How much does it cost to build a computer, you ask? It depends on how much you want to spend, whether you have any parts you can use already on hand, and what your expectations are. But I can give you some ranges so you can figure it out.
You can build a computer for $300 or even a bit less, if you have parts to reuse. But a high-performance computer will cost more, potentially hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on what you want out of it.
Building versus buying
If your motivation is to save money, be careful. The value here is in getting exactly what you want, not so much in monetary savings. You’ll get better value, even if you don’t save money. And there’s nothing wrong with spending a little more to get exactly how much quality you want, or because you enjoy it, or because you want to learn more about how computers work. Those things all have some value too, even if I can’t necessarily put a specific dollar figure on them.
I’ve gotten some really nasty comments for saying it’s cheaper to buy a computer than build one. In the long run it could be cheaper, since you can reuse a lot of the parts over and over. But you can buy a refurbished office PC for $100, and it’ll be decent. You can’t build a computer for $100.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider building, of course. Even if you only spend a few hundred dollars building a PC, you can get tremendous value.
What you need
To build a computer, you need at least a case, power supply, motherboard, CPU, CPU cooler, RAM, and a storage device. If you’re interested in gaming, you’ll probably also want a video card. Chances are you’ll also need an operating system, a mouse, keyboard, and monitor.
If you buy the cheapest one of everything and slap it together, you can probably build a PC for around $300, to give you a starting point. If you mix in some used parts you can save money. To build an absolute top-of-the-line PC, you can spend thousands on computer components. So when I say it varies, I’m not kidding. Let’s go through each component and talk about what goes into each.
You can pick up a basic case for under $30. Name-brand cases usually don’t come with power supplies, since enthusiasts will want to pick their own. An off-brand case may come with one. So when comparing name brand cases with off-brands, be sure to factor that in. An off-brand case that costs a bit more money may actually cost less. Whether it’s a bargain depends on whether it has a decent power supply in it, and the build quality of the case itself. A lot of cheap cases are made of light-gauge metal that cuts you like a razor. I try not to mess with cheap cases anymore myself, since I still have scars from old battles with cheap cases in the late 90s.
If a case has good, thick metal I’ll buy it regardless of name brand, but if it feels flimsy, I pass. Cases can get expensive but keep in mind you can reuse them in future builds. The ATX standard hasn’t changed in more than 20 years, so I actually have been reusing cases for more than a decade when I build PCs.
People have a tendency to either under-spec or over-spec their power supply, trying to get by with the $15 cheapie that’s really designed for a basic PC, or putting a 1000-watt behemoth in a PC that could probably get by with half that.
The most demanding component is your video card, so check the power requirements of whatever video card you want and make sure you get a power supply that supports it. For a basic PC, any reputable name-brand power supply will be fine. Most of the big brands rarely sell anything much less than 500 watts these days, which may be overkill, but they aren’t that expensive either.
You can get a no-name power supply for $15 and it might be OK in a basic PC. I’ve used cheap power supplies in emergencies and they’ve worked fine for 3-4 years as long as I didn’t push them too hard. Cheap power supplies of today are better than they were 20 years ago, but I still recommend getting a name brand. If you’re on a tight budget, buy a pre-built refurbished PC to get a combination of quality and low price. You can build a low-end gaming PC for as little as $100 if you’re on a tight budget.
You can get an inexpensive motherboard with a CPU included and the combination probably won’t cost you much more than $75, but it’ll be on the low end of the performance spectrum. The motherboard you actually want probably costs between $50-$100. Enthusiast-grade boards start somewhere around $150-$200 and can run several hundred dollars.
Not every motherboard supports every CPU. Pricier boards usually support the higher-end CPUs and usually have additional performance features, in addition to more memory slots, more USB ports, support for higher-performance SSDs, more connectors for more drives, and so on.
Also, when you buy the motherboard, you can usually get an OEM copy of Windows at a discount price from the same place.
CPU and CPU cooler
While you can get a cheap motherboard with a CPU on it, chances are the CPU you want plugs into a socket on a motherboard you buy separately. You might be surprised how much CPU you can get for $50, and I’ve been known to buy a middle-of-the-road board and team it up with a cheap CPU, tons of memory, and the fastest hard drive I could find or, later, an SSD. Depending on what you’re wanting to do, that’s an option.
Of course, enthusiasts usually start with a $100 CPU and move up from there. But a modern $75 quad-core CPU performs reasonably well, especially if you’re used to an older system.
The stock cooler that comes with the CPU will be adequate for normal use. If you plan to overclock, you’ll probably replace the cooler. If you want to overclock your gaming rig, that’s your right, but I really don’t recommend doing anything financial on an overclocked machine. Here’s why.
You can pay as little as $20 for a 120GB solid state drive these days, if you’re OK with buying something other than a name brand. These drives aren’t fast as SSDs go, but they’ll run circles around any hard drive, and they’re more than big enough for a boot drive. You’ll get much better performance out of a 240 or 480 GB drive, and even 480s are really reasonable these days.
If you get a higher-end board, you’ll get better performance out of an M.2 SSD if you’re willing to pay the premium for it. Of course, there’s little reason to get a higher-end board and not put an M.2 SSD in it.
You may want to supplement the SSD with a mechanical hard drive for higher storage capacity. Put your most often-used stuff on the SSD, then put things that aren’t speed critical on the HDD. You can pick up a 1 TB hard drive for around $40, but if you want to pay $300 for 10 TB of storage, you can.
You can also add a Blu Ray drive if you need optical storage, but these days that’s optional.
While you can put 4 GB of RAM in a PC, there’s little reason to do that if you’re building your own. To run Windows comfortably, you really want 8 GB of RAM, and you should be able to get that for $30-$35 or less. Memory prices historically low in 2020, so it’s possible we may see people loading computers up with tons of memory again for a while. If you’re going to get cheap memory without the fancy heatsinks, get a name brand like Kingston or Crucial. The heatsinks really do more to make the memory look expensive than to serve any useful purpose, but higher-speed memory for high-end CPUs often only comes that way.
Even some inexpensive boards can take 64 GB of RAM these days. That’s overkill. But I do like Windows better with 16 GB than 8. If you can afford 16 GB, go ahead.
How much does it cost to build a computer? More than anything else, it depends on the video card. The cheapest graphics card worth having if you’re building a computer and interested in PC gaming is probably around $100. You can’t really count on a $50 card outperforming the video integrated onto the CPU, and the big-name video games generally need the more powerful cards that start around $100. Prices go on up from there. Way up. You can spend over $800 on a video card if you want.
Keyboard, mouse, and monitor
These components are especially personal, but you can take them with you as you upgrade. I have keyboards from the late 1980s that I still use. You can get a $15 keyboard/mouse combo and a $60 monitor, spend hundreds on each, or anything in between. Believe it or not, you can get some pretty decent inexpensive mechanical keyboards these days.
How much does it cost to build a computer, in conclusion
So how much does it cost to build a computer? Now you know. You can spend $300, $3,000, anywhere in between, or even more. The more important thing is you’ll get the computer you want by taking this route. You can totally put an SSD in a DIY $300 PC and get good performance. If you buy a $300 pre-built, it probably won’t perform as well.