How to Build a Kick-ass $800 Gaming PC

norman

In October, we spec’ed out a respectable $800 gaming PC in our monthly Buyer’s Guide feature. While the price and parts looked promising, we had to see for ourselves if this sub-$1000 system could hold its ground against today’s top rigs. After all, if you don’t need to spend your next month’s paycheck on performance parts, why should you?

We had to make some careful choices to keep this machine within our constrained budget, but in the end we were surprised by this little PC’s kick ass performance. Want to learn how to build it yourself? We’ll walk you through our meticulous build process, explain why we chose each component, and give you our final thoughts on the benchmark results this little-PC-that-could throws down.

Parts List:

Antec Three Hundred ($60, www.antec.com)

Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 3GHz Wolfdale ($165, www.intel.com)

Visiontek Radeon HD 4850 ($185, www.visiontek.com)

Seagate 500GB Barracuda ($65, www.seagate.com)

MSI P45 Neo3 ($110, www.msi.com.tw)

Samsung SH-S223F DVD Burner ($25, www.samsung.com)

Antec NeoPower 500 ($90, www.antec.com)

Corsair 2x1GB DDR2 800 ($40, www.corsair.com)

Let's get to building!

1. Mount the Power Supply

Traditionally, the PSU is mounted at the top of the case. But in this instance, the Antec Three Hundred case reserved room for the power supply at the bottom. Start by removing the four screws that are meant to hold the PSU in place.  Then, slide the unit down into place, making sure you keep the wires inside the case and avoid pinching any underneath the power supply. This Power Supply should be oriented so that the rear fan is to the left of the power switch. With the screwdriver, insert the four screws into the appropriate slots to finish mounting the power supply.

2. Drop in the CPU

You may have thought with the end of CPU pins that installing your processor was safe and worry-free. It can be, but if you’re not careful, installing your new CPU can still bork your mobo. It’s still one of the most delicate steps in building a PC, which is why we usually recommend installing the CPU before you mount the motherboard in the case. First, remove the black protective shield covering the socket and store it in a place you won’t forget. It’s good practice to save this plastic covering since most motherboard manufacturers require it to be in place if you ever need to RMA a defective board.

The next step is to unlatch the metal arm next to the socket and lift the retention plate. Then, look at the CPU and the socket and match up the notches on the CPU with the notches on the socket. Drop the CPU in carefully while keeping it parallel to the socket (ie. not tilted at any angle). Make sure the marked corner of the CPU’s heat spreader matches up with the marked corner of the socket. Do not slide the CPU around when it is in the socket or it may damage the processor or motherboard. Once the CPU is aligned in place, drop the retention clamp and then slowly and carefully push the metal locking arm down, making sure it clicks into position. You will feel some resistance while pushing the arm down, but this is normal.

With the CPU in place, it’s time to attach the heatsink.

3. Lock in the Heatsink

The retail version of our CPU comes with a stock Intel cooler. In our experience, stock coolers deliver more than sufficient cooling for most users, especially if you’re not planning on overclocking your processor. The stock Intel cooler keeps things simple with pre-applied thermal paste and an easy-to-install, though not necessarily secure, locking mechanism.

First, make sure that you remove any protective film from the cooler’s thermal grease. Leaving that on will definitely cause your processor to overheat. Then ,line up the legs of the heatsink with the holes on the motherboard and let the heatsink rest on top of the CPU. Make sure each leg’s locking mechanism is in the install position with the arrows facing outward, away from the center of the cooler. Press firmly on the first leg until you hear a click and feel the locking mechanism snap into place. Then, do the same thing on the leg opposite the first one you locked.

Once all four legs are locked, you can flip the motherboard over and you should see all four legs sticking out slightly from the bottom. If a leg is not fully secured or the heatsink still feels loose, turn the locking mechanism counterclockwise with a flathead screwdriver so the arrows face in, pull the leg straight up and repeat the steps mentioned above.

After the cooler is safely fastened to the motherboard, plug the fan’s four-pin power cable into the corresponding four-pin header on the motherboard—typically it’s near the socket. Make sure your wires won’t get caught in the CPU fan though!


4. Mount the Motherboard

Before you can install the motherboard, you’ll need to install the I/O shield, which is the little metal plate that labels your inputs and outputs on the back of the case. But first, you need to pop out the default shield that comes attached to the case. If you have difficulty prying it off, try using a tool like your screwdriver and push it from the outside inward. Now, take the new I/O shield and pop out the necessary tabs to fit in the ports protruding from your motherboard.

Next, find the bag of brass standoffs that came with the case. There should be at least eight of them, though the typical number is nine (one for each screw hole in your mobo). For ATX motherboard designs, such as the one we’re using, Antec has marked the interior of the case with where these standoffs should be affixed. Install them into the holes marked “A” for most motherboards. Use pliers to tighten them so they don’t come undone. Once you’ve placed the standoffs, make sure you line up your motherboard and confirm that you can see all the standoffs through the holes in the mobo. Incorrectly placing a motherboard standoff can short out your motherboard and cause hardware damage.

