Back in December, we gave you the low-down on how to build a kick-ass $800 gaming PC. Well, lately the economy has been in a bit of a shamble, so we’ve lowered our price ceiling to spec out a tightly budgeted $500 rig that will deliver admirable gaming framerates and still leave you some cash to actually buy some games and pay off that credit-card debt.
The last time we conducted a $500 PC build-off (October, 2007), we matched a Allendale-based Core 2 E4300 CPU with a Nvidia 8500GT, which gave us pathetic FEAR and Quake 4 benchmark results. That build cut so many corners that we even opted out of a case and used a cardboard box instead (in retrospect, a really bad idea). Almost two years later, the tech is better and prices for some component categories have dramatically dropped. A bit wiser and gutsier, we were determined to build a PC that could actually play modern games.
In order to keep the machine under $500, we factored out the price of purchasing an operating system, and assume that you already have a copy of Windows XP, Vista, or the Windows 7 Beta lying around. And obviously, we were forced to restrain ourselves from choosing the high-end premium parts that we would normally recommend to readers. But despite the low cost, we actually didn't have to make any real compromises to get a solid gaming machine. Our (relatively) cheapo PC actually surprised us in our benchmark tests -- scoring close to our zero-point system -- and made us feel confident that a rock bottom price doesn’t automatically mean rock bottom performance.
Join us as we take on the $500 Gaming PC Challenge!
We started off by picking a videocard, since this is the most important part of a gaming PC. Using one of Nvidia or ATI's ultra budget-cards may have been sensible given our $500 limit, but we didn't want pay for anything that wouldn't beat the hell out of integrated graphics in a real gaming benchmark. With the bottom of the barrel out of the question, we targeted the top performers of the last generation, and were delighted to find an ATI 4870 card priced at $175. The 4870 was one of our favorite price/performance videocards of last summer, and would guarantee that we could play games like Unreal Tournament III and Crysis.
Next was our toughest choice, the processor. On a budget machine, we seriously considered an AMD part, but ended up choosing a Pentium E5200 which has been highly touted for its speedy performance and power efficiency. The E5200 is a Pentium Dual-Core, which is a step under the Core 2 series. But rest assured, this is not a Pentium 4 or Pentium D. This chip is made from the same 45nm Wolfdale architecture as the Core 2 branded E7000/8000 line, with an 800mhz FSB and 2MB cache (down from 1066 and 3MB on the Core 2's).
Once we had the CPU picked out, we knew we needed a low-cost LGA 775 motherboard. MSI's P43-based Neo3-F was as bare-bones as we could find without sacrificing features like integrated audio and NIC. This mobo supports Core 2 processors up to 1333MHz FSB, so it'll still work with higher-end Core 2s and even tolerate overclocking. On the GPU side, your upgrades will be limited to swapping out the videocard, since there's only one PCI-E slot, which takes SLI and Crossfire out of the picture.
We all know memory is cheap, but as it turns out, we're even cheaper. That's why with over 60% of our budget already spent on the CPU, GPU, and motherboard, we opted for 2GB of DDR2 800 memory. You can probably find memory priced even lower online, but we stuck with a trusted brand that we knew wouldn't fail us. If you decide to go over budget on your own build, this one one of the first places where we would recommend making an upgrade.
Having skimped out on some of the other parts, we thought that our $500 PC deserved one undeniably kick-ass component. So we equipped it with our current favorite optical drive, the Samsung SH-S223F. It outperformed the competition by over 2 minutes in a 7GB DVD rip test.
Here's another category where we really wished we had more cash to spend. Our $50 hard drive is by no means a slouch, but 320GB seems like such a waste when we know that terabyte drives can be found for only $100. But again, since this build is also a test of our restraint, we were happy with the Western Digital Caviar SE, which has enough storage for an OS, games, productivity software, and even our music collection.
When we got down to the case and power supply, we had less than $100 left to find suitable housing and power plant for our rig before we could start construction. A while we normally would never do this for a mid-range or high-end build, we bought a combo chassis and PSU. Rosewill had a set that cost almost exactly what we had left from our allocation, which included a 500-watt PSU with PCI-E and SATA power connectors. Since our system uses mostly low-power parts, we have faith that this PSU will be sufficient to juice our machine during processor and GPU-intensive activities. Again, if you have any more budget to spare, a third-party PSU from Corsair or Antec would still be preferable.
Make and Model:
|Motherboard||MSI P43 Neo3-F LGA 775||$90||$80||Link|
|CPU||Intel Pentium E5200||$71||Link|
|Videocard||Powercolor AX4870 512MB||$175||$155||Link|
|RAM||Crucial 2GB DDR2/800||$23||Link|
|Hard Drive||Western Digital Caviar SE WD3200AAJS||$50||Link|
|Optical Drive||Samsung SH-S223F||$25||Link|
|Case + Power Supply||Rosewill TU-155 II 500 Black||$75||Link|
On to the step-by-step build and benchmarks!
