We show you how to construct a space-saving gaming PC including an nVidia GTX 570 graphics card for unbeatable performance. UPDATED: 23rd Feb 2012
Put together a high-performance gaming system in a small box
Building your own PC is not only a highly rewarding experience, but it also allows you to choose exactly which components you want. You won't have to scour adverts and brochures to find a computer that matches your requirements – you dictate how much hard drive space and RAM there is and whether to spend more on a powerful graphics card or save money and opt for an integrated chip.
Assembling the components is easier than you might think, and we're on hand to ensure that everything will work first time by suggesting which components to buy for each type of PC. The first is a compact yet powerful PC that's ideal for gaming as well as video and photo editing. Unlike a standard tower PC, this system will fit into smaller spaces and will be less conspicuous in your living room or study.
If you don't need this much power, or aren't clamouring to play the latest 3D games, a cheaper less-powerful PC for general use should appeal. Again, we've selected the ideal components to build a compact system that can be hidden out of sight and won't make a distracting racket when you're browsing the internet or sending emails.
You can stick to our list of components rigidly if you like, but don't be afraid to replace items with your own choices to suit your own needs and budget. For example, you can increase or decrease the amount of memory and hard disk capacity or opt for a different CPU but make sure they're compatible with the motherboard before spending any money. The best way to do this is to check the motherboard manufacturer's website and carefully check the specifications for maximum memory speed and which processors will work with it.
One big advantage of building your own computer is that you can install whichever operating system you like. Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit is the best choice for most people, but if you're feeling adventurous you could try a Linux distribution such as Ubuntu. Since it's free you can experiment without wasting any money and if you like it, you'll have saved around £70 on buying Windows.
The compact gaming PC
We've called this a gaming PC but it's equally at home editing high-definition video or any other demanding task you can think of. The case is a sensible starting point when choosing components, as it dictates how much room there is for the graphics card, the critical piece of the puzzle where 3D games are concerned. Recently, In Win has produced some seriously good cases for small gaming PCs. The Dragon Slayer is a case in point: It looks like a full tower case that's been hit by a shrink ray, yet it's still deep enough to accommodate large graphics cards.
Admittedly, working inside it is a pain due to the restricted space. For instance, the hard drive bay sits across from the power supply unit, a position that effectively limits the size of the PSU to a depth of 150mm. Fortunately, Corsair's AX750 - a 750W, 80-plus-gold-certified power supply – measures 150x150x90mm. Even with a standard power supply such as this, routing cables is something of a chore. Fortunately, the Dragon Slayer is wide enough to allow cables to be run behind the motherboard tray, which mitigates the clutter a bit.
One other minor issue is that the front-panel USB 3.0 connector requires you to route a cable out the rear of the case and plug it into a USB 3.0 back-panel connector on the motherboard.
Selecting the motherboard
When choosing components for a space-saving gaming machine, we decided the limiting factors would be size and power consumption, not cost. With this in mind, we settled on the Asus Maximus IV Gene-Z, a premium-quality MicroATX motherboard built around an Intel Z68 chipset, four memory sockets and the usual host of features you'd expect in a high-end gaming motherboard—except its size.
Although the Gene-Z isn't exactly cheap at £140 – it's more than most MicroATX boards cost – it isn't as expensive as standard ATX boards of the same class. It has on-board reset and power switches, a robust BIOS, a high-end power-supply section, and plenty of USB ports (including USB 3.0).
Also on the board is a wide selection of connectors, including digital video outputs if you want to take advantage of the Intel Z68's graphics virtualization, developed by LucidLogix. Virtu, as the feature is called, lets you use a high-end discrete graphics card but connect the display to the integrated graphics built into Intel Sandy Bridge CPUs. As a result, the system will run the low-power-consumption Intel HD Graphics for normal desktop use, but the high-end GPU will kick in for gaming.
The Gene-Z includes Creative Labs THX TruStudio Pro software audio enhancement. TruStudio Pro is one of the few software-based audio enhancements we like, and it produces a somewhat broader sound stage. The board also has room for a large CPU cooler, but we opted to stick with the standard Intel heatsink due to the limited room in the Dragon Slayer case and also because we didn't want to go overboard with overclocking.
Choosing the CPU and RAM
While the sweet spot for most gaming systems is an Intel Core i7-2500K CPU, we've gone for the i7-2600K. The faster clock speed (3.4GHz versus 3.3GHz), plus Intel's Hyper-Threading, makes this CPU useful for more than just playing games.
