Build-It: The $800 Gaming PC

By Jason Cross  |  Posted 2004-10-12 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Build It: Running the latest and greatest games without compromise is one of the most strenuous and expensive tasks for a PC. We try to defy expectations by building a decent gaming PC for only $800.

It's been a while since we set out to build an inexpensive gaming PC. The last time we built PCs of this type was this past March, when we first built a $1000 Pentium 4 Game PC and followed that up with a similar Athlon XP system. Prices have naturally shifted since then, so it's time to take another stab at it.

This time we're going to be even more aggressive on price, giving ourselves $800 to build out a PC that can get the job done when it comes to games. Naturally we'll try to make it a system that is useful for other general PC tasks as well--it's not like we're going to forgo a CD burner to save a few bucks just because burning CDs isn't necessary for game performance. We're also going to cheat a little bit: $800 is almost too low a price to make a truly acceptable gaming PC, but our price won't include monitor or speakers. Most users have holdover monitors or speakers from their current systems, and when your budget is $800, reusing them with your new rig is a very real option.

There are a few standard guidelines we follow when writing our Build It articles:

  • Shipping and sales tax (or VAT if you're outside the US) are not considered. There's too much variation and unpredictability.
  • These are all U.S. dollars, from U.S. sources. In particular, we took prices from major online retailers that we would trust with our own money.
  • We included the cost of the operating system (Windows XP Home Edition). If you want to use a free version of Linux, then you can knock $74 off the price. As this is a gaming PC, that's money well spent. The games market for Linux is paltry by comparison.
  • We included the costs of keyboard and mouse, but of course you could bring those over from an older PC, just as you could with the monitor and speakers.
  • The focus for this particular Built It is gaming performance, but we keep our eye on making a well-rounded PC that will be useful for web surfing, toying with digital media, and other common tasks.
  • These are our choices. If you like a particular component better, then swap in your choice for ours.

All the components used in this PC have been seen here before, many times in some cases. The focus of this article will not be on performance comparisons, but on our part selections. We'll throw in some benchmarks for your edification, and because it's important to demonstrate that the system performs well enough on modern games.

Building an excellent gaming PC is just about the easiest thing in the world, if you happen to have $3,000 to spend. With an upper threshold of $800, things get a lot more challenging. Here's our load out:

Component Brand / Model Our Price
Processor Athlon 64 2800+ $144 (check prices)
Active cooler (included in Athlon 64 retail box)
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-K8NS $76 (check prices)
Memory 2X 256MB (512MB) Kingston DDR400 $90 (check prices)
Case Antec 3700 AMB $65 (check prices)
Power Supply 350W (included in case)
Hard drive Western Digital WD800JB $59 (check prices)
DVD-ROM / CD-RW Lite-On LTC-48161H (DVD/CDRW) $44 (check prices)
Graphics ATI Radeon 9800 (128MB) $165 (check prices)
Audio Sound Blaster Audigy LS $44 (check prices)
Floppy None
Keyboard Microsoft Natural Multimedia $20
Mouse Intellimouse Optical $15
Operating system Windows XP Home $74 with motherboard
Total $796

With only $800 to spend, a few corners need to be cut. We would prefer a gigabyte of RAM, but 512MB will do nicely for most games. A 256MB graphics card is becoming increasingly important as well, but that really adds a lot to the price; we could only afford a 256MB card if we chose a slower model, like a Radeon 9600, and all things considered, the Radeon 9800 with 128MB will serve us better. The 80MB Western Digital hard drive is a very solid model at a great price, but with the increasing size of game installs, not to mention the proliferation of digital media, it would be nice to go up to 120GB or more.

The biggest coup is the Athlon 64 CPU. These have been expensive chips in the past, with pricy motherboards. Enough time has passed for us to affordably stuff one into an $800 machine now, which should give us a big boost in game performance. Processor
Whenever we've built inexpensive gaming machines in the past, we've had to choose between a Pentium 4 that wasn't exactly top-of-the-line and an Athlon XP. The best CPUs for gaming, by a long shot, come from AMD's Athlon 64 line. At any comparable price, they seriously outshine Pentium 4 and Athlon XP CPUs.

