If you’re the kind of person who’s known among his or her friends as “that computer guy,” known for your inexhaustible knowledge of the current PC market, you will undoubtedly be all too familiar with the question, “What’s the best [insert purpose here] computer I can buy for [desired price]?” And while we don’t mind assisting friends, mentally piecing together and pricing a PC on the spot can be annoying.
If you’re not “that computer guy,” however, and you’re in the market for a new desktop, it’s a question that you will inevitably ask. Therefore, as a service to you, I have compiled a list of what I believe to be the best all-around builds available today, starting at a dirt-cheap $300 budget build and moving up to a monolithic, awe-inspiring $3000 monstrosity consuming more power than a medium-sized microwave.
Note please that none of these builds account for monitors, peripherals (mice/keyboards/speakers), or operating systems. Especially at the lower price points, these can end up costing you nearly as much as the entire build itself—building a $300 PC including a cheap $80 monitor, a cheap $30 mouse and keyboard set, a cheap $20 speaker set, and a standard $100 copy of Windows 7 leaves you $70 with which to actually build your computer. We may make recommendations near the higher end of the scale, where the market becomes more complex and multi-screen setups become more viable, but these builds focus only on the case and what’s in it.
This first section will discuss setups at price points of $300, $450, and $650. These are, without a question or shadow of a doubt, the numbers most often mentioned by new builders and people who aren’t building for themselves. A lot of people aren’t ready to drop four digits on their first “custom-built” computer, nor does Grandma need a top-of-the-line video card to play Metro 2033 (or maybe she does; I’m not judging). So, without further ado, I give you January 2012’s Budget Lineup.
Skin and Bones: $300
It’s always hard to build a PC for the approximate cost of a current-generation game console. At this price point, you’ll be expected to forgo many things. 3D graphics performance, processing power, storage capacity—don’t expect much in any of these departments. You’ll make do with a paltry 2GB of RAM and a dual-core AMD A4, and your operating system will be a free Linux distro such as Ubuntu or PC-BSD, since a (legitimate) copy of Windows 7 will run you upwards of a third of your build cost. Of course, if you’re a poor student in need of a computer, you may wish to check if your school is partnered with MSDNAA, in which case you may be eligible to receive a free copy of Windows 7 Professional. Very few modern games will run on builds at this price, so you may want to look a bit higher up the scale if that’s your goal. At this price point, to be honest, we might actually recommend that you buy a refurbished or restocked pre-built computer from a major manufacturer (check the Dell Outlet, for example), as you may net some discounts there as well as a warranty. But, if you insist on building at the absolute minimum, here you go.
CPU: AMD A4-3400 $64.99
We’re going with this FM1-socket Llano APU for a couple reasons. First, it’s one of the cheapest chips on the market today, and second, it has integrated Radeon HD graphics, saving you the cost of a dedicated GPU. It scores a fairly respectable 2181 on PassMark, beating out…well, not much, really. It’s a couple steps ahead of two-generation-old Core 2 Duos, a few mobile i3’s, and triple-core Athlon II X3’s. At $69.99, though, it’s the best bang-for-your-buck you’ll find. And, should you find yourself looking to upgrade in the near future, the FM1 socket also fits the much more powerful (but considerably more expensive) A8 series APUs.
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-A55M-DS2 $59.99
This Micro ATX board offers you pretty much all the features you’ll need while taking as little space and money as possible. It’s got a quartet of SATA II (3Gb/s) connectors, two PCI-E slots (one at x16 and one at x1), a single PCI slot, a pair of DIMM slots, and onboard sound and networking. No USB 3.0 or SATA III to be found here, but the latter can be ignored since an SSD—the only variety of drive capable of utilizing the full 6Gb/s—isn’t in your budget anyway. All in all, this motherboard is about at bare-bones as you can get: it’s got everything you need, but exactly zero bells and whistles. It’s currently available on Amazon for $59.99, making it one of the cheapest boards on sale today.
A single stick of DDR3-1333 should suffice. 4GB should be enough for most, but don’t forget that the AMD APU will drain some memory to power the videocard.
Hard Drive: Hitachi 500GB 7200RPM HDD (Or similar) $76.28
If you’ve got a spare hard drive left over from a previous build, an otherwise outdated computer, or a relative who left a box of parts in your basement, use it. Because of the recent flooding in Thailand, hard drive prices have skyrocketed in the past several months—they’re not expected to come back down to Earth for a while (depending on who you ask, it could be this summer, this winter, or the 24th century). If you haven’t got a HDD to cannibalize, however, expect to pay between $70-80 for a 500GB drive. You may be tempted to drop to a 5400 RPM hard drive and save a dollar or two, but as it’s going to be your primary boot drive I strongly advise against it. Even dropping down to a 160GB hard drive won’t save you much more than $10.
