Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Budget Gaming Rigs for a Modern OS

Yesterday, a friend asked:

"Hey Jeremy, think you could build a moderately priced ($600-$700) computer that will actually play things in 64bit? I got Windows 7 and want to actually run the thing along with some other new games..."

This is a great question, and probably one that many people are asking right now.  It's very convenient to upgrade your hardware when you reformat to a new operating system.  In my personal opinion, you really have just two gaming options near this price point.  You can either go for an Intel-based system for a little more than $700, or you can go for an AMD-based system for a little under $600.  Both are very solid and will get you almost the same gaming performance for now, but the Intel solution will be more future-proof.  I'll list the builds first and then expand on the details.

$725 Intel Gaming System

Processor: Intel Core i5-750 Lynnfield 2.66GHz LGA 1156 Quad-Core Processor - $200
CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus 120mm CPU Cooler - $30
Motherboard: MSI P55M-GD45 LGA 1156 Intel P55 Micro ATX Intel Motherboard - $120
RAM: OCZ Obsidian 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1600 RAM - $79
Video Card: Powercolor AX4870 1GBD5 Radeon HD 4870 1GB - $150
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Green WD5000AADS 500GB 32MB - $55
Case: Antec Three Hundred Black Steel ATX Mid Tower Computer Case - $52
Power Supply: Kingwin ABT-610MM 610W ATX 12V Power Supply - $30
Optical Drive: Lite-On Black 24X SATA CD/DVD Burner - $26

Discount: $42 (CPU/MB and VC/RAM combo deals)
Shipping: $25
Total: $725

$571 AMD Gaming System

Processor: AMD Phenom II X3 710 2.6GHz - $100
CPU Cooler: Xigmatek HDT-S1283 120mm Rifle CPU Cooler - $27 (after $10 rebate)
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-MA785GM-US2H AMD 785G HDMI Micro ATX Motherboard - $80
RAM: Patriot Viper 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2 800 RAM - $62 (after $20 rebate)
Video Card: Asus EAH4870 DK/HTDI/1GD5 Radeon HD 4870 Dark Knight 1GB - $140 (after $20 rebate)
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Green WD5000AADS 500GB 32MB - $55
Case: Antec Three Hundred Black Steel ATX Mid Tower Computer Case - $52
Power Supply: Kingwin ABT-610MM 610W ATX 12V Power Supply - $30
Optical Drive: Lite-On Black 24X SATA CD/DVD Burner - $26

Discount: $23 (CPU/MB combo deal)
Shipping: $22
Total: $571

For the Intel machine, I selected the i5-750 because it's basically the best gaming processor you can get right now.  Take a look: http://techreport.com/articles.x/17545/6.  In order to get any more performance, you need to spend at least $350 MORE, and the difference is nothing you will ever notice.  By the way, if you ever read CPU benchmark articles, make sure their testing methods use Windows 7 and not Vista.  For some incredibly stupid reason, Tom's Hardware and AnandTech keep testing with Vista.  Windows 7 has had significant changes to the way it handles multithreading, and it shows.  Multi-core processors are now very relevant in the gaming world as the Tech Report article shows.

The one issue with using this type of processor is that none of its motherboards support multi-GPU solutions at x16 mode.  You can only get PCI-Express x16 with one GPU.  That's perfectly okay with me, though, because it rarely ever makes sense to use two video cards from a price/performance perspective.  This MSI motherboard supports firewire and gigabit ethernet, and it should have everything else you could want.

It's generally a good idea to get an aftermarket CPU cooler even if you don't want to overclock.  For overclockers, it's almost a necessity.  I heard good things about the Cooler Master Hyper 212+, and a recent benchmark (http://www.hardwarecanucks.com/forum/hardware-canucks-reviews/23884-intel-core-i7-lga1366-cpu-cooler-roundup-24.html) shows that it does very well in the price/performance/noise department.

The OCZ Obsidian RAM is a great value, but the CAS latency of 9 is a bit high.  This won't make a noticeable difference, but you might want to see if you can clock it down to 8 without much trouble.

You might have heard about AMD's new DirectX 11 video cards.  Well, the only one that makes sense from a price/performance perspective right now is the HD 5850 ($260), and it's out of stock in many places.  Honestly, hold off on these until they have some competition from Nvidia.  Supply shortages and lack of competition are keeping the prices a bit inflated right now.  DirectX 11 won't be relevant for a while yet anyway.  For now, the HD 4870 1GB will get you awesome performance and it won't break your wallet.

The Caviar Green is quiet and affordable.  It does not have the same write performance as a Caviar Black, but the read speeds should be roughly the same and the Black costs $15 more.  Reading is much more important than writing for gaming purposes.

The Antec 300 case should serve you very well.  It doesn't come with a power supply, but it has much better cooling than the Rosewill cases I recommend for cheaper PCs.  Larger fans move more air and are also quieter.

The Kingwin power supply is an awesome value!  It has two 6-pin connectors for video cards, and the biggest video cards will require both.  I have a similar Kingwin power supply, and it has served me reliably and quietly for over a year.

There's not much to say about the DVD burner.  It has SATA connectors, which is something to watch for.  You don't want to accidentally end up with bulky IDE cables in your new system!

For the AMD build, I picked the Phenom II X3 710 because it really seems to be the sweet spot for gaming processors.  It has the large cache of the Phenom IIs, the gaming-optimal three cores, an architecture that will allow for some nice overclocking, and a price that puts Intel to shame.  Sure, it can't compete with the i5-750, but it's not supposed to.  If you want to save $150, this is the processor to grab.

The Gigabyte motherboard also supports firewire, gigabit ethernet, and PCI-Express 2.0, so you're basically getting the same stuff for much less.

The Xigmatek cooler is the same one that I have in my own machine.  It rocks, hands down.  For detailed results on what it did for me, take a look at the tail end of my first post no this blog.

The Patriot Viper DDR2 RAM is a great value and also has a very low CAS latency.  It will perform quite well at stock settings.

I selected different 4870s for each build because of the combo deals.  Reviews for either look great.  Everything else in these machines is the same.

Really, the only serious difference between these two systems is the processor.  If you'd rather save your money for a future video card upgrade or maybe even a soon-to-arrive 40GB X25-M G2 SSD for $85, you'll probably get more bang for your buck.  Even so, the gaming potential of the i5 is hard to deny.

I wish I could tell you that there was another way to trim a few bucks off the Intel build, but the only thing that you can sacrifice without much pain is the processor (and, therefore, the motherboard).  If you spend much less on the case, PSU, hard drive, RAM, or GPU, you're definitely going to feel the pain.  All of those parts are totally worth every penny.

By the way, you might notice that the Intel build doesn't have any rebates to worry about.  It's not a big deal, but some people seem to be afraid of rebates.  If you get this particular AMD build, make sure to do it before the end of the month.  If you don't, you'll have to re-analyze your options because there will be different rebates and sales.  (Might get better deals though.  Who knows?  It's like timing the stock market.)

Note: You can get the Radeon HD 5850 from some place other than Newegg for $260 and free shipping.  If you get the AMD build minus the HD 4870, that's $431.  Add the 5850 for a total of $691.  That'll give you a rig within the bounds of the budget in question, and a gaming experience far superior to the other two builds listed above.  Oh, and you'll be all set for DirectX 11.  Tempting, isn't it?

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