||Building a Budget Gaming PC
September 22, 2005
Summary: Last month we built a cutting-edge PC for gaming for just over $1K. In this article, we aim to do the same for nearly half the same price: $600. See which components Brandon chose for this system and how it performed in comparison to the high-end FX-57 and mainstream 3500+ systems tested previously in this article!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 16 )|
Once again Iím going to opine quite a bit in this article. You may not agree with all my decisions, especially since weíre now dealing with an even cheaper system (after all, everyone already knows GeForce 7800 GTX and nForce4 SLI are flagship components). Just remember when looking over my selections that the key isnít so much the components chosen themselves, but why they were chosen.
As I discussed in the previous article, the key to choosing system components is to know how you currently use your computer, and what you want to do with it in the future. Once you know that, itís then just a matter of selecting the right components for that purpose based on a given budget -- donít buy a dual-core processor if all you do is browse the Internet and check email on your computer, just about any contemporary CPU can handle that. Likewise, gamers looking to get the most bang from their buck shouldnít look at high-end $600 graphics cards when less expensive cards are often available in the $200-$300 range that are based on the same architecture delivering many of the same features and performance for half the price. ATIís RADEON X800 XL was a perfect example of this earlier this year.
Again, once you know what you want to do with your system and how much youíre willing to spend, you can then make decisions on which components would be best to fill that need.
Yet again Iím going to be using Newegg as a source of pricing for the system components. Neweggís pricing is very competitive, and backed up with excellent service and support. Newegg is also a source used by many of you for your own purchases. In addition to providing benchmarks of the $600 build, Iíll also include the performance results of the $1,000 Athlon 64 3500+ rig built a few weeks ago, as well as the flagship Athlon 64 FX-57 system with EVGAís e-GeForce 7800 GTX KO ACS≥ graphics inside. Hopefully seeing the performance of all three systems together will provide a pretty clear indication of what kind of performance you can buy at three very different price points nowadays.
| Core components||Page:: ( 2 / 16 )|
Athlon 64 3000+ ďVeniceĒ core - $146 Newegg: Even though weíre building a ďbudgetĒ system, we didnít want to compromise on performance when it came to the processor. The CPU plays an important role in your systemís overall performance and is used for a wide variety of tasks, including A.I. and physics in games, and encoding for all you audio and video enthusiasts who read this site.
Traditional budget rigs ship with value processors, such as AMDís Sempron CPUs and Intelís Celeron line. These processors are largely based on their more expensive Athlon 64 and Pentium 4/D counterparts (although do keep in mind that there are quite a few Socket A Athlon XP-based Sempron processors floating around out there), with only a few features taken out to lower production costs. The most popular technique that both AMD and Intel use is to reduce the amount of onboard L2 cache, Athlon 64-based Sempron CPUs ship with only 256KB of L2 cache, thatís half the amount found in the Athlon 64 3500+ that we used in our $1,000 PC build, and just a fourth of the amount of memory found in one of AMDís higher-end Athlon 64 CPUs, such as the Athlon 64 4000+.
On the Intel platform, their Celeron processors not only ship with less onboard cache, they also ship with lower bus speeds, crippling overall system performance. AMDís Socket 754 Sempron CPUs feature an 800MHz HyperTransport interface, thatís 200MHz slower than the Socket 939 chips.
With this in mind, I knew I wanted to avoid AMD and Intelís value processors. With a $600 budget I felt I could afford to step up to a fully-fledged Athlon 64 CPU and still have enough room left over for the rest of the system components as long as I kept the clock speed of the CPU in check.
Hereís where AMDís ďVeniceĒ Athlon 64 3000+ comes in. While the chip only runs at 1.8GHz, itís built on AMDís latest 90-nm manufacturing process, which means the chip runs requires less juice and thus generates less heat. AMD has also made a few enhancements to the Venice core, including support for 11 of Intelís 13 SSE3 instructions. Venice also contains a tweaked memory controller which supports mismatched DIMM sizes as well as providing support for all four DIMM slots to be populated without a performance slowdown.
