Build a killer Windows 8 gaming PC for under $1,000

Building the system

Building a PC starts with a pile of disparate parts. Once you're done, you have a fully functional system.

Loyd Case
How the build begins.

The one downside to the Antec One is the somewhat constrained interior dimensions. It's unlikely, for example, that I'd ever be able to install one of those 12-inch behemoth graphics cards. However, it offers tool-free installation and enough drive bays and internal fans to get the job done.

Loyd Case
There's not a lot of excess room in the Antec One.

The first step after removing all the extraneous bits (bags, connectors, and screws) from the case is to install the storage devices and power supply. The PSU requires four screws, while the DVD drive just slides in and locks. You need to attach two screw-free guides to each side of the hard drive, but once you do, you just slide it in.

Next up is the motherboard. Be sure to install the I/O plate first. If you don't, you'll have to remove the motherboard completely to do that.

Loyd Case
Do this first!

The board sits on top of nine standoffs, and requires nine screws to fasten it down. Be sure to use just the bare amount of force to seat the screw, so you don't strip the threads.

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Be careful not to use excessive force when attaching the motherboard.

After the motherboard is secure, install the CPU and cooling fan. The CPU goes into the socket in a specific orientation.

Loyd Case
Align the tabs on the side of the CPU with slots in the socket.

Make sure you align the CPU correctly. There are slots in the side of the package, which matches tabs in the plastic socket housing. Then close the cover and make sure the cover notch slides under the nut. Close and lock the ZIF lever as gently as you can (but it often requires a surprising amount of force).

Loyd Case
Ensure the slot in the CPU bracket slides into place correctly.

Note that we don't need to use separate heat sink paste, since the retail Intel heat sink comes with thermal paste preinstalled. That makes life a lot easier, and minimizes mess.

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No separate thermal paste needed if you use the retail heat sink.

Install the DRAM into the two slots that make up a single channel in the dual-channel system. The motherboard manual identifies the slot pairs.

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DRAM goes into alternate slots for dual-channel support.

Next, connect all the various internal connectors.

Install the key PSU connections first, including ATX12V 8-pin and 24-pin power connectors. Most PSUs, including the Cooler Master GX 650, split the power connectors. Some motherboards have connectors with four pins for ATX12V, while older boards have 20-pin main connectors, rather than 24-pin. This makes proper seating of the power connectors a little trying, so you need to be sure that both parts of the connector are well-seated.

Loyd Case
This keeps the CPU supplied with clean juice.

The main power connector is a 24-pin type. Check the orientation; the motherboard power connector will have a lip, and the locking latch on the PSU connector snaps into that.

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The main power connector is split into two pieces. Both go in.

Next, connect the front panel connectors, including power switch, reset, and power LEDs. While the power switch and reset switch connectors don't have a specific orientation, the LED connectors do, so make sure the (+) connectors get the hot lead (usually the non-black one).

Loyd Case
Front panel connections, so you can turn on or reset the system.

Don't forget the front panel audio connections. I've made this mistake in the past, and it's disconcerting to put on your headphones and hear...nothing.

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I sometimes forget to connect this.

Not shown is the connection for the front USB ports. Most cases, including the Antec One, support USB 3.0 front panel connectors now, and that connector looks different than the old USB 2.0 ones.

Make sure you attach the connections to the hard drive and optical drive, including SATA and power connections. I like to use the SATA 1 port for the boot hard drive, and the last port for the optical drive.

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DVD power and data
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Power and SATA for the hard drive.

Most everything is in by now. The last item to install is the graphics card, which goes into the first PCI Express x16 slot. It's usually the most convenient slot as well, though sometimes the SATA data connectors can be covered. Make sure you attach the hard drive and DVD data cables to the motherboard before you slot in the graphics card.

Loyd Case
The GPU goes into the primary PCI Express x16 slot.

Don't forget to connect power to the graphics card to avoid getting an onscreen warning. These deliver additional power to the card, since the 75W PCIe standard isn't enough.

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Avoid rude messages by connecting the graphics card to power.

Now we're done. Here's our completed system, transformed from a pile of parts into a gaming PC. Afterward, I normally spend a little additional time dressing and tying down cables, so fans don't become obstructed by stray wires.

Loyd Case
Done!

Setting up Windows 8

Prior to setting up Windows, you may want to update the system BIOS.

I'm not going deep into the process of installing Windows 8. It's pretty much like installing older versions of Windows, with a few differences as you finalize setup.

One key step is to boot into the system BIOS and set the optical drive or thumb drive (if you're installing Windows from a flash memory device) as the initial boot device. Then you're off and running. You can check out Patrick Miller's Windows Upgrade Diary and my article on maximizing your first 30 minutes with Windows 8 for useful setup and post-setup tips.

Pro tip: Go to the motherboard maker's web site for the latest Windows 8 drivers and download networking, audio, and other features. Also be sure to do the same for the graphics card drivers. The latest AMD GPU drivers can be found at AMD.com. Unzip (if needed) and copy all the drivers to a thumb drive, and you're good to go.

Performance

You want good frame rates in a gaming PC. I pushed the system fairly hard in a set of game tests, all of which were run at 1920 by 1200. In some cases AA was enabled.

3DMark 2011 and Heaven

I also ran a couple of synthetic benchmarks.

3DMark 2011 (performance level) on my system hit a score of 6364, while PCWorld's reference system posted a 7605. The PCWorld reference system uses the same CPU, but includes an EVGA GTX 660 Ti as a graphics card, which is a little pricier than the AMD card in my system. You can always get more performance for more money, but I had a budget to hit.

Unigine Heaven posted 32 frames per second (FPS) with 4x anti-aliasing and tessellation set to extreme. That's a fairly decent score for a $235 GPU.

But these don't tell us much about gaming.

Game performance

I ran the game benchmarks on a 24-inch Gateway LCD panel at 1920 by 1200 pixel native resolution. So if you're running on a 1080p display, you'll see slightly higher frame rates.

Ideally, I wanted average frame rates above 45 fps in all cases. This was pretty easy with some games, but less so with others. Metro 2033 is something of a system hog, so I needed to reduce the settings from "Ultra" to "High" and disable anti-aliasing to hit 48 fps. The Shogun 2 benchmark needed to dial back tessellation and anti-aliasing, but then managed a smooth 60 fps.

Most other games fared much better. The two DiRT titles, DiRT 3 and DiRT Showdown, hit 71 and 61 fps respectively with 4x AA and all settings dialed up to Ultra. A slightly older title, Warhammer Dawn of War: Retribution posted a speedy 81 fps with everything maxed out. Meanwhile, the Civilization V late game benchmark in DirectX 11 mode posted 78 fps with Civ V's own AA mode turned on.

I ran a couple of other games to test out subjective performance. Mass Effect 3 ran smoothly with its settings maxed out in a multiplayer session, while XCOM: Enemy Unknown ran well most of the time, even with its features maxed out at 1920 by 1200, with some minor stuttering in the larger alien base missions.

Bottom line

You can build a great gaming system for just $1,000. This particular system is set up to grow with you. You can add better graphics as newer cards arrive, since the system fully supports PCI Express 3.0. You can upgrade the CPU. It's likely, though not certain, that all you'll need to run the next-generation Haswell CPU from Intel is a BIOS update—but take that with a grain of salt.

For now, though, this $1,000 system can run most PC games with aplomb. A few first-person shooters may require some tweaking, including dialing back shadow quality to medium and perhaps disabling anti-aliasing. However, the majority of games should perform well at maximum settings on a modern 1080p display. That's a lot of bang for 1,000 bucks.

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