- How To Build An Awesome Gaming PC For $666
- 10 Essential Tweaks: Pushing Your Gaming PC to Its Absolute Limit (Part 1)
- 10 Essential Tweaks: Pushing Your Gaming PC to Its Absolute Limit (Part 2)
- The Essential Crysis 1 Tuning Guide: Make the Original Faster and More Beautiful Than Ever!
- The Essential Crysis 2 Tuning Guide: Better Graphics, More FPS
- The Essential Skyrim Tuning Guide: 5 Best Steps to Increase Speed and Graphics
- The Essential Max Payne 3 Tuning Guide: Optimizing and Troubleshooting in 5 Steps!
- The Essential Diablo 3 Tuning Guide: Diabolical Tweaking for Best FPS!
- The Essential Grand Theft Auto IV Tuning Guide: Get the Latest Look and Resolve Choppy Performance Issues
Who’s up for a round of Diablo 3 or the futuristic Crysis 2 end-of-times gaming spectacle? How about some Max Payne 3? Before firing up your mouse + keyboard combo, are you sure your PC can even handle these games? Many PCs are far too old or simply unequipped to optimize the gaming experience. In this week’s installment of the TuneUp blog for Windows, we’re going to take a look at the best hardware to choose from when building the perfect gaming PC for $666.
(Image credit: Blizzard)
Want to run Diablo III (or any other games) at full resolution and with all details available? This guide is for you.
What is a gaming rig these days all about?
Maximum frames-per-second (FPS)? Yes! Full-HD resolution at 1080p? Hell, yeah! Latest DirectX 11 games at highest quality? Count me in! Just a few years ago, having all three of these features required an expensive gaming PC, easily surpassing $1,500. This meant the budget-conscious had to give up at least one, maybe two of these features. Thankfully, times have changed. New technology — like the 2nd generation Core i7 processors, the new Ivy Bridge platform and NVIDIAs/ATIs latest graphic cards – makes it easy to fulfill the PC gaming “wish list” for less than $700. If, however, you’re a “power gamer” who wants to go to the next level and play with resolutions above 1920×1200, it’ll cost just under $1,400. We’ll include recommendations to do that, as well. In fact, this is the first in a series of post focused on helping you squeeze every last FPS out of your rig, optimizing both your PC and all games to the max.
But without further ado, let’s build our gaming rig!
”Perfect Gamer” Series – Overview
• Part 1: How To Build An Awesome Gaming PC For $666
• Part 2: 10 Essential Tweaks: Pushing Your Gaming PC to Its Absolute Limit, Part 1
• Part 3: 10 Essential Tweaks: Pushing Your Gaming PC to Its Absolute Limit, Part 2
• Part 4: The Essential Crysis 1 Tuning Guide: Make the Original Faster and Beautiful Than Ever
• Part 5: The Essential Crysis 2 Tuning Guide: Better Graphics. More Frames.
• Part 6: The Essential Skyrim Tuning Guide: 5 Best Steps to Increase Speed and Graphics
• Part 7: The Essential Max Payne 3 Tuning Guide: Optimizing and Troubleshooting in 5 Steps!
• Part 8: The Essential Diablo 3 Tuning Guide: Diabolical Tweaking for Best FPS!
• Part 9: The Essential Grand Theft Auto IV Tuning Guide: Get the Latest Look and Resolve Choppy Performance Issues
#1 – CPU vs. GPU? Fight!
The processor (CPU) and graphics card (GPU) are likely the most expensive components of any gaming PC. In high-end gaming PCs, priced in the high four-digits, you will likely find very expensive Core i7 (Extreme Editions) and at least one high-end card that likely costs twice what the gaming PC we’re building in this article does.
This means, we do have to make a slight compromise. But the good news is, even though we’re compromising on either the CPU or the GPU, this choice will likely not cause any major performance issues — even with the latest blockbuster games of 2012. This is because most games are GPU-limited, which means the processor should be your 2nd priority.
When to save money on a CPU (and when not to!)
If your favorite games include mostly 3D-shooter, MMORPGs or racing games, you can easily save on the CPU side and go with a mid-range 3rd gen Core i5 2500k. The reason is, most PC games need to be adapted to the consoles (Xbox 360/PS3/Wii), which all feature 5-6 year old CPUs. All the CPU-heavy tasks of a game (artificial intelligence (AI), background tasks, loading/uncompressing textures…) can be done by today’s low- to mid-range CPUs. However, once you’re jumping into the realm of strategy games with huge maps and a massive AI architecture, the CPU plays a more important role for a smoother gameplay.
