How to build a fast, cheap gaming PC.

Posted: September 23, 2010 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

I recently set out to build a system that would run all current games well for under $600.  Since your requirements may vary, I will include a range of what is required to run certain games at certain settings.  The best sites to get these parts on are: Geeks.com, newegg.com or of course ebay.

Update 11/11

A lot of things have changed since this article came out.  The prices on Intel motherboards and cpus have come down and therefore I can recommend Intel builds in the ultra low budget category.  The second generation i-series processors are also significantly faster than AMD’s now aging k10 platform.  Try to keep in mind here people, this is a guide on building a gaming PC below the bottom dollar most people would expect.  I can’t help but look like an AMD fanboy when the only way to do that most of the time is with overclocked last-gen AMD parts.

Operating System: My recommendation is to go with Windows 7.  Even though it still requires more RAM than XP, it runs with a much smaller footprint than Vista.  Considering that you need Vista to get DirectX 10 and 7 to get DirectX 11, the benefits are a no brainer.  Especially because your new system will have the requirements to use a lot of those fancy effects and the RAM to make Windows 7’s requirements moot.

Motherboard: There are several ways you can go here.  If you want to go with an Intel setup and be at all forward compatible, you will have to skimp on the processor to get an LGA 1155 mobo.  This means the only processor you can afford is a low end i3 to stay in this price category (which basically means sacrificing overclocking and L3 cache size), but you will ultimately be able to upgrade to a far better CPU.  Conversely you could go with an AM3 board and buy a cheap and highly overclockable, but outdated Phenom II.  The processor will have plenty of power currently but is already a couple of years old.  Fortunately AMD CPUs are very slot compatible.  There will likely be more powerful CPUs that will fit it for quite some time.  Finally you could go with a setup mentioned in another guide, an FM1 board for AMDs new APUs.  An APU is just a CPU with a decent onboard graphics chip built in.  This means you can install a compatible graphics card in the system for a very low budget dual-graphics solution.  All of these setups are fairly comparable in price at $160-200.  In the Intel you’ll spend about $120 0n the CPU and $80 on the board.  The old AM3 board on the other hand won’t cost much so you should spend the $150 on the hexacore Thuban.

CPU (Processor): Stay away from cheaper processors like the Athlon 64 x2s or if you do go Intel, the Pentium Ds.  Even though these may look fast on paper, they have slow frontside bus speeds and small cache sizes.  These are the stats that really matter for gaming.  It’s always best to go with the newest series as a general rule as they will take less power and generate less heat.  Always avoid Sempron, Celeron or any other low power models, no matter what the listed speed.  These are turtles and cannot play games well.

Level 1, Ideal for World of Warcraft or similar MMORPGs: Athlon II x2 or Phenom II x2 Black Editions.  These CPUs overclock nicely and are ideal for games like WoW that can benefit from multiple cores, but the fewer cores with the more speed, the better.  Running at about 3.4gHz when overclocked on standard cooling is feasible and sufficient.   If you want to overclock, the Black Editions make it much safer and easier.  Expect to pay $50-60.

Level 2, Shooters at decent settings and framerates, games like COD and BFBC2 will run well: You can stick with a dual core like the ones listed above, but quad Phenom IIs with larger L3 caches are now well under $100.  The only faster dual-core you could get in this range would be a used Core2 in LGA775 and that would be totally pointless as that slot is dead.  The Phenom II X4s come in a wide range of speeds, but even the fastest are fairly cheap.  Expect to pay $70-100.

Level 3, Run any game at high settings on one large monitor, run older games or other apps on multiple monitors: Assuming you went with my suggestions in the above mobo section and didn’t go with an older cheaper slot, you pretty much have 3 options.  The i3 2100, the AMD 1055T or the AMD A8-3850.  These cost $120, $150 and $135 respectively.  The necessary mobos also range to make the total for all three about $200 or a little more if you go with a more high-quality brand.

RAM (Memory): All DDR3 memory is faster than DDR2, so even if you have to get ultra cheap memory in order to afford a DDR3 compatible motherboard, it’s worth it.  RAM unfortunately goes up and down in price all the time for no reason, but on the plus side this means you can upgrade later when it’s cheap.  One feature that may have you stumped is dual-channel mode.  This means that the RAM runs in two pipelines at once instead of one, but the effect is much less noticeable than it sounds in most games.  Buying matched pairs of RAM sticks is always a good idea though, not just because it is required for dual-channel mode, but because it creates ideal speed and stability.  Check what the fastest RAM your motherboard can support first so you don’t waste money.  Even if you do buy faster RAM than you can take, it will still run at the fastest possible speed.  (Strangely the above hasn’t change a year later, though prices have shot down on DDR3, edited below)

Level 1: 4gb 10600/10666/10700 1333mHz RAM.  All of these numbers will run at the same speed, so get the best deal you can.  Remember you want a pair of 2gb sticks rather than one 4gb stick so you can run in dual-channel.  If you want to overclock, read reviews to make sure the RAM supports it.  1333mhz is the fastest most cheap motherboards can support.  You should spend $25-40.

