Computing on the Cheap

Kaya Systems

It (literally) pays to know all the crafty ways you can save money without sacrificing your power user cred

As much as we love ogling top-of-the-line PC hardware and fantasizing about price-be-damned rigs, we also love, love, love to stretch a dollar. Does that make us cheapskates? You betcha, if that’s what you want to call someone who doesn’t pay a premium when he or she doesn’t have to. Sign us up! In fact, where computing is concerned, knowing all the various angles to save a buck—a buck that can then be put toward new and better gear, mind you—is as much a part of being a power user as knowing how to flash a BIOS or overclock RAM. If you’re currently spending top dollar on your PC activities, it’s time you got schooled in the fine art of penny-pinching. From free software alternatives, to the best deals on all forms of digital entertainment, to hardware-buying tips, to our blueprint for a $600 PC, this year’s Cheapskate’s PC Guide can save you thousands of dollars and make you a more savvy consumer in the process.

The Hewlett-Piggard Hamminator P1000

Save on Software

Why plunk down cash when you can have these outstanding free alternatives?

The sad truth about building a PC is that you never end up sticking to your budget. Even if you manage to resist the temptation to splurge on an extra SSD, you’re going to hit the point where your brand-new system is assembled and ready for action—just as soon as you buy some software. First you shell out for the operating system, then some office software, then a security suite. Before you know it, your budget is ancient history and you’re taking out a second mortgage to pay for Photoshop.

Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some excellent free software options that can take the place of pricey commercial applications.

AV: Microsoft Security Essentials

It’s getting harder and harder to justify paying for an antivirus suite, now that Microsoft offers its own capable AV solution. Microsoft Security Essentials provides real-time system scanning, Windows Firewall integration, and rootkit protection, all for the unbeatable price of zero dollars. We say slap it on any new system, and leave paying for AV to the idle rich.

File Backup: Syncback Free

You know all those photos you have on your hard drive? Priceless reminders of family vacations and childhood memories? Well, it would be a real shame if something happened to them.

No, we’re not trying to shake you down—this is just a reminder that you should be using software to automatically back up any file you’re not prepared to lose. SyncBack Free is a great choice for backing up and synchronizing your valuable files, automatically. If you want to go a step further and clone your whole drive, our standing recommendation is Macrium Reflect .

Office Suite: Google Docs

In the past we’ve recommended Open Office (or its descendant, LibreOffice) as the best free replacement for Microsoft Office, but we think it’s time for a change. Let’s all admit to ourselves that much of what we currently do using software on our hard drives will, in the next few years, move over to the cloud. Office software has been some of the first to make the transition, and nowadays there’s no reason you can’t use Google Docs as your everyday productivity software.

Google Docs can create and edit documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms. It’s also a great way to collaborate remotely, as multiple people can log in and work on shared documents simultaneously.

Photo Editor: GIMP

There’s still only one truly good replacement for Adobe’s versatile-yet-oh-so-expensive Photoshop, and that’s GIMP. The Gnu Image Processor (for long) is open source, free, and has all the tools you need to spruce up your photos, do a little image manipulation, or add some LOLtext to a picture of a cat. If the built-in features aren’t enough for you, there’s an extensive library of scripts and add-ons available online that should provide what you need.

Vector Editor: Inkscape

GIMP can help you with any raster (that is, pixel-based) editing you do, but it’s no good for creating vector-based images. Vector images, which can be smoothly scaled to any size, are the perfect format for company logos or any other illustration that you want to be able to use over and over again. Adobe Illustrator is the standard application for vector editing, but like all professional Adobe software, it’s very expensive.

Instead, take a look at Inkscape. Inkscape is yet another product of the open-source scene, and it has all the tools you need to create great-looking, high-quality vector graphics.

Desktop Publishing: Scribus

Finishing off the trifecta of open-source design apps is Scribus, which lets you take all those graphics you’ve created in GIMP and Inkscape (along with any text you’ve written in Google Docs), and lay them out on a page for publishing. Whether you’re putting together an e-book, a magazine, or just the family newsletter, a desktop publishing app like Scribus is the best way to create a professional layout that you can re-use whenever you want.

Adobe Software for $30

If you’re a creative professional, you know that Adobe programs like Photoshop , Illustrator , and Premiere are the industry standard for a reason. They are streamlined, well documented, and incredibly powerful. They are also, unfortunately, incredibly expensive. There’s an inexpensive Elements version of Photoshop and Premiere available, but if you need access to the professional-level Creative Suite for personal projects or freelance work, you could be out $1,000 or more in startup costs. Or, you could spend $30.

Adobe is now offering full versions of all its Adobe Creative Suite software on a rental basis, so if you need Photoshop for a certain project, you can simply rent it for $30 a month with a one-year subscription. If you’re sad that you don’t get to keep it when you’re done, just pop a bottle of champagne and console yourself by rolling around in all the money you saved.

Click the next page to read about free video editing and cloud storage software.

Video Editing: Lightworks

For a long time, nonlinear video editing software was something you just couldn’t really get for free. Microsoft’s Windows Live Movie Maker is free, and can be a good option for very basic video editing tasks, but if you’re looking to put together anything more complicated than a simple home video, it just doesn’t have the feature set you’ll need. Other than that, you’re pretty much out of luck. There’s Blender , which is free and actually has a fairly powerful sequencer, but something just feels off about doing our video editing in a 3D-modeling application. There have also been a number of high-quality open-source video editors in Linux, but those haven’t been of any help in Windows. Until now, that is.

