Affordable DIY Digital Art PC: WFH 2020

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Advice

The most important tool-of-the-trade for a digital artist is of course your computer itself. I don’t need to go over the situation here in 2020 with you — a computer isn’t a cheap investment given current events, but for whatever reason, many of us may need a new computer to do work reliably especially now that we’ll be working from home for the foreseeable future (well into 2021.) The good news is that the goal of this article is to try to build you a solidly working desktop computer perfect for applications like Photoshop and Clip Studio Paint for as little cost as I can find without cheaping out on ALL quality/reliability. A tool like this should be fast and reliable, but I don’t believe it has to cost $1200 to get what you need We’re gonna aim for half that if possible.

I’m going to begin this guide under the assumption you may be new to building a DIY computer. So let’s take a moment and talk about it.

Why DIY?

New to building your own computer? Consider reading the following points!

If you want to save money while maximizing the performance the cost will get you, building your own computer is really the only way to go. Much like how IKEA furniture is cheaper because you assemble it yourself, the same is true here: you’re cutting costs by eliminating all the incurred markup a third-party assembler (such as HP, Dell, Lenovo, Corsair etc,) tacks onto a pre-built computer. Sure, they did the work for you so you can get going as soon as you take it out of the box, but in my opinion, the assembling part isn’t very hard in the first place and by doing so teaches you a lot about the intimate workings of your workstation to help address problems if they arise in the future. Part of working at home, or being self-employed, means being self-sufficient. Which leads me to the next point —

Warranties.
Unlike a third-party assembler who slaps a tired 1-year warranty on the entire computer (unless you want to pay $329 for a 2 year extension,) each individual component you buy for your DIY computer has it’s own warranty, often covering for 3 to 5 years, sometimes even lifetime. If something goes wrong with a part, it’s very easy to contact the manufacturer and get just the affected component replaced. And since you put the computer together, you know how it comes apart. Which, leads me to my last point —

Upgradability.
While you can usually upgrade components in a third-party computer, the amount of upgrade-headroom these systems have is limited because they’re often constructed to the exact specifications they come as with no extra space for add-ons. Some brands like Dell and HP are even known to use parts that are only compatible with their own systems, limiting what you can upgrade with while jacking prices.

In a DIY computer meanwhile, all parts are standardized. Your upgrade paths are limited only by some factors you choose ahead of time such as available expansion slots, and generational compatibility. Still, what this means is that you can choose to build a more basic computer for little cost at the start and slowly add to it over time, making it more powerful as you grow with it. A DIY computer doesn’t have to be a one-lump cash drop. It can be a slower trickle spanned out over time.

These use Windows, though.
What about Mac OS?

Yes, by building a DIY computer, you will be using Windows 10. If you’re a die-hard Mac OS user, or there is some Mac OS-specific software you rely on, there isn’t much I can do for you here. Your budget options for Apple right now are basically to choose between failure-prone 2016-2017 Macbook Pros with zero upgradability, the relatively expensive Mac Mini where you can upgrade the memory yourself at least, and the painfully under-equipped 21.5″ iMacs which require an additional $600 in memory and SSD storage upgrades to be competitive as a baseline professional workstation. (Sure, it comes with a screen. But, cmon, for a desktop computer 21.5 inches is really small.)

As for “Hackintoshes” (DIY computers built to fool Mac OS into thinking it’s running on a legitimate Apple computer), they’re not something I would ever recommend to a working professional who needs “reliability” as a top feature. Also, with Apple’s recent announcement to switch to ARM-based processors in upcoming Macs, the future of Hackintoshing is coming to an end soon.

Anyway, at the end of the day, if you’re a Mac-only user, unfortunately you’re going to have to also pay for that exclusivity.

Prerequisites

Building your own computer, poking around at sensitive electronics — it isn’t for everyone, I get that. I also want to stress that while it seems a little scary if you’ve never done it before, it’s also no harder than assembling some furniture. The parts are all designed to go together only one way — sockets and wires specific to their place and task. Follow the instructions, take your time, and be gentle, and you can not only get through this, I believe, but you can also take up a rewarding new hobby in the process (that will continue to save you a lot of money on computering into the future.)

That said, yes, you will be dealing with small, fragile, expensive things. “Measure twice, cut once” mentality is needed here. Close attention to detail to make sure something is going together the correct way, not forcing something that doesn’t fit, and understanding the purpose of each component / connection will lead you to success. You should plan at least 4 to 6 hours to put your PC together if this is your first time. You’ll also need more time after it’s together to take care of any troubleshooting that may arise, and to install Windows, drivers, and software.

