Gaming System

Budget Gaming PC, April 2015

The concept of a "Gaming PC" often gets a bad rap. You'll get a lot of people looking at the cost of a top-of-the-line $2000 pre-built system (or just an overpriced gaming system) and wondering, "Who on earth would spend that much money on a system that's just for playing games!?" Obviously, the idea that a gaming PC is just for playing games is ludicrous -- any modern PC that can play games can inherently do all of the other PC-centric tasks equally well, if not better than the average non-gaming PC.

And since most homes in developed countries already have at least one PC, the true cost of a "gaming PC" is often the price of a graphics card. We already discussed the subject of graphics cards in our previous post, so today we're going to flesh things out with a look at what to use when putting together a complete budget gaming PC. Our goal is to have a system that can handle all the latest games at reasonable quality setting, priced at less than $750.

NZXT Source 210

Choosing parts for a new PC can be relatively simple on one level, but the trick is in choosing parts that provide a good combination of price, performance, reliability/stability, and features. Despite advances in technology, the reality remains that going out and buying the least expensive motherboard often means you get exactly what you paid for: a cheap motherboard. That might mean things like compatibility issues with certain devices (e.g. DIMMs or PCIe cards), instability, and/or other issues. Troubleshooting such problems is no fun, so saving $20 at the cost of hours of lost time isn't something I'd recommend. That's even more critical with a gaming PC, where games can put a much higher load on the computer components than office tasks.

For other parts, however, the choices are pretty straightforward. CPUs/APUs rarely cause instability or problems on their own, so the only real factor in selecting a processor is how much performance you want and how much you're willing to spend. We'll be listing and discussing a couple potential processor choices below. Storage and memory are for the most part compatible with any good motherboard and are largely interchangeable -- again, the decision mostly boils down to performance and capacity versus price. Finally, there's the question of whether you should go with an Intel platform or an AMD platform -- and within each company, which platform is best? Rather than arguing about monopolies and what is or isn't fair, we'll look at gaming performance and choose what we feel is the best current platform for each company.

Intel Budget Gaming PC

Starting with Intel, this is the build we recommend for most users. The reasons are pretty simple: Intel offers better single-threaded performance, which still matters for many everyday tasks, and even though games have started to use more threads the reality is that a large amount of work often resides on a single core/thread. The modern Haswell CPUs are also very efficient, and while the power cost of using an extra 20W isn't very great (maybe $20 per year if you were using 20W extra 24/7), more heat also means more noise and/or better cooling requirements. Intel's platforms/chipsets are the standard to beat for good reason, and when you get down to the final cost the difference between AMD and Intel platforms often isn't that much. We don't generally recommend buying old hardware, so we'll be sticking with Intel's latest LGA1150 parts rather than the older LGA1155 options. (Note that Broadwell processors that work in LGA1150 ought to start showing up in the next couple of months.)

Intel Budget PC Components
PartDescriptionPrice
CPUCore i3-4160 (2x3.6GHz + HTT, 3MB L3, 54W)$118
MotherboardMSI H97M-G43$90
Graphics CardGeForce GTX 960 2GB$199
MemoryKingston HyperX FURY 2x4GB DDR3-1866$63
SSDCrucial 250GB BX100 SSD$99
HDD2TB 7200RPM Hard Drive$70
CaseNZXT Source 210$40
Power SupplyRosewill Valens-500$60
Total Price$739

Starting with the processor choice, with Intel there are several options but only three we'd really consider for a gaming system: Pentium G3258 (cheap and overclockable), Core i3, and Core i5. While overclocking the G3258 might seem like an interesting way to go, the reality is that for gaming the Core i3-4160 even at stock clocks is frequently faster than a heavily overclocked 4.7GHz G3258. As such, the i3-4160 is an overall better choice for a gaming system -- you don't need to worry about overclocking, it provides a good clock speed as well as Hyper-Threading, and it does this at a reasonable price. Any of the quad-core Core i5 chips would be faster still, but the additional $70 is better spent elsewhere when it comes to budget gaming.

MSI H97M-G43

For the motherboard, our requirements are pretty simple: we wanted something that supported four DIMMs and preferably a newer 9-series chipset (which means you can support Broadwell CPUs when they become available). That eliminates a large number of options, and of those that remain the MSI H97M-G43 is a good budget choice. It's a Micro-ATX board with support for two GPUs and CrossFire if you want to pursue that route, and it uses the H97 chipset. Features are good and the price is reasonable as well, though there are certainly less expensive options if you want to save a few dollars.

