How to build a killer Windows 8.1 gaming PC for under $1000

Amd case

Finally: Windows 8.1 is a major update that brings many improvements and new features to Windows 8. In addition to a bevy of new apps and meaningful interface changes such as a resurrected Start button and a new boot-to-desktop option, Windows 8.1 will also be the only desktop OS to support DirectX 11.2. Couple that with the streamlined characteristics of the OS, and many people—game enthusiasts in particular—may now be interested in making the switch to the cutting edge of Windows.

Going all-out on a top-of-the-line gaming rig is probably a rash idea at this point, since the next generation of consoles is about to kick off a frenzy of game development that will push the boundaries of gaming hardware. Instead, we set out to build a totally new gaming rig running Windows 8.1 for a cool grand—a solid system that would please all but the most demanding PC gamers.

Picking the parts

Of course, even with a $1000 budget, the cost of the operating system itself must be considered. Snagging an OEM copy of Windows 8 (which can be upgraded to Windows 8.1 for free) costs about $130, so 13 percent of our budget is gone from the start, leaving us with only $870 to spend on hardware.

The heart of our Windows 8.1 gaming PC is a Core i5-4670K—the fastest Haswell-based Core i5 processor in Intel’s current lineup. It’s paired to an ASRock Z87-based motherboard and 8GB of G.Skill DDR3-1866 RAM.

Building a gaming PC from scratch with less than $880 to spend requires some serious concessions. (Note: Prices for the parts mentioned can vary depending on where and when you shop.) First of all, a fairly powerful—and pricey—graphics card is a must for handling all of the latest games with playable frame rates at a 1080p resolution.

I also want to use one of Intel’s newest processors so I can take advantage of the company’s Haswell microarchitecture. I chose the Intel Core i5-4670K, available at online retailers like Newegg for under $240. It’s essentially identical to one of Intel’s flagship Core i7 chips, except with hyperthreading disabled. That means the processor won’t perform quite as well as one of its higher-end cousins in multithreaded workloads, but it’ll perform roughly on a par with those bigger, pricier CPUs in applications that aren’t designed to take advantage of hyperthreading—the lion’s share of applications and games. The "K" designator in the SKU name means that it’s easy to overclock.

The Intel Core i5-4670K offers much of the performance of its more expensive Core i7-branded counterparts, but at a significantly more palatable price point. In single-threaded application workloads especially, the Core i5-4670K represents an excellent value.

To take full advantage of the Core i5-4670K, I selected an Intel Z87 Express–based motherboard and a speedy dual-channel memory kit. I stumbled across a deal you shouldn’t pass up if you can get it: Newegg was offering the ASRock Z87 PRO3 for about $115 with a $20 rebate, which brought the final price down to just under $95. At that price, it’s one of the most affordable Z87 motherboards around.

For memory, we need the most affordable 8GB dual-channel DDR3-1600 to 1866MHz kit we can find. I finally settled on a G.Skill DDR3-1866MHz kit for $65. More memory would have been better, but budgetary constraints prevailed. Here’s a plus: Haswell officially supports memory speeds up to 1600MHz, so this fast kit will remain viable for quite a while.

At this point, we have just over $476 left in the budget for a GPU, storage drive, case, and power supply. I considered spending the vast majority of the remaining budget on a powerful GPU such as a GeForce GTX 770 or a Radeon HD 7970, but that just wouldn’t have left enough in the budget for the rest of the components necessary to complete the system.

Ultimately, I took my dreams down a notch and opted for a factory-overclocked GeForce GTX 760 from EVGA. The $250 EVGA GeForce GTX 760 with ACX cooling is still plenty powerful, and its cooling system lets us overclock the GPU even further without fear of overheating.

Pairing a smallish SSD to a midsized hard drive offers the best of both worlds, with ultrafast storage for your OS and apps and roomy bulk storage for everything else. We also threw in a DVD burner for good measure, though we don’t expect it’ll be used much.

That leaves us with just over $226 for the rest of the components.  For the best overall system performance, a solid-state drive is paramount, so I decided to shop for a great SSD. The best deal I could find was for a SanDisk Extreme II 120GB SSD for $95 on Newegg. At the time of this posting, that deal seems to have vanished, but similarly sized drives are still available at about the same price. Because 120GB isn’t enough storage for our gaming PC, I also grabbed the most affordable 7200-rpm drive I could find that also offered decent capacity; this was Western Digital’s 500GB Caviar Blue ($55). Then I threw in a cheap ($20) DVD-R on the off-chance we’d need to use optical media at some point.

I now had less than $60 left in the budget; with that constraint, I did something I don’t normally condone: I bought a case with a built-in power supply unit (PSU). These are often subpar, but this time it worked out fine because the Thermaltake VM54521N2U case, on sale for about $55, came bundled with a 450W PSU, which is enough juice for this build. Also, I’ve had good experiences with ThermalTake products in the past. Don’t buy a case/PSU package from a brand you don’t trust.

The most important part of any gaming PC is arguably its GPU. If money had been no object, we would have sprung for the most powerful GPU (or two!) on the market. But with a $1000 budget we had to be a bit more practical and opted for the excellent, yet relatively affordable, EVGA GeForce GTX 760.

If you’re keeping track, the final tally for all of our components, including an OEM copy of Windows, is as follows:

OS: Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit OEM - $129.00

GPU: EVGA GeForce GTX 760 ACX - $249.99

CPU: Intel Core i5-4670K - $234.99

Motherboard: ASRock Z87 PRO3 - $94.99 ($114.99 minus $20 mail-in rebate)

Memory: 8GB G.Skill DDR3-1866 RAM Kit (2 x 4GB) - $64.99

Solid-State Drive: SanDisk Extreme II 120GB SSD - $95.99

Hard Disk Drive: WD Caviar Blue 7200RPM, 500GB HDD - $54.99

Optical Drive: Lite-On DVD-R - $17.99

Case and Power Supply: Thermaltake VM54521N2U Mid-Tower w/ 450W PSU - $54.99

Total Cost: $998.91

It doesn’t get much closer than that, folks. In terms of the budget, we just barely pulled it off. Of course, actually assembling the system and getting everything to work together took a bit of finagling—and that’s next.