If you’re unsure of your own abilities to do this, you might have a friend who can help, or at least double-check your work along the way. DIY PC’s aren’t a niche hobby, there are plenty of people out there who will be happy to help if you’re stuck.

Lastly, know that this guide is only covering the components of the main computer “tower.” Monitors, keyboard, mouse, speakers, Wacom or other tablets — these are all things you may or may not already have. I’ll also leave them up to your own taste as these are all what I consider accessories and don’t impact core performance.

OK, all that out of the way, let’s get onto selecting parts.


NOTE: The following parts are subject to highly volatile stock shortages and price changes at any moment. While they were all in stock and prices written at the time of writing this article, they can go in and out as COVID-19 strains supply chains worldwide. For the purposes of this list, I’m using exclusively NewEgg to pick parts. However, if other places have them in stock, such as Microcenter or B&H, by all means go through them. (Just try not to give Jeff Bezos more money if you can.)

Part 1: The Case

The parts of your computer need a place to live. Functionally all cases achieve the same thing, but with different quality of materials and visual aesthetics. To strike a balance between physical size, cost, and performance, I’m recommending the “Micro ATX” form factor.

Budget Picks:
Antec VSK10 ($45)
ThermalTake Versa H17 ($45)

Antec and ThermalTake are some of the oldest DIY PC case makers around. They make quality, straight-forward, understated designs that are easy to work with. For $45, these are about as good as you can get in bang-for-buck functionality, and not a bad choice for a first-timer. For a little extra, this case has a side

Moderate Picks:
darkFlash DLM 22 ($55-65)
NZXT H510 ($70-80)

Since the case is the outward facing thing you’ll be looking at in your room, it’s understandable if you might want to get a little more unique looks. These two cases are similar in appearance, with highly clean, minimalistic design approach – reminiscent of the Xbox One S/X in aesthetic. Both have tempered glass side panels to show off the internals and improved internal layouts to help hide and route cables, keeping the inside looking just as clean as the outside.
(Note: The NZXT case is for a larger form-factor motherboard, called ATX, but will also fit Micro-ATX without issue and is nearly the same dimensions as the darkFlash.)

Splurge Picks
Cooler Master Silencio ($95)
darkFlash V22 ($100)

The Cooler Master Silencio doesn’t really functionally differ from the previous cases, it just has a really clean and professional design that some may really take to. The darkFlash V22 meanwhile has an alternative design approach which rotates the motherboard 90 degrees to place its ports on the top of the case rather than the back. An interesting shake-up of the usual design, but not exactly recommended for first-time builders since its layout won’t line-up with many DIY guides out there.


Part 2: The Processor (CPU)

Intel or AMD?

As of right now, there’s almost no reason to buy an Intel CPU, especially for 2D art and design, unless you want to spend more money for sport. AMD CPU’s cost significantly less for solid performance in creative apps and games. On top of this, the current CPU socket that AMD uses (AM4) will be around for future CPU generations offering an upgrade path if you need more processing power down the line. Comparatively, Intel chips use a new socket type every generation, which requires replacing several costly components all together instead of just the one CPU.

Recommended Pick:
AMD Ryzen 5 3600 ($159 as-of-writing)

In my opinion, the Ryzen 5 3600 is the best value you can get for its performance vs price. 6 cores with 6 virtual cores. It’s more than powerful enough for art making, illustration, design, even a lot of video-based tasks, and the price is a steal. It performs very similarly to the Intel Core i7-8700 for those familiar with it, but for less than half the price. This CPU is so good for its current price, the Ryzen 3 isn’t even worth considering. For those curious, the “3600X” version of this CPU isn’t worth it. You’ll pay a lot more for less than 5% increase in speed.

There’s a chance the price of this CPU may return to its more typical $200 pricetag, in which case you may consider the 4-core Ryzen 3 3100 for $150, which will be a good performer if you have to choose it. But even at $200 I’d still suggest considering the 3600 if you can for longevity.

Or, if you know you need more power than this, consider the 8-core Ryzen 7 3700X ($279).

Any of these CPU’s will be compatible with the other recommended parts as we go along.


Part 3: The Motherboard

The backbone of your entire computer, the motherboard installs into the case, and just about everything else plugs into the motherboard, connecting everything together. Since the CPU I recommend does not have graphics rendering capabilities, ignore the video output ports on the motherboards as a feature as they won’t be used.
All of these motherboards below use AMD’s current generation B550M chipset, which will continue to support future AMD processors for years to come.

