1. My Third Computer Build

    It’s been almost three years since I built my first custom PC and discussed it on this here money blog. In recent time, that Intel i5-2500K-based desktop has been used almost exclusively by our middle-school-aged daughter (as our old Dell PC, circa 2003, eventually went bye-bye). Should’ve seen that coming, right?

    Lisa and I have our own laptops, so we’re covered if either of us want to do basic home and office stuff. But if we want to game, we’re again relegated to the PS3 or PS4 … unless we feel like pushing Dear Daughter off the PC for a while. (Never fun for anybody, really.)

    The obvious solution, if you’re a geek like me? Build a new PC! Merry Christmas to me!

    Why Build? Why Not Buy Premade?

    Because it’s fun, mostly. And because there are certain features I want on (and not on!) my PC. And, yes, because sometimes your inner geek needs to come out and play.

    But beyond that, let’s consider my First Rule of PC Building:

    The more performance-heavy you want your PC to be, the more money you’ll save by building it yourself.

    Put another way: If you’re someone who’s only into light gaming, office apps, and watching videos on the ‘net, then odds are good you’d be better served (if price is your main consideration) to simply buy a Dell refurb unit and perhaps add a low- or mid-range graphics card to it. (That’s assuming you need a discrete graphics card at all. The integrated graphics in today’s Intel processors are pretty good.)

    I built a budget PC like this for my mother-in-law earlier this year, and when all costs were tallied up (she had no need for a discrete graphics card), it cost her a smidge under $460. (That’s parts only; my handful of hours of labor to research and build were gratis. She also reused her current monitor, keyboard, mouse, and printer.)

    Could she have gotten a Dell refurb more cheaply? Yes.

    Would we have known the quality of the parts Dell used? Nope.

    Would it have come with a bunch of useless, memory-clogging bloatware? Yep.

    So that $460 got my MIL:

    1) Good, quality PC components;
    2) A known level of expandability down the road; if required;
    3) A crapware-free PC; and
    4) The knowledge that if something goes haywire with the machine, or she just has a question, she can contact the dummy who built it and he can be on site pretty quickly if needed.

    If she’d gone the Dell route, it wouldn’t have hurt my feelings. But she seems quite pleased with her custom-built, budget PC. And I think she got a pretty solid Intel-based machine for her money.

    Building My New Gaming Machine

    New BuildAlas, because I want to play current games at high settings, building a sub-$500 PC was not in the cards for me. I also needed new peripherals (monitor, keyboard, and mouse) and had pretty specific desires in those areas. Which means more costs to tack on.

    Here’s my build list, as completed, with my prices in parentheses:

    CPU: Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5GHz Quad-Core Processor ($184.99)
    Motherboard: Asus Z97-PRO ATX LGA1150 Motherboard ($152.99)
    Memory: G.Skill Sniper Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 Memory ($56.99)
    Storage #1: Samsung 840 EVO 500GB 2.5″ Solid State Drive ($209.99)
    Storage #2: Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($49.99)
    Video Card: Asus GeForce GTX 970 4GB STRIX Video Card ($339.99)
    Case: Phanteks Enthoo Pro ATX Full Tower Case ($89.99)
    Power Supply: Rosewill Capstone 450W 80+ Gold Certified Semi-Modular ATX Power Supply ($34.99)
    Optical Drive: Asus DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS DVD/CD Writer ($16.99)
    Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8.1 – 64-bit (OEM) (64-bit) ($84.99)
    Monitor: Dell S2340M 60Hz IPS Panel 23.0″ Monitor ($119.99)
    Wireless Network Adapter: Gigabyte GC-WB867D-I 802.11a/b/g/n/ac PCI-Express x1 Wi-Fi Adapter ($32.99)
    Keyboard: Razer Blackwidow Ultimate Wired Gaming Keyboard ($99.99)
    Mouse: SteelSeries Rival Wired Optical Mouse ($54.99)
    Freebie: Far Cry 4 Game (Bonus w/Video Card; Value $45)
    Total: $1,530

    All parts except the keyboard and mouse came from Amazon and Newegg, as I have free shipping from both. Prices shown include all rebates, including the mail-in variety. (I despise mail-in rebates with every fiber of my being, but money’s money. When it’s there, you take it.)

