I Built A High-End Computer For Only $1500 (Here’s How)

I’m really excited about this post, and it’s not just because I took the pictures myself.
I’ve been taking apart computers since I was 9, fixing them for money since 2009, and have been working professionally in IT for over a year. Needless to say, I really like those things in the boxes with the fans and the buttons and the shiny lights. But there was something I hadn’t done yet… I hadn’t built one of my own! I’ve customized PCs before, even took my old computer case to a drill press to make room for fans in places where fans weren’t originally mean to go, but I hadn’t actually built a PC from scratch. Back in April, I thought it was time for that to change.

Before we start, let me break down some basic terminology so the less-tech-savvy (there is nothing negative intended in that statement, I promise) can follow along.

CPU = Central Processing Unit. It’s the chip filled with billions of tiny on/off switches called transistors that basically does all the data-processing-number-crunching tasks for your computer. The CPU is also the task-directing command center of the computer; it tells the rest of your components what to do. This 20-minute video will explain better how a CPU works, if you’re really bored ambitious.

GPU = Graphics Processing Unit. Like its name suggests, it is a chip which does all of your graphics processing. The terms “GPU” and “Graphics Card” are not the same thing (a graphics card is a unique expansion card, and the GPU is the processing chip on the graphics card), but tech people sometimes interchange them. For example, the term “GTX 970” does not necessarily mean the graphics card itself, or the GPU. It is actually referring to the chipset software which the card uses. However, I will still refer to my entire graphics card when I say “GTX970”. This short article may explain a little better how the graphics card and GPU work.

RAM = Random Access Memory. Whenever you open a program from your hard drive, it is loaded into your RAM so the CPU can access it faster. When you’re done with the program (i.e. when you close it) it is unloaded from your RAM. There are two mainstream types of RAM right now: DDR3 and DDR4 (and, of course, there used to be DDR and DDR2). DDR3 is still the most common kind to find in desktops, while DDR4 is still very new to the market. This very short video may explain better how RAM works.

HDD = Hard Disk Drive, aka hard drive. Permanent storage of files. Has discs, called platters, that spin at high speeds (which consequently create near-hurricane level winds inside the hard drive, which I think is totally cool) and uses lasers and magnetic magic to store files. Sort of. Often the main performance bottleneck (aka the slowest thing) in modern computers.

SSD = Solid State Drive. Same has a hard drive in terms of function, but goes about it differently. Has no moving parts, no discs or platters, but just carbon-based storage chips. Operates MUCH faster than a HDD and will make even your Core i3 or Core 2 Duo or Pentium computer run faster.

This video will explain better the difference between SSDs and HDDs and their intended uses.

Motherboard (or “mobo”) = The main board that everything in the system resides on.  The backbone of the PC. This is where all of the circuitry is that connects your CPU, GPU, RAM, HDDs, SSDs, etc and allows it all to function together as a machine. Because this is the “backbone” of the PC, stability and reliability are the first two things to look for when you’re shopping for a motherboard. This video explains better how motherboards work.

PSU = Power Supply Unit. Like the name suggests, it supplies power to all of the components in your system. You’ll also see me talk about “80+”. 80+ means a power supply is tested and certified to be able to provide 80% or more of its rated power to the system under full load. So if a power supply is rated at 1000 watts, it means that under load, it is guaranteed to provide 800 watts or more to your system. These power supplies cost more than regular power supplies (i.e. the generic one that may come in a store-bought desktop PC), but are more reliable.

Case = The box that it all goes in. Yep. Some cases are expensive, some are cheap; the best case is the one that you think is going to work best for your build. Some cases are almost as small as a shoebox, while others are the size of a mini fridge. Things to keep in mind when shopping for a case are things like motherboard compatibility, cable management, expandability, cooling support, storage support, modularism vs. size, etc.

Okay, now let’s dive into this thing. To start, I’ll tell you that PC Part Picker is the best website for choosing parts for a PC. The compatibility filter will ease a lot of burden for you, by only showing you parts that are compatible with each other.

