The Cheapskate's Guide to Power Computing: 31 Ways to Save Money Without Sacrificing Performance

Maximum PC Staff

Our guide shows you how to live a frugal, fast, and free PC existence

Cheapskate. Some folks say it with a snarled upper lip and a curt, terse emphasis on the final syllable, like it’s some kind of awful, horrible moral failing. Puh-leeze. More often than not, cheapskates aren’t ripping off anyone. But the cable, satellite, software, and phone companies sure are.

In a day and age when everyone is trying to upsell, premium-ize, and shake us down on a weekly basis—often under the guise of saving us money—we actually view cheapskatism as a sign of higher intelligence and reason. If approached the right way, of course.

Cooling the Piggy PC's ceramic chassis was a little harder than we had anticipated.

Over the next few pages, we’re going to show you how your PC can save you thousands of dollars every year—without compromising the computing lifestyle you’re accustomed to. What you do with all those pennies saved is entirely up to you.


Live Free(ware) and Prosper

Our top picks for awesome alternatives to popular and pricey commercial software

You just dropped a wheelbarrow full of cash upgrading your videocard and CPU, leaving only a little bit of pocket lint leftover for software. Relax, Bobby, it’s going to be fine. The truth is that software is mother-lovin’ expensive. Seven hundred smackers for Photoshop? Pshaw! Thankfully, free and powerful alternatives to the most popular apps abound. Put your PayPal card away and follow along.

GIMP Your Photos, Not Your Wallet

GIMP, or GNU Image Manipulation Program if you can’t stand acronyms, is a popular open-source alternative to Photoshop. Don’t let the fact that it’s free fool you; even though it’s not quite as polished or feature-rich as Photoshop, there’s a lot you can do with GIMP beyond just resizing and re-touching. A robust set of integrated tools and an extensive plugin library make it a more-than-capable image manipulator, not just an editor. GIMP is also platform-flexible in that it supports Windows, Mac OS X, and of course, Linux.
Free, www.gimp.org

Microsoft Answers the Call for Free Antivirus

What started off as Windows Live OneCare eventually morphed into a capable and free antivirus solution known as Microsoft Security Essentials. Surprisingly effective for a relative newcomer, the latest version adds heuristic scanning and improved Firewall integration. Just be sure you’re rocking a legit copy of Windows.
Free, www.bit.ly/9ikpqC

Use Photoshop for Free (Legally)

Adobe’s Photoshop Express Organizer is great for managing and editing photos from multiple sites, including Flickr and Facebook.

Don’t need the feature-rich complexity of GIMP? No problem. Most photo-sharing sites, like Flickr and Photobucket, let you make basic changes, but the cool thing about Adobe’s online Photo Express Editor is that it aggregates your photos from those and other portals, including Facebook, and neatly organizes them. You can also upload up to 2GB of photos for free.
Free, www.photoshop.com

Kick Malware in the Nads… Twice

Microsoft Security Essentials does an outstanding job at beating back viruses, but sometimes you need an extra bodyguard or two to keep things in line. Unlike antivirus software, which digs deep into your OS, antispyware applications can be run in tandem. Malwarebytes and SuperAntiSpyware provide a potent one-two punch combo, oftentimes catching what the other doesn’t. Combined with Microsoft Security Essentials, you’ll have a three-headed monster that loves to munch on malware.
Free, www.malwarebytes.org and www.superantispyware.com

Viva la LibreOffice 3.3!

We love a good Cinderella story, and that’s what we have with LibreOffice. You see, when Oracle took over Sun Microsystems, it created a near-instant rift with the developers of OpenOffice, whose open-source ideology didn’t mesh with Oracle’s proprietary mindset. Several key programmers jumped ship and went on to create LibreOffice, a fork of OpenOffice with the backing of several industry bigwigs, including Canonical, Google, and Red Hat. Ready for the clincher? You can save documents compatible with Microsoft Word (including .docx) sans the heavy price tag!
Free, www.libreoffice.org

Linux: Learn It, Live It, Love It with Ubuntu

Whether you’re rocking a desktop, server rig, or a netbook, there’s a version of Ubuntu designed just for you. Ubuntu is perhaps the easiest of all Linux distros to use, providing a pain-free way of cutting those costly Windows shackles. What about games, you ask? If a title isn’t supported natively, use WineHQ, which lets you run Windows software in Linux.
Free, www.ubuntu.com and www.winehq.com