Budget Pick:
ASRock B550M HDV ($80)

ASRock makes good quality, budget-oriented motherboards that do the basics of what you need. This board, for its price, gets you a fine selection of USB 2.0, 3.0 ports, and gigabit ethernet.
For memory support, it has only two memory slots as opposed to four, so you’ll have to think more carefully about how much memory you need up-front, since you may have to buy one higher capacity module to leave the other slot open for future expansion, or buy two equal capacity sticks for an amount you feel will last you for the lifetime of the computer. However, it supports up to 64GB of total memory, at a max speed of 3200mhz as governed by the Ryzen 5 3600.
Note that this motherboard only has one PCI-Express 1x slot, which is commonly used for add-on cards such as additional USB ports or specialty ports, professional sound cards/DACs, and additional networking capabilities (such as WiFi.)

Moderate Pick:
MSI Pro B550M ($126)

MSI is a well-known manufacturer in the PC space for decades. This motherboard improves on the ASRock by adding two more slots for memory, an additional M.2 SSD slot, an additional PCI-Express 1x slot, slightly improved sound circuitry, and most notably the addition of intel-based 802.11AC WiFi and Bluetooth 4.2.
In terms of the memory specifically, the four memory slots can net you a maximum of 128GB if you so choose. When you have four slots of memory, it’s divided into two channels of data bandwidth, (two slots per channel.) This allows you to divide up your memory modules into matching sticks across both channels, called “Dual Channel Memory,” which allows the system to access the memory at twice the rate. It also provides, of course, more capacity for upgrades down the line.
Having two PCI-Express 1x slots means you can take full advantage of the expansion slots your Micro-ATX case offers, and since WiFi is already built onto this motherboard, you’ll have an easier time adding more USB ports or a high-end sound card etc if you ever feel the need.

High-End Pick:
ASUS TUF Gaming B550M-PLUS ($180)

ASUS is one of the best manufacturers in the PC space, making some of the most feature-rich motherboards you can buy. Without going too into the lands of pure excess, this motherboard has futureproofing in mind for a reasonable price. Compared to the MSI before, this board offers USB-C 3.1 Gen2 on the rear panel, 2.5 Gigabit Ethernet, 802-11AX wireless with Bluetooth 5.1, dual graphics card support, and one of the highest-end audio codecs. Otherwise like the MSI, four memory slots up to 128GB, and two M.2 SSD slots.


Part 4: Memory (RAM)

Recommended Pick:
Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-3200 ($65-$290… ish)

This is basically the best memory for the money you should consider. It’s a tried-and-true design by Corsair, I’ve used it, friends have used it, comes in a bunch of different denominations for your needs, that’s all you really need to know.

We’re choosing a memory speed of 3200MHz because that’s what’s supported by the 3rd-generation Ryzen 3, 5, and 7 CPU’s I recommended earlier. The CPU has a maximum supported memory speed of 3200mhz. While the motherboards I recommended earlier all go up to 4200mhz max memory speed, that would be extra expense for nothing in return (right now, anyway.)

The price of DDR4 memory is one of the most volatile things on the market. Memory is like the price of gas, some days its up, some days down, some days REALLY DOWN, some days absurdly expensive. This stuff at least seems to maintain some level of affordability at all times, though.

How much do I need?

At the very minimum, whatever you do, you should choose 16GB worth, with the target of having 32GB eventually.

16GB is a comfortable amount for Windows 10, web browser windows, Photoshop with a few 4K+ resolution files open, and other things like chat windows and music or YouTube or something. 16GB is a great amount to start with and hit the ground running, leaving room to grow later on.

Heavier files with lots of layers for blending, if you work in 16-bit color, or if you work with significantly larger resolutions (8000+ pixels), you’ll need more than 16GB. If you do high resolution photo or 3D Render compositing, for example, consider starting with 32GB with a goal of 64GB. Otherwise, for almost all 2D illustration/drawing/painting, 16GB will do you fine to begin with.

Therefore: if you chose a motherboard with only two memory slots, buy a single 16GB module here.

Larger capacity single sticks tend to cost a little more, but this will ensure you can upgrade to 32GB later on by adding another 16GB module when you need it. (Likewise, if your goal is 64GB eventually, start with a single 32GB stick here, even if it’s only available at a slightly slower at 3000mhz speed.)

If you chose a motherboard with four memory slots, buy a 2x 8GB Dual Channel kit for a total of 16GB.

You’ll still have two more slots open for another 2x 8GB kit, or potentially even more by throwing in a 2x 16GB kit for a total of 48GB or memory (or more! Each slot can take up to 32GB per module.)
Same as before, if your goal is 64GB eventually, start with a 2x 16GB kit.