Video Card: None $0.00
AMD’s Llano APU is all the video performance you can afford now, unfortunately.
Power Supply: Antec EarthWatts 380W PSU $41.99
380W is plenty for this system. Even if you decide to upgrade to a better processor or to add a low- to mid-range video card, 380W should pull through, especially considering the EarthWatts’ 80PLUS® Bronze certification. It’s got all the standard motherboard and CPU power connectors, a single 6-pin PCI-E connector, and a price tag that makes it the PSU bargain of the day. For $41.99, the other PSUs you’ll be looking at come from companies like Raidmax and Diablotek, neither of which has a good reputation for not blowing your computer up.
Case: NZXT Gamma $33.99 or NZXT Source 210 (Black $33.99) / (White $33.99)
The Gamma has been with us for a while now, and it’s still a perennial favorite for its under-$40 price tag, its presentable build quality, and its reasonable amount of internal space and cable management options. The Source 210 is a much newer case—we reviewed a version of it not to long ago—but it bears a similar $39.99 price and looks a bit more understated. The Gamma has one extra mounting point for a cooling fan, however, so the choice is yours.
With the listed parts, this machine empties your wallet to the tune of $295.23. Of course, if you’re supremely unlucky in your hard drive hunt, that number could rise to the $320 or $330 mark.
This build is going to be a decent web-browsing, word-processing, flash-game-playing machine. Less demanding games like League of Legends should run passably if you turn the resolution and detail down, but don’t expect Skyrim or Battlefield 3 to be playable except perhaps at the absolute minimum. If you’re looking to play games and you have a hard-capped budget of $300, buy an Xbox 360 bundle. If not, then this build will suffice for day-to-day use and is a great way to keep as much money possible in your pocket.
Things to Spend Extra On:
If you’ve already got an external hard drive for your files, you may want to look into a small SSD as a boot drive instead of the traditional platter HDD. At this price, you’ll generally be looking at 30 to 32GB SATA II drives, which is more than enough for your operating system and a few essential programs besides. Games, though, which can take upwards of 15GB apiece, won’t fit. Not that you’ll be installing many modern games on this build anyway. A Corsair Nova Series 2 (60GB) will run you $84.99, approaching the $1-per-GB mark more closely than other competitors. Kingston’s reputable SSDNow V100 can occasionally be found on sale for a similar price and capacity.
If you need it, and don’t already have one, pick up an optical drive. A decent 24x DVD+/-RW drive can be had for between $20 and $25 and is essential if all your owned programs are on CDs and DVDs or if you can’t make a bootable USB drive.
It’s a bit of a stretch, but if you can spare it, spend the $50 or $60 on a video card—you’ll be looking at things like a Radeon HD 6570 or a GeForce GT 520, and it’ll give you marked improvement over your integrated graphics.
Bare Necessities: $450
An extra Benjamin-and-a-half nets you a considerably improved machine over our previous build. While still not a benchmark-shattering powerhouse by any measure, you do get things like a dedicated video card, 4GB of RAM, and a quad-core processor by AMD. Again, this build does not include the cost of an operating system—factoring in the $100 cost for Windows 7 would leave you barely above the aforementioned “Skin and Bones” build.
CPU: AMD Phenom II X4 830 $89.99
An extra $20 over the low-end builds nets you two extra cores and a hundred MHz. The inclusion of an L3 cache actually increases your performance by a few percentage points compared to the higher-priced 840. In addition, the 830 is known to be a pretty good overclocker, making it competitive with higher-tier, higher-priced CPUs. The one downside to this is that it does not include a heatsink or fan, so an aftermarket solution is a must.
CPU Cooler: Cooler Master Hyper 101A $13.49
Cooler Master’s Hyper series of CPU coolers is famed for their excellent price/performance ratio. The slightly-bigger Hyper 212 and its variants are a staple of midrange and even some high-end builds, although the two-heatpipe Hyper 101A will suffice for the Phenom II X4 830. Even a moderate overclock (approx. 3.5GHz) shouldn’t be a problem. The two heatpipes make direct contact with the CPU, allowing for better heat transfer. A single 80mm fan is included to pull heat off of the aluminum fins, but if you’ve got another fan on hand you can set up push/pull for even better cooling.