SugarSync Brings Sweet File Sharing to the Desktop and Beyond

We still adore Dropbox, we really do. It’s just that SugarSync is a tad more flexible. It offers cloud-based file syncing, just like Dropbox, and you can easily share files between PCs. But SugarSync goes the extra mile by letting you sync multiple folders across multiple systems. We also appreciate its robust mobile platform support (iPad, iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Symbian devices) and remote access from any web browser. You get 5GB for free, and 500MB for every successful referral (if they sign up for a paid plan, you both get an additional 10GB).
Free, https://www.sugarsync.com/

Cloning Made Free and Easy

Let Professor Penny Rich and Doctor Deep Pockets debate which is better, Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image. Both are great, but both will set you back at least $50. Sir Save-a-Lot’s solution? Macrium Reflect, a no-cost cloning program that works with XP, Vista, and Windows 7 in both 32-bit and 64-bit form. With it you can create a disk image even while running Windows, a rare trick for free cloning software. There’s a built-in scheduler and you can even image to a network, USB, or FireWire drive, as well as optical media.
Free, www.macrium.com/reflectfree.asp

Partition Like a Pro

Easeus packs a surprising amount of functionality into its Partition Master Home Edition program, which is free for non-commercial use.

Microsoft continues to improve upon Windows’ built-in partitioning tool, but sometimes it’s not enough. Easeus Partition Master Home Edition comes to the rescue with a robust partition manager priced at 100 pennies less than a buck. It supports hard disks as small as 2GB and as massive as 4TB, and it also works with removable devices. The list of tricks is long, including the ability to extend a system partition; resize, move, merge, split, and copy partitions; redistribute free space; scan a disk for bad sectors; support hardware RAID; rebuild the MBR; convert FAT to NTFS; convert partition types; secure file deletion; and more.
Free, www.partition-tool.com/personal.htm


7 Sources for Frugal Gaming

Steam

Valve’s digital marketplace has become almost insidiously proficient at coaxing gamers into opening up their wallets. Try resisting the savings-scented aroma of a massive Steam seasonal sale. We dare you. store.steampowered.com

1UP.com’s Free Game Lists


1UP.com has been compiling absurdly large lists of PC gaming’s best freebies for so long that it’s nearly built a compendium. If you’re looking for tons of games for no money, this is the place to start. http://bit.ly/hSmmOQ

Free-to-play MMOs

Sure, MMOs like Champions Online, Lord of the Rings Online, and DnD Online give you the option to spend money, but why would you go and do a silly thing like that? www.champions-online.com , www.lotro.com , www.ddo.com

OnLive

If you absolutely must have high-end games but simply can’t afford a decent rig, there’s always OnLive. You pay for individual games, and the cloud gaming service takes care of the heavy lifting. It has a Netflix-style pricing model as well. www.onlive.com

Quake Live


id Software’s multiplayer classic is roughly two clicks away so long as you have a PC that wasn’t made in 1963. Just go to the URL, hit the big “play now” button, and frag away. www.quakelive.com

Cheap Ass Gamer

Cheap Ass Gamer keeps track of pretty much every gaming-related deal out there—PC or otherwise.
If you love games and hate spending money, this one’s a no-brainer for your bookmark list. www.cheapassgamer.com

Mods

Who needs to break the bank on new games when the Internet’s bursting at the seams with content for your old favorites? Mods are free, generally easy to install, and frequently creative. It’s a win-win-win.

The Cheapskate’s PC

Here's how to build or upgrade a killer PC without breaking the bank

Building a system from scratch or upgrading an existing PC doesn’t have to be a budget-breaking proposition. With a little careful shopping, willingness to compromise, and the sure knowledge that prices will drop in the future, you can build a system that’s powerful enough for today’s games and applications, and capable of lasting well into
the future.

The trick is to keep an eye to the future. While it may be seductive to buy last generation’s components as they drop in price, you might end up with a dead-end system. On top of that, sometimes last year’s gear isn’t all that great a deal. For example, Core i5 architecture based on last generation’s Lynnwood CPUs actually cost more than faster Core i5s built using Sandy Bridge technology.