Now, Athlon 64 CPUs have dropped in price to the point where they can be squeezed into even the most budget-conscious PC. Our choice, the 2800+ model, is the slowest Athlon 64 on the market, but it costs under $150. For that same price, you could get a 2.8GHz P4 or an Athlon XP 2800+, but neither one would come close to the game performance of the Athlon 64.

Motherboard
With such a tight budget, we weren't able to squeeze in the extra $20 or so it would take for us to go with one of our favorite new Athlon 64 motherboards. Gigabyte makes a board based on the nForce3 250 chipset that costs less than $80, though, and for that price it's quite solid. It has two SATA ports (though their location between the AGP slot and CPU is less than ideal) and plenty of good BIOS options. Plus, the nForce3 250 chipset has nice stable, mature drivers and should be good for plenty of future expansion. Sadly, the built-in Ethernet is only 10/100 and not gigabit. But hey, this is an $800 gaming PC, how much free lunch can we expect?

Memory
Choosing your memory has become a pretty basic function these days, just stick with name-brand memory that corresponds with the frequency your processor and motherboard support. In our case that's good old DDR400, and overclocking notwithstanding, there's not much use shelling out extra money for really high-frequency or low-latency RAM. We went with basic CAS 3.0 RAM, though we could only budget in half a gigabyte of it. Expanding the RAM to one gig would be one of our first upgrade choices.

New

Case and Power Supply
We've used Antec's 3700 AMD in many of our systems, because it's just such a well-built, reliable, and cost-effective case. It comes in two variants, a "BQE" version that's black, quieter, and has a slightly better hard drive cage. Though that case is an exceptional value, we have such a tight budget that we opted for the slightly cheaper regular gray version. It's just a touch louder, but still quite reasonable, and comes with a 350W power supply. At under $70 it's one of our favorite cheap cases.

Storage
Hard drives just keep getting faster and cheaper. We found an 80GB Western Digital drive with an 8MB cache for about $60, which is a pretty good deal. The best bang for your buck is probably a drive size closer to 120 or 160GB, and such a drive wouldn't be a bad idea if you're building a similar system but wouldn't mind spending another $40 to $60 on storage. Many of today's games occupy several gigabytes of your hard drive, and it's not uncommon for users to have a good 10 to 20 gigs of digital music and video hanging around. With "only" 80GB of hard drive space, you'll need to clean out old files and game installations a little more often.

For optical media, we went with Lite-On's LTC-48161H drive. It's a pretty solid combo DVD reader and CD-RW drive for only $45. Burns CDs at 48X speed, CD-RWs at 24X, and reads DVDs at 16X speed.

You'll notice there's no floppy drive or card reader in this machine. Frankly, we think the floppy should die, and you'd be surprised how easy it is to survive without one. Sadly, floppy drives are still necessary for creating a fresh install of Windows XP if you need to load certain SATA, RAID, or SCSI drivers, but since all the drives in this system are IDE, that's not a concern. For all other portable storage needs, the plethora of cheap USB keychain drives or flash card readers makes for a much better solution.

Audio and Video
Your choice of 3D graphics card is absolutely essential in a gaming PC. With the very tight budget we've set, we just couldn't afford as much graphics card as we'd like. A 128MB Radeon 9800 is only about $165 from Web retailers--a great price for an AGP card. Faster, more capable cards in that price range in both ATI and nVidia flavors have already been announced, but right now the only cards shipping are PCI Express (PCIe) models, and even those are very hard to come by. Sure, we could have built a PCIe system and plugged in an X600, X700, or possibly even a GeForce 6600 if we found a good deal on it, but it's still too hard to find a good PCIe motherboard and a fast Pentium 4 CPU to populate it while remaining within our tight price budget. Perhaps PCIe will be a better option in a few months, when the new card standard is available for both major CPU vendors and prices drop a little bit. The AGP variants of these new cards are just around the corner, too.

