Sunday, May 27, 2012

Budget Gaming System Guide (May 2012)

Assembling a PC can involve headaches. Troubleshooting a problem can take time and exhaustive experimentation. On my last build, I installed the CPU cooler backplate backwards, causing a hot trace on the motherboard. Once I figured out the problem, it took some time to tear down and reassemble with insulated side of the backplate facing the motherboard. On another build I could boot into the OS but the instant I placed a cooler on the processor the computer shut down. That one required junking the entire motherboard because the damaged socket was irreparable.

The longer you work with computers, the more horror stories and head-scratchers you will accumulate.

Building a computer can be intimidating faced with stories like this. After all, you are your own tech support. Assembly, however, is the easy part. The really intimidating part is hardware selection. It's easy to pick the best of the best if money is no object and you're after "balls to the wall" performance. It's considerably harder when you're a normal person with a budget - particularly if that budget is under four figures. The inaugural system guide for Text, Play, Tinker enters into precisely that territory.

Live pricing courtesy of PC Part Picker:

  • Case: Cooler Master HAF 912 The HAF 912 offers aggressive-styling without the "OMG LED" aesthetic that characterizes far too many low-priced gaming cases. The feature list is bare-bones but it is a solid case that's easy to build in. My personal system is inside one of these with an extra 120mm side fan and a 200mm in the top of the case but the stock cooling is surprisingly good.
  • CPU: Intel Core i3-2120 Until "Ivy Bridge" moves into dual-core, this is the arguably the best processor for budget gaming on the market. As games become increasingly GPU-dependent, this is more than fast enough to feed high-end graphics cards, let alone the card selected here.
  • Motherboard: ASUS P8Z77-V LK I've handled boards from all the major vendors at different price points and ASUS constantly delivers quality products for the price. Moreover, as UEFI replaces BIOS as the firmware of the future, ASUS' implementation is head-and-shoulders above any of the other vendors. The LK offers SLI and CrossFireX support; if you've no interest in dual-graphics configurations, you can save around $30 and drop down to the LX version. Z68 boards can be had slightly cheaper but going with Z77 ensures compatibility with a future "Ivy Bridge" upgrade.
  • RAM: Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 CAS 9 Lower speed RAM is cheaper but DDR3-1600 is the memory standard for Intel going forward so I've included this as another nod to a future upgrade. Lower CAS latency modules are available for a premium but don't be suckered in. Synthetic benchmarks love them but real-world applications could care less.
  • Graphics Card: MSI Radeon HD 6870 Twin Frozr II While they remain in production, AMD's 6800-series cards offer the best performance/price at standard resolutions (1080p) and MSI's version reviews consistently well. Keep in mind, however, that cards several tiers higher still can't completely max out games like Battlefield 3 or The Witcher 2 even at 1080p, let alone multi-monitor gaming. 
  • Storage: Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB Hard drive prices have fallen enough that 1TB drives are affordable for a build in this price bracket, whereas I used to recommend 500GB drives even a couple months ago. Samsung's Spinpoint series performs well and has one of the lowest failure rates to date. Western Digital's Caviar Blue is another option.
  • Optical Drive: Samsung SN-208BB DVD/CD Unless you spend a lot of time mastering discs, optical drives have become commodity parts. ASUS, Samsung, and Lite-On all make solid offerings.
  • Power Supply: Antec Earthwatts 650W (plus ~$5 power cord) Antec's Earthwatts series is an ugly green power supply with absolutely no cable sleeving. It's also dead quiet for a basic offering and offers more than enough capacity for future upgrades. The worst thing about it? In trying to be "green" it doesn't ship with a power cord, so make sure you get one before assembly.
  • The Microsoft Tax: Windows 7 Home Premium (OEM) I've included the OEM-version but think long and hard whether you plan a motherboard upgrade in the near future. If you plan more than two motherboard swaps in the next 5-7 years and are scared of Windows 8, it might be worth getting the full retail license, which isn't tied to a specific motherboard.
The Next Upgrade: For my money, the next thing I'd do with this system is install an SSD as the OS/application drive. A quality one doesn't come cheap and many are scared off by premature drive failures. The drive with the best performance also happens to be the one with nearly-perfect reliability: the Samsung 830 series. I just installed the 256 GB version in my system and I'm really impressed with the effect on everyday computing as well as game loads. I saved up for this size because even though all my media are stored on a standard HDD, the number of programs I keep installed at any one time is just over 128GB, and the most annoying thing about a smaller SSD is constantly uninstalling/re-installing games to keep within the space constraints. 

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