We’ll get into the lists of individual components shortly, but it’s worth remembering that sometimes you can find good combo deals at major reseller websites, like Newegg and Amazon.

OK, let’s take a look at a $600 from-scratch build, and an upgrade of a classic rig.

The $599 Do-All PC System

Building a PC for $600 is an exercise in compromise and balance. You’ll have to give up some performance, but it’s possible to build a forward-looking system that can accept beefier parts in the future—and still afford a copy of Windows 7. Let’s dive into the ingredients.

CPU Intel Core i3 2100

This is the baby sister of Intel’s second-generation Core (Sandy Bridge) lineup. Built on socket 1155, it hums along at 3.1GHz and runs up to four threads. You can find it for $135 .

Motherboard
Gigabyte GA-H67M-D2

This is the low end of Gigabyte’s H67 motherboard lineup, but it’s capable of supporting the entire LGA 1155 line of CPUs. It’s probably not wise to overclock with this $95 board, though—this is not the GA-H67M-DS’s strong suit.

Memory Corsair TW3X4G1333C9 DDR3-1333 Kit

The remarkable fall in memory prices means you can have 4GB of fast, reliable DDR3 for $42 . Yes, $42!

Case and Power Supply Cooler Master 534 with 460W PSU

This is definitely a compromise. The case is actually decent, although the included PSU won’t handle beefy graphics cards. But you can always swap it out in the future. At $69 , it’s quite a bargain.

Graphics HIS Radeon HD 5750

Gives you DirectX 11 on a $110 budget, but you’ll need to run at modest resolutions with some of the eye candy dialed down.

Hard Drive Seagate 7200.12 160GB

The hard drive space is a little tight, but we wanted a better CPU and graphics than a larger HDD would have allowed. But at $36 , it’s a steal. And you probably have a couple of high-capacity drives lying around anyway, right?

Optical Drive LG GGH22NS50B DVD Burner

Sixteen smackers for a DVD burner. Soon, you’ll be able to get one free with a Happy Meal. The fact that you can get any PC component for $16 still feels shocking.

OS Windows 7 Home Premium x64 (OEM)

It’s stable, less of a memory hog than Vista, and runs DX11. It’s still the go-to OS for PC gamers. $100 .

Total Price $596


Not bad for a Windows PC, right? Granted, this price doesn’t include taxes and shipping. But what you have in the end is a platform suitable for upgrading to more robust components in the future without having to rebuild from scratch.

Overhauling a Classic

A few years ago, the classic sweet-spot gaming PC was built around an Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 CPU and a GeForce 260 GTX.

Upgrading this classic really means a complete overhaul: motherboard, RAM, and graphics. Thankfully, if you’ve been running this system, you’ve already got the case and power supply to handle the update.

Let’s take a look at the components for our overhaul.

CPU Intel Core i5 2500K

The spiritual successor to the venerable Q6600. This processor is easily overclockable and can handily run any game on the market. $225 .

Motherboard Asus P8P67 Pro

This $150 board sits in the middle of Asus’s P67 line, so you’ll be safe overclocking with it, as long as you don’t push too hard.

Memory Corsair 4GB TW3X4G1333C9 Kit

It’s entirely possible that the old Q6600 system you’re running uses DDR2 memory. If so, you’ll need to upgrade to DDR3. This Corsair kit is a great deal at $42 .

Graphics MSI GTX 560 Ti Twin Frozr II

The sweet spot for graphics cards has always been the $250–$260 price point, and the $260 MSI GTX 560 Ti is a perfect example.

Hard Drive WD1002FAEX

The new generation of high-density platters might make an HDD upgrade worthwhile. If so, the WD1002FAEX is one terabyte, two platters, and costs less than $90 .

Optical Drive BC-08B1LT


If Blu-ray is your thing, this Asus drive is a good choice at $68 , and even comes with the software for playing BD movies.

Case Cooler Master HAF912

OK, you don’t need a case. But we can’t resist the urge to recommend one anyway. If you did want to move into a more modern case, but at minimum cost, the HAF912 is just $60 , and has some nifty amenities like a CPU cutout for easy installation of high-end CPU coolers, and tool-free installation of storage devices.

