Mainstream Gamer

This section is for you if you want to build a rig to play all the latest games on very high settings if not the highest settings. Also, you'd like that investment to be good for the next year or two. This is also the build that I'm most likely to have tested a least parts of, and often, the parts I recommend are the same or similar to the ones I'm using. Systems in this section tend to run from $1,400 - $1,800 depending on the current winds. The general target is $1500-1600. If this describes you, you are in the right place.

2015 - 07 (July) Mainstream Build

The Mainstream Gamer Component List for July 2015


As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the mainstream build, my is to stay around $1500 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1800. I might squeak a bit higher if there is the return is worth the investment.


CPU


As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $30 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)


My current choice in this category is the Intel Core i5-4690K., which is part of the Haswell refresh from the 2nd quarter of 2014. It's fast right out of the box, but it is unlocked for easier overclocking. This is a true four core part with four threads. We're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both support overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. This CPU goes for $230.


Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (June 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.


CPU Cooler


Rather then the stock cooler, I'm using a Cooler Master Nepton 120XL closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews on this liquid CPU cooler have been very positive and the $90 price tag is on par with some of the top-end air coolers. It does take a bit of room for the pair of fans and a radiator, but we are using a case with lots of room.


Motherboard


I recently rebuilt a system with an MSI motherboard in their "Gaming" series for the 1150 CPU socket and was really impressed with the flexibility and features it had. I generally stick with Asus or Gigabyte, but MSI is always one I look at, too. At this time, however, I would likely buy one of these boards if I was in the market. Given that, I am going with the MSI Z97 Gaming 5 for this build.


The MSI Gaming 5 is a full-sized ATX board with three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots (but only one at with all 16 channels - (16,0,0), (8,8,0), (8,4,4) modes are supported), four PCI-E x1 and an M.2 slot. It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives (however two of those are disabled if the M.2 port is used, which this build does not use). The back I/O panel has four USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. We will also make use of the internal USB 3.0 header to connect the USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.0 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the mainstream build is between $140 - $190 and at $140, this one is right in the range.


GPU (Graphics Card)


Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.


For this build, the only card to consider is one the Nvidia GTX 970 (in my opinion, of course). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked the EVGA GeForce GTX 970 Super Clocked 04G-P4-3975-KR, which is overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. This is a dual cooling fan unit and has HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-I port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card might be enough to handle multi-monitor gaming, but really a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor is the target. This card will run that resolution excellently. This card requires both an 8-pin PCI-E connector and a 6-pin PCI-E connector. (That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W [supplied by the motherboard] + 75W [6-pin PCI-E] + 150W [8-pin PCI-E] for 300W. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 145W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom, which apparently this card handles very well.)


My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $199 to $345. With the 04G-P4-3975-KR, I'm going to be just below the maximum of that range at $335. My rule does change over the years. It used to be 110% - 115% of the CPU cost, but so much of the work has shifted from the CPU to the GPU for most games that the GPU is more important.


Memory


With previous Intel CPU generations, the common wisdom was buying memory with speeds over DDR3-1600 was a waste of money. Apparently, that is reasonably true up until the Haswell processors. Benchmarks by Corsair and Anandtech have found small, but consistent increases in performance at least up to DDR3-2400 (and even up to DDR3-3000, but that is pretty hard to find and somewhat expensive). With those benchmarks in mind, I've gone with 8 GB kit (2 x 4GB to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller) of DDR3-2400.


The motherboard has four slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. (I use 8GB in my gaming desktop, and I've never found a need for more.) I use a number of manufacturers, but I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin. The motherboard supports a whole range of memory speeds, but I stuck with 8 GB of G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3-2400 (F3-2400C10D-8GZH) for $60.


Storage (Hard Drive[s])


In this build, it would be (or should be) a crime to not use a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and the main storage. In my opinion, that requires at least a 256GB SSD, but 500 or 512GB is more realistic and managable. The MSI motherboard has an M.2 slot, and I'd love to use that with a SAMSUNG XP941 Series MZHPU512HCGL-00004(0) M.2 512GB PCIe Gen2 SSD that uses up to 4 PCIe lanes. It's twice as fast a a standard SATA III (6 Gb/S) drive. Unfortunately, it's nearly four times more expensive. Standard SSDs are still quite fast, so this build, I'm going with a standard 2.5" form factor Samsung 850 EVO-Series 500GB SSD. It costs $161, which is about 1/2 what I paid for a similar model about two years ago. It also comes with a five-year warranty, which tells me that Samsung believes in their product. The case for this build has four 2.5" SSD slots, so no additional hardware is needed to mount the drive.


