The lights are on
Power Member - Level 8
"Walk over and put your head over there.""What? That's going to look really stupid.""Just do it.""But-""DO IT.""..... So how does it look?""Haha, it's really stupid.""...."
holiday season will finally see the release of the next real console
generation (Sorry Nintendo....you used to be cool), but I've got my
sights on a different prize. Almost one year ago my gaming PC died
after six faithful years of service to indeterminate causes, but most
likely a failing motherboard. Since that time I've commandeered my
wife's computer, which is a reasonable facsimile, but been on the
lookout for my next rig. I've mentioned before that while I enjoy
both PC and console gaming, I've always considered myself primarily
in the former's camp. Especially in recent years with the popularity
explosion and great service in Steam as well as other digital
distributors like Good Old Games, PC gaming is on a huge upswing from
the dismal place it was in at the beginning of the last console
generation. I cite as evidence all the games coming out for PC in
addition to console platforms, even console exclusives like
Titanfall. With the upgrade potential and modability in PC games,
I'll always go with the PC version when I can with the big exception
of a great local co-op game like Borderlands. But, in order to do
that I need a proper gaming rig and certainly don't want to spend
twice as much for one as I could for a new ready-to-go console. So
join me as I build my very first PC on a budget and learn that what
seems like a daunting task is incredibly easy and fulfilling.
I wanted to build my next PC; my best friend and gaming buddy had
built his and had a lot of advice and wealth of first-hand
experience, and I had a number of techy and geeky friends that build
PCs frequently that I could prod for advice. I cannot stress enough
how incredibly helpful it was; the internet is a vast fountain of
information but it can be very daunting to navigate and many times
you run into conflicting information, so it's very handy to have
friends to rely on.
I use a few common acronyms throughout this post and several are
interchangeable. Namely: Video Card = Graphics Processing Unit (GPU),
Power Supply = Power Supply Unit (PSU), Processor = Computer
Processor Unit (CPU), Memory = Random Access Memory (RAM), Storage =
Hard Disc Drive (HDD).
1: Buying the Parts
the initial notion, I had to actually plan out what is it I needed.
First, my plan was to reuse my old PC case, a great Velocity Micro
that resembles The Edge model. VM specializes in "Gaming" and
"Enthusiast" PCs, terms that you will see frequently to denote
PCs that are built for performance and power, usually equipped with
large power supplies, fast graphics cards, and plenty of RAM. I knew
my case was the largest format around, ATX, and I could double check
by looking at my old motherboard model and searching for it online.
There are basically two shapes that motherboards come in - square
micro ATX and rectangular ATX, the latter providing more PCI slots
and thus more room for upgrades. My case still had a pair of working
fans, one in the rear and one in the front as well as a pair of
optical drives (CD drives) and one of those all in one SD card/floppy
readers (heh, awww floppy disks, that takes me back...).
decided I needed the following items to rebuild a working PC:
power supply might have sufficed, and it was certainly big enough at
500W, but everything I read about PC building said not to skimp on
the power as a faulty one can permanently damage every other piece of
hardware in your build, and a cheap one could have a vastly shortened
life span under the pressures that we'll be exerting with a gaming
PC. I heeded these warnings and decided a new power supply was needed
if I'm going to get all new parts.
debated about reusing my old hard drive. I had bought a second hard
drive years ago as space ran out on my primary, and used that
secondary hard drive to plug into my wife's PC as it contained all my
games (Steam alone takes up a couple hundred gigabytes by now). It's
a 500GB hard drive and could've technically worked as my sole hard
drive, but with 1TB drives costing less than $70, I decided some
additional storage wouldn't be a bad idea. I went back and forth on
the concept of a solid state drive, but the cost to storage space
ratio was just too unfavorable for me to pull the trigger - I
couldn't find a 120GB SSD for less than $100. Everyone says it's a
huge sexy upgrade to any PC, allowing programs to load
instantaneously, and it's something I will certainly explore down the
road but for now I was happy getting a huge boost to my storage
capabilities for relatively cheap. Even better I found a combo deal
on Newegg where I could get a HDD and the CPU I wanted for cheaper.
is both the best resource and best shopping destination that PC
builders, enthusiasts, and technically proficient folks can find.
