We finally did it; the Popzara team built a gaming PC. It was a long time coming, but after much scrutinizing and some time away from the hobby, it was important to get the essentials right.
Being a regular person who lives off of a realistic budget, the splendor of building a gaming PC can be challenging. You can piece together a computer that technically trumps today’s modern consoles (i.e. Xbox One and/or PlayStation 4), but the journey can be difficult if you don’t do your homework. Many publications (cough, cough) make these DIY projects look captivating and economically viable, but how amazing can someone make a PC when it’s their money on the table?
That’s what we aimed to achieve as we gathered up the necessary components, all the while keeping the receipt below a thousand dollars. This was pivotal because every bit and piece in our build was purchased by us, with no assistance whatsoever from any company on this guide (not that we didn’t try: most PC part companies are usually horribly disorganized or predisposed to their favorite publication). With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.
CPU: Locked and Unlocked Done Right
Choosing the CPU was probably the easiest task, since the Intel Core i5-6500 gave us the most processing bang for the buck.
This is a quad core processor that doesn’t quit, with a base speed of 3.2GHz and default Turbo clock of 3.6GHz. The main appeal are the overclocking gains that are unique the i5-6600K, which is all the edge many ever want from their CPU if they choose. During brief testing of the unlocked unit, we stuck to manually bumping speeds to 4.4GHz but were able to turn it up to an impressively stable 4.6GHz. Granted, no single overclock is a guarantee, but the 6600K effectively gives the i7-6700K a good run for the money.
However, there are things you don’t get with the 6600K. Hyper-Threading (which is a software-based method of adding another logical processor thread per core) isn’t implemented like it is in the Core i7 equivalents (6700/6700K). And Intel keeps the i5 limited to 6MB of cache, which in very lax terms is memory utilized for data access and executable instructions before feeding on the main RAM; The i7-6700 is equipped with 8MB.
For immediate users, any version of the i5 is excellent value if you must prioritize cash for other components. But keep in mind that unlike the ‘locked’ (non-K) version, you’ll have to pony up a little extra for an aftermarket fan or liquid cooler.
$179.99 at Micro Center
Gigabyte Z170X: USB Type C and Thunderbolt 3
The Gigabyte GA-Z170X Gaming 7 ATX motherboard was a choice of circumstance among us, because we originally envisioned this project with a unique mini-ITX chassis. Our previous dream build was imagined as something travel-sized, but we soon discovered that we might be paying much more for the privilege of going compact; not ideal with a proposed limit of $1000.
So we opted for the more conventional desktop tower, and while we were at it we decided to get future connectivity with USB 3.1 (Type C) and Thunderbolt 3 in there too. Unlike previous versions of the Thunderbolt specifications that Apple implemented, the interface shares the same reversible connector as USB-C. This also brings actual bandwidth up to 40Gbps and brings all the benefits you wanted from USB 3.0 in the first place.
The GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 was the most inexpensive pick that matched our initial requirements. We also got features like M.2 support (with PCIe 3.0 and SATA modes included), USB DAC-Up for low-noise feedback with headphone amplifiers, and improved overclock frequency with an onboard Turbo B-Clock tuning. This motherboard is also a no-brainer if you plan on going doing a dual-graphics setup, and red LED in back lend to its gaming credibility. The only real quip is the unintuitive BIOS layout that Gigabyte insists on, otherwise a moot point after optimizing settings.
$169.99 at Micro Center
DDR4: Corsair With an Vengeance
DDR4 memory was plentiful as manufacturers have ramped up the performance, while competitively cutting steep prices within months of its consumer introduction. We wanted peace of mind and went with the Corsair Vengeance LPX – and lots of it. This specific package came in two sticks for 16GB total (2x8GB) and clocked in at 2400MHz, which is pretty much the standard for mainstream applications.
From experience of building prior systems, the battlefield for reliable memory used to be black-and-white. Some brands had reputation while others were best left avoided, however, that has changed for the better. Most companies make good modules and if you happen to get a faulty unit (which does happen), they’re pretty easy to replace with comprehensive RMA or store returns.
Admittedly, our preference for the Vengeance LPX was on based on the fact that we’ve never had problems with Corsair memory. But we reckon you can do just as good and slightly cheaper from Kingston, Crucial, or G.Skill varieties.