    Importantly, I was able to take my time with this build. I spaced out the purchases over several weeks to take advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales. I also used other offers which came my way during this time. (Newegg, in particular, is all about email coupon codes, if you didn’t know. So if you’re going to build a PC, get on their email list pronto. And be sure to use PCpartpicker.com to line up your components, compare prices, and sniff out any incompatibilities. It’s an insanely valuable resource.)

    Notes and Comments

    Space wasn’t an issue, so I had the luxury of choosing whatever size case I wanted. The Phanteks Enthoo Pro is about as big as PC cases come. It has no fancy, colored LEDs to make it look like a blinged-out spaceship (as my Cooler Master Storm Enforcer case did, which I used in my 2012 build). But the Enthoo Pro has crazy-good fans, terrific cable-routing tools (like built-in Velcro straps), and best of all, it has four easy-to-remove, easy-to-clean air filters. Since this PC will sit in the same room as our kitty-litter boxes, such filters are VITAL.

    Having a solid-state hard drive wasn’t in my plans originally. However, I took the leap, thanks to the many positive reviews I read on PC-building message boards. For those who care about such things, with Windows 8.1 and other startup software on the Samsung solid-state drive, this PC goes from power-on, to BIOS, to Windows 8.1 log-in in a brisk 16 seconds. Desktop is ready immediately thereafter.

    While I did purchase a Wi-Fi network card for this machine, that turned out to be unnecessary. In the week leading up to my build date, I worked up the guts to go crawling in our attic, where I wired several rooms in our house with Cat 6 cable. So my new PC’s connection is land-line fast, and the wireless card’s only job is to take up a small bit of space on the motherboard. There’s another $33 I might’ve saved.

    No, It Ain’t Cheap

    Fifteen hundred bucks is a bunch of money, to be sure. But drop the monitor, keyboard, and mouse (which lots of less-picky folks would reuse from old systems), and that’d shave the total down to $1,255.

    When I used these same parts to piece together a built-for-you machine at a couple of online places, their prices for a near-copy build never got below $2,000. And it still wasn’t an even comparison, as those places offered only no-name, cheaper monitors, and lower-quality power supplies. And no freebie Ubisoft game.

    At Dell/Alienware, it took $1,999 to get a PC with the same graphics card (GTX 970) and a slightly better CPU (i7 at 3.8GHz, vs. my i5 at 3.5GHz). But even at that $1,999 price, the Dell/Alienware machine was without a solid-state hard drive. It also had no monitor, no gaming keyboard, and no gaming mouse. Though the Alienware machine’s appearance certainly was, uh, nonstandard. I’ll give it that. If you’re into that sort of thing, maybe it’s worth the markup.

    In the end, I once again had a great time building a Windows-based PC for our household. Barring breakdowns, I feel pretty strongly that my $1,500 or so outlay will keep me in gaming bliss for years to come … and that I got quite a bit more for my money than if I’d gone the prebuilt route.



  2. Quicken 2013: Budgeting Woes

    It was mid-January when I pushed Quicken Deluxe 2010 aside, and upgraded to Quicken Deluxe 2013. Thirty or forty minutes in, and I already had a bad feeling that this particular upgrade wasn’t going to be one that made me smile.

    I’ve been a devout Quicken user since the 1990s, with upgrades done typically every two or three years. It was Quicken Deluxe 2010’s “In / Out / What’s Left” feature …

    In / Out / What's Left

    … which finally allowed me to break away entirely from keeping separate budgets in Excel. I couldn’t tell whether this tool was still around in Quicken Deluxe 2013, as the packaging didn’t show it, but I went ahead and took the leap. Hope and prayer, and all that.

    “In / Out / What’s Left” Is Still There

    Yes, the “In/Out/What’s Left” chart is still in Quicken 2013 Deluxe, but it doesn’t show by default (as it did in 2010). Plus it’s pretty well hidden. It took me several weeks of sorta/kinda searching to figure this out. I will say that, until I found the darn thing, I was a sad, sad man whenever it came time to fire up Quicken and punch in some transactions.

