PT-Boats: The ultra low-budget gaming PC

Posted: November 23, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

In World War II, the U.S. Navy needed an inexpensive way to shoot torpedoes at things.  The solution was the ultra-lightweight patrol torpedo boat (one of which was famously captained by JFK).  PT-Boats are such a good metaphor for bang-for-the-buck it’s almost a pun.  Can’t think of a better name for gaming PCs built for less than $500.

Conventional wisdom states that a gaming PC must cost more than $1000 to be even considered worthy.  This standard assumes many things which may not apply to your situation.  PC snobs will also often claim that they can see faster than 60 frames-per-second (they can’t, trust medical science this time) or that 16x anisotropic filtering looks significantly different than 8x.  Let me clear up some doubts you may have by assuring you that you can play many games at graphical settings that will amaze you well below this supposed basement of cost-quality.  This article isn’t so much a system building guide (though I just updated my guide, see September ’10 articles), so much as a clarification for those who just want to know if they can build a PC on their budget to play the game they want.

Misconception 1, Synthetic Benchmarks:

Benchmarking programs are an excellent way to test the professional limits of parts.  By professional I mean for high-end computing and encoding the likes of which has no resemblance to gaming performance.  A huge misconception that comes from these is that more expensive (read tested to higher limits and made of more expensive materials) parts often outperform low-end parts by huge margins. The new i-series chips blow away AMD and their own older generations in applications that use 1 or two threads.  This has absolutely nothing to do with it’s performance in the latest games.  DirectX 11 games can use 4 or more cores and almost all of the newest games are natively DirectX 11.  This means that cheaper AMD chips with 4-6 cores jump right up that gap and still cost less than half what the comparable Intel parts do.  So while it’s true that core-for-core AMD can’t compare to Intel’s performance, you can get at least twice the cores for the price with AMD.  For a gaming PC this makes your decision directly linked to what games you play.  If you play a lot of older games that only support DirectX 9 and 2 CPU cores, even a lower end Intel will outperform most AMD parts.  Most games though, including even the aging World of Warcraft, now support DirectX 11, making a cheap CPU with lots of cores a better option for the price.

Misconception 2, You Need a High-End GPU

It’s important to remember that the current high-end GPUs have to meet the demands of multiple high-resolution monitors and 3D displays.  If you are building a system with one monitor that’s not 3D, a $250 GPU can easily fill your pixels.  That would only be considered a low-midrange card by enthusiasts, but any more than that would only be overkill for the needs of present games.  That’s not to say that overkill is always bad.  A faster card will remain competitive for longer and give you the option of adding more monitors.  Let’s face it though, a lot of people build a system for the game they want to play right now, with the budget they have on hand.  I don’t see the PCI-express slot going away soon, so considering the GPU is the costliest part, you should not be afraid to upgrade later instead of trying to future-proof now.  People who have an expensive card will always try to justify what they spent on it by telling you that you are missing out with anything less.  If you can run all of your current games at the highest settings, you aren’t missing any possible benefits.  On a single monitor you can achieve this with a comparatively cheap card.

Misconception 3, Faster Storage and Media is Essential

A lot of people get it in their head that since the PC is for gaming, all of the parts need to be high end.  Many have the opinion that if you aren’t running your OS and games off a fast Solid State Drive, you’re living in the stone age.  Let me clear this up by explaining the possible benefits.  Your games will load faster.  That’s it.

So if the load times you’re experiencing on an inexpensive SATA hard drive are completely unbearable, then it might be worthwhile to upgrade.  There is also the matter of noise.  SSDs are totally silent.  So if you’re on a laptop, I could see the benefit.  In your desktop though, let me ask you a serious question:  When was the last time you could hear anything over your GPU fan?  I mean seriously, even the quietest GPU fans are usually louder than the rest of the system because they have to do the most cooling.  This makes all other noise pretty unimportant.  Modern CPU and case fans are all pretty quiet and the noise of a well-made SATA drive is not terribly noticeable when it’s under your desk.  Considering the high cost and low capacity, I would consider SSDs to be totally superfluous in the budget category.  Same goes for Blue-Ray drives.  If you’re scrimping on your PC budget, you’re probably the type who sees the benefit of digitally distributed HD entertainment over expensive BDs, meaning you won’t get much use out of it.

So Go Sink Some Destroyers

What it finally comes down to is that this is your PC.  If it does what you want and does it well, you should be proud of it.  Take for example the PC I built for Laguna.  He was going through a move and changing jobs at the same point when his old PC he’d been limping along for ages finally wouldn’t do anymore.  New games were on the horizon that wanted playing, but he just didn’t have the money to buy any kind of decent new computer.  When he told me the games he wanted to play and the budget he had available, I started doing research on building a $250 pc that would run current games decently.  The end result was a combination of inexpensive and slightly older parts that performs well above his expectations.  Right now his Athlon II and GeForce 9800GTX are easily handling Skyrim at very acceptable settings and solid framerates.  No matter what others could say about their system’s superiority to his, he can just respond that his cost less than an Xbox and does so much more.  If you can demolish those gamers with their fancy PCs in your favorite online game and still have money left for Cheetos and Red Bulls, who’s laughing now?

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Comments
  1. lagunawsu2 says:

    It does kick the shit out of Skrim, I can attest. I have no slow downs or any real lag to even speak of. Even while loading large areas.

    I must support the Captain’s cause on this…

    “YOU DO NOT HAVE TO SPEND A FORTUNE TO BE A CURRENT GAMER!!!”

    It is a fallacy that many people would like you to believe, but it just isn’t true. And, thankfully, most of the people who make these games know it to be false. I guarantee you Diablo 3 will run just fine on this system, as will Guild Wars 2. The plain fact is hardware/graphic tech accelerate so fast it isn’t profitable to sell to the newest system. So buck up, spend what you can, and know you can play the modern generation of games without breaking your pocket book.

  2. Mark says:

    It is a fallacy that many people would like you to believe, but it just isn’t true. And, thankfully, most of the people who make these games know it to be false. I guarantee you Diablo 3 will run just fine on this system, as will Guild Wars 2. The plain fact is hardware/graphic tech accelerate so fast it isn’t profitable to sell to the newest system. So buck up, spend what you can, and know you can play the modern generation of games without breaking your pocket book.
    +1

  3. Thought I may contribute this “If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies… It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it.” – Albert Einstein

    • ryanlecocq says:

      OK, so this one was flagged by spamfilter for obvious reasons (google from home link), but is also the most fitting and eloquent quote in response to this article I can think of. Indeed. Da Vinci, Jesus, Ghandi and even the legendary Robert Johnson all wore rags at one point or another and cultural expectations are often out of touch with quantifiable reality.

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