Any fool can spec out the ultimate Dream Machine. Just open up your wallet, pull out the Visa card, and tell the web store to overnight its most expensive parts to you. Voila! You’ve got the makings of a badass rig.
It’s an entirely different story when you’re building a machine on a budget. You’ve got to carefully weigh your options, consider every possible combination of parts, and make choices you know you can live with—because, typically, you will make some sacrifices. To be honest, the whole process can be downright painful. When we built our $1,500 PC last year (February 2007), we had to break so many of our own minimum spec guidelines that no one was truly satisfied with the results.
But this year is different. We found the job of building a $1,500 rig actually pleasurable—with minimal trade-offs. In fact, we’re tickled pink with the quality of the hardware we got into this box. So much so, we can unabashedly say that this PC can stand up to damn near any task. Read on to find out what parts we picked, why we picked them, and why there’s never been a better time to assemble your own no-compromises PC on a budget.
*Update: Our initial build included an OEM version of XP Pro we acquired from NewEgg, which is now unavailable at the price we quoted ($100). We now recommend Windows Media Center Edition, which is currently $120 at NewEgg.
Once you've collected all your parts, you're just 13 steps away from a hand-built PC you can be proud of.
Cooler Master’s big CM Stacker gives you options for PSU placement. You can mount it in the traditional spot up top or place it below the motherboard. We’re sticking with tradition here. First, remove the back plate covering the PSU slot by removing the two screws that hold it in place. Then carefully slide the PSU in place (fan side down), pushing the wire bundle from the PSU through the front of the cage (image A). Now attach one of the Stacker’s two included PSU brackets to the case (image B). The PSU will mount to this bracket. Oddly, the supplied bracket lets you attach the supply with only two screws, but that’s generally good enough.
To install the optical drive, remove both the left and right sides of the case. Inside the case, you’ll see a row of quick-release latches that hold the drives in place. Open the latches at the spot where you want to insert your drive. Now remove the bezel from the slot on the front of the case where your drive face will be. (While you’re at it, you should also remove the three lower bezels that block access to the hard-drive cage.) The CM Stacker uses a quick-release rail system to mount optical drives. Find two plastic rails in the case parts box (they should be marked Right and Left) and attach each to the appropriate side of the optical drive (image A). The rails do not screw into the drive, so don’t bother trying. Now slide the drive into its slot in the case and flip the quick-release levers (image B).
Installing the CPU is the most delicate operation you’ll perform when building your system. If you’re a ham-fisted tyro or you’ve got the coffee shakes really bad, get someone who’s more deft to install your proc rather than risk destroying your motherboard. First, remove the protective plastic shield covering the socket on your motherboard (image A). Set this cover aside in case you need to return the board (or store it). Many manufacturers will not take back a board without this plastic shield in place. Now unclip the metal arm alongside the socket and flip out the load plate (image B). To install the proc, match the two notches in the CPU with the tabs in the socket. Grasp the CPU with two fingers and carefully lower it straight into the socket while keeping it parallel to the plane of the socket (image C). Do not drop one side first and do not slide the CPU around in the socket, as you could bend the pins and kill your mobo.
We briefly toyed with the idea of using AMD’s new Phenom quad core for this year’s $1,500 PC. After all, AMD has priced the new CPU quite attractively. There’s also an argument for the forward-looking upgradability of the AM2 platform. In the end, however, we decided to go with Intel since its performance roadmap is unquestionable right now.
We’re a little nervous about where AMD is headed. The company seems to change direction each quarter and is again delaying the release of Phenom 9900, so it’s safer to go with Intel. And it doesn’t get any safer than the Core 2 2.4GHz Quad Q6600 CPU. Our chip is a Rev G0, so it will overclock well to boot!
Last year, we overclocked a dual-core proc, and we considered that option for about a second this year. But enough applications now take advantage of four cores, so we felt compelled to go quad with this year’s box. We also like that it gives us a roadmap to the company’s 45nm CPUs. This also helped us decide which motherboard/chipset to use (see the sidebar on page 26).
In a nutshell, we see Intel’s 45nm Penryn processors as the future for Intel. We figure we’ll run the Q6600 for another 12 to 18 months and then see what cheap goodness Intel can bring us after that. Heck, by that time, we’ll probably be able to buy a 3.66GHz Penryn for $250.
