The thought of a gaming PC might conjure up images of decadent excess—a full-course meal of awesome that moves from an SSD consumé to a filet of Core i7 990X to quad-SLI under glass. While that’s certainly a feast worth aspiring to, it’s by no means the only fare that will give your gaming needs sustenance.
And, no, we’re not suggesting that you ruin your health with an empty-calorie diet of console. In fact, unlike some corners of the gaming world, where there’s a fixed menu of parts, the PC offers loads of options that scale from opulent to economical.
Our budget gaming rig is all about instant gratification: a way for you to fill your gaming hunger with a state of the art, speedy machine, capable of playing today’s games at 1080p resolutions, for less than $700. With our instructions, you will see how you can build it yourself in less than hour. On top of that, we’ll tell you how you can easily supersize your budget box with future upgrades.
Is your mouth watering? Let’s dig in!
GPU: SAPPHIRE RADEON HD 6790 - $150
The selection of budget videocard these days is an embarrassment of riches. We’ve never seen such an assortment of truly powerful, low-cost cards. We decided on AMD’s Radeon HD 6790, which is capable of 1080p gaming in such games as Crysis 2, Battlefield 2: Bad Company, and a ton of other premium titles. Is it a Radeon HD 6990 or GeForce GTX 590? No, our entire system was built for less than the price of AMD’s or Nvidia’s latest dual GPUs.
CPU: Intel Core i3-2100 - $126
Intel’s Sandy Bridge chips are truly wondrous for being fast as hell and cheaper than, well, what Intel could charge. For example, the 3.1GHz Core i3-2100 dual-core is actually faster in most of the benchmarks—even those that are multithreaded—than the similarly priced Athlon II X4 quad-core, and even surpasses the Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition in many of our tests. Not bad for a $126 chip.
MOTHERBOARD: GIGABYTE GA-H67M-D2-B3 - $90
We had to make tough choices to come in under budget and the Gigabyte board was one of them. That’s not to say that it’s a bad board, but there were some features that had to be sacrificed. First up, it’s microATX, which limits future expansion possibilities. That doesn’t hurt as much as the two DIMM slots, though. Ouch. If we had the extra cash, we would have ponied up an extra $30 to get a standard ATX board with four DIMM slots.
OPTICAL DRIVE: SAMSUNG SH-S223A - $22
A tech media prediction says that optical drives will go away within five years. Sure, maybe if you don’t actually use a freaking computer for anything. Our budget doesn’t allow for Blu-ray, so Samsung’s trusty old 22x DVD burner gets put to work yet again.
PSU: ROSEWILL RG530-S12 - $50
When push comes to shove, the PSU budget goes overboard first. That doesn’t mean the Rosewill RG530-S12 is junk. Far from it, in fact. The PSU features two 6-pin GPU plugs and didn’t hiccup once during our testing. It helps that the Rosewill PSU (the house brand for Newegg) was on instant rebate for $25. So, in many ways, it’s actually a $75 PSU that we got for $50.
RAM: Patriot 4GB DDR3/1333 - $40
With the Patriot sticker on it, you know there’s good support behind it. That’s more than we can say for no-name generic RAM.
CASE: ROSEWILL R218 - $30
Believe it or not, we spent one-third more on this year’s case than last year’s. That’s because Rosewill doesn’t sell the $20 black metal case we used in last year’s budget rig. But $30 for an enclosure is still pretty inexpensive, and the Rosewill R218 does the job.
HARD DRIVE: WESTERN DIGITAL CAVAIR BLUE 1TB - $60
With a $10 instant rebate, we snagged a massive 1TB of storage for $60. You can’t really argue with that.
OS: OEM WINDOWS 7 HOME PREMIUM - $99
Is there any other choice?
Today's Parts List Specials
|GPU||Sapphire Radeon HD 6790||$150|
|CPU||Intel Core i3-2100||$126|
|RAM||Patriot 4GB DDR3/1333||$40|
|HDD||Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB||$60|
|OS||OEM Windows 7 Home Premium||$99|
First, the Rosewill R218 case. Facing the front of the case, remove the left-hand panel by removing the two thumbscrews in back. The case features several built-in bump-type standoffs. You’ll need to supplement these by installing additional standoffs in three spots (above, left). To figure out where to place them, place your motherboard in the case and eyeball which holes in the motherboard do not have mounts under them. If you’re a total newb, you should know that the four larger holes around the CPU socket are not for mounting the board: They are for mounting the CPU cooler. The standoffs you need should be in the sealed plastic parts bag that came with the case. Screw them in by hand and then use pliers to tighten them so they don’t back out. This is also a good time to remove any expansion card slot covers. You need the top two slots for the graphics card in this case.
