What Does a Gamer Really Need?
There are many guides for building a gaming PC. Most of those guides cover a wide range of potential systems and often times start with an entry level of $800 dollars or more. In truth, most of these guides are completely overblown. The days of needed a multi-thousand dollar computer to run games at high resolutions and detail settings are long gone and probably won’t return for years, if ever. That means that a great gaming PC can be built for an extremely low price. And when I say great, I mean it. The computer listed here will absolutely run Crysis Warhead at an average of 30fps at Gamer detail settings on the typical 22" monitor. This in turn means that most other games will be far faster. Fallout 3, for example, should average around 60fps with almost every possible detail turned to its max.
That is not to say that some gamers might not want more power. But according to the Steam survey, even this rig is far more powerful than what most gamers use. If you are a self-titled extreme gamer who refuses to play games on a monitor smaller than 30 inches, this is not the guide for you. Everyone else, however, should read on. You’ll save a lot of money if you do.
The Parts List:
CPU: AMD X3 720 - $120
GPU: Radeon 4890 - $200
Motherboard: MSI 770-C45 $80
Hard Drive: WD Caviar Black 640GB $75
Case/PSU: Antec 300 w/430 watt PSU $100
Optical: DVD/CD RW ~$25
CPU - AMD X3 720 2.8Ghz Tri-Core Processor
AMD’s current lineup of processors is a dream for gamers. Games, unlike some other applications, games still have not been heavily optimized for many-core processors. They rely more heavily on clock speed and, to a less extent, cache. The degree to with any processor improves system performance is also far less than it has been in the past, so buying a top-of-the-line processor is no longer required for awesome performance.
The X3 720 is something of a compromise, with its three cores and high - but not extremely high - clock speed. But it is a good compromise. The processor is fast enough in old games to keep up with the E8400, but the third core gives it an edge in those few titles that do put more than two cores to use. In fact, the X3 720 is often equal in performance to the Core i7 920 in game benchmarks. That is amazing for a processor that retails at $120 dollars, and runs on a much cheaper platform.
GPU: Radeon HD4890 1GB
This was a tough call. There are a lot of good video cards available today. Everything from the Radeon HD4850 to the GTX275 is a perfectly reasonable value and prices continue to drop.
Ultimately, though, the Radeon 4890 seemed to make the most sense. This is the perfect gaming build, afterall, and gamesdemand more of the video card than any other component in a computer by far. The Radeon 4890 is powerful enough to drive monitors with resolutions of up to 1920x1200, which means it is overkill for most game setups. But overkill isn’t a bad thing if the price is reasonable. It helps ensure the video card will be usuable for a few years and that games can be played at the highest detail settings. You also have some headroom to buy a nice screen down the road.
And the price is more than reasonable. Radeon 4890s, including overclocked editions, can be found for as little as $200 dollars. That is a rock-bottom price for a card of this caliber.
Motherboard: MSI 770-C45
Like most PC components, motherboards have seen their prices drop dramatically. The MSI 770-C45 is a perfect example. It is an excellent, fully-featured motherboard which can provide everything a serious gaming system will need. It is friendly to overclocking, has a decent layout and supports DDR3 RAM and future AM3 sockets. These basics are what a gamer needs and the MSI 770-C45 covers these areas without costing a fortune.
Granted, the integrated graphics in the MSI 770-C45 are not the best, and there is no option for CrossFireX. But does that matter? CrossFireX has never provided great performance for the dollar and the existence of cards like the 4870X2 dramatically reduce the importance of having multiple PCI-E slots. As for the integrated graphics, well - you’re never going to be using them.
RAM: 4GB DDR3 1333 RAM
DDR3 is here to stay. The rate at which it has been adopted is actually quite a bit quicker than many anticipated, thanks mostly to price drops which occurred early in the year. This is not to say that DDR3 results in blistering fast performance compared to DDR2. For most users, it makes little difference. But it obviously is becoming the standard, and trying to run again the grain of a growing standard is usually a bad idea when building a PC.
The recommendation of DDR3 1333Mhz RAM is somewhat flexible. Slower DDR3 RAM will perform largely the same and cost less as its faster cousins, but the decision to pick the 1333Mhz RAM over 1066Mhz was not based on performance. It is instead based on the extra overclocking headroom this RAM provides. I also did not recommend a brand because it hardly matters. Just search Newegg and buy whatever costs the least and is well reviewed by customers. Look for sales and rebates which can often be very significant for RAM modules.
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
This was an easy one. Western Digital has been the hard drive company of choice for enthusiasts of all sorts for two reasons. The first is that Western Digital’s Caviar products have consistently been quicker than other mechanical hard drivers at similar rotational speeds and capacities, the Black ones in particular since they introduced the Blue-Green-Black Value-Efficiency-Performance colour division in the Caviar line. The second is that Western Digital’s drivers have been fairly reliable. Other companies used to have a warranty advantage, but they’ve since reduced the length of their warranties.The 640GB model is more than most gamers will need, but throwing in a larger or smaller hard drive of this series is not a problem. Every Caviar Black drive is quality, from the smallest to the largest.
Case: Antec 300 w/ 430 Watt PSU
In this crazy world of plummeting hardware prices, the
cost of the computer case has suddenly become a major factor in purchasing a new computer. It may seem insane to spend almost as much on an enclosure as on a processor, but cases are not governed by the same rules as hardware. Their prices are driven by the cost of raw metals, not technological progress.
And while the price may seem high, it is actually a steal for what is received in return. The Antec 300, which normally costs around $70, is one of the best gaming cases around. It is spacious, has good airflow, and looks decent. The 430 watt PSU for $30 dollars is thick, yummy icing on the cake. Antec’s PSUs are known for their quality, as well, so there is no need to worry that it might fail the instant things get hairy in your favorite shooter.
Optical: 22x DVD/RW
This is more-or-less an afterthought. DVD drives are commodities, like a bottle of ketchup or a cheap t-shirt (you’ve obviously never had truly lousy no-name ketchup -Ed.). One product is about as good as any other, and for $25 dollars the quality isn’t a huge deal. Samsung models tend to be the best, but buy whatever seems to have the best price. Or, if there is already one in your old build that seems to work fine, bring it over to the new one.
Why Spend More?
That’s it. Everything needed to build an outstanding gaming computer is listed here. Again, it is important to stress that this will be an outstanding gaming PC. It will handle nearly anything thrown at it. The only games which may slow it down will be Crysis (duh) and the recently released Arma II, which is not that attractive but is still demanding. The total price of everything listed in this build will cost, in total, $690 dollars based on pricing from Newegg as of August 2009.
This might be hard to believe at first. Companies like Alienware, which are dependent on the price of gaming computers being high, have done a very good job of making it appear as if a good gaming computer should in fact cost thousands of dollars. That used to be true. But hardware has gained power more quickly than games have found ways to use it, and the importance of porting new games between the 360, PS3, and PC has also put the brakes on graphical advancement. The large developers which have the money to spend on the graphics see no reason to push the power of the PC because the PC version will usually sell the least copies, and major advances on how much hardware games can use will have to wait for next-gen consoles, which we’ve heard little about.
Spending more money for better hardware will increase performance, but this build is what I consider to be the perfect gaming computer. Expect diminishing returns. A computer twice as expensive will be nowhere near twice as fast. In fact, its performance will be visually identical in most games. There is no way to turn the detail settings of a game higher than maximum, after all.