I posted this back in June at this location:
I'm reposting it here because I think it's a good way to start off this blog.
Warning: I'm long-winded (long-fingered?) so if you're only interested in the components and prices, skip to the bottom. The reason I'm writing so much is because I want to refer a few people here that have asked about building budget gaming machines.
Well, my computer crashed the day before the party. My power supply and two hard drives all got killed dead, probably due to lightning. (Yes, I was on a UPS.) While I had a backup PSU, I couldn't do anything about the hard drives, so no party for me. However, something good did come of this. I now had a very good reason to upgrade my 4 1/2 year old machine.
I've been keeping up with the tech news, but not really paying attention to prices because I didn't think I'd be building a computer so soon. So I spent much of my now free Saturday doing some shopping online. I was absolutely amazed to discover that I could have many of those cool late technologies I've been reading about for around $750! If you are interested in building a great gaming machine (or possibly having one built for you...), read on.
Every good desktop computer has four main components: CPU (processor), motherboard, RAM (memory), and GPU (video card). The hardest part of building a computer is figuring out what motherboard you want to go with your desired CPU, RAM, and GPU. You can upgrade all three of the latter components, but if you ever need to upgrade your motherboard it's usually best to just build a new computer. Of the three other components, the one that probably gets upgraded the least is the CPU, so it's usually best to start by asking yourself what kind of processor you want and progress from there.
Processors are an interesting subject, because they now come with different numbers of cores on the same die. This means that the processor you buy may actually be several processors basically lumped into one. The most common options are dual and quad-core CPUs. Many people seem to think that the more cores you have, the faster your games will run; many people are wrong. For some quick benchmarks, take a look at the interactive CPU charts on Tom's Hardware:
Here is a good selection of processors that are more relevant to this topic:
Even better, the processors in this filter all have the same clock speeds, so you can see how having multiple cores truly affects performance. The top two processors are from the same generation, and so are the bottom two processors:
You'll notice that only Supreme Commander and Warhammer Mark of Chaos actually have performance improvements with four cores, and even those performance gains are minimal. The fact of the matter is that most games only have one critical thread, so they don't take advantage of more than one or two cores.
If you go to Newegg.com and look at the prices, you'll realize that this minimal performance gain isn't worth the >5x price. Say what? The dual cores are less than $200 while the quads are greater than $1000? It's not even close! I think that the prices are so different not only because the quad-core processors cost more to make, but also because of increased demand due to the common misconception that they are much better. Whenever I have conversations with people about getting new computers, they always say that they want a quad for their next computer. However, they can never really explain why. Call it stupid tax.
Anyway, after doing a price/performance comparison, I decided to go with the Intel Core 2 Duo E8400. This is one of the new, famous Wolfdale processors that I read about:
They use the new "high-k" metal gate manufacturing process, so they suck up less power and run extremely cool even when overclocked:
For $190 on Newegg, this is the most expensive component in my system, but it's also one of the best pieces of technology around:
I might end up having to get a CPU fan, but we'll see how quiet the stock cooler is first.
We basically have two choices for the type of RAM to use. There's DDR2 and DDR3. DDR2 is WAY less expensive than DDR3. Also, the type of RAM you use generally has little impact on the performance of your games, so DDR3 really can't be justified right now. DDR2 it is.
Now we need to choose the RAM speed. Typically, it is ideal to match your RAM frequency to your CPU FSB frequency. If you use dual-channel, this effectively doubles the RAM frequency. My processor has a FSB of 1333, but I plan to overclock it to 1600. I also plan to use dual channel RAM, so I will be getting DDR2-800.
Now I need to determine if I want to get 2GB for $24:
or 4GB for $61:
Well, gaming doesn't yet require any more than 2GB, especially if you use XP instead of Vista, like me. Also, you can't utilize the full 4GB unless you use a 64-bit operating system. If you know anything about RAM timings, you'll also notice that the 2GB sticks are a little better. This makes only the slightest difference in performance, so don't worry about it unless it's a close call. 2GB for $24 is too good to pass up, so that's what I got. Actually, it was $23 when I got it. :o
Choosing a motherboard is hard. Motherboards have many features to consider, and they're the backbones of our computers, so they need a lot of careful consideration. I like Newegg's filtration system. It allows me to narrow things down a bit. First of all, I need something that supports my processor. For that, I need the LGA 775 socket. Next, I need something that supports DDR2 RAM at 800 MHz. I'll get to the video card later, but we should all know that we need a PCI-Express x16 slot. I don't plan to get into Crossfire or SLI because the costs and bugs outweigh the benefits, so just one slot is fine. We won't rule out more if the price is right. I also want SATA 3Gb/s support.