We suggest laying the case down on its side to install the motherboard. Carefully lower the board into the case, making sure you line up the ports on the ATX connector with the holes in the I/O shield. Once you’re sure everything’s lined up properly, start screwing the motherboard down. Be careful not to use too much force, which may crack or otherwise damage the board. You can keep the case lying on its back for the remainder of the building process.


5. Long Term Memory

Memory installation is fairly easy, but if you mess up and drop your RAM in the wrong slots, you could cripple the performance of your rig. If you don’t properly populate the RAM slots, you can halve your available memory bandwidth, which will really hurt performance

Many motherboard manufacturers color-code their slots, which makes installation as easy as sticking the matching DIMMs in their respective colored slots. Not all manufacturers use the same color scheme however, so consult your manual to be 100% sure.


The MSI board we’re using uses an unusual color scheme, in which we need to put the matching RAM sticks in the alternating colored slots. With the motherboard placed on a stable and static-free surface (you can rest it on the anti-static bag it came in on a tabletop), locate the indented notch on the bottom of each RAM stick and match it to the notch on the motherboard slot. With the slot levers pulled back, gently press the memory into the slot by pushing each end of the stick with your fingers until the stick locks into position.

Inserting the memory will take more force than anything else when you build your PC, so don’t hesitate to push. If your RAM starts rocking back and forth in the slot, that could mean you have the stick in backwards. If you do everything right, the retention levers should automatically move into position with an audible click. Make sure you leave the levers on both the used and unused slots in the closed position, as an extended lever can damage the video card during installation.

6. Installing the Videocard

With only one x16 PCI-E slot on our mobo, there’s only one place for our Radeon HD 4850 card to reside in. Before you plug in the videocard, you need to clear a slot for it. Remove the slot cover from case, then slide the card in along the expansion slot. It’s important to keep the card perpendicular to the plane of the motherboard, so that it properly seats in the slot. Make sure the card makes complete contact with the slot and is fitted all the way in. Once the card is securely in place, screw the mounting bracket to the chassis.



7.  Install the Optical and Hard Drives

Before installing the optical drive, you’ll need to locate the screws that will hold the drive in place. The loose screws will be located in a small plastic bag inside your DVD burner’s retail box. (If you didn’t buy a retail DVD burner, check your case’s parts box.)



On some computer cases, there are bezels covering each slot where you’ll mount your drives. In this instance, you only need to remove a single bay bezel from the front side of the case. Simply slide the optical drive into the 5.25-inch bay, making sure that you line up the appropriate holes with the slots and that the front bezel of the drive is aligned with the front of your case. Then, mount the drive on the case using the proper screws. You only need two screws on each side of the drive to keep it safely mounted.

With the hard drive, you won't have to remove any bezel or front paneling. Just hold the drive in place while you screw it in.

8.Get Wired

Oh cables, how much we loathe thee. Luckily, with SATA drives we don’t have to worry about ugly, gray, IDE cables anymore. You’ll need to run a SATA cable from your motherboard (the ports are on the lower right portion of the board) to your optical and another to your hard drive. It’s a good idea to make sure that the hard drive containing Windows is plugged into the first SATA port on your motherboard. In this build, we kept it simple by only requiring two SATA ports for our two drives. This MSI board can connect up to six SATA devices, which leaves you plenty of room for upgrades in the future.


Next up are the dreaded front panel connections. You know, those multi-colored wires that need to be pushed onto a bunch of poorly labeled pins? Find these color-coded cables near the front of your case, and isolate the HDD LED, the power LED, the reset switch, and the power switch. You can plug the power and reset switches directly to the labeled leads on the mobo, but the two lights are trickier. Plug the HDD LED into the orange section, making sure the colored wire lines up with the + pin on the mobo. Do the same for the power LED as well. Don’t worry about making mistakes; a faulty connection will not harm your case or motherboard.


If you want to use the case’s front-mounted USB ports, connect the labeled USB cable to the JUSB1 pins; it should slide in easily and it’s keyed, so there’s only one possible way to connect it. The last connection you will need to make is for the front panel audio. The case comes with both an AC ’97 and HD Audio connection. You will want to use the HD Audio connector and plug it to the JAUD1 pins on the bottom left corner of the motherboard.

Now that you’re done with these troublesome wires, you may want to stand back and observe the mess of cables you have running around the interior. Bundle up your loose cables with zip ties and tuck them away in the case’s many crevices. With some extra effort and patience, you can pretty up the mess of wires and have your $800 PC looking like a Dream Machine.