Level 2: 4-8gb 1333mHz-1600mHz low latency gaming RAM with heat shielding.  RAM sticks that look fancy are generally made for gaming.  Although they are the same speed as cheaper sticks, they are engineered to run faster, cooler and more efficiently.  Four 2gb sticks will run a little faster than two 4gb sticks, but that will usually max your slots, requiring you to get rid of these if you upgrade again.  About $40-60.

Level 3: 8-16gb 1600mHz+ High performance gaming RAM.  If you max out your RAM slots with the fastest speed and highest capacity, you will never have to think about it again until you replace the whole thing.  You will never wonder if you could get an extra FPS when it counts.  I would only recommend this when RAM is cheap as it is completely unnecessary.  WHICH IS NOW, WOOHOO!  You can get this much or twice this much now for under $150, so shop around and read reviews and feel free to use whatever money you have left maxing your ram, DDR3 will never be cheaper than now.

GPU (Graphics Card):  This has totally changed since I wrote this article.  At that time AMD had just launched the 6000 series which were compatible with the newest DX11 features and also priced competitively.  In the last year nVidia has caught up with a whole range of desktop and mobile DX11 cards.  Unfortunately the two brands are in somewhat of a trench-war right now, each securing certain games to be optimized for their hardware.  Recent examples include Mafia II being optimized for nVidia cards with PhysX or Deus Ex: Human Revolution being optimized for AMD Crossfire systems.  So basically there is an AMD and nVidia card competing in every price range with near identical performance.  The only difference now is what games you play and how friendly that manufacturer’s drivers are with them.

Level 1:  Radeon 5670.  A lot of PC snobs will sneer at you for having this, but it is fast and feature loaded for dirt cheap.  I bought this as a stopgap for my new system and ended up keeping it for months until 5800 series came down in price.  With a fast CPU and lotsa RAM, this thing will run Crysis at Gamer settings in high resolutions with nary a burp.  It can also overclock to 850mhz core and 1050 RAM speed, making it comparable to a 5770 in performace.  That’s just the bare basement though.  For a bit more you can get the newer 6670 with a few improvements.  If you went with the A8 above you’ll want the 6670 or 6770 for crossfire.  At the top of this category are the AMD HD6770 and nVidia GT450.  These two are the bare minimum at which you can expect to run games at the very highest settings at high framerates.  Spend $80-125

Level 2:  The Radeon 6870 is now about $180 making it the best all around bang for the buck.  If you’re willing to go above $200 (and I highly recommend it), you can now get the generation old, but very fast GTX480s in this range if you shop around.  If you go high end in both this category and the CPU, you are likely heading above the desired goal, but power comes at great cost.   $180-$250.

Level 3: So just for the sake of argument let’s say you found all of your other parts really, really cheap and you have $300 or more still to spend.  Graphics is definitely where you should put it.  This category is really volatile right now as prices go up and down as new cards are released and older (yet still high end) cards jockey for position beneath.  Your main decision is whether to go with two lesser cards or one pretty high end one.  I wish I could just list the best choices, but they go with the weekly deals.  In the budget category you likely got a motherboard with only one PCI-express slot.  This makes it easier as you only have to check what the best deal on a mid-high end card is at the time.  If you have two, you’ll have to balance that with two of the best current deals from the above price category.  $300 and up, up, up.

Monitor: Remember three things.  Resolution, response time, contrast ratio.  No matter what size and price range you go with, the higher the first and last are and the lower the middle is, the better it looks.

Level 1: 19″ 1440×900, 5ms response time, 5000:1 contrast ratio.  $90-125

Level 2: 22″ 1680×1050 or 1920×1080, 3ms response time, 10,000:1 contrast ratio. $125-175

Level 3: 24+” 1920×1080+ 2ms response time.  Really high contrast ratio.  $150+

Other Parts: For hard drives, unless you can afford a Solid State Drive, just make sure it’s a 7200RPM with a 32mb cache, SATA-III is the newest interface.  Get as big as you feel you need.  Most decent ones will be, so don’t sweat.  As for the power supply, you want a minimum of 500 watts, usually you can get even a 650+ for $20-50 so go big and you’ll never need another.  For keyboards and mice, I would recommend saving up for something comfortable as you’ll want to play with your new PC a lot.  Also a mouse with many buttons is really nice.  An Xbox 360 controller will also serve you well if you like the feel of a console for some game types.  The 360 controller feels better than any PC pad and even the cheap wired versions perform better than even the best PC only game controllers.

So there you go.  If you aren’t completely ready to buy parts for a new gaming rig, you must have skipped something.  When the next batch of gear comes out, I’ll update.


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Comments
  1. GAMER says:

    This is awesome! I will spread the words of this if someone who plan to build their gaming RIG. :oD

  2. Shaolin40oz says:

    Much Props! You really know your shit, this will help on my next build-Thanks

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