We also need to consider future upgrades here. Will I want to use DDR3 RAM in the future? Possibly. How about PCI-Express 2.0 video cards? As with the RAM, there's no benefit now, but there could be in the future. Let's look for a motherboard that supports these things and see what comes up.
You'll get a long, confusing list of boards if you filter on these things. The filters also don't quite work the way I want either, so there was a lot of page refreshing. Basically, the things to look for are lower prices and good reviews. This was my pick:
$175 is a great price for a X38, and there are a significant number of reviews that average 4/5. Skimming through the bad reviews, I don't notice anything that makes me want to avoid this piece. (You should do this for all your parts, by the way.) It supports everything I need, as well as PCI-E 2.0 and 4GB of DDR3. It also has 8-channel on-board sound. This board will last me a nice long time.
This item is going to make the biggest difference in your gaming performance, but it's also the part that you have to worry about the least. If your motherboard supports PCI-Express, you'll be just fine for a good time to come. Even longer if it supports PCI-E 2.0. Video cards are also much easier and cost-effective to upgrade than processors. Check out Tom's interactive VGA charts for performance comparisons:
For the latest cards, go here:
Here is my pick:
The price/performance ratio is great on this one. Only $130 for an 8800 GT? Maybe I should give SLI a second thought...
I didn't think too hard about this one. Good reviews, good stats, and good price:
Some people like to get those crazy Raptors with faster spin speeds. Sure, they're nice, but the only way they improve your gaming experience is by reducing loading times. They are also louder, hotter, more expensive, and have less capacity. No thanks.
You need to make sure it supports your motherboard connector and PCI-E card, but other than that it's pretty much a matter of wattage, price, and reviews. Don't ignore the efficiency factor either. Basically, I don't care much about having lots of power because I don't plan on having a lot of junk in my system. I chose mine because it seems reliable in the reviews, and they also said that it's quiet:
Last of all, I needed a case. It's a good thing that Tom's did a recent review on some of the nicer cases out right now:
Yes, we're not limited to these choices, but I decided to go with the NZXT Tempest for $100 anyway:
I might have been able to find something cheaper, but I chose this for a few reasons. First of all, a bigger size is important to me because I do a lot of tinkering. Second, Tom's and the Newegg reviewers commented on how quiet it is even though there is a lot of airflow. You'll notice that the reviewers of many of the products I chose commented on how quiet the devices are. This is important to me. Third, it has lots of good reviews, so I know I won't be disappointed with it. Finally, it looks cool.
So there you have it. Here's the product summary with prices:
Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 - $190
Foxconn X38A - $175
OCZ DDR2-800 2x1GB - $23
ASUS 8800 GT 512MB - $130
Seagate Barracuda 250/16GB - $60
Kingwin ABT-450MM - $35
NZXT Tempest - $100
Total before rebates after shipping: $843.29
After rebates (and postage): $754.93
Of course, you'll need a keyboard, mouse, monitor, and DVD drive, but I have those already and that's the easy stuff.
The following is taken from later posts by myself in the same thread. It contains some good, supplementary information.
My UPS might be covered by a lifetime warranty (I hear they usually are) so I might get something for the lightning damage. I need to look that up. That reminds me that I wanted to say why I got all my parts from Newegg:
1) First of all, I use their reviews to determine if I really want the product or not. This helps me avoid things like cheap power supplies that burn out all the time.
2) Their prices are simply the best. I did research on every component that I purchased, and I couldn't find a better price anywhere. Sometimes you might get lucky, but Newegg is still a good starting point at the very least.
3) They have excellent customer service. Was something damaged during shipping? DOA? You don't have to worry if you got it from Newegg. When I built my old computer over four years ago, the front panel of my case was broken. They sent me a new one immediately.
4) They also ship really fast, though I'm not the impatient type. I ordered on Sunday evening, and everything shipped on Monday. I'll bet the parts will be here tomorrow. Edit: They were. I got everything on Thursday, even though the case shipped from a separate location.
