Thursday, January 2, 2014

New Series: Building your own Custom PC. The $600 Gaming PC

Building Your Own Low-Cost Computer

So how do you know which parts to pick? There are large numbers of websites that offer reviews of parts, so getting information about the various parts is not hard.  But with so many different parts available, there are two keys two picking the right parts for your new computer.  First, you need to know how you plan to use the computer.  Are you a gamer?  Will you mostly be surfing the web and sending email?  Are you using the computer for your business endeavors?  Writing papers for school?  Someone building the computer for gaming will want to look at different parts than someone using their computer for writing papers or surfing the web.  Second, you need to decide how much you want to spend.  There are parts for every price point, so you need to decide how much you want to spend before you go shopping.  Even with these two issues decided, picking parts is still not an easy decision.  That is why I am starting a new series on building your own PC.  Each week, I will take a look at the parts I recommend for building a specific type of PC.  Today, I am going to focus on building a full HD, 1080p gaming machine.  With each post, remember one very important thing.  These are only suggestions.  Because let's be honest, one of the really fun things about building your own PC is picking out the parts.


Low-Cost Full HD (1080p resolution) Gaming Computer for less than $599

Price: $586.36 (Price does not include mouse, keyboard, speakers or monitor.  It does take into account shipping and all available rebates.  It also include the cost of the Windows operating system) and can change at anytime.

Today, 1080p monitors are the least-expensive and most common monitors on the market.  My goal with this build was to create a system that will play games well on these standard 1080p monitors.  This build is about the cheapest gaming computer I would recommend building for playing games on a single HD monitor.

Recommended Case


When picking any part for your PC, you have to weigh the trade-offs. Since this is going to be a budget gaming computer, price is going to be a big driver. While you do not want to spend a lot on the case, you will want to avoid getting the cheapest case possible. Trust me, I have gone that route and it will drive you crazy.  Cheap cases are flimsy, nothing fits right and are full of sharp edges that will actually draw blood if you are not careful.  After trying to build a system in a super cheap case, you will never want to build a computer again. Stick to a good brand when looking at a case and remember you will have to live with it for a while.  One feature I really want in a case is support for both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 on the front of the case.  That led me to this case from Cougar. 

 Cougar Spike MicroATX Mini Tower Case
Pros: Price, USB 3.0 front ports and room for large video cards.
Cons: Lack of cable management, only one USB 3.0 front port, one USB 2.0 front port, limited CPU cooler clearance, no CPU cutout on the motherboard tray, and looks.
Comments: Cougar makes good, low-cost cases and this one is a great value for the price. The thing is that I just do not like the looks of the case it is a bit too flashy for my tastes.  Also, the case lacks space behind the motherboard tray for cable management aka hiding your cables.  So why did I pick this case?  For the simple reason that none of the cons in anyway prevents you from building a good low cost gaming machine.


Recommended CPU


Thanks to the CPU war between Intel and AMD, even low-cost CPUs have gotten very powerful.  Plus most games are going to be GPU bound, so a less expensive CPU can provide good performance.  AMD really is the way to go for the low-end and frankly it is still a very fast CPU. The very idea that a 4 core 3.4 GHz cpu for around $80.00 is just amazing.  
AMD  Athlon II X4 750K


Pros: 3.4 Ghz, 4 cores, unlocked, uses socket FM2 and only $81 with shipping.
Cons: It is not an APU. Not the fastest CPU you can get. Runs a little hot.
Comments: I have been an AMD CPU fan for a long time. This CPU offers a lot of value. The fact that it is unlocked means that you can easily over-clock the CPU and run it faster than the speeds AMD lists on the box.  The other plus is that this CPU uses socket FM2, which means that when the next generation of APUs launches this year you will have the option of upgrading your system by updating the CPU.  Not being an APU means that you must have a video card.  The extra heat means that you will use more power and your computer will run hotter and probably louder.


Recommended CPU Cooler


Your CPU may or may not come with a heat sink and fan.  If it comes with it, the one thing you can be sure of is that it will not be great.  If you are not going to over-clock, the stock cooler will work but it will also be loud. I went with Hyper TX3 from Cooler Master. The TX3 make less noise and does a much better job cooling the CPU than a stock cooler for a low price.  The Hyper 212 Evo is an even better cooler, but it is too big to fit this case comfortably. 

Pros: Price, size, and it is better than the stock cooler.
Cons: Not the highest performance cooler available.
Comments:  This cooler is a good, small cooler from a good company.


Recommended Motherboard


What mother board you use will depend on these requirements.
  1. The type of CPU you are going to use.
    This motherboard supports FM2 and FM2+ CPUs and APUs 
  2. The number of expansion slots needed.
    You will not need more than one video card when gaming at 1080p and beyond so one slot is good enough. 
  3. Availability of USB 3.0 ports.
    USB 3.0 offers a huge increase in speed over USB 2.0.  That really does not matter for things like keyboards and mice, but you will really like the speed increase for external hard drives, flash drives, and memory card readers.
  4. The number of Memory slots available.
    Two slots means you can add up to 16 GB of memory which should be enough for most gaming use. 
  5. Price.
    This is a budget build so price is important.
One other factor is quality.  Asus is a well known company with a long history of making quality motherboards.
 


