When you build a gaming system, it should be all about frame rates. The reality, though, is that most people don’t have the unconstrained budgets to wring out the maximum performance a game can deliver.
I’ve built budget gaming systems in the past. Building a gaming system for under a grand is an exercise in compromise. Just a year or two ago, if you wanted a reasonable gaming experience for under $1000, you'd have to give something up--graphics power, or storage.
These days, however, you can get yourself an impressive system capable of running current-generation, DirectX 11 games at acceptable frame rates on a 1080p monitor while having to make minimal sacrifices in visual quality. It’s amazing what kind of system you can build today at modest expense.
Graphics Vs. Performance
When building a budget gaming system, the biggest trade-off is often the choice between graphics and CPU choices. The right choice depends on what type of games you play. A fan of graphically heavy first-person shooters may pick a pricier graphics card and move down a speed grade or two on the CPU side. On the other hand, a strategy game aficionado might want to notch up processor performance.
It’s not as simple as it used to be, however. Modern strategy games like Civilization V and Total War: Shogun 2 can still hammer a CPU, but also offer cutting-edge, DX11 graphics. Action games are multithreaded and offer advanced physics and AI, benefiting from a quad-core CPU.
The system we'll build here is well-balanced. I’ve chosen a solid CPU and GPU combo that should deliver good frame rates on today’s 1080p flat-panel displays. Note that processor prices are pretty compressed these days, so even moving down a notch in CPU pricing may not free up enough cash to move up a significant chunk in graphics performance without breaking past the magic $1K barrier set here.
The Whole Picture
The GPU and CPU represent the most important components in a gaming PC, but the rest of the gear contributes in important ways. Here’s the complete build list. Then I’ll dive into the rationale for the choices and offer possible tradeoffs.
The build list:
Core i5 2500K
XFX Radeon HD 6870
Corsair Vengeance DDR3-1600 8GB kit
Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB
Samsung SH-B123L BD-ROM combo
Coolermaster HAF 912
Corsair Builder Series CX600 600W
Windows 7 Home Premium OEM
*Power supply unit
Note that this system is just a few dollars short of the $1000 mark. However, prices fluctuate, and the prices presented here represent a kind of average from various online sources. With a little careful shopping, you can do better--but these prices don’t include shipping or sales tax, so be sure to factor those costs into your buying decision.
Key Components: CPU and GPU
Now that you understand the tradeoffs and goals of this system, it’s time to dive into the component choices. Since the GPU and CPU are the key parts of a gaming system, let’s look at those choices first.
CPU: Intel Core i5 2500K
This second-generation Core i5 CPU is one of the best deals in processors today. It’s unlocked, which means you can overclock it if you’re so inclined, though if you do, you’ll probably want something a little better than the stock Intel cooler. However, the Intel heat sink is low profile, so it works well even in a cramped case.
While the 2500K lacks the hyperthreading support of its pricier siblings, it’s no slouch when it comes to performance. It cranks along at a default clock frequency of 3.3GHz, with a maximum Turbo Boost clock of 3.7GHz. Who needs overclocking?
You can save a few bucks by dropping down to the frequency-locked Core i5 2500K, but you won’t save much. If you really want to squeeze out a few more dollars, Intel offers the 2.8GHz Core i5 2300K. But the 2500K is pretty high on the value curve.
GPU: XFX Radeon HD 6870
XFX builds solid cards with standout warranty support. Even so, you can find this card online for as low as $180. Competing cards with less robust warranties can be found for a little less, so if you tend to turn over GPUs every year or so, those may be equally suitable.
The Radeon HD 6870 offers excellent performance for that $180-$200, so it’s at the current sweet spot in price/performance ratios. However, if you’re an Nvidia fan and want to stick with under-$200 cards, a variety of GTX 560 cards are available, but the HD 6870 edges it out in most games.
Core Supporting Components
No processor or graphics card exists in isolation. You’ll want a good motherboard, ample memory, and a robust power supply unit, all of which are essential ingredients for building a stable, fast platform for your gaming pleasure.
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z68MA-D2H
Gigabyte offers a nifty microATX motherboard built around Intel’s new Z68 chipset. It has support for on-the-fly graphics switching if you add Lucid Logix Virtu software. This would allow you to use lower power (and lower performance) Intel HD Graphics when doing normal desktop work, with the discrete GPU kicking in when you launch a game.
This particular microATX board also offers two PCI Express x16 slots, so you can theoretically run two AMD GPUs in CrossFireX or paired Nvidia GPUs in SLI/dual-GPU configurations. In those cases, the two graphics cards would be running in dual x8 mode, but that’s still a lot of bandwidth.
The GA-Z68MA-D2H has all the other goodies you’ll want, too: 6-gbps SATA support, USB 3.0, and even limited overclocking capabilities. The one downside with this board that I’ve found is the relative lack of onboard fan connectors--it has only a single case fan connector, plus the CPU cooling fan pinouts. Ideally, I would have liked to have two case fan connectors plus CPU fan.
RAM: Corsair Vengeance 8GB DDR3-1600 Kit
DDR3 memory prices have crashed in the past year, and that’s great for PC buyers. This Corsair 8GB kit costs just $95. That’s impressive for a pair of 4GB modules that can loaf along at the default 1333MHz clock frequency built into the Core i5 2500K memory controller and Gigabyte BIOS.
