Buying A New Computer? Our Definitive Guide On How To Pick The Best Parts

Matt Smith 27-09-2012

buying a computerPurchasing a new computer is a big deal. If you’re a MakeUseOf reader there’s a decent chance that your computer is your most important electronics device. It can be used for work and play and even people who aren’t particularly technical often find themselves using a PC for several hours every day.


Buying a computer with the right parts can mean the difference between years of pleasurable PC use and years of feeling like you were ripped off. But how do you know what to buy? How do you make sense of the components? Let’s go through the typical PC piece-by-piece.

The Heart Of Your PC – The Processor

buying a computer

The processor seems like a nice place to start. It has a significant impact on performance and will also dictate the motherboard you buy.

Performance tends to fall into two categories, per-core and multi-core performance. Per-core performance is the amount of grunt a single core can muster. It’s important because many applications still are not will optimized for more than one or two threads. Dual-cores are still adequate for basic entertainment PCs, low-end gaming rigs and office computers.

With that said, multi-core performance does become important in applications that can use multiple threads well. An application that’s well coded for multiple cores may run nearly twice as quick as it would on a dual-core. Quad-cores are also affordable and becoming more affordable every year, so it’s a good idea to buy one if you consider yourself a demanding user.


There are three resources that have charts that judge the latest processors – PassMark, Tom’s Hardware [No Longer Available] and Anandtech. Each site maintains a benchmark database that is constantly updated, making it easy to compare the latest products.

The Bones Of Your PC – The Motherboard

computer buying guide

If you buy a computer from a major manufacturer you will not be able to choose your motherboard. Boutiques like Falcon Northwest and Velocity Micro may give you a choice, however. And you can pick whatever you’d like if you build your own.

Motherboards have almost no impact on performance. They are best judged by their features. Different motherboards may have different BIOS, different fan speed controls and different ports selection. High-end motherboards will include features that make them easier to overclock or allow the use of multiple video cards.


Some recent motherboards are starting to use a replacement for BIOS known as the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface. It serves the same function as BIOS but it can handle mouse input and be designed with a more user friendly graphical interface. UFEI is a nice feature to have, but some implementations of it could use some work. Performance and interface issues plague the worst examples of the breed.

If you want the easy route, go to your favorite computer hardware retailer and pick the motherboard with the best customer reviews. If more research doesn’t bother you, go to The Tech Report, Anandtech and PC Perspective to read the latest motherboard reviews.

Remembering The Groceries – RAM

computer buying guide

RAM, your computer’s short-term memory, used to be a big deal. These days it’s a basic commodity. Yes, there is a difference between RAM speeds, but not outside some very niche scenarios. And yes, more is better, but the benefit of exceeding what you need is slim. Most people can buy 4GB (for a typical home PC) or 8-16GB (for a gaming rig or workstation) and be done with it.


If you are building your own system be careful to buy the correct RAM. Today’s most common standard is DDR3-1333, but that could change in the future. Your motherboard determines RAM compatibility so just read its specification sheet to find out what you need. You can usually find this listed at online retailers or the manufacturer website.

You should also buy two RAM sticks of the same capacity and speed unless your motherboard relies on tri-channel memory (as is the case with a few Intel chipsets) in which case you’ll want to buy three identical modules. Again, reference the motherboard’s specifications find out what is recommend for your build. Using multiple RAM modules of different size won’t crash your computer but it will reduce memory performance.

Remembering Your 12th Birthday – The Hard Drive

computer buying guide

You have some decisions to make when buying long-term memory. Solid state drives How Do Solid-State Drives Work? In this article, you'll learn exactly what SSDs are, how SSDs actually work and operate, why SSDs are so useful, and the one major downside to SSDs. Read More are extremely quick, but also expensive. Most people can’t afford to use them as their only form of storage. Mechanical drives are the best bet for storing a lot of data.


But why choose? If you have some money to spend, buy both. A 120GB solid state drive isn’t outrageously expensive and is large enough to fit your operating system and a few critical programs. You can then add in a 1TB mechanical drive for mass storage.

If your budget is tight, go with the fastest mechanical drive you can reasonably afford. This will usually be a 7,200RPM drive. It can’t match the access times of a solid state drive but transfer speeds are adequate.

Gaming Delight – The Discrete Video Card

computer buying tips

Intel likes to claim its integrated graphics solution is great for gamers. AMD likes to say the same. Frankly, it’s all baloney, and probably will always be baloney. Integrated graphics can be used to play games in the same way a butter knife can be used to cut steak. It can be done, but you won’t enjoy doing it.