Earlier this year, professional video editing software Lightworks went open source, and released a free version for Windows. The software was formerly a professional film‑editing suite (The King’s Speech, The Departed, and Braveheart are just a few films that were edited in Lightworks), and therefore has a pretty steep learning curve. Additionally, only a handful of codecs are supported for importing footage, unless you upgrade to the Pro version, which is offered for only $60. Even with those caveats, Lightworks is hands-down the most powerful video editing suite you can get for free.

DVD Playback: VLC

If you bought an optical drive to play movies, but don’t have a copy of playback software like Cyberlink PowerDVD, you might think you’re out of luck. But don’t take out your wallet just yet—if all you need is bare-bones video playback, VLC might be just right for you. The free, open‑source player can handle pretty much any digital video file, as well as video DVDs. Blu-ray playback is also possible in VLC, although you’ll need to do a little Googling if you want to watch copy-protected discs.

Operating System: Ubuntu

If you’ve gotten this far in your hunt for free software, it might be time to think about going all the way. That’s right—the ultimate in free computing: Linux . Nearly every program mentioned so far started as a Linux application before being ported to Windows, and there are still more free software packages that aren’t available on Microsoft’s OS.

If you’re ready to get started with Linux, you’ll want to create an Ubuntu Live CD from the website. Ubuntu’s the most user-friendly Linux distro, and the easiest to get started with. Once you’ve downloaded the installer, just burn it to a CD, put the disc in your drive, and restart. When your computer boots from the live CD, you’ll be able to try out Ubuntu and see how you like it. If you want to go all the way, you can install the full operating system to your hard disc.

Linux is great for productivity applications, but it doesn’t always have an equivalent for your favorite Windows applications. You can use WINE in Linux to run most Windows applications natively.

Free Cloud Storage

Cloud storage solutions are cheaper and more numerous than ever before, with several contenders just begging to give you something for nothing. But what if one service and 5GB isn’t enough for your vast collection of J-Pop and Klingon poetry? Pay attention, young Padawan: We’ll show you how to get the biggest bang from your lack of bucks when choosing a free cloud service.

Microsoft SkyDrive - Old‑skool SkyDrivers are sitting pretty on 25GB of free cloud storage, but new users are “limited” to 7GB. Even so, that’s more than the competition offers, and SkyDrive hooks deeply into the native apps found in both Windows Phones and Windows 8.

Google Drive - Google Drive offers 5GB of free storage and the same basic functionality as SkyDrive, including the ability to edit documents with others in real time through your web browser. We prefer Google Docs to Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, though, which makes Google Drive a great place to stash documents, spreadsheets, and slide shows.

SugarSync - SugarSync adds another 5GB of free cloud storage to your total, but more importantly, it syncs any folders of your choosing on your PC. The desktop clients of the other services mentioned here force you to stash your files in a predetermined location. That makes SugarSync a terrific option for a hands-off, constantly updated backup of critical folders, such as your Documents folder.

Dropbox - At first blush, Dropbox’s free 2GB offer pales in comparison to the others, but a little legwork opens up a bountiful cornucopia of free storage. Using the Camera Upload feature and linking social media accounts earn you more space, but the big payoff comes in referring friends: Each referral gets you another 500MB, capped at a whopping 16GB of free additional space. Don’t want to bug your pals? We’ve already explained how to game the system .

Add it all up and that’s 22GB of free cloud storage. Plus, Dropbox doesn’t impose size restrictions on files uploaded via the desktop client. It’s ideal for large file dumps.

Box - Box is just a 5GB storage locker; it doesn’t sync files, search text, or offer version histories. What it does do is frequently hold promotions for 50GB of free space. Files are still limited to 100MB in size, though. ADrive offers 50GB free without all the hoop-jumping, but its craptastic web-only interface and lack of mobile support make it more hassle than hurrah.

Grand Total: 44GB, or 119GB if you’re a veteran SkyDrive user who hops on Box’s 50GB offer. Not too shabby for nothing! Protip: With the exception of SugarSync, disable the services’ desktop clients from running at startup to avoid needlessly tying up system resources.

Click the next page to see which free-to-play games we recommend

F2P Games is FTW

A growing number of truly good free-to-play games has us giddy

The biggest story in gaming over the last few years has been the rise of the "free‑to‑play" business model, where publishers let gamers access the core game for free, then turn a profit off of optional microtransactions. There are just about a million F2P games available today, but only some of them are worth your time. Here are eight games that can be really, truly fun even if you don’t pay a single penny.

Team Fortress 2

Valve’s flagship team-based shooter went free-to-play just over a year ago, and it has become the perfect example of how to implement the business model. For the low, low price of absolutely nothing, you get the full game, with all characters and all maps. Any server, any game mode. Extra weapons allow for different play styles, but don’t give an advantage, and can be unlocked without paying anything, if you’re patient. If you’ve gone this long without playing Team Fortress 2, you’re missing out—download it today.

