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

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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.

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