Motherboard: ASRock 870 Extreme3 R2.0 $79.99
No longer a bargain-basement brand, ASRock—established a decade ago as a budget- and OEM-focused subsidiary of ASUS—has become well-known for its well-featured and well-priced boards. The Extreme3 R2.0 brings to the table a pair of USB 3.0 ports, 5 SATA II slots, and a graphical UEFI that should make the overclocking process a bit less daunting if you’re new to the game. A pair of PCI-E x16 mean a dual-GPU setup is possible sometime down the road. Onboard XFast LAN technology and Realtek sound free up PCI slots and save you cash.
RAM: Crucial 4GB DDR3-1333 $17.99
4GB should be more than you’ll ever need on an everyday basis. Note that if you get a 32-bit operating system, which can only address a total of 4GB of memory, a noticeable portion of your RAM will sit unused, especially if you have a dedicated GPU with 512MB – 1GB of its own. A 64-bit OS removes these limitations. Overall, this choice gets you a good amount of RAM (at a pretty good speed) from a good name at a good price. Very good.
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB 7200RPM (or similar) $82.99
Again, hard drives are a bit of an issue for budget builds nowadays because of the disaster-inflated prices. The Caviar Blue costs a few dollars more than the Hitachi drive suggested for the previous build, but offers quick access time and excellent I/O performance as well as a reputation for reliability. A 16MB cache is pretty standard for 500GB drives, although an extra $16 will get you the newer Caviar Black with its larger 32MB cache. 500GB is the limit for this build, however, because even one step up the scale (750GB) results in a $30-40 price bump that removes you from this price bracket.
Video Card: XFX (or other brand) Radeon HD6670 1GB $58.99
An excellent entry-level video card, the 6670 can hold its own in not-too-outdated games such as Modern Warfare 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV at fairly high settings. New games, however, will still require reduced detail for smooth gameplay. We’ve included the DDR3 version because of price limitations; if you can afford the extra $30 or so pick up a version with GDDR5 memory instead for a bit more power. The 6670 is also a low-profile card, obviating the need for large cases and drawing all its power directly via PCI. It’s got a full complement of outputs—DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort—although its lack of Eyefinity makes multi-screen setups a bit more troublesome. Compared to the older 5670 on which it’s based, it’s got 80 extra stream processors and 4 additional texture units, as well as support for stereoscopic 3D. The various brands of cards–Sapphire, XFX, ASUS, etc.–don’t change too much besides the cooling; the XFX was recommended because of its lifetime warranty and its price.
Power Supply: Antec EarthWatts 380W PSU $41.99
One small step up from the EarthWatts 380W is the 430W version of the same PSU. However, even with your more powerful CPU and a dedicated graphics card, you won’t come close to hitting that 380W limit. You’ve added one more part (the video card), but as it draws its power from the motherboard, no extra connectors on the PSU are needed.
Case: NZXT Gamma $33.99 or NZXT Source 210 (Black $33.99) / (White $33.99)
The same points stated in the $300 build still apply here. The Gamma and Source have all the necessary features but don’t look so “bargain-basement” that you’re ashamed to show it off.
This “Bare Necessities” build rings in at $419.42, just over $30 shy of the $450 target. Feel free to double up on memory or get a 1TB hard drive instead.
In my opinion, this build is much more comfortable than the $300 one. You have a little room to move around and you’re not missing out on any parts. Most of your Steam library should run fine on this build, some games at higher settings than others. The newest and most graphically intensive ones, though, will need to be reduced in both detail and resolution if you want your frames-per-second to stay in the double digits.
Things to Spend Extra On
Again, a small- to medium-sized SSD will do wonders for your boot and loading times. If you don’t want to give up storage space, though, a hybrid drive such as Seagate’s Momentus XT (available in 500GB, 750GB, and 1TB varieties) will provide a very tangible improvement over the standard hard drive. Some claim that the price difference over a non-hybrid hard drive isn’t worth the performance boost; I maintain that, on a budget, a hybrid drive strikes a decent balance between capacity, speed, and price. Expect to pay about $60 more than a similarly-sized HDD.
If you can, get an AMD Radeon 6770 or a GeForce GTS450. These will run you about $110-120, but they’ll provide a considerable boost over the lesser 6670. If you’re going to stick to the 6670, though, springing for a version with faster GDDR5 memory instead of DDR3 will offer a pretty decent performance boost as well.
Like the “Skin and Bones” build, an optical drive is a $25 or so option that is becoming less and less commonplace as we move away from physical media. The operating system can be installed through a bootable USB drive, and most applications and games are obtained via download. But, if you need it, it won’t break the bank.
