Putting together an all-purpose rig under a strict budget is the best way to keep a PC builder on his or her toes
Building expensive, over-the-top machines is easy. It’s when you dip below the $1,000 mark that it gets difficult. This month, I undertook the challenge of building the best all-around PC I could for less than $850. To me, that meant a machine good at multithreaded tasks as well as gaming. We’ve said it before, and we’ll stick to our guns: Intel’s Core i5-2500K is the sweet spot for price/performance. Unfortunately, that price is too high for this configuration. That left me pondering whether to do yet another Core i3 box or another AMD box.
Readers have been ragging on us about what fantastic deals Phenom II procs currently are. I looked high and low and, surprisingly, I did find some e-tailers selling Phenom IIs way below the list price. For just $139, you can net a 3.5GHz Phenom II X4 970. That gives you four cores, a much larger cache, and a fully unlocked part for not much more than the Athlon II X4 has been going for. The Phenom II X4 isn’t always a clear-cut winner against its Intel counterpart, the 3.3GHz Core i3-2120, but it does hold its own in multithreading tasks and game-related chores, which are all about the GPU.
Picking the Other Parts
I initially picked Nvidia’s GeForce 560 Ti card for this build, but later decided to swing ATI because our motherboard, a Gigabyte GA-970A-UD3, only offers CrossFireX support. To get SLI on an AMD board, you need to pony up for a 990FX chipset, which would have broken my budget. The best deal seems to be the Radeon HD 6950 card. The 6950 is a cut-down Radeon HD 6970 made to rain on the GeForce 560 Ti’s parade. Gigabyte’s GV-R695UD was about the cheapest I could find at the time, and it features enhanced cooling over a stock card.
When it came to the other components, I had one thing working for me and another against me. Working for me was system RAM. RAM is so cheap that building a rig with even 32GB is doable (provided you have eight DIMM slots). However, 4GB is about all you really need in a budget box—and all I could afford. Yes, 8GB would have been nice, but I had to save pennies for something really out of control: the hard drive.
Here's how dire things are right now: In August 2011, we built a $667 PC that had a 1TB WD Caviar Blue drive for $60. This year, I was happy to get a bare 500GB Western Digital Blue drive for $99. In fact, the drive I snagged for this build had already risen 30 percent in price by the time I finished building my rig. The same hard drive six months ago sold for $34!
I’m still sticking to the $99 price, as that was the price when I originally configured the machine, but by the time you read this, the hard drive could be $500, and we’ll be living in a dystopian world where people are scrounging e-waste dumps looking for 32MB USB keys discarded in 2003. I’ll pull up in my busted‑up $830 PC and some dirty, toothless PC mechanic will marvel at the “last of the 500GB Interceptors! A piece of history!”
To keep things easy, I installed the Phenom II X4 970 with the board out of the case. First, drain any built-up static electricity by touching a large metal object. Unlock the AM3+ socket by lifting up the arm. Match the gold triangle in the CPU’s corner with the white corner marker on the motherboard.
Gently lower the chip into the socket until it rests flush with the socket. Now lock the arm in place, and you’ve just installed your CPU.
I went with the amazingly cheap ($20!) Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus. It offers far more performance than the stock fan. To install it, first remove the stock mounting bracket from the motherboard by using a Phillips‑head screwdriver to remove both of the plastic brackets on top.
The metallic backplate on the back should now pop off. Reassemble the bracket and place this in your motherboard box in case you need it in the future. Now place a small dab of thermal paste on the CPU heat spreader. You can use a plastic bag as a makeshift glove to spread the paste on the heat spreader’s surface.
The Hyper 212 Plus comes with a backplate, which you will have to hold in place while you install the bracket. With the bracket in place, install four of the nut‑and‑screw assemblies to hold the bracket in place. Now use the included tool to lightly torque the screws in place.
