Ask TOOZE: getting a new desktop (posted 20 Jun 11)

Dear TOOZE,

I’ve SG$1500 to spend and I would like to get a desktop for games and Photoshop. What would you recommend?

———-

Note: all prices are in SG dollars, and obtained at the point of writing. Hence prices are subject to change over time and from vendor to vendor. This post might also get a little geeky, so bear with us as we work out the numbers for you! If it’s too much, then scroll down to our summary right below.

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D.I.Y. systems

DT: The age old question: which computer should I get? Well, there’s three options here: a D.I.Y. system, a pre-built machine and a Mac. I’d let XY talk a bit more about getting a D.I.Y. system first.

XY: Ah, going the D.I.Y. route eh? Nothing like having your own computer, built personally, 100% customizable, going as high (or as low) as you want. It probably entails more sweat carrying the parts from Sim Lim Square (SLS), maybe some blood from cutting your fingers on metal edges, but you get more bang for your buck!

Before we get to the guts, let’s talk about the monitor first. I’d recommend a good monitor, preferably one with an IPS panel, which can last you a long time out of that budget. For the benefit of the uninitiated, please refer to this article from CNET regarding purchase of monitors.

Let’s now get to the guts of the computer. $1500 will get you a very decent computer which allows you to run most games in 1920×1200, and in high details. Here’s a recommended build:

  • Monitor: Dell Ultrasharp U2311H – $279 inclusive of delivery
  • Motherboard + CPU: Asrock P67 Extreme 4 + Intel Core i5-2500k (3.3 GHz) – $560, the k denotes that you can overclock the CPU.
  • Graphics: MSI R6850 Cyclone 1GB – $255 or Sapphire HD6950 – $379
  • RAM: G-Skill Ripjaws-X (1600MHz) (CL7) 2x2GB – $118
  • Optical drive: Sony 24x DVD+RW – $30
  • HDD: Western Digital 1TB Black – $118
  • Power supply: OCZ ModXstream Pro 700W – $139
  • Casing: CoolerMaster 430 – $79
  • OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit – $112

Total: (excluding monitor): 6850 – $1411; 6950 – $1535 Total: (including monitor): 6850 – $1690; 6950 – $1814

DT: That sure was geeky. Anyhow, while XY and myself are quite poles apart in our preference of platform and others, we both agree on one thing, and that is about pre-built platforms being not worth your money, except in one case…

———-

Pre-built machines

XY: That’s true. Let’s consider Dell’s XPS 8300 and Studio XPS 9100, which are selling for $1299 and $1599 respectively. If we were to count the parts separately, and ignoring the case which we obviously cannot replicate outside, we are left with the following numbers:

XPS 8300 as D.I.Y.-ed: (note: since I can only guess the parts that go in, I’ll be taking the cheapest available options. Italics are the specified specs on the manufacturer’s website)

Dell XPS 8300

  • Monitor: None
  • Motherboard + CPU: Biostar H61-MH B3 + Intel Core i5-2310 (2.9 GHz) – $321
  • Graphics: HD6450 1GB – This part is not available in SG. US$49.99 = S$62
  • RAM: Kingston 1333MHz 2x2GB – $45
  • Optical drive: 16x DVD+RW – Again it is hard to find a 16x drive now. Sony 24x DVD+RW – $30
  • HDD: Hitachi 1TB – $67
  • Power supply: Generic PSU + Casing – $100 or so
  • Casing: see above
  • OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit – $112
  • Total: $737

Savings = $1299 – $737 = $562 or 43%!!!

Also note that Dell gives you a 1-year warranty whereas most D.I.Y. parts give you an average of 2-3 years of warranty.

Dell Studio XPS 9100

  • Monitor: None
  • Motherboard + CPU: MSI X-58A + Intel Core i5-950 (3.08 GHz) – $697
  • Graphics: Sapphire HD6670 1GB – S$149
  • RAM: Team Elite 1333MHz 3x2GB – $79
  • Optical drive: $30
  • HDD: Hitachi 1TB – $67
  • Power supply: Generic PSU + Casing – $100 or so
  • Casing: see above
  • OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit – $112
  • Total: $1234

In the same way, Studio XPS 9100 as D.I.Y.-ed will save us $365 or 23%. Also note that the XPS 9100 uses the Core i7-930 which is the Nehalem series (i.e. previous generation Intel chips vs the Sandy Bridge series shown in the 2 systems above).

