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System Builder Marathon, Q2 2014: Our Budget Gaming PC

Presenting Our New Budget Gaming PC

System Builder Marathon, Q2 2014: The Articles

Here are links to each of the four articles in this quarter’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The Budget Gaming PC
Day 2: Our Mainstream Enthusiast System
Day 3: The Balanced High-End Build
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected

An Introduction To The System Builder Marathon

What does it mean to build your own PC? Generally, this refers to the process of selecting and assembling the various hardware and software components able to satisfy your computing needs. For example, do you want to play the latest and most detailed games? If so, your family's three-year-old desktop probably won't cut it. A great many off-the-shelf machines lack the add-in graphics card you'd need for ample performance. Worse, they're often missing the slots and ports needed for an upgrade.

Unless your time is more valuable than your money, we typically encourage PC gamers to consider building their own machines. The process isn't for the technically-challenged. And there plenty of great boutiques that cater to folks who want beefy parts, but aren't comfortable tinkering inside of their cases. Yet, at some point, even seasoned pros had to get their feet wet with a first build or major upgrade.

Now, our System Builder Marathon is not a “How To” on putting your own machine together. If you're brand new to this and looking for a step-by-step reference, check out How To Build A PC: From Component Selection To Installation, which we just updated for 2014. Rather, the Marathon is an ongoing look at the hardware market, what's available, and how it performs. Tom’s Hardware has a team of editors who tackle one build each, publishing their experiences successively once per quarter. We use our knowledge (or curiosity) to highlight some of the best platform options. Typically, we differentiate our configurations based on price brackets or build goals. 

The System Builder Marathon turns into a friendly competition amongst Thomas, Don, and I, during which we chase the highest performance and best value. Once we get our machines put together, we run them through a suite of synthetic benchmarks, application workloads, and demanding 3D games. At times, our themes or individual builds zero-in more specifically on a specific purpose. We also test each PC in two ways. First, it's evaluated in stock form, with all of the hardware running the way it was intended. Then, we tune all of the parts as enthusiasts looking for even more speed through tweaking and overclocking.

None of the gear we use is cherry-picked. Review samples sent by hardware vendors are sometimes screened to deliver the best possible experience. There's none of that here. Rather, we partner with Newegg to choose from the company's retail inventory. This partnership serves a dual-benefit in that we're able to give every machine we build away to the Tom's Hardware audience once we're done running our benchmarks. 

Changes To Our Format

Many of you are probably already familiar with the Marathon. This quarter, you'll see our format change a bit, largely based on your feedback. First, we are focusing specifically on the prices of components that affect performance, leaving the parts that don’t impact benchmark results out of the value equation. In other words, the case, optical drive, and operating system have no bearing on our price/performance calculations. Everything else falls under the “Price of Performance Hardware”. In this way, we free ourselves to experiment with higher-end enclosures and add-ons like Blu-ray drives without a negative impact on comparative value. Some of our readers don’t want to see a $20 DVD burner interfere with their processor and graphics budget, while others believe that a Blu-ray burner and $150 case are necessary. We get that.

Of course, we continue to provide the total cost of all components, now including an operating system, in a final “Price As Tested”. Taken together, this information should paint a clearer picture of value, while acknowledging the personal nature of cases, optical drives, and even the OS.

We continue to see a lot of interest in budget-friendly gaming platforms. A "$500 Gaming PC" was once a staple of the Marathon. So, to give this quarter a theme, we lowered our budgets and targeted PC gaming. Distilled down, our rigs can typically get by with $50 dedicated to a case and optical drive, though the resulting configuration wouldn't necessarily be something we'd want to build. That's why we took our $500, $1000, and $1500 budgets, subtracted $50 from them, and used the result as our performance-oriented targets. Because we are now purchasing (and giving away) Windows 8.1 with our systems, my lowest-cost machine tips the scales around $600 as-tested.

Meet Our Budget Gaming PC

I like to tell folks new to PC building that they should do their homework, understanding the mechanics of how components work together, what they cost, and how they affect performance. I've built a great many PCs and I stay current on what's available, so I already have a good sense for the hardware in my budget. So to start, I added supporting components (memory, storage, and power) to my shopping cart as filler, if only to see what I'd have leftover for the platform's foundation. Prices and availability fluctuate daily, so I didn't get crazy about fitting under a ceiling. Every initial pick is reviewed and tweaked as necessary before checking out.

Memory prices, especially, move violently from one quarter to the next, sometimes affecting the other hardware I can afford. This budget gaming box will run Windows 8 and rely on a single hard drive. So, I added the cheapest 8 GB dual-channel DDR3 kit to my cart, and told myself that I'd consider 4 GB later as a last resort.

From there, approximately $300 remained to secure the graphics card, processor, and motherboard. Obviously, the $330 GeForce GTX 770 utilized in last quarter's $750 Gaming PC had to go. And this time, the best values were all AMD cards: the Radeon R7 260X, R7 265, and potentially a R9 270. We don't give credit for mail-in rebates, which come and go, so those models would set me back $120, $150, and $190, respectively.

Many modern games knock entry-level host processors to their knees, so I wanted to go with an Intel Core i3 or AMD FX-6300. That'd limit my budget to AMD's Radeon R7 260X, with $50 or $60 leftover for a motherboard and heat sink. In attempt to retain as much relevance as possible in games at 1920x1080 (Full HD), I dropped down to the most basic game-worthy processor options.

Budget System ComponentsPurchase Price
CPUAMD Athlon X4 750K (Trinity)$80
CPU CoolerAMD Boxed Heat Sink and Fan-
MotherboardASRock FM2A75M Pro4+, Socket FM2+$59
RAMTeam Group Dark Series 8 GB (2 x 4 GB) DDR3-1600 TDBD38G1600HC9DC01$65
GraphicsMSI R7 265 2GD5 OC 2 GB$150
Hard DriveWestern Digital Blue WD10EZEX 1 TB$60
PowerEVGA 100-W1-0430-KR 430 W$40
Price of Performance Hardware$454
CaseRosewill Redbone U3 ATX Mid-Tower$45
OpticalAsus 24x DVD Burner DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS, OEM$20
Total Hardware Cost$519
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 8.1 64-bit, OEM$100
Price As Tested$619

My focus wasn't on upgrade potential. Otherwise, I would have preferred an Intel Haswell-based Pentium, which could later be replaced with a Core i5 or i7. Rather, my only concern was competing as aggressively as possible right here and right now. Our parts were ordered back in May, so my best shot was with AMD’s Athlon X4 750K, the least expensive host processor I could buy sporting a fully unlocked CPU multiplier. My tweaking would be limiting primarily by AMD's bundled cooler and ASRock's affordable A75-based motherboard.

This platform combination left me with $150 for a Radeon R7 265 graphics card. There were no worthy platform options within range that could have helped me free up the $40 I'd need for a Radeon R9 270, unless I was also willing to drop to 4 GB of RAM. In the end, I decided to break the budget just a bit in order to double available storage capacity.