League of Legends

You’ve probably heard of League of Legends. It’s the biggest name in the new MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) genre, and its growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. Recent usage figures from XFire show League of Legends as the most-played online PC game.

Period. By a wide margin. So what’s the secret to LoL’s success? Our money is on the extreme ease with which you can get into the game. At any given time, a balanced subset of the game’s roster of 100‑plus champions is available for free, and more champions can be unlocked by winning games. The competition’s fierce, but you can go all the way to the top without spending any money.

Everquest 2

These days, if you look at the total number of MMORPGs, you’ll find that at least 80 percent offer some sort of free-to-play option. Of these, there are two very distinct varieties. On one hand, you’ve got a vast expanse of same-ish Korean and Chinese MMOs with pretty graphics, grindy gameplay, and extortionist microtransactions. On the other, there’s the Western MMO-in-decline—games that once used a traditional subscription business model, but have switched to free-to-play after subscriber numbers dwindled. Everquest 2 is a great example of the latter, with a generous free option (including the original game and six expansion packs), plus a monthly subscription model for those who want full access.


Nexon is the Korean publisher behind a slew of free-to-play games, including eight currently running MMOs in America and tons more overseas. Of all these, we recommend Vindictus as the best Asian-style MMO for a Western audience.

It’s still a bit of a grind, but the combat is fun and fast-paced, and the dark, gritty graphics are absolutely gorgeous.

Combat Arms

If you’re dying for a team-based modern military shooter, but don’t want to shell out for the latest Call of Duty game, give Combat Arms a try. With CounterStrike-style action gameplay and a host of character and weapon customization options, this game should hold you over at least until Crytek’s Warface is released in the states. One downside: Combat Arms uses the stingy microtransaction model favored by some Asian F2P games, where most items not purchased with real money disappear from your inventory after a set period of time. Our philosophy: If you work to buy something, you should get to keep it.

Tribes: Ascend

Who wasn’t a little surprised when the classic Tribes franchise was relaunched with the free-to-play Ascend? The game’s multiplayer-centric nature makes it a good fit, and the free version has every bit as much running, flying, and exploding-disc-launching as any game in the series. Some important gear and classes have to be unlocked,

and gaining experience is slow going without paying money, but it is perfectly possible to enjoy the game for a long time without paying anything.

Age of Empires Online

Age of Empires Online continues the trend of nearly forgotten, revered gaming franchises coming back as F2P games. The cartoony graphics might make you think that this is a watered-down casual, but the truth is that AoE Online is a full-featured, robust online RTS with great gameplay and a ton of customization options. You can play the full game with two of the four available civilizations for free, though you’ll have to pay for extra civs and some advanced gameplay features.

World of Tanks

If you’re looking for a more tactical take on the action genre, check out World of Tanks. By participating in team-based tank battles, you level up your crew and unlock and customize ever-stronger WWII fighting machines. It’s hard to get to the very highest level of tank without purchasing an XP booster, but the gameplay is polished enough that even the low- and mid-level battles are a ton of fun.

Click the next page to read about free online music streaming sites.

Best of Online Music

Buying songs through iTunes or Google’s Play Store won’t break the bank, but true cheapskates spin their songs using streaming music services. Anyone with an Internet connection and the willingness to endure a few ads can listen to millions of tracks for the low, low price of $0. Streaming music services are a dime a dozen these days; here are four that let you listen to the tunes you want, when you want them—in unlimited quantities—for even less than that.


Wait, isn’t Spotify a premium streaming music service? Yep, but free subscribers can tap into all of Spotify’s offerings in the desktop client, including the ability to make and share playlists or listen to any of the 16 million-plus songs in Spotify’s catalog on-demand. The software even integrates songs stored on your local drives.

Strong Suits

  • Massive catalog of on-demand music
  • Making playlists is easy
  • Optional apps add a lot of features and functionality .

Weak Points

  • Facebook login is required
  • Lackluster radio stations
  • Mobile listening is iOS‑only and limited to lamesauce radio.


Grooveshark’s user-uploaded tunes give it a gargantuan catalog with hit-or-miss audio quality and a dubious, lawsuit-luring legal footing that has already caused Grooveshark’s apps to be yanked from all the major app stores. There are ton of different ways to find and listen to music, though. Unfortunately, the interface is fairly horrible.

Strong Suits

  • Huge music catalog
  • Includes unlimited on-demand, radio, playlist, and social listening options
  • Upload your music collection to Grooveshark’s servers, then stream it anywhere

Weak Points

  • Legal issues could close the service
  • Variable audio quality
  • No sanctioned mobile apps for major brands; must sideload apps from the Grooveshark website
  • Free listeners limited to radio functionality on mobile devices
  • Fugly, clunky interface

Slacker Radio

Slacker doesn’t offer on-demand listening to freeloaders, only radio-style listening, but its library is 10 million-plus songs strong and the 200-plus stations are all curated by actual DJs for maximum awesomeness. Plus, freebie listeners get the same device support as paid subscribers, including mobile apps and home audio devices like Sonos, Sony electronics, and the Logitech Squeezebox. Yay!

