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System Builder Marathon Q4 2014: Budget Gaming PC

Trimming Down Excessive Size and Costs

System Builder Marathon, Q4 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: Budget Gaming PC
Day 2: Mainstream Enthusiast System
Day 3: $1600 Performance PC
Day 4: System Value Compared

Our “Budget Gaming PC” name should be read as affordable, low-cost, or even cheap. But rarely is the intent “casual” in nature. Rather, these builds are for PC gaming diehards who are limited by thin wallets.

Enthusiasts know the above terms imply some level of sacrifice, along with the challenge of honing in on specific build targets, and even planning for future upgrades. A $500 PC just isn’t going to excel in all areas, so we must consider the specific needs, both present and future.

If you are fortunate enough to end up with some extra cash or a Newegg gift card this holiday season, you need to ask yourself a few questions before placing a hasty order. For starters, how prevalent is gaming in your life? Casual gaming needs could be met with an AMD A-series APU, or simply buying an off-the-shelf Intel-based system or notebook which contains a low-end dedicated graphics card. If you are willing to tone down the resolution and settings, funds can be shifted away from graphics over towards meeting processing, storage or even acoustic needs. Or instead, the change could be pocketed to aid in paying other bills. But when you desire to play the latest games in FHD with as much eye candy enabled as possible, well, then you’re going to need a true 3D gaming card.

I set out to build a competent $500 Gaming PC, or $600 if you factor in the Windows operating system. Officially, my budget allows $450 of this to be put into what we dub the “performance parts”. The remainder is set aside for an enclosure to house these components, and an optical drive, if desired.

On a firm budget, I’ll price up the necessities to see how much funding remains for the platform and graphics. Games and daily computing tasks can benefit from having more than 4GB of RAM, so I try to outfit 8GB of the lowest priced DDR3. Although SSDs are becoming more and more affordable, I’m stuck pricing up larger and cheaper mechanical drives instead. Even without a digital media library to consider, our current SBM test suite alone chews up almost all of a 250GB drive. And I’ll often install an extra game or two taking a deeper look at the machine’s capabilities. I need to price up adequate and reliable power too, just to size up current availability. Typically, this sets me back around $40 at minimum. This quarter, about $286 remained for securing the motherboard, processor and graphics card.

Earlier this year, we had lowered our budgets to a point where my go-to processors, the AMD FX-6300 and Intel’s Core i3 and i5 lines, all took a sizable chunk out of my graphics funding. With limited options, a Trinity-based AMD Athlon X4 750K represented the most affordable processor able to meet my needs. Last quarter, Intel’s unlocked Pentium G3258 had arrived and was an easy decision for comparison, as I’d been waiting a long time to tinker on Intel’s budget hardware once again. This time around, I had planned hit another option gaining popularity, AMD’s Steamroller -based Athlon X4 860K, but it had been MIA on Newegg for quite a while. I wasn’t all too disappointed, as it would zap extra funds, and there had been favorable movement on the graphics front that was hard to pass up. I priced up another Pentium G3258 build, only this time outfitting a beefy Radeon R9 280 with 3GB of GDDR5. While unbalanced for many games, it was a substantial bump in 3D horsepower for 1080P and above, and it even left me a little change left over.

Budget System ComponentsPurchase Price
CPUIntel Pentium G3258 (Haswell)$70
CPU CoolerIntel Boxed Heat Sink and Fan-
MotherboardMSI H81M-P33, LGA1150, Intel H81 Express$46
RAMTeam Vulcan 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) TLYD38G1600HC9DC01$69
GraphicsMSI Radeon R9 270X Gaming 2G$160
Hard DriveWestern Digital WD Blue WD10EZEX 1TB$55
PowerEVGA 100-W1-0500-KR 500W$40
Price of Performance Hardware$440
CaseDIYPC M89-R mATX Mini Tower$30
OpticalLG 24X SATA DVD Burner Model GH24NSB0B$18
Total Hardware Cost$488
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 8.1 64-bit - OEM$100
Price As Tested$588

Unfortunately a busy work week was coming to an end, and compiling all our orders had to be delayed until the following week. I pretty much knew that meant Sapphire’s beefy bargain would either jump in price or sell out by Monday, which it did, so I had to change things up a bit. With the X4 860K still unavailable, I simply dropped down to an R9 270X, which was now $10 cheaper than last quarter’s R9 270. To avoid retesting my last build with just a minor GPU speed bump, I decided to further trim my overall system budget by grabbing an entry-level mATX enclosure. The idea here was to see if a mildly tuned G3258 could keep up with R9 270X without requiring any extra expense in the enclosure or cooling. This is for folks who either deliberately, or by luck of the draw, fall well short of the 4.4 to 4.7GHz these Pentiums are often tested at.