We chose a retail CPU package, which provides a stock Intel cooler. Although Intel ships different coolers with its CPUs, even the lowly Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 comes with a fairly decent model. It’s quiet, efficient, and easy to install. A brand-spanking-new heatsink should have thermal past pre-applied to it (image A). To install the heatsink, match the four legs with the holes in the motherboard and gently push them in. Each leg’s locking mechanism should be in its install position out of the box, with the arrows facing out. Lock each leg into place by pushing on the locking mechanism until it catches, using a cross-star pattern (image B). To verify that you’ve done it correctly, flip the motherboard upside down. You should see the four legs protruding slightly through the bottom. If one is not locked in place, turn the locking mechanism counterclockwise—so the arrow faces in (you may need to use a slotted screwdriver to do this). Pull the leg straight up, turn it clockwise, and try again. Now plug the four-pin power cable into the four-pin mobo header labeled “CPU fan.”
You’ll get the most performance out of your PC by installing RAM in dual-channel mode. The method for doing this varies among motherboard brands. On the MSI board, dual-channel mode requires that you put one stick in an orange slot and the second stick in a green slot.
Place the board on a flat, stable surface. Put your antistatic bag beneath the board if you don’t have a good static-free work area. Next, locate the notch on the RAM and match it with the notch in the slot (image A). Pop the arms open for the slot you’ll be filling, put your fingers on the ends of the module, and gently push the RAM in place until the arms lock into position (image B). If the RAM doesn’t go in, double-check that the notches line up and try again. When you’re done, make sure the arms that hold the RAM in are in their closed position. If they are extended, they could impede your GPU or even damage it.
One of the glaring weaknesses with last year’s $1,500 PC was RAM. With RAM prices through the roof at that time, all we could afford was 1GB of DDR2/800. Well, what a difference a year makes. While 1GB cost $150 last year, we were able to buy 4GB of Patriot DDR2/800 RAM for $120 this go-round. And that’s without the rebate, which brought the price down to $80
Why Patriot RAM? At this price, it’s all about bang for the buck, and after surfing the online stores, we picked the Patriot modules because they offer slightly better-rated latency for about the same cost as the competition.
Our RAM configuration isn’t that simple, though. Although the board posts just fine with 4GB, running a 32-bit Windows OS doesn’t quite give you full access to the RAM. Check Windows XP and it’ll report only 3.25GB free. So is the other .75GB wasted? Not quite. It’s a complicated issue, but Microsoft argues that even if the applications cannot use all 4GB of RAM, the OS, and even the drivers, will, so the additional headroom does help.
All we know is that we’re happy to quadruple our RAM footprint for less money than we spent last year. Now that’s progress.
Installing the hard drive is a straightforward process. But first getting to the hard drive cage in the CM Stacker is another matter. To get the cage out, unlock the quick-release arms on the left and right sides of the case. Pull the cage straight out. To get to the screws that you’ll use to mount the drive, pull the side plates off of the cage. They’re held there by simple friction and will come loose with just a slight amount of pressure (image A). Now, as you have done for the last 20 years, use four coarse screws to mount the hard drive in place (image B). Put both sides of the drive cage back on (along with the drive rails), and slide the cage back into the case. Push the bezels in place, lock the arms in place, and you’re done! With the hard drive, anyway.
Before you can mount the mobo, you must install the I/O shield—that little metal plate that frames all the inputs and outputs on the back of your case. The shield should have come with your mobo. If it didn’t, you’ll have to contact the maker for a replacement or mount the board commando. Use the butt of your screwdriver to pop out the shield that came with the case. Now take the shield that came with your board and pop out the squares for the necessary ports. Make sure the grounding arms for the Ethernet, eSATA, and PS/2 ports are bent in toward the case’s interior (image A). Otherwise, they’ll get tangled in the ports when you install the board.
Next, find the bag of brass motherboard standoffs that came with the case. Install these in the case, making sure you have one for each mounting hole in the motherboard. Use pliers to torque them down enough so they don’t back out should you need to remove the mobo (image B). Take note of how many mounts you installed. The typical number is nine. Now drop the board in and screw it down (image C). Use just enough force to keep the screws from backing out, but not enough force to crush the PCB.
