As Cable companies find themselves facing their impending obsolescence, we've seen a surge in interest for living room PCs that double as DVR replacements and gaming consoles; our original $357 gaming HTPC posts proved the affordability of these custom builds, but today we're out to prove their versatility.
Today's build makes use of Intel's i3-3220 dual-core IvyBridgeprocessor and accompanying discrete 2GB 7850 VGA, making for a significantly more powerful system than what integrated graphics (even the 7660D/G) can offer. For around $700, you end up with a small form factor gaming HTPC build that functions as a DVR and console replacement; the 7850 has been proven as a gaming-class card for mid-to-high settings and the i3-3220 performs admirably in nearly all gaming applications, perhaps with exception to Crysis 3 (which spawns more active threads and is fairly everything-intensive). More on CPU choice below.
$694 Big Picture / Living Room Home Theater PC Build
OS & Optional Extras
It's been a close fight between nVidia's new-ish 650 Ti Boost and the keystone 7850 -- FPS tends to be within 10% of each other, frametimes are slightly in the 650 TiB's favor, and the game bundles are both decent. Because performance is so close between the cards and because our needs are fairly specific (low TDP, big picture), it'll come down to those bundles and power differentials.
The 7850 ships with three free games that have excellent "big picture" gaming PC support (Tomb Raider, Bioshock: Infinite, Far Cry: Blood Dragon), giving the card a distinct edge over nVidia's $75 F2P credit, in our eyes. It also operates at around 270W under load, versus the 650 TiB's 290W load (though idle is nearly identical - both 105-110W). Lower watt draw means less thermal build-up, and in a small case within a living room environment, every degree counts.
We've opted for the 2GB 7850 for this build specifically to accommodate high-resolution output of HD texture packs in modded games, as found in our (now-dated) Skyrim Overhaul. Everything aligns nicely for big picture gaming on this particular card, and with AMD addressing frametime delivery in upcoming driver updates, there's little reason not to pick the card that gives the best HTPC perks.
As much as we've been slowly adapting our builds to be more quad-core centric, Intel's dual-core i3-3220 still packs a hearty punch for the vast majority of gaming applications. In the case of this build, it's a low-TDP, highly-efficient, low-cost chip that focuses on CPU functionality over the heavier split found in AMD's Trinity APUs. We still maintain that APUs are the way to go if you're trying to cut costs by eliminating a discrete card, but we're looking for a bit more power in this higher-end build.
The i3-3220 has a stock external clockrate of 3.3GHz and does utilize Intel's proprietary hyperthreading tech, so while there are only two physical cores, you still end up with four logical threads within the OS. Hyperthreading has been slow on the uptake for games, but sees more utilization in dual-core CPUs that are used to run multithread-optimized games (CryEngine is very good at efficiently spawning threads).
Memory prices have stabilized at higher prices than we're comfortable with, but there's not much that we can do about that on the consumer end. Luckily, some memory kits are still available for sub-$60, one of which is a Crucial Ballistix memory kit 2x4GB memory modules (8GB) clocked at 1333MHz stock.
Because we're not relying on the integrated graphics for our video processing, the memory frequency is much less relevant and we can comfortably operate on 1333MHz. There will be no noticeable advantage to faster memory in gaming on this machine.
This build isn't quite as small as it could possibly be with a Mini-ITX form factor configuration, but it's still pretty damn small. We're sticking a Micro-ATX ASRock Pro-M H77-equipped board in SilverStone's SG09 case here, which helps to both keep thermals and costs down due to the medium-sized form factor.
We've explained chipset differences in a previous article, but the gist of it is that this board uses Intel's "mainstream" H77 chipset instead of the more prolific Z77 "performance" chipset. We lose out on some of the finer overclocking functionality, but costs are kept low and features are kept streamlined; for a build like this one, it's simply not necessary to be able to clock K-SKU chips through the roof.
Although we've stuck to a low TDP for the majority of the components, the video card pushes 300W under load (and the CPU 55W), so opting for a 500W power supply seems like a perfect fit. It's generally ideal for a power supply to operate at 60-80% load (depending on the product), so if we're hitting 370W-400W load when gaming, that makes 500W a great target maximum capacity.
Corsair's CX500M 500W PSU is a modular power supply with 80 Plus Bronze certification and Active PFC; the unit is currently 10% off with the code MCA10 at checkout and offers a $20 MIR, making for a final price of roughly $43.
SSD / HDD
Truthfully, you could get away with just buying the hard drive (listed in the 'additional parts' section) on this build and skipping the SSD. Here's the thing, though: For a living room PC that is meant to boot quickly and perform all your tasks without any huge latency issues, it's important to grab an SSD. If we were just building a normal gaming PC, I'd probably favor the HDD in light of monetary savings; but because we want a machine that operates relatively quietly and boots up quickly, an SSD is the way to go.
A standard hard drive that's getting hit constantly for file requests tends to be a bit noisy, so this reduces that. We're not trying to build the quietest possible machine here, but it doesn't hurt to keep noise down as much as possible. You'll still be butting up against the GPU fan and CPU fan for noise, but both of those are easily remedied with aftermarket changes or with software fan speed controllers (create a custom fan speed curve in MSI Afterburner for the video card).
Kingston's V300 SSD is one of the easier choices for an SSD: Although Samsung has a TLC 840 available at the same price, there's no reason not to favor the higher-endurance MLC NAND and SandForce controller on the V300 SSD.
If you're planning to read or rip blu-ray videos, definitely consider getting either an external (USB) or a slim internal drive. They're expensive, though, so if you've already got a standalone reader, just stick with that.
You'll still need a cheap optical drive for any normal DVD/CD R/W tasks you need to do. If you're one of the users who's completely moved away from optical media in favor of USB installs and digital downloads (will need USB for Windows), then skip this expense. In an ideal scenario, you'd have an optical drive laying around from another system that can be borrowed for this one. The drive must be the slim form factor (like these) or external. We've opted for an external drive in this case for its versatility (very easy to move between your systems just for when you need it, which saves money, and bypasses form factor requirements).
Larger enclosures generally differentiate themselves with cable/dust management features or aesthetics, but in the case of this build, it's important that we use something compact and efficiently cooled. The larger cases we've tested (benchmarks here) all tend to be within 10C of each other, but smaller enclosures have a much wider range of variability in thermals due to the nature of being tiny; heat can get trapped, fans aren't as abundant, meshes aren't desirable for dust and noise purposes, and larger VGAs may not even fit in the case. Then there are LEDs -- very few system builders want a ton of blue LEDs in their living room.
SilverStone has previously impressed us with their impending ATX line of cases and their SG08 mini-ITX case (albeit expensive). The engineering is solid and they very clearly have a grasp on cooling dynamics, and with their SG09, they achieve some of the same efficiency objectives at a lower cost in Micro-ATX form factor. The SG09 measures out at 8.66" x 11.61" x 13.94" and is ~12 lbs., making it small and easy to move around, and supports full length video cards and CPU coolers up to 165mm in height. The case includes 1x180mm top fan (one of SilverStone's quiet fans) and 1x120mm rear fan. It also has basic dust filters/meshes in place and some level of cable management (and our modular PSU helps that fact), making for an overall high-quality enclosure in a small size.
If you want to go with an aftermarket cooler, SilverStone's own Argon unit is currently on our testbed and looks to be performing well; it's affordable, it fits well in the case, and it's relatively quiet.
That's it for this build. Let us know if you have any questions at all in the comments below or post on our dedicated PC build support forums!
- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.