Fun fact, did you know Apple charges $200 to add an additional 8GB of memory to the 21.5 inch iMac for a total of 16GB? No, it’s not special Apple memory, either. You could get 32GB in this machine for less than that.


Part 5: Storage

The price of super fast PCI-Express-based SSD’s has really come down over the last year or two. Known as M.2 NVMe SSD’s, these tiny devices are like supercharged ultra high capacity SD Cards and are responsible for the greatest speed increase in modern computing over older mechanical hard-drives with spinning discs.

Recommended Pick:
Crucial P1 500GB ($63)

There’s very little you can go wrong with nearly any M.2 SSD you buy. They’re basically all fast and the manufacturing process has been perfected by this point, so you might as well go with a quality wallet-friendly option. At just $63, you really can’t beat 500GB of super-high-speed storage like this. Are there slightly faster ones than this for 1/3-1/2 more cost? Yes, but you’ll barely notice.

In my opinion, 500GB is the ideal size for your main storage because it’s the drive that Windows will be installed on. It’s large enough for all your apps, loads of work files, but not so large that you end up storing your whole life on it. You should be backing your data up onto other drives for long-term storage — drives that don’t have Windows installed on them. Choose 1TB if you feel you need it for double the cost, but remember the moderate and higher-end motherboards I recommended also have room for two of these drives.

Fun fact, did you know Apple charges $400 to add one of these in the 21.5″ iMac? No, it’s not a special Apple SSD. It’s just one of these more or less. Yeah, quite the markup isn’t it?


Part 6: Graphics Card (GPU)

Since current AMD CPU’s don’t have integrated graphics capabilities, we have to add a dedicated one. And for the kind of work you do, or the kind of person you are, this part will either REALLY matter to you or be not very important. This section has a lot to consider, so let’s dive in.

Budget Pick:
ASRock Radeon RX550 ($90)
Biostar Radeon RX560 ($110)

If all you need is enough graphics juice to power Windows, Photoshop or other creative apps like Illustrator, InDesign, Lightroom, watch high-def video or even do some light gaming (CIV5 ON BREAK??), one of these cards will be all you need.

Let’s break down some of the differences between these.

Both of these cards are powerful enough to drive 4K monitors at 60hz, necessary if you have (for example) a Cintiq Pro 24. Both of them also have a DVI port which is helpful if you have an older Cintiq 21UX or 22HD. This is the most important aspect of choosing these cards.

There are cheaper cards out there — cheaper by like $10 like the NVidia GT 1030 — but they’re so underpowered, they may not be able to drive your monitors beyond 1920×1080 resolution or playback 4K video smoothly. Believe me: the extra cost here for these baseline Radeon cards are well worth the modern power they provide.

In terms of GPU-intensive performance between these two, the RX560 is going to be about 15%-20%-ish better than the RX550. If you want to occasionally kill time in a game, the RX560 will be the better bet.

To give a hint at performance, the RX560 will be able to play Overwatch at 1080p medium settings and hit around 60-80 frames per second. Not bad.

Moderate Pick:
MSI GeForce GTX 1650 OC ($150)
MSI Radeon RX570 ($150)
ASUS Strix Arez Radeon RX580 ($190)
ASUS GeForce GTX 1650 Super TUF Gaming ($170)

The $150 range of graphics cards are all taken up by Radeon RX570, RX580, and GeForce GTX 1650 and 1650 Super. The four recommendations I chose above are arranged from relative lowest to highest performance, but they’re all in the same general class regardless. These cards strike a good balance between power, price, and use cases. They’ll be great for hardware accelerating creative/art apps, 3D apps like blender, assist with video editing, and even moderate levels of gaming such as VR. All of these will power 4K 60hz monitors no problem.

Specifically, what this is going to come down to if you pick one of these, is whether you like AMD Radeon or NVidia GeForce more, and then if you’re fine with the $150 base option or opt for about a 10%-20% performance boost of the $165+ option. They also differ in a few slight ways.

Choosing a GeForce card will allow you to use some specific NVidia features such as GameStream (to an NVidia Shield TV in another room,) NVidia PHYSX physics engine in supported games, and G-SYNC variable refresh-rate monitors.

These cards have at least one DisplayPort, HDMI port, and DVI port. Again, the DVI port is helpful if you have an older Cintiq 22HD or 21UX. The RX580 can support many monitors and has the most outputs.

If the RX560 from before ran Overwatch at 1080p Medium quality settings and hit 60-80 frames per second, these cards should be able to play at High settings and hit around 70-100 frames per second.