    To get the “In/Out/What’s Left” view to appear on your Home desktop:

    HOME tab → Home button → Customize button → in “Available Items” window, scroll down to Planning section → select “In/Out/What’s Left” → click ADD.

    See? Just like that, I had my beloved “What’s Left” cash-flow tool back, and all was right with the world.

    Kind of.

    Quicken’s Budgeting Tool Gets Another Look

    I’ve stated in the past that Quicken’s budgeting features are miserable. Up to this point, if readers ever emailed me, asking for my opinions on budgeting tools, I’d inevitably point them toward Excel (“Make your own budgeting spreadsheet, or use one of mine“) or YNAB.

    It appears that Intuit really tried to revamp their budgeting tools in Deluxe 2013, which was a fine idea. The fact that I can see a year’s worth of spending and budgets at once is quite lovely:

    Quicken's Budget

    And by “lovely,” I mean it’s a good thing to see an annual budget breakdown once you’ve spent hours upon hours getting Quicken tweaked to show things correctly. Because if you don’t, you’ll find yourself and your budget in some time-warp, federal-government “minus equals plus and red means overspending and red is good” bizzaro money world.

    So yes, I still assert that YNAB’s budget setups make Quicken’s look, sound, and smell like utter crap. But in this arena, any progress (for Intuit) is good progress.

    Sadly, even with the revamp, I still can’t say much for Quicken’s budgeting prowess overall.

    Clunky, Clunky, Clunky

    Much like a pissed-off porcupine, Quicken’s budget is hard to handle. Selecting categories to include in your budget is a serious time-sink, for one thing.

    It’s worth noting here that Quicken’s budget can and will start right from Penny One of your previously set up paychecks. So if you’re one of those dorks who, like me, tracks your income from its pretax levels, all the way down through taxes, deductions, and everything else, you’re going to have a jolly ol’ time slogging through this as it relates to your budget(s).

    How do I know? Because I spent weeks kludging my way to what I already knew was my baseline “available to budget” amount, all because Quicken was applying my 401k employer-match amounts to the expense side of the budgeting ledger (because I want transfers to my 401k to count as a budgeting outflow) … but it wouldn’t count the initial employer-match “income” on the income side of things. Thus my “Remaining to Budget” amount appeared smaller than it really was. And figuring out why it refused to count the income was perfectly maddening.

    Turns out that, to rectify this, I had to figure out how Quicken was categorizing the employer-match money behind the scenes — and “_401 Employer Contrib” is the correct answer, kids. Then, for this category to even be made available in your budget, you have to checkmark “Show hidden categories” at the very bottom of the “Select Categories to Budget” form.

    Finding the category...

    And of course, because it would make NO SENSE WHATSOEVER to place “_401 Employer Contrib” in the “Personal Income” category group, you have to spend time scrolling through roughly 4,267,184 other categories in the “All Categories” group to find “_401 Employer Contrib” way down near the bottom of the list.


    Well, at least now, after several weeks, I’ve got Quicken’s budget set up to at least show me good “actual” spending numbers. I haven’t even approached the “budget” inputs yet. Should I desire to plan our income and spending months in advance, I think Quicken can make it happen. The question is: What Quicken budget idiosyncrasies have I not yet discovered? You just know there’ll be more.

    Only time will tell.



  3. First Computer Build: RAM Issues

    Well, I’ve encountered my first hardware failure with my aforementioned desktop computer build.

    Last weekend the PC began experiencing random BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) errors in Windows 7 — sometimes during ‘net surfing, sometimes during gaming, and sometimes watching YouTube vids.

    Suspecting a possible software issue because I’d recently installed a couple of things, I set about completing a Win7 restore operation. No go — restores would not complete.

    Next check: hard-drive testing. Windows’ CHKDSK took a while, but completed normally.

    And then: RAM testing. Rut ro … Windows’ memory testing application quickly reported back that the RAM had errors.

    Turning to the ‘net for a bit of guidance, I performed a more thorough RAM test with Memtest86. With both Corsair RAM sticks installed, Memtest returned thousands and thousands of errors.

    I removed one stick and retested — no problems.