Strong Suits

  • Large song catalog
  • DJ-curated radio stations
  • Full device support for free listeners
  • Polished, attractive interface

Weak Points

  • Smaller library than Spotify or Grooveshark
  • Playlists and on-demand listening for premium subscribers only
  • No rewinding and limited song skipping shines by tickling your social bone. Up to five DJs take turns spinning songs for a “room,” either using’s licensed music or uploading tracks of their own. Other users can hop into the room and listen to what all the fuss is about, up- or down-voting songs all the while. Oh, and did we mention the chat function and awesome customizable cartoon avatars?

Strong Suits

  • Outstanding social aspects and visual style
  • Great for discovering new music
  • DJing and customizing avatars is just plain fun
  • Dozens of rooms with varying musical themes…

Weak Points

  • …but geez, there are a lot of electro/dubstep rooms
  • U.S. only
  • Limited licensed song selection
  • Users have little say in what music plays

How to Get Free Reads

It’s great that e-readers make it possible to tote around a veritable library of books wherever we go. What’s not so great is having to pay for all those tomes. Well, guess what? You don’t have to. There are several ways you can satisfy your reading jones for free. Project Gutenberg offers over 40,000 books in the public domain, giving you a great excuse to brush up on the classics. showcases books by independent writers of both fiction and nonfiction, with Top 10 lists and member voting providing useful guidance. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, you’re eligible to borrow one e-book a month (with no due dates) from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which comprises more than 145,000 titles. And any Kindle owner, regardless of Prime membership, can borrow e-books from their local public library, if it uses the OverDrive system for online checkout. (For more info on this, visit .)

Click the next page to read about free movie/tv streaming sites.

Sayonara, Cable or Satellite

A surfeit of free/cheap streaming options helps you stick it to the man

A true cheapskate realizes that in today’s age of low-cost broadband and high-quality video streams, paying $100-plus a month for cable isn’t the entertainment necessity it used to be. But before you cut the cord, you need to know where to go to find what you want to watch. Let us be your guide!

First, a word of warning: Some streaming websites walk a gray, unlicensed legal line, offering a ton of very current content, but constantly playing whack-a-mole with copyright enforcement agencies. Malware can be a concern, too. We’ll mention a few of the top options; if you choose to surf these gray areas, you do so at your own risk. The same goes for torrents.

Got it? Good! Let’s get streaming.


Cinema fans have the most options when it comes to cutting the cord, starting first and foremost with the 800-pound gorilla in the streaming video world: Netflix Watch Instantly. For just $7.99 a month—that’s around a quarter a day, if you’re counting—you can stream anything from the service’s library as often as you want. Finding newer releases is a bit hit-or-miss, but Netflix nevertheless has a tremendously deep movie catalog full of interesting titles, along with robust device support, 720p HD video, and 5.1 surround sound, to boot.

Crackle has also been rocking our socks in recent months. The Sony-owned venture is completely free and jam-packed with over 300 kick-ass movies, with a focus on sci-fi, action, comedy, and horror flicks. Plus, Crackle is available on a ton of devices, including iOS and Android, Sony electronics, Roku, and the Xbox 360. New titles are nonexistent, though, and the SD streams are a bummer during full-screen viewing.

Crackle’s catalog is packed with awesome action, comedy, and genre movies, and it’s free.

If you’re a fan of classic movies, Entertainment Magazine Online streams a cornucopia of films made prior to 1970.

CinemaNow, iTunes, and Amazon Instant Video are pricier à la carte options for movie rentals or digital purchases. Spending a fiver on a movie rental doesn’t seem too bad, but it can add up quickly over the course of a month. On the plus side, these services carry virtually every title you can think of, with most available in HD.

TV Shows

The services discussed in the movie section apply here, too. The à la carte options also sell TV episodes; Crackle is a good source for older sitcoms, original content, and anime; and Netflix Watch Instantly has a ton of television offerings, most notably its wide collection of children’s cartoons and documentaries.

Speaking of documentaries, check out , a killer site that adds a new documentary every day. Many come embedded from high-quality sources like National Geographic, PBS, TED, and VICE.

Of course, there’s always Hulu . Hulu carries several recent television shows, with new episodes often appearing the day after they air on cable. The coverage has gaps, however, and ABC, NBC, Fox, and Comedy Central supply a lot of the content. Numerous older shows are also available. The base version is free, but it forces you to watch shows only on your PC and only in standard definition. Upping to Hulu Plus for $7.99 a month unlocks device support and HD streams. Every flavor contains ads.

TV‑ is one of those questionable “gray area” websites, but it’s been around forever and streams a huge selection of shows. We prefer its legal counterpart: Installing an HD TV tuner in your HDTV or HTPC. Add Windows Media Center (or an equivalent) and you’ve got a free, full-blown DVR solution for your local TV stations.

Hulu has a lot of free TV shows, but the SD video quality and numerous ads suck.


Wannabe cord cutters often cite the lack of sports options as part of their reluctance to commit to a cable-free lifestyle. That’s not quite true these days: TNT live‑streamed more than 40 NBA playoff games last season, while the NFL streams both its Sunday Night Football games and its playoff games.

The big games may be covered, but everyday game coverage is severely lacking, making it difficult for cheapskates to root, root, root for the home team unless you purchase a streaming subscription from your league of choice—and those aren’t cheap. Season-long passes for streaming the NBA, MLB, and NHL fall in the $100 to $200 price range depending on the sport and the particular package. The NFL’s Game Rewind only costs $40 for the season, but it doesn’t stream live games, only full replays that go live the day after the real action takes place.