Pros: Socket FM2+, lots of SATA, and ASUS's build quality.
Cons: Only 2 memory slots. Does not support 7.1 sound.
Comment: The next generation of APUs from AMD will use socket FM2+, so you have an upgrade path.  You only have two slots for memory but this a low-end gaming machine.  Asus has a long history of making good motherboards, which makes this motherboard a good choice.  You can find cheaper motherboards but you will have to settle for socket FM2 and not FM2+ and may not get USB 3.0 support.


Recommended Memory


When you are looking at memory you are looking at how much and how fast.  I went for 8 GB of ram for this build which may be a luxury. I have not found any game that requires more than 4 GB of memory.  A few games are now recommending 4 GB of RAM, so 8 GB should be a good amount for now.  Modern CPUs use multiple memory channels.  What that means is that they will run faster if you use two sticks of memory.  For that reason I went with two 4GB of ram for the best compromise between speed, size, and cost.  Finally go with memory from a good, well known company.

Pros: Good, inexpensive, memory.
Cons: Not the fastest memory you can buy.
Comments: It is good reliable RAM. It just works and is a good value.  You can buy faster ram but the increase in speed is usually not worth the cost at this price point.  You could save a little money by only installing 4 GB of RAM.

Update

The price for this ram has almost doubled since I wrote this.
right now I would suggest this ram from Crucial 8GB kit

Recommended Mass Storage


At this price point, a solid state drive is just not an option.  You could go with a smaller hard drive, but 1TB drives are cheap and give you a lot of space to store your games.  If you want to improve this computer, adding a solid state drive for your games and operating system would give you the best bang for your buck.

Pros: 1 TB for $60.
Cons: It is not an SSD and it will not be the most power efficient drive you can get. 
Comments:  This is a hard drive so there really is not much to say.  Find a drive that is the size and price you want.  You may want to spend a few dollars more and get a green drive or spend less and get a smaller drive.


Recommended Graphics Card   


This is a gaming computer and the graphics card will in large part drive performance in games.  Today there are two companies that dominate the graphics card industry, AMD and nVidia.  Both companies make great GPUs.  They both have a number of GPUs at a number of price points.  You can spend a thousand dollars on a graphics card and even use two, three, or four graphics cards.  If you are only going to use one 1080p monitor for gaming, there is no need to go to such extremes and costs. The GTX 650ti Boost will give you a really good experience at 1080p for a good price. AMD also makes good graphics cards but I went for nVidia for this build because the new Steam OS only runs on nVidia cards right now.  Graphics cards from nVidia tend to run a little cooler and a little quieter which is always a plus. 

Pros: Very good performance at 1080p.  Not loud.  Good support for Linux and SteamOS
Cons:  None in this application.
Comments: nVidia makes great GPUs and this card is a great value.  It is the most expensive part in this build, but that should be expected in a computer that is optimized for gaming.


Recommended Power Supply


Do not cheap out on your power supply. A bad power supply can destroy other parts of your computer.  The keys to choosing a good power supply are will it supply enough power and is it from a good company. The 80 plus bronze efficiency means that this power supply has been tested and does not waste power. So this power supply is powerful enough for this build, is from Corsair which is a good company with a good reputation, and is 80 plus efficient. 

Pros: Great price, Bronze 80+ efficient. 
Cons: It is a basic power supply, lacks modular cables and is only 430 watts.
Comments: People often cheap out on the power supply and that is usually not a good choice. Corsair is a well respected brand and this power supply should be a good choice for this build. The video card recommends a 450 watt power supply, however this build only draws 339 watts. You have a 100 watt margin with this power supply. As long as you do not go crazy over clocking this computer, it should provide years of service.


Recommended Optical Drive


A lot of people do not use optical drives in their systems.  The problem is that unless you have some way to make a USB Windows install disk and/or you like to buy games on DVD instead of downloading them from Steam, having a DVD drive makes your life easier.  If you have an old optical drive from an older system you can put it in and save a few bucks.  Or you could buy a Blu-ray drive and have the option to watch your Blu-rays.

Optical Drive: Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer  ($16.98 @ OutletPC) 


Recommended Operating System


I am not a fan of Windows 8, but Windows 8.1 is a big improvement over Windows 8 and if you want to be able to play the widest variety of games, you will need to use Windows.  The only bad thing is the cost.  Windows is now more expensive than the motherboard.  SteamOS, Ubuntu, and LinuxMint are options for those that are brave. Your selection of games will also be much smaller but the price is free. 


Conclusion


For about the price of an Xbox One you can have a real PC that will play the latest and greatest video games at HD resolution. If the idea of building your own PC seems scary, don't worry.  It is not hard and YouTube has lots of tutorials like this from CNet.



Some sites that can help you pick the right parts for your own custom PC are 
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