Next, remove the I/O shield, the rectangular metal plate that surrounds the PS/2, USB, and audio ports. Simply wiggle it back and forth until the metal tabs break loose. Your motherboard should have come with a metal I/O shield; fit this into the open hole. With our case, we had to remove the rear fan in order to fit it in (above, right). After we installed the I/O shield (below), we then reinstalled the fan.
Before you install the CPU, make sure to touch something grounded to remove static electricity built up on your body. If you’re truly paranoid, use an antistatic strap.
First unlock the socket’s load plate by opening the little arm on the LGA1155 socket (above).
Now carefully pry the plastic protective cap from the socket (above). Never touch these extremely delicate pins; bending them will kill the board. Keep the protective cap—you will need it in the event you have to return the board for warranty replacement. Now pick up your processor with two fingers and lower it as close as you can get to the socket.
The two notches in the chip should match the two notches in the socket. Keep the chip parallel to the socket (above). Do not drop one side of the chip into the socket and then drop in the other, nor slide it around in the socket, as it may damage the delicate pins. Once the chip is sitting flat in the socket (if it isn’t, carefully pick up the chip and try lowering it in again), use the arm to lower the load plate and lock in the arm.
Since the board is out in the open, let’s take this opportunity to install the two sticks of RAM. You’ll need to first spread open the two arms on each RAM slot. Now, match the notch in the memory stick with the notch in the slot. The DIMM is keyed so that it only fits one way (below, left). With the DIMM perpendicular to the slot, push it straight into the slot until it clicks into place (below, right). The arms should lock in place automatically; if the arms aren’t totally locked in place, push them in with your fingers.
Our retail processor comes with the stock Intel heatsink fan that includes a thin film of thermal paste already on it (above). For newbs: This paste helps fill in the nooks and crannies (yes, like a Thomas’ English Muffin) that are formed when you compress the heatsink on the CPU. To install the heatsink fan, line up the four legs of the heatsink with the four holes around the CPU socket, and push the plastic anchor points through the holes by pushing on the knob-like top of each until you hear an audible click (below, top left).
Using a criss-cross pattern, similar to how you would tighten down lug nuts, lock each of the four legs in place. Look at the bottom of the board and you should see the legs protruding through the bottom (below, top right). Also tug on the heatsink from the top to make sure it’s locked in place. Now plug in the fan’s power lead (below, bottom).
It’s time to install the motherboard. Although our I/O shield is free of anything that can snag ports, it’s very common for the little metal fingers to get stuck in the ports, so on your I/O shield, make sure that the fingers are not jamming into the ports when you install the board. Now, carefully lower the board into the case (above). Use a Phillips-head screwdriver to screw the board in place (below, top left). Make sure the number of screws you use matches the number of mounting points in the case. In this case we have seven mounting points so we use seven screws. If you have seven mounting points but only use six screws, you have a mounting point in the wrong place. You should remove the motherboard and make sure that all of the mounting points line up with the motherboard's available holes. Use just enough force so the screws won't back out from vibrations, but not so much torque that it will damage the motherboard.
You’re now ready to hook up the front-panel power, reset, and LED buttons, as well as the USB and audio connectors. To hook up the USB connectors, look on the board for the headers labeled USB and plug them in (below, top right). For audio, the header is labeled Audio. Hooking up the power, LED, and reset switches is also fairly straightforward but takes a little more work (below, bottom). The power and reset switches don’t have orientation requirements but the HDD and power LEDs do. Just so you know, the white wire usually indicates negative.
It’s time to install the videocard. Before you can do that, you’ll have to remove the wacky-ass card-retention device that Rosewill uses on its case (above). Once the retention device is out of the way, install the card by slotting it into the top slot on the board (below). The card should lock into place. If you have installed the card correctly, the gold connectors of the GPU should all be hidden by the x16 PCI-E slot. Reinstall the retention device, or use two standard machine screws to hold the card in place and toss the retention device in the trash.
You’re in the home stretch now. It’s time to install the power supply. This is done by lowering the PSU into the case (above) and using the four black screws that came with the PSU to secure it in place. Note, the fan on the PSU should face down in the case. If you somehow install it upside down with the fan facing up, the airflow into the power supply will be blocked by the case, causing the PSU to overheat and likely die. It’s also time to connect the power cables to the motherboard and videocard. The larger connector is the main power connector. It’s made up of a 20-pin and 4-pin plug. Push the two plugs together and insert them into the matching connector on the motherboard (below). The plug is keyed so it will not fit in backwards. You should also take the pair of 4-pin plugs and plug one of them into the 4-pin connector that’s just above the CPU socket. Plug the two 6-pin connectors into the GPU.