Once again, an HD TV tuner slapped in an HTPC can nab any signals your local stations broadcast; that’s probably the best bet for cord-cutting sports fanatics.

In the ever-present gray area, FirstRow Sports live‑streams ESPN and pretty much every live sporting event from around the world. It’s also proven remarkably resilient to takedown efforts. In a pinch, you can head to Justin.TV , where people often put up low-quality live streams of their TVs whenever a large sporting event takes place. Just don’t act surprised when the MPAA sends you a nasty letter.

Click the next page to see how you can save money on your cell phone and broadband bill.

How to Save on Your Cell Phone and Broadband Bill

Death, taxes, and bill shock. The first two are unavoidable, but luckily, there are a number of ways to avoid unnecessarily high mobile phone and broadband bills. Starting with the former, it’s important to figure out how and when you use your phone. Unlimited talk and texting plans are great for chatterbugs, but if you only whip out your phone for emergencies, don’t overpay for headroom you’ll never use. Along those same lines, you can reduce your reliance on cell phone minutes by using your landline to make calls, or by using VoIP services like Skype .

Another way to sidestep cell phone charges is by integrating Google Voice into your daily usage habits. Google Voice supports free SMS text messaging to the U.S. and Canada, and you can also make and receive calls without tapping into your cell phone minutes.

Don’t let your wireless carrier nickel‑and‑dime you to death with supplementary add-ons, like premium voice mail, roadside assistance, and other optional features. If you absolutely need the peace of mind that comes from an extended warranty (or were born clumsy), shop around for the best rates and service. SquareTrade is one of the most popular third-party providers of warranties, and you can typically find online coupon codes good for 20 to 30 percent off.

Finally, decide if it’s really in your best interest to commit to a long-term contract, especially if you plan on getting a feature phone. Prepaid and pay-as-you go plans can be obtained for as little as $10/month. On the flip side, if a long-term contract is in the cards, utilize strength in numbers by splitting a family plan not just with immediate kin, but with a close friend, co-worker, roommate, or a family member who doesn’t live with you. Wireless carriers typically charge $10 to $15 to add a line to a family plan, and if you and a friend split the entire bill, you both can come out ahead.

Saving money on your broadband bill starts the same way: by analyzing your usage habits. The most obvious way to save some coin is to make sure you’re not paying for an ultra-fast service tier if all you’re doing is roaming the web in search of lolcats and updating your Facebook status. Don’t be afraid to downgrade your service to see if a lower speed suits your surfing style.

Bundling your TV, phone, and Internet service can reduce your bill, and it also gives you increased bargaining power. Times are tough all around, and if you call your ISP to cancel your service, they’ll usually try to sweeten the deal in some way so that you’ll stick around. If not, ask to speak with a supervisor to let them know you’re leaving for a cheaper competitor. Of course, you don’t have to bluff. Services like offer relatively low-cost broadband-plus-phone service, albeit it’s limited to California residents.

Need more help? is a great resource to find out if you’re overpaying on everyday expenses, including wireless service.

How to get HDTV for Free

Ever notice how cable and satellite companies only call some channels “pay per view”? Well, the truth is, they’re all pay-per-view, aren’t they? Not once you cut that satellite or cable in favor of a hybrid streaming/ATSC strategy. ATSC is the fancy way to say free broadcast TV. This usually gets you your local network affiliates with national and local news, as well big event sports such as the World Series or Super Bowl.

To see if you can go this route, first visit and click on the “maximize your television reception” button under the home tab. Punch in your zip code and the web app will present a list of stations, how far away they are, their direction, and more importantly, what level of antenna you need. Since the most difficult part of picking an antenna is knowing what your needs are, many antenna makers now follow the CEA’s color-coding. So if the stations you need to hit are nearby, an indoor antenna may suffice. If you’re trying to pinch a signal from a station 50 miles away, you may need a directional antenna that can be moved.

The color coding is confusing, but yellow and green are for areas with strong signals, while red and blue are the weakest signals, requiring directional antennas with amplifiers. Decoding the signal is easy if you intend to plug it into any modern HDTV, as each includes ATSC decoders. If you’re looking for a PVR-like experience, TiVo boxes will function with ATSC signals, but you will have to pay a monthly service fee or pay up front for the lifetime service. An HTPC with an ATSC tuner will also replicate much of the PVR’s ability to record playback.

Click the next page to see how you can save money on PC hardware.

Save Money on PC Hardware

Great deals can be had, if you know where to look

Having a fixed hardware budget doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice system specs. By following our handy guide here, you can literally stretch your hardware dollar to get that faster CPU, larger hard drive, or bigger GPU.

