Building a fast gaming PC is easier than ever. Building a fast gaming PC on a tight budget is a little harder—not because of the building, but because of the shopping. You have to scour the web (or your favorite retail stores) for the right prices on components.
I’ve built gaming rigs that cost under a grand a number of times in the past. Typically, I’d hunt around for the lowest-cost set of components that could hit the price point. But given the rapid pace of change in the PC industry, this edition of the $1,000 gaming rig required fewer sacrifices. This time around, I felt free to take a different approach. I wanted a PC that could be gracefully upgraded in order to keep pace with technical advancements. To achieve this, I had to spec out relatively modern core components, particularly the motherboard. I spent a lot of time number juggling to get a faster CPU, but also wanted a graphics card that could deliver good performance at 1080p.
In the end, I barely squeaked under that magic $1,000 mark, mostly due to the current high prices of hard drives. I’ll walk through the component list, and then take a look at performance.
The build list
I’m providing two lists of components. The first, with all the entries boldfaced, are the components I actually used. The second is an alternate list, with a few changes to drive the price even lower.
Core i5 3570K
Core i5 3450
Gigabyte Z77-UP4 TH
Gigabyte Z77-UP4 TH
Corsair XMS DDR3 1600 8GB
Corsair XMS DDR3 1600 8GB
XFX Radeon HD 7870 Core
XFX Radeon HD 7850 Core
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB
Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB
Samsung SH-222BB DVD
Samsung SH-222BB DVD
An important note: Some of the prices you see above were the result of lucky sales. For example, the Western Digital 1TB Caviar Black is usually $95 or so, but it was on sale at Newegg, so I picked that up. The same was true for the Core i5 3570K, which is normally about $10 more. Also, I didn’t include shipping or taxes in my price tallies. Taxes vary quite a bit, and with some careful shopping and bundled shipping, you can often get shipping for free.
This brings up a key rule of building a system on a budget: shop around! You’ll find deals on components that will enable you to hit a tight budget, and end up with a system better than you might have otherwise realized.
The basic PC platform consists of the CPU, motherboard, and memory.
The CPU choice is pretty straightforward. The combination of processor performance and power efficiency made an Ivy Bridge class CPU the logical choice. But which Ivy Bridge? The higher end Core i7 3770s were out, since the price would have likely pushed the system over $1,000. On the lower end, Intel ships the Core i5 3450, with a default clock of 3.1 GHz and a maximum turbo clock of 3.5 GHz. I ended up going for the middle solution: the Core i5 3570K. The 3570K is unlocked, so if you wanted to overclock the CPU, it’s pretty straightforward.
I wanted a fairly premium motherboard. I didn’t need hefty overclocking capabilities, but I wanted something that would support current and upcoming LGA 1155 CPUs for some time to come. The Gigabyte Z77X-UP4 is a midrange motherboard using Intel’s Z77 chipset. It includes a couple of cool features. One is an MSATA slot, so if you want to later add a small SSD drive as a RapidStore cache for the larger hard drive, you can. The second is the presence of dual Thunderbolt ports, so you can attach high-speed external storage should you want it.
Finally, you want enough DRAM to get the job done. The good news is that memory prices are cheaper than ever. I found out that 8GB DRAM kits, consisting of a pair of 4GB modules, are only marginally pricier than 4GB kits. So I picked up a Corsair XMS 1600 kit for just $38.
No gaming rig would be complete without graphics. I wanted a balanced graphics card that offered good performance, but wouldn’t break my budget. Given what I’ve seen of AMD’s most recent drivers, plus recent price moves, I picked up an XFX Radeon HD 7870 Core Edition for just $235. There’s a $20 rebate, which theoretically means it’s actually $215, but I’ll keep the $235 price since that’s a little more logical.
This card is based on AMD’s Radeon HD 7870GHz edition, with a core clock of 1GHz and 2GB of frame buffer memory. If I wanted to, I could take advantage of AMD’s recent “Never Settle” game bundle, and pick up Far Cry 3 for free when it ships. It has only one fan, unlike the pricier Double D version, so is a little noisier. But it gets the job done.
Hard drive prices are still pretty high, and I was resigned to picking up a fairly low-capacity drive, until I stumbled on a deal for a 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black for $80. That’s a little faster, due to a larger cache, than the Caviar Blue 500GB I’d been looking at, and only $20 more.
An optical drive is no longer an essential, but I included one for those increasingly rare games that still use DVD media. A Samsung SH-222BB was just $21.
Case and power supply
I opted for a low-cost case, figuring the core components that actually drove the system were more important. I found an Antec One at a local dealer for $45.
I’d initially found what I thought would be a good power supply for $59, but that ended up DOA. A quick trip to the local shop uncovered a Cooler Master GX 650 PSU for $69. That’s cheaper than I’ve found it online, so maybe sometimes local is better!
Building the system
Building a PC starts with a pile of disparate parts. Once you’re done, you have a fully functional system.
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.
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.
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.
After the motherboard is secure, install the CPU and cooling fan. The CPU goes into the socket in a specific orientation.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Loyd Case first started writing about PC technology for Computer Gaming World, giving him a creative outlet for his obsession about PC performance. The PC industry -- and Loyd -- have never been quite the same since.