Building an inexpensive, high-performance PC for Windows 7

The time is right to start putting together a system that will make Windows 7 shine -- without breaking the bank.

Microsoft is set to release its newest operating system, Windows 7, on October 22. "Oh no," you might be groaning, "not another Windows upgrade!"

Those of us who have been through one or more previous upgrades, from, say, Windows 98 to Windows XP or from XP to Vista, have learned that upgrades can be a painful process, fraught with hardware and software compatibility issues that create ongoing operational problems -- or worse, make a PC nonfunctional.

It's unlikely that the upgrade process will improve with Windows 7. Upgraders -- especially those making the leap to the 64-bit version of Windows 7 -- will most likely suffer through a slew of hardware, software and driver incompatibilities.

The simplest and quickest way to deploy Windows 7 will be on new hardware, avoiding the whole upgrade process. But instead of buying an off-the-shelf PC, I recommend that you build your own system. Building your own gives you the flexibility to get exactly what you want, and it creates a sense of accomplishment -- not to mention that for many of us, it's just plain fun.

One of the most time-consuming aspects of building your own, though, isn't actually putting the system together -- it's the process of navigating through the plethora of processors, motherboards, storage devices and video cards available today.

Minimum hardware specs for Windows 7
  • 1GHz CPU
  • 1GB of RAM
  • 16GB of drive space
  • DirectX 9-capable graphics card or integrated chip

Microsoft has provided some minimum specifications for Windows 7 (see box). But minimum specs, as they imply, offer minimum performance -- something most users would not be happy with.

I set out to build a desktop system that will run Windows 7 efficiently, support future upgrades and keep a lid on costs. What follows is an explanation of my component picks that I hope will be helpful to anyone else who wants to build a Windows 7 PC. (If you've got any suggestions, don't hesitate to let us know in our comments section.)

The prices given throughout the story are common "street" prices as shown on shopping comparison sites Pricegrabber, Google Product Search and mySimon in early August 2009. Any good shopper should be able to get the components for these prices or less.

Note: This article assumes you already know how to build a PC from scratch. If you need help, Lifehacker offers a good basic tutorial.

CPU

The most important component of a PC is the CPU. Selecting the proper processor can mean the difference between an expensive failure and an economical success. The market is saturated with CPUs, coming in at different price points, performance levels and thermal envelopes (the power required and heat generated by the processor). I took a look at what was available on the market today and combined that information with my experiences with the various CPUs I've tested in the past.

Windows 7 is designed to leverage multiple processors, so more processor cores are better. Choosing a quad-core over a dual- or single-core processor will deliver better performance while not increasing the price significantly.

Super high-end CPUs like the Intel Core i7 Extreme Edition 965 and 975 cost $1,000 or more -- far too expensive for the majority of users. Intel also offers three lower-cost, lower-performance quad-core CPUs under the i7 brand -- the 2.66GHz Core i7 920, the 2.93GHz Core i7 940, and the 3.06GHz Core i7 950 -- but they're still not cheap, ranging from $290 to $600. The Core i7 processors also require expensive support components, further increasing the total price of a Core i7-based PC.

AMD Phenom II x4 955
AMD Phenom II x4 955

With economy in mind, I chose to use AMD's latest processor, the quad-core Phenom II x4 955 Black Edition. AMD's CPU runs at 3.2GHz and has a street price of around $250.

While not as fast as Intel's Core i7 in raw performance, AMD's CPU is significantly cheaper and outperforms similarly priced Intel CPUs. The 955 also supports overclocking and DDR3 RAM when used with a socket AM3 motherboard.

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