What You Need to Build a Computer Under $500

Put together an impressive machine on a budget

Building Your Own Computer Isn't As Hard As You Think

Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

If you're reading this, it's a good bet you enjoy computer technology. But perhaps you've never really dove into the hardware side of things.

If this is the case, building your own computer is a great way to get started. Not only do you end up with a machine that's exactly to your specifications, you'll also gain a lot of insight into how they work. Below, we'll not only outline what you'll need, but also put together a list of parts for a very capable PC for $500 or less.

This article focuses on hardware, not software. If you're a Windows user, you'll need to purchase a version of the OS yourself.

01
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The Motherboard

The Asus Prime H310I-PLUS Motherboard

 Amazon/ASUS

The motherboard will determine just about every other element of your computer, so choose carefully. The motherboard dictates how much RAM can be supported, what type of graphic support you have without an external card, and how many connections you have for peripherals.

But your main concern should be which type(s) of processor you can install. Motherboards are categorized by the type of socket they contain, which support a particular family of processors. For this build, lets go with the ASUS Prime H310I-PLUS, but check our overview of the best motherboards for some options in other form factors.

What We Like

  • LGA1151 Socket for 8th-Gen Intel Processor Support.

  • Holds up to 32 GB of fast DDR4 RAM.

  • 6 SATA ports for plenty of room to add extra storage inside.

  • PCI-E x16 Card Slot, in case you want to add a graphics card later.

What We Don't Like

  • Won't support the very newest 9th-Gen Intel Processors.

  • Only 2 RAM slots, requiring more expensive sticks.

  • Only 1 HDMI port, possibly requiring adapters to support multiple monitors.

02
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The Processor

Intel's 8th Generation i5-8600K Processor

Amazon/Intel

It's often said the processor is the brain of the computer, as just about every process and signal in the computer goes through it. The main things to pay attention to regarding the processor are:

  • 64-bit processor: Make sure you're buying a 64-bit processor. Almost all are nowadays, but it's still worth your attention. If you mess up and buy a 32-bit processor you can't return, you'll likely be undertaking two of these projects just to get your money's worth.
  • Speed: Look at the main indicator of speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), which is the number of cycles the processor can complete in a second. Each cycle represents how fast the processor can deal with a certain number of bits, as determined by whether it's a 32- or 64-bit processor. So the higher the processor's speed in GHz, the more bits it's pushing around the PC to perform work for you.
  • Threads: Also consider the number of threads it can support. Threads represent simultaneous operations, and so a processor with a higher speed and less threads can actually be slower than one with a lower speed but more threads.

We'll grab an 8th Generation Intel i5-8600K for this machine, much like the one rated "Best for Gaming" in our best processors round-up. While it's usually a good idea to go with the latest generation if you can, most 9th Gen processors are out of our price range.

What We Like

  • i5 Processors represent a good compromise of speed and cost.

  • 6 Cores helps multi-tasking apps run smoothly.

  • Boosts from 3.4 GHz up to 4.3 GHz during intensive operations.

  • Uses a respectable 95W of power.

What We Don't Like

  • One generation behind in Intel processors.

  • Relatively weak built-in graphics chip.

03
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The Random Access Memory (RAM)

Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 RAM, 16 GB (2 x 8 GB)

 Amazon/Corsair

Random Access Memory, or (RAM), holds all the information you're currently working with. This means the apps, open files, and data to and from the Internet live (at least temporarily) in RAM. If you have more data than you have RAM, your computer will stash some of it on your drive (this is a page file in Windows, or a swap file in Linux). However, reading from and writing to a drive is much slower than doing the same in RAM.

So it follows that the more RAM you have, the less you'll have to deal with the drive, and the faster things will be. A good rule of thumb when buying or building a computer is to include as much RAM as you can afford.

Our machine will do very well with 16 GB of DDR4 Corsair Vengeance RAM.

What We Like

  • Designed for high performance.

  • Low profile will fit well in a smaller case.

  • Aluminum covering promotes heat dissipation.

04
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The Hard Drive

WD BLACK SN750 500GB NVMe Drive

 Amazon/Corsair

A traditional hard drive uses magnetic disks to store data. You can find drives of this type in very large capacities (e.g. 4 terabytes) for a low price, as it's an older, slower technology.

But solid state drives (SSDs) are the new standard for storage. They're faster, use less power, and are more durable than the mechanical hard drive. However, they're more expensive, with most affordable drives landing in the 128 to 512 GB range. This is plenty for casual users' operating system and applications, but if you have lots of games, a large media library, or work with big files like raw video footage, you might find yourself short on space.

The Western Digital SN750 500 GB NVMe drive gives us a great option for storage, especially this model using the M.2 socket. You could save some money by going with a SATA SSD drive, which will still provide great performance, but we've got the budget for it, which will also leave all of our SATA ports open.

What We Like

  • M.2 NVMe is one of the fastest storage formats available.

  • Using the NVMe slot leaves all the SATA ports available for other peripherals.

  • This smaller drive will be even quieter than a SATA-based SSD.

What We Don't Like

  • For non-performance intensive uses, NVMe drives are more expensive.

05
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The Case

The Rosewill R536-Red Case (250W)

 Amazon/Rosewill

A case is the metal (or plastic, or glass, or wood) box that holds all your components together. It may seem like an unimportant consideration, but there are a couple of other important elements your case might include.

The first of these is a power supply. This is more than just "where the wall plug goes" — to learn more about what to look for in a power supply, check out our buyer's guide on these devices. But at a high level, you'll need to make sure you have a power supply that can handle all the main components discussed above, as well as some peripherals. But don't buy too much either. For example, if your goal is an energy efficient box to attach to your TV, you won't need a big 650-Watt monster.

The second element is cooling. Everything in a PC generates heat, to varying degrees. Cases can have built-in cooling systems ranging from something as simple as a fan, to something as complex as water-filled tubes that whisk the heat away.

But buying these as part of a case ensures that a smart engineer somewhere has selected parts and assembled them in such a way that they'll work together. In fact, that's what a case manufacturer's warranty will provide for you. And in some cases, the case will include not only four walls, a power supply, and some cooling, but the motherboard too! These are a good option as they save you from some of the finer connections you'll need to make.

The Rosewill Mini-ITX Tower with a 250-Watt power supply is a good choice, and not just because it aligns with our motherboard form factor. Despite the name, this is a good-looking case that would be as at home on a desktop as it would be as a home theater PC.

What We Like

  • Compact profile.

  • Three internal drive bays (one 5.25", two 3.5").

  • USB ports on the front panel.

  • Audio ports on the front panel.

What We Don't Like

  • Smaller internal space raises heat concerns.

  • Power supply may not suffice for a large number of peripherals.

As mentioned previously, the above doesn't include Microsoft Windows, and is only focusing on hardware. That said, there are free operating systems like Linux that may work just fine for your needs. However, most people will want Windows, so bear in mind it will be an additional cost.

The above components, based on Amazon prices at the time of writing, comes to roughly $485.44. You can, of course, add peripherals like a DVD-RW drive, digital media card reader, etc, but the above parts will give you everything you need for a great computing experience.

If you're looking to play the latest game titles, the only missing component that could be important is a separate graphics card. But if you're just interested in some light/casual gaming (maybe some retro titles), that shouldn't be a problem.

Overall, in terms of your everyday computing tasks, the above setup's i5 processor, 16GB of RAM, and super-fast NVMe drive should handle it with ease. This includes everything from normal browsing and document work to watching streaming video at good resolution (at least 1080p).