Once we decided to go with Intel, we had a hard time selecting a chipset/motherboard combination. We would have liked to have run an Nvidia chipset, which would have given us an option to run SLI down the road, but the current situation with Nvidia’s chipsets is a bit murky. The still-stellar nForce 680i chipset (at least for boards currently available) has issues running Intel’s 45nm Penryn CPUs in quad-core trim. In fact, the combination doesn’t work at all for unfathomable reasons. Boards using the new nForce 780i chipset do work with quads, but they’re ultra expensive. In the end, we decided that Intel’s P35 platform made more sense for our needs. It supports the company’s 45nm parts and Intel chipsets are rock-solid—you don’t have to worry about any of the teething pains third-party chipsets experience, especially with new CPUs.
For our board, we selected MSI’s P35 Neo2-FR. It’s a budget board, but it’s not totally strippo. It has eSATA ports, features MSI’s excellent automatic driver and BIOS update service, and runs up to 8GB of RAM. OK, maybe it’s a little strippo, but when it posted on the first boot and didn’t give us any troubles, we weren’t complaining.
Our MSI board hosts two physical x16 PCI-E slots. We say “physical” because only one actually operates at x16 data rates. That’s the one closest to the CPU. We’ll want to use that slot for our GPU to get the best performance out of it (image A). Before you install the card, remove the two expansion slot covers from the rear of the case where the card’s ports will emerge. You can toss the covers or keep them as back scratchers. When you put the card in, make sure it is firmly in place with all of the contacts securely in the PCI-E slot (image B). A common error is to insert the card so the contacts sit just outside the slot. Another common error is for the contacts to not make a complete connection with the slot. This is usually the result of a bent case enclosure causing a gap between the card and the case. You can sometimes fix the problem by bending the case back in place. Now use the two thumbscrews that had held the expansion slot covers to screw the card in place.
Trying to configure a new PC can be a massive mind bender. You’ll have to not only figure out what CPU you want and what CPU you’re going to eventually upgrade to but also factor in the GPU choice and its potential upgrade path.
We originally considered Nvidia’s stupendously cheap and fast GeForce 8800 GT card. When our budget allowed us to step up, we reached for the GeForce 8800 GTS 512 model. Mind you, that’s the new, faster GTS, not the older one. In the end, we decided that having the single fastest card we could afford today made more sense than factoring in an SLI upgrade.
As much as we love SLI, its utility is best left for ultra-high-resolution gaming. And then there’s the fact that it doesn’t actually run faster until the drivers are updated for the games. That’s always been a problem for dual-GPU configurations in the past.
No, as sexy as it is to pack multiple cards, we think it actually makes more sense for a budget buyer to buy one very fast card. In 18 months, when it’s time to upgrade again, your money is better spent buying the fastest new-generation card, which will likely be faster than your older card in SLI mode.
We didn’t have to forgo discrete audio this year, so we reached for a budget X-Fi card. There are two options at this price range, but only one is really worthy of being called an X-Fi: the XtremeGamer. Its cousin, the XtremeAudio, doesn’t actually feature a full X-Fi chip and does not support EAX 5. One thing Creative did right with the XtremeGamer is include a standard front-panel audio header on the card. This lets you use the front headphone and microphone jacks. Grab the CM Stacker cable labeled “AC97, HD Audio.” Insert the plug labeled “HD Audio” into the header on the card—it’s keyed and should fit only one way (image A). Now remove the expansion slot cover from the back of the case where the card’s ports rest and firmly insert the card into a PCI slot (image B). As with the GPU, make sure the card is firmly in place and that all of the contacts are connecting. Screw the card in place and you’re good to go.
The CM Stacker comes with a generous six front-mounted USB ports. Fortunately, the MSI P35 Neo 2–FR has enough USB headers to run them. To connect them, find the three USB cables in the Stacker case. Each is keyed, so they cannot be installed incorrectly. Plug them into the JUSB1, JUSB2, and JUSB3 mobo headers (image A). Now use the SATA cable that came with the mobo to attach your hard drive. Simply plug one end into an available purple port on the mobo and plug the other end into the drive (image B). One caveat: A SATA connector is delicate. Once you have it in place, do not put pressure on it or you may snap it; this can be fatal, especially if you snap the connector on the drive. You might notice that one of our budget board’s flaws is the inconveniently located SATA ports. With a long GPU in place, two of the SATA ports are blocked. You can get around this by purchasing a right-angle SATA cable, but that will work for only one of the ports. Fortunately, there’s an additional SATA port, and you’ll find two eSATA ports on the back of the motherboard. Now get the IDE ribbon cable that came with your mobo and use it to attach your optical drive—there’s only one slot on the motherboard into which it can fit.
