Last year, we defied the economy by building a complete computer system for less than $200. This year, we build a better one.
- Steps 1 through 11
In fact, you can even do it for as little as $200. And no, that’s not a typo.
We first proved this last year , back when it looked like the economy’s most turbulent days were behind it. But because money issues have persisted, and because relative luxuries like technology are usually the first line items to be cut from most home budgets, we wanted to revisit the notion. We started browsing our favorite Web components outlet, Newegg.com, with the intent of answering three questions: Could we do it again? Could we build a better computer this time around? And could we do it for significantly less than we had the first time?
The answer to the first question was a no-brainer: absolutely. Even as recently as several years ago, the PC industry hadn’t yet advanced to a point where a threshold this low would result in a complete PC of any recognizable kind. As hardware has improved, that quality has slowly filtered down to the lowest price ranges, making good components both cheaper and easier to find.
It was also obvious that our new desktop would be superior in terms of performance. We didn’t want to build exactly the same system this year, but we’d been concerned that the final product wouldn’t be different enough to justify a second attempt. But once we started shopping, it didn’t take us long to discover that prices had fallen enough in the last year for us to get some more impressive parts. You’re still not going to confuse this PC’s capabilities with those of a more expensive desktop, but even in just a year the possibilities have considerably expanded.
As for whether we could spend a lot less this year than we could in 2010... Technically, yes. But that would have violated our most important precept: This had to be a computer we could really use. Building a system that costs this little already requires major compromises in some areas, and shaving off too many additional dollars would have seriously hobbled usability and upgradability. We could have put together something for closer to $150, but we didn’t want something—we wanted a computer we could feel good about integrating into our lives right away, and feel comfortable about tweaking and expanding in the future.
What follows is a look at how we accomplished this: the parts we chose, why we chose them, how we put them together, and what we gave up along the way. We’ll also run through a list of some “budget-busting” items that we couldn’t include if we wanted to stay below our $200 ceiling, but that we’d definitely investigate if we had another few bucks to rub together.
We understand that building the least-expensive computer possible isn’t something that will appeal to everyone. As we said last year, this is as much a thought experiment as it is an actual build project—you can do it, and get great results (we still use our original sub-$200 PC regularly), but under most circumstances you would make different, more expensive, and (we admit it) more exciting choices. What it proves, however, is that you should never feel constrained by your bank account, even if it’s as empty as a politician’s promises. When you’re building computers, almost anything is possible at any price, and with a little bit of research, a little bit of thought, and a little bit of sacrifice, you can get what you need without courting bankruptcy. In economic times both scary and spirited, that’s something worth remembering.