||Building a $1,000 Gaming PC
August 29, 2005 Brandon Sandman Bell
Summary: What components would you select if you had $1,000 to build a cutting-edge rig for gaming? That's the task Brandon was given in this article. See which components he selected, why he chose them, and how his $1,000 system performs in comparison to a cutting-edge Athlon 64 FX-57/GeForce 7800 GTX PC in today's article!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 15 )|
First things first though, this isnít an article on how to build your own computer, nor is it a product review or pricing guide. Instead Iím going to walk you through some system components that you may want to consider for your next upgrade, whether youíre going back to school, or youíre hoping to build a faster rig for Battlefield 2 or Quake 4. The prices listed for the components in this article may not be the lowest, but hopefully theyíll steer you in the right direction of what you may expect to pay online. The sources used include PriceWatch and Newegg.com.
Along the way Iíll be opining quite a bit more than normal, with my comments based on previous experiences. Donít worry, I wonít be getting out of hand, and most of it will be based on the countless hours Iíve spent testing hardware, as well as building systems of my own as well as for friends and family. Of course, it also goes without saying that since this is only a ~$1,000 system, the components used arenít necessarily the best of breed, I should also warn you in advance that some of my selections may not fit your particular needs, for instance, many PC enthusiasts love ATIís ALL-IN-WONDER cards due to their unique abilities such as timeshifting and, more recently, FM tuning, while the motherboard Iíve chosen may not provide the overclocking options youíre looking for, or perhaps you need something a little cheaper.
Quite often we get emails asking which component(s) are ďthe bestĒ or, ďI have [x] amount of money to spend for my next upgrade, what do you think I should get?Ē Itís impossible for us to answer these types of questions for you, simply because only you know what your needs are. Only you know how you use your computer, every person out there is different, even among gamers. For instance, some gamers consider 30 frames per second (fps) to be a playable frame rate, while others insist on 60 or 70 fps. One gamer may prefer to game at high-res, cranking up the image quality as much as possible, while another may go with lower resolutions for higher framerates. Some prefer cranking up AA with low-res, while others prefer higher resolutions without AA.
This is why we try to provide as many resolutions in our reviews as possible, and in some cases, with or without AA/AF. It takes us a little longer as a result, but you get more information on how the product performs in return.
With all this in mind Iíll try to convey why each component was chosen for the article, and finally sum things up with benchmarks. For the sake of comparison, Iíll also include benchmarks with a high-end Athlon 64 FX-57 rig equipped with EVGAís e-GeForce 7800 GTX KO ACS≥ card.
| Core components||Page:: ( 2 / 15 )|
Athlon 64 3500+ - $219 Newegg: For years the CPU was considered the core component in any system, but nowadays that isnít necessarily the case. 3D graphics cards like NVIDIAís GeForce series and ATIís RADEON cards offload graphics duties from the processor, freeing it up to handle other tasks. AGEIAís physX chip hopes to do the same for game physics.
With that being said however, the CPU still plays a very important role in your systemís overall performance. Itís just that its importance varies depending on how you use your CPU. If youíre a home video buff or spend lots of time in Photoshop tinkering with your photos the CPU is crucial, as itís responsible for encoding your home movies or applying your Photoshop filters. If you use your PC primarily for browsing the Internet, or checking email, the CPU isnít nearly as important, as it spends most of its time idling waiting for something to do. Since weíre a gaming-oriented site, weíre going to look at things from the perspective of a gamer rather than a video enthusiast.
Gamers definitely need speedy processors, but at the same time the video card plays a critical role as well, so itís important that you balance both components out with each other. In this case we chose AMDís Athlon 64 3500+ processor.
The Athlon 64 is the fastest processor out there right now, especially for gaming, so picking AMD was a no-brainer. Instead, the more difficult part was choosing the right clock speed: since Iím limited to a $1,000 budget, I canít go all-out for an Athlon 64 X2 or FX-series processor, but at the same time I need something thatís speedy enough to keep the system running smoothly.
Fortunately I was able to refer back to my GeForce 7800 GTX Performance with Athlon 64 article. In the article I ran numbers with Athlon 64 chips ranging from the 3,000+ model all the way up to the FX-57, with a wide variety of games to tested. In the article I concluded that the sweet spot for price/performance lie somewhere around 2.2GHz for NVIDIAís GeForce 7800 GTX, otherwise the processor wasnít fast enough to keep the 7800 GTX GPU fed, resulting in lower performance.
