Build a speedy Windows 8 PC for under $500

Whenever Microsoft releases a new desktop operating system, users inevitably ponder the purchase or assembly of a new system. Although Windows 8’s controversial interface changes and obvious accommodations for mobile hardware may cause die-hard desktop users to approach the new OS with trepidation, Windows 8 offers many enhancements worth an upgrade.

First and foremost, Windows 8 is streamlined to perform well on lower-end hardware than its most recent predecessors. Its minimum requirements are similar to Windows 7, but Windows 8 uses less memory, consumes less disk space, and its UI elements aren’t as graphically rich.

Windows 8 also leverages most GPUs to accelerate more OS elements in hardware than does Windows 7. All of these changes in Windows 8 culminate in an operating system that simply doesn’t need high-end hardware to run well.

Knowing that, we set out to build a speedy Windows 8-ready system for under $500. With such a limited budget, dedicating a significant amount of money to any single component isn’t a possibility. With the right balance though, half a grand should be plenty of cash to put together a nice Windows 8 system with minimal compromise.

Choosing our components

Let’s get what’s probably going to be the most controversial decision out of the way first: The heart of our sub-$500 Windows 8 system is an AMD A8-3870K APU, or Accelerated Processing Unit (basically a CPU + GPU combo). The 3870K sports a quad-core CPU running at 3.0GHz and an integrated, on-die Radeon HD 6000 series GPU.

We chose this APU for a few reasons. First off, even though Intel’s desktop processors offer better overall performance, AMD’s integrated GPUs are superior to Intel graphical processors in terms of performance, compatibility, and driver support. The A8-3870K’s four CPU cores may not be as fast as Intel’s most affordable quad-core processor, but they’re plenty fast for Windows 8 and compete well enough with similarly priced Intel processors.

The AMD A8-3870K APU won’t break any benchmark records, but its 3GHz frequency and quad-cores make it fast enough for all but the most demanding tasks. The 3870K’s on-die Radeon HD 6550D GPU is also better than anything offered by Intel, especially when it’s paired to a second GPU for even better performance.

Another benefit to using the AMD A8-3870K is that its integrated GPU can be paired up to certain discrete cards for a boost in performance. The XFX Radeon HD 6570 card we chose for this build, for example, can work in a Dual-Graphics CrossFire mode with the 3870K’s integrated Radeon HD 6550D for a significant performance improvement. This is important to note because you’d have to pair an Intel CPU with a much more expensive discrete graphics card to get the kind of performance the Radeon HD 6570 and A8-3870K can offer.

AMD’s dual-graphics technology allows A-Series APUs to be paired with certain graphics cards to increase performance. This XFX Radeon HD 6570 and the Radeon HD 6550D integrated into the A8-3870K aren’t terribly fast on their own but, when working in tandem, they offer pretty good performance for the money.

Our plan from the start was to build a stylish, compact Windows 8 system that you would be proud to show off to your tech-savvy buddies.  As such, we chose the slick BitFenix Prodigy case for our rig. The Prodigy is designed for mini-ITX motherboards, but is actually a bit larger than typical mini-ITX enclosures. The extra space, coupled with its attractive aesthetics and smart design, made the Prodigy a good fit for our build.

The BitFenix Prodigy, however, doesn’t include a power supply. Since we needed to score a PSU as well, we did some searching for a quality power supply from a well-respected brand. We settled on the Corsair Builder-Series CX430. Not only does the CX430 offer more than enough juice for our rig, but Corsair is known for building reliable power supplies. The Corsair CX430’s price was also phenomenal, as you’ll see in our final price check.

We could have saved a few bucks by going with a cheap case and power supply for our sub-$500 Windows 8 build, but decided not to skimp. The BitFenix Prodigy and Corsair CX430 are nice enough components to last through a couple of upgrade cycles.

Since our case required a mini-ITX motherboard and we decided to install an AMD APU in Socket FM1, our motherboard choices were somewhat limited. ASRock’s A75M-ITX, however, was somewhat affordable and offered all of the features we needed, so we picked one up.

We returned to CorsairFor our memory needs for quality product at an excellent price. The A8-3870K officially supports memory speeds up to DDR3-1866MHz, so we grabbed a dual-channel, 8GB kit capable of running at that frequency, which also fit within our budget.

As for storage, we grabbed a basic SATA DVD burner from Lite-On, simply because it was the cheapest option. We don’t foresee using it much but, for those times when you need to copy a disc, install an old game, or make an archival backup, having a DVD burner can come in handy.

Additionally, we also acquired a 500GB Seagate Momentus XT hybrid solid state drive. We would have preferred using a solid state drive for the OS volume and a fast hard drive for bulk storage, but unfortunately our budget wouldn’t allow it.

The Momentus XT is a great compromise because its 7200RPM hard drive is paired to 8GB of SLC NAND Flash memory. The NAND is used to cache the most frequently accessed bits of data on the hard drive, which results in SSD-like performance. Plus it all works without having to install any caching software, thanks to Seagate’s proprietary firmware and caching algorithms.