The 3000+ can be found for under $150, so I am devoting a good portion of my budget to the CPU, but considering the CPUís importance in overall system performance, I feel that itís necessary and will have to cut costs elsewhere in another system component. If you canít afford to budget approximately $150 for a 3000+ CPU, a good alternative would be the Athlon 64 2800+. The 2800+ utilizes AMDís older Socket 754 interface though capping you at the A64 3700+ for future upgrades, so keep that in mind when deciding on which processor to buy.
| The graphics card||Page:: ( 3 / 16 )|
RADEON X800 256MB - $189 Newegg: Picking out a graphics card was incredibly difficult for this article, simply because thereís a lot going on in the $100-$200 price range right now.
NVIDIAís GeForce 6600 GT and GeForce 6800 continue to hold their spots in the mainstream graphics segment, only now theyíre hitting lower price points thanks to the introduction of the GeForce 7800 GTX and 7800 GT earlier this summer. ATIís been quite busy as of late, announcing multiple VPUs all earmarked to tackle the GeForce 6600 GT and GeForce 6800.
First, ATIís board partners finally began shipping the $200 RADEON X800 vanilla 128MB SKU that was announced at the beginning of this year but ultimately never materialized, with board partners opting instead to ship their X800 boards with 256MB of memory in order not to cripple X700 PRO sales. Their reasoning was simple Ė supply and demand. With so many 256MB X700 PRO boards already on the market selling at $200, ATIís board partners opted instead to focus on the approximately $250 RADEON X800 256MB, rather than the $200 X800 128MB, as supplies of the X800 VPU were tighter anyway. Now that those $200 X700 PROs have been sold off, ATI and their board partners have been busy pushing a new wave of cards for the mainstream segment, starting with the X800 GT.
Launched at the beginning of August, the X800 GT features 8-pixel pipelines running at 475MHz, with a 256-bit 256MB memory interface clocked at 490MHz. This gives the X800 GT similar pixel fill rate as the GeForce 6600 GT, only with significantly more memory bandwidth thanks to its wider 256-bit memory interface. As a result, the X800 GT excels against the GeForce 6600 GT at high screen resolutions, especially once additional eye candy like anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are turned on. The chip is built off of ATIís 0.13-micron R480 core, this is the same VPU powering ATIís flagship X850 XT Platinum Edition. If this particular card interests you, keep in mind that there are two X800 GT SKUs out there, one with 128MB of memory, and one with 256MB. We mentioned the 256MB SKU above, but 128MB boards ship with slower 350MHz memory.
Following the successful launch of the X800 GT, just last week ATI and their board partners announced the X800 GTO. Like the X800 GT, the GTO is based off of R480, only it supports 12 pixel pipes and ships with a 400MHz graphics core and a 256-bit memory interface operating at 490MHz. Just like the X800 GT, thereís also a 128MB X800 GTO SKU that ships with 350MHz memory, so be on the lookout for the total memory size if you want one of the faster cards. This card is intended to compete with the GeForce 6800 vanilla in the mainstream market.
For this build I chose ATIís RADEON X800 256MB due to its solid combination of performance and price. The X800 GTO sports the same number of pipelines and the same core clock, only with faster memory, but I wasnít able to obtain a board in time for this article. If I had I probably would have gone with it instead of the X800 256MB, so Iíd rank it as a solid alternative if youíre looking for a little more performance. The GeForce 6800 was a tempting alternative as well, but the RADEON X800 256MB has demonstrated better performance in shader-heavy titles such as Far Cry and Half-Life 2 so far, so I decided to stick with the X800.
| Components (contíd)||Page:: ( 4 / 16 )|
DFI nF4 Ultra-Infinity - $94 Newegg: While DFI has traditionally been a value motherboard player, in more recent years theyíve stepped up their efforts, targeting hardware enthusiasts and gamers with high-end motherboards, such as their highly popular LANPARTY series.
For consumers who like the LANPARTY brand and its features, but canít quite afford their higher price tags, DFI offers their INFINITY series of motherboards. DFI recently re-launched their INFINITY brand starting with the NF4 SLI INFINITY and NF4 Ultra INFINITY. I couldnít quite afford to upgrade to an nForce4 SLI board, so I chose the nForce4 Ultra-powered nF4 Ultra-Infinity for the $600 system build.