Discrete video cards are as complex as processors and even more important to gaming performance. There’s no particular rule of thumb that applies. Just check the performance benchmarks at Passmark, Tom’s Hardware [No Longer Available] and Anandtech.

You should also pay attention to video card reviews. It’s common for a video card manufacturer to use a custom design which changes the cooling solution and overclocks the card. You’ll need to read reviews of the card you’re considering to see how these changes impact performance.

For further information check out my articles on buying the right video card How To Choose The Right PC Video Card [Technology Explained] Read More , new video card features 5 New Video Card Features You Should Know About [MakeUseOf Explains] Computer games are not difficult for most modern video cards to handle, but that hasn’t stopped the performance war between AMD and NVIDIA. It’s only raised the bar. 1080p is now a mundane resolution. To... Read More and the impact of multiple video cards (SLI/CrossFireX) What Is SLI & How Can It Improve Gaming Performance? Sometimes a niche term is taken for granted. We have some such terms in the world of computing hardware, and one of them is SLI. It’s been around for so long that geeks take it... Read More on gaming performance.

Keeping It Cool

All processors (besides OEM parts) and computer cases come with fans for cooling. They are usually a bit cheap, however. You can improve cooling and reduce noise by going with a custom solution.

Systems without an overclocked processor What Is Overclocking, And How It Can Help Your PC, Tablet, & Phone [MakeUseOf Explains] Provided that you have hardware from a manufacturer who understands those principles, you can do plenty to juice up your system, whether it be a computer, tablet, or smartphone. One of the best things you... Read More can easily have the processor handled by an inexpensive air cooler or low-end water cooler. You will have to read reviews to gain insight into the current best option, or you can just follow the crowd and go with what’s most popular online. Expensive options (those over $50) are only necessary if you want to overclock.

Water cooling is now mainstream thanks to products like the Corsair H-Series and Antec Kuhler. But there’s no free lunch. Affordable, self-contained water cooling systems aren’t necessarily quieter or cooler than the best air coolers. They are smaller than air coolers, however, so they can be a good choice for small systems. Traditional water cooling via an external radiator is still an option but only necessary if you want to overclock your computer to the max.

Case fans are harder to pin down. Reviews can help, but there aren’t many fan speed reviews. You’ll have to read up on hardware forums to gain user impressions. Also pay attention to manufacturer claims about airflow and decibel rating.

Keeping It Powered

buying a computer

The power supply is another component you’ll probably never get to pick if you buy pre-built. If you’re going the DIY route, however, it’s important to consider.

Power supplies differ in build quality, reliability and power output. Your goal should be to buy an affordable but reliable unit that meets your power needs. Figuring your power needs can be difficult, so I wrote an entire article about choosing a power supply Power Supplies Explained: How To Pick The Perfect PSU For Your Computer Most geeks interested in buying new hardware or building a new system think first of the processor, graphics card and perhaps the hard drive. These components have the most impact on performance, so they are... Read More . You’ll find a lot of helpful information there.

I recommend power supplies from Corsair, Seasonic, Antec, PC Power And Cooling, OCZ Technology and Cooler Master. Look for reviews on a specific option before buying. That will tell you if the quality of the product is up to expectations.

The 1/3/5 Rule

Now that we’ve addressed each component let’s talk about an important rule that applies to all computer hardware. It’s called the 1/3/5 rule.

Whatever you buy today will be beaten by a new product one year from now. It will be entirely mundane three years from now. And it will be obsolete five years from now. This applies to everything, even a fancy $1,000 graphics card or processor.

The implication of this rule is that future proofing is not possible, which in turn implies you should only buy what is adequate for you right now. If you have a 1080p display there’s no need to buy a graphics card that is powerful enough to handle 2560×1440. If you don’t use up eight gigabytes of RAM there’s no need to buy sixteen.

You’ll save a lot of money if you keep this in mind while researching the components above. You will need to upgrade more frequently, but you’ll be spending a lot less each time you make a leap to your next build. It ultimately works out to a better value.


You should now have the basic information that you need to start looking for components. There’s almost no end to the depths you can explore – PC hardware is a complex topic. But going in-detail may not help you find a better deal on the hardware you need. Indeed, you may end up like me. I sometimes break my own rules and buy hardware that’s faster than I need because it excites me.

Then again, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your PC. Just keep my advice in mind and don’t let excitement take over when you click the “Add to Cart” button.

