Tax refund time is here and there's not much better of a way to reap the benefits of all those hours worked than to build your own gaming PC! I've scoured the interwebs for tax-time sales and, well, let's just say there's a lot out there for us to choose from.
For a little over $600, this DIY budget gaming PC build is spec'd to run most games on high settings (or thereabouts) and is packed with goodies that should equip you to cause fits of rage from all the disemboweled noobs. The system features one of the more powerful mid-range video cards on the market, the GTX 660, an FX-4300 entry-level CPU, 1TB HDD with an SSD suggestion, and the whitest case we've ever recommended. With all that in mind, let's get to the good stuff.
$607 Custom Gaming PC - DIY Build
OS & Optional Extras
Rather than opt for the rather easy 7850 choice, we spotted Galaxy's GTX 660 dual-fan card selling at a clean $200 after rebates, making it an excellent (and competitive) price. The GTX 660 runs on nVidia's Kepler architecture and hosts 2GB of memory on a 192-bit memory interface (roughly 144GB/s memory bandwidth). The GTX 660 places slightly above the 7850 in terms of raw compute power and real-world gaming performance and juggles higher settings more capably, hopefully offering a bit more longevity.
Of course, the card also supports all of nVidia's proprietary graphics tech, including HBAO, PhysX, TXAA, SLI, 3D Vision, and FXAA.
Need to save $40? If you need to drop the price of the build a little bit, you could comfortably drop down to the 1GB 7850 for $160 or (we'd recommend) the 2GB 7850 for $180.
In light of AMD's conquests (or at least ties) on CryEngine 3 and impending PS4 alliance, we went with an FX-series 4300 chip. This is the successor to the Bulldozer chips, now called Piledriver -- some may say that AMD named this line after heavy machinery that belongs in junk yards, but I disagree: Despite its initial hurdles, the new Vishera line has remedied most of the issues with Bulldozer and is gradually becoming more relevant in INT-intensive games (like Crysis 3). Undeniably, though, the FX-chips have historically been excellent for overclocking and enthusiast applications.
Mainly, the new "mesh" TPD architecture allows for even greater overclocking by keeping thermals manageable and under control, while a decent VRM on the motherboard will help mitigate noise in higher voltage ranges. All of this shows, too, as we've easily overclocked the chips past 5GHz on air at stable temps and voltage. The FX-4300 comes with 2xBulldozer modules, with 2 integer units and 1 FPU per module, and ships stock at 3.8GHz. I own both the first-gen and second-gen Bulldozer chips and can vouch that the performance increase is noticeable across the board.
If you do decide to overclock, we strongly recommend that you pick up an aftermarket heatsink, ideally something like the Respire T40.
This build uses 8GB of Corsair's Vengeance memory, clocked natively at 1600MHz and easily overclocked to 1866MHz or higher. The Vengeance line has remained strong since launch, and though its thermal armor is a bit more flashy than functional, it runs smoothly and retains a low temperature. 8GB should be more than enough for your basic gaming needs.
We decided to go with a stable ASUS M5A97 R2.0 board for our budget motherboard selection. ASUS has a fairly reliable warranty/support division, instantly gaining it a bit of favor among any builder, and generally invests in quality motherboard components with trusted thermal design, rather than optimizing for the "brochure," as some companies do. The board natively supports up to 1866MHz memory (you'll need to set the OC in BIOS) and operates on a 970 chipset, which is fine for what we're doing.
The board is based on an AM3+ socket for those awaiting Steamroller's promising release, which has been officially stated to run on the same socket type and chipsets. You also get USB 3.0 and SATA III (6Gb/s), giving us yet more room for an SSD upgrade should money permit.
Need to save $25? Dropping to a lower-grade version of the same board will save you some money, but we would advise that you consider saving elsewhere first (like the video card). A high-quality motherboard is important to the stability of the system, and this secondary option won't offer as many pathways to quality OCs as the first choice.
Every build I like to throw out a curveball and select different brands when possible. This time, I picked out RAIDMAX's 530W PSU (currently on sale) for a staggering $32 after a $15 rebate, but using this 15% off code (RMXFEB225) will drop that to an even lower $25. That's a steal. This 530W power supply is actually semi-modular, surprisingly, and has generally proven reliable in the market. The wattage should be more than enough power for this system, but comment below if you need help determining if additional power might be required for intended upgrades.
The RAIDMAX Hybrid PSU is also CrossFireX/SLI-ready and includes meshing around the power cables to hold things together and keep 'em clean.
SSD or HDD
This build gives you a pretty big choice between a 120GB SSD or a standard 1TB 7200RPM HDD. If you're strapped for cash and can't grab both, you'll need to analyze your data usage patterns and determine how long you could survive on the smaller SSD before needing to purchase the HDD. For those consuming a lot of storage with videos, photos, and too many games at once, consider starting with the HDD and migrating later (this is made easier if your Windows install is on a ~110GB partition or smaller). If that doesn't describe your data usage, grab the SSD and start with a Windows install and some basic games.
I've evolved these builds to try and include a solid state drive in all of them, but sometimes price just doesn't make it feasible. The difference a good SSD makes in native (non-ported) PC gaming can be dramatic for some and not worthwhile for others, but that's for you to decide: Those pesky load times are cut considerably shorter in games loading high-resolution textures from storage, large save files, and generally performing constant IO; if that sounds good to you, then read on.
We included (again) Kingston's HyperX 3K 120GB SSD, shipping at $110 (just below $1/GB) and offering the best real-world performance on its SandForce controller, it's an easy choice for any impatient gamer out there. Keep in mind it is only 120GB, so re-use an older SATA HDD if you can, or if not, pick up this 1TB Toshiba HDD. It's 7200RPM and 1TB at a low price - not much more to demand.
Optical drives should rue the day when GN staff no longer has to dedicate words to them -- a glorious day it'll be, with many YouTube videos of smashing drives to go around. We still need them for now, though: if you have an old optical drive laying around, you could potentially cut off ~$20 from the final price tag by sourcing it from another system. That said, this LG DVD burner will do the job well enough with its standard 24x and 48x speeds.
For our cheap bastard's build series, we usually select cheapest case that fits our standards for a gaming case. As you may know, we've reviewed a couple of NZXT cases recently (I personally have two of them), and thus far, things have gone pretty well. This time we went with a sleek and simple-looking Source 210 - an ATX Mid-Tower that offers 3x5.25'' external bays, 8x3.5'' internal bays, and is roomy enough to support most of the longer video cards (max 230mm clearance) and most reasonable aftermarket heatsinks (160mm clearance). Cable management support is present and ready to be taken advantage of, too.
While it can support up to seven fans, 120mm-140mm (according to placement), it only includes 1x120mm rear fan. We suggest you pick up at least one more fan for a couple bucks more (configure to front intake), though I'd personally buy two additional fans - place one on the side panel for intake to keep fresh air focused on the video card and the other in the front intake slot. At $30 plus the cost of some fans, this case is a great deal.
Well, another budget build has come and gone... I'm feeling sad now. Like watching my child go off to college (hopefully a cheap bastard's college—hardware first). We're pretty happy with the way this one turned out: You get a great gaming system at a great price, though keep in mind these deals are going to end soon, so make informed decisions and decide what you'd like to buy early. If you need any help in case some of these items sell out, let us know. Please visit our forums for any in-depth questions or concerns, or feel free to post a quick question below! Until next time! (Can't say "peace," as apparently Stephen has trademarked that!)
- Michael "Mikagmann2" Mann.