questionswhat are the key considerations for building a…

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You're correct that the Graphics card won't really matter. The keys would probably be:
-Processor
-RAM
-Hard Drive speed

If you want fast boot and program opening, you may want to get a Solid State Drive that has your OS and Programs installed on it. (those tend to be faster) You'll then need a larger normal hard drive (or two) for your pics and music. I would also suggest a big external hard drive for backups of all those pics.

That said, my primary PC is a refurb HP i7 from moofi. I didn't change anything other than installing a video capture card (to convert some VHS stuff for people) and it works great for all I do.

Edit: Make sure it has USB 3.0 ports. These will come in handy for your external hard drives (assuming they support it)
Edit again: this is the one I got back in 2012. http://moofi.woot.com/offers/hp-pavilion-h8-core-i7-desktop-pc-with-1-5tb-hard-drive-and-blu-ray

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Thanks, that's what I expected to hear. Interesting thought about the SSD. I have been focusing on the Moofi i7's because it seems like the most affordable way to get an i7 CPU in a complete PC; buying all the components individually online seems to always make it more expensive than prebought.

Do you think a fast i5 would be fine for my purposes, assuming lots of RAM, SSD for system, etc? I'd like to future-proof since I only get a new machine once every 5 years or so.

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the i5 would be fine. The SSD will make the biggest difference as long as you have enough ram

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Newer i5 would probably be fine.
I don't have a SSD myself, but the pre-built HPs from moofi won't come with a OS install disc as it's already installed on the HD it comes with. Maybe someone else can answer... How easy would it be to move the pre-installed OS to a SSD? I think you could make a restore disc then install that to the SSD and have that as your boot drive. After you know it works, you could then wipe the HD it came with to use that for files as a slave drive. Right?

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On top of the ssd. Treat yourself to dual or triple monitor support. If you have a corner desk put the center one on a 45 degree angle in the corner, and the other ones on the side. This is the very best upgrade that I've ever made to my pc. There are many desktops with the ability built in. Or you can add a inexpensive video card if you settle on a build that isn't capable out of the box.

It is a HUGE time saver when managing stuff.

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http://www.logicalincrements.com/
Most recommended computer parts for your budget. look for 'destitute to very good'

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@bsmith1: that's a great point about trying to put an SSD into the Moofi HP as your system drive. Has anyone tried this or know why it would/would not work?

@jdgm3nt4l: I use dual monitors at work so I think that's all I'd want at home for remote work purposes.

@wootfast: Interesting site! I'll have to look it over. I was hoping to save money by buying a Moofi HP and changing maybe one item (SSD, RAM maybe), but maybe I can do better by giving up on the i7 CPU...

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I have some experience with SSDs. I put one in my desktop when I went from Windows XP to Windows 7. The speed is amazing. My sister-in-law had an antique desktop that was terribly slow and decided to get a laptop. I found a refurbished one for her. It came with Win7 Pro on a 320GB hard drive. I cloned the 320 to a 120GB SSD (her desktop just had a 40GB drive in it and it was nowhere close to being full). I bought her an external case for about 6 bucks and mounted the 320 in it so she can use it connected to a USB port. I used the product key printed on the bottom of the laptop to activate it. The thing about cloning to an SSD - read up on defrag and trim to make sure those settings are correct for an SSD.

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I've installed SSDs in 2 of my Laptops and in one Desktop.. If you get the SSD Upgrade Kit it comes with an external housing, USB cable and the cloning software.. I use the old HDD as a back up clone.. NewEgg has them on sale at about $70.00 for 120GB SSD, just wait a while they go on sale about once a month... It may be cheaper to Buy a new machine and install the SSD yourself...

The second thing I did was max out the RAM... On a new machine get as much pre-installed as you can afford... My Latest desktop arrived with 12GB RAM..

I also have been using 2 monitors unless I have the machine connected to a Big Screen TV...

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@ojulius @hobbitss Nice to know cloning from the stock HDD to an SSD is doable. Are the upgrade kits mostly foolproof? Any tricky business getting the OS to accept being on a new drive? In past builds/rebuilds I've done, Windows knows the install was moved and required re-registration (or something, it's been a while and may have changed).