In most modern gaming cases, the power supply is mounted on the bottom of the chassis. In this instance, the PSU is at the top and came shipped to us already screwed in and ready to use. We prepped this PSU by moving its power cables out of the way to make room for the motherboard. As we stated in the parts list, we were a little hesitant to go with a bundled PSU, and wouldn't be too surprised if it failed while heavy gaming on a blistering summer day. You always have the option of running a third-party power supply, and if you decide to go that route, you'll need to unscrew the four screws holding the Rosewill PSU in and take out the unit by pulling it out towards the front of the case.
Installing your processor is still one of the most delicate steps in building a PC, which is why dropping in the CPU before you mount the motherboard is the safest option. Before you install your processor, remove the black protective shield covering the socket and store it somewhere you won’t forget. Saving this small piece of plastic is a good idea, in case you need to send back the CPU or the motherboard to the manufacturers.
The next step is to unlatch the metal arm next to the socket and lift the retention plate. Then, inspect your CPU and the socket on the motherboard to make sure that the notches on both ends match up. There should be an imprinted triangle on one corner of the processor's heat spreader that should be aligned to a corresponding triangle on one corner of the socket frame. Carefully drop in the CPU, making sure to keep it parallel to the socket. Do not drop in the CPU at an angle and do not slide it around when it is in the socket, otherwise you may damage the pins on the processor, or the motherboard.
Once the CPU is in place, drop the retention clamp and then use your thumb to carefully push the metal locking arm down, making sure it clicks into position. The arm may feel a bit springy and resistant, but this is normal.
Now it’s time to add some cooling power to our processor.
The retail version of the Intel CPU comes with a stock cooler. In our experience, stock coolers are more than sufficient, especially if you don’t plan on overclocking. Some would say that the cooler is even easier to apply, but in some instances it can be really difficult to secure the cooler to the motherboard.
For the sake of simplicity, the stock cooler removes a step with pre-applied thermal paste. Before you lock in the heatsink, make sure that you remove any protective film from the cooler’s thermal grease; leaving it on could cause your processor to overheat. Then, line up the four legs of the heatsink with the holes surrounding the processor bed. Let the cooler rest on top of the CPU. Make sure that each leg’s locking mechanism is in the install position with the legs facing outward, away from the center of the cooler. Press firmly on the first leg until you head a click and feel the pegs snap into place. Repeat the process on the opposite side.
Once you hear all four legs snapped in, you should be able to flip the motherboard over and see that they slightly stick out from the bottom. If you notice that there’s a leg not fully secured or the heatsink still feels lose, try unlocking it with a flathead screwdriver and repeating the process. It may take several tries before you’re successful.
After the cooler is securely fastened to the motherboard, plug in the fan’s four-pin power cable into the corresponding four-pin head on the motherboard. Make sure there aren’t any wires caught in the CPU fan.
Before you can install the motherboard, you’ll need to install the I/O shield, which is the metal plate that labels your inputs and outputs on the back of the case. But first, you’ll need to pop out the default shield that comes equipped with your case. Use your screwdriver to push out the I/O shield from inside the case. Then, take the new I/O shield and push it in from outside of the case; it might takes a few hits of your screwdriver bottom to lock it in. Bend the tabs towards the outside of the case so that the ports protruding from the side of your motherboard will fit comfortably.
Next, locate the small bag of mounting screws that came with your case. Inside, there should be at least eight brass standoffs, though the typical number is nine (one for each screw hole in the mobo). While you’re at it, make sure to take out the screws to mount the motherboard in as well.
Rosewill has marked the interior of the case with where these standoffs should be affixed for an ATX motherboard, but you can lay down your motherboard on the inside of the case to see exactly where they all line up, just for posterity. Twist in the brass standoffs by hand—you can tighten them with pliers if you feel it’s necessary. Once you’ve placed the standoffs, make sure they line up with the holes on your motherboard and confirm that you can clearly see them.
Lay 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 mobo with their respective slots in the I/O shield. Once you’re certain everything is lined up properly, start screwing the motherboard down, using a Phillips head screwdriver to tighten it down. Be careful not to use too much force, lest you accidentally crack or damage the board.
Keep the case lying on its back for the next few steps.
Installing memory is fairly easy. However, if you drop it into the wrong slots, you could hamper the performance of your rig.
Many motherboard manufacturers color-code their slots, which makes installation as easy as connecting two Lego pieces together. Not all mobos abide to the same color scheme, however, so consult your manual beforehand.