They have a vast selection of hardware parts, helpful reviews from
knowledgeable people, and some of the best pricing on the market.
Even if you don't end up buying a single part from Newegg, everyone
should use their search functions and knowledge base to narrow down
exactly what you're looking for.
site that kept me organized was PC Part Picker. My hand writing is
just short of godawful, and the less I have to physically write
things down and take notes the better; PC Part Picker allowed me to
select the part I wanted in each category I needed (after having
found the ones I wanted on Newegg) and showed me the cheapest price
at the most popular online distributors and retailers and tallied up
the total cost for me. It even pointed out rebates and combo deals,
which is actually how I found the HDD/CPU deal I mentioned above. I cannot recommend it enough for keeping your buying phase organized!
Here's the link to the build I used, but note that prices vary wildly
and have already changed since I ordered them (also doesn't include
any promo codes I used).
know I needed an ATX motherboard and a new CPU. Intel is still the
best on the market and have been forever, but they're also typically
the most expensive. The next best thing is AMD which stays
competitive while offering cheaper alternatives. I found the Phenom
II X4 processor by searching for Best Rated CPUs on Newegg. I knew I
wanted a Quad-Core CPU (my previous being a Dual-Core, and anything
more than Quad is a bit of an overkill right now) and the Phenom II
X4 provided an awesome 3.4GHz for a cool $100, but more importantly
had over 2,000 reviews and sat at a comfortable five star rating (ok,
five egg rating). Sold!
matching a motherboard to a CPU you have to look at the chipset.
Essentially an AMD processor will not fit into an Intel ready
motherboard. That helped narrow down the search quite a bit, as I
specifically needed an AM3 (or more commonly now AM3+) chipset
motherboard. I found the MSI 970A board at the closest Fry's and was
one of the cheapest ATX motherboards available while still providing
the PCI-E x16 slot I needed for a sexy graphics card. I didn't have
to get anything with onboard video since I was going to use a video
card, and it had the AM3+ chipset I needed. I actually ended up
getting it at Amazon but it was pretty much the same price
video card is the most important and most expensive decision you'll
have to make when building a new PC primarily for gaming (or
"enthusiast"). When it comes to the GPU, the simple rule has
always been, the more expensive the better. This may seem
disheartening to our budget gaming PC, but a good video card is still
incredibly affordable and there are a ton of great sites to do your
research on. A PC gamer is going to want to compare different video
cards using benchmarks - programs designed to test a card's overall
capabilities with different situations and loads and give an overall
performance grade. I really liked videocardbenchmark.net as they had
an exhaustive database of all the modern video cards as well as
helpful charts to compare and contrast. I was looking for the best
bang for my limited buck, so I poured over the Price Performance
chart and found that the Geforce GTX 650 Ti was a fairly common card
that met all my performance needs while coming in at under $150. A
1GB overclocked card would squeeze every drop of performance out of
it provided I had the necessary power to keep everything running
smoothly. Amazon had a Gigabyte 650 Ti for $130, Sold!
mantra has always been that RAM is cheap, and undoubtedly the easiest
thing you can upgrade on a PC. I've been upgrading RAM for over a
decade but the amount has steadily increased. Today's motherboards
can handle up to 32GB, which is mind boggling and absolute overkill
unless you like running multiple monitors while rendering HD video
and playing modern games all at the same time. Most folks could
probably get by with 4GB for around $40, but Newegg had 2x4GB sticks
for about $75. 8GB would be much more comfortable and last much
longer, so I pulled the trigger on a fancy pair of Corsair Vengeance
with spikes on top....presumably to make it run even faster!
one piece of software I needed was obvious - a new operating
system. My old PC had been running strong with Windows XP, but it had
come to the point where modern games required Direct X 11, and were
leaving XP behind. Luckily I could completely skip Vista and go
straight to Windows 7, which has a great reputation from gamers. I
could've gone with Windows 8 for the same price, but it's such a
radical departure from the usual Windows format (and made more for
touch screens) that I didn't want to bother. An awesome friend hooked
me up with a discount code to get Win 7 professional for $20 off on
a boring old power supply was needed. I knew I wanted name brand and
I knew I wanted to hit that sweet 500W power point. Corsair's Amazon
listing lets you easily pick the wattage you need. I probably
could've made do with the 430W but went with 500 just to be sure. If
I wanted a dual video card setup or a lot of PCI expansions, 600W
would probably be more attractive, but 500W easily satisfied all my
power needs. The important thing to look for is that the PSU has a
PCI-E power connector to specifically power today's video cards,
although upon opening the box for my video card, I found that it had
a molex connector I could've used on older PSUs.