Power Supply Seasonic S12 620

Again, there’s no need for a PSU if you already have a good one, but if you want something a little more modern, Seasonic’s S12 620W unit is quiet and efficient—and it’s only $70 .

OS Windows 7

If you upgraded your old classic PC to Windows 7, you’re set. But if you’re still limping along on Windows XP, then it’s time to bite the bullet and pick up the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium (OEM) for $100 .


How to Save Money on PC Hardware


Package Deals

Some resellers will bundle motherboards, CPU, and memory, or graphics cards and PSUs. These deals can save you some money, but make sure you know the components in the bundle.

Refurb or Not?


Sometimes open-box or refurbished deals can be good, but be wary. Gear refurbished by the manufacturer itself can also be a good deal.

Try to Buy From One Reseller

You may find yourself saving a few bucks here and there by purchasing components from different sites—but you may lose all those savings in shipping costs. Many e-tailers will waive shipping costs if you buy above a certain dollar amount.

Sell Your Old Stuff!

Considerate builders will often hand down gear to family members, but you can also finance your PC-building hobby by selling old gear on eBay. You’d be amazed at how much you can get for an old motherboard or graphics card.

Watch and Wait for Price Reductions

When Nvidia launched the GTX 560 GPUs recently, AMD dropped the prices on a number of its products. A spiffy new GPU might be expensive when it first launches, but at the same time, a competitor’s products might be a steal. Best of all, these components are often still part of the current generation.

CPU Price-Drops

Intel (and AMD to a lesser extent) cuts CPU prices regularly—as often as quarterly—as new processors hit the streets. Even current-generation CPUs will drop in price after a quarter or two.

Stock Up on Memory

DDR3 prices are amazingly cheap currently, so buy more than you originally think you need. Get 8GB instead of 4GB, or 12GB instead of 6GB.

Entertain Yourself on the Cheap: Ditch Cable or Satellite

Got broadband? There’s no need to shell out your hard-earned cash for movies and TV shows

Cable and satellite TV deliver a lot of shows and movies, very conveniently… and very expensively. If you want features like DVR and high-definition cable TV and a few extra channels, your bill could easily hit $100 or more a month. That’s a cool $1,200 a year. If you’re a sports junkie, count on adding another few hundred bucks a year to follow your favorite team, player, or sport.

Is it possible to satisfy your TV and movie jones while ditching the cable/satellite bill? Sure it is—the secret lies in that broadband connection you already pay for every month. Let’s look at ways to fulfill our couch-potato cravings for fewer dollars.

Network and Cable TV Shows

Whether you’re a hardcore fan of a particular TV series or you just like the occasional episode, you can find the current episode of most of your favorite TV shows online. If you know the network or cable channel, you can go directly to those sites and watch recent episodes. Few of these are real-time streaming—in other words, you may have to wait a few hours or days after the show airs to catch it online.

Aggregator sites, particularly Hulu.com , also offer recent episodes of many series. The base Hulu service is free, but coverage of shows is spotty. It’s also in standard definition, and you can only technically watch it on a PC. Hulu Plus, which costs $7.99 a month, is Hulu’s premium service. Hulu Plus adds high-definition support, more shows, and compatibility with a variety of different devices, including Apple iOS devices, the PS3, and certain Internet-enabled TVs. But even with Hulu Plus, coverage can be spotty; sometimes this service leaves out a couple of episodes of a given season.

Hulu’s desktop app is more convenient than the web version.

Netflix Watch Instantly, at a minimum cost of $7.99 for the streaming-only service, offers an increasingly large array of shows, plus access to a huge variety of movies. What we like the most about Watch Instantly, though, is ample access to shows not commonly available on Hulu, such as documentaries and BBC miniseries.

Over-the-Air HDTV

Windows Media Center, built into Windows 7 Home Premium and Windows Ultimate, also contains an Internet TV streaming service. Coverage of shows is inconsistent, however, so you may only see samplers of various TV series with just a few episodes to give you a taste. Our preference—and one of the hidden secrets of HDTV—is to add a high-definition, over-the-air TV tuner to our HDTV or our HTPC. This is particularly useful if you live in a metropolitan area with a large media market.

