One thing that every PC gamer worth his salt should do at least once is to build his own computer. It’s surprisingly easy these days.
However, the market is full of components with little differentiation except in prices. Many of the components come in variety of colours and flashy LEDs. At some point the marketing departments for PC component manufacturers realized that their target audience doesn’t actually differ that much from people who tune their cars.
My goal is to build a computer with a good price to performance ratio. I’m planning to run it as stock as possible and couldn’t care less about overclocking. The computer will have one and just one function, to play computer games. I often have some experimental angle that I want to achieve in my builds, but more often than not longevity and silence are priorities. One constant also seems to be the budget of around 1000 €.
Similarly upgrade paths are to my experience are mirage, the sockets and connectors are often obsolete before your system is. I never used the math-coprocessor slot in my 386 SX1, AGP cards meant that my all-PCI slot motherboard and later when PCI Express came along that AGP motherboard were obsolete. The CPU sockets and AMD’s and Intel’s dominance change time and time again. Later down the road it’s cheaper to get a new, better graphics card than hunt for an outdated model for SLI.
My main sources for part information are Ars Technica’s wonderful, although sporadic, System Guides, Anadtech’s Buyer’s Guides and Reddit’s /r/buildapc. I’ve also used some recommendations from SilentPCreview, even though no gaming PC will ever be silent with their standards. It’s also worth to note that I have certain level of brand loyalty towards Antec, Asus and Nvidia. This usually just makes things easier, because in most cases the decision is down to personal preferences.
Trying to make a good build every three years means that I (have to) immerse myself into the minutiae of each component and the market landscape and product roadmaps. If you’re not careful, you can find yourself looking at Thai flood maps or looking into a certain Taiwanese processor plant’s yields. In this case, researching a build in March 2012 - as any other arbitrary point in time - was not the best time to get anything as Intel was just to release Ivy Bridge2, the successor to its Sandy Bridge line and Nvidia was similarly close to announce it’s GeForce graphics cards based on Kepler GPUs. Not to mention the insane prices of hard drives that persist after the flood in Thailand last year, and probably will last until the end of the year. As usual, the next best thing is always just a month or two away. Or not, as the prices for both Ivy Bridge chipsets and Kepler cards will mean that getting the same Sandy Bridge CPUs and Nvidia’s Fermi GPUs are still the more cost-effective way going forward.
Another thing is that you should never build your system for a game that will be released in the future. There is no way to future-proof anything; it’s always cheaper to get the parts when you need them. One good thing is that the current generation of consoles are now 6-7 years old, meaning that there are very few games3 that will take your 2012 built PC to its limits, even on a budget system. The other nice thing are “HD” resolutions and LCD monitors, meaning that your choice of monitor will pretty much also set the limit to your graphics card. A 24” 16:9 “Full HD” monitor will run at 1920x1080 which is an easy task for pretty much all good graphics cards to deliver games at a smooth frame rates.
Also, because I store my music and other stuff elsewhere and do all the other stuff on my MacBook Pro, the question of storage is interesting. The short supply of traditional HDDs means that the still very expensive SSDs might be worth to experiment with. However, SSDs are good only if the stuff you want to access actually is on the drive and moving stuff to and from it is not something I’m looking forward to. This would either mean getting big enough solid state drive to store everything in it or taking advantage of Intel’s SRT technology - essentially use a smaller SSD as a cache. The obvious drawback is that things are only fast on the second and subsequent reads.
This build gets no points for originality, yet each reader will probably find at least one choice that they would change. This is however not a budget solution, but what Ars Technica called a “Hot Rod” in December and the March edition of the invaluable Logical Increments PC Buying Guide would call “Excellent”4. In my welfare state blessed with high VAT, the above would cost a bit less than the budget of 1000€.
The choice of CPU is easy. The i5-2500K, even if you are not planning to overclock, is the best choice. Anything above it has no effect on games, they don’t benefit from Hyper Threading at all and the additional speed gives marginal results and the money would be better spent on a faster GPU instead. The price difference to a slightly slower model is negligible. The stock cooler is enough, unless you want a more silent option.
The GPU is a simple choice as well. The Nvidia GTX 560 Ti has pretty good price to performance ratio right now, and the better GTX 570 will probably be soon a good deal as well, it’s already cheaper than the odd GTX 560 Ti 448. The choice for Asus for me is based on loyalty and price. For many parts it seems that Asus has pretty competitive prices, probably because of their size and volumes. The choice over AMD is purely because in my experience the Nvidia drivers seem to always work where as the Catalyst drivers seem to suck.
The motherboard has no frills - it’s even the mATX version - because let’s face it, we’re only looking to install one PCI Express card, the graphics card - no sound card, no Firewire or other exotic controllers. The mATX would also allow for smaller cases, but those are often not really that much more smaller and if they are, they are usually meant for HTPC use and not meant to house a discrete actively cooled enthusiast-level GPU for gaming.
As for memory, I went for Kingston just for brand loyalty and because it happened to be the cheapest option. The RAM is entirely up to whatever your local retailer has for the cheapest. In general, the memory is quite cheap these days and some say that the 1600 MHz doesn’t really mean anything over the couple of euros cheaper 1333 MHz. There are few practical benefits of going over 8 GB, though.