Civilization V – A great example of where a more powerful CPU is definitely useful. With very CPU-heavy games like CivV, a $399GeForce GTX 670 won’t save you from choppy gameplay if you’re running on a Core 2 Duo with 2.4 GHz.
Mass Effect: The GPU defines performance, where the CPU has only a very secondary role. Both a Core i3 and a Core i7 can play Mass Effect at full resolution and high detail as long as the GPU is powerful enough.
Unfortunately, the latest AMD “Bulldozer” architecture (e.g. all AMD FX chips, such as the FX 8150, 6100, 4100) can’t compare with their Intel counterparts. While they deliver equal results on multi-threaded games, they’re up to 30% slower on single- or dual-threaded games. If you’re on a budget and need to save every penny, they’re still a good deal, though.
(image credit: Intel)
My recommendation for the power gamer: Intel Core i5-3550 3.3 GHz (3.7 GHz on turbo).
(image credit: Intel)
Recommendation for the budget gamer: Intel Core i3-2120 3.3 GHz
#2 – Fan and Heatsink
If you’re not in the habit of overclocking your CPU to its absolute limits, the stock heatsink and fan (HSF) will do just fine. If, however, you’re planning on squeezing that extra 500 MHz out of your CPU, you’d better arm yourself. The last gaming PCs I built had either the Zalman CNPS8900 (very quiet) or the more powerful – and strictly targeted at high-end overclockers – Thermaltec HR-02.
(image credit: Zalman)
My recommendation for the power gamer: Zalman CNPS8900
My recommendation for the budget gamer: (inbox CPU cooler by Intel/AMD)
Cost: Free (included)
#3 – Motherboard
When shopping for a new motherboard, there’s a lot to look out for:
• Connections: Make sure it includes enough USB 2.0/3.0, SATA, PCI, PCI Express and other slots you need.
• BIOS vs. UEFI: If possible, look out for a mainboard that sports the new UEFI software – it’s much more comfortable and versatile than the classic BIOS.
• Chipset: No matter if you’re choosing a newer Ivy Bridge processor (we mentioned above) or going with an older 2nd generation Intel Core i-CPU, all of Intel’s latest motherboard chipsets are capable of handling both generations. We’ve established that gamers should probably look at Ivy Bridge (or the 2nd generation Sandy Bridge) Intel CPU. The only chipset you need to look at now are the new Z77 and H77 chipsets – all designed for different audiences. Motherboards with the Z77 chipset are built for enthusiasts and offer built-in overclocking. The cheapest Z77 motherboard is available from $114$(Gigabyte Intel Z77 LGA 1155). The H77 chipset usually doesn’t allow full CPU overclocking and has no support for SLI/Crossfire dual graphic card support. If you’re not planning on doing either of that, you can easily go with an H77 for around $80-$100.
(image credit: Gigabyte)
My recommendation for the power gamer: Gigabyte GA-Z77M-D3H Intel Z77 LGA 1155
My recommendation for the budget gamer: Gigabyte GA-H77M-D3H Intel H77 LGA 115
#4 – Memory, Memory…
…has become dirty cheap. For all your gaming needs, 8 GBs of RAM is plenty enough. Don’t let the more expensive 2000 MHz or 2200 MHz speeds fool you – unless you plan to overclock your system by more than 30%, the standard 1600 MHz kit will do just fine. Make sure to get the memory from a reputable vendor such as G.Skill, Corsair, Kingston or OCZ.
My recommendation for the power gamer: Corsair Vengeance 16 GB (2×8 GB) 1600 MHz
My recommendation for the budget gamer: Kingston HyperX 8 GB (2×4 GB) 1600 MHz
#5 – Graphics Card
Obviously, the most important part of any gaming system is the graphics card. To play, for example, Crysis 2 at full HD, at the “Very High Details” setting and with Anti-Aliasing enabled, the GeForce GTX 560 produce around 50 FPS. The cheapest GTX 560 (from EVGA) is available for $169.99 and should be plenty for all your gaming needs. Only gamers who play at 2560×1600 at Ultra Detail levels should look at the GTX 670 which is 30-40% faster – but also more than twice as expensive. Do check out the G3D price performance list for a full comparison.
Crysis 2 is likely one of the most demanding games of this generation. All the cards we recommend here deliver solid results at full HD resolution.
Approximately 20-30% slower, but also up just a tad above the $100 price point, the ATI Radeon 6770 offers a fantastic price for performance ratio. As you can see from our friends at HubPages, the 6770 plays Crysis 2 between very decent 35 to 45 FPS, which is still “smooth” to our eyes. If that’s not enough: Have a look at the AMD Radeon 7850 (starting point: $220), which offers performance about 15-30% above the GTX 560 and runs cooler and a tad quieter.