DIY Meet BIY: Buy It Yourself

If you haven’t already guessed, we love building our own computers—it’s as therapeutic as whittling or gardening—but quite often, it’s not the best course of action for a penny-pinching cheapskate. That’s because you’ll never get the break the big boys do. Sure, you might occasionally get a killer deal on a CPU or motherboard that brings the cost down, but since OEMs buy CPUs and motherboards by the boxcar, you can bet they get a far better price on everything, from the CPU to the RAM to the OS. We don’t think you should give up, though. One great advantage a do-it-yourselfer has over most OEMs is flexibility. You want X GPU with Y CPU and Z case? Building it yourself gets you that. It just won’t be cheaper. If you’re doing an ultra-cheap box for your brother-in-law, however, and he doesn’t have particular hardware needs, you should first peruse the websites of the OEMs to see if a prebuilt rig with support and warranty is the cheapest route.

Use does much of the heavy lifting for any cheapskate looking to build a good system. If we actually had the initiative, and we weren’t working as roadies on the Speed of Sound Tour six years ago, man, we would have created the cool building tool known as lets you easily build your new DIY masterpiece by selecting each major component from a list of parts based on the best available price. What we especially like about the site is that it lets you game up configurations on the fly to share with friends for input. Often, PCPartPicker even accounts for shipping and rebates. Want to see how much your build would cost if you bought all the parts from each store? PCPartPicker does that, too. There’s even a chart showing the historical fluctuation of the price of a particular part. If you’re putting together a new PC, we recommend that you start here.

Look at the Raw Intelligence

When you’re as intimately familiar with a product category’s prices as you are with the sandwich toppings at Subway (right?), you instinctively know when you’re getting a good deal. But what if you don’t follow a category religiously? In those cases, we turn to . This site data‑mines leading e-tailers such as , , and and displays the info in a nice, tidy chart. It also gives you the historical high, low, average, and current price and allows you to set alerts for individual items that hit a price before you make your move.

A Bundle of Savings?

Part of the joy in building your own PC is the granularity you get in selecting parts. Sometimes you want the motherboard with the green heatsinks instead of the blue ones. When you’re in skinflint mode, though, don’t overlook the advantage of doing a bundle deal. Many sites—Newegg and Fry’s , in particular—offer bundle deals that can save you a good amount of cash. Some bundles combine motherboard with CPU, and others combine all the parts you need to build a PC.

Monitor the Deal Sites

You know what’s wrong with deal sites like , , and ? They don’t save you any money if you have poor self-control. If, however, you have some ability to restrain your impulses, deal sites can yield incredible savings on PC parts.

You’ll need to cruise the sites on a regular basis while waiting for the deal you want to come up, but the savings can be significant. Again, the key is that you exercise self-restraint. For instance, we recently bought a five-pack of AV software that we didn’t really need simply because it was too cheap to pass up.

Can We Interest You in a Used PC part?

An easy way to stretch your dollar is to buy “pre-owned” equipment. There are several tiers of pre-owned. At the top are refurbished parts. Technically, hardware that has been refurbished has been “certified” by the manufacturer before being sold. While refurbs can be defective items that have been repaired, don’t assume that’s always the case. Sometimes the original buyer may return it out of dissatisfaction, the inability to use it, or a cosmetic flaw, such as a scratch. Legally, manufacturers cannot sell them as new, so the item is “checked out” and then sold as refurbished. These refurbed items can be sold from the manufacturer of the item as well as through retailers. Many refurbished items carry the same warranty as a new item, but in some cases, the warranties may be far shorter—it’s up to the buyer to verify that information with the store first. We recommend doing stress testing and putting any refurbed hardware through its paces before the warranty period expires. You don’t want to, for example, buy a used videocard and wait 60 days before you power it on. Test it immediately.

The next tier down is “open box” which is usually sold only by the retailer. Why was it returned? Who knows. Reasons could run the gamut, from it not matching the original purchaser’s carpet color, to it being defective out of the box—or it could have been the store demo unit. Open-box items are very much a crapshoot, as the manufacturer hasn’t tested it or made sure the power brick was in the box. Because it’s so risky, check the store’s return policy on the item before you buy, and be crystal clear as to whether it carries a warranty from the manufacturer.

The last category is “used,” which means what you think it does. We honestly think that used PC parts have a lot of upsides. Used items are normally marked down the most when sold by stores. If it’s a person-to-person sale, the fact that someone was using it means it worked. And unlike a mechanical item with a limited life cycle, a used CPU’s life span is typically indistinguishable from a new one, if it hasn’t been abused. The greatest risk with buying used is the lack of a warranty and the fact that you don’t truly know the history of the part if you’re buying it on eBay. Face-to-face transactions through can be more comforting, until you realize you’re meeting a complete stranger with $900 in your pocket. In these situations, we recommend that you meet the person in a café or, if you’re really paranoid, the lobby of the police department.

One final tip: Remember to be aware of restocking fees (which some stores charge even for defective items) and who’s responsible for shipping if you have to send it back because it’s bad: you.

Look for Loss Leaders

A “loss leader” in retail terms is something sold at a slight loss to stimulate some other sale that helps the retailer. This can be deeply discounted hardware on a weekly basis to get people into the stores in the hope they will buy other items. One long-running loss leader few know about is Micro Center ’s deep cuts on certain CPUs. Intel’s Core i7-3770K, for example, will fetch from $330 to $350 elsewhere. But walk into a Micro Center and you can buy a Core i7-3770K for $290. That Core i7-3820 going for $300 outside? Walk into a Micro Center and get it for $229. Sweet, right?

