this informs your budget as well. While you may have an overall budget, how to split that up between different components is often challenging if you don’t have a good idea about the best bang for your buck. My general rule of thumb gives about a quarter of my budget to the most important component, then split the rest as needed.
What about reviews?
Reading reviews can often be daunting because so many good review sites exist, and each site offers a different spin on how they conduct reviews. Reading reviews often becomes a giant time sink, sometimes generating more confusion than clarity. No two reviewers tackle product testing and reviews in quite the same way, so it’s often challenging to compare a review of different products across multiple web sites.
More useful are recommended system builds. Tech Report, Maximum PC, and Tom’s Hardware all offer detailed writeups on recommended build configurations. Even if you don’t agree, or none of the build addresses your specific need, it may be worth picking a relatively good fit as a starting point, then changing a couple of key components.
So remember, when someone tells you to consider your needs before developing a budget or whipping out your credit card to buy components, don’t shrug off taking a little time to really understand your needs. The last thing you want is to build a system where one critical component doesn’t quite cut the mustard, and you end up paying even more to add the hardware you should have bought in the first place. Sometimes spending that little bit of extra cash up front minimizes the need for additional, future expenditures.