Putting it all together

The physical assembly of a system is normally one of the easiest parts of building a new PC. There’s only one way to plug in most cables or add-in cards these days, so it’s hard to go awry.

Affordable cases don’t typically offer the amenities of more expensive, enthusiast-class products, like rubber-lined cut-outs and tie-down locations for easier cable management. As such, the wiring job in our build wasn’t quite as pretty as others we’ve done.

When assembling a system, I prefer to install the CPU into the motherboard first, mount the cooler, and then install the memory. I mount the motherboard (with CPU and memory attached) inside the case, install the graphics card, then mount all of the storage drives, being mindful of the position of the drive connectors on the motherboard. Finally, I connect all of the power and data cables and try to route them throughout the case as neatly as possible to minimize clutter and maximize airflow.

For a more detailed explanation, check out our PC Building Best Practices guide. Our software-centric companion piece will help you get everything configured properly as well. Finally, avoid common mistakes with these handy tips.

Of course, with so many possible hardware and software combinations, plenty of unexpected compatibility problems can crop up. For example, during this build I ran across a couple of obstacles that required some creativity to overcome.

When building a system, you occasionally have to get creative. In the absence of any 2.5-inch drive cages in the budget Thermaltake case that we used for our build, we decided to mount our SSD vertically, to the backside of the main drive cage, using the screw locations usually reserved for 3.5-inch devices.

First, the case provided no easy way to mount the SSD. It didn’t have any 2.5-inch drive bays, and I didn’t have a 2.5-inch-to-3.5-inch adapter on hand. Instead, since I had no plans to use the external 3.5-inch drive bay, I used its slotted screw holes to mount the SSD vertically on the backside of the drive cage. Mounting the drive this way allowed me to hide the SSD’s power and data cables, and it looked pretty cool, too.

The second problem I ran into was that the PSU included with our case didn’t have the PCI Express power feeds necessary for the GeForce GTX 760, so I ended up having to use SATA-to-PCI Express power adapters to connect the PSU’s unused peripheral connectors to the card—not an ideal solution, but it worked fine in this instance. The 450W PSU bundled with the Thermaltake VM54521N2U case is definitely a low-end model, but as this PC consumed less than 90 watts at idle and peaked at around 250 watts under load, I moved on and kept my fingers crossed.

Maximizing your performance

With the system assembled, I installed Windows, ran Windows Update to patch the OS, and then installed all of the drivers necessary for our components. You can accomplish this easily by plugging the component name + "drivers" into Google and downloading the latest drivers from the manufacturer’s website.

When everything was fully configured, I ran some quick benchmarks to ensure that the system was stable, and was fairly happy with performance. Right out of the gate, the system put up 30.81 frames per second (fps) in Crysis 3, with the game running at 1920-by-1080, and with high-quality settings and 4X antialiasing enabled. Bioshock Infinite also ran well—64.72 fps—at similar high-quality settings.

I wanted to crank up performance a bit, so I also spent a little time overclocking the CPU and graphics card.  Since we’re using stock cooling on the CPU I wasn’t comfortable increasing the voltage and clocks too far. I stuck with simply increasing the max Turbo multiplier by 1. This allows the CPU to top out at 3.9GHz, instead of the default 3.8GHz. With better cooling and a better PSU I could easily have gone higher, but there was no point in pushing the CPU too far. Most contemporary games are bound by the performance limits of the GeForce GTX 760 when running at high-quality settings anyway.

To overclock the GTX 760, use EVGA’s free Precision X utility. In the past you had to tweak GPU and memory frequencies manually to find the maximum stable settings, but Nvidia’s GPU Boost 2.0 feature, which is available on the GTX 760, eliminates the need to do so unless you’re in the mood to squeeze every last ounce of power from the GPU.

All you need to do these days to overclock the card is crank up the maximum power and temperature targets. GPU Boost 2.0 will manage voltages and boost the frequencies automatically well beyond stock. By default, the max power and temperature targets are set for 100 percent (power) and 80 degrees Celsius (temperature) while the card runs with stock 1072MHz (base) / 1137MHz (boost) GPU clocks, with 6008MHz (effective) memory. I maxed out the sliders available in EVGA’s Precision X utility to 115 percent at 94 degrees Celsius, and the GPU automatically boosted to over 1200MHz.  Next, I cranked up the GPU and memory offsets until I began to see visual artifacts in games. I was ultimately able to take the GPU and memory clocks safely all the way up to 1300MHz and 6200MHz, respectively.

At those new clock speeds, my performance in Crysis 3 increased by over 10 percent, to 34.46 fps, while Bioshock Infinite ran at 67.97 fps. For good measure, I also ran our new PC through PCMark 7. It scored a very respectable 6516.

A good PC and how to make it better

If you’re building a new PC now that Windows 8 is finally worth a look, thanks to its Windows 8.1 update (it’s crazy how much of a difference a Start button can make), you’d have a hard time finding better performance at this price.

This machine looks great when you box it up.

That said, if you’ve got a little extra cash to spend, or perhaps already own a valid Windows license and don’t have to factor in the cost of the OS, I’d definitely recommend springing for a better case and power supply, as well as better CPU cooling. A better CPU cooler would also allow you to reach much higher levels of overclocking, which are easily possible with the unclocked “K” processor.


Subscribe to the Best of PCWorld Newsletter