Remember in Kung Fu how Caine had to grab a pebble from the old man’s hand to prove how badass he was? Well, installing a computer’s front-panel connectors is kind of like that. Only after years of study and apprenticeship will you be able to plug in the front-panel connectors without getting it wrong at least once. Nevertheless, we’ll try to do it right here. Grab the rainbow cable with the Power SW, HDD LED, Reset SW, and Power LED connectors and take a close look at the front-panel header. You’ll notice that the yellow header is color-coded and also features a plus symbol on the positive connector (image A). The motherboard manual will spell out where each cable goes, but since the board follows the Intel FP connector standard, we know that the power switch connects to black, the power LED connects to green, reset goes to blue, and the hard drive LED goes to red. The orientation of the power-on and reset switches don’t matter, but you’ll have to match the positive and negative with the LED indicators. If you do it wrong, don’t worry; there’s no risk of destroying anything. We got it right on the first shot, however, because our kung fu is that strong (image B).
You’re in the final stretch. The penultimate chore is to power up all the components. One feature of our $1,500 rig we’re particularly happy with is the PC Power & Cooling power supply. Usually, one of the first compromises you make when building a budget box is with the PSU. The Silencer 610 is quiet and gives us reliable power output under all conditions. We can’t say that about other inexpensive power supplies, some of which have faded on us after 18 months of duty.
First, make sure the PSU is not connected to the wall socket. Now, begin by plugging the main power connector into the motherboard (image A). This 24-pin connector is keyed and cannot be inserted incorrectly. You should hear a soft click as it locks in place. Make sure it’s firmly in place—double-check by gently trying to pull out the connector. A common building error is to have the plug just slightly off kilter, which will cause booting problems or a failure to boot at all. Now grab the eight-pin ATX power connector. You’ll plug this into a socket on the mobo, southeast of the CPU (image B). Failure to plug this in is another common error, which will also cause the system not to boot. Next up is the GPU’s power. The PSU includes one cable with a six-pin connector, and another with a dual six/eight-pin connector. You can use either, but we opted for the six-pin, as it looks neater. The pin will click into place in the back of the GeForce 8800 GTS 512 board (image C). Now plug the power cables into the SATA drive and the optical drive. OK, you’re done with the hardware; it’s time to turn this suckah on!
Here’s a rule when building a system: Never put the sides back on the case until everything is running smoothly. Otherwise, you’ll anger the PC building gods, who will punish you with a no-POST condition. Flip your system upright, make sure no cables are jammed in the fans, and plug the puppy in. Plug in your monitor, keyboard, and mouse and hit the power button. If you followed our instructions to the letter, your PC should boot with no problems. If nothing happens, here’s a quick checklist: Is the PSU’s power switch turned on? Is the power strip you’re plugged into turned on? Is the videocard properly seated? Is the RAM firmly inserted? How about the 24-pin main power connector and the eight-pin power connector? And, finally, are you sure you wired up the front-panel connector correctly? Perhaps you mixed up the power switch and the reset switch.
Assuming everything is working now, it’s time to configure the BIOS. You’ll need to hit F1 during boot and go into Advanced BIOS Features > Boot Sequence to change the boot order to the optical drive (image A). If you don’t see the hard drive listed by model, your SATA drive is likely either not powered or not plugged into the correct port or the data cable is loose. While you’re in the Advanced BIOS Features section, you should also disable boot sector virus protection or the BIOS will confuse your OS install as a virus. Also go into the Integrated Peripherals section and disable the HD Audio since we’re packing an X-Fi.
Drop your XP disc into the optical drive and reboot. Hit the space bar when prompted and follow the Microsoft questions to get the OS up and running. Now install your motherboard, GPU, and soundcard drivers from the discs that came with those parts. Once that’s done, it’s time to overclock.
