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

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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.

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