The bad news is that you’ll have to literally walk into the store, which means you’ll have to pay taxes (damn, those roads and freeways that don’t build themselves!). And since we don’t have any self-control, we usually end up walking out with a bulk spindle of blank DVDs, a new mouse, ink for the printer, and a Diet Coke. D’oh! There go our savings!

1440p under $400

The DIY sphere has been a-buzzin’ over previously unknown monitors like the Yamasaki Catleap and the Achieva Shimian, which use the same 27-inch 2560x1440 S-IPS panel from LG that’s in the 27-inch iMac’s Cinema Display. They ship straight from Korea for as little as $350. Why so cheap? They’re no-frills, and the panels could contain a few dead pixels. We ordered a Catleap from an eBay seller to check it out. No frills is right: The model we chose has only one input (dual-link DVI), no onscreen display, and a wobbly stand, but the picture is great and there are no discernible dead pixels. Even with the added cost of a sturdy (and reusable) VESA monitor stand, we’re still getting a hell of a deal on this panel—though attaching the VESA mount means partially disassembling the monitor.

What it lacks in extras it makes up for in price: the 2560x1440 Yamakasi Catleap is less than $400 new on eBay.

Click the next for saving strategies.

Common Saving Strategies Put to the Test

Over the years, we’ve observed PC builders employing all kinds of interesting methods intended to save money or stretch a buck. Let’s ponder for a moment whether these strategies actually make sense.

Is Adding a Second Card Later Ever Worth It?

There’s a famous cheapskate maneuver that we’ll call the “Multi-Card Gambit,” where a consumer buys a midrange $250 GPU with the intention of doubling the performance a year later when the prices of the same card have been cut in half. The problem is the gambit rarely works.

The key to the gambit is timing. Do it too soon, and you really haven’t gained anything at all except suffering lower frame rates for six months. Wait too long, and it will make more sense to buy the next-generation card instead. An example of this is the GeForce 560 Ti dilemma. Originally $270, GeForce 560 Ti cards are now as low as $180. For a cheapskate, that’s cheaper than having to shell out the $400 for a GeForce GTX 670, and you will get a decent frame rate increase you can feel. Six months from now, however, the 670 will have dropped in price or a new card will replace it, making the Multi-Card Gambit a foolish move.

The Relevant Conundrum

Cheapskates know the best time to buy a 2012 car is after the 2013 models have been introduced. But does that same wait-and-see approach hold up for CPUs? We looked at several popular models of CPUs and found that while buying the last‑generation model can yield some savings, the tight controls the chip makers exert over their inventories can make this strategy unreliable. For example, the Core i7-2600K debut price in 2011 was $330. Today? It’s $290. Its replacement, the Core i7-3770 is $330. The even more popular Core i5-2500K came out at $225 in early 2011. Today it costs $220, and its replacement, the Core i5-3570K, is $229. Intel’s former top chip, the six-core Core i7-990X, made its debut at $999 last year. Today? It sells for $999. Its replacement, the Core i7-3960X, fetches $999. Even Intel’s ancient Core i7-870 hasn’t gotten cheaper over time after you factor in Intel’s price cuts to it two years ago. We simply can’t recommend paying $330 for a Core i7-870 today. Even eBay prices put the chip at $250 or more—and it’s two generations old at this point.

But what about in AMD land, where the controls aren’t as iron-fisted? There the prices are what you would probably expect when buying older hardware. Since its introduction, the AMD Phenom II X4 965 has made a stair-step drop from its initial price of $245 to $104 today. Even AMD’s FX-8150 has steadily dropped from its $280 introduction to $199 today.

The Real Hardware Hoarders of Orange County

Cheapskates, invariably, want to “stock up” on a good deal when they see one. Frankly, we think that’s a poor strategy to follow if not done wisely. Yes, such a move might look prescient in light of the Thailand floods of 2011 that caused hard drive prices to triple and quadruple overnight, but stocking up for future builds is often fraught with risks.

Take RAM, for example, which climbed in price late last year and seemed bound to climb higher following the bankruptcy of DRAM maker Elpida. The reality is, RAM prices are insanely low today. You can get four 8GB DIMMs of DDR3/1600 for $200. If you had stocked up on RAM last summer because prices were “headed back up,” you would have paid $150 for four 4GB DIMMs of DDR3/1600. If you stocked up on DDR3 DIMMs now for a build next year, they would introduce DDR4 just to spite you.

It’s far safer to bet on one constant in technology: It always gets cheaper, and it always gets better. So unless you’re sure it’s a killer deal you’re getting, it’s generally safer to wait until you need to buy it.

Four Clever Uses for Old Hardware

A true cheapskate never upgrades until his or her hardware is not only inoperable but irreparable. Take Gordon’s trusty ThinkPad. It's so old it was made by IBM but has soldiered on with a new hard drive, RAM, and even CPU, and he still uses it every day.

Even the most reluctant upgrader, though, will occasionally find him- or herself with old hardware that still works to some degree—an ancient laptop, an old desktop, an aged MP3 player. If it ain’t dead, put some new life into it. Here are five ways to stretch the value and the life span of your hardware.