Lastly, while these graphics cards aren’t the most ideal for driving VR headsets, if you plan on using VR even if only for VR Art Apps like Quill and TiltBrush, you should definitely choose with the RX580 or GTX 1650 Super. VR is demanding for a smooth experience that doesn’t make you sick.

High-End Pick:
ASUS GeForce GTX 1660 Super TUF Gaming ($250)
Sapphire Pulse Radeon RX 5600XT ($290)

Remember, we’re not building a gaming machine here. By “high-end pick” I’m talking in a relative sense for a budget workstation. If you’re building a gaming machine, you can go way further than these picks that will cost more alone than this entire DIY build.

If you’re really sure you need the power, either because you play PC games and want to make the best of this investment, or you have serious interest in VR experiences, or 3D rendering, or video editing, these two choices are pretty big steps up from the moderate picks.

The RX5600XT is the more powerful of the two cards, about proportional to the price increase. Using Overwatch as the benchmark again, these cards will hit 140-160 frames per second at 1440p resolution on a mix of high-ultra settings. These will be much more suitable for smooth framerates in VR applications.

More powerful than these, however, and you’re entering a new bracket of cost and power that goes beyond the scope of this project. If you know you need more powerful hardware such as a GeForce GTX 1080, RTX 2070 or 2080, or Radeon VII, you probably aren’t the kind of person who needed this guide in the first place.


Part 7: Power Supply (PSU)

The power supply is literally the least exciting part to have to spend money on for your computer. But I got news for you: your computer runs on electricity, and where does that electricity come from? This part. When this one single part is responsible for your computer even turning on at all, you’re going to want to make sure you don’t completely cheap out on it. Saving $35 here could mean the difference between a computer that burns out after 9 months and one still trucking along happily 4 years on.

Note that a power supply’s power rating is it’s maximum possible power it can deliver when being utilized to 100%. A computer sitting idle will be drawing very little power no matter the rated wattage.

What’s 80 Plus Certification?

80 PLUS is a measurement that grades a power supply’s ability to stay above 80% efficiency under load, and not waste more to heat. As you can see by the chart above, higher quality power supplies are more efficient, and reach peak efficiency around 50% load.

A 500 watt power supply at basic 80% efficiency will deliver 500 watts max to the computer, but will draw 600 watts from the wall, wasting 100 watts as heat. This occurs because of inefficiencies of the electronics and resistance. An 80% Gold-certified PSU is around 90% efficient and will only draw 550 watts from the wall, wasting 50 watts to heat. This means a Gold rated PSU will produce less heat, run quieter, cost less to use over time, and likely last longer.

As you can see, since peak efficiency is around 50% load, it makes sense to buy a power supply that is greater than your needs. Your computer won’t be running at 100% load at all times. Usually the only way to do that is to play a demanding game. With these components, even a 550-watt power supply should be enough to be hovering around the 50% load area while working.

Budget Pick:
EVGA W1 500 Watt ($50)
SeaSonic USA S12III 550 Watt ($65)
Corsair CX550M 550 Watt Semi-Modular ($85)

For a more budget-oriented build, 500 to 550 watts of max power should be more than enough to cover the earlier chosen components, especially if you’re keeping things on the lower-end. EVGA, SeaSonic, and Corsair are some of the most respected mainstream power supply makers in the industry, and these lower-cost options should work without complaint.

All of these power supplies pass basic 80 Plus certification, and so will meet 80% energy efficiency at all times.

The Corsair option you may notice is called “Semi-Modular.” This means that the jumble of cables coming out of power supply are detachable if they’re not needed in your system, saving from having unnecessary clutter in your case. While the cases recommended earlier are all large enough to easily contain extraneous cables, sometimes its just nice to know things are EXTRA tidy.

Moderate Pick:
EVGA SuperNova 550 Watt Full Modular ($100)
SeaSonic FOCUS 750 Watt Semi-Modular ($120)
Corsair RM650X 650 Watt Full Modular ($130)

These options here all have 80 Plus Gold certification, meaning they have a roughly 90% energy efficiency at all times. They also have semi or full modular cable connections– Full-Modular meaning that all cables can be disconnected and potentially swapped out for others of different lengths if needed.

The SeaSonic and Corsair options have extra wattage overhead in case you may upgrade to more power-hungry components in the future, or want to be sure you’re staying closer to 50% load or less while working for best efficiency.


Part 8: Windows 10 Home

This step may be different depending on your current computer situation and/or your willingness to shop on the gray market.

If you use a pirated copy of Windows, I can’t stop you and you can just skip this step. However, remember that using a pirated operating system is well beyond the most unsafe thing you can do in modern computing.

Windows 10 Home or Pro? Also what about 7?

