In this post, I'll show you a few select options for putting together an affordable computer for under $500 that can handle just about every game currently available for PC while maintaining a decent screen resolution and image quality. Here are the goals I wanted to hit with this particular computer build:
- Budget of $500 not including peripherals (before tax, shipping, etc)
- Play currently available games with high to medium settings at a decent resolution
- Must be upgradable and relatively future-proof
- Quality components, no no-name junk
- Doesn't rely on overclocking to achieve acceptable performance
In order to have a fully functional gaming rig, we're going to need a case, a power supply, processor, motherboard, memory, hard drive, optical drive and a video card. Let's look at some hardware options. For each component I'll offer a specific recommendation and an explanation of my choice. In some cases I have also included an (often cheaper) alternative to the primary pick. All prices were taken from the Hot Hardware price engine on the day of posting.
Case / Power Supply
For the case, I chose Antec's excellent Sonata III chassis. As the name implies, this is the 3rd iteration of the Sonata design philosophy of quiet, reliable computing. The Sonata III is a standard mid-tower case with a relatively traditional design. It features clean modern looks and a handful of features to keep noise to a minimum, such as rubber-dampened hard drive bays and low-RPM 120mm fans. There is space for 9 drives total; 4 internal 3.5" bays, 2 external 3.5" bays, 4 5.25" bays. While the chassis is nice, the best part of the package is the included 500 watt Antec EarthWatts power supply. Antec's EarthWatts line-up are excellent high-efficiency power supplies and the 500W model goes for $70 on its own. All this for $90 is a steal.
However if you'd rather go with something a bit cheaper, check out the alternate pick, the Cooler Master Elite RC-330. The RC-330 is similar to the Sonata is design and capacity although it lacks some of the Sonata's sound dampening features. It comes with a 350W power supply which should be enough for this build but may limit future upgradeability unless it's replaced.
Alternative: Cooler Master Elite RC-330 w/ 350W ($50)
For the processor we chose Intel's E5200.The E5200 is based on the Allendale core shrunken to 45nm. At 2.5GHz with 2MB of L2 cache, it gives plenty of bang for the buck. It also happens to overclock very well and with a TDP of 65W, it's relatively energy efficient. The E5200 should serve the purposes of this build quite nicely without blowing the budget.
As an alternative we picked the AMD Athlon 64 X2 7750. The 7750 is the highest model currently available for the K10 Kuma, a dual-core Phenom design. At a core frequency of 2.7GHz, 512KB of L2 cache per core and 2MB of L3 cache, and 1800MHz HTT, the 7750 is a solid competitor for the E5200. In fact, benchmarks show they perform on-par with each other in most cases. However, the 7750 doesn't quite overclock as well and at 95W it isn't as energy efficient either.
Alternative: AMD Athlon 64 X2 7750 2.7GHz ($75)
For the motherboard we went with MSI's P6NGM-FD, mATX board based on NVIDIA's GeForce 7100 chipset. This is a very budget concious board but it doesn't lack much in term of features and it has everything we need for this build. Realtek 8211BL gigabit ethernet, Realtek ALC888 surround sound audio and four SATA 3.0Gb/s ports with RAID (0/1/0+1/5/JBOD). It even packs onboard video although we will not be using it since it is ill suited for gaming. There are a few down sides however. Since this is a mATX board, it doesn't have as many expansion slots as a full ATX would. We're limited to one PCI-E x16, a PCI-E x1 and two vanilla PCI slots. This is more than enough for the purposes of this build, but it may limit future upgradeability. In addition, The chipset doesn't support any sort of multi-GPU capability, not that it matters with only one PCI-E x16 slot. Overall we still think the $60 price tag trumps the minor gripes with the board and make it a good choice for our build.
Should you decide to go with an AMD processor, like the 7750 we offered as an alternative to the E5200, you can check out the alternative motherboard we picked. The Gigabyte GA-M78SM-S2H is another budget concious mATX board. Besides supporting a different processor, it is very similar to the MSI P6NGM-FD. It has the advantage of a newer north bridge chip equipped with a better onboard video card, but that is irrelevent to us.