Since 512 GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair a fast SSD with a fast hard drive, a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Black WD2003FZEX for $123. It has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface with 2TB of storage. The WD Caviar Black series is about the only drive left with a five-year warranty. Many have dropped to only two or three years.


PSU (Power Supply)


A lot of builders try to go with a cheap PSU, but we want quality here. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest itself in a new build as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard as well. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, Enermax and Antec.


I also like a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's rather a bit of overkill). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. The PC Part Picker System Builder is estimating the build at 353W. We want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. A 700W PSU then should only be at 50% load with the system running full out. The motherboard supports a second GPU, and in case that's a route taken with this build in the future, I have picked the Seasonic Platinum Series fully modular 760W PSU for this build. (PC Part Picker total is an estimate of the power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, a list is displayed with the min to max numbers they used to make the estimate.)


Case


This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Carbide Series Air 540 Arctic White High Airflow ATX Cube case, which runs $140. I have not actually done a build into this case, but I would love too.


This case is large - 16.33" long x 13.07" wide x 18.03" high, which makes it nearly twice as wide as a smaller case. With that width, I could practically step inside to wire it up. Much of it is a tool-less design with excellent cable management, a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the front panel (along with a mic and headphone jack). It has plenty of room for mounting the radiator that comes with the CPU cooler. The default fan configuration is a pair of 140mm fans in the front and another in the rear.


Optical Drive(s)


The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since that has been the case. That said, for $20, why not. I've chosen the Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer. A newer version is the SH-224FB/BSBE. Both support all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds.


Sound Card


While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. It will do here.


Operating System


Take your choice of Windows 7 (Home Premium SP1 64-bit) or Windows 8.1 64-bit - OEM. Both are about $100. I use Windows 8.1 because it understands how to tread SSDs better, but pick either one. You're going to take the free upgrade to Windows 10 in a few months anyway. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.


Component List and Tally


The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.
















Component Description Cost
Mainstream Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5GHz Quad-Core Processor 240
CPU Cooler Cooler Master Nepton 120XL 76.0 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler 90
Motherboard MSI Z97-GAMING 5 ATX LGA1150 140
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 970 4GB SSC ACX 2.0 Video Card 335
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws Z Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-2400 Memory 60
Storage Samsung 850 EVO-Series 500GB SSD
Western Digital BLACK SERIES 2TB Hard Drive
162

123
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer 15
PSU SeaSonic 760W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular 148
Case Corsair Air 540 ATX Mid Tower Case 140
OS Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 OEM (64-bit) 97
     
Total   1550

This is almost unheard of. I am actually close to my $1500 target with $1550 as the estimate at the time this was written. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.


 

2016 - 03 (March) Mainstream Build

The Mainstream Gamer Component List for March 2016


As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the mainstream build, my is to stay around $1500 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1800. I might squeak a bit higher if there is the return is worth the investment.


CPU


As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $20 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)


My current choice in this category is the Intel Core i5-6600K, which is part of the new Skylake series 6th generation. It's fast right out of the box, but it is unlocked for easier overclocking. This is a true four core part with four threads. We're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both support overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. This CPU goes for $230.


Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (November 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.


CPU Cooler


Rather then the stock cooler, I'm using a NZXT Kraken X31 all-in-one (AIO) closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews, such as this one at TweakTown, have been very positive and the $74 price tag is on par with some of the top-end air coolers. It does take a bit of room for the fan and radiator, the fan is a standard 120 mm fan and without a large air-cooled CPU heatsink, we have room to this at the back of the case. A number of reviews noted that the manual that ships with the cooler is minimal. NZXT points to this online manual, which has a set of animated pages showing how to install the cooler. As a building tip, you would want to mount at least the back plate to the motherboard before mounting the motherboard in the case.