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  1. jessewh
    February 19, 2013 at 8:33 am

    I have a hard time agreeing with the 1/3/5 rule. Just from the simple fact if you build well, you can have the same tower for 5 years and still have a rocking system. The i7 came out in late 2008, 1366 920. I got one. Still shows 8 cores counting hyper threading. It is 2013, we are still on eight cores. I even got a revo pcix hard drive, still fast to todays standards. Powersupply was a 800watt. Really matters if you are really good at seeing when to update. When there is a real jump in tech and not because something is new to get it. I am even using a 28 inch 1920 x 1200 monitor and the monitors have gone backwards on the resolution. Graphics cards will fall into that area, buy the new one with a good rebate, sell it in a couple of years and get the newer one with a good rebate again and you will stay up to date cheap.

  2. Austen Gause
    November 21, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    i have been planning to build a pc after christmas and this helps a lot

  3. Neo Max
    October 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    1/3/5 rule :))0000000000

  4. Kelly Buchanan
    October 4, 2012 at 6:32 am

    Informative. Thanks!

  5. AP
    October 3, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    To the point and article and very informative article.

  6. scott boyer
    October 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    I always let excitement take over what can I say I'm weak.

  7. Dude Mesiter
    October 2, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Good article, helps pc noobs like me.

  8. Alex Perkins
    October 1, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Nice article, well written.

  9. Edwin Williams
    October 1, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    Pretty easy to follow for beginners!

  10. Attah Amponsah
    October 1, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    send me mail about any new computers and parts.

  11. Shawn Ashree Baba
    October 1, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    A great guide for those who want to venture into building their own computers! Wish I had this when I first started.

  12. Stathismag
    October 1, 2012 at 10:59 am

    Great article. Will help me a lot!

  13. SUFYAN
    September 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    good. i really liked this topic

  14. Jim Spencer
    September 29, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    I have built probably more than a thousand computers, and this article is pretty good for giving a prospective builder an overview of the process! I would still caution, however, that one should take this project on with carefulness, and not rush the process!

  15. Keith Swartz
    September 29, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    I have already built several computers from scratch and Matt; I WISH I HAD YOUR ARTICLE WHEN DOING SO!!

    Now that I do possess your article, I can hardly wait to build another one! Just got to talk my wife into though. Any hints on successfully doing that in this 'tight' economy? (Lol !!)

  16. Dimal Chandrasiri
    September 29, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    itá awesome and I have a question for you @Matt Smith :

    I Recently built my system with a Core i5 Quad core. the Mother Board that was available for me was an intel Dh67BL and I kinda think this suck.. ( since what I expected for my Price was not available at that time.) is it a good I dean to keep this MB or to go for a good one.. may be an asus one.

    Addition info : My GPU is a Nvidia 560 ti ( EVGA Super Clocked version ) and a 4GB ( 2x2 ) Gskil Ram pack.

    give me your thoughts!

    • Matt Smith
      October 2, 2012 at 7:05 pm

      If the motherboard is working, keep it. Motherboards have no real impact on performance. They are important only for determining what you can hook up to your PC, and the more expensive ones MIGHT be more reliable, though I know of no study that can prove this.

  17. hohum
    September 28, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    1/3/5 rule - I agree. BUT some readers might find this discouraging. If this is you, then I have good news for you.

    Let me give you an example by illustration. I recently came across a few "obsolete" Mac Pro computers from 2008 - pretty much obsolete now. They are twin dual core xeon processors, 4GB of RAM and quite a good graphics card on board. There are 4 drive bays to simply whack in as many drives as you like. It will run MacOSX but Apple has ditched support for the chipset so you're stuck with "Lion" - 10.7 - still good, but a dead end. But Windows will run REALLY nicely on it.

    Let me get to the point. 90% of you surf the net, check your mail, write some documents, store your photos or videos (and do some basic editing), maybe play some simple games. For you the machine above would faster or at the very least the same speed as some stuff you can buy new today. You can then whack an SSD or larger hard disk in it - 2 latches; 4 screws. Simple.

    Don't destroy the environment. Think about if you need a new machine or not. Talk to people like me about it, I'm sure you know someone: they're usually the people you don't talk to.

    • ron dacosta
      September 29, 2012 at 2:18 pm

      Well Mr. Hohum,

      First, the article is great,,,,,, for the person that can afford $3K, $2K, $1K computers.

      Second, I am using an HP 2005 vintage year. Can't take more than 2x1GB memory......

      So, if I want to talk to people like YOU for some gidance,,,,,, where do I go?

      thanks for your more realistic comment.

      • hohum
        September 29, 2012 at 9:56 pm

        Hi Ron,

        ... and there's students and other low income people out there that frankly can't afford a new computer every 3 years too.