You only need Windows 10 Home. The Pro version of Windows is more for office deployment use, where the company’s IT guys can access stuff remotely and work with higher level data encryption and stuff. To the average person like me or you at home, there is no performance difference between Home or Pro.

As for Windows 7, remember Microsoft officially ended support for it in January of 2020. This means it will no longer receive security updates or new features. Fewer parts manufacturers and software developers will be supporting it as time goes on as well. Windows 7 is dead. You’re going to have to learn to like 10.

How do I install Windows on this computer?

There are many ways to install Windows. The easiest way is to use any ol’ USB Flash Drive you have laying around. Microsoft has made a tool that allows you to convert any USB Flash Drive into a Windows 10 installer.

First, click here to go to the Create Media website, and select Windows 10. On a Windows computer, it will give you the option to download the Media Creation Tool program that will automatically download the latest version of Windows and install it to a USB Drive of your choosing. On a Mac OS computer, you’ll be able to download the latest Windows 10 ISO file, (make sure you select 64-bit edition,) and you can write the ISO file to a USB drive using the ‘Restore’ function in Disk Utility.

From there, you can stick the USB drive into your new computer when you get it, and follow your motherboard’s instructions on accessing the Boot Menu where you select the USB drive to get the installation started. Don’t worry about not having a Windows 10 Product Key yet if you don’t have one — you can always provide a key later on.

I don’t have another computer or a USB drive to make an installer, what do I buy?
Recommendation: Genuine Windows 10 USB Installer ($139)

You’re probably going to need to buy a genuine Windows 10 Home USB installer, then. Comes with a dedicated Windows 10 USB installer and genuine product key to use at time of installation.

I can make an installer myself. All I need is a key.
Recommendation: OEM Windows 10 Home ($109)

If you want to get a genuine original product key for a bit of a discount, you can buy an OEM product key card along with your computer. The product key will come in something that looks like an envelope that may also have a Windows 10 DVD inside. Ignore the DVD, all you need here is the code. Use it when it asks when installing from your own USB drive. Don’t lose this card if you need to reference the key again in the future.

I’m retiring an old computer that has Windows 10 on it already. (Potentially free.)

If the computer you’re retiring is being recycled or sold off for individual parts, and you previously bought a Windows 10 license for it, you can use that license on this new computer. It may give you an error that the product key is already in use. You may have to “activate via phone” where you call an automated assistant at Microsoft to re-register the key on your computer’s unique hardware ID. Note this may not work at all if the computer it came from is a Dell or HP or something. But it’s worth a shot to save some money!

What about gray market keys?
At Your Own Risk: Kinguin Windows 10 Home Key ($29)

I can’t officially recommend this option, but it does exist. Microsoft sells product keys in bulk to third party manufacturers, as well as prices those keys differently around the world. What this means is that if a manufacturer has excess keys it’s not using, or a retailer is looking to sell keys internationally, you can get one for a very low cost. Note, these are genuine keys, but they’re already pre-registered because of their origin. If you buy a key from Kinguin, it will 99% chance say it’s already been used. This is when, just like in the prior section, you’ll have to activate over the phone using your unique hardware ID. A pain, but you are saving about $100.

Note that using this option at all runs the risk of nothing working out for you. If you attempt this, you have to make peace with the fact you may lose $29 for nothing. The reseller who sold you the key may be able to help you, but don’t count on it. For what it’s worth, I’ve done this once, and it worked for me.

From a security standpoint, using one of these keys does. not put your computer or personal data at risk. You’re still using a genuine copy of Windows supplied by Microsoft directly. All you bought from Kinguin was a key. That said though, for your own safety buy the key using PayPal or a burner card from privacy.com. You can supply bogus billing information and your real identity will remain hidden.

Or, lastly, don’t register Windows at all. (Free)

Yeah, you don’t actually need to buy a product key at all to use Windows. If you can create your own installation media, install and skip the product key all together, it will still work, you can use Windows. You’ll be locked out of a few features, though, such as visual personalization (except desktop wallpaper changing,) windows support, and the MS App Store (but who uses that, really?)

Honestly if you’re fine with the default appearance of Windows 10, this is the ultimate budget option. Not registering won’t affect performance at all. You can do all your work just fine. Sure you’ll se a few subtle lines of text here and there reminding you to provide a product key when you can, but you’ll never be locked out of your computer if you don’t.