Since the CPU is the most quintessential component of any computer, it is the first item to shop for when building a new PC. Everything else you choose to put in your computer will have to work around this little chip.

There are two questions to ask when it comes to CPU:

  1. What is this computer being used for?
  2. Do you plan to overclock?

A computer being used in server environments would probably be best suited with one of Intel’s Xeon processors. A computer being used for professional production applications that need a lot of threads and stability is probably best suited with one of Intel’s Core i7 CPUs. A computer being used for gaming is probably best suited with an Intel Core i7 or an AMD processor. If you’re overclocking, you’ll want to look into an unlocked CPU (or use a motherboard that supports CPU unlocking, and a CPU that can be unlocked). From there it trickles down; mere “daily use” computers are suited with lower-grade CPUs that use less power and cost less to buy.

This computer will be used for content creation, so everything is going to work around that purpose primarily. 

My number one desire in this build was to have a computer that would be great for audio production (not a demanding task) and good for video production (a very demanding task). This meant I needed a good CPU. Although an X99 build may be a bit overkill for video editing, I wanted to get something that would offer the most possible bang for the buck (or in geek jargon, the best performance per dollar) in a high-end CPU. So, I chose the Intel Core i7-5820k. This may not make sense right now, but keep reading and maybe I can shed some light on it.

One research tool I’d recommend to anyone shopping for any CPU is PassMark’s CPU Benchmark charts.

The first question someone may ask is: why wouldn’t I just buy the new Skylake CPUs? Isn’t the latest thing the best thing? Ehhhh, not so fast there. Intel’s X99 chipset brings with it some pretty badass CPUs. Even though it’s a little over a year old at this point, X99 and its Haswell-E CPU architecture is still more powerful and more capable than the new Z170 chipset and its Skylake CPU architecture. While the new i7-6700k may be able to achieve near-X99 level performance with only 4 cores (as opposed to 6 or 8) it features a smaller cache and less PCIe support. The whole point of the i7-6700k isn’t to surpass the X99 CPUs, but rather to bring DDR4 memory (something which is still very new) to the mainstream. And so, after researching between the i7-5820k and the i7-6700k, I still decided on the “older” (but still relatively new) 6-core 5820k. At the time of shopping for my CPU, the standard retail cost of the i7-5820k was a staggering $420, but I snagged mine from Microcenter in St. Louis on tax-free weekend and, after tacking on an extended warranty, only paid $328. The CPU itself was only $300, so I saved roughly $120 right there.

Here’s a picture of it looking all pretty in its socket, with the mounting hardware for the cooler.

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The next part to choose is the motherboard. This is the backbone of the PC, so it’s important to take a lot of factors into consideration:

  1. What sort of infrastructural environment are you using this computer in? Are you just using it as a home PC, a heavy-lifting workstation, or a 24/7 server? In this case, I’m building it as a home PC that will be used for gaming, audio production, and video editing. So I would land somewhere between “Home PC” and “Workstation”.
  2. Are you going to be overclocking?
  3. How reputable is the brand?
  4. Are there enough PCIe slots to handle the expansion cards that you’re putting in?
  5. How much bandwidth is available for each PCIe slot?
  6. What storage options are available with this motherboard? (SATA, SATA Express, onboard M.2, etc.)
    1. How much total bandwidth is available to each port vs. how much can the CPU process at a time?
    2. How much expandable storage do you even need? Just because a motherboard has 10 SATA III headers doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to be throwing 10 storage drives into it. Unless you really want to.
  7. What sort of I/O (input/output) does it have? This could be USB 2.0, 3.0, 3.1, Type-C, thunderbolt compatibility, expansion headers for additional front USB ports, etc. What sort of I/O do you need? One old type of port that has become easily overlooked, but is still very important for diagnosing BIOS issues, is the PS/2 port (old school mouse/keyboard input). I wanted at least one dual-purpose PS/2 port.
  8. Does it have integrated video outputs? For my build, this question was irrelevant because the CPU I chose does not have integrated graphics support; X99 is so powerful that Intel assumed that users would have dedicated video cards to pair with it anyway. In this case, the boards I looked for didn’t have the integrated outputs.
  9. Finally, what form factor are you looking for? Are you looking to build a medium-sized to full-sized computer? Go for a regular ATX or the larger E-ATX design. Are you looking to build a very small PC that can fit in a small space? Go for a MicroATX or mini-ITX board. Some people say that you can choose form factor based on your case, but I believe that the case should fit around the form factor you need. Most MicroATX and mini-ITX boards only have one PCIe slot. If you are running more than one PCIe expansion card, these form factors won’t work. Personally, I was only running one expansion card, but want room to add more. So I went with a regular ATX board.