what's the damage? I actually ended up getting half the parts from
Newegg and half from Amazon, as follows:
(MSI 970A - G46) $78
Supply (Corsair 500W) $57
Card (Gigabyte Geforce GTX 650 Ti) $130
- $265 + $21 Tax = $286 (free shipping)
(AMD Phenom II X4) $100
(Corsair 2x4GB) $75
(Seagate 1TB) $70
(Windows 7 Professional 64-bit OEM) $100
- $345 - (Combo and Discount code) $45 = $300 (free shipping)
Cost - $586
budget was between $500-600, and we made it! Sure it's actually a
little more than the surprising low cost of the upcoming consoles,
but not only can it easily rival them, it's also very upgradable to
go beyond what they would be capable of in the future. Plus if you
include the insanely low prices in Steam sales and the like, PC
gaming is far, far cheaper in the long run without ever having to
worry about the state of used games. To make yourself feel even
better, check out the costs of any of those gaming or enthusiast
pre-built PCs, often being sold for over $1500! We just got the parts
at less than half the cost and still highly competitive with their
You'll see below that I ran into a snag when building the PC and
discovered I needed a new optical drive that was compatible with my
motherboard. I probably could've found one for very cheap online, but
I was impatient and picked one up at Best Buy. Thankfully they had
one of their two SKUs on a clearance rack for $27. Not bad.
Note: I needed to get a new monitor, as my good but off brand
previous monitor bought the farm months before my PC did. I didn't
include it in the budget costs of the PC itself, but was definitely
hoping to get one for under $150. Thankfully monitors are cheaper
than ever nowadays, and Best Buy came to the rescue again with an LG
22" on sale for $120. Finally I can join the big boys at 1920x1080!
2: Putting it Together
before the new parts arrived there was a lot of prep work to be done,
especially since I was reusing an old case (which saved me at least
$60) and thus had to remove the old pieces and clean it out. I opened
up the case and with screwdriver in hand removed the motherboard (my
old graphics card, a now ancient Nvidia 9500 GT, currently resides in
the wife's PC). I left the RAM and CPU attached as they would all be
discarded with the motherboard. Removing all the plugs to the power
supply can be the initial lesson in learning where things go and what
the various plugs do, but I found my new motherboard manual did a far
better job of explaining everything than my own powers of deduction.
the power supply is a bit like removing the spinal column with a long
intimidating trail of multiple wires cascading down the back.
the case was free of everything I wasn't going to use, I thoroughly
cleaned the inside using a can of spray air. Obviously a new case
wouldn't have to be cleaned quite so vigorously, but mine was not
exactly fresh, so I worked on making it good as new.
the parts arrived (free shipping on everything, both orders arrived
three days after order was placed - wow!) it was time to get to
was the motherboard which presented me with my inital option -
install pieces on to it first before mounting it to the case, or
install the various pieces after it's snugly into the case but may be
harder to deal with. With no power supply and minimal cords in the
way it wouldn't be to difficult to install all the pieces once
inside, but I went ahead and attached the delicate CPU and cooler
CPU came with its own large heatsink that's become standard issue and
is perfectly fine until you start getting into overclocking
processor itself, a little square, was super easy to install as the
motherboard slot is made specifically to fit it just right, and the
heatsink clamps on easily enough on top.
the CPU in place, I mounted the motherboard into the case by lining
up the screw holes and the I/O faceplate on the rear (which new
motherboards come with). I had a hell of a time getting it to fit
until I realized the faceplate needed to push into the case far
enough for everything to line up properly. Luckily , unlike the CPU
motherboards are quite sturdy.
shoved my fancy new RAM sticks into the appropriate slots. I kept the
extensive motherboard manual handy, and it explained that when using
dual RAM slots (a common scenario) they should go in the 2nd
and 4th slots, so my blue sticks went in the blue slots.
