Ferb, Let’s Build a Gaming Machine

One of my best friends and I were sitting on his sheltered front porch while a thunderstorm crashed around us, adding a nice rhythmic drum cadence on his awning while we talking about what gentleman like to converse about best: video games.

I have multiple computers; some made for gaming, one dedicated as a media server, a handful of various sizes and speeds of laptops and all the major current-generation consoles.  He, however, has a solitude laptop (one from work with the terrible Intel-integrated graphics chip) and the Wii, PS3, 3DS, and PSP.  He also has a collection of every past generation (correct me if I’m wrong, please,) console in his basement, attempting to set up a “gamer’s paradise” along one wall.  A place where a person could lose a lifetime re-living some of their best gaming experiences from their childhood on the glorious consoles from last century.  I’m envious, to say the least.

However, he is a single man, no children or significant other (hey ladies!) and has the resources and time to spend building his dream arcade in his basement.

The lack of a proper gaming computer threw me for a loop though.  How could this genuine asset to the gaming community not have a kick-ass frag box set up, loaded with gobs of Steam goodness, pumping heat against the dusty walls behind a dual-monitor setup?  I asked him this question, in less than polite phrasing – as I do with most close friends – and his answer was simple: “Don’t need one yet.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “But think about it.  You could play Skyrim with high-texture packs without the issues plagued by the PS3 version.”

“I don’t have Skyrim on PS3.”

I sat there looking at him with my mouth open.  “How do you…”

“Just haven’t found a need to buy it yet.”

“Oh bud,” I said.  “You’re missing out on one of the greatest games Bethesda ever created.”

“No I’m not,” he looked at me serious.  “It’s a single-player game.  It will still be there when I’m ready to play it.”

“Fine,” I said.  “But I know what I’m getting you for your birthday now.”

“But I don’t have a computer to run it.”

“The Legendary Edition fixed all the issues for PS3 that plagued the original released version.”

“But…”

“No butts,” I interrupted.  “And you need to build a gaming computer.  Just hook it up to one of the multiple televisions in the house and use a wireless keyboard and mouse.  Unless you want a 4K monitor or dual-screens or something, but you can always add-on later.”

“I know,” he said.  “I’ve been thinking about building one for some time, I just haven’t had a reason.”

“Ferb?”  I patted his knee, “I know what we’re going to do today.”

And for you, lucky readers of this blog, I give to you, an inexpensive, but highly upgradable (and modify-able) gaming computer.  With all my biting commentary on parts, why they’re important and why, and what is not so much.

First things first, I saw many “gaming machines” online going for between $1500-$4000.  This is box only – no monitors, external drives, printers, all that extra stuff salesmen at BestBuy I mean: “GreatDeal” who try to throw unnecessary crap in your cart when you aren’t looking to drive up the cost of the overhead.  My goal is to build a base machine you can later upgrade with future parts for a minimal price of $1000.  Obviously, if one shops around and gets parts on deals and rebates, this price will go down dramatically.  For example, video cards are notorious for specials due to the competitiveness of the gaming card market.  You can expect a $150 card on one site listed somewhere else for $20-$50 cheaper on another.

The five main important things any potential computer needs are: power supply, processor and motherboard, video card, hard drives (yes, multiple,) and finally: memory.

For power supply, I say do not go with anything less than 600 watts.  You’ll need something powerful to handle the entire computer system when it is running at its heaviest load.  The reason for this is because the video card needs extra juice, the motherboard-CPU and memory all need adequate power and the drives need consistent power to run stable – when the computer is under the highest load possible.  This means when the components stress out and start pulling their max amount of power, the power supply and connected parts are all working in tandem without varying levels of juice.  Some builders swear by bigger power supplies – up to 1000 watts, however, I say “at least 600 watts” for a reason; it all depends on what other parts go into the build.

The processor and motherboard are tied together because you have two options: Intel or AMD, and depending on which one you choose determines which motherboard, since the form factors for each chip are drastically different.  AMD chips are less expensive than Intel and for those who are notorious over-clockers, some swear they can achieve insane speeds from the multiple cores.  The important thing to remember is “more cores-the better.”  The ironic thing is for Intel processors, especially for gaming machines, reports show for gaming tasks, the i7 is only slightly better than the i5 – in some instances at almost double the cost.  For this project, I would recommend if you want an Intel chipset, grab the i5-4670K, even though it’s the newest generation, this allows for the best option to upgrade to a faster chip in the future.  Since it’s a LGA 1150 form factor, I would go with a Z87 motherboard from either ASRock or Asus.  Prices range from $150-$300 depending on features, however the ASRock Z87 Extreme4 is a solid performing motherboard for this chip that allows everything one would need for future upgrades and more than enough performance today for $150.  On the AMD front, the standard gaming chip is the AMD FX 8320 Black 3.5ghz.  An 8-core behemoth, it costs around $50-$75 less than the newer i5 offering from Intel, however here is a comprehensive side-by-side comparison between the two chips: http://cpuboss.com/cpus/Intel-Core-i5-4670K-vs-AMD-FX-8320 Motherboards go for much cheaper for the AMD processors, since the AM3+ chipset has been around for longer than the LGA 1150 options.  However, I chose one that is the same price as the Intel chipset due to performance and features.  My suggestion is the ASUS M5A99FX Pro R2.0, due to the multiple SATA3 ports, 4 PCI-E ports and gobs of expansion for future happiness.  Ultimately, it’s up to you.  If you don’t want that much upgrade-ability, go with a less expensive motherboard.  Also, some stores such as MicroCenter offer combo discounts when you buy a chip with a board (sometimes up to $75.)  This is a great time to take advantage of price cuts like these.  That $75 basically pays for another component.