Motherboard


I recently rebuilt a system with an MSI motherboard in their "Gaming" series for the 1150 CPU socket and was really impressed with the flexibility and features it had. I generally stick with Asus or Gigabyte, but MSI is always one I look at, too. At this time, however, I would likely buy one of these boards if I was in the market. Given that, I am going with the MSI Z170A Gaming M5 for this build.


The MSI Z170A Gaming M5 is a full-sized ATX board using Intel's new Z170 chipset and the LGA1151 socket compatible with the 6th generation Skylake processors. The board has three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots (but only one at with all 16 channels - (16,0,0), (8,8,0), (8,4,4) modes are supported), four PCI-E x1 slots and a a pair of M.2 slots. It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives (however two of those are disabled if the M.2 slots are used, which this build does use). The back I/O panel has four USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. We will also make use of the internal USB 3.0 header to connect the USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.0 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the mainstream build is between $140 - $190 and at $170, this one is in the middle of that range.


GPU (Graphics Card)


Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.


For this build, the only card to consider is one of the Nvidia GTX 970 ones (in my opinion, of course). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked (the same card I picked for the July 2015 build, which is the EVGA GeForce GTX 970 Super Clocked 04G-P4-3975-KR. This card is overclocked at the factory from the reference specifications. This card includes a dual cooling fan unit and has one HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-I port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card might be enough to handle light multi-monitor gaming, but real target is a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor. This card will run that resolution excellently. This card requires both an 8-pin PCI-E connector and a 6-pin PCI-E connector. (That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W [supplied by the motherboard] + 75W [6-pin PCI-E] + 150W [8-pin PCI-E] for 300W. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 145W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom, which apparently this card handles very well.)


My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $199 to $345. With the 04G-P4-3975-KR, I'm going to be right at the maximum of that range at $334. The prices for this card seems to have stayed flat or risen by about $5 since last July, which just tells me that AMD needs to get on the ball and release something competitive that doesn't require a separate substation to power it.


Memory


With previous Intel CPU generations, the common wisdom was buying memory with speeds over DDR3-1600 was a waste of money. Apparently, that is reasonably true up until the Haswell processors. Benchmarks by HardOCP and Anandtech have found small, but consistent increases in performance at least up to DDR3-2400 (and even up to DDR3-3000). With those benchmarks in mind, the Z170 chipset uses DDR4 memory, and I've gone with 16 GB kit (2 x 8GB to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller) of DDR4-3200.


The motherboard has four slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. (I use 16GB in my gaming desktop. It's really overkill in that 8GB seemed to be plenty for gaming. However, when I'm not gaming I sometimes load up enough apps to need more than 8GB.) I use a number of manufacturers, but I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin. The motherboard supports DDR4 with a whole range of memory speeds, but I stuck with 16GB of G.SKILL TridentZ DDR4-3200 (F4-3200C16D-16GTZ) for $97. I choose this one because it has pretty low memory timings of 16-16-16-36. My experience with G.SKILL memory has been outstanding over the year (save a recent failure on my desktop gaming rig).


Storage (Hard Drive[s])


In this build, it would be (or should be) a crime to not use a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and the main storage. In my opinion, that requires at least a 256GB SSD, but 500 or 512GB is more realistic and manageable. The MSI motherboard has an M.2 slot, and I'd love to use that with a Samsung SSD 950 PRO M.2 512GB PCI-Express 3.0x4 MZ-VKV512 SSD that uses 4 PCIe lanes. It's four to five times as fast a a standard SATA III (6 Gb/S) drive. Unfortunately, it's nearly four times more expensive as well and I believe the MSI motherboard requires the Turbo U.2 Host Card, which adds another $28. Standard SSDs are still quite fast, so this build, I'm going with a Samsung 850 EVO M.2 500GB (MZ-N5E500BW) SSD. It costs $158, which is about 1/2 what I paid for a the sibling 2.5" 500GB model about two years ago. It also comes with a five-year warranty, which tells me that Samsung believes in their product. If you want to make sure this drive could be used with some other system in the future (like a laptop you want to speed up), the 2.5" version, Samsung 850 EVO 2.5" 500GB SSD (MZ-75E500B/AM) is also a good choice and the case has plenty of slots for SSD drive.