My recommendation for the power gamer: EVGA SuperClocked 01G-P3-1463-KR GeForce GTX 560 1 GB RAM
My recommendation for the budget gamer: XFX HD-677X-ZNLC ATI Radeon HD 6770 1 GB RAM
#6 – Solid State All The Way
Hard-drive prices are still quite high (thanks to the flood in Taiwan) and have only started to come down. Both that, and the fact that new flash-based drives are becoming cheaper, is the reason why I recommend an SSD hard drive for even the gamer on a budget. A very solid (pardon the pun) OCZ Vertex 3 with 128 GB will set you back $129. Make sure to invest a lot of time in researching this investment to be sure to get an SSD with the latest controllers, such as SandForce. Higher-end users should probably look at the 180 GB Intel 330 Series or the 256 GB Corsair Performance Pro.
Obviously, SSDs will take care of annoyingly long loading times between levels or while firing up a multiplayer map. It will, also, help your gaming rig keep a steady and smooth framerate. Why? Usually, the game doesn’t load the entire level or map in RAM, which means it needs to continuously access the disk and load textures, models, sound files and more. A slower hard disk may mean that the CPU, RAM and GPU are waiting and ready to go while the data is still being shuffled into memory — an SSD cures this problem instantly.
My recommendation for the power gamer: Intel 330 180 GB
My recommendation for the budget gamer: OCZ Vertex 3 128 GB
#7 – Whatever the Case May Be…
When it comes to cases, get what you like is typically my advice. Well, almost. Besides obvious differences in taste, you should look out for a case that blends well with its environment. Personally, I hate nothing more than the uber-crazy, transformers-shaped chassis that doesn’t fit with the rest of your living or gaming room. But maybe I’m the wrong person to ask.
(Image credit: Hacked Gadgets)
PC cases range from crazy….
…to very geeky, such as this Guardian 921 RB ($69)…
…to very sleek, like the Obsidian 550D ($139.99).
#8 – Power Supplies
Although CPUs are becoming more and more energy efficient, you still need a mighty power supply if you’ve chosen a higher-end CPU (with more than 4 cores) and GPU. For our power gamers’ graphics card, the GTX 560, I recommend at least a 500 Watt power supply. Beware of the cheap “1200 Watt” or “1500 Watt” generics. Instead, go with a brand-name if you want to avoid crashes or unexpected shutdowns amid heated gaming action.
(Image credit: PC Power and Cooling)
My recommendation for the power gamer: PC Power and Cooling Silencer MK III 600W
My recommendation for the budget gamer: COOLER MASTER Extreme 2 RS-475-PCAR 475W ATX 12V V2.3
#9 – Accessories: DVD Drive and Discrete Sound Cards
I wouldn’t give a lot of thought about which drive to build-into the gaming rig for two reasons. First, because services, like EA’s Origin and Valve’s Steam are slowly, but steadily, killing the physical media (and the retailers, sadly), the need for a dedicated DVD drive is becoming less important. However, I still recommend having a drive, just keep it simple and get, for example, a Samsung 22x DVD Burner for around $20.
Downloading games online decreases the need for optical media (sad, but true – I still prefer a box with my video games)
The next on my list hurts me a lot. In most cases, the built-in soundchip is enough for the everyday gamer. Back in my early days of building gaming PCs (and we’re talking mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s here), I would spend at least $200 on fantastic soundcards, such as the SoundBlaster X-Fi series or the Terratec SoundSystem DMX, which would offer incredible 5.1 surround sound and increased gaming performance by offloading all the decoding from the CPU.
These days, the sound chips on your motherboard (such as, the Realtek HD Audio line) produce good sound quality. If, however, you’ve got an absolute high-end home theatre rig hooked up to your gaming PC, you may want to spend the extra bucks and get the SoundBlaster X-Fi Titanium HD with THX certification, EAX 5.0 (for better surround in games), a sample rate of 96 KHz and 24-bit digital audio, as well as a plethora of connectors. It’ll set you back $179.99, though! And yes, if your motherboard doesn’t feature one, you’ll need to shelve another $21 for a Wi-Fi USB adapter – I recommend the slim Patriot PCUSBW1150. If you need more bandwidth, go with a dual-band USB adapter (which will set you back between $50-$70). My recommendation here is the Linksys AE2500.
The End Result
Ok, we’ve given you – hopefully – solid recommendations that’ll allow you to play new games at full HD resolution. Here’s an overview of the components we’ve recommended:
Now that you’ve build your own gaming PC, it’s time to optimize it to the fullest! Make sure to read all our “Perfect Gamer” series and push your gaming PC and your games to the limits….
Next step, try out our “Top 10 Secret Steps To Pushing Your PC and Games to the Limit”!
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