And while Iím not using NVIDIAís 7800 GTX GPU for the $1,000 system, the 7800 GTís DNA is quite similar to the 7800 GTX, as theyíre both built on the same graphics core, only the 7800 GT board ships with less pipelines and lower clock speeds.
GeForce 7800 GT - $383 Price Watch: Next to the CPU, the graphics card is tied as the most important component choice any gamer must consider when building or upgrading a new system. If either component tilts too far to one extreme (say for instance, a $500 CPU with a 3-year old graphics card, or vice versa), the other will suffer, resulting in poor performance.
Ideally you want to keep both components in balance, or at least as close as possible. This is why a lot of enthusiasts will buy a cheaper processor and overclock it to clock speeds 100-200MHz (or more) higher than default, or overclock a CPU they purchased a year ago to go along with the shiny new graphics card purchase. Speaking of overclocking, this strategy is best accomplished with the CPU rather than the GPU, simply because you gain a lot more via CPU overclocking. Not only are you overclocking the processor, but also the other components within the system, including the graphics card in some cases. NVIDIAís board partners are beginning to overclock their cards from the factory anyways.
On the graphics side, I chose NVIDIAís GeForce 7800 GT. As I just mentioned, the 7800 GT is built on the same architecture as the 7800 GTX, only it has four of its pixel pipelines disabled (for a total of 20) as well as one vertex unit. NVIDIA also ships it with slightly lower clocks, 400MHz on the GPU versus 430MHz for the 7800 GTX, and 500MHz on the memory instead of the 7800 GTXís 600MHz. As a result, the 7800 GT will never outrun a 7800 GTX, but it delivers about 90% of the performance of a 7800 GTX for a lower price point, which is important considering the $1,000 budget.
In terms of picking one 7800 GT manufacturer amongst another, weíll just leave that for the roundup, but in case you were wondering, we used BFGís 7800 GT OC for the numbers provided in this article.
| Components (contíd)||Page:: ( 3 / 15 )|
MSI K8N Neo4 SLI - $123 Newegg: After the graphics card and CPU, the motherboard is the third most important component in your system. When picking out a motherboard, arguably the most important factors to consider are stability (first and foremost), features, and price. Stability is the most difficult to judge when window-shopping, which is why many enthusiasts are so brand-centric when it comes to motherboards. Quite simply, many have been burned by a bad purchase, and have sworn off one brand or another as a result, even if it may not have been the motherboardís fault. Youíd be surprised just how many ďmotherboard problemsĒ are misdiagnosed and are actually the fault of user error.
For example back in the days just before the Athlon XP debuted, many Socket A motherboards shipped with hardware monitors that would shut down your system if the motherboard didnít get a reading from the CPU fan. In theory, this was designed to protect the CPU from getting damaged in case the CPU fan failed. What would happen in the real world though is that end users would hook their CPU fan up to the system fan header instead of the CPU fan header by accident, after all the two headers were located right next to each other on many motherboards! As a result, the board would boot up for a second, and then turn itself off.
Any end user diagnosing the problem that wasnít aware of the change would assume the board was having power problems and RMA it, even though the board was good. This is part of the reason why so many motherboards ship with power LEDs and diagnostic LEDs today.
Before you determine which motherboard to buy however, you first have to select a chipset. Here the choice is a no-brainer: nForce4! NVIDIAís nForce4 line is the most feature-packed, and strongest-performing. The nForce4 chipset is also the most reliable. As a result, the only real debate on the chipset side isnít picking the manufacturer, itís determining which nForce4 chipset to get. NVIDIA offers the vanilla nForce4, nForce4 Ultra, nForce4 SLI, and more recently, the nForce4 SLI X16.
For our purposes, we chose the nForce4 SLI chipset. With its extra PCI-E graphics slot, nForce4 SLI provides an additional upgrade path for enthusiasts Ė if youíre unhappy with your systemís current performance, just drop in another graphics card! With nForce4 or nForce4 Ultra you donít have this flexibility. And thanks to rapidly falling board prices, nForce4 SLI boards can be found for only $20-$40 more than the equivalent nForce4 Ultra board. Once nForce4 SLI X16 boards hit the market en masse, that price premium will likely fall even further.