It really is true: "Once you know, you Newegg."
Overall, I'm really happy with this rig. Everything is running great. The machine is super quiet compared to my last one, yet you can definitely feel the airflow. I can't hear the hard drive at all. The case also looks pretty slick.
After I put everything together, it worked on the first try. I guess Murphy was on vacation. I installed XP Pro, and applied all the essentials which I had downloaded beforehand, including XP SP3, DirectX, Nvidia drivers, and a few other things. I also downloaded and installed some other random drivers and tools after the fact.
The RAM was advertized as using the timings of 4-4-4-15. However, the bios automatically set it to 5-5-5-15. I tried setting them to 4-4-4-12, but that made the system very unstable. I noticed that many people seemed to have this issue, but that it was also easily fixed. The default voltage for the RAM was 1.8 volts. In order to use the advertized RAM timings, the voltage had to be increased to around 2.1 volts. I did that and everything is fine again.
The processor's default was 3.0 GHz at 1333 FSB. Realizing that this processor is one of the best overclockers ever, and also wanting to match the FSB with my 800 MHz RAM (dual channel), I clocked it to 3.6 GHz at 1600 FSB. I also upped the voltage very slightly by 0.0125 volts, even though it seemed to be stable at the default. I also told the bios to match the CPU clock with the RAM clock by a 1:2 ratio. This makes the effective frequency of the dual channel RAM match the system FSB.
For the GPU, I noticed that it was clocked at 600 MHz, though many 8800 GTs are clocked higher. This card has good cooling, so I decided I would clock it up a bit. I used RivaTuner to set the core to 680 MHz, and I also upped the memory from 900 MHz to 1020 MHz. Everything runs just fine.
The tempuratures are:
CPU Idle: 44 C
CPU Load: 58 C
GPU Idle: 42 C
GPU Load: 65 C
I'm using the stock cooler for the CPU. I think that 58 is acceptable and the fan is quiet, so I don't think I'll bother getting a different cooler even though I'm sure it would lower the temperature. 65 for a GPU is pretty good.
Now I just have to wait until SC2 is out.
The room temperature is about 25 C. As far as the case temp, it doesn't look like RivaTuner has a way to pick that up. Maybe there's a plugin. The only other temperature I saw in the BIOS was for the motherboard chipset, which was somewhere in the 30s.
Yeah, I figure that a 20% overclock isn't bad at all, especially when I don't even need to buy another cooler. Of course, this is about what I expected from a Wolfdale. It lives up to its reputation.
And finally this:
I have a small update on the machine. I decided to grab a different heatsink and fan. Tom's Hardware had a review on CPU air coolers, and this one totally crushed the competition. It's very efficient, and it only costs $27 after a $10 rebate. Free shipping too! For that price, I figured it was worth keeping my CPU a little healthier and hopefully prolonging its life. Here it is:
And here's Tom's article:
And here are the results:
Room Temperature: 22 C (72 F)
Stock fan Idle: 45 C (80% fan speed)
Stock fan Load: 61 C (100% fan speed)
Xigmatek Idle: 37 C (20% fan speed)
Xigmatek Load: 48 C (60% fan speed)
I used a small utility called Max CPU this time, instead of a CPU-intensive game, in order to put my CPU under load. It allows you to set all of your cores (two in my case) to 100%, so you know that your CPU is being maxed out. I'll probably never hit that point in real life, but tests like this should include the worst case scenario. Of course, I let it run for several minutes until the temperatures were stable. Needless to say, I am very happy with the results. The results are so good, in fact, that I may decide to bump my overclock from 3.6 GHz to 4.0 GHz. That would be 33% above stock, and very sweet indeed.
I also didn't notice any difference in noise, which probably means that both fans were quieter than other fans in my machine. (Even though the entire computer is much quieter than any other in the house.) You'll notice I didn't have the fan running at full capacity, which makes the temperatures even more impressive.
Note: This heatsink is BIG. It fits in my case just fine, but I didn't get a cheapo tiny case either.
Other note: Installation wasn't easy. One of the push-pins was hard to get at. Some people added the fan after attaching the heatsink to the motherboard. Others even removed the motherboard. I didn't have to resort to any of these measures, but I did have to struggle with one of the pins under the fan for a while. The pins that I could reach snapped into place easily.