The selection of a GPU is going to be the most difficult aspect in many ways, as it will most directly affect gaming potential. At the lower end, a Radeon R7 260X will generally handle 1920x1080 gaming at medium to high settings while delivering reasonable (40+ FPS) frame rates. For higher resolution/quality gaming, the GeForce GTX 970 is the card to beat, delivering great efficiency and performance. We've elected to go with the middle ground and a GeForce GTX 960. The Radeon R9 285 is generally equal to the GTX 960 in terms of performance, but it can also use substantially more power so NVIDIA gets our primary recommendation. The 4GB GTX 960 would be a nice bonus, but realistically it's not worth the extra $40 -- just know that some games will need to drop to "High" or "Very High" settings instead of "Ultra" in order to reduce the memory footprint.

EVGA GTX 960

System memory isn't much of a concern for the most part; get anything and as long as it works in your motherboard the difference between the fastest/most expensive DDR3 memory and the mainstream DDR3-1866 we selected is going to be 1-2% at most (and often less). 8GB is a good starting point for a budget system and it should keep you running happily for a while. We've also elected to go with a 500W power supply, an 80 Plus Gold unit from Rosewill, which means there's enough power for any single GPU solution with room to spare, plus two 6+2-pin PCIe GPU connectors.

The storage choices are going to be one of the most difficult areas to nail down. An SSD for the OS and primary applications is "required" for any modern system in our opinion, and at $100 for 250GB it's not even that big of a cost. (Saving $35 while dropping to a 120/128GB SSD is an option, though we'd generally recommend against going that route.) The problem is that games have become rather large and even a 250GB SSD won't hold more than a handful of bigger releases (hello, 49GB Titanfall!), so having some secondary storage is generally required. You could save the money and just buy a single large HDD, skipping the SSD, but the overall responsiveness of the system will greatly suffer.

Wrapping up the build, we have a popular ATX case from NZXT. You could go with a micro-ATX case as well, or perhaps a smaller wattage PSU, though neither will really save money. Be careful with Micro-ATX cases, however, as they inherently limit the cooling potential and often result in more noise, higher temperatures, and fewer upgrade potential. You might also be wondering about the lack of an optical drive (DVDRW); those are easy enough to add if you want one, but we've found installing Windows from a USB stick is just as easy and most of us rarely use CDs/DVDs these days. Between Steam, Origin, UPlay, and other digital distribution options, the hassle of dealing with a DVD just isn't necessary.

All told, the final price ends up being $739, though you still need to account for the price of the OS -- Windows 8.1 will typically cost around $90. Obviously that puts the final price over $800 if you need to buy another copy of Windows, though you can juggle the storage options a bit if you really need to be at $750. For example, buy a new SSD buy bring over an existing hard drive for mass storage.

AMD Budget Gaming PC

Moving over to AMD, there are a couple items to mention before we get to the recommended components. First, there are still several platforms from AMD that are all somewhat viable. We're going to go ahead and eliminate AM3+ and FM2 from consideration, however, as both are now old enough that if you didn't buy them already there's not much sense in doing so now. The FX-6300 can compete pretty well in terms of pure gaming performance with the Core i3-4160, but it will use substantially more power and it's a dead platform (the last real update to AM3+ is over a year old and nothing new is scheduled for AM3+).

The second item is whether or not AMD's architecture is actually competitive, especially when you want to use a discrete GPU. There's no arguing that AMD's integrated GPU in the Kaveri family is substantially faster than Intel's HD 4600 (and probably Broadwell's GPU as well, though we'll have to wait a bit longer to find out), but even a $100 GPU is usually twice as fast as the fastest Kaveri APU when it comes to graphics -- and you'd have to spend $150 for the A10-7850K. The net result is that the processor graphics advantage AMD enjoys is largely meaningless, and when we shift our focus onto the CPU portion of the APU, Intel pretty much wins most important performance metrics.

But that doesn't mean AMD is a horrible choice, especially if it can save some money that ends up going towards a better overall system. We're going for the same price point, so $50 saved can easily go to upgrading the GPU or adding a larger SSD. And with that said, here's our comparable AMD budget gaming PC build:

AMD Budget PC Components
PartDescriptionPrice
CPUAthlon X4 860K (4x3.7-4.0GHz, 4MB L2, 95W)$74
MotherboardASRock FM2A88X Extreme6+$95
Graphics CardRadeon R9 285 2GB$210
MemoryKingston HyperX Fury 2x4GB DDR3-1866$63
SSDCrucial 250GB BX100 SSD$99
HDD2TB 7200RPM Hard Drive$70
CaseNZXT Source 210$40
Power SupplyRosewill Valens-500$60
Total Price$711

AMD Athlon X4 860K

At first blush, it looks like going AMD will save you about $30 (give or take) compared to the Intel system. While that's true of our two specific builds, there are certainly some differences in other hardware to take into account. The performance offered by these two different PCs is most definitely not the same, though in many cases the practical real-world difference won't be all that large (10% or so in favor of the Intel build in general).