Minor Luxury: $650
$650 is where the fun really starts. You now have the money for an enthusiast graphics card, a current Sandy Bridge i3 processor, and your choice of a 1TB hard drive or a 128GB SSD. Speaking of choice, this is also where your options for each part begin to expand. Before, we selected parts largely based on their price and whether they would put us above budget, but now we can begin to weigh performance more heavily. The few dollars’ difference starts to look much less substantial. If gaming is your end goal, but you’re not sure if you want or need a full $1000 rig, here’s a PC that’ll hang with the big ones in all but the most extreme cases.
CPU: Intel Core i3-2120 $125.99
This dual-core, hyper-threaded, Sandy Bridge i3 is very similar to the i3-2100, with a 200MHz difference in clock speed (3.3GHz vs the 2100’s 3.1) due to a higher multiplier. Since the multiplier is locked, overclocking is limited to (dangerously) boosting the base clock. It’s not really worth the risk; don’t expect to break the 3.5GHz barrier under the best of conditions. Still, though, the lack of overclocking means that it’ll run fine with the stock heatsink and fan. In terms of performance, the i3-2120 cleanly beats out AMD’s similarly-priced A8-3850. Although the integrated Intel HD 2000 graphics are nothing to write home about (and are, in fact, pretty awful) in comparison to the A8’s 6550D IGP, that won’t make a difference in this build–a dedicated GPU will take care of the visuals. If you’re worried about bottlenecking, don’t worry; that shouldn’t be a problem unless you upgrade to a GTX570 or similar top-end cards.
CPU Cooler (OPTIONAL): Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus $23.99
The i3, with its locked multiplier, will run fine–if a bit noisy–on Intel’s stock heatsink assembly. However, should you aspire to an i5-2500k or similar unlocked CPU in the near future, Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 offers a great blend of performance and price. It and its variants (the 212 Plus and the 212 Evo) are an absolute phenomenon. Released some time back in the Socket LGA775 era, this unassuming three-pipe heatsink has amassed an almost legendary following. Although it’s never headlined any benchmark lists or broken any records, its entry-level price tag of $23.99 (sometimes even cheaper) gives it arguably the best price/performance ratio on the market today. You’ll regularly see this heatsink first purchased for midrange builds like this one and stubbornly hang on as the the CPU is upgraded to an overclocked i7-2600k. Although it might not have the sheer cooling power or visual impressiveness of a Noctua D14 or an NZXT Havik 140, it offers a trio of direct-touch heat pipes and the ability to set up push/pull fans. The 2,000 five-star reviews (out of 2,500) on Newegg and 300 (of 392) on Amazon should inspire some confidence.
Motherboard: MSI P67A-G45 (B3) $102.99
This board offers a very full feature set, especially for the price. A pair of SATA III 6Gb/s slots will allow you to take full advantage of a modern SSD, and USB 3.0 is present as both rear I/O panel ports as well as motherboard headers. Two PCI-E x16 slots makes dual-GPU setups a distinct possibility, although such an upgrade might justify switching your CPU for the more expensive but much more overclockable i5-2500k. This board also contains several proprietary MSI technologies, including what they call “Military Class II” components (Super Ferrite Chokes and solid capacitors, among other things) and an “OC Genie” button that–with a single button–automatically overclocks your CPU within safe limits. A user-friendly “Click BIOS,” controllable via mouse, aims to provide a more convenient, inviting setting than the traditional keyboard-only BIOS.
Memory: G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $46.99
8GB of RAM should be plenty for everything but the most demanding combination of multitasking and video editing. G.SKILL’s Ripjaws is within Sandy Bridge’s 1.5V limit, so they should run a bit cooler. The compact size mean that they won’t interfere with overhanging CPU fans. The 1600MHz stock speed can be easily bumped up by a couple hundred MHz, but it’ll deliver excellent performance as-is.
