We’re in the middle of summer now, and there’s not a lot of news to talk about when it comes to PC hardware and gaming. All the big hardware has been released, and the gaming industry seems to be taking a break that will surely end when GTA V is released. However, now might be a great time to consider building a new PC, or at least start planning it out.
If you plan a PC build today, it is likely going to be the same list for a month or so for most budgets – and even if you don’t build it now, the prices will almost all go down when the back-to-school sales kick in.
The problem with picking out components for a PC build, is that not everyone has a reference to base judgement on. It’s sometimes easy to head to the forums and see what the most popular brands are, but for a true objective opinion, a list like this may be more helpful, at least to get you started in the right direction.
Our PC Build Guide is brand and store agnostic. That means we’re not going to suggest a product to you just because we think they have a cool logo, or because they treated us to a nice dinner in Vegas. Instead, we look at overall performance, build quality when necessary, and overall consumer reviews. If something is cheap but a lot of people are having problems with it, it’s not going to make it here.
We have set four completely arbitrary budgets to go by. Note that we do not consider mail in rebates in these prices, or promo code flash sales that get stores on top of price aggregate engines with a code that changes every other day and can disappear at any time. Because of this, our budgets have to be somewhat flexible. A PC build we put together in the $1200 range might be a bit more or less than that, depending on where you look and when you buy.
Here are the budgets we’ll be using:
- The Budget Stealth Gamer – $400
- The Next-Gen Console Killer – $600
- The PC Gamer – $1200
- Hardcore Hardware – $2800
All builds are put together with gaming in mind, with obviously different expectations of performance. They do not include monitors, peripherals, etc. These are all things that are 100% down to personal preference – if you don’t mind using a $100 TN panel monitor, that’s your choice, and I am not going to budget for one that is more expensive if you don’t care. The same goes for $100 keyboards when for a lot of people, a $20 deal is good enough. It would be a shame to have to cut the GPU down a model to fit in a peripheral that not everyone cares about. On the other hand, if you do care about that more than gaming performance, that’s your choice.
The Budget Stealth Gamer – $400
Let’s kick things off with the Budget Stealth Gamer. Are your parents looking at $400 PCs at Costco for you to do your school work on? Stop them now! Put that $400 towards something you can game on (and by the way it will do all your school tasks much more efficiently too!)
|CPU||AMD A10-6800K 4.1 GHz||149.99||Newegg|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws X Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1866||43.99||Newegg|
|HDD||Seagate Barracuda ST1000DM003 1TB 64MB 7200RPM||63.99||Geeks.com|
|Case||Zalman ZM-T1 ATX Mini Tower Case||34.98||Outlet PC|
|PSU||Corsair Builder CX 430 80 PLUS Bronze||44.98||Outlet PC|
This system will be small, but not cheap looking. It’ll destroy most pre-built PC’s that you could get for the same price, and best of all, the integrated GPU will allow for some pretty decent gaming – often at full 1080p with good settings.
We chose the AMD A10-6800K, AMD’s top-of-the-line APU, with two Piledriver modules running at 4.1 GHz peak turbo. This gives it quad core capability in most cases (a caveat that is explained in our review of the Trinity APU that preceded it). This is a 100 watt APU, which is on the high side but considering this is a pretty bare-bones build, I think it’ll be fine. If you want something a bit quieter without giving up too much in the way of performance, check out the alternative below.
Although the A10-6800K is unlocked, I wouldn’t recommend overclocking it in this build. We are keeping the budget low by not adding a third party cooler, and other choices like the motherboard below. Besides, it’s hard to get much more out of the 6800K – it’s pretty much at the top of its potential already.
We went with the MSI FM2-A75MA-E35, as it gives you everything you need, and nothing you don’t which keeps the costs down. The only major sacrifice you’re making with this is maximum RAM modules, but we need to keep costs down, so we’re willing to do that here. Otherwise, it should prove to be a solid board with its high quality 4+1 VRM.
Normally I wouldn’t recommend buying memory right now that is more expensive than it needs to be. Prices are high, and seem to be going up, which means that for the minor performance boost you get by going from DDR3-1600 to 1866 or higher is not worth the added cost.