$62.99 at Micro Center
PNY SSD: Still ‘Hardcore Gaming Certified’
I reviewed the PNY XLR8 CS2211 solid-state drive back in February, and found them to be standout choices against the prominence of Samsung SSDs. The CS2211 is fast and has the edge over the venerable 850 EVO, but as usual, the storage can get pricey when GB count increases. Unsurprisingly, our 480GB model costs about $139 which we think is reasonable.
But, it’s an understandable dilemma if your budget is tight, and PNY offers the CS2211 in a 240GB size for $75. This goes further than the usual mid-tier offerings, but then again, would you expect anything less from a SSD that’s self-proclaimed as “Hardcore Gaming Certified”?
I also suggest the 480GB CS1311, which is the standard PNY SSD but can be had for a much more agreeable $109.99 right now — Of course, you’ll lose some of the speed as a trade-off.
$74.99 at Micro Center
Corsair Also Handles The Power
We turn to Corsair again for the power supply, which is utilitarian in form and function. All PSUs keep your machine alive and the CX750 Power Supply is no different. Ours is a 750-watt unit which is more than enough power for the moderate power-user.
If this is either your first build, then getting a high quality PSU shouldn’t be a problem. However, getting at least an 80 PLUS Bronze will work for our rig right now, albeit with some audible hum from your build. When the times comes, you can always upgrade down the road.
If you can, try for a modular type since they offer a bit more flexibility and organization for different forms of PCs. Corsair offers a 3-year warranty on all their PSU, which is standard fare for many power supply vendors as well.
$89.99 at Micro Center
GTX 960: Armored And Ready
Everyone was anticipating Nvidia’s new GTX 1080 and 1070 GPUs, and sure enough it happened. These two flagships are primed to set the bar again, that also means the timing is out of reach at the moment.
We aren’t too bothered, because current generation GPUs are turning into great deals right now. The MSi Armor 2X GTX 960 4GDST OC or equivalent is an excellent budget card, whose only adversary is AMD’s R9 380. Granted, the GTX 960 is more expensive at $199 but benchmarked to be the better performer overall, and easily does 60fps at 1920×1080 when settings are on high. We also liked the fact that this card is 4K-capable at 60fps and sports HDCP 2.2 encryption — a specific DRM feature that’s caused woes among ultra-high definition HTPC owners — and oddly enough something the original GTX 980/970 lacked.
If you decide to play the waiting game there are some choices: expect AMD to release the consumer Polaris GPUs this summer, or sit tight for the eventual announcement of the GTX 1060 later this year.
$199.99 at Micro Center
The PC Case Isn’t So Great…
But there are limits when building a gaming PC on the cheap, and I think we learned something with the Lepa LPC306 ATX Case about really racing to the bottom. When we couldn’t get a mini-ITX case that satisfied everyone we eventually settled on a regular ATX tower, which sported the expected advantages and drawbacks.
On the plus side, the LPC306 offers very accessible design and removable hard drive brackets for simple installations, and the body ventilated for more fans on the left, front, and rear. This is a straightforward case for first-timers and was relatively simple to install and navigate, and believe us when we say “it really shows”.
Unfortunately, that thin metal chassis doesn’t do any favors for PC owners. Vibration was heard and reverberated throughout that thin body. The (multiple) fan noise can often be amplified to annoying levels and remains a constant distraction even when running idle. In hindsight, we probably could’ve spent a little more for something much better, but I guess the Lepa is an okay placeholder until we find a stronger case.
$34.99 at Micro Center
We stayed under our price ceiling of $1000, by over a hundred dollars, thanks largely to a transitional product cycle and some bargain bin deals in our favor. We made out pretty well, crafting a mid-range PC that does ultra setting 1080p gaming smoothly, runs 1440p with some mild setting tweaks, and future-proofing demand for home theater arrangements. In total, this assembled desktop costs us $890.01.
But we know there’s definitely some room for improvement. With better GPUs on the horizon and our current chassis in particular leaving much to be desired, These are partial consequences that shows how going absolutely cheap can occasionally misfire, but issues like these can be quickly remedied. Considering this is our first collective build in a long time, we’re happy with the overall results and plan putting this PC to good use. However, we’re far from done and will take this machine farther.