This is part two of a two-part post on PC gaming. In the first episode, I examined the advantages and disadvantages for PC gaming. In this sequel, I proffer a realistic gaming rig that you can build yourself. Note that putting together a PC from components for the first time can be a bit scary, but it’s not really that hard. All prices, unless otherwise noted, come from Amazon.com. You can generally get the same parts at the same price from Newegg.com, but all the Amazon parts are Prime, so…free shipping. Prices are current as of October 22, 2014.
First, this build is going to be a micro-ATX build. Micro-ATX computers are smaller, have lower power requirements, and some of the parts (case, motherboard) are cheaper. The tradeoff is less upgradeability and a tighter working compartment. I’ll note regular ATX options where applicable if you want to go that route. Second, this is going to be an inexpensive gaming system. I’m not going super-cheap by using inferior parts, which leads to a system that can’t play new AAA games. I’m also not going state-of-the-art (or even moderate state-of-the-art), which will keep costs down. This means you shouldn’t expect full 1080p/60fps graphics for the newest games.
CPU: AMD FX6300 ($97.99)
Six cores, which games and multimedia programs eat up, running at 3.5GHz base speed and can be overclocked to 4.1GHz. (Don’t overclock your CPU unless you really know what you’re doing. In which case, you probably don’t need to be reading this.)
This Gigabyte board is a solid board that can support up to 32GB of RAM. For a full ATX option, try the ASUS M5A99FX Pro for $124.99.
This is a nice little case that includes two fans. It’s a little tight inside (you’ll have to take out the rear fan to slide your motherboard in), but it includes a good PSU for a low price. It has two USB and audio in/out sockets on the front as well as two external 5-1/4 drive bays (for optical drives), an external 3.5 inch drive bay (for a hard drive, card reader, or other accessory) and two more 3.5 inch drive bays internally (for hard drives).
For a full ATX case, the Rosewill ChallengerU3 ($51.99) is very nice and easy to work inside. Plus it puts the power supply on the bottom, which increases stability. You will have to buy a power supply (~$50) as one is not included.
This is a single stick of 8GB RAM, leaving you room to add more as your needs grow. You can buy two now for 16GB of memory and better speed in AI-intensive areas.
Speed Option: Samsung EVO 250GB Solid State Drive ($128.99)
Storage Option: Seagate 1TB Solid State Hybrid Drive ($84.99)
If you want more speed—especially when it comes to powering through loading screens—get the SSD. You can always add regular hard drives later for more storage space. If you need lots of room right off the bat, a Hybrid drive (regular magnetic hard drive with some flash memory storage) will get you a little more speed and a lot more space. If you get the SSD and the Rosewill FMB mini-tower case, you’ll need a 2.5 inch to 3.5 inch adapter to fit the SSD into the case (about $7). The Rosewill Challenger case comes with one such adapter.
Graphics Card: XFX Radeon R7 250 1GB GDDR5 ($75)
The AMD Radeon 250 is the minimum card you’ll need to run newer games at a respectable resolution and video quality. If you want more graphics punch, you can upgrade to an R9 270 for about $100 more. Make sure you get GDDR5 memory and not GDDR3.
Optical Drive: LG Super Multi Drive ($24.99 includes NERO software)
A PC without a DVD/CD burner is called an “ultrabook.” Standard DVD/CD burners are cheap; if you have a little extra money, you can upgrade to a Blu-ray burner for another $30.
There are lots of different options for a monitor. You might have an old, usable monitor from a previous computer. You might want to hook this PC up to your TV (though I wouldn’t recommend doing so for anything other than gaming—TVs are not designed to display text very well). I’ve had good luck with Samsung monitors, especially with text display.
Keyboard/Mouse: Amazon Basics Wired KB and Mouse Bundle ($14.99)
Your KB and mouse can be really cheap, or really expensive. You might want to go to a local big-box retailer and try some keyboards, since you’re going to have to type on it. Get a wireless KB and mouse if you’re going to hook your computer up to your TV.
You’ll need something to hear the gunshots. This is a basic, powered speaker. Expect to spend upwards of $50 for good speakers. Note, if you want to go full surround sound, you might also want to add a sound card to the system rather than use the on-the-motherboard sound.
Operating System: Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit System Builder Edition ($96.89)
The System Builder (OEM) edition of Windows is much cheaper than the retail package (by a couple hundred dollars), but it will be tied to this PC once you activate it. In other words, when you build a new PC to replace this one, you’ll have to replace the OS as well. The OEM version of Windows 8.1 is a few dollars cheaper, but there are still some issues with Win8 and games so I recommend Win7.
You can eliminate this cost by running Linux or SteamOS (both free), but then you are limiting the games you can play (not all games work on Linux). You’re also significantly increasing the technical proficiency needed. Despite claims to the contrary, Linux is not as easy to use as Windows.
Oh, and before you try it, no, you cannot just use your copy of Windows from your old PC unless you bought a full retail copy of Windows. The Windows included on pre-built PCs is the same OEM version listed here and won’t be legal on a new PC. The Windows discs included with your old PC won’t even install on another PC.
Total for all components: $799
Includes the micro-ATX options, SSD, and SSD adapter. As listed in the options, you can save some money by using your TV or an old LCD (not a CRT, recycle any you have) monitor; running Linux instead of Windows; getting the hybrid drive instead of the SSD; and reusing old keyboard, mouse, and speakers you may have lying around. But, if you’re starting from scratch, this is the minimum you need for a fully-functional PC. You can also do some price shopping, looking especially at Newegg.com and Frys.com. Even after adding tax (depending on where you live), you can probably get that $800 price tag down a little.
Putting It Together
You need an Anti-static wrist strap (a couple of bucks from Amazon), and a philips-head screwdriver #1 (though a #2 will work). A screwdriver with a magnetic tip is best.
Clear out some space on a non-carpeted floor, or put down some plastic sheeting between you and the carpet. Strap on the anti-static strap and clip the hanging end to some piece of metal (an unpainted metal part on your computer case will work).
Follow the directions given with each component. You’ll first set your motherboard into your case and note where the mounting holes in the MB line up with the case. Remove the MB and put posts (included with the case) into the correct holes, then place the MB on the posts and screw it in. Put the CPU in next, with the heat sink mounted on top according to instructions.
Next, insert your RAM, then your power supply and make all connections between the PSU and the MB. Mount your optical and hard drives and plug them into the MB and the PSU. Find the wires leading from the front panel of your case (USB/audio connectors, power switch, HDD light, etc.) and plug them into the correct places on your MB. (Everything’s marked.) Finally, insert your graphics card, then plug in the monitor, KB, etc. and power it up!
The Non-DIY Option
Yes, you can get a gaming-capable rig without building one and without spending a huge amount. Just buy a cheap desktop from HP or Dell or your local big-box retailer. Check to make sure it has a decent power supply (350W or higher). Once you get it home you can selectively upgrade/replace parts, usually starting with a new graphics card. It might actually be cheaper to do it this way (you’re getting bulk discounts on all the parts, including Windows), but you have less control over the individual components. On the other hand, you know it works—and, if it doesn’t, you can always take it back for a replacement.