RAM is ridiculously easy to install and I've done it dozens of times
before, but never had ones with spikes on top. Exciting!
to unsheathe my new badass video card. Like all GPUs nowadays it goes
into the PCI-E slot at the top, and the outputs take up two whole
bracket slots! Also like all GPUs, it comes with its own fan for
cooling and a slot for the power supply - graphics have come a long
way after all.
because I had it, I went ahead and put in another fan that my old PC
had come equipped with; it sits right on top of a PCI slot, with a
setting reaching outside the case so you can change the fan speed,
and a molex power cable. Totally optional but I had more than enough
space and heat buildup is a constant issue for PCs, so why not! Also
it gives off cool blue LED lights when the PC is powered on.
in goes the Power Supply. I wanted to wait until everything was in
its place before having to deal with all those extra wires.
all standard power supplies are roughly the same size and fit any
case slot, so no problems there. My new one came with plenty of power
cables for SATA drives, two PCI-E cables (if I ran dual video cards)
and several molex cables for older connections (like my fan).
whatever reason I had a hell of a time connecting the PSU's 24-pin
power cable into the motherboard - it did not want to latch on for
anything. Finally got it snug enough where it wouldn't pop out with a
slight tug and it's been working fine, but that thing was needlessly
difficult to attach.
rest of the plugs were very easy to attach and labeled clearly,
either through the manual or on the motherboard itself. It was here I
quickly ran into an issue I hadn't foreseen - my optical drives
both predated SATA connections, requiring those old bulky IDE ribbon
cables to connect to the motherboard. The technology has become
completely obsolete by now, and if I wanted a working CD/DVD drive
I'd have to purchase a new one. To the Best Buy!
Best Buy had only a single non-Blu Ray internal drive available, for
$40! Outraged and dismayed, I went through the checkout line only to
find the mysterious second SKU the employee had mentioned in a
clearance rack. Literally the exact same 24x device, different
company (not off brand either - LG), but for $27. Sold! Wife
actually suggested I grab two to fill the two old slots in my PC, but
even one optical drive is barely necessary nowadays to burn the
occasional CD as the future is becoming entirely digital.
actually ended up leaving one of my old DVD drives in the slot, just
minus any plugs and connections, simply because I didn't want a
gaping hole or cover it up with junky tape, nor did I want to shell
out even $20 for another optical drive I'd never use. So there you
go: top one is all business, bottom is just for show! Oh, and my
flopping/card reader? Also an IDE connection, and also now just for
show. Who needs floppies?
that little issue taken care of, it was a simple effort to mount the
new hard drive into the shell designed for up to 5 storage drives
(though less is better for improved air flow and less heat buildup).
I didn't bother installing the second one just yet as it was still
inside the one working PC we had and wasn't quite ready to tear that
one down before making sure this one worked. A
thorough examination of all the cables and plugs followed, and the
motherboard manual was immensely helpful in this regard, clearly
explaining what went were. I just took it one at a time, identifying
each plug, what it powered, and where it needed to go. Only slight
confusion was in the front power and reset cords which needed to sit
on very specific 2 prongs in an 8 prong slot on the motherboard.
a good once over, I moved it into the office and unplugged the few
cords I needed to get it working should it hopefully turn on -
mouse/keyboard, power cable, and monitor cable.
mention I bought a new monitor?
the case open to help determine that all the fans powered on and
everything was stable. Then I thought of that moment in Jurassic Park
where Samuel L. Jackson turns the power back on and nobody's sure
exactly what will happen.
on to your butts.
have lights! Fans! Action!
have a BIOS Screen! Success!
fancy one at that - reads my CPU temp, and correctly identifies my
processor, RAM and hard drive. Plus I can use a mouse, and it comes
equipped with its own "OC Genie" for easy overclocking, nice.