The nF4 Ultra-Infinity boasts a solid feature set in a no-frills package. This board is designed purely for performance. It supports GigE Ethernet networking and ships with support for up to four Serial ATA hard drives. Audio duties are performed by Realtekís ALC655 six-channel audio CODEC, while the board also provides up to six USB ports and IEEE-1394.
For overclocking, DFI provides bus speeds up to 450MHz in 1MHz increments, while PCI-E clock adjustment up to 150MHz in 1MHz increments are also available. For voltages, DFI provides CPU voltage settings up to 1.85V (with the additional option of fixed or on the fly voltage adjustment) in increments of 0.025V up to 1.55V; from there increments increase to a larger 0.10V. Memory voltages range from 2.5V-3.2V in 0.10V increments.
In comparison to DFIís highly popular LANPARTY UT nF4 Ultra motherboard, the INFINTY loses the more advanced 7.1-channel Realtek audio, as well as the second GigE Ethernet port, and of course you lose all the accessories that normally ship with LANPARTY board, but most enthusiasts probably already own their own high-end audio cards, and donít need the second GigE Ethernet port anyway. Most overclockers will probably feel that the biggest deletion from the nF4 Ultra-Infinity board in comparison to its LANPARTY UT counterpart are some of the BIOS settings found in the LANPARTYís CMOS Reloaded interface. Among value boards, the nF4 Ultra-Infinity is well equipped, but it doesnít stack up in comparison to the LANPARTY UT, but of course, with its lower price tag ($24 less based on Newegg.com pricing) itís not supposed to.
| Storage components||Page:: ( 5 / 16 )|
1GB Corsair ValueSelect DDR400 - $90.50 Newegg: As I mentioned in the $1,000 build article, buying quality brand name RAM is incredibly important today. With dual-channel memory controllers in use by both AMD and Intel platforms, and bus speeds constantly improving, itís important that memory manufacturers use quality parts which have been tested and verified for use on these newer platforms.
Back during the transition to DDR400 for the 875P ďCanterwoodĒ chipset, Intelís validation team tested numerous modules from a wide variety of manufacturers and found that a decent portion of them werenít quite up to snuff for use on the platform. Many enthusiasts also noted that their ďCAS 2Ē RAM that had worked so well for their Athlon XP system couldnít run at the same timings with their 3.0C ďNorthwoodĒ Pentium 4 processor system.
The high-end memory manufacturers such as Corsair, Kingston, and OCZ test countless memory chips from a wide variety of manufacturers in order to find just which components they should use in their memory modules in order to hit the highest clock speeds with fast timings. OCZ even goes one step further, providing their Voltage eXtreme (VX) line of memory modules, which are specially designed to run at higher voltages than your typical stick of RAM.
If you donít have that kind of money to spend on RAM though, both Corsair and OCZ have their own lines of value memory which are tested just as thoroughly, only they havenít been designed for all-out performance, instead opting for the right balance between price/performance.
For the $600 build, we once again selected Corsairís ValueSelect DDR400 memory line, priced at $90.50 at Newegg.com. These modules are good for a CAS Latency of 2.5, which isnít bad for $90. The price has gone up 75 cents since we last used this memory in our $1,000 system, so it appears memory prices are going up.
Hard disk drive
Maxtor DiamondMax 10 6L200S0 200GB - $90.50 Newegg The hard disk drive is probably one component that any PC user recognizes the importance of, whether youíre an enthusiast on the bleeding edge of technology, or youíre new to the world of computers and you donít even know what a motherboard looks like, much less how to install one.
Because of this, we feel this is one component that most readers will likely be able to pick out on their own based on their needs. Performance junkies are going to want a drive that spins fast, features NCQ, and boasts a large onboard cache, while those who are more concerned about getting the most bang from their buck will likely want to focus on that amount of storage you can get per dollar.
Since Iím building a $600 system here, Iíve got to lean towards the latter camp Ė Iím shooting for the most storage capacity I can get for about $100, but I donít necessarily want to compromise too much on technology if I donít have too.