    Swapped that stick out for the other, and retested. Result: quadzillions of errors.

    So there you go: One of my two Corsair 4g RAM sticks has crapped out ofter just over a month of use. I’ll be replacing the pair of RAM cards with a pair of 4gb sticks from Kingston. (I’ve had good luck with Crucial in the past, but Kingston can be had with free 2-day shipping thru Amazon Prime … and I do loves me some Amazon Prime.)



  4. My First Computer Build

    It was something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time … but never really had the guts to attempt.

    Until several weeks ago.

    After perusing Dell’s website for a while, and being not at all impressed with the price/performance ratios I saw, I determined that I was going to build my own computer. For the first time. At age forty.

    It’s now done. The computer works, even. And because of that, the build was actually quite fun. Here’s my wrapup, for those interested. (Hey, it’s related to personal finance, because if nothing else, I saved some money!)

    Our History with PCs

    Lisa and I have owned quite a few PCs over the years, starting with Acers and Compaqs (both were crap) many moons ago. Our latest desktop PC was a Dell, as was the one prior to that.

    We bought the current Dell Dimension desktop back in 2003; it’s been a solid and durable machine over the years, requiring only modest upgrades here and there. (I think I added a 256mb Nvidia video card at one time, plus a second hard drive. And maybe some RAM as well.)

    These days it languishes in our home’s “computer room.” Due to its age, the Dell is little more than a dust-collecting hub of sorts for our printer, wireless router, and our several household laptops … and it’s an occasional gateway to the interwebs for our daughter. (When she’s not able to get on a laptop because Mommy and Daddy are using them, that is.)

    Time for a New Computer: Our Goals

    Lisa and I aren’t diehard “gamerz,” but when we find games we like, we’ll play the crap out of ’em. Such is the case with current offerings like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Civilization V, and the various Sims concoctions. (Not to mention the upcoming Diablo III, assuming it ever actually hits the shelves.)

    In recent years, what games our family has played have been on our PS3 and Wii. This is fine … to a point. The PS3 is nice, but it has always been our opinion that, while game consoles have their merits, the more involved games (i.e., not button-mashers) are best played on PC. Mods and cheats … yay!

    (In our pre-kid years, Lisa and I had great fun staying up ’til 3 or 4am playing the Civilization series, and darker stuff like Nocturne, on our desktop.)

    Obviously, a 2003 Dell Dimension with a Pentium 4 and a 256mb video card isn’t gonna play Skyrim at any sort of acceptable level. Nor will it run Civ V. Nor will any of our laptops. (Well, our laptops will play Civ V okay, but that’s about as far as they’ll go.)

    And given the fact that our Dell is now making all kinds of noise while it’s running (pretty much 24/7), is useless for the sort of gaming we really want to be able to do, and is long past the end of its upgrade cycle, we decided that a new computer was in the cards.

    Now, the choice: Buy prebuilt, or build our own?

    Comparing, Contrasting, Considering

    Remember how I mentioned that I’d always kind of wanted to build my own computer, using components selected by me? Well, that’s absolutely true. But even this time, my first inclination was to shop Dell, since we’d had such good luck with their desktops in the past.

    But the more I perused Dell’s site, the more I understood that I was going to be spending around $1,400 to get a computer that would do what I wanted, gaming-wise. That seemed a bit stout. Add onto that the fact that that computer would come preloaded with lots of Dell crapware that I didn’t want, and you have the foundations for my going the self-built route.

    1) I want a computer that’s built from decent components. I want to know what’s “in the box.” I want to know that the PC maker didn’t give me a nice video card, but cut corners with a cheapo motherboard or power supply.

    2) Improved price/performance. Sure, I could find a Dell PC that games all night. But to get one comparable to what I built myself (for $1,100) would’ve cost me at least $1,400 from Dell. And even then, it would be “dirty.” That’s explained next.

    3) I don’t want a PC that’s preloaded with gigs of crapware. Experience has taught me that OEM bloatware is a royal PITA to remove. Frankly, I’m tired of dealing with it, and I’m damn sure tired of paying for it. Figuring out what can go, and what can’t, is a gargantuan task in itself, and often fraught with compu-peril. (Of course, you can always just reformat the hard drive on Day One, installing a clean MS Windows, Linux, or whatever. That’s what I’ve done with a couple of laptops. But hunting down the correct drivers wasn’t much fun.)