The MSI board we’re using follows an alternating orange-and-green color scheme. Before you drop in your matching RAM sticks, pull back the slot levers. Locate the indented notches on the bottom of each RAM stick and match it to the notch in the motherboard slot, then gently press the memory into the orange slots by pushing each end of the stick with our fingers until the levers lock into position.
Inserting the memory may take more force than you think, so don’t hesitate to push. If your RAM is able to rock back and forth in the slot, that could mean you have the stick in backwards. If you do everything correctly, the retention levers should have automatically moved into position with an audible click. Make sure you leave the levers down on the occupied and unoccupied RAM slots, since an extended lever can damage the video card during installation.
With only one x16 PCI-E slot on our motherboard, there’s only one place to fit our Radeon 4870. Thankfully, our GPU is thin enough that it won’t be too hard to install.
Before you plug in the videocard, you’ll need to clear a slot for it in the case. Remove two of the rear PCI card shield on the case by punching it out with a screwdriver. Then, bend it repeatedly back and forth until it tears off.
Keep the GPU perpendicular to the plane of the motherboard so that it properly sits in the slot. Make sure the card makes complete contact with the slot and is fitted all the way in. Once the card is in place, screw the mounting bracket to the chassis.
Before installing the optical drive, you’ll need to remove the front panel on the case and remove a bezel from that piece to open a slot for the drive to slide into its bay.
Stand up the case. Remove the entire front panel by gripping the bottom and pulling it towards you while holding the rest of the case in place. Set that part face down continue by unscrewing the top bezel so that it remains open, allowing the optical drive to poke through when you eventually snap front panel back on.
Find your mounting screws from the bag that came with your case (refer to the photo to see what they look like), and affix them to the holes on the optical drive. Afterwards, slide in the optical drive through the first slot and push in until it locks.
Now, to install the hard drive you’ll have to remove the 3.5" drive cage directly underneath where the optical drive rests. To detach it, unlock the cage by swinging the latch to the left. Slide the HDD into the lower slot of the cage, since the top slots do not match with that of the hard drive, and the middle slot is a bit awkward to work with.
Push in the hard drive until the holes on both sides match up to the drive's screw sockets and then secure it in with the mounting screws that came with the hard drive.
Slide the cage back into the position it was before you pulled it out of the case and switch the latch to the right to lock it in and close it. You should now snap the front panel back onto the case.
Now it’s time for our favorite part of today’s segment—hooking up those data cables! You’ll need two SATA data cables to run one from your motherboard to your optical and another to the hard drive. Make sure that the hard drive that contains your operating system is plugged into the first SATA port on your motherboard. The MSI Board can connect up to six SATA devices, which leaves you plenty of room for upgrades in the future.
Next up are the tricky front panel connections. Find the color-coded cables near the front of your case and isolate the HDD LED, the power LED, the reset switch, and the power switch—this information should all be labeled on the connecting part of each wire. It’s easier to plug in the power and reset switches first, since their connecting areas are noticeably labeled on the mobo. Grab the isolated HDD LED line and plug it into the orange section, making sure the colored wire matches up with the + pin on the motherboard. Repeat this process with the power LED wire as well. Don’t worry if you manage to mix up the wires; a faulty connection will not harm your new system. Refer to the chart if you can't figure out which front-panel connector plugs into which colored pin on the motherboard.
| Description of Connector
||Marking on Motherboard|| Wire Color
|Front Panel Speaker||Speaker||Red||+|
|Power Switch||Power Sw||Orange||+|
|Power LED||+P LED||Blue||+|
|Reset Switch||Reset Sw||Blue||+|
|Hard Drive LED||H.D.D.LED||Red||+|
We suggest that you hook up the case’s front-mounted USB ports, especially if you’ll be storing your newly assembled computer under a desk, where it can be a bit difficult to plug in a peripheral on a rear port. Connect the labeled USB cable to the JUSB1 pins; it should slide in very easily. The last connection you will need is for the front panel audio; again, consider how much easier it is to plug in a headset from the front than routing around to the back. Us the HD Audio connector and plug it into the JAUD1 pins on the bottom left corner of the motherboard.
Now that you’re finished taming those pesky wires, you may want to invest a buck on a bag of zip ties. Use them efficiently to group your wires together and reduce the mess of wire appendages roaming free in your computer cabin.
There’s no other way to fire up your newly assembled computer without adding some power to your parts. This is the home stretch of the PC building process; just remember not to leave any components unplugged.
Make sure that the PSU is not plugged into a wall socket and that the switch on the power supply is set to “—“, meaning it’s off. Grab the 24-pin connection from the power supply and connect it to the motherboard’s power connector, located to the right of the memory slots. Pop it into place and gently tug to make sure it’s locked in securely.
Locate the four-pin ATX power connecter and hook it up to its appropriate socket; this will supply supplemental power to the processor.