The motherboard I selected for the rig was MSIís K8N Neo4 SLI. The K8N Neo4 SLIís bigger brother, the Neo4 Platinum has won its fair share of hardware around here, earning our Bullís Eye Award in our motherboard roundup earlier this year. In addition to the regular nForce4 SLI features (of which there are many) the K8N Neo4 features Sound Blaster Live! 7.1 audio onboard, making it one of the higher-end SLI motherboards in the inexpensive price range.
With this in mind, itís important to note that there are two categories of SLI motherboards on the market, one higher-end and one lower-end. The lower-end boards are based on the same design as the higher-end boards, only they lack a feature or two. In MSIís case, the K8N Neo4 SLI ships with all the same features found in the K8N Neo4 Platinum SLI except for the additional Serial ATA storage controller (which supports two additional SATA devices) and the second Gigabit Ethernet controller, only it sells for about $40-$50 less. Therefore, if you donít think youíll need either of these features, save your money and get the regular K8N Neo4 SLI board.
| Storage components||Page:: ( 4 / 15 )|
1GB Corsair ValueSelect DDR400 - $89.75 Newegg:
Also donít forget to run your memory at the proper voltage, often times memory modules are only rated to run at certain speeds and timings at a particular voltage, which is higher than default levels
We stick with brand name memory in the FiringSquad labs and itís a practice Iíve stuck too as well. Having lived in a college dorm previously Iíve run into plenty of gamers on a budget with systems with generic no-name memory installed causing problems. These generic brands tend to have compatibility problems with some chipsets and motherboards as well. Iím not saying that all obscure brands are bad, in fact, quite a few of them arenít, but Iíve been burned too many times in the past and would rather spend the $10 or $15 (at most) and just get a name I trust.
On a $1,000 system, you obviously canít afford to spend it all on the highest-end memory out there, but at the same time many of the major brands have lower-end memory lines, just like all manufacturers do. OCZ and Corsair are the two memory brands I trust the most, and both have value memory lines to select from.
For the rig I chose Corsairís ValueSelect DDR400 1GB kit from Newegg.com, which is selling for $89.75 right now. The memoryís listed as CAS 2.5 RAM, so it isnít the fastest RAM on the market, but for $90, itís a good deal. I was really, really tempted to splurge and go with the OCZ 1GB kit selling for $147.75, as it offers CAS 2 latency and Iíve had great results with OCZ memory, but I just couldnít justify spending another $58; after all Iím trying my best to stick with the $1,000 budget.
If you do have the money though, Iíd highly recommend the OCZ, and based on user reviews on Newegg, it looks like OCZ has scored lots of points with end users for their speedy, excellent customer service.
Hard disk drive
Maxtor DiamondMax 10 6L300S0 - $129.99 Newegg:
No system is complete without a hard disk drive, which is why it ranks right up there with memory in significance. Of course, your average consumer (and perhaps many of you) would probably rank the hard disk drive (HDD) ahead of memory, and again this is where your personal needs are going to take precedence. Obviously a faster HDD means faster load times, which is important, especially for multiplayer games, as you can load up levels faster than your competitors, allowing you to get on the map faster and thus obtain the initial advantage. At the same time though, bad memory can affect your system stability more so than the HDD, which is why in my book, memory comes slightly ahead of the HDD.
If youíve got a huge library of movies, MP3s, etc, and donít push your memoryís timings or speeds like an overclocker or performance junkie would, obviously the HDD is going to rank ahead of memory, but for my use, I need good memory.
With all that being said however, fortunately I didnít have to skimp all that much on the HDD, as I noticed that Newegg was running a Labor Day sale on the Maxtor DiamondMax 10 -- these drives are similar to the ones that weíve been using on our testbed systems for about a year now.
Neweggís special is on Maxtorís DiamondMax 10 6L300S0. This is a 300GB Serial ATA HDD with a 7200RPM rotational speed and most importantly, a 16MB cache. The DiamondMax 10 is a good drive, with support for native command queuing, and boasts a sub-9ms access time. The drive is also quiet.