The thing you don’t want to skimp on is the power supply. The cheap ones can and will fry, probably taking your most expensive part, the graphics card with it5. Even though there are power supplies that give over 1 kW, the general trend in components is that they use less power - especially if you don’t go to the über high-end of graphics cards that cost more than your car. There’s are many handy PSU calculators on the web, like the eXtreme Power Supply Calculator, which gives recommended PSU Wattage of 502W for this setup (allowing for couple of USB devices). Some people might choose a 600-660W PSU but it’s all down to price. This part is more important to people believing they will upgrade their system and to those that overclock. For the rest, it’s stability that means everything. This means that you should go with Antec or Seasonic. The New TruePower were on SPCR's recommended list (with Seasonic's X-series). Ars and /r/buildapc show preference towards Seasonic S12II-series.
The hard drive is too expensive. The 500GB version is just 10 euros or so cheaper, so downgrading doesn’t really save anything. However, I don’t see myself ever being ever near filling a full terabyte. You might be lucky to find the SATA II 3Gb/s version of the hard drive, which is a lot cheaper. No traditional HDD is blocked by that standard so the newer SATA II 6Gb/s offers no advantages. As this is a gaming build, get a 7200 RPM drive and not the slower “green” drives. SSD is out of the window because the P67-series motherboard does not have Intel’s SRT cache functionality. There arguably are benefits even if just the OS resides on an SSD, but I’m already paying way too much for the storage and saving seconds on OS loading screen is not really worth hundreds of euros. The other option for me, would be to try and fit everything on a 120 GB SSD. The Windows-partition on my MacBook Pro is 100 GB and it really limits the amount of games I can have on it at the same time. However, even 250 GB might be more than enough for my use case, but they don’t really manufacture anything below 500 GB these days6.
The case is the most personal choice. To me, the fewer the blinking LEDs and less the innards are visible the better. I don’t particularly enjoy what Antec had done to the Three Hundred’s successor in the aesthetics department. The curves in front are entirely out of place. It’s also quite large case. The other alternatives I looked at were from Fractal Design, the Define Mini is a worthy contender7. There are very few non-HTPC oriented small cases, which is a shame. A modern essential gaming PC has very little use for any 5,25” bays, multiple 3,5” bays or expansion slots over the mATX motherboard.
The operating system is a easy, as there’s only one option: The 64-bit version of Home Premium. There’s nothing in the more expensive editions that I could care about and the Home Premium is expensive anyway.
One notable aspect of this build is the complete lack of an optical drive. I did not find out that my DVD drive was busted for over 6 months on my laptop and all games are delivered digitally over the internet these days. The only hurdle is installing Windows from a USB stick, but that’s possible. (However, the extra hassle might be worth the 21 euros a bulk drive costs.)
A discrete sound card has been obsolete for years and the money is spent better on a better pair of headphones. Audiophiles will go for external amps like the NuForce Icon-2 connected to real speakers - the so called computer speakers have sucked and will continue to suck for all eternity.
The other accessories I would include are a USB WLAN adapter8 and a Microsoft Comfort Curve 3000 keyboard (I’m a fan). Ars Technica suggests 24” Asus VE247H monitor (16:10, 1920x1080) to those without one.
This build is not future-proof, but it will run pretty much anything on high settings at 1920 wide resolution. Nvidia has already released the first Kepler-based card, the GTX 680 which currently goes for more than half of the full build above. It’ good to keep in mind that few games even use the DirectX 11 features the GTX 560 Ti already supports. The GTX 680 is total overkill, especially for the price. Intel will soon release the first Ivy Bridge CPUs and the first motherboards will follow. The Ivy Bridge CPUs won’t make any GPU-bound games run faster. It probably tells you something that “Will it run Crysis?” is still the benchmark. The next leap for CPU/GPU demand will happen when the next generation of consoles are released in, who am I to guess, couple of years?
As my need for a dedicated gaming PC are not that actual, I think I will wait and see when the Ivy Bridge/Kepler-combination starts to make sense. Or, more accurately, if it starts to make sense before Borderlands 2 is released in September…
Editor’s Note: The above was written by a man who has for the past 5 years played games almost exclusively on a MacBook Pro, so he might not be the most authoritative source on enthusiast gaming PC building. He has however, built a couple of gaming PCs during this time for friends who still claim to be friends, at least on Facebook.
Update: As is the case with these guides, it was outdated instantly. I just noticed that Asus had released the new Ivy Bridge Z77 motherboards and they’re priced almost at the same as the P67 ones. Oh well.
I think Quake, which anyway required a Pentium 75 MHz processor, wouldn’t even run with out a FPU. Fortunately, my next computer with 3Dfx’s Voodoo2 was more than enough for the task. ↩
When the various codenames start to make sense you know you’re way too deep. ↩
Notable exceptions are the PC shooters Crysis: Warhead and Metro 2033. A good counter-example is the three Mass Effect games, which all run on the same Xbox 360 and, unsurprisingly, my laptop. ↩
I did however, take the liberty to downgrade the motherboard from Z68 and the PSU from 620W. ↩
However, depending on your location, these cheap ones might not be stocked by any reputable retailer. Or they are banned altogether by national safety standards. ↩
Except for WD's VelociRaptors, but I think time has passed on that option. You might just as well get an SSD. ↩
I might even go for a full mATX build with the Define Mini in the end. ↩
Why this isn’t built-in on motherboards these days is strange to me. ↩