Windows 8 has more modest memory and storage requirements than Windows 7. We still wanted to give the OS plenty of breathing room though, so we opted for 8GB of fast Corsair RAM and a 500GB hybrid solid state drive from Seagate. The optical drive was cheap enough to include for giggles, although we don’t foresee using it much.

 

Assembling the system

To get our system ready for Windows 8, we first had to assemble it. We began by installing the APU and memory into the motherboard. Both the memory and APU are keyed to fit into their slots/socket in only one way, so their installation is fairly straightforward. The A8-3870K’s bundled cooler also shipped with thermal paste preinstalled, so mounting the APU’s cooler was simply a matter of putting it into position and locking it into place using the included mounting bracket.

The foundation of our sub-$500 Windows 8 build was an ASRock A75M-ITX Mini-ITX motherboard. It doesn’t offer much expansion, but its small form factor, native USB 3.0 ports, and PCI Express x16 slot made it a good fit for the build.

With the motherboard, APU, and memory fitted together, we then installed them into the case. First we installed the custom IO shield included with the motherboard by snapping it into the necessary cutout in the case, and then simply slid the motherboard into place and secured it with the included screws.

After putting the motherboard/APU/Memory assembly into place, we moved on to the rest of the components. The Seagate Momentus XT was mounted to a drive tray with a quartet of screws and slid into place; next, we stuck the optical drive into the only available external drive bay in the BitFenix Prodigy and secured it with screws, and then we connected all of the front panel cables for the power/reset switches, USB ports, and activity LEDs to the motherboard. When that was done, we installed the graphics card into the only slot available on the motherboard and then shifted our focus to the PSU and data cables.

We think saving the PSU and data cables for the end makes it easier to neatly route everything through the case. In the BitFenix Prodigy, there are strategically-placed cutouts that make routing cables a cinch, but we took our time with each one, making sure to bundle up and tie down any excess. If you take the time to route your cables efficiently and bundle up the excess wire, you should be left with a neat and well-packed PC interior.

Despite its small form factor and relatively cramped quarters in comparison to larger mid-towers, the BitFenix Prodigy offered ample room to neatly route cables out of the way of major components. There also was ample space above the APU socket.

For more detailed instructions, and the potential pitfalls associated with building a system, we’d suggest checking out two articles on PC building best practices for hardware and software; they’ll make the process go much smoother if you haven’t had much experience building your own PCs.

Once all the hardware was assembled, we then installed Windows 8 from a USB flash drive, updated the OS, and installed all of the drivers necessary for our particular components.

The results

Before we talk about our affordable Windows 8 system’s performance, let’s break down the parts list and pricing to see if we were able to hit our $500 target:

Processor: AMD A8-3870K 3.0GHz Quad-Core Desktop APU - $108.99
Graphics: XFX Radeon HD 6570 1GB Graphics Card - $44.99 (after a $15.99 mail-in rebate)
Motherboard: ASRock A75M-ITX Socket FM1 Mini ITX Motherboard - $89.00
Memory: Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 Memory - $46.99
Storage: Seagate Momentus XT 500GB 7200 RPM Solid State Hybrid Drive - $79.99
Case: BitFenix Prodigy Mini-Tower - $79.00
Power Supply: Corsair Builder Series CX430 430W Power Supply - $24.99 (after a $20 mail-in rebate)
Optical Drive: Lite-On iHAS124-04 DVD Burner - $16.99

If you’re keeping track, that puts the grand total for the hardware we used at $490.94 (after rebates).

Success! We could have easily shaved a few dollars off the total by going with a different motherboard, case, and PSU, but we wanted to use quality parts throughout and not settle for sub-par components. Generic cases with chintzy power supplies are widely available, but their quality can’t come close to BitFenix’s or Corsair’s.

As for performance, we’re fairly happy with the results. The system powers up and boots in only 22.9 seconds—and that’s including the time it takes to complete the BIOS power-on self test (POST). When we timed the boot process from the moment the Windows loading screen appeared until the Windows 8 UI was ready, it took only 9.8 seconds. Shutdown was even faster, taking only 6.5 seconds on average.

System-level and graphics benchmarks tell the story of a decidedly mid-range rig. The system posted a PCMark7 score of 2689, which isn’t bad. The PCMark score could have been much higher (in the neighborhood of 3500) had we gone with a pure solid state drive instead of a hybrid, but we weren’t willing to sacrifice capacity and couldn’t spring for a large SSD. Thankfully, the hybrid drive will improve and offer more SSD-like performance once it caches our most recently accessed bits of data.

When our build was complete, we took some time to bundle, tie-down, and neaten all the cables and ended up with one heck of an immaculate interior. This is what the machine looked like fully assembled.

3DMark11 reported a score of P1537 for the system, when using the benchmark’s “Performance” preset. That score is really good considering we only spent $45 on a discrete graphics card. Because we were able to pair the discrete Radeon HD 6570 with the integrated Radeon HD 6550D in AMD’s Dual-Graphics mode, performance was much higher than using either GPU alone. The Radeon HD 6570 scored only P712 on its own.

Overall, we’re very pleased with this system. Day-to-day performance while working or playing is really quite good, and we think the system looks great.

If you’re thinking about building a new rig for Windows 8, keep this guide handy and don’t feel like you need to spend a ton of money to have acceptable performance.

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