Tallying Up The Build

Alright, that’s it for the core build. Those are all the core necessary components needed to assemble a full working computer. There are some extras you may consider, but we’ll get to those. For now let’s look at where we’re at, excluding the potential cost of Windows 10:

All Budget Pick Build: Approximately $578

AMD Ryzen 5 3600, 16GB Memory (1×16), Radeon RX560, 500GB SSD, 550W PSU

All Moderate Pick Build: Approximately $690

AMD Ryzen 5 3600, 16GB Memory (2×8), GeForce GTX 1650 SUPER, 500GB SSD, 650W

High-End Pick Build: Approximately $930-$1180

Ryzen 7 3700X, 32GB Memory (2×16), Radeon RX5600XT, 1TB SSD, 750W

How does it compare to brand PC’s?

Taking a look at the upper-midrange tier Dell Inspiron desktop computers, for the $550-$700 range, you’re getting an Intel Core-i5 to Core-i7 CPU, 8GB to 12GB of memory, a 1TB mechanical hard drive to a 256GB SSD, and no graphics card at all. They have only one HDMI output, one audio output, and fewer USB ports. Lastly, the insides of these computers haven’t changed since the 1990’s.

Remember, the AMD Ryzen 5 3600 has very similar performance to an 8th gen Intel Core-i7, and you get that in the all-budget pick.

OK, what about Dell’s XPS Computers? Higher-end ones geared toward work and play? Well, right off the bat we blow the budget on the lowest end model with a far inferior CPU, half as much memory, a mechanical hard drive with no SSD, and no graphics card included. In order to configure an XPS to have similar performance to our Moderate Pick system, it will cost $1179 and still only have one year warranty. Tack on another $200 if you want to add another year. Big oof. You won’t find results very different from other makers like HP and Lenovo — they all compete with each other on these bottom lines.

Let’s look at one more though, a gaming PC maker: Origin PC. Specifically, let’s check out their cheapest model, Chronos. Now, Origin PC is an actually respectable OEM, but they still have to mark up their prices. The baseline Chronos system uses the same Ryzen 5 3600, the same 16GB of Corsair memory, a GeForce GTX 1660 Super graphics card, 250GB M.2 SSD, and 450W power supply —- for **$1657**. For the money, the Origin PC is a way better buy than the equivalent Dell. But, we essentially built this same machine above for somewhere between $680-$930. Triple big oof.


Fun extras!

Here’s some extra things you might consider. None of this is required, just extra bits that help your PC along!

Be Quiet! Pure Rock 2 Heatsink + Fan ($39)
Noctua NH-U9S CPU Heatsink + Fan ($60)

The heatsink and fan that comes with the Ryzen 5 is fine, it will do the job. But if you want a quieter system that keeps temperatures super under control, consider a better cooler combo like one of these!

ASUS AC2100 + Bluetooth 5.0 PCI-Express Card ($40)
TP-Link AX3000 + Bluetooth 5.0 PCI-Express Card ($40)

If you chose a motherboard that doesn’t have wifi built-in, you can add it with one of these cards! For the money, the ASUS card will probably be a little more stable than the TP-Link. The more important distinction here is the antenna placement — the ASUS card has an antenna that sits up on your desk so the computer case itself isn’t blocking the signals. Helpful if your PC is in a corner and the traditional style antennas get wedged between the case and the wall. However, if that isn’t a concern, the TP-Link offers futureproofed WiFi 6!


Got my stuff. How do I put it together?

While this guide is just for picking out parts and not the actual assembly of your system, just know all computers more or less go together the same way and this one is no different. There are many guides and build-alongs online you can follow to help you build yours. Here are a few of them to help you out:

First-Person view of a full system assembly by Linus Tech Tips
Hardware Canucks Beginners PC Build Guide
Newgg TV How to Build a PC Series


Troubleshooting

If after assembling your PC, you’re encountering problems before ever getting into Windows installation, you may need to do some troubleshooting. This is a fairly expected part of building a DIY PC. It may be disappointing to encounter problems, but know more often than not it’s caused by minor settings or software issues and not faulty parts. Pre-built brand-name PC’s often weed out the problems beforehand for you, so you can factor this part as where some of the cost savings comes from. Therefore, expect to encounter a problem and to have to set time aside to troubleshoot if necessary. The good news is that you have many avenues available to you to help along the way if the problems you’re encountering are severe — you haven’t wasted your money so try not to stress!

First thing, if your computer is clearly turning on but you’re not seeing anything on screen, this may seem obvious but before anything else check to make sure your computer monitor is on the correct input and that your DisplayPort / HDMI cable is connected to the GRAPHICS CARD and not the Motherboard. If nothing still, or if it’s turning on and off in a boot-loop, triple-check all your components are seated properly in their sockets and all cables are firmly in their proper places. If after verifying everything should be good and the problem persists, you may have a dead CPU on your hands. A PC with a healthy motherboard and no CPU can still turn on, with spinning fans and power lights. So, if after verifying everything is installed correctly and your PC isn’t powering on at all, you may have either a faulty power supply or motherboard. If you want to rule out the power supply as the culprit, you can check the power supply itself by shorting two specific pins on the 24-pin ATX Motherboard power plug to trick it into turning on. (Google how to do this for your brand of power supply.)