Don’t over tighten, as it could chew into the motherboard. Remove the fan from the cooler, and spread the X-shaped bracket through the base of the cooler. Now, using a screwdriver, attach the x-bracket to the four exposed nuts with the four spring screws.
Once the cooler is firmly attached, snap the fan back in place and hook up the fan to a fan header. For my configuration, I set the fan to blow air through the cooler where it would be exhausted through the case’s rear fan.
While the board is out, you might as well install the RAM by matching up the notches in the RAM with the notches in the slots. On this board, I installed the pair of 2GB modules in the two blue slots.
If you’re not using this board, you should consult your manual to see how to install the RAM for dual-channel mode.
Install the optical drive in the bay of your choice, which will be the top bay for most people, since the system will likely sit on the floor. At this point, you should also install the hard drive in one of the bays that will clear the GPU, as the hard drive will jut out quite a bit in this BitFenix case. You should now install the PSU, as well. I chose to face the fan intake toward the bottom of the case—that way, air is sucked in through the bottom and vented out the rear.
The BitFenix case is a bit unusual in that it features an inverted design that flips the guts of the case. Remember to knock out the rear metallic I/O panel that’s in the case before you mount your board. When you mount your board, make sure you use as many screws as you have mounts in the case. If you have nine mounting points, you should use nine screws or you will need to remove the board and start all over again. You should know that the BitFenix case is a bit shallow, and the Hyper 212 Plus is a little tight in the case. The side panel will fit, but it will be right up against the cooler.
The Gigabyte version of the Radeon HD 6950 features three fans to keep it cool—and in my case, they’re flipped over so the warm air is directly vented out the top. Remember, since the case is inverted, you’ll be installing it in the x16 PCIe slot that is the lowest in the board.
Connect the main power connector, the ATX12V, and pipe power to the GPU, HDD, and ODD. You should also take the time to connect the power switch, LED, and reset switch, and plug in the USB and front audio panel headphone jack.
Our budget burner doesn’t set any benchmark records. Nor would we expect it to at a mere $830. Even up against our old zero-point system with its 2.6GHz Core i7-920 overclocked to 3.5GHz, the $830 rig didn’t win any battles (mind you, our zero-point cost north of $2,500 when originally constructed).
Where the $830’s talents come into play is against far more modest machines. For example, when put up against the $667 rig we built in August 2011, the extra cash helps out. That 3.1GHz Core i3-2100 box takes a back seat in our multithreaded tests, and the Radeon HD 6950 eats the $667 Radeon HD 6790’s lunch, as well as dinner.
In the interest of full disclosure, I did decide to give the $830 a little extra edge by overclocking the Phenom II X4 970 to 4.1GHz. Since I paid $20 for the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus, I figured I’d make it work for a living. But what about last month’s $1,500 AMD FX-8150 Bulldozer box? The $830 box’s four cores couldn’t hang with the Bulldozer’s eight cores, but in gaming benchmarks, the Radeon HD 6950 isn’t that much slower than the Radeon HD 6970 in the pricier box. In STALKER, I’m only giving up 7 percent, and Far Cry 2 saw a mere 5 percent delta between the two rigs. That ain’t bad when you’re looking at $830 vs. $1,500. To be fair, that Bulldozer rig also didn’t have Microsoft’s new hotfix that specifically addresses Windows 7’s scheduler issues with the Bulldozer chip, so there’s a good chance that last month’s machine is even faster today.
Still, I’m not unhappy with the performance of this machine, especially the frame rates I’m seeing. Not everything is perfect, though. It’s hard to believe that I had to fall back to a 500GB HDD to make budget, and it would have been nice to run 8GB of RAM instead of the 4GB of DDR3/1333. I also must note that there have been negative comments regarding the reliability of budget Rosewill PSUs, but I’ll take the risk because they’re low-cost and, more importantly, have a U.S.-based website where you can actually use the two-year warranty. You can’t say that for a lot of budget PSUs, where the warranty is in name only.