        Often computers that only support 2GB of RAM can take more but they can only address 4GB of it. If you keep your operating system low - like running XP - put 4GB of RAM in it, and put the fastest hard disk in it you can - like an SSD - clean out the registry - then you might get the thing useable. Remember in 2005 people used these things. But I would say to you that 2005 is a bit beyond the pale. That's now 7 years old. There are 2 tracks I'd take you on: cheap top-of-the-line computers from the 2008 or later era (like my Mac Pro) if you're only doing basic things, or take the plunge and buy a new machine.r the aim is to not spend much money on getting it up to speed.

        Generally I'd say that buying 2nd hand, or spending money on something you're given, is like anything else. Do your homework and take care. Invest a little time.

        Another thing to say is that new computers are now REALLY cheap. It is basically impossible to buy a new computer that can't do all the basics. So if you don't want to muck around too much buy a cheap machine and you're done. Put as much RAM in it as you possibly can cheaply.

        How do you find people like me? I think most people know someone that knows about computers. If yoy don't, then ask your friends. You'll get there.

      • hohum
        September 29, 2012 at 10:03 pm

        ...for some reason all the formatting in my response disappeared. I should note that XP and SSDs aren't a good idea if I remember correctly because XP does't know how to use them correctly - they don't support TRIM. Another thing to note: I was GIVEN a bunch of Mac Pros - they didn't cost me a red cent. One of them is running Windows 8 for me now.

    • Matt Smith
      October 2, 2012 at 7:08 pm

      Actually I very much doubt the capability of that machine. Most web browsers and basic productivity apps struggle to use more than a single thread, so the dual dual-cores probably have no impact whatsoever on the apps most people use.

      You didn't mention how much you paid, either. Maybe you happened to just get it for free, which is fine, but obviously most people couldn't.

      Another reason why I like the 1/3/5 rule is that implies you'll end up having old hardware you no longer need every few years. You could throw it away. Or you could do what I do and re-work it into new systems like an HTPC or file server. Reuse, recycle!

  18. mark
    September 28, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    I found your article very informative. One item i found missing was the case. You did not mention anything about them. As a long time builder, cases can be trivial or complex.

  19. Shmuel Mendelsohn
    September 28, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    I have built many computers, and I found this very helpful!

  20. misitio
    September 28, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Good article with very useful tips. Funny, I know about the 1/3/5 rule but it seems i'm never mindful of it when i get a new computer - I will now. Thanks...

  21. the old rang
    September 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Considering the most recent announcements of '$99' 'super-computers' (massive(?) parallel processors using Rapsberry Pi, Arm, and other configurations...

    Buying a simple 'barebones' seems a better option, at this time, if need is urgent....

    And waiting until reality hits these announcements. You can build a 'super' for less than $3,000, with a Terabyte of memory (not disk)...

    So, IMHO... this is not the time for plug and play, unless looking for a DIY project.

    These smaller systems of REAL multi-processing, built for massive parallel processing...

    can use some of the bits and pieces you mention...

    But, Intel best wake up... there is a new day coming, and getting away from closed source hardware with strange restricted requirements... those days are ending with open source hardware...

  22. Alfred Myford
    September 28, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    I think this is the first time I've seen anyone online say what I tell people--don't build a computer to last you into the far distant future. A person who only needs office applications and Internet and doesn't have specialized needs, such as graphics or gaming, may well be happy saving money by starting with last year's technology and using it for quite a while. The technology you drool after today will be a BUNCH cheaper this time next year. The 1/3/5 rule does a good job of describing the phenomenon, though we admit there are plenty of people still managing to accomplish what they need to do on older computers. (We need to acknowledge possible severe security issues and that fan bearings get undependable, too.)

    Thanks for a thoughtful and well-balanced article.

  23. HLJonnalagadda
    September 28, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Been building custom gaming rigs ever since I found out how costly Alienware machines were! Good article, thanks.

  24. druv vb
    September 28, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Informative and very well written. All main parts listed, even a newbie would be inspired. I usually build my own computer, and I usually guide people to make the 1/3/5 choice. Very often going for an integrated mainboard and a decent gpu the year after. do what it does best, spreading knowledge.

  25. Ashwin Ramesh
    September 28, 2012 at 2:26 am

    Very good article.. thanks Matt!

  26. Ravi Meena
    September 28, 2012 at 2:11 am

    1/3/5 rule is something new for me, and i agree with that :)

  27. Francisco de Gusmão
    September 28, 2012 at 12:15 am

    This realy meets my needs! I was thinking of 'making' a PC for myself, this will help a lot

  28. Scutterman
    September 27, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    Very interesting. I'll have to consider the 1/3/5 rule when I upgrade my graphics card. Does it also apply to external things such as monitors, mice, keyboards, and UPS units?

  29. Jack Hecker
    September 27, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    I usually build my own computers. I found this article very informative.