The Core i7-930 (2.8 GHz) is not available in Sim Lim Square, and the nearest comparison would be the Core i7-950 (3.08 GHz) – there’s not many Nehalem chips left I’d presume since it’s older technology. The price differential online would be approx. US$20, bringing the total lower to $1197 or a 25% savings.

———-

Mac

DT: That is some savings. Anyway, here is where I come in to recommend a Mac.

XY: Isn’t that a pre-built machine? You’re shooting your own foot you know.

DT: Yeah I know, but there isn’t really a way to D.I.Y. your own Mac without some serious headache. Furthermore, owning to the nature of a Mac and the way it’s built, the price of a Mac isn’t really the sum of its parts as seen in the case of Dell computers.

XY: I’d hate to agree but there is some truth to it as Apple integrates the hardware a little differently from the others, often with customized firmware that optimizes the system better.

DT: So in this case I’d recommend the cheapest iMac sold on the online Apple Store. It’s going for $1648 and if you can get the education discount, it’s $1578. If we did the same comparison as before, and factoring in the 21.5″ IPS panel monitor, wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse as well as the OS, we’d save…

XY:

  • Monitor: Dell Ultrasharp U2311H – $279 (this is the cheapest IPS monitor but it’s bigger at 23″)
  • Motherboard + CPU: Biostar H61-MH B3 + Intel Core i5-2400 (2.5 GHz) – $330
  • Graphics: HD6750 512 MB Proxy with Sapphire HD6750 1GB – S$159
  • RAM: Kingston 1333MHz 2x2GB – $45
  • Optical drive: $30
  • HDD: Western Digital 500GB Blue – $49
  • Power supply: Generic PSU + Casing (built into monitor, we can assume that the larger monitor here sort of cancels out the cost of a PSU + smaller monitor)
  • Casing: see above
  • OS: Mac OS X Snow Leopard – $48
  • Apple Wireless Keyboard + Magic Mouse + Trackpad: $98 x 3 = $294
  • Total: $1234

Savings = $1578 (education pricing) – $1234 = $344 or 22%

DT: Except we cannot really count it that way as there’s still the build and design of the machine to consider. It is after all an all-in-one compared to our standalone desktops. Oh and if you intend to get a Mac, I’d recommend AppleCare as well. It’s worth it (to me) for machines beyond $1500. Anyhow, this is a long enough post and I’d leave the FAQs about using a Mac for the next post.

XY: I think our reader really wants to consider a pre-built machine.

DT: Oh alright. One machine you can consider is the Alienware Aurora; it’s pretty decently priced within your budget and you can modify the specs – a build-to-order.

XY: Or you could go to SLS and ask the local Ah Beng sellers there to fix up the D.I.Y. system for you for about $50 or so, making it a semi-pre-built machine. This is actually highly recommended; 100% D.I.Y. is not recommended unless you know what you are doing.

———-

p.s. As if we didn’t show how we don’t like pre-built machines enough…

XY: 2 more problems with a pre-built machine. A friend (let’s call him M) recently came to me with the first problem:

M: I’ve just bought a new laptop from company A. I have this windows error and I called tech support who told me to just do a restore from the backup partition. I tried that and I still have that error.

XY: Can’t you reinstall your windows?

M: I can’t, they didn’t give me any Windows disc; only their own disc.

XY: I could lend you my Win 7 disc, but let me guess, they didn’t give u any Win CD-Key right?

XY: There you have it, when it comes to such a problem, you are really stuck with going back to the tech support, which in some cases cannot help you much. This happens because a lot of programs are preloaded (cheaper) and they don’t give you the physical disc for reinstalls. Also, what if the hard disk crashed and you lost that backup/restore partition?

As for the second problem, pre-built machines tend to also skimp on the graphics card since the are likely to have a generic (read: average/lousy) power supply unit with a low rating and motherboard, as well as slower RAM with higher latency. These, especially the power supply will severely limit your future upgrade potential. Even in the computer world, brand sometimes do matter as it signifies quality.

———-

Summary

Go for a D.I.Y. system and get the guys at Sim Lim Square to fix it up for you. If you know that you want a Mac, then get the cheapest iMac. Pre-builts are really erm… not recommended by TOOZE.

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