And luckily as you can see, I didnít, as Maxtorís DiamondMax 10 6L200S0 200GB is based on the same technology used in the $1,000 system build. Its key features include support for native command queuing (NCQ), and a large, 16MB cache. Finally the DiamondMax 10 6L200S0 sports a 7200 RPM rotational speed.
| The rest of the system||Page:: ( 6 / 16 )|
Case and power
ATRIX CSCI-G8022C-C43 - $52.00 Newegg
While I know Iím going to take a lot of flak for doing this, and I wouldnít even do it on my own personal system, Iím going to stick with the same advice I gave in the $1,000 build and budget around $50 for a case and power supply. Why? Before you close your browser in rage, just hear me out.
For starters, itís because Iím running out of money. After picking up an Athlon 64 3000+, RADEON X800 256MB, the DFI Infinity motherboard, HDD and memory, Iím now already $10 over my $600 budgeted for the system.
Sure, I couldíve picked up a cheaper processor, or gone with a X700 or GeForce 6600 GT graphics card, but either one of those choices is going to seriously compromise my performance. Thanks to its 256-bit memory interface, the X800 256MB runs circles around cheaper mainstream offerings from both ATI and NVIDIA, while the 3000+ is the slowest Socket 939 offering on the market, so Iíd have to go down to a Socket 754 motherboard which has a limited upgrade path. On top of all this, I wouldnít have saved that much money by downgrading on the graphics and CPU, certainly not enough to buy one of the nicer power supply units on the market, which can easily sell for around $100 or more.
Devoting 1/6th of my budget just to the PSU just isnít feasible guys.
Just because Iím limited to a $50 budget though doesnít mean Iíve got to settle for a boring beige box. Fortunately, the ATRIX CSCI-G8022C-C43 case is loaded with features. Itís a black case with side panel case window, blowhole, drive bay door, and 480W PSU for $52. Iím not about to claim its PSU is the greatest, with only 17A on the 12V rail it pales in comparison to a high quality 420W unit from Antec, OCZ, Thermaltake or any of the other high-end PSU manufacturers out there, but it should be enough to provide a sufficient base for now.
Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit - $29.00 Newegg: Since DFI opted to use Realtekís older ALC655 CODEC on the Infinity board rather than the 7.1 CODEC used on the LANPARTY, I just felt like I had to upgrade to a better sound solution. While the SB Live! is an older card, it still delivers considerably better audio than the ALC655 CODEC, not to mention lower CPU utilization and 7.1-channel speaker support as well. $29 bucks is a small price to pay considering what youíre upgrading from.
Samsung TS-H552U/BEBN - $38 Newegg:
If youíve added up the tally to this point, then you already know that Iím getting well over my $600 budget, adding the SB Live! card didnít help things either, even though itís only $29. Fortunately thereís only one component left, the DVD drive! For this I chose the Samsung TS-H552U/BEBN. This is a black 16X DVD+R with rewrite capability and support for +/- R with a 2MB cache to boot. Not bad for $38 in my opinion.
| Alternatives||Page:: ( 7 / 16 )|
If thatís the case for you, Iíd probably grudgingly start by cutting on the graphics card. The RADEON X800 256MB is a sweet card and all, but with ATIís next-gen RADEON X1600 mainstream offering right around the corner, itís probably a safe bet that it will deliver performance at least equal to the X800 256MB, if not better, plus offer shader model 3.0 support for the same or similar price point. As a result, X800 cards will likely drop in price even further before they quickly disappear as ATI ramps up RADEON X1600 production.
When all this occurs, NVIDIA will likely counter with their GeForce 6600 GT successor based on G70 technology, and it likely wonít be a slouch when it comes to performance either. Next thing you know, ATI and NVIDIA, plus their board partners, will be locked in a bitter price war with the consumer ultimately ending up the winner.
Another reason Iíd cut costs by starting with the graphics card first is because I wouldnít want to go down to a Socket 754 or Socket A Sempron processor, nor would I want to downgrade to an older Pentium 4 such as the 3.0C or 2.8C. These processors all require outdated sockets, so once itís time to upgrade and move on to something faster, your choices are limited.