Reboot and go back into the BIOS—MSI lets you overclock automatically through a Windows application, but we prefer the old-fashioned method. Go into the Cell Menu section. Under Adjust CPU FSB Frequency, you should see the default setting of 266MHz. Raise it by 5MHz or 10MHz increments at a time until the system becomes unstable, then gradually back it down to its maximum stable speed. To get to even higher clock speeds, you’ll also have to add more voltage to the CPU. We set our Rev G0 Q6600’s FSB at a conservative 310MHz, which gave us 2.8GHz, or a 400MHz overclock (image B). To increase voltage to the CPU, select CPU Voltage from the BIOS menu. Use the plus and minus keys to make adjustments. We set ours at 1.4 volts, which isn’t too dangerous to the health of the chip. Your overclock will also OC the RAM. If you want to keep the RAM within spec, you can change the FSB/Memory Ratio setting. We set ours to 1/1.25, which ran our DDR2 at 775MHz (image C).
We don’t want just a smooth-running rig—we want a machine with benchmark numbers we can brag about!
To test the mettle of our $1,500 creation, we benched it against our standard zero-point system (which cost twice as much to build). The results? Pretty damned good. In the CPU-dependent tasks, our mildly overclocked 2.8GHz quad core outran the stock 2.67GHz Core 2 Quad Q6700 in Adobe Premiere Pro CS3, Photodex ProShow Producer, and MainConcept Reference. All three tests are optimized for four cores and favor high clocks. In Photoshop CS3, however, our $1,500 rig was about 11 percent slower despite the slight clock-speed advantage. Why? Photoshop CS3 likes fast hard drives. While the 750GB Seagate is a fine performer, the zero-point’s single 10,000rpm 150GB WD Raptor is able to nullify the $1,500 PC’s RAM and CPU advantage.
We didn’t expect any wins in gaming—and we didn’t get any. Our zero-point machine packs two GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI mode. There’s just no way a single GeForce 8800 GTS 512 can beat those odds. Still, our $1,500 PC performed better than you might expect. The SLI 8800 GTX cards were roughly 30 percent faster in gaming, which isn’t a complete beat down. Of course, it helps that our current gaming benchmark tests are conducted at 1600x1200 resolution. At a much higher resolution of, say, 2560x1600, the SLI cards would whale on our singleton. But then again, how many budget buyers are going to pair an $1,800 monitor with a $1,500 box? The upshot is that we’re pleased as punch with our $1,500 PC’s performance.
|Windows XP Benchmarks|
|Dell XPS 720 H2C|
|Premiere Pro CS3||930 sec|
|Photoshop CS3||157 sec|
|FEAR 1.07||168 fps|
|Quake 4||205 fps|
|Our current desktop test bed consists of a quad-core 2.67GHz 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, a 500GB Caviar hard drive, an LG GGC-H20L optical drive, a Sound Blaster X-Fi soundcard, and a PC Power and Cooling Silencer 750 Quad. The OS is Windows XP Pro.|
We plan to pair these budget parts with our new PC
Sometimes the rapid pace of progress works in your favor, sometimes it doesn't
Bemoan the technology treadmill all you want, but there are times when a power user can really take advantage of the ever-fluctuating landscape. Last year’s $1,500 PC was a decent machine for its time, but it had a few fatal flaws: a tiny hard drive, criminally meager RAM, and onboard audio. Sure, we had a DX10 card, but the aforementioned compromises haunted us for a whole year. This time, we wanted to avoid such trade-offs, so we sought to make every penny count. And as it turned out, the treadmill worked for us. While 1GB of RAM cost us $150 last year, we were able to score four times the memory this year for $120 ($80 if you count the rebate). We also decided that there was no way in hell we would settle for a hard drive capacity that laptops can surpass. With the vast stores of video, music, and photos most of us own, not to mention all the other crap, Seagate’s 750GB seemed like a far wiser choice than last year’s 250GB number.
When you directly compare the budget breakdown of last year’s $1,500 PC against this year’s, it’s easy to see why there’s so little love between Intel and Nvidia. Last year, 30 percent of the PC’s total cost went to the GPU. This year, the GPU takes up just 24 percent of the budget, but that still outstrips the 18 percent that went to the CPU—a quad core, no less.
Last year, the puny 1GB of RAM ate up 10 percent of our total budget. This year, with quadruple the amount, RAM accounts for just 8 percent of our costs (sans rebate, mind you). In other words, it’s ugly to be in the RAM business right now.
The prices of the OS, PSU, case, and optical drive were pretty much static, but we did lower our motherboard bill. Last year, we shelled out for a high-end 680i, while this year a midrange P35 board fulfilled our needs.
The short story is that the treadmill was our friend this year, getting us way more machine for the money.