The last step is to install the optical drive and the hard drive in the case. It’s straightforward. To install the optical drive, gently pull the front bezel off of the case and remove the drive bay cover where you want the drive to go. Remember, the front-panel controls and lights are hooked up to the bezel by wires, so don’t pull it out too far. Push the bezel back in place, slide in the optical drive (below, left), and use two of the fine-threaded machine screws to lock it in place. This is usually enough, but if you’re anal, you can install another pair on the right side by removing the side of the case. Next, slide the hard drive into the hard drive cage and use two of the coarse screws to lock it in place (below, middle).
Hook the SATA power cables to the optical and hard drives (above, right). Using the two included SATA data cables, plug the drives in to the motherboard. The Intel PCH has six ports: two are SATA 6Gb/s (white) and four are SATA 3Gb/s (blue). Since both of our drives are SATA 3Gb/s, plug them into the blue ports (below). Now plug the SATA data cables into the hard drive and optical drive.
The Gigabyte board defaults to IDE mode in the BIOS. We prefer AHCI mode these days to access the more advanced features of SATA 3.0, so we went into the BIOS (it’s a BIOS interface with EFI) by hitting the Del key during boot and changed the mode to AHCI. While we were there, we also changed the boot order to hit the optical drive first.
Now, place your Windows 7 disc into the optical drive and turn the system on. If all goes well, the machine should boot and begin installing Windows 7.
WHAT WE WOULD UPGRADE
We had to stick to a strict diet when spec’ing the PC Value Meal. We knew we wanted Intel’s second-gen proc and a GPU capable of playing games at 1080p. Everything else was just a means to getting there as cheaply as possible. But what would we do if we had just a little more jingle to upgrade?
Honestly, our first upgrade would go toward the motherboard. A full-size board with four memory slots and a P-series chipset, such as the Gigabyte GA-P67A-UD3-B3 for $130, would be preferable.
The second item that could benefit from more money is the case. The $30 Rosewill is surprisingly solid for an ultra-budget case, but it’s not one we think we’d keep long term. Of the items in your PC that will last the longest, the case is high on that list.
If we had the cash, we’d also think about upgrading the stars of the show: our graphics card and CPU. For just a few more dollars, the Radeon HD 6850 gets you up to the next rung on the performance ladder. And for just a few dollars more than that, the new GeForce GTX 560 (non Ti) is an attractive option. If you want a nice uptick in applications, the $185 Core i5-2300 gets you four cores at 2.8GHz, with Turbo Boost taking it to 3.1GHz.
The final upgrade for those concerned with long-term reliability would be the PSU. Normally we’d be apprehensive about an extremely low-cost PSU, but the Rosewill we’re running is actually a $75 PSU, not a $50 unit, so we’re fairly comfortable with it. Still, we’d ultimately like to step up to a 750-watt PSU; getting there means spending about $100.
APPRECIATING THE PC VALUE MEAL IS A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
We just got an email from Captain Obvious: A value meal from WacArnold’s isn’t quite the same experience as a meal at the French Laundry. It also won’t set you back a month’s pay. So, if you’re expecting a machine that costs $667 to come close to machines whose cases alone cost almost that much, your expectations need to be drastically recalibrated.
We benchmarked our budget rig against our standard system benchmarks and all was as expected: an ass kicking. Our zero-point features an original “Bloomfield” Core i7-920 quad-core overclocked to 3.5GHz and a dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970 card. As fine a chip as the Sandy Bridge is, our 2100 is still just a dual-core, and thus has no chance against a quad. If we compare our budget build to a high-end gaming rig, such as the Maingear Shift Super Stock we reviewed in the July issue, the picture gets even bleaker.
But don’t despair. Yes, the benchmark charts look ugly and horrible, but you have to have some perspective. For example, the videocard in our zero-point costs more than our entire machine, as does the Maingear’s paint job. Our gaming benchmarks are also designed to stress maxed-out machines with gaming at 2560x1600 on a 30-inch panel (which itself can be three times the cost of our budget PC).
To see if the PC Value Meal actually had the chops to perform in less lofty circumstances, we dialed back the resolution to 1920x1080, the resolution that budget PC gamers typically run. (The latest Steam hardware survey shows 21.1 percent of gamers run this resolution, with 1680x1050 being a close second at 19.64 percent.)
We then fired up Crysis 2, Left 4 Dead, Portal 2, Total War: Shogan 2, and Battlefield: Bad Company. All of the games ran with more-th