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Building A Better Console: A Visual Journey into My First PC Building Experience

"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."
"...."

This 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 knew 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.

Note: 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).

 

Phase 1: Buying the Parts


After 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...).

I decided I needed the following items to rebuild a working PC:

  • Motherboard

  • CPU/Processor

  • Video Card/GPU

  • RAM

  • Power Supply

  • Operating System

 

My old 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.

I also 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. Sold!

Newegg 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.

The 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).

So I 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!

When 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 everywhere. Sold!

The 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!

The 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!

The 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 Newegg. Sold!

Finally, 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.

So what's the damage? I actually ended up getting half the parts from Newegg and half from Amazon, as follows:

Amazon:

  • Motherboard (MSI 970A - G46) $78

  • Power Supply (Corsair 500W) $57

  • Video Card (Gigabyte Geforce GTX 650 Ti) $130

Subtotal - $265 + $21 Tax = $286 (free shipping)

Newegg:

  • CPU (AMD Phenom II X4) $100

  • RAM (Corsair 2x4GB) $75

  • HDD (Seagate 1TB) $70

  • OS (Windows 7 Professional 64-bit OEM) $100

Subtotal - $345 - (Combo and Discount code) $45 = $300 (free shipping)

Total Cost - $586

 

My 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 features.

Note: 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.

Also 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!

 

Phase 2: Putting it Together


Even 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.

Removing the power supply is a bit like removing the spinal column with a long intimidating trail of multiple wires cascading down the back.

Once 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.

Once the parts arrived (free shipping on everything, both orders arrived three days after order was placed - wow!) it was time to get to work.

First 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 first.

The CPU came with its own large heatsink that's become standard issue and is perfectly fine until you start getting into overclocking territory.

The 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.

With 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.

Next I 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!

Time 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.

Just 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.

Finally in goes the Power Supply. I wanted to wait until everything was in its place before having to deal with all those extra wires.

Luckily 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).

For 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.

The 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!

Sadly 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.

I 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?

With 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.

After 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.

Did I mention I bought a new monitor?

I left 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.

Hold on to your butts.

We have lights! Fans! Action!

We have a BIOS Screen! Success!

And a 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.

First things first - installing windows, a process that use to take hours now only takes about 15 minutes. Granted it helps to have a clean, empty HDD!

After 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.

A 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.

One last pic before she's covered up and wired into the desk. I'm all kinds of happy!

 

Phase 3: Profit!

Now 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.

Simple 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.

A pair of soldiers dueling on a farm.

Stopping to admire a waterfall.

A dragon swooped down while I was peacefully running around taking pictures. I guess he wasn't a fan of tourists.

He also wasn't a fan of my warhammer.

Although 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.

Battlefield 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 spells.

Smooth frame rate is absolutely crucial in an intensive game like BF3.

Though occasionally I like to stop and admire the scenery.

I 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).

You 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.

I also 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).

Testing 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.

Now 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.

I 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.

 

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