Alternative: GIGABYTE GA-M78SM-S2H NVIDIA GeForce 8200 ($70)
For memory, we're going with 4GB of Corsairs XMS2 memory. This is a kit of two 2GB sticks of PC2-6400 with timings of 5-5-5-18. While this is hardly premium performance memory, they should serve our purposes just fine. Besides, it's hard to argue with a price tag of just $46 for two sticks of quality Corsair memory, but if you insist I've listed two alternatives. Both alternatives are $32 but they are quite different. First we have a 4GB kit of Kingston ValueRAM, if you prefer capacity. It's worth noting that ValueRAM modules don't have heatspreaders. And second we have a 2GB kit of Kingston's HyperX PC2-8500 if you're looking for a bit more performance.
Primary: Corsair XMS2 4GB PC2-6400 DDR2 ($46)
Alternative 1: Kingston ValueRAM 4GB PC2-6400 DDR2 ($32)
Alternative 2: Kingston HyperX 2GB PC2-8500 DDR2 ($32)
For the video card, argueably the component that will make or break this build, we splurged a bit on a Radeon HD 4850 from Sapphire. At $154 it is the single most expensive component in the entire build by over $60 but we believe it's worth it. The 4850 is a very strong mid-range gaming card that will give this rig some real legs to stand on. The Sapphire model we chose uses a dual slot cooler, but in return you get improved cooling over the reference cooler.
As an alternative I chose the GeForce 9800 GT from XFX, which is a $25 savings. Judging from benchmarks, the 4850 and 9800 GT are very similar in performance but the 4850 trumps the 9800 GT overall, especially at higher resolutions.
Primary: Sapphire Radeon HD 4850 512MB ($154)
Alternative: XFX GeForce 9800 GT 512MB ($130)
The Hot Hardware price engine lists the WD Caviar 320GB for the very low price of $47. At less than $50, there is no point in going with an even smaller capacity drive as the savings would be negligible. With around 300GB of usable capacity on tap, after formatting, this drive should provide more than enough space for all your games. You won't be able to fit an extensive video library on this, but it should be just fine for a primarily gaming rig with enough space left over for all your documents and music.
DVD-RW drives have been flat-lined at around $20 for some time now. The LG GH22NP20 is a dual-layer capable DVD-RW that writes DVD-/+Rs at 22x and 16x for dual-layer discs. It can also write CDs at 48x. Overall a decent drive in return for just one Jackson.
Primary: LG Electronics GH22NP20 DVD-RW ($21)
Overall this build should result in some decent gaming performance well above what the price tag may suggest. Since we set out to make this rig primarily for gaming, we were able to focus our limited budget around the components that will have the greatest effect on frame rates. The video card is the most expensive component in the whole build with 30% of our total budget but it should pay for itself with very respectable frame rates in all of today's latest titles. We didn't skimp on the processor either since there is no point in having a nice video card if all of your games end up CPU limited. We also didn't cheap out on the power supply since an even and reliable power feed is required to keep your system stable, especially under the stress of gaming.
Areas we did skimp a bit are the auxilary components, however we made sure to leave the door open for future upgrades. We stuck with onboard sound for the build since not everyone is an audiophile. The onboard Realtek sound card should be enough for most people. We also elected to stick to stock cooling for the processor since overclocking wasn't part of the original goal of this build. However room for overclocking does exist in the components we selected and those so inclined will be able to do so.
|Primary Build||Alternative Build|
Antec Sonata III w/ EarthWatts 500W
Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5200 2.5GHz
MSI P6NGM-FD NVIDIA 7100
Corsair XMS2 4GB PC2-6400 DDR2
Sapphire Radeon HD 4850 512MB
Western Digital Caviar Blue 320GB
LG Electronics GH22NP20
Cooler Master Elite RC-330 w/ 350W
AMD Athlon 64 X2 7750 2.7GHz
GIGABYTE GA-M78SM-S2H NVIDIA 8200
Kingston ValueRAM 4GB PC2-6400 DDR2
XFX GeForce 9800 GT 512MB
Western Digital Caviar Blue 320GB
LG Electronics GH22NP2
Don't agree with my recommendations? Want to share your ideas? Leave a comment!