things first - installing windows, a process that use to take hours
now only takes about 15 minutes. Granted it helps to have a clean,
Windows installed and booted up, I began the important task of
installing all the various drivers my hardware required:
chipset/motherboard drivers including onboard Realtek Audio, Nivida
drivers for my video card (latest drivers installed from the website,
NOT from the perpetually out of date CD it comes bundled with), LG
monitor drivers, DVD-RW drivers that come with disc burning software,
Logitech mouse/keyboard drivers that let me use all the fancy extra
buttons and more I'm probably forgetting about. Thanks to this
wonderful world of prevalent internet, the latest drivers should
always be utilized from a company's website over the packaged CD,
especially the video card drivers. A couple restarts and windows
updates later and she was ready for prime time.
final inspection of the inside was made, including zip tying all the
wires to allow for maximum air flow, as well as mounting and
connecting my second hard drive.
last pic before she's covered up and wired into the desk. I'm all kinds of happy!
it's time for the moment we've all been waiting for - the results!
I was eager to test this rig out on some of my more graphically
intensive games. Steam came through in flying colors by instantly
recognizing itself on the new PC without any reinstalling (though
later I did eventually move it onto the larger HDD), while Origin
proved itself a fickle creature as I had to spend a few hours
redownloading Battlefield 3.
console commands won't get Skyrim to display the all important gamer
benchmark of Frames Per Second, but an easy to use free program
called FRAPS can display your FPS in any game. I can happily report
that I can run Skyrim on max settings at an awesome 60 FPS.
of soldiers dueling on a farm.
to admire a waterfall.
dragon swooped down while I was peacefully running around taking
pictures. I guess he wasn't a fan of tourists.
also wasn't a fan of my warhammer.
lacking in graphical options, Mass Effect 3 also ran at a perfectly
smooth 60 FPS in my awesome 1920x1080 resolution. Reaper forces don't
stand a chance.
3 was a real treat to play, as the previous PC was only able to run
it on the lowest settings at about 8 FPS, which is basically
unplayable (I had received it as a gift from EA after that whole
SimCity release debacle). I cranked all the settings to Ultra and
jumped into a 64 player, large outdoor map and was greeted with a
fantastic 40 FPS, reaching as high as 50 FPS during the rare quiet
frame rate is absolutely crucial in an intensive game like BF3.
occasionally I like to stop and admire the scenery.
could drop a few settings to get that coveted 60 FPS that seems like
the standard gold, but anything between 30-60 is nitpicky, and most
folks won't notice a difference until you drop to 20 in which the
game starts to have a stuttering effect (for reference, the standard
speed used in most films is 24 FPS).
can research FPS until you're blue in the face, but the takeaway is
that anything over 30 is good, 60 is great, and anything over 60 you
won't really notice.
played around with some Starcraft II, which previously had a nasty
effect of dropping to below 10 FPS after about halfway through the
game, making the all-important task of micromanaging a skirmish night
impossible (and that's with the lowest possible settings).
SC2 on Ultra settings with a giant 4v4, full army battle finally
brought this PC to its knees, and dropped the FPS to below 10 during
the large-scale battle (before that it was hovering around 30). Keep
in mind that Ultra is one step above High, so I can certainly play
around with the settings to make sure I don't have any interruptions
when playing with friends while still having a much better looking
game than before.
granted, these are all games from one or two years ago (well
technically SC2's expansion Heart of the Swarm came out earlier this
year but certainly wasn't a graphical overhaul) so it should be
expected that a new PC built today, even one on a modest budget using
far from the latest and priciest parts would be able to run them well
at max settings. The real test will come this holiday season when the
likes of Battlefield 4 and Titanfall are released. Realistically,
there'd be no way I could run those games smoothly at max settings
but that's part of the beauty of PC gaming - I can tweak and modify
any setting I need to to achieve the desired result, and the option
to upgrade in the future is always available.
didn't write this blog post to come off as a PC gaming supremacist -
since the days of the NES I've owned no less than two consoles every
generation and enjoyed them immensely. Console gaming has always been
an important part of my hobby, but I've always loved PC gaming more
because of the flexibility, modability, and superior multiplayer
experience. This post was a fun way to recap my first time building
experience, and also to prove that you don't have to break the bank
to build a sufficiently awesome modern gaming PC.
Special Thanks: Jamie Blahut, Thomas Guidry, Chris Renner, Raymond Teoh, Heather Watson, and my dad for believing I could do it and inspiring me to write about it.