2016 - 03 (March) Budget Build
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 links in the table below where I tally up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using those links and get them at or near the prices quoted. My self-established goal is under $900 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1000.
Rejoice followers of Intel! Skylake is upon us! If at all possible, I would like to take advantage of Intel's new faster and lower-power Skylake 14 nm processors if possible. I try to keep the price of the CPU in the range of $100 to $150. My choices in this price range are the Intel Core i3-6300 or the AMD FX-8320. I currently prefer Intel CPUs to the AMD CPUs because the AMDs are essentially the same design released in 2012, and they tend to run hotter than Intel CPUs. That means more power required from the power supply and more cooling to dissipate the heat that is generated. The Intel chipset that works with the Skylake series also supports DDR4 memory which is faster than DDR3. In my last budget build, I had chosen the Intel Core i3-4330. According to the comparison of the two at CPU-Monkey, the i3-6300 is from 15-30% faster than the i3-4330 for the same price.
That's not to say the FX-8320 is a bad part. When looking at benchmarks, the AMD wins those where multithreading is the key, but the Intel wins in just about as many overall even though it only has half as many threads (and those are hyperthreaded rather than dedicated cores). Games are becoming increasingly efficient with multiple cores, but the having more cores doesn't make a winner. Price isn't a deciding factor either as the 6300 goes for about $140 and the 8320 goes for $139.
AMD's FX-8320 is an eight-core part with an unlocked multiplier for overclocking. My mental problem with it is that is has a 125W TDP before overclocking, which is almost 2.5 times the 51W TDP of the Intel Core i3-6300. Overclocking the AMD part begs for a closed-loop CPU cooler. By the time you add that cost, you've bumped into the next higher Intel part (i.e., the Intel Core i5-4590). AMD recently introduced the AMD FX-8320E, which is a lower power part (95W). However, from what I can tell from reviews, AMD mostly played around with the current architecture slightly and capped the TDP at 95W (mostly by lowering the base clock speed and limiting the turbo speed). Benchmarks show the 8320E the same or slightly slower that the 8320, but the price is about $126. Really, the Intel Core i3-6300, the AMD FX-8320 or the AMD FX-8320E would be a good choice in this price/performance range, but my preference is to go with the Intel Core i3-6300 for this build. That will allow me to use the newer and faster DDR4 RAM as well.
We'll save cost here by using Intel's stock CPU heatsink and cooler. It's nothing to write home about, but it does the job and is included with the CPU. It's hard to be a $0 cost. So long as we are not overclocking, this 14 nm chip runs fairly cool.
Even though this is a budget build, there's no reason to use anything but a top-tier manufacturer's board. For me, that's Asus, Gigabyte and MSI. I have used ASRock in the past, too, but I find their motherboards can be a bit more finicky than the others. Headaches from cheap motherboards just aren't worth it for the few dollars saved. In my last build, I went with the LGA-1150 socket Gigabyte GA-Z97-HD3. For this build, I considered that board's new sibling the LGA-1151 socket MSI Z170-A Pro (not to be confused with the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro, which costs a bit more).. However, reviews from people who have this board are all over the place with many more DOA boards being received than I like to hear about. I also looked at the Asus Z170-P, but that also seems to have a number of issues according to the reviews from people who have purchased it. I ended up deciding that I would go with the
The MSI Z170-A Pro is a full-sized ATX board with two PCI-E x16 slots (but only one at PCI-E x16 lanes and the other at x4) and four PCI-E x1 slots. It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives and supports RAID 0, 1 5 and 10. It also has an M.2 slot for an onboard SSD storage unit, but it requires a separately-purchased Turbo U.2 Host Card if you want NVMe. The back I/O panel has four USB 3.1 ports, two 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. The motherboard has headers for four more USB 3.1 ports and four more USB 2.0 ports. If possible, we will also make use of one or two USB 3.1 headers to supply USB 3.1 on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.1 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the budget build is between $80 - $100, but the newness of the socket 1151 boards makes that pretty difficult. At $115, this board is outside of my target, but has some nice higher-end features that make it worth a bit extra.
I'm going to be very prejudiced in my selection here. Simply put, for now and for the foreseeable future, I will recommend an Nvidia card each and every time. When I heard about the upcoming R9 3xx series from AMD (390X, 380 and 370), I thought it might be time to revisit the series. Then a friend tried out a AMD 290X ... twice. The first one wouldn't stay stable in any game he tried. The second one that he got (from returning the first one) didn't work any better in his system. We decided to try it in my system, since I knew that I had a really stable system. I couldn't get it to survive through the first 3DMark test. I don't know if it was the card or the drivers. Doesn't really matter.
It got so bad, I couldn't even keep it up long enough to uninstall the drivers. I put back in my Nvidia card (an EVGA GTX 670 at the time), and the sh*tty AMD Catalyst drivers - rather than gracefully handling the fact the card was missing and defaulting to the standard VGA drivers - blue-screened over and over again. I had to nuke and pave my operating system to recover. Three strikes and you're out. He returned that card and got an MSI Nvidia GTX 970. Problem solved. You would have to give me an AMD card for free and pay me on top of that to use one. This may change in the future, but it hasn't changed in over five years. On top of their driver issues, they are still shoveling out rehashed crap from 2012 with a few tweaks and a new name slapped on it.
For this build, I am recommending an Nvidia GTX 960. My favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA. For this build, I picked the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR GeForce GTX 960, which is slightly overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. EVGA doesn't cheap out on their cards - even the less expensive ones. This is a dual cooling fan unit and has HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-D port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card is likely not beefy enough to handle multi-monitor gaming. However, with a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor, this card will do pretty well. This card requires only a single 8-pin PCI-E connector. If you happen to have a PSU that only has 6-pin PCI-E connectors, a dual 6-pin to single 8-pin adapter is included.
