I like my cases how I like my women -- lightweight and protective. A computer case has three purposes in life: to house all the components, to protect them and to provide good airflow to them. Owning the most epic set of plate mail ever created does you no good if you cannot move or breathe in it. However, running around in your auction house tux is also a bad idea if you're the main tank. It's important to find a happy middle ground between the two.
When it comes to computer cases, first, pick out something you like. A case should be an expression of its owner! Pick out a few different cases you like and then narrow down the search by the number of fans the case supports. Modern systems will require at least one 120mm front intake fan and one 120mm rear exhaust fan. A top exhaust fan is a nice bonus, since (as everyone knows) heat rises. You should be able to find a decent enough case for around $50 with free shipping.
She needs more power, Cap'n!
Every single component, from the processor to the case fans, requires power. When it comes to power supplies, you absolutely cannot go the cheap route. A power supply is one of the few components that if it were ever to malfunction can take nearly every other part of your computer with it.
Power supply shopping is rather tricky. When some manufactures list their power supplies as 500-watt units, they are referring to "peak output," or the maximum burst wattage. The peak output can only be sustained for a few moments before the power supply either shuts down or shorts out (neither of which is good if you are the main tank). Other, more honest manufacturers list the "true output," or the maximum sustained wattage the power supply can deliver 24/7. The system we are building today will use about 350-400 watts during heavy gaming, so be sure to pick a power supply with a 400 watt true output.
Whichever power supply you end up choosing, make sure it has at least two SATA connectors, two Molex (4-pin) connecters, one PCI-E (6-pin) connector, one 24-pin (or 20+4-pin) main connector, and most importantly, an 8-pin (or 4+4-pin) 12v EPS connector. Most modern motherboards use the newer 8-pin EPS format, including the budget motherboard we will be using today.
When it comes to processors, the AMD vs. Intel rivalry is almost as large as Horde vs. Alliance. Intel processors currently are faster and pull better gaming benchmarks, but AMD processors are considerably cheaper and pull very decent benchmarks themselves. I'm going to play Kirin Tor here and not tell you which to go with; both have their advantages and disadvantages. I will, however, give you suggestions on processors to buy for whichever side you choose align yourself with.
If you go Intel, your only real budget choice is the i3-530 (or the i3-540, if it's on sale). While the i3-530 only has two physical cores, thanks to hyper-threading, it will show up in Windows as having four threads available. Due to the i3-530's smaller 32nm die and lower power consumption, it has insane overclocking room. A 3.8ghz overclock can be done with little to no voltage increase, and 4.0+ghz can be done easily if you are experienced with overclocking.
On the AMD side, you have a few more options. Just $75 will get you the ever popular tri-core Athlon II X3 440, or for about $15 more, you can grab a true quad-core Athlon II X4 620. If you are the gambling type, for the same price as a 620, you can opt for the dual-core Phenom II X2 555 Black Edition and hope to unlock the two disabled cores. All three of the processors are more than capable of running WoW at full settings.
Now that you've picked out a processor, it's time to choose a home for it. If you went Intel, you will need to find a socket 1156 motherboard. If you went AMD, you will need to find a socket AM3 motherboard. No matter which side you went with, make sure the motherboard supports DDR3, has all solid capacitors and will fit in the case you chose. Micro-ATX cases can only fit Micro-ATX motherboards, while ATX cases will fit both ATX and Micro-ATX motherboards. Other features like USB 3 and SATA 6GB/s are nice if you plan to upgrade in the future but won't affect us for this build.
Memory, thankfully, brings us back out of the Intel vs. AMD debate. For this build, you will need two 2GB sticks of 1.65 volt (or lower) DDR3-1333 memory. They come in handy dual-channel kits with matching lot numbers. The memory should only run you about $90.
Hard drive choices depend on how much other stuff you do on the computer. Do you download movies and music? Are you a MMORPG addict and have WoW, LoTR, AoC and CO all installed? For most people, a 500GB hard drive should last a long while. Just be sure to pick out a SATA 3.0Gb/s, 3.5-inch drive that runs at 7,200 RPM, with at least a 16MB cache.
Your video card choices will be the same as they were in my upgrade article, AMD's Radeon HD 5770 or nVidia's GeForce GTS 250. Either will run WoW at max setting, even after Cataclysm comes out. Just pick your preferred chipset manufacturer or whichever one has the bigger sale going on.
Be cool -- stay in school
There are as many people out there who completely understand Microsoft's licensing rules as there are gnome shaman. The basics of it from my understanding are: If your previous machine had a retail copy of Windows on it, then you may transfer it to a new computer. If your previous computer had an OEM copy of Windows, then you must purchase a new license. However, if you are a student at a qualifying school or college and have a valid .edu email address, you can currently get Windows 7 Professional 64-bit for $20.
Finally, before you check out, if you aren't salvaging a DVD burner from your old computer, be sure to put one in your cart. Also, a cheap $20 CPU heatsink will give you more overclocking headroom, but don't forget the Arctic Silver 5 if you do decide to pick up a heatsink! Your total without operating system should be around $600.
Some assembly required
My best suggestion for the inexperienced builder is to find a friend or family member who's familiar with computers and have him help you do the build. This is how I learned initially, from my dad on a "blazing fast" (at the time) 286 a long, long, time ago in a computer room far, far, away.
Luckily, everything now is keyed, so you can't really get in too much trouble. The CPU will only go in one way (a corner is cut off); memory is also keyed so that you can't put it in backwards; and while you could accidentally put your video card in a 4x slot instead of a full 16x slot, all that will do is cost you a little performance until you move it into the right spot. Just remember to keep yourself grounded. Static electricity is the enemy!
After putting everything together and a few hours of updating Windows and WoW, you should be happily skipping through Dalaran at 30 FPS. Stay tuned next week for the final part of my series on how to build a computer that will last a long time into the future.
Part 1: Is your computer ready for Cataclysm?
Part 3: Building an epic-level computer
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