    4) Upgradeability. If you choose the components, you’ll know what they can handle going forward. If you build the system, you’ll know what’s involved as upgrades become necessary (new hardware, drivers, etc.). This, to me, is a big plus.

    5) Nom nom nom: Brain food. Building a computer is fun — when everything works, of course. Plus it’s just a good hands-on learning experience. For me, there’s a certain measure of pride in building something that doesn’t just look nice, but is also productive and useful in some way. Certainly that can apply to “computer building” just as it does to other things I enjoy (woodworking, software, and so on).

    Research … And Choices Made

    So those were my reasons. As I’d never built a PC before, it was a certainty that lots of research was going to have to take place. Hours of message-board reading at sites like Tom’s Hardware was a given, but I also wanted to grab a book of some sort on the topic. For this, I chose Building the Perfect PC, and read it front-to-back a couple of times on my Kindle app.

    I found Building the Perfect PC to be extremely informative, and — perhaps more importantly — quite reassuring for a newbie builder. Among other things, it gave me some idea of “good reputation” PC-component manufacturers. And if nothing else, having such a book in my Kindle archives pretty much certifies my 100% Geekitude.

    For those folks interested in such things, I’ll list out the components I chose, along with a brief bit of reasoning on each:

    CPU: Intel Core i5 2500K ($220 @ Amazon)
    As of the time of this post, the Intel i5 2500K is an overwhelming choice of gaming-PC builders. Its stability when overclocked (maybe something I’d consider later) is unsurpassed. The fact that it’s not Intel’s current Top of the Line CPU means it costs ~$100 less than an i7 … but with no real performance drop-off for the things I’ll be doing.

    Video Card: Sapphire Radeon HD 6970 2gb ($340 @ Amazon)
    Contemporary video cards are rather pricey, and because we wanted one that would last us for a while, the video card was always going to be the single most expensive component of the build. With lots of great reviews, the HD 6970 seemed to be a very strong graphics card. Again, it’s not top-of-the-line, but certainly strong enough to keep us in HD gaming bliss for years to come.

    Motherboard: ASUS P8Z68-V/GEN3 ($185 @ Amazon)
    Calls to a couple of professional PC builders (friends of friends) suggested to me that ASUS was one of the two or three premier mobo manufacturers today. From there, it was just a matter of finding an ASUS mobo with the correct size factor (ATX), processor setup (LGA 1155, matching Intel Core i3 / i5 / i7), and features to do the job I wanted. This one fit the bill nicely.

    RAM: Corsair 8gb (2x4gb) PC3-12800 1600mHz DDR3 ($49 @ Amazon)
    RAM seems pretty darn cheap these days, and 8gb should be quite enough to keep Windows 7 Pro, plus any games, running smoothly for a long time.

    (UPDATE: One of these two sticks of Corsair RAM bit the dust within the space of a few weeks. They’ve been replaced by 8gb of Kingston SDRAM ($40). So far, all is going well.)

    Power Supply: Corsair 550-Watt Modular Power Supply ($98 @ Amazon)
    The Corsair brand of power supplies came highly recommended, over and over again, on the PC-builder forums I read. If I ever wanted to add a second video card, I’d have to go to a larger power supply. But for now, 550 watts should do the trick. (I also read that power supplies are often the first component that mainline PC makers like Dell, HP, and so on will skimp on to keep prices down.)

    Hard Drive: Seagate 7200rpm 500gb SATA Hard Drive ($85 @ Amazon)
    Meh, it’s a hard drive, and you gotta have one. Seagate has been good to me over the years, so I went with them. As of right now, hard-drive prices are quite dear, thanks to flooding in Thailand which decimated all the HD manufacturers’ factories. Prices which would’ve gotten me a 1TB hard drive (or larger) last year are getting me only a 500gb version now. Bah.

    But, when prices come back down, this can always be upgraded pretty easily. And I’m open to adding a solid-state drive later, as well, for just the operating system and related files.