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Better to start with a fairly recent i3 3xxx or i5 CPU (not worth using low-mid range AMDs right now), I went with a i5-3350P that doesn't have the built in GPU since I always prefer a dedicated GPU, just better performance all around. Then 8GB memory (2x4GB to take advantage of the dual channel) should be more than enough. For a hard drive, 240-256GB SSD is definitely the way to go. When it comes to the SSD, it is better to set the bios with the bit shift and AHCI when using the SSD and start with fresh install of Win7. Going from a OEM existing install and cloning the drive can cause problems and you lose SSD performance since it doesn't take advantage of the bit shift, and many times are installed by default to IDE mode which will also slow down SSD performance.
If you're really looking for a budget build, may be worth looking at using the new AMD Athlon 5350 (has built in Radeon 8400) with 8GB ram and SSD. Can easily find the CPU, board and smaller case in combo deals right now.

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I did a fresh install of Win7 Pro on my desktop SSD. On the laptop I did the cloning prior to activating Windows and had no problem. I didn't use an upgrade kit on either one of them, so I can't really comment on that. And now that I think of it, the cloning program I used had an option to optimize for SSD.

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@bls1: Both Laptops were cloned from SATA HDD to SSD without any issues.. One is a 5 or 6 year old Thinkpad Z61T running XP.. Other is a newer Thinkpad running Win7pro..

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SSD is a must.
For storage you can have a 2nd Sata large drive for pictures.
An extra external drive for backups.
Implement a back up plan, with off site storage.
Eg: Plug in external HD 1 time a week and run synctoy (free) to back up photos for on site backups.
Off site:
Once a month Burn photos onto a DVD (Pasca used be be good at this you can set up multiple back ups to avoid duplication in the same backup set) https://support.google.com/picasa/answer/11068?hl=en
Off site storage:
is a great backup too, but with all back up it does have a disadvantage, if your account is lost or hijacked you will loose your cloud backups.

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@bls1: Be careful when selecting a processor.. I know it goes without saying but:
Not all i7's are created equal.
There are literally newer Celeron's faster than older i7's.

http://www.cpubenchmarks.com is worth referencing before buying (although honestly I just use Google, typing in 'i7-640m benchmark' is a lot quicker.)

Granted, Benchmarking doesn't rate everything, it's still a solid reference.

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Nothing else really needs to be said. Everyone here has nailed it. Onboard/Integrated/OnChip graphics is plenty for what you do. A quality solid state hard drive, an Intel i5, and 8GB RAM and you should fly. You don't do any type of intensive work, graphical or CPU for that matter. But even if you did, the i5's are little powerhouses.

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Thanks for all the feedback. To be honest it all just makes me more interested in building my own, even thought that might be pricier. But for anyone reading this soon after 5/12/14, they've just put another round of HP's up at Sellout: http://sellout.woot.com/plus/hp-desktops-5?ref=gh_so_10_wp_1

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@bls1: Great advice above. i5/SSD/hard disk/Win7 dual monitor BYO for me - it's snappy and makes me happy.

@caffeine_dude: I got a chuckle about using DVD to back up digital photos. Had to stop doing that years ago for a full Photoshop Elements backup. (Not a fan of incremental BU.)

We're up to 111GB & almost 16,000 photos. We backup to alternating external hard drives and cross copy on other network PC's. Now shooting DLSR RAW+Jpeg and that is strongly encouraging us to be more selective in what we keep.

Probably should go to the trouble of doing a full DVD backup at this point tho!

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@bls1: One more thought regarding the "Homework room" - I do a fair amount of technology consulting on the side and we have 4 kids. One of the most common questions I get from friends & parents, especially moms - how do I keep my sons from going places on the Internet where they shouldn't?

Since kids are so adept with proxy services (nanny software not effective), a simple answer: don't put a PC/laptop in their room until/unless you're confident they are ready to self-police.

The PC monitor should be placed so anyone walking by in the family room, kitchen, whatever can spot what they're up to. Of course supportive coaching and education goes along with this since they'll be on their own once they move out. (Establishing a solid foundation.)