If you are a real AMD fan, the card to compare my pick to is the AMD R9 380. It's right at the $200 mark. AMD also has an R7 370, but benchmarks put it far behind both the Nvidia GTX 960 and the AMD R9 380.
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 $156 to $190. With the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR, the price has dropped from $208 when I recommended it in July to $190, which still puts it at the top end of my target. My rule does change over the years. It used to be 110% - 115%, but so much of the work has shifted from the CPU to the GPU for most games, the GPU is more important.
With the new Intel Skylake processors and Z170 chipset, DDR 4 memory is now mainstream. The prices on it have dropped so rapidly, that it's cost is almost identical to that of DDR 3 memory. I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin as suppliers. I've gone with 8 GB kit rather than 16 GB (or more) to shave a few dollars off the cost. I've picked a 2 x 4GB kit rather than a single 8GB DIMM to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller. (Intel went with dual-channel rather than quad-channel for the Z170 chipset.) The motherboard has four DIMM slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. The motherboard supports a whole range of memory speeds, and I went with 8GB of G.Skill Ripjaws V (F4-3200C16D-8GVK) for $52. This memory runs at 3200MHz with 16-16-16-36-2N timings when using the XMP profile. This is the maximum that the motherboard supports, but should squeak out another 3-5% performance for about $15 more than similar memory at 2400MHz.
I'd really like to have a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and some storage, but the prices are still a bit too high to get a useful amount of storage. (I wouldn't even bother with an SSD less than 256GB in size.) If I have to use a traditional rotating hard disk, I'd really like to go with the Western Digital Caviar Black series. Unfortunately at this time, their cost per gigabyte is way out of line with their competitors. Instead, I'm going with a fast, large Seagate 3TB 7200 RPM (ST3000DM001) for $85. (There is also a Seagate 3TB 7200 RPM ST3000DM002, which has the same specifications, but includes onboard encryption.) A 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black is going for $74 and 2TB for $120, and it's really hard to justify that kind of cost difference in this build. While 1TB used to be a lot of space, I'd recommend at least 2TB currently. The difference between the 2TB and 3TB Seagate drives is about $10, so it makes sense to bump up to 3TB. The Seagate drive has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface. My only hesitation about this drive is it only has a two-year warranty (or more or less depending on what country you are from or where you buy the drive apparently) where the WD Caviar Black series has a five-year warranty.
One upside of the budget build is we don't need any sort of outrageous power supply to make it run. We just need a competent one with sufficient connections. We still want quality here, though. 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, 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.)
I also like a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections. The former let's me build the system without worrying if I've put too much on one rail. The latter lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. I have picked a semi-modular Corsair CX 600M for this build, which goes for $65. (Newegg has a $20 rebate/promo on top of that price.) One nice thing that PC Part Picker does is estimate the power required by the build. Understand, they don't guarantee their number, but if you click on it, they do list the min to max numbers they have to make the estimate. This build is estimated to be 264W maximum draw. Ideally, we want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. We would be at 44% with this build; we could really comfortably use a 500W or 550W PSU. Corsair makes a 500W model, the Corsair CX series CX500M. The cost savings is only about $5 though. A 600W PSU is more likely to be usable in a future build with more demanding components.
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 200R Mid Tower ATX case, which costs $55 (from MacMall or $50 with a $10 rebate from NewEgg or MicroCenter). I have not actually done a build into this case, but every review of it just gushes over how nice it is for the price.
My reasons for liking this case is that it is a tool-less design for the disk drives (including SSDs) and optical drives, decent cable management, rubber grommet fan mounts, a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the front panel (along with a mic and headphone jack), and even dust filters. It has open mounting locations for many more fans, but for this build, we will use just the ones it comes with, which are a front 120mm fan and rear 120mm. The PSU, which is bottom-mounted in this case, also has a fan that will help push air through this case.
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. However, I've gone with a bit pricier model that supports Blu-Ray playback (but not recording), so I can watch both Blu-Ray and DVDs on my desktop. (That's about all I've been using the optical drive for lately.) I've chosen the LG UH12NS30 Blu-Ray Reader, DVD/CD Writer for $40. For DVD and CD burning, it supports all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds.
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.
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), 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.
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.
|CPU||Intel Core i3-6300 3.8 GHz||140|
|CPU Cooler||Stock (included with the CPU)||0|
|Motherboard||MSI Z170-A PRO ATX LGA1151 Motherboard||115|
|GPU||EVGA GeForce GTX 960 2GB SuperSC ACX 2.0+||190|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR4-3200||52|
|Storage||Seagate Barracuda 3TB 7200RPM (ST3000DM001)||85|
|Sound Card||Stock (motherboard sound)||0|
|Optical Drive||LG UH12NS30 Blu-Ray Reader, DVD/CD Writer||40|
|PSU||Corsair CX 600W 80+ Bronze Certified Semi-Modular||65|
|Case||Corsair 200R ATX Mid Tower||55|
|OS||Microsoft Windows 10 Home OEM (64-bit)||90|
For a total of $832 (or $30 less if you get in on current promotions and faithfully send in the rebates), we have a pretty decent gamer. July's build was $819, but that did not include a Blu-Ray reader, which makes the difference about dead even. This build should be noticeably faster due to the faster CPU and memory and should run most games on decently-high settings on a 1080p monitor. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.