If, however, you were able to properly boot and install Windows, and reach the Windows desktop, your PC hardware is most likely healthy, and any problems encountered from here are either related to Windows Updates, outdated or potentially faulty current drivers, or unstable default values in your motherboard BIOS. At worst, by this point, the only hardware faults that can really remain are a faulty graphics card or a bad memory sector on one of your memory modules.

There are telltale signs where your problem may lie. If your computer is crashing when you try to start a graphics-intensive application such as Blender or a game of some kind, you may be looking at an unstable graphics driver or a faulty graphics card. Especially if your computer crashes with no visible BSOD, or you see strange graphics artifacts, there’s something going on here. Try uninstalling your graphics driver and using a slightly older one to see if it helps. If not, keep reading on as you may still have a problem that isn’t a faulty graphics card just yet.

If your computer is halting when doing certain things such as browsing the web, opening a program (such as Adobe Photoshop,) or while working on large files, you’re undoubtedly experiencing a memory issue. Memory problems almost always result in a visible BSOD screen that will happen suddenly. You’ll see error stop code messages like “MEMORY_MANAGEMENT” or “NOT_LESS_OR_EQUAL”. By default, your motherboard tries to assume settings for your memory that are for maximum compatibility, but that doesn’t always mean it’s perfect. DDR4 modules ship with settings presets embedded inside called XMP Profiles. If you access your computer BIOS, you can find and enable your memory XMP Profile to get the optimum settings they require. If you still encounter problems while using the XMP profile, you may be encountering a bad memory sector on one of your modules that’s crashing the CPU. To test for this, simply take one of your two memory modules out. You’ll be running on half the memory, but see if you encounter any problems for a while. If you do, exchange the active module for the one you took out first. If your crashes go away, then you found the culprit bad memory. You can get it exchanged under warranty or for a replacement set from where you bought it from.

For the workstation PC I recently built, I ran into a confusing set of issues, but after a few logical steps I was able to identify the problem. Here’s what went wrong which might help you think about how to approach problems if you find any yourself:

At first, my new PC was working fine for a few days. Then, it would crash when I would use the GPU. This happened while playing back high definition video or starting a game. The computer would freeze, usually the graphics on screen would glitch out, then the computer would turn off, no visible BSOD. At first, I assumed this was a faulty video card, since the fact it happened when a graphics-intensive process would begin and the picture would glitch-out.

Well, I tried rolling back the graphics driver. It didn’t help. I thought maybe a Windows Update happened and it messed something up. So I reinstalled Windows and reset my BIOS settings to factory defaults and started over. Everything worked fine again. So I went back to the BIOS to set my memory XMP profile back and a few other particular settings I prefer. The problems came back. At first I thought the GPU was faulty, but as I just discovered, the crashing was directly related to certain settings I was using in the BIOS. Resetting back to factory defaults, the crashing went away again. I then tried setting JUST the memory XMP profile, and the crashing came back. To my surprise, the XMP profile specifically was not compatible with my CPU or motherboard, and was causing the GPU to crash. This wasn’t a GPU problem at all — it was a memory settings issue. I decided to not use the XMP profile and instead set some of the settings of my memory manually, specifically 3200mhz speed and 1.35v voltage, but keeping the timings as auto-detected. On these settings, the computer ran perfectly, meaning the issue was using the timings recommended by the memory manufacturer was somehow unstable. The solution here was to just use the values recommended by the motherboard for highest stability, and sure enough it hasn’t crashed once since. So for me, what looked a lot like a hardware fault just came down to some incompatible settings between my memory, CPU, and motherboard.

You may not encounter any problems, though, in which case congrats! But if you do, just play it cool and do a little research or talk to the people who can help you. You’ll get through it!


Conclusion

I’ve been building my own PC’s since I was in early high school, so I’m pretty passionate about the self-sufficiency of this as a hobby. I hope you get into it, too and it helps you save money into the future! Remember, you may run into problems while doing this, but they’re all fixable problems. This should be seen as a project that will help you out after putting the work in — not an easy AND cheap solution to something you needed yesterday. Feel free to comment below if you need to know something I didn’t cover here, I’d like this to potentially be a conversation that helps many digital artists!

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