Eight gigabytes may seem excessive to some users; in that case, you can save about $40 by dropping down to 4GB. That’s still ample for most games today. There’s something oddly reassuring about having 8GB, though. Or maybe I’m just enthralled by how much good DRAM you can buy for under a hundred bucks.
Power Supply: Corsair Builder Series CX600 PSU
Corsair’s Builder Series power supplies offer basic feature sets, but also deliver robust current. The CX600 version 2 is 80 Plus certified. I’ve listed the general price of $70, but recent Corsair rebates bring the price down to a net $50, if you’re willing to deal with rebates.
This PSU is efficient and quiet. Note that it offers only two PCI Express graphics card power connectors, so if you really want to drop in a second GPU, you’ll likely need a PSU upgrade, or use adapter plugs. The latter is a viable option with this PSU, since the overall power draw for this $1000 system is pretty low, as I’ll show shortly.
Today’s games are getting bigger with every new release. Mass Effect 2 eats up 17.7GB on my hard drive, while Shogun 2 consumes nearly 19GB. So having a big, fast hard drive is pretty important. A $1000 budget is somewhat limiting, however. You can’t configure for an SSD, for example, even a small SSD that can take advantage of the Intel Z68 Smart Response system, which uses a small SSD to cache hard-drive reads and writes. Since this is a Z68-based system, however, it’s possible to add SSD caching later.
As with many components, the price of the Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB drive can fluctuate. I’ve seen this for as little as $45, but the average price seems to hover around $60 currently. The Caviar Blue runs at 7200 rpm and offers 32MB of DRAM cache.
The Samsung SH-B123L Blu-ray combo drive shows just how much Blu-ray drive prices have come down. The SH-B123L can burn to a variety of DVD media at speeds up to 16X. It’s capable of reading BD-ROM and BD-RE discs as well as playing Blu-ray movies if you’ve got current playback software, like Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra. At $65, it’s priced about $30 higher than a stock DVD drive, so if you’re looking to shave off dollars, this is one place to do it.
Of course, if you’re only gaming on this system, and never plan on watching movies or burning discs, you can dump the optical drive entirely--as long as you’re willing to live with digital downloads of all your games.
Picking the Right Case
I like using fairly large midtower cases for my PCs. I’ve given up on huge, full-size towers, partly because of cost, but also because I just don’t like moving them around anymore. On the other hand, compact cases are interesting, and can fit under low desktops or live on top of a desk. However, the tight internal constraints mean that the system-building process can be tedious and sometimes downright frustrating. Nothing is more annoying than finding out that your average-size graphics card won’t fit in the case because of the location of the PCI Express power plugs.
Coolermaster’s HAF 912 is a modestly priced, midrange steel tower. Although its amenities are limited, it does offer a cutout under the motherboard, which allows you to easily install aftermarket CPU coolers without removing the motherboard. This case has pretty good airflow, and best of all, you can find this for as little as $50, though the most common price seems to be about $60.
This case supports multiple hard drives and is big enough for even long graphics cards, though those monster 12-inch Radeon HD 6990 cards might be a tight fit.
Of course, a PC needs an operating system, and Windows 7 Home Premium is a good fit for most users. Be aware that the maximum memory supported by Home Premium is 16GB, but that shouldn’t be a factor for most users.
Since this system uses a fairly spacious midtower case, building it is pretty straightforward. (For a walk-through of the general process, see PCWorld's article and videos on assembling a PC.) The main thing you need to remember to do differently is to install the motherboard mounting posts in the microATX mount points instead of the full-size holes.
I did run into one problem when installing Windows that’s worth mentioning as a general troubleshooting tip. The first Caviar Blue drive I used was defective, but it wasn’t actually DOA. So the Windows setup process would stall at about 70 percent. The symptoms were a little vague, and I first suspected a bad Windows setup DVD or a memory problem. These types of weird issues, where the solution isn’t immediately obvious, can happen during a new system build, but most PCs I’ve put together recently work fine after assembly.
The replacement hard drive has been performing perfectly. It’s better to have a hard drive fail during initial installation than later on, taking all your data with it.
So how does our little $1K marvel perform? Well, marvelously, of course!
PC World’s $1000 Gaming Rig
3DMark 2011 performance score
3DMark Vantage performance score
PCMark 7 score
DiRT3, 1920 by 1200 Ultra preset, 4x AA (fps*)
Shogun 2 1080p High Benchmark
Far Cry 2, Ranch Long, 1920 by 1200 DX10 Ultra, 4xAA (fps)
Just Cause 2 (fps)
F1 2010, 1920x1200, Ultra preset, no AA (fps)
Metro 2033, 1920x1200, High, No AA
System power @ idle
System power @ full throttle
*fps = frames per second
This system hits solid frame rates, even with a lot of the eye candy cranked up. Most of the game tests (except Shogun 2) were actually run at 1920 by 1200 resolution, so 1920 by 1080 performance should be a touch better.
What’s really interesting is the power usage. We saw maximum power draw when running the PCMark 7 benchmark, and the system barely hit 215W. So there’s enough power to spare to add a second Radeon HD 6870 if you want even more graphics horsepower.
Never a Better Time to Build
Our $1000 gaming PC offers incredible bang for the buck at a net price (not including shipping or taxes) of $994. If you’re willing to drop the optical drive and use 4GB of RAM, you can even get below $900 ($879) without sacrificing performance. Overall, there’s never been a better time to build a high-performance, affordable gaming system.
So what are you waiting for?