Hard Drive: Crucial M4 64GB SSD $104.99
The Crucial M4 is a Marvell-based SSD with a reputation (recently sullied, but we’ll get to that) for reliability and impressive SATA III transfer speeds. In 64GB guise, the M4 is comparable in price to most of its SandForce 2200-based competitors, such as OCZ’s Vertex 3. Although its peak sequential transfer speeds aren’t the highest in the field (Intel’s Series 510 and the aforementioned Vertex 3 both beat it), its 4KB random write performance–the most noticeable facet in general usage–is extremely commendable. Recently, a firmware bug has brought about some notoriety when users discovered that the drive would become unresponsive after 5200 hours of uptime. This scandal initially generated considerable backlash and wariness on the part of consumers, but Crucial almost immediately released a firmware update that eliminated the bug. Overall the M4’s reputation hasn’t taken much of a blow, and it’s still considered one of the most reliable drives you can buy
Video Card: SAPPHIRE (or other brand) AMD Radeon HD6870 1GB $164.99
The HD6870 provides enough graphics processing power to play all the newest games at 1920×1080 and medium-to-high detail. Its 1GB of GDDR5 VRAM is plenty and plenty fast, although games such as Battlefield 3 and Crysis 2 might hit the limit at high detail and with MSAA turned on. 2GB versions are available but rare; they also bear similar costs to faster HD6950 cards. The $164.99 you’ll pay for Gigabyte’s gets you a core clock of 915MHz, factory overclocked from the stock 900; and a custom 3-fan cooling solution. Compared to a reference 6870, Gigabyte’s version should net you marginally increased performance at noticeably better temperatures. With a pair of dual-link DVI outputs, HDMI, and two mini-Display Ports, it will connect up to three displays into a Single Large Surface via AMD’s Eyefinity technology. However, actually gaming at those resolutions (around 5760×1080) on a single 6870 will slow virtually all games to PowerPoint framerates. On a single screen, though, the 6870 is more than capable and should hold its own for quite a while.
Power Supply: SeaSonic S12II Bronze 520W $59.99
SeaSonic’s name might not be as big as, say, Antec or Corsair, but their power supplies are no less formidable. In fact, many of Antec’s and Corsair’s PSUs are in fact made by SeaSonic, with the bigger-named companies providing a list of specifications and a logo. Al of SeaSonic’s power supplies are 80 PLUS Certified, with this specific S12II achieving a commendable 80 PLUS Bronze certification. SeaSonic’s PSUs are famed for their excellent build quality, efficiency, and low noise levels, and the S12II is no exception. Unfortunately, you don’t get any modularity, but its small size (only 140mm deep) thoughtfully-laid-out cables and connectors aid cable management.
Case: Cooler Master HAF 912 $49.99
The HAF 912 is a large case with a small footprint. Despite its smallish stature, it can hold very long (390mm/15.4″) video cards, custom liquid cooling rigs with a 2x120mm radiator, and a good number of internal and external drives. Although it only comes with two 120mm fans, it has mounting points for four additional 120mm fans or an additional pair of 200mm fans, so cooling is a non-issue. Another nice touch is the inclusion of 2.5″ drive bays, which means that SSD users won’t need to mount their drives using adapters, brackets, or duct tape. Removable dust filters, hard drive cage, and tool-less hard drive installation are all present in fully developed form; nothing feels like it was only included as an afterthought or as an extra marketing bullet point. The whole ensemble is wrapped in an attractive, rugged-looking design characteristic of Cooler Master’s HAF line of enthusiast chassis.
This is, I believe, the first build mentioned so far that can be legitimately called a “gaming PC.” All parts are absolutely current-generation, and very few compromises are needed to hit the targeted price. That said, this build as-is will run you $679.92, a good $40 more than the stated $650 limit. To save that $40, you could skip the SSD and pick up a 500GB hard drive for $80 or so, reducing the cost by $25 and putting you closer to budget. Alternatively, if you don’t plan on overclocking any LGA1155 processor you might pick up down the road, you can forget about the CPU cooler entirely and stick with the stock heatsink and fan for savings to the tune of $24. Personally, though, I believe that the shot of adrenaline that the SSD provides and the reduced temperatures and sound levels of the Hyper 212 Plus are more than worth their cost.
Things to Spend Extra On:
An i5-2500k currently hovers at or around $200 online or $180 at Micro Center. With its unlocked multiplier, overclocking is incredibly easy; hitting speeds of 4.5GHz is not uncommon. If you’re going that route, though, the CPU cooler is absolutely necessary.
The biggest upgrade you can make and still stay closer to this price point than the next is a Radeon HD6950 2GB, which is available from various manufacturers for around $240. Certain versions–such as the Sapphire version–can have their last 100 or so shader units unlocked, effectively turning the 6950 into the much-more-expensive 6970. This’ll make short work not only of the newest, highest-detail games of today but most likely continue to do so for some time to come.
If the 64GB of the SSD isn’t enough storage, you can pair it with a 1TB HDD ($110). If you’ve already got a storage drive and 64GB won’t be enough for your game installations, the 128GB version of the same M4 is $180.
And that’s it for pnosker.com’s January 2012 Build Guide, Part 1! Stay tuned for Part 2 ($850 – $1300), where we venture even deeper into the bowels of the enthusiast market…