The real icing on the cake though is Neweggís current pricing for the the Maxtor DiamondMax 10 6L300S0: $129.99! This was just too good a deal to pass up. IDE users will be glad to know that the IDE version currently sells for $128.
| Other components||Page:: ( 5 / 15 )|
Power Supply Unit
While Iím not dedicating any of the $1,000 budget to a specific power supply unit, its significance shouldnít be underestimated. Iíd rank the PSU just slightly ahead of the case, but behind memory and hard disk drive in order of importance. An inadequate PSU can affect the stability of your system, and as SLI grows in popularity having a good PSU will become even more essential.
The only reason I didnít dedicate any money specifically to the PSU is because I splurged and spent a little more money than I probably should have on the graphics and CPU, but if this were a real-world situation and I was building this system for myself, Iíd probably find a way to spend the money on a dedicated unit, rather than going with the PSU that comes with the case.
Try and budget around $50 w/PSU: Again, since I splurged and spent away over half of the $1,000 budget on the CPU and graphics Iím now in serious conservation mode, trying to save as much money as possible so I can remain around the $1,000 budget I outlined for the article.
Therefore, rather than recommend a particular case for the system, Iíd go to my retailer of choice and see what they happen to have on special. Iíve happened upon many premium cases with case windows, additional ventilation, and other extras on special at my local Fryís for around $50 with PSU (including Antec cases!) so thatís the route Iíd recommend.
Newegg.com for example has a RAIDMAX Cobra case with a case window, and 420W PSU for $45.99, or this ATRIX case with a drive bay door, case window, blowhole on the side of the case, and 480W PSU for $55. Either one of these cases would be excellent deals for the gamer on a budget.
NEC ND-3520A drive - $42 Price Watch:
With only a few dollars leftover, Iíve now gone from serious conservation, to maximum skimping mode. (Actually, once you factor in sales tax or shipping Iím over the $1,000 budget, but thatís another story.) In other words, there isnít any money leftover for me to splurge on the optical drive.
Like the HDD though, I got lucky, and was able to find an NEC 16X dual-layer DVD drive with 8X RW speeds for $42 on PriceWatch. Newegg.com has a newer version of the NEC drive selling for $8 more at $49.99 if you want to stick with a major retailer.
| Alternatives||Page:: ( 6 / 15 )|
Upgrading from CAS 2.5 to CAS 2 RAM likely would have bought me another two or perhaps up to three percent in performance at low resolutions, which isnít too shabby for a few dollars more.
To save money, I couldíve gone with a slower processor, such as a Venice-based 939-pin Athlon 64 3200+. Price Watch/Neweggís lowest listing for one of these chips is just under $200 at $190. The 3200+ runs 200MHz slower, putting it just below the sweet spot I found a few weeks ago for the 7800 GTX, but considering that the 7800 GT runs a little slower anyway, the 3200+ would certainly still be a good fit for the 7800 GT. In addition, with a little bit of overclocking, the 3200+ could easily hit the same performance levels as the 3500+.
On the flip side, with the 3800+ selling for roughly $100 more than the 3500+, I donít think stepping up to a faster processor wouldíve been a good idea considering my $1,000 budget.
Another avenue I could have saved a little money on would be graphics, right now GeForce 6800 GTs can be found for about $300 online, which would have saved about $83 off the total price of the system. As we saw in the GeForce 7800 GT Performance Preview however, that extra $83 gives you a substantial boost in performance, so I felt like I had to find a way to get the 7800 GT in the system.
Like the 3800+ upgrade, I donít think it would have been feasible to go up to a 7800 GTX considering my $1,000 budget.
After spending so much of my budget on the CPU and graphics I had to skimp in other areas to keep things reasonable, with the memory and power supply being the most obvious examples of thrifty shopping. I got a gig of DDR400 RAM for under $100, while my case selection already came with a 480W PSU, saving me money there.
I also could have saved a little money by going with a smaller HDD, but at $130, the Maxtor drive was just too good a deal for me to pass up. At that price point, youíre only paying about 43 cents per gigabyte! On top of that, youíre getting a drive with cutting-edge features, including NCQ support and a 16MB cache.
Like I said, the deal is just too good to pass up.
But if you must stick to the budget, and donít have room to splurge for a bigger, faster HDD, there are plenty of alternatives out there. 150GB SATA drives with NCQ can be found for under $100 online, you also may be able to find a 200GB or perhaps even a 250GB for just below the Maxtorís $130 price point.
