In the past I have written at some length on the cost associated with the weird ‘virtual-reality’ fad of the past year or two, with the upshot being a sizable investment (around $2,000) being required for an experience that at least mitigates the possibility of motion sickness due to low frame-rates. However, VR, for all of the tech media bluster, is trash (at least in this current headset-laden iteration), and building a gaming PC for such a purpose in [CURRENT YEAR] is folly. But obtaining a gaming system – built by hand or not – is still absolutely valid and quite necessary for certain types of games (such as RTS). The amount of money one needs to secure such a system really depends on its intended use, but more often than not setting a hard limit and then finding the fastest possible components within that limit is the best practice when on a budget. Countless opinions and guides exist on what constitutes the best build (collection of parts) at a given price point, but I will be taking a different approach here. Considering that buying guides have to play within the limitations of the current market offerings on new parts, entire generations of perfectly serviceable hardware are overlooked. This can be easily rectified by the intrepid shopper, with some training in the savvy use of the online auction site called eBay.
Simple searches are fine for locating a given computer part, but the real deals come from collections of items (sometimes called a LOT), or – even better when talking about personal computer hardware – complete systems. It is only at retail that complete PC systems are a more expensive option than building a computer from parts, and even then it can be more cost effective to purchase such a system once the cost of a Windows license is considered (they start at $99 for system builders). Things get even more affordable once we begin looking at used PC towers on eBay, and these are generally separated into two categories: custom builds from sellers who are not interested in “parting out” (removing all of the components and selling them individually) the computer in question, and commodity PCs from mainstream manufacturers such as Dell. Many thousands of computers are listed at all times, and with limited time for such pursuits how can one find the best deals? Look within for the answer. And by within, I mean within the listing itself. No, I am not advocating that one read through the descriptions of endless used PCs for sale, as there is a much better way built right into the search engine on eBay. It may be hard to believe, but they actually got this right.
Are you one of the many who dislikes or even abhors the electronic bay? The way one approaching searching eBay will largely determine one’s attitude about the massive online marketplace. Simply put, with so many items listed daily by average people with no experience or understanding of value, great deals are ripe for the picking if you know how to look. To this end, specifically when looking for a PC, it behooves the potential buyer to use two techniques when searching: the ‘search within item description’ option, and multiple keywords. The first is simple, as there is a checkbox next to the search bar to enable these item description searches; an invaluable tool as it will search the entire listing’s text rather than just the title. The second is a little more involved, but actually very simple: using parenthesis, one is able to list as many keywords as desired, separated by commas. Combining these two tools the search function becomes very powerful indeed, and is ideally suited to the task of obtaining powerful gaming hardware at the lowest possible cost. I will provide an example. Simply searching “intel core i5” in the desktop computer category will produce a shocking number of results, and there will be quite a few systems that actually contain a Core i5 processor that will not show up in the results as the seller did not identify this in the title of the listing. Opening the search up by checking the box to search within description will reveal those, more obscure Core i5-powered computers, but the results are still too broad.
The next step in power-searching for PC deals on eBay involves a bit more homework, as selecting individual processors (or graphics cards, for that matter) will require looking up the individual names for such hardware. This is this author’s bread and butter, and is the key to successful PC deal-hunting on eBay, but it may seem a bit much for someone less enthusiastic about PC hardware. Not to worry, as I will explain a very easy method involving recent, but no longer current, Intel processors. The current crop of Intel CPUs are 7th-generation Core processors, which are sold with 7xxx numbers, with quite a few 6xxx processors still available at so-called “e-tailers” like Amazon and Newegg. Searching along these lines will net pricey results, and in practice the 6000 and 7000-series parts are not all that much faster than even the 4000-series parts from three years ago. (Intel all but skipped the 5000-series for desktops, as this was a laptop-focused series.) So, having established the 4000-series as perfectly adequate for a gaming PC, and further armed with the information that a Core i5 is just as useful to a gamer as a more-expensive Core i7 (because I just told you), it is time to feed eBay a custom search and reap the rewards. A quick look at the list of 4th-generation Core i5 processors on Wikipedia reveals a number of these 4xxx numbers, and the more you pour into your search (separated by commas, of course), the more matching systems you will find. Time to get to work.
In this example I chose the standard high-powered desktop parts, omitting the special low-power parts found in many all-in-one desktops. The following search, within description too, remember, will reveal the systems that have been listed with at least a mention of the installed processor somewhere in the listing (after searching, it is important to narrow things down by selecting the PC Desktops category or you will be looking through used processor listing for days). Type the following into the eBay search bar: “Core i5 (4430, 4440, 4460, 4570, 4590, 4670, 4670K, 4690, 4690K)”. By first typing “Core i5” and then offering the various model numbers within parenthesis as shown, every listing for any of these processors will be revealed. With the search including item descriptions, every desktop computer containing a matching processor will also be revealed, but the sheer number of results will need to be reduced. First, as previously stated it is wise to choose the “PC Desktops” category on the left side after performing the search. Next, pick a price limit, and add it to the options on the left side as well. For this example I will place a hard limit at $250. Now you may arrange what remains of the results as you like, but my own preference is to look at the lowest price first, and “buy it now” listings, only. Large surplus PC sellers deal mainly in low, fixed-price listings for recycled computer hardware, and this is exactly what we want to get ourselves a great price on a system that will need minimal work to become a proper gaming PC.
You might have to scroll a bit to get to the first real listing for a PC when viewing from the lowest cost first, but when you do it might surprise you to find Intel Core i5 4xxx systems selling for around $200 every day. These are literally a video card (and sometimes a better power supply) away from gaming, and the savings are astonishing. Consider that even the lowest-cost Intel Core i5 processor is $180 at retail, and a full system (including motherboard, RAM, hard drive, etc.) can be had for little more. The inclusion of a full, licensed operating system further adds to the value, as most of these arrive with proper installations of Windows 7 or 8. If you are like me and prefer to cleanly install the OS yourself, Windows 8 machines offer the easiest solution, as most of these PC vendor motherboards contain the Windows product key, and you simply need to make use of Microsoft’s official system recovery utility (sorry, Windows 8/8.1/10 only) to obtain the correct version if it did not ship with an OS disc. If you have your own copy of Windows, or if you prefer to run the WONDERFUL Ubuntu Linux, then disregard this OS-related talk! (We highly recommend the upcoming LusiOS, a Unix command-line operating system with only one, highly useful function. MORE TO COME.)
In closing, the above search techniques will transform the used PC market into mere putty in your hands. I have used these exact methods to find some outstanding deals in the past, most recently with the Core i5-4570 desktop with which I prepare this editorial. I have had great success in obtaining Dell business machines, as their OptiPlex systems are very capable as gaming machines as long as you select a tower version (slim systems that do no accept full-height graphics cards are quite common). It is trivial to transform such a desktop into a gaming PC in minutes, and the only thing you need to add is a more robust power supply if you are installing a particularly power-hungry graphics card. For my purposes an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti was adequate, and lower-end cards (which still handle 1080p gaming quite well) do not require a power supply upgrade. I would wish you luck in your searches, but as I have outlined above, luck has nothing to do with it. Follow these instructions and impress your friends with your eBay skills, and (most importantly) save a lot of money that could otherwise be spent on tea and cakes.