For the processor, we're not even using an AMD APU this time -- instead, we've opted for the Athlon X4 860K, which is basically a Kaveri APU with the GPU portion fused off. The CPU clocks are identical to the clocks on the A10-7850K, and the CPU is still fully unlocked so overclocking is a real possibility -- all that at half the price of the A10-7850K. At stock clocks, heavily threaded workloads may in some cases favor the Athlon X4 860K, but it's by no means assured. In fact, without overclocking the Core i3-4160 will almost certainly perform better in any pure CPU test (e.g. Cinebench, video encoding, image processing, etc.)

ASRock FM2A88X Extreme6+

Looking at some specific numbers, Intel's Haswell architecture is in some cases up to 50% faster than a similarly clocked AMD core (e.g. the i3-4160 scores 145 points in the single-threaded Cinebench R15 test compared to 92 on the X4 860K). In multi-threaded testing, the gap remains rather large (365 in Cinebench R15 vs. 312). Video encoding again gives Intel a 10-20% advantage. And since both systems are using discrete GPUs, tests like PCMark 8 won't give an advantage to AMD either. In short, the Athlon X4 860K is slower in most meaningful metrics. BUT -- there's always a but, right? -- AMD's CPU costs less and many games are GPU limited, which means you can put $40 or so into another area, which is what we've done.

The ASRock FM2A88X Extreme6+ motherboard is an example of this, as it's a fully featured ATX board. You could easily save $20-$40 with a less expensive AMD board (and the same applies to the Intel system), but that's not a compromise we're willing to make. The Extreme6+ comes with three PCIe x16 slots (two are PCIe 3.0, one is PCIe 2.0), two x1 slots, and two PCI slots for good measure. There are also four DIMM slots (with support for unofficial memory speeds of up to DDR3-2600 if you want to overclock) and seven SATA ports (plus another eSATA port). Basically, it's everything you need.

XFX Radeon R9 285

For the GPU, we've swapped out the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 960 for an AMD Radeon R9 285. Across a large collection of games, the two appear pretty evenly matched, perhaps with a slight performance edge to AMD (at least at stock clocks). And since we're going with an AMD processor we felt it only made sense to also use an AMD GPU -- not that it will inherently work better, but it shouldn't hurt performance.

The remaining core components are all the same as in the Intel build, and again note that if you want to switch to a Micro-ATX case you'd also need to switch motherboards. The final price for our AMD budget gaming PC comes to $711, so even with an OS we're much closer to our $750 price target.

Pre-Built Alternatives?

With the above system builds in hand, there's one final topic to discuss: what's the cost of buying a pre-built system with comparable performance? Ideally, if the total price is within $50, it would make a lot of sense to simply save yourself some time and effort and get someone else to assemble your budget gaming PC and install the OS for you. The problem is finding a place that will do all that without cutting corners and at a reasonable price, and unfortunately many of the choices end up making some pretty serious compromises. Look at these Newegg systems for example (or Amazon GTX 960/Amazon R9 285). The least expensive option is $720, so price-wise it's competitive, but you're getting a Pentium G3258 instead of the Core i3-4160 ($50 savings), a 1TB hard drive ($20 savings), and no SSD at all ($100 savings) -- but it does include a DVDRW ($20). It's not clear which motherboard is being used, but the case is pretty ugly; you do get a matching set of (ugly) keyboard and mouse as well, which might be worth $40 or so.

CyberpowerPC Custom Gaming Rig

None of the other alternatives are much better. In fact, if you want a system comparable to what we've listed, the only qualifying pre-built at Newegg we could find is this CyberpowerPC model, priced at a whopping $1720. What's the major difference between that build and ours? Well, you get twice as much RAM ($70) and it moves to Intel's Extreme LGA2011 platform with a hex-core i7-5820K ($260 extra for the CPU, and probably another $100-$150 for the motherboard). It's not a bad PC by any means, but you could build the same thing for about $1400 (at most), and the LGA2011 platform is really a waste of money unless you absolutely need more than four CPU cores. For half the price, our budget gaming PC will deliver 95% of the gaming performance of that $1700 system!

If you're not quite as demanding a gamer, you can also shave off $100 or so from the price of either system by sticking with a GPU like the the Radeon R7 260X or GeForce GTX 750 Ti. Either GPU is still more than capable of running any modern games, but you'll have to drop the graphics quality a bit in many titles in order to stay at 30+ FPS. Either way, in a broader sense if you're already looking at buying a new PC, you can get far better than PlayStation 4 or Xbox One performance without breaking the bank. Not only that, but you'll be able to keep playing any of your PC games for years to come, on future newer/faster/better PCs.

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