It's tempting to stick with integrated audio when your budget is tight, or to get a lesser sound card. That's just cheating yourself--it's not worth compatibility hassles or higher CPU utilization, not to mention lower quality sound, when an Audigy LS is only about $45. It's not the very top of the line, but it's surprisingly close. Unless you have a 7.1 sound system or really good speakers/headphones and hearing, you probably won't notice the difference between an Audigy LS and an Audigy 2 ZS, which costs a lot more.

A quality keyboard and mouse
Without these two peripherals, your computer is pretty well useless. And yet, we skimp on them all the time. This time we chose Microsoft's Natural Multimedia Keyboard for its handy media function buttons above the function keys. And okay, maybe the good old Intellimouse Optical isn't exactly King of the Mouse Hill these days, but they're so cheap they practically come as prizes in your Cracker Jacks, and it's not like you're getting a Kensington mouse or something.

Operating System
Of course, you don't have a computer without an OS, and we picked Windows XP Home Edition--we've purchased enough parts here to easily qualify for an OEM version that costs less. Linux is often an option, but it's probably not the wisest choice for this PC. This is supposed to be a PC for playing games, and it wouldn't be a stretch to say there are more AAA games on the Mac than on Linux. And that's just sad. So very, very sad.

Almost all the parts in this system have been reviewed, discussed, and benchmarked here before, but we'll give you some numbers for an idea of how this machine fares. Obviously we need to prove that this extremely inexpensive PC is a viable gaming platform, and it only makes sense to throw in some performance numbers for other tasks, too. Naturally, you can't expect an $800 gaming PC to run circles around something twice as expensive, though.

We've begun to phase out the dated Business Winstone and Content Creation Winstone benchmarks, and not a moment too soon--they don't work with Service Pack 2 for Windows XP and haven't been patched yet. Replacing those tests will be BAPCo's SYSmark 2004, a larger benchmark suite that has similar real-world tests--one suite for content creation, one for business applications.

The results of SYSmark 2004 were encouraging: 160 for the Internet Content Creation tests and 128 for the Office Productivity suite. Certainly those are far from the fastest we've seen; the fastest PCs score over 200 on the Internet Content Creation section and well over 150 on the Office Productivity tests. But here's a fun little fact for you: The CPUs that top out the SYSmark benchmarks cost as much by themselves as this entire system. When you put it in that context, these scores don't look too bad at all.

To test media encoding performance, we encoded a large, high-bit-rate DVD quality movie clip into a 1 megabit WMV9 file, with "CD quality" audio, using Windows Media Encoder 9. We then performed the same encode using DivX 5.2 with the popular VirtualDub freeware application. Audio compression is extremely fast these days, almost too fast to be relevant, but we wanted a good digital audio compression data point nonetheless. We took a large 254MB WAV file and compressed it to a constant bit rate WMA file using Windows Media Encoder 9.

These media encoding times are pretty good, but a 128-bit wide memory interface and more L2 cache would certainly help the system out. Our WMV9 encode took just a bit under 12 minutes--quite far from the very fastest CPUs you can buy today. The DivX encoding test is a lot easier to stomach at 2 minutes 51 seconds, but the best CPUs score closer to 2 minutes flat. Audio encoding is quite fast, taking only 83 seconds to rip through our huge .WAV file. You're likely to be more limited by your optical drive's speed when ripping CDs. Still, we're used to seeing media-encoding benchmark numbers a good 20% to 30% slower when testing systems this cheap, so the drop in recent CPU prices has definitely made a big difference.

We've updated our standard 3D game benchmarks. Gone is UT2003, with our own custom UT2004 timedemo now taking its place. We test the C5L2 benchmark from Painkiller that was added with patch 1.3, and run the built-in demo1 benchmark from Doom 3 as well. The only test that really isn't different is Halo, which we still run using the Shader Model 2.0 path. We ran all our tests at a respectable resolution of 1024x768, with details turned up to their highest settings in the game menus (save for Doom 3, which was set to "high" rather than "ultra"). If you can play all the modern games with their eye candy cranked up at 1024x768, you're in pretty good shape. In fact, that's a lot to ask for a PC whose entire cost is the same as two 40GB iPods.