The number one brand on the market for consumer-grade motherboards is ASUS. So, I had decided early on that I was going to fork over the premium to get the brand. In this case, it’s not like forking over $2000 for a shiny silver Apple logo. In the world of custom-built PCs, you are (usually) getting what you pay for. ASUS makes high-quality boards that are both highly stable and highly reliable. Additionally, since this is going to be an X99 build, I was slightly drawn by ASUS’s patented OC socket, which features more pin connectivity than other X99 motherboard manufacturers. What this would mean for me is more voltage stability to the CPU, and thus more peace of mind when it comes to overclocking, which I plan to do.

The board I initially chose was the ASUS x99-Pro. Unfortunately, this board fell off the market and became very expensive to find. So I stepped down and went with the ASUS x99-A. Not quite as spiffy for overclocking (see this article for more information on X99 motherboards and overclocking) but still offers the peace of mind I know I’m getting with an ASUS board. The only thing I regret is that, though I did get this board for $232 after shipping, the X99-PRO had dropped to only $240 just before falling off the market. Had I bought sooner, I could have gotten a better board for just $8 more.

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And here’s the board on build day, before I installed the CPU. I do apologize for the fuzzy phone picture.

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Next, I needed a way to cool my CPU. Most CPUs come with a stock cooler, but X99 CPUs do not. It would seem Intel decided that users should be using aftermarket coolers on high-end CPUs anyway, and as such they didn’t bother selling their 6-and-8-core processors with stock coolers. Most people who build enthusiast-grade computers (such as what I’m building here) go with a custom-loop watercooling system (very expensive), or a sealed loop AIO (all-in-one: means the pump, reservoir, tubing, liquid, and radiator are all integrated into one unit) liquid cooler for the CPU. Some niche enthusiasts even go for phase-change cooling. After extensive research, however, I found that it is actually difficult to beat high-end air cooling without spending a lot of money on high-end liquid cooling. Now, I could have achieved better cooling performance by going with something like the NZXT Kraken X61 with four 140mm fans running in push/pull configuration, and I may upgrade to something like that in the future. But there are a few reasons why I opted for the tower air cooler over the liquid AIO cooler.

The first reason is price per performance. In fact, this entire build is focused around the concept of price per performance. It’s how I was able to do this entire build for $1500.  To achieve really high performance out of an AIO, you need a big radiator and lots of high quality, pressure-optimized fans to pump cold air through that radiator. Basically, I’d be spending about $130 on the AIO, plus another $40-80 on fans. Not very cost-effective, and I’m on a budget. The second reason is that there is always the added point of failure inherent in liquid cooling: the possibility that something could leak and damage components inside of the computer. I wanted something that would be relatively failsafe (meaning that even if the moving parts on it failed, it would still work okay until I got new fans for it), and that meant a big air cooler. Currently, the king of the air coolers is the Noctua NH-D15, and so that’s what I went with. Here it is looking all sleek.

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At nearly the size of my head (measuring 16.5cm wide by 15cm deep by 13.5cm tall) this thing is a behemoth without the fans. In fact, the sheer amount of surface area present here alone is enough that I could probably run this thing without fans on it (that is, if I wasn’t overclocking).