9. Add Power to the Parts

Now it’s time to add some power to the components. This will be fairly easy; the trickiest part is making sure you don’t forget any components.

Before you plug in the main power connector into the motherboard, make sure that the PSU is not plugged into a wall socket.  Grab the 24-pin connector from the power supply and lock it into the motherboard’s power connector, located to the right of the memory slots. It should click into place, or you can gently tug on it to be sure.

Next, locate the four-pin ATX power connector and plug it into its appropriate socket; this supplies supplemental power to the CPU. We should note that the PSU also includes an eight-pin connector, which is the standard for higher-end motherboards, but won’t be used here.

Now, it’s time to plug in the power for the graphics card. Our PSU did not have a six-pin connector specifically for the GPU, so we had to use the four-pin Molex to six-pin adapter that came with the videocard to get juice to the 4850.



Lastly, plug the thin SATA power cables into the hard drive and the optical drive.

That’s it, you’re finished! Now it’s a matter of getting Windows installed and your system up and running.

10. Installing the OS

It’s the moment of truth; everything is connected and you’re ready to hit the power button. But before you do that here’s a quick checklist to make sure you’re ready to go:

•    Make sure all parts are properly seated
•    Make sure all cables are in place
•    Double check front panel connections are correct
•    Plug in the power cord
•    Plug in the monitor, keyboard, and mouse
•    Flip the PSU switch to the on position

When you are sure everything is ready to go, power on the PC! Once the system is up and running, hit the DEL key during startup and you will be taken to the BIOS screen. Many of these options may seem foreign to you, but there are only a few sections that you will need to adjust.

Go to Advanced BIOS Features > Boot Sequence and select the CD/DVD optical drive as your first boot device. Press ESC to go back and while you are here, disable the Full Screen Logo Display and enable Quick Booting to increase your boot time. Once these settings have been made, press F10 and select Yes. The PC will now restart and during the reboot, insert your Windows CD into the optical drive and when prompted, hit any key on the keyboard and Windows setup will begin. Follow the instructions from here on out and you should have Windows successfully installed in a timely fashion.

After Windows is installed, head back to the BIOS and change the boot sequence to boot the hard drive first and the optical drive second. This will prevent the PC from trying to read from the optical drive every time you start the system. Also, head to the Cell Menu in the BIOS and make sure the CPU is running at its stock speed. The FSB frequency should be set at 333MHz and the multiplier should be set to 9 to give you 3GHz, which is the stock speed of this processor. Press F10 again and the system will boot into Windows. In Windows, make sure to install the motherboard, GPU and any other drivers that came with the parts. Some of the hardware may need additional updates online through their respective manufacturers’ websites.

Conclusion

We put this $800 PC up against our standard zero point machine  to see how it matches up against a rig that costs twice as much. It’s not hard to guess that the zero point system with a Core 2 Quad and a Velociraptor would beat our budget rig on every test possible, but the $800 wonder did surprisingly well in some of the tests. Premiere Pro tests showed a two minute difference but in Photoshop we only experienced a 4 second difference while Photodex ProShow Producer showed a 41 second difference. MainConcept Reference hit our budget PC hard, though, and further shows that MainConcept is optimized for four cores.

We went into our gaming benchmark with low expectations from our budget card, the Radeon HD 4850. Obviously, it is no match against the dual GeForce 8800 GTX setup in the Zero Point system. With settings cranked up to the max, our card was barely able to spit out 16 FPS in Crysis. While playing Crysis at the highest settings possible and a resolution of 1920x1200 simply isn’t an option, turning down the graphic settings to medium resulted in 43 FPS made the game much more playable. Unreal Tournament 3 managed to give us a stellar 78 FPS. If you’re running at typical 22-inch LCD resolutions, this machine should kick ass.

So what can we say about this all-around budget PC? We can clearly see the difference between a budget system and performance system. However, we can also see that our budget PC is able to run every game and test we throw at it with very respectable benchmark scores. And if you spend a little extra over the $800 budget, performance can easily be increased – upgrades to video card, processor, or memory – but we are very pleased with the setup and performance we have here.

Benchmarks

Zero Point
$800 PC
Premiere Pro CS3
1,260 sec
1,380 sec
Photoshop CS3 150 sec
154 sec
ProShow
1,415 sec
1,456 sec
MainConcept
1,872 sec
2,716 sec
Crysis
26 fps
16 fps
Unreal Tournament 3
83 fps
78 fps
Best scores bolded. Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700, 2GB of Corsair DDR2/800 RAM on an EVGA 680 SLI motherboard, two EVGA GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI mode, a Western Digital 150GB Raptor and 500GB Caviar hard drives, an LG GGC-H20L optical drive, a Sound Blaster X-Fi soundcard, a PC Power and Cooling Silencer 750 Quad PSU, and Windows Vista Home Premium 64 bit.

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