Free OTA high-definition plus Windows Media Center gives you full DVR capability for local stations, without added cost. You don’t need Media Center, of course. Third-party applications like SageTV ( www.sagetv.com ) also support HDTV tuner cards and have similar scheduling software built in.

Movies

Film buffs have a rich array of online services to choose from when it comes to great content at low cost. We’ve already mentioned Netflix Watch Instantly, at $7.99 a month, which is probably the best deal on the planet right now. Other streaming services, like Amazon.com ’s Video on Demand and CinemaNow charge per movie, either for renting or for owning a DRM’d version. That can get pretty pricey pretty fast. If you’re happy with standard definition on your PC, Hulu offers a variety of free movies, although advertisements are present.

Night of the Living Dead—free and legal on Entertainment Magazine Online

A variety of “free” movie aggregator sites exist, but the legality of many of these are questionable. These sites don’t actually host movies, but stream from other sources, including offshore sources and BitTorrent sites. Our guidance here? Approach with caution.

If you really want free and legal, a number of old movies, documentaries, and shows are now in the public domain. Sites like Entertainment Magazine Online ( www.emol.org ) offer tons of free, legal movie downloads, albeit of older films. EMOL also aggregates links to TV network and studio sites that offer free streaming of their shows.

Sports

Watching your favorite teams online is usually not a bargain. You can watch some less-popular sports events at sites like ESPN.com, but major sports, like the NFL, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR can’t be found legally, unless you’re willing to pay substantially. In a pinch, we’ve used aggregator services, but these sites exist in a gray area. For example, www.atdhe.net , one such popular aggregator service, had its domain seized by the U.S. government for copyright infringement during the course of us writing this story.

ESPN will stream less well-known sports live and keep archives for future viewing, but video quality is an issue.

If you do follow a single sport, then the cost might still undercut cable. An NFL all-season pass, for example, is $14.99 a month. But that’s not exactly cheapskate territory.

The two best deals around are the NBA and MLB. Both offer affordable season passes, and both allow you to watch games across different devices—your PC, smartphone, and, in the case of MLB, your PS3.

Rating the Online Music Services

At first blush, 99 cents for a song doesn’t seem like much, but it sure adds up fast. Streaming music services are popping up all over the Internet, offering features like playlists, recommendation engines, and more—all for free. Note that many of these are simply aggregators for Internet radio. We’ll skip those and look at services that focus on streaming the music of your choice.



Pandora doesn’t give you a lot of leeway to choose individual songs; it’s a recommendation engine at its heart. The more song titles you add to the seed, the more the music will be to your liking. You can upgrade to an ad-free account for $36 per year.

Useful If

  • You’re looking for music similar to what you already like
  • You’re willing to live with ads (in the free version)
  • You like a little randomness in your music


On the Other Hand

  • It’s difficult to build a playlist of specific songs
  • The ads are jarring
  • The user interface is a bit obtuse


You can create playlists of your songs, and even upload your favorite music—bearing in mind that it can be deleted if the song isn’t from one of the publishers who have a deal with Playlist. Building a playlist is simple and straightforward, but the audio quality can vary a bit.

Useful If

  • You want to build a playlist of specific songs
  • You don’t mind variations in audio quality
  • You’re willing to live with a somewhat limited song selection


On the Other Hand

  • Doesn’t have deals with all the studios, so song selections are limited
  • Pushes ringtone sales at you




This is another recommendation engine. You can build exportable playlists, but you can’t really stream them. If you want to play via the iPhone or Android app, you need to pay a subscription, which also removes ads.

Useful If

  • You’re looking for music similar to what you already like
  • You’re willing to live with ads (in the free version)
  • You live in the United States, Germany, or the United Kingdom


On the Other Hand

  • Playlists aren’t very useful
  • The ads are jarring
  • The user interface is a pain



Audiolizer actually lets you upload your iTunes playlist, then constructs an online library based on that. The UI is very sparse, and not all songs may be available. Also, song titles don’t always seem accurate.

Useful If

  • You want to build a playlist of specific songs
  • You’re willing to upload your iTunes playlist
  • You want music videos of the songs played at the same time


On the Other Hand

  • Sparse user interface
  • Music videos are only thumbnail size and must be on YouTube
  • Titles can be inaccurate

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