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Don’t worry, the CPU is definitely under there somewhere.
Because of its size and weight, and the size (and thus the inherent torque) of the fans, there is a slight danger present: should the fans ramp up to full speed, it could cause the whole tower cooler to vibrate and shake. This could, in theory, cause the thermal compound on the CPU to crack and break apart, thus negatively impacting cooling performance. As such, it is important to make sure this thing is firmly and securely mounted to ensure that that doesn’t happen.

With fans (16.5cm wide by 17.5cm deep by roughly 15.5cm tall)  the NH-D15 is truly a sight to behold. Some may complain that Noctua’s signature tan-and-brown color scheme on their fans is ugly, but I’m not bothered by it. Here it is with the fans on it:

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Some niche enthusiasts suggest sanding down the heat spreader on the CPU and the bottom of the heatsink, and sometimes outright removing the heat spreader and appling aftermarket compound to the physical CPU dye to achieve better cooling performance, but since I’m not nearly daring enough to attempt such a thing. I may have only paid $300 for my CPU vs. $420, but that’s still a lot of money that I’m not ready to fork over for a replacement CPU should I mess it up.

The next thing I looked for was RAM. Since X99 utilizes the new DDR4 RAM, I knew that I was going to spend more on RAM than the average user. I settled for a 16GB (4x4GB) kit of Kingston Hyper X Fury DDR4-2400. To break it down, it just means that I paid a few dollars extra ($115 for this kit as opposed to $110 for a cheaper kit) to get good RAM from a good manufacturer that is optimized to run at 2400MHz. I will have to go into the BIOS (motherboard firmware) later to enable an XMP profile that will allow me to actually boost the clock speed of the RAM from the motherboard’s stock maximum of 2133MHz to the RAM’s optimized speed of 2400MHz. Here’s the RAM (well, two of the 4 sticks) installed in the motherboard. The mobo supports 8 sticks of RAM (most motherboards, by comparison, only support 4) so the other two RAM modules are actually on the other side of the CPU socket (which you can sort of see in the bottom of the picture).

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The next step, for me, was to choose what sort of SSD I wanted to use as my main drive for operating system and applications. I had previously put the Samsung 850 Evo into my laptop and was very pleased with its performance, so I thought I would do the same for this. Later after building, I decided to take the 850 Evo out of my laptop and pair it with the 850 Evo in the desktop so I could run a RAID 0 configuration (system uses both drives as one drive for increased read/write speeds). Yes, I know RAID 0 can be risky in the long run. If one drive in the array fails, then every drive in the array can (and probably will) be lost. Not just the data, but the physical drive itself. Most people who run RAID 0 actually run RAID 10 for backup purposes, but I’m not interested in that just yet. These SSDs came in at $99 each.

Here are the two drives running in RAID 0.

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Before anyone points it out, yes, that is a 2.5″ laptop hard drive below the SSDs. It’s there until I decide to finally fork over for a large-capacity HDD to use as a primary storage drive. After that, I’ll still use the notebook HDD, but I’ll dedicate it to storing lossless audio for my own music listening pleasure (and image backups of all my CDs, because I’m paranoid about loss and theft and whatnot). I thought about using a WD Black for the HDD, but after my boss ordered one to use at work for the editing machine, I discovered they run hot and loud (at least, loud for an HDD) and am now shopping for alternative options since I need something that will run a little cooler and a little quieter.

Next, it was time to choose my graphics card. This was the biggest struggle for me to pick out. Since I’m doing video editing, I wanted an NVIDIA card for one reason: CUDA cores (and, by extension, CUDA acceleration for video rendering). Since I’m on a budget, I knew I would go for a GTX card and not a Quadro (this video explains the difference between GTX and Quadro), and so I spent a fair amount of time researching to find out just which card I would want to get.

I really wanted a GTX980ti, but there’s no way I could afford it. Plus, I wanted something that would offer bang for the buck. Although the GTX950 could be argued as the best bang-for-the-buck card, this was a component I was willing to spend a little more on. Lucky for me, I found a GTX970 on EVGA’s b-stock for only $260. Comparatively, this graphics card usually retails for around $320. Here it is looking pretty in the PC. Note that this is the superclocked edition, but not the SSC. I could have snagged a b-stock GTX960 for $190 to save more money white still achieving near-970 performance, but I decided against it. This is an X99 build, and I wanted something worthy of X99.