Since 512 GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair a fast SSD with a fast hard drive, a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Black WD2003FZEX for $120. It has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface with 2TB of storage. The WD Caviar Black series is about the only drive left with a five-year warranty. Many drive manufacturers have dropped to only two or three years. While not SSD-level fast, this drive is fast for a rotating platter version.


PSU (Power Supply)


The PC Part Picker wattage number displayed in the title bar of a system build sheet is an estimate of the worst-case power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, PC Part Picker displays a list with the min to max expected current draw numbers used to make the estimate. The estimate is just the sum of the maximums for each part in the build sheet.


The PSU is not the place to cheap out. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard. You could swap out a lot of good parts before definitively tagging the power supply as the problem. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, Silverstone, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, EVGA, Enermax and Antec. Corsair and EVGA don't make their own PSUs, but they OEM them from the other manufacturers listed here. (This Tom's Hardware article of Whos Who in Power Supplies, 2014 has more details [but needs updating].)


I prefer a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's not generally necessary). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the 12V connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need rather than having to tie up the unused ones out of the way somehow. The PC Part Picker System Builder is estimating the build at 365W. We want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. A 700W PSU then should only be at 50% load with the system running full out. The motherboard supports a second GPU, and in case that's a route taken with this build in the future, I have picked the EVGA SuperNOVA P2 750W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular PSU for this build, which costs $110. This PSU comes with a 10-year warranty and 62.4A m +12V rail. [Cue mad scientist voice:] Yes. Yes, that will do nicely.


Case


This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience, and upgrading later a nightmare. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Obsidian 750D Black Aluminum Full Tower case, which runs $130. This case is very understated, but still very good looking. It says, "Yeah, the outside looks expensive, but you should see what's inside."


This case is large - 22" long x 9.25" wide x 21.50" high. Much of it is a tool-less design with excellent cable management, a pair of USB 3.0 ports and a pair of USB 2.0 ports on the front panel as well as a mic and headphone jack. The standard fan configuration is a pair of 140mm fans in the front and another 140mm fan in the rear. There is also plenty of room in the top for the 120mm fan from the closed-loop CPU cooler. You can get matching colored wire sleeves and fan rings if that's something that interests you.


Optical Drive(s)


The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since I bought one. I realized though that I would like to be able to watch Blu-Rays and DVDs on my desktop, and since Blu-Ray writers only cost about $10 bit more than Blu-Ray read-only drives, I've included one of those all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds. The one I've put in this build is the LG Super Multi Blue Internal 14x Blu-ray Disc Rewriter (WH14NS40) for $50.


Sound Card


While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. This motherboard even keeps the circuit paths for the audio separate from the others in order to reduce cross talk.


Operating System


Take your choice of Windows 8.1 (64-bit) or Windows 10 Home (64-bit). Both are about $90. I have switched from 8.1 to Windows 10 because it has DirectX 12 support for games, and I really just like it better. If you really want Windows 7, but don't have an install disc (or other media) already, be prepared to pay through the nose to get one. It's around $140 for Windows 7 Professional and it seems Windows 7 Home goes for even more. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.


Component List and Tally


The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.
















Component Description Cost
Mainstream Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i5-6600K 3.5GHz Quad-Core 245
CPU Cooler NZXT Kraken X31 69.5 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler 70
Motherboard MSI Z170A GAMING M5 ATX LGA1151 174
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 970 4GB SSC ACX 2.0+ ( 04G-P4-3975-KR) 334
Memory G.SKILL TridentZ Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-3200 97
Storage Samsung 850 EVO 500GB M.2-2280 (MZ-N5E500BW) SSD
Western Digital Black Series 2TB (WD2003FZEX )Hard Drive
157

120
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive LG WH14NS40 Blu-Ray/DVD/CD Writer 50
PSU EVGA SuperNOVA P2 750W 80+ Platinum Fully-Modular 110
Case Corsair 750D ATX Full Tower Case 145
OS Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit) 90
     
Total   1592

At $1,592, this isn't too far over the $1500 target. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to PC Part Picker list.