Make It a Media Center

If your old desktop or laptop has at least a dual-core CPU and a couple gigs of RAM (so it can stream HD video), turn it into a media center! If you already have Windows installed, so much the better! You can use web-based video (like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go), plus if you install XBMC you can play all sorts of local video and audio files from the PC or the network. Use a remote-desktop program on your phone or tablet to control it, and you won’t even need a keyboard and mouse!

Turn It into a NAS

If you just want plenty of network-attached storage for backup and media streaming, turn your old PC into a NAS by using FreeNAS . It’s easy to install and configure, and the latest beta of Version 8 contains support for plugins that will let you stream audio and video to the rest of your network via DLNA, UPnP, and iTunes.

Turn an Old Smartphone into a Media Player

Have an old smartphone you’re not using? Put it in airplane or Wi-Fi mode and use it as an app-enhanced media player! Plug it into your TV or stereo to access streaming music from the cloud, use it to read e-books and watch movies, and more! Fill it with games and give it to your kids! Many smartphone OSes include parental controls so you can disable Wi-Fi.

Recycle It

If you have old electronics that still work but you don’t need and don’t want to repurpose, consider donating them to a charity or nonprofit. There’s probably one in your area that could use the extra gear. If your stuff is nonfunctional or really obsolete (think Pentium 4 or earlier), take it to an e-cycler who can dispose of it safely. It’s what Captain Planet would have wanted.

Click the next page to see how we built a competent $600 PC.

Build a $600 PC

An all-around-capable, kick-ass rig doesn’t need to cost a fortune

There’s no such thing as a no-compromises $600 build. There just isn’t. But by balancing things where you can and making judicious cuts where necessary, you can at least build a modern gaming PC—with an upgrade path to the future. That means a full quad-core CPU, DirectX 11 GPU, and a fast hard drive. To paraphrase Han Solo, she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts.


AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition

The Phenom II ain’t the newest or fastest CPU on the block, not by a long shot. But it’s a cheap, overclockable quad-core with plenty of bang for the buck. We got it for $100.


Gigabyte GA-970A-UD3 ATX

It’s not the fanciest or the flashiest, but it has USB 3.0 and 6Gb/s SATA and supports not just our Phenom II but also FX CPUs, if we want to upgrade later. It only has one x16 PCIe 2.0 slot, but that’s what you get for $99.


Patriot Gamer 2 Series 4 (2x 2GB) DDR3/1600

4GB is really the minimum, and we wish we could have gone for more, but every penny counts. Two 2GB sticks allow us to run in dual-channel mode at DDR3/1600 for just $32.

Case and Power Supply

Rosewill R218 w/450W PSU

OK, this is definitely a compromise. If we had our druthers, we’d go for a separate case and PSU, but we don’t have our druthers. We have about $43. At least it comes with a warranty. We’ve used this case/PSU combo before, and nothing bad happened.


Gigabyte Radeon HD 6850 1GB

It’s slightly more expensive and draws more power than the modern-gen Radeon HD 7770, but it’s also faster. Last generation’s where the deals are. It’s still DX11, and it’s only $138.

Hard Drive

Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7,200rpm

In a $600 budget build, you only get one hard drive and no SSD. It needs to be fast and capacious. This Barracuda is both, and it’s only $85.

Optical Drive

Lite-On iHAS124-04 DVD/CD Writer

t’s a DVD burner. It’s $18. If you’re on a budget, you can’t go without an optical drive.


Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

We could have cheaped out and recommended Windows 8 Consumer Preview for free, but that’s a bit like cheating. $100,

Total Price: $615

At this price point, we’re going without many of the things we love best about custom PCs—no SSD, no aftermarket cooler, no cool case—but what we have is a desktop PC that will handle modern games and programs, will accept upgrades with ease, and doesn’t break the bank. It’s far slower than our zero-point, but that machine is built on a six-core Sandy Bridge‑E CPU with a $1,000 GPU and is designed to compete with $3,000 rigs. Even with a Radeon HD 6850, our Cheapskate PC puts out nearly playable frame rates in Arkham City at 2560x1600 with all settings maxed. It’s more than enough to run on high settings on a smaller screen. As for the CPU-bound encoding tests, the Cheapskate’s Phenom II doesn’t keep up, but for a gaming machine it’s fine.

There’s plenty of room to upgrade, too. The AM3+ motherboard will take a Bulldozer CPU like the FX-8150 and the upcoming “Vishera” FX chips, when they appear. You can easily put another 8GB (or more) of RAM alongside the existing 4GB. The motherboard’s second physical x16 PCIe slot runs at 4x, so CrossFire builds will be compromised, but you could update to a newer single-GPU setup down the line. An SSD would speed up boot and load times, and a more powerful PSU will allow more drives and a more power-hungry CPU and GPU.


Zero Point

Premiere Pro CS6 (sec)
2,000 10,433 (-81%)
Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec)
831 1,566 (-47%)
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec)
1,446 2,658 (-46%)
x264 HD 5.0 (fps)
21.1 9.1 (-57%)
Batman: Arkham City (fps)
27 (-64%)
3DMark 11
1,164 (-80%)

Our current desktop test bed consists of a hexa-core 3.2GHz Core i7-3930K 3.8GHz, 8GB of Corsair DDR3/1600, on an Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard. We are running a GeForce GTX 690, an OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.

Note: This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of the magazine.

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