A high-end motherboard and CPU deserve good memory. Corsair's 8GB Vengeance DDR3 kit runs at 1,600MHz and fits the bill nicely. Plus, it costs less than £40: fast DDR3 is incredible value these days.
Choosing a graphics card
Although we didn't set a budget for this PC, our goal wasn't to construct the most expensive machine possible. Since it's a MicroATX PC, other constraints influenced our choices, including those for power and cooling. We also wanted a graphics card that made little noise, didn't consume excessive power, and could handle most modern games.
Enter the Asus GTX 570 DirectCU II, which costs around £250. It's an enormous card, taking up three slots at the back of the case due to the beefy cooling section. Asus has also removed one integrated circuit (included in most GTX designs) that limits maximum power draw. This tweak allows users to set the voltage to whatever they deem appropriate. Bear in mind, however, that without the voltage limiter you can wind up killing the card if you go too far
Asus has an overclocking tool called SmartDoctor, but it's rather crude. If you really want to overclock the card, pay a visit to the website for Asus's high-end Matrix GPU series, select the downloads for your version of Windows and look under ‘Utilities' for GPU Tweak. Although this tool was designed for the Matrix GTX 580 series, it works fine with the 570.
If you simply want to push the clock speed higher, GPU Tweak automatically adjusts the voltage. The PC will end up consuming more power, but that's why we've chosen a powerful 750W PSU—it provides plenty of headroom.
Naturally, you need lots of fast storage for your games. On the optical side, all you really need is an inexpensive DVD burner. The Lite-On iHAS124 gets the job done, and costs £15.
It's tempting to opt for purely solid-state storage, but since games consume up to 20GB each these days, this would have almost doubled the price of the PC. Thankfully, one of the great aspects of the Z68 chipset is its support for Intel's Rapid Storage Technology SSD caching. This allows you to install a small-capacity SSD and configure the system for RAID support, and the SSD acts as a huge cache for the hard drive.
The hard drive we've chosen is the super-quick 10,000-rpm Western Digital 600GB VelociRaptor (£160) and paired it with a 20GB Intel 311 SLC-based SSD (£90). The net result: much faster boot and application-load times than you would see from the VelociRaptor alone. If you crave more capacity, a 2TB, 7200-rpm drive costs around £100, and you'll see nearly the same performance due to the SSD cache.
Performance and Overclocking
Even though overclocking is easier than ever, keep in mind that nothing is guaranteed. Most people should be content to run this PC at standard clock speeds as it's so fast to begin with. Metro 2033, for example, is a demanding game so the fact that this PC managed almost 20 frames per second in DirectX 11 mode with 4x antialiasing and all details turned up is impressive. In most games, the PC runs in excess of 30 fps, and over 60 fps in some titles. In Aliens vs. Predator, we saw 36fps, while in Dirt 3, the system managed 54fps.
In practical terms you might see a 2 to 4 percent increase in the frames-per-second if you decide to overclock. Whether that's worth the risk of overheating and potentially damaging your hardware is up to you.
At idle, we measured power consumption at 71 watts. This rose to 231 watts when under maximum load.
The Price of Glory
So how much does this system cost? It certainly isn't cheap at £1,250, but this does include Windows 7 Ultimate, which we picked mainly because the 16GB limitation of Windows 7 Home Premium is starting to sound a little restrictive. With 8GB memory modules starting to ship, the Gene-Z motherboard could theoretically support 32GB, though 16GB is probably a more practical ceiling for most people. You can reduce the cost by ditching the SSD and VelociRaptor and opting for a standard 7,200rpm hard drive. You'll also save £70 by plumping for Home Premium rather than Windows 7 Ultimate.
Total cost of components: £1,250 inc VAT
Case: In Win Dragon Slayer, £60 inc VAT
Power Supply: Corsair AX750 750W, £125 inc VAT
Motherboard: Asus Maximus IV Gene-Z, £140 inc VAT
CPU: Intel Core i7-2600K, £235 inc VAT
RAM: Corsair 8GB Vengeance DDR3, £37 inc VAT
Graphics Card: Asus GTX 570 DirectCU II, £250 inc VAT
Hard Drive: Western Digital VelociRaptor 600GB, £160 inc VAT
SSD: Intel 311 20GB, £90 inc VAT
DVD-RW Drive: Lite-On IHAS124, £15 inc VAT
Operating System: Windows 7 Ultimate, £138 inc VAT