    DVD Drive: Lite-On 24X DVD+/-RW Dual-Layer Drive ($25 @ Amazon)
    Meh, it’s a DVD drive. These things are expendable. You’ll pay more for dinner out at a decent BBQ joint.

    Case: Cooler Master Storm Enforcer Mid Tower ATX Case ($89 @ Amazon)
    Lots of great reviews on Amazon helped this case catch my eye. I wanted a full-sized case, since space isn’t really an issue for us at the moment. Plus, it needed to be compatible with ATX-form motherboards like the ASUS one I chose above. The newbie-friendliness (spacious, good wiring management, durability) of the Enforcer was also a plus.

    Operating System: Windows 7 Professional
    I had a new and unopened copy of Windows 7 Pro from a previous laptop cleanup that never materialized. Already having this OS disc ready to go meant I would save at least $100 on this build. (To save money, one could always go the open-source Linux route, too. But that was never really an option for me.)

    We already had an unused wireless keyboard/mouse setup in our stash, as well as a set of PC speakers. Had I wished to do so, I could’ve used the LCD monitor attached to our Dell. I went ahead and upgraded both the speakers and the monitor once the new computer was built and functioning, but those items weren’t integral to the build.

    The Final Price Tag

    And those are the components I chose. For the wallet-watchers keeping track, the tally goes like this:


    If a Windows 7 operating system disc had been needed, I’d have added another $100 (at least) to that total.

    Putting It All Together

    There are skads of YouTube videos showing how to build a desktop PC, step by step. And I watched a lot of them.

    All in all, the build went very smoothly. I’d estimate that it took a Very Nervous Me about half of a Saturday to piece everything together, creeping toward that “Okay, time to press the power button!” moment. I did lots of precautionary static-discharging, as well as lots of double- and triple-checking of my cables and connections.

    The rest of my build day was taken up with installing the OS, updating drivers, getting acquainted with BIOS options, and loading some basic software (virus protection, Adobe Reader, Flash, etc.) on the machine. And let me tell you: Heaven is firing up your brand new, self-built PC, and finding a Windows desktop with nothing on it other than Recycle Bin. Glory, glory, hallelujah, and so on.

    The ASUS motherboard fit perfectly in the Cooler Master case; I didn’t have to flex or bend the board a bit for it to line up with the mounting screw-holes. I did have to remove one of the two drive cages in order for the Radeon video card to fit, as it’s pretty darn large. No biggie, though, as I’m not interested in throwing an additional five or six drives (DVD, hard disc, or otherwise) into this machine.

    I am extremely happy with the Cooler Master case. It is sturdy as heck, and looks great. Front USB and audio jacks are at the top of the case, so they’re super-convenient to access. (Contrast this to our current Dell, where the front USB ports are at the bottom, angled down, and covered by a door that obscures them from view, even when open. You can’t see which way to plug in a USB device unless you’re laying on the floor, OR unless you keep the PC on your desk, at eye level. Nice design, huh?)

    Internally, the Cooler Master’s nooks/crannies for running SATA and all the other cables are plentiful. Air flow (via the case’s two fans) seems great. The DVD and hard drives were ridiculously easy to install.


    Pretty much as I’d figured, building a computer was fun. This stands to reason, as I am, obviously, a total geek.

    The computer’s been running and gaming for a couple of weeks now. I still get giddy whenever it fires up and I have that spotless, crapware-free Windows desktop shining up at me. (Please — no comments about how Windows itself is crapware. Its drawbacks, certainly, are many.)

    Yes, I had a blast putting together a machine that actually works and does something. Sure, this one’s mostly for gaming and ‘net surfing. But if you’re a guy like me, who remembers so vividly that glorious moment in 1980 when you first placed your fourth-grade hands on a computer (a Radio Shack TRS-80, in my case) and watched, astounded, as its green screen responded, text-adventure-style, to your typed commands … well, the fact that you JUST BUILT ONE OF THOSE THINGS AND IT ACTUALLY FREAKIN’ WORKS is a mighty, mighty achievement indeed.

    How far things have come. How wonderfully, amazingly far.