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Plus, this card is pretty fantastic.

Next, and finally, I needed to choose a PSU to power my system. Since all of my parts are rather expensive, I wanted a power supply that I knew I could rely on long-term to keep everything stable. I also knew I didn’t need to go overkill on it. While some people go with beefy 1000, 1200, or even 1500-watt power supplies for systems that only draw 300-400 watts of power, I opted for something more modest. My main draw was that I wanted something that was 80+ gold certified, fully modular, and had a zero-RPM fan mode for silent operation under smaller loads. Thus, I chose the Corsair RM750. A 750-watt power supply may seem a little underwhelming for an X99 build, especially when considering that PC enthusiasts tend to use larger-than-necessary power supplies, but I didn’t want to spend money on something I didn’t actually need. I could have waited to snag this for $80 with a mail-in-rebate, but I paid $100 for this power supply (still less than the retail cost of $120). Plus, 750W is beefy enough that my system doesn’t normally draw enough juice to cause its cooling fan to kick in, which helps with silent operation.

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Now that I have all of the components picked out for the computer, I need a case to put it all in. I already somewhat regret my decision to not go with the windowed version, but I chose the Fractal Design Define R5 for reasons that would seem pretty obvious to most computer geeks. It’s one of the best cases on the market in terms of versatility and modularism. What I mean by versatility is that it can be used either to achieve an incredibly silent PC build, or it can be used to achieve a high-cooling PC build. The Define R5 Microsite talks more about these things. I could have gone with the newer Define S and saved a little money, but I wanted the R5 for its vast storage expandability, and its optical drive bays. This build is geared for video editing and audio production, and so I will need to be able to add an optical drive later on when it comes time to start burning CDs (I have an external optical drive, but I’d rather have something internal here). I didn’t get a picture of the case before I made my modification to it, but here is a great video showing it off.
And, because I never want to give you just one review for something, here’s another, from another guy I trust for tech reviews and tips.

Since I did want to personalize this case a little bit (I really wanted to make it my own), before I built, I removed the front bezel, removed everything which was attached to the bezel, and painted it white using Krylon MAXX (primer + paint) flat white spray paint.

IMG_20150906_192611553 IMG_20150907_172005699 IMG_20150907_222827039

I think it gives it something of a Stormtrooper-esque appearance.

And what a difference it made in the appearance of the computer. It still has a clean, professional appearance, but also a subtle edge that makes this case my case.

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Most people would remove the stock case fans and use all aftermarket fans for their cooling, but the stock GP-14 fans from Fractal Design showed, after research, to be nearly as effective as Noctua NF-A14s in terms of pressure and airflow, and just as good in terms of noise level. Not bad, Fractal Design. I actually ordered an additional fan to put in the front of the case (to make for a now-total of 2 front intake and 1 rear exhaust). This saved a lot of money as opposed to removing all of the fans and replacing them with Noctua fans. Plus, it’s pretty and keeps with the black-and-white visual theme I’m (sort of, minus the power supply) going for.

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While I do wish I had a little more rear I/O for later expansion, I’m pretty pleased with this build and the back of my computer looks pretty attractive if I do say so myself.

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Some may complain that only having one displayport on the back of a graphics card isn’t ideal, but the monitor I’m looking at buying runs on DVI anyway, and this has two DVI ports in case I want to go dual-monitor later (which I probably will want to do).

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Finally, the Redragon Karura was my keyboard choice. At just $25, it offers 7 different LED colors and feels much like a laptop keyboard, which is (in my mind) a must for this college student. Though, it should be noted that the keys are slightly rubbery, so there will be a slight learning curve when it comes to this keyboard. If you’re a lazy fast typist who drags their fingers across the keyboard, you’ll find yourself being forced to pick your fingers up a tiny bit. But, the response time is fantastic and it doesn’t fatigue my hands at all. Perhaps someday I’ll upgrade to a mechanical keyboard, but those are expensive and this is a great inexpensive alternative.