However when using integrated graphics, the performance increase is significant, and worth paying for. You could get a DDR3-1600 kit and hope you can overclock it higher without losing stability, but it’s much safer just to pay the extra $5-10 and know that it’ll run at full speed all the time. That’s why we chose the G.Skill Ripjaws X F3-14900CL9D-4GBXM for our Stealth Gamer build.
Now that HDDs are commoditized, you actually have quite a few choices in this budget. The top picks are usually the Western Digital “WD Blue”, and the Seagate “Desktop HDD” (formerly Barracuda) series. We went with the Barracuda for this build, because for not much more you get a significantly larger cache (64 MB vs 16 MB) and smaller platter stack than on the WD Blue. Both have the same crappy 2 year warranty, but that’s what you get for this price.
I almost don’t want to include cases in each build, because selection can also be very subjective. What if you want to do an HTPC build with this setup? It’s totally feasible. Or if you want to add a ton of hard drives as you build your collection of strange and odd videos, you will want to get a full tower with plenty of room.
I will try to give a good suggestion for each build that fits within the budget. If your needs go beyond that, you should check out some full case reviews and see if you can find something that fits. For this build, we just need a basic mini tower to house our mATX motherboard with no external graphics adapter. For that, we went with the Zalman ZM-T1. It fits our budget nicely, without giving up too many features. It can hold 3.5″ and 2.5″ drives, which is important should you decide to add an SSD (you absolutely should) later on. For such a small case, it can house quite a few fans – 6 in total, though only one comes pre-installed.
There are plenty of power supplies available for around $20 that on paper at least, suit our needs just fine. However we need a PSU that is reliable, quiet, and efficient. We went with the Corsair Builder CX 430, which has an incredible track record, and is under $50 right now. The only knock against it is that it’s not modular, but it’s tough to find a quality PSU that is that fits in this price range.
Alternatives & Suggested Upgrades
Without the benefit of mail in rebates or promo codes, sometimes certain hardware can’t make it into one of our suggested builds. Or sometimes we need to consider that someone might want to go in a slightly different direction. To take care of that, we have some suggested components you might want to consider as alternatives, or as upgrades if you can stretch your budgets a little:
|SSD||Sandisk SDSSDRC-032G-G26 ReadyCache||39.99||Microcenter|
|CPU||AMD A10-6700 3.7GHz||148.98||Outlet PC|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GV-R667D3-2GI Radeon 6670||67.99||SuperBiiz|
|Motherboard||ASRock FM2A75 Pro4-M FM2||74.99||Newegg|
The first thing you should do, if you can at all afford it, is add an SSD – at least to use as a cache. While you could get a small 60-90GB SSD to install windows and a few select apps on it, you actually get pretty much full SSD performance without the hassle of managing data by simply using an SSD cache. Sandisk’s ReadyCache comes with the software you need (since AMD motherboards don’t support it natively like most Intel boards do).
If you are concerned about heat and noise, you might want to consider stepping down to an A10-6700 instead of the 6800K we recommended. Since you most likely won’t be overclocking anyway, losing unlocked multiplier won’t be a big deal. What you get in trade is a much lower TDP – 65W instead of 100W. While the clock speeds are tamed down a bit, real world performance should be relatively the same.
Conversely, if you do want to overclock, you will need a motherboard that is more up to the task. The ASRock FM2A75 Pro4-M FM2 costs more than the MSI model we originally recommended, which puts it outside the $400 limit, but is actually probably a better choice overall. It has a stronger VRM which is heatsinked, and you get full 4-DIMM capability.
If you want to boost your performance a bit, you should consider making use of the APU’s Dual Graphics Technology, which allows the APU work with an external video card in SLI. Only select models are capable of this, with the top end model being the Radeon 6670. The only issue is that AMD have major problems with frame delivery in SLI mode. So in a lot of cases, the frames per second score shoots way up, but the actual experience is laggy and horrible. AMD are working on a fix for this, but are currently targeting their main lineup, and we’re not sure how this type of SLI will be addressed.