We ran into a bit of an issue when connecting power to our GPU. The power supply we received only had one PCI-E power cable, so we hooked up an adapter to convert a 4-pin molex cord into the second six-pin PCI-E cable that the Radeon 4870 needs.
Lastly, plug in the thin SATA power cables into the hard drive and the optical drive. These are the flat power cables that resemble longer versions of the SATA data cable.
Now that you’re finished building your PC, you’ll need to install an operating system. If you want to use Windows XP and you don’t have an old disc lying around, you can purchase an OEM version off of Newegg for $100.
Since we didn’t factor in the price for the OS, the choice is yours; XP, Vista, or even the readily available Windows 7 Beta. We chose to use an old XP key from a previous build to install and run our benchmarks, which we believe is what most budget-minded builders would do.
Check the following before you decide to install an operating system:
- All the parts are properly seated
- All the cables are in place
- Double check that the front panel connections are correct
- Plug in the monitor, keyboard, and mouse
- Plug in the power cord to the PSU
- Flip the PSU switch to the on position
When everything is read to go, press the power and voila! Hit the DEL key during startup to be taken to the BIOS screen.
Go to Advanced BIOS Features – Boot sequence and select the CD/DCD optical drive as your first boot device. Press ESC to go back and disable the Full Screen Logo Display to enable Quick Booting and increase your boot time. Once you’ve made the necessary changes, press F10 and select Yes. The PC will restart and during reboot, insert your Windows CD of choice into the optical drive and setup will begin. Follow the instructions to successfully install Windows.
After Windows has installed, head back to the BIOS set up and change the boot sequence to set it up so that the hard drive boots first and then the optical drive. Find the manufacturer’s CD that came with your MOBO and be sure to install all the appropriate drivers, as well as the drivers that came with your GPU.
Hooray! Now you’re all finished assembling this PC. That wasn’t so hard, now was it?
|Zero Point||$500 Budget PC|
|Premiere Pro CS3||1,260 sec
|Photoshop CS3||150 sec
|ProShow||1,415 sec||1,728 sec|
|MainConcept||1,872 sec||2,920 sec|
|Unreal Tournament 3||92 fps
Our current desktop Zero Point 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. We run two EVGA GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI mode, Western Digital 150GB Raptor and 500GB Caviar hard drives, LG GGC-H20L, Sound Blaster X-Fi, and PC Power and Cooling Silencer 750 Quad. OS is Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit.
*Crysis would not run in"Very High" quality settings in this system build, since we were using Windows XP, which does not support DirectX 10.
We put our lean and mean $500 gaming rig up against our standard zero point machine to compare its performance against a rig that costs three times as much (when we first built it). The zero point system, equipped with a Core 2 Quad and a Velociraptor edged out our substantially slower turtle in nearly every race. Premier Pro tests showed a 4 and a half minute difference and with Photoshop we only had a 14 second difference. Photodex ProShow Producer showed only a 5 second difference while MainConcept Reference showed the true power of four cores, citing a 17-minute difference from our zero point. Still, the $500 PC did better than average in our tests -- definitely better than a comparably priced notebook -- and proves to be a really decent and affordable desktop computer.
We had some high expectations in the gaming department from our budget system, especially compared to the weak scores our last $500 PC delivered two years ago. Our pick of a 4870 graphics card came through when the lean machine delivered 122 frames per second in Unreal Tournament III, 30 frames per second more than the dual-8800 GTX-equipped zero point.
The big test, of course was Crysis, which is still the most GPU-intensive PC game. We ran our Crysis tests at three different resolutions: 1920x1200, 1680x1280, and 1280x1024; each one gave us a smooth picture and was void of any choppiness. At 1280x1024, the standard resolution for most 19" monitors, Crysis ran at over 44 frames per second -- an impressive number that's more than playable. Even at 1900x1200, Crysis didn't stutter and pushed out 36fps. Not bad at all!
However, we could only run the benchmarks at a DX9 High detail settings in Windows XP, as opposed to Very High with DirectX 10, which is only available on a Vista machine. This is why we’ve labeled it ”WNR” (Would Not Run) on our zero point comparison benchmark chart. But even with that caveat, we believe that most people who are building and gaming on a $500 PC will be using Windows XP, and on monitors that probably won't run higher than 1680x1050 resolution. And with those settings, this rig is nothing to scoff at. If you're a hardcore gamer who demands nothing less than DX10 gaming on "Very High" detail, you probably aren't building a sub $800 machine.
It is clear that there is a noticeable performance difference between our budget system and our zero point, but if you’re a budget-constrained gamer who wants to test the waters with an affordable system, and still be able to do everyday tasks—like edit photos, video, and run more than a few processes at a time—this $500 PC is a strong bet.
Have a different $500 PC config that you think would perform better than ours? Post your specs in the comments section below!