So there it is, proof that you can play modern games quite respectably on an $800 system. For a little comparison, in Halo testing, our earlier sub-$1000 Athlon XP achieved 35fps and our sub-$1000 Pentium 4 got 36fps. The lowest frame rate of the bunch for this present machine is Doom 3, but 36 frames per second is definitely playable, considering the pace of that game. UT2004 and Halo both run over 45fps, smooth enough for a good time, and Call of Duty is screaming at over 70fps. The Source Video Stress Test is a synthetic benchmark made to test video performance in the new Source engine that powers Half-Life 2, and the result of 65 fps is quite encouraging. Even if Half-Life 2 runs 20% slower than the stress test in some scenes, it should remain quite smooth.

This system's 3DMark03 score is a reasonable 5,268, but certainly it doesn't approach the mark of the latest $500 video cards, which score over 10,000. Where's the new 3DMark05, you ask? We tried to run it, but it kept crashing halfway through with a D3D error message. With just 512MB of RAM and a 128MB video card, this machine just barely meets the minimum requirements, so it could be a memory allocation error somewhere.

Building a viable gaming PC on such a tight budget can be tough. You'll definitely have to cut some corners, and making a call about where to save money and where to spend it can leave you scratching your head. For example, if we had spent the $45 from our sound card on a faster video card, we probably would have achieved higher benchmark scores. But during real gameplay, and especially in games that are CPU-limited, performance may not have been as good. Besides, games tend to have fewer compatibility problems with Creative Labs cards than with integrated audio, simply by virtue of Creative's software people working together more with game developers.

If you want to use this system as a starting point and maybe spend a little more money to beef it up a bit, you have lots of options. The motherboard will accept any socket 754 CPU, all the way up to an Athlon 64 3700+. AMD plans to continue making socket 754 CPUs for some time, so there's plenty of upgrade opportunity there. But we'd recommend starting with more RAM. Games these days have an enormous appetite for memory, and nothing kills a fun game more than the annoying stuttering that accompanies hard drive access. After that, it's a toss up between a faster video card and a bigger hard drive: One will make your games run faster, the other offers convenience. Certainly the power supply will need replacing sometime in the future, if existing parts are swapped out for more power-hungry hardware.

The realm of "cheap gaming PCs" is going to get very interesting in a few months. By then, PCIe systems will be more affordable, CPU prices will have dropped farther, and the AGP versions of GeForce 6600 and Radeon X700 series video cards will hit the market. Together with ever-improving drive technology, it should be possible to build a similarly priced gaming PC in February or March of 2005 that will put this one to shame. For now, we're confident that the build we've put together here will serve gamers on a shoe-string budget quite well.

 
 
 
 
Jason Cross Jason was a certified computer geek at an early age, playing with his family's Apple II when he was still barely able to write. It didn't take long for him to start playing with the hardware, adding in 80-column cards and additional RAM as his family moved up through Apple II+, IIe, IIgs, and eventually the Macintosh. He was sucked into Intel based side of the PC world by his friend's 8088 (at the time, the height of sophisticated technology), and this kicked off a never-ending string of PC purchases and upgrades.

Through college, where he bounced among several different majors before earning a degree in Asian Studies, Jason started to pull down freelance assignments writing about his favorite hobby—,video and computer games. It was shortly after graduation that he found himself, a thin-blooded Floridian, freezing his face off at Computer Games Magazine in Vermont, where he founded the hardware and technology section and built it up over five years before joining the ranks at ExtremeTech and moving out to beautiful northern California. When not scraping up his hands on the inside of a PC case, you can invariably find Jason knee-deep in a PC game, engrossed in the latest console title, or at the movie theater.

 
 
 
 
 
























 
 
 
 
 
 

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