By going with a Socket 939 motherboard like the DFI nF4-Infinity, you can not only upgrade to a 3500+ or 4000+, but also one of AMDís shiny new dual-core X2 processors. Basically, thereís just no point in putting down your money for something thatís so far outdated the day you get it.
To save a bit more money, I couldíve gone with a smaller, less advanced hard drive, but the Maxtor DiamondMax 10 6L200S0 at $90 was just too hard a deal to pass up. If you canít afford to budget $90 towards the hard drive, Seagateís popular 7200.7 series of Serial ATA hard drives can be found at Newegg for less money, although cache size is down to 8MB.
Another area I couldíve saved a few bucks is on the memory. While I would stick to 1GB of total system RAM, Newegg.com is currently selling 512MB Mushkin DDR400 RAM for $39.99, saving just over $10 in comparison to the Corsair ValueSelect used for this article. I also could have skipped the sound card, relying instead on the DFI motherboardís Realtek CODEC for audio, and gone with a DVD-ROM drive instead of the DVD burner. These changes wouldíve saved me about $49.
| Test Systems||Page:: ( 8 / 16 )|
AMD Athlon 64 FX-57
AMD Athlon 64 3500+
AMD Athlon 64 3000+
ASUS A8N-SLI Deluxe
DFI nF4 Ultra Infinity
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
ATI RADEON X800 256MB
CATALYST 5.8 with CATALYST CONTROL CENTER
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:: ( 9 / 16 )|
Pacific Fighters - OpenGL
| Far Cry Training||Page:: ( 10 / 16 )|
Far Cry Ė Direct3D
| IL2||Page:: ( 11 / 16 )|
IL-2: FB Ė OpenGL
| Half-Life 2||Page:: ( 12 / 16 )|
Half-Life 2 Ė Direct3D
| Battlefield 2||Page:: ( 13 / 16 )|
Battlefield 2 Ė Direct3D
| F.E.A.R. Performance||Page:: ( 14 / 16 )|
F.E.A.R. Beta Ė Direct3D
| F.E.A.R. 4xAA/16xAF||Page:: ( 15 / 16 )|
F.E.A.R. Beta Ė Direct3D
| Conclusion||Page:: ( 16 / 16 )|
Athlon 64 3000+: $146
RADEON X800 256MB: $189
DFI nF4 Ultra-Infinity: $94
Corsair ValueSelect DDR400: $90.50
Maxtor DiamondMax 10 6L200S0 200GB: $90.50
ATRIX CSCI-G8022C-C43: $52.00
Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! 24-bit: $29.00
Samsung TS-H552U/BEBN: $37.99
Normally your typical gamer or hardware enthusiast cringes at the thought of a budget sub-$1000 system. These systems are frequently equipped with value processors from AMD and Intel, and ship with integrated graphics solutions, or lethargic graphics cards that are often incredibly outdated. As youíve just seen in our budget system build today though, this doesnít have to be the case.
For just over $700, we built an Athlon 64 3000+ system with 1GB of DDR400 RAM, a 200GB Serial ATA HDD with 16MB cache and NCQ support and ATIís 12-pipeline RADEON X800 256MB. A year ago it wouldíve cost twice as much, if not more to build a system capable of delivering this much performance. Itís pretty amazing just how quickly things can change in just one year huh?
As you saw in our performance benchmarks, the budget rig delivered pretty good frame rates for the most part, although its performance was often overshadowed by the more expensive systems weíve built in the past. Of course, do keep in mind that the high-end and $1,000 systems are built with next-gen graphics technology that hasnít quite made its way down to the mainstream price point. Once ATI and NVIDIA deliver their next-generation mainstream cards, the margins between budget, mainstream, and high-end systems will close considerably.
Itís for this reason that you may want to hold off if youíre in the market for a new graphics card in the $100-$300 price range. With new hardware for this price segment on the way, performance will soon be going up, while prices will go down. Weíll of course be covering these cards once theyíre released, so be on the lookout for that.
Until then, hopefully todayís system build provides some guidance on what kind of components you can get for an approximately $600-$700 system build. As always, feel free drop your thoughts on the components selected in the news comments!