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And here are a couple more miscellanous pictures from the build process:
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All of the parts that went into the initial build.

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Postcodes and LEDs on the motherboard. Also notice the white LEDs glowing around the back (looks purple in this picture) and the glowing yellow line around the audio circuit. 

And, of course, what build log would be complete without posting system performance information. I managed a 4.3GHz overclocked CPU speed with AVX enabled (to ensure stability for creative applications like Adobe Premiere Pro), a 26% increase from the stock speed of 3.3GHz.

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I did not overclock my graphics card and do not plan to do so at any time. Nevertheless, it handles both gaming and creative applications well. Though the only game I really play is Minecraft, I managed 450+ frames per second without any texture packs or shaders. While running Sonic Ether’s Unbelievable Shaders (SEUS) and Chroma Hills texture pack, with fast graphics, no clouds (but skybox on), and a render distance of 11 chunks, I manage 70-130 frames per second. Adobe Premiere export times are fantastic, and I can live-render (in-app playback) full 1080p video seamlessly with various effects added.

Later, I’ll post actual benchmark scores and such for the geeks.
Like any computer enthusiast, while I consider the build completed, I still consider the computer itself to be progressing. For example, when I first built it, there was only one SSD in the system. Now there are two running in RAID 0. Eventually, I’d like to add a HDD hotswap caddy to the lower 5.25″ bay in the front of the case, and a combo slimline optical drive / multimedia card reader to the top bay so I can eventually stop relying on my external DVD drive. As I mentioned previously, I also want to add a high-capacity (3 to 4TB) hard drive to the system, or maybe run a pair of 2TB had drives in RAID 1 for redundancy (RAID 1 mirrors your data between two or more hard drives so that if one drive fails, your data is still safe on the second drive). I am also shopping for a 24″ 1080p 144Hz IPS monitor (24″ because of physical desk size, 1080p for resolution, 144Hz so it’s easier on the eyes for long-use sessions, and IPS for wide viewing angles so there the colors don’t go wonky when I’m not looking at it straight on) for better video editing. I’m also shopping for a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) with a battery backup so that the power delivery to my computer is more smoothed out (no more panicking when my computer is running and the AC kicks on causing all the lights to momentarily dim, and peace of mind knowing that if the power goes out, I won’t lose either of the SSDs in my RAID array and will have time to safely shut down my computer).

But there is something else cool about my computer setup; because this is a home-studio audio-and-video production setup, I use a USB audio interface with studio reference monitors (flat-response speakers for super-realistic audio representation, ideal for music production; if you can get something to sound great through them, it’ll sound great on just about anything else you could play a song through).

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The computer is only one element of my setup, but it’s definitely an important one.

Closing Thoughts

This computer was a lot of fun to plan out and build, and is a lot of fun to use. Being my first build, I’m pretty well pleased with how it turned out. Building a computer can seem intimidating and scary, but if you’re willing to put in the necessary time to carefully research parts options, you can build a computer that will do exactly what you want it to do for much less cost than going out and buying one. I spent several months actively researching parts and options before I built this computer. I watched more build logs than I can count, which spelled out for me very clearly the build process and the correct order of assembling parts. If it wasn’t for the internet, and the plethora of information out there on just about anything a person could imagine, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. So, if you’re a gamer and you want a PC that will do what you want, and you don’t want to spend anything more than necessary, I’d strongly recommend looking into custom building your own. It’s fun, it’s relatively easy, and you have complete control over the entire process (well, you can’t control market fluctuations and prices, but you can control when you buy things).

And yes, I really did all of my own photography work for this post. Thank you very much.

So yes, PC building is easy. So easy, in fact, a 3-year-old could do it. To illustrated that point (and to end this post on an adorable note), here is a video of my favorite tech guy building a PC with his son.

I hope that I can be that kind of dad someday.

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