I could write an entire article about video cards, however I’ll keep it simple: If you want to stay on the cheap side (around $100,) Pick up an AMD Radeon 7770 HD.  If you want a bit more power and better graphics, spend a bit more (roughly $160,) and grab a GeForce 650 GTX Ti (with 2gb of memory running full screen gaming at 1920×1080, it’s hard to beat this price,) and for an even better experience but much faster gaming experience, grab the Radeon HD 7950 Boost for $320.  The good thing about the motherboards listed above and video cards is you can always upgrade to faster one later if you feel you need more power for specific tasks or games.  Just remember, often, two GeForce 650 GTX Ti’s SLI’d together out-perform many higher priced cards due to the amount of data the two GPU’s process.  Doing some basic research online can enlighten an unnecessary and costly upgrade path later.  Tom’s Hardware Guide is instrumental is comparing various cards for gaming.

For the hard drives, my simple suggestion is this: pick up an SSD to boot for the operating system.  I’ve been impressed with the numbers from the Samsung 840 series (and the price tag) as a boot-drive.  A boot drive is the first drive a computer (you guessed it,) boots from.  It’s the one the operating system runs on and having a solid state drive (SSD) as a boot drive makes booting, accessing files and swap files lightning fast.  The second drive I would recommend is a Western Digital Black 1 or 2 terabyte drive.  Store all your games, pictures, movies, whatever on the mechanical drive and boot off the SSD to use the files needed.  Speed increases due to the SATA 3 controllers on the motherboard (make sure the drives have SATA 3 controllers,) and drive data throughput will astonish even the biggest critic.

Memory is dirt cheap these days.  And 8gb DDR3-1600 chips (each of the above motherboards support 32gb – 4 8gb chips,) range between $50-$80 per chip.  I would say the minimum to put in is 16gb, but throw 32gb if you have the cash.

Now that the core of the computer is complete, the rest is aesthetic:  A good solid case is the Antec 300 case.  They’ve been used for years and won awards for some reason.  It’s a box.  Put all the crap in it.  If you want a DVD drive, NewEgg, TigerDirect and the like often sell Samsung DVD DL +- blah blah blah drives for $20.

After that, pick up a copy of Windows 7 (in the paraphrasing words of the WaterBoy’s mom: “Windows 8 is the Devil!”  Depending on the cost of Windows 7 Professional (Home Premium limits the memory to 16gb and Home Basic is 8gb,) the average cost is $139.

Let’s do some math: (all prices are from today 7-20-2013 (no sales or rebates) from NewEgg.com)

  • Power Supply: Corsair Builder Series CX600 600w: $69
  • CPU/Motherboard: i5-4670k: $239, ASRock Z87 Extreme4: $144.  AMD FX 8320 $159, ASUS M5A99FX: $149.
  • Video Card: Radeon 7770 HD: $109, GeForce 650 GTX Ti: $154, Radeon HD 7950 Boost: $329
  • SSD: Samsung 840 SSD 128Gb: $109, 256Gb: $189
  • Hard Drive: Western Digital Black 1TB: $95, 2TB: $175
  • Memory: 8gb a chip: $50 (16gb: $100, 32gb $200)
  • Case: Antec 300: $50
  • DVD Drive: Any random burner will do. $20
  • Windows 7 Professional: $139

Total: Baseline AMD: $999.  Baseline Intel: $1074.

Mind you, this is with prices listed on NewEgg, with NO sales and NO rebates.  Just about EVERY PIECE HERE can and more likely WILL be found elsewhere online for cheaper.  Follow the below links for price checking and ordering if you’re interested.  Don’t worry, I don’t get any money for linking these places, these are my own personal resources I’m simply sharing with you lazy people.

Just remember, the sky’s the limit.  This is a solid build that will play any game well.  As for upgrades, add the parts you want when you need them.  There is more than enough room for expansion and upgradability in the future as technology progresses.  If you want to go cheaper on specific parts to save cash, please do.  The parts I picked are ones that are current and will last for a few years…

And if you need help, just ask!

-Chris

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