If I were doing the shopping for myself though Iíd find a way to make the Maxtor drive work with my budget.
The final alternative path that I may have considered with this build was on the motherboard. Again, I debated between MSIís Neo4 SLI board and their Neo4 nForce4 Ultra board, both are packed with features and sell at competitive prices, but ultimately I settled on the SLI board because it has a better upgrade path. After all, by the time the 7800 GT begins to show signs of age, something newer from NVIDIA will be out, making 7800 GTs obsolete and thus selling for bargain basement pricing. When that happens, just drop in another 7800 GT for nearly double the performance, or if youíd like, buy the next-gen card that replaces the 7800 GT.
With SLI, you can choose which path you want to go down. You canít do that with nForce4 Ultra.
| Test Systems||Page:: ( 7 / 15 )|
AMD Athlon 64 FX-57
AMD Athlon 64 3500+
ASUS A8N-SLI Deluxe
MSI K8N Neo4 SLI
1GB OCZ DDR400 SDRAM with 2-2-2-5 timings
1GB OCZ DDR400 SDRAM with 2.5-3-3-6 timings
EVGA e-GeForce 7800 GTX KO ACS≥
BFG GeForce 7800 GT OC
Driver version 77.77
250GB Maxtor Hard Drive Maxline III SATA Hard Drive w/16MB Cache
Windows XP Professional SP1
IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles
Far Cry 1.31
| Pacific Fighters||Page:: ( 8 / 15 )|
Pacific Fighters - OpenGL
| Far Cry Training||Page:: ( 9 / 15 )|
Far Cry Ė Direct3D
| IL2||Page:: ( 10 / 15 )|
IL-2: FB Ė OpenGL
| Half-Life 2||Page:: ( 11 / 15 )|
Half-Life 2 Ė Direct3D
| Battlefield 2||Page:: ( 12 / 15 )|
Battlefield 2 Ė Direct3D
| F.E.A.R. Performance||Page:: ( 13 / 15 )|
F.E.A.R. Beta Ė Direct3D
| F.E.A.R. 4xAA/16xAF||Page:: ( 14 / 15 )|
F.E.A.R. Beta Ė Direct3D
| Conclusion||Page:: ( 15 / 15 )|
Athlon 64 3500+: $219
GeForce 7800 GT: $383
MSI K8N Neo4 SLI: $123
Corsair ValueSelect DDR400: $89.75
Maxtor DiamondMax 10 6L300S0: $129.99
RAIDMAX Cobra case: $45.99
NEC 16X Dual-Layer DVD +/- RW drive: $42
The grand total for the system comes out to $1,032.73 once everything is added up. This is just a little bit more than I set out to spend, but still pretty close to the $1,000 originally budgeted. Of course, I didnít include the cost of other critical system components such as the operating system, mouse, keyboard, and monitor, but obviously if youíre reading this article you clearly already have these components. Along those same lines, I also didnít include things like sales tax or shipping, as that wouldíve been harder to judge, but still, hopefully you got a good ballpark figure of what $1,000 will buy you today.
As I stated earlier, some of the components found in this system may not fit your particular needs. For instance, an audio buff who regularly burns his audio CDs may want to add an additional optical drive for greater burning flexibility, or even a dedicated Audigy 2/4 or X-Fi card, while someone who isnít a heavy gamer but does like to multitask and works with video encoding frequently may want to opt for a dual-core processor like one of Intelís cheaper Pentium D processors.
In other words, there are lots of ways you could tweak the components selected to suit what you need.
The key to determining which components you need is to first figure out how you use your PC on a daily basis. Once youíve figured out how you use your PC, and which types of software applications you use most, you can then figure out which components are best suited for you based on a given budget.
For $1,000, the budget rig delivered pretty surprising performance. At high resolutions the budget PC put up very respectable numbers in comparison to the high-end FX-57 rig it was compared against. Remember, the FX-57 PC was equipped with an EVGA e-GeForce 7800 GTX KO ACS≥ card, which runs about 10% faster than a stock 7800 GTX, so that accounts for a good percentage of the difference between the two systems.
Hopefully this article outlined a few things youíll look for when youíre ready for your next upgrade, as well as provided a little guidance in terms of what you can expect to find for $1,000 these days. Now get out there and start shopping!