We've seen a lot of Heart of the Swarm machines hit the web lately, but frankly, they're all either overpriced or under-powered. The thing is, StarCraft 2 is already an incredibly optimized game (Blizzard's approach to gaming is to include everyone), so we don't need a 7850 for maximum settings, we don't need an i5-3570k overclocked through the roof, and we don't need a 700W PSU.
If your sole purpose in life is to play Heart of the Swarm, this budget gaming PC build will pump out StarCraft 2: HotS on maximum graphics settings (19x10) for around $500. Simple.
We wanted to accommodate our StarCraft 2 gamers with a straight-up RTS gaming rig on a low budget; we didn't want to sacrifice graphics (or at least make as few sacrifices as possible), but still needed to focus on performance enough to allow scalability to future RTS games. This is that rig.
$540 StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm Cheap Gaming PC
OS & Optional Extras
Our objective was to enable SC2 graphics on near-max settings with 1920x1080 resolution, and you don't need much power to do that; the game is optimized and doesn't have particularly flashy FX technology, making it easy to pick out AMD's 7770 for our purposes. The 7850 is definitely an easy choice for any gaming rig, but it's simply not required for SC2.
The card operates on a somewhat narrow 128-bit memory interface and has 1GB of on-card memory available, both plenty for our needs (the memory interface is partially responsible for governing memory bandwidth, and while it'll be lower on the 7770 than other cards, it's still more than ample for SC2). The 7770 has 1.28TFLOPS of raw compute power, putting it just below the 7850 (~1.76TFLOPS) and well above the 7660D-equipped 5800K (~736GFLOPS).
MSI's 7770 we selected is currently on sale, includes a $30 rebate, and ships with a free copy of 3D Mark (kinda neat) and the fast-paced Nexuiz shooter.
If you do feel like you have a bit of extra money and would like the ability to run higher-grade games (read: CryEngine 3, Battlefield 3), consider grabbing a 7850 instead.
Opting to stay within a reasonable price-range and focus on future scalability for gaming, AMD's FX-4300 makes great sense for a build of this budget. Games are trending more heavily toward multi-threading utilization, and despite the FX-4300's focus on INT units in its modules rather than FPUs (as Intel focuses on), it seems that the disparity between the two companies is rapidly shrinking. This is evidenced in CryEngine 3 benchmarks, where AMD has been able to compete dollar-for-dollar with Intel's equivalently-priced CPUs; and the thing is, despite Intel still remaining the frontrunner of the industry and having the best overall performance, it's not necessary to run an i5-something for most games. It just isn't.
Most games are GPU-bound, and as long as you're on a minimum of a 4300 or i3-3220 going forward, you're in OK shape; we'd still recommend an i5-3470 over an i3-3220 at this point (the extra cores will be advantageous as games continue to optimize for multiple threads), but for SC2 or similar games, it's just fine.
SC2 taxes both the GPU and CPU pretty evenly, so we're in good shape with this choice.
We would recommend an aftermarket air cooler if you intend to overclock the CPU or would like a quieter system; we've been recommending NZXT's Respire T40 lately for a mid-range option.
Memory is such a commodity at this point that it's almost become disinteresting on the low-end; this Patriot Viper 3 RAM ships in a 2x4GB kit at 1600MHz stock, fairly standard latencies (9-9-9-24), and a flashy heatsink. You should be able to clock this up to 1866MHz fairly easily if you cared, though the resultant performance in gaming will be almost non-existent.
It'll do what we need and offers a capacity that's reasonable. 16GB would be nice for anyone planning to perform memory-intensive tasks (video encoding is our regular example), but not necessary for gaming/normal use.
It's important to install a quality motherboard when building any system -- even if it's on a budget. The board will dictate your future upgrades and ability to perform going forward, and luckily, AMD has decided to remain on the AM3+ socket type for the impending Steamroller launch, so that's already an advantage. There's a lot more to a board than just the socket type, of course.
ASRock's Extreme4 is fairly straight-forward: It's on the 970 chipset, which isn't phenomenal by any means, but is all that we need for these purposes; sure, 990X or 990FX would be nice to have for a triple GPU array or serious overclocking, but few people do that. Especially not at this price. The board offers basic OC functionality (you'll need to manually enter your DRAM frequency - 1600MHz at least) and will amp the DRAM clock up to 2100MHz; CPU OC is also available via UEFI BIOS tools and manual tweaking, which we are happy to help you with. The Extreme4 ships with 3xPCI-e 2.0 slots (x16/NC; x8/x8) and has standard 8-channel audio, 5xSATA III ports for SSD upgrades, and a couple of on-board debugging utilities.
As mentioned in our regular weekend hardware sale round-up, there's presently a fairly well-liked Thermaltake 500W PSU on sale for ~$30 after a rebate (or $40 if you don't count those). The PSU has proven reliable in testing and supplies enough power for our rig plus a few upgrades, and although it has a lower power efficiency than higher-priced PSUs and lacks modularity, it's great for buying on a budget. The PSU normally retails for $60.
There are a few reasons you'd buy a higher-end power supply, though: If moderate noise bothers you, if you'd like higher power-efficiency, or if modularity is important, consider SilverStone's Strider Plus 500W modular PSU (80 Plus Bronze). This is one we can highly recommend; it's incredibly reliable and has great overall performance.
HDD / SSD
Quite honestly, as much as we build-up SSDs and encourage their utilization, you won't see massive, measurable performance gains in SC2 from using one. It'll launch faster, Windows will load significantly faster, and the game itself might shave off a second when loading maps... so a normal HDD will do for this build. If you happen to have an older SATA II hard drive lying around and are comfortable with re-using it in a new machine, we'd encourage purchasing an SSD (noted below) and using your existing HDD for storage. This will give the best overall performance and space.
For the hard drive users, we've included a standard 500GB WD Blue HDD at 7200RPM; the interface and cache are both plenty for what it does, so really, there's not much better for a basic HDD.
If you're interested in an SSD, we tend to recommend SandForce-driven drives for their advantages in real-world applications (like gaming). Kingston's HyperX 3K SSD has been a go-to drive for this, but if you want something a bit more mid-range, the Intel 330 SSD is another great option.
Yep, disc spinners. Very simple, really. All the optical drives are really made from the same suppliers at this point, so there's very little real difference between them other than manufacturer stickers. If you've got an old one around, re-use it.
Cooler Master's cases have always managed to find themselves in the position of blockade-runner whenever a new line of enclosures hits the marketplace; the HAF X broke new ground for large, affordable, enthusiast-class cases, the other HAF units were priced to aggressively blitz all market segments, and their newer Storm series cases have secured that position.
We try to ensure the build has a fitting look for its personality, and for StarCraft 2 players, the Storm Scout really fits the bill at a reasonable price. Currently available at ~$55 after rebate, it's a portable, well-cooled enclosure that has an aggressive appearance. The case can easily be carried around for LAN parties and gaming tournaments (BYOC events especially), which is a big reason we selected it for SC2 play. Obviously Blizzard's cut of LAN kind of sucks, but hey, it's still fun to play in the same room - even if you have to bounce against servers miles away just to play against the guy across from you.
This case includes 1x120mm red LED fan, 1x140mm red LED fan, and 1x140mm normal top exhaust fan by default, providing plenty of cooling for our needs.
That's it for this build. Let us know if you need help assembling or tweaking a parts list to more closely match your budget; a comment below will work, but for more in-depth support, go hit up our forums!
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.