So you want to play the latest games, but your budget is limited. Still, you want a system your friends won't laugh at. You want to be able to play the current crop of games on reasonably high settings and hope to run this system for the next year or two without having to back off the graphics settings to "minimum." This section's for you.
As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from Newegg unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are used if that can be avoided. You should be able to load these items in your cart and get them at or near the prices quoted. I had hoped that after my hiatus of three months, I would find that the prices on Core i5s and maybe even one of the new i7s would drop low enough to get them on the budget build list. That didn't happen. The Core i5 750 would be my Intel budget CPU of choice, but at $45-50 more than the AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition with poorer performance than the same in benchmarks, I'm going to say that would be the wrong road to go down. My self-established goal is $900 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1000.
CPU - I've found no reason to change this from March's recommended CPU, the AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition. The price has held steady at $160. The version chosen for this build has the new C3 stepping, which reportedly has better power consumption and higher overclocking headroom. When the original AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition was introduced in April 2009, its cost was around $245. It's gotten better with age and cheaper. With this build, I've stayed with the stock cooler for the CPU. This processor is a 125W TDP model, so this is an area we may want to revisit later. (We will not be overclocking in this build, but add a good 3rd party CPU heatsink/fan, and it's certainly doable. The C3 stepping has been letting a lot of people hit over 4GHz and have a stable system.) Motherboards of good quality that can be paired with the AMD go for a bit less than those of the Intel counterpart, so it makes even more sense for a budget build. There are plenty of reviews for the 955 BE because in many benchmarks, it gives the $300 Core i7 930 a run for its money. A few are found at TechSpot, Overclocker's Club and HEXUS. These are reviews of the original 955 BE from April 2009, and it's only gotten better with this new version. I really just can't understand how Intel's keeping the prices of its CPUs as high as it is when this AMD CPU beats Intel processors costing $50 - $150 more.
Motherboard - My motherboard recommendation from March is again my recommendation for July - the Gigabyte GA-770TA-UD3. The price has come down $5 to $90. This board has two USB 3.0 and two SATA 3 (6.0 Gb/s) ports. That adds two SATA ports bringing the total to eight (with six being SATA 2 [3 Gb/s] ports). The USB count remains the same (12) with 8 rear panel USBs (2 of those being the USB 3.0 ports) and motherboard headers for 4 more (for front panel USB ports mostly). The SATA 3 ports really are just there for sex appeal in this build. SATA 3 (6.0 Gb/s) drives barely push the SATA 2 (3.0 Gb/s) specs in the benchmarks I've seen, so there's no reason to pay the extra cost for those drives in this build. The future, however, is solid-state disks (SSDs). The prices are coming down, and before this build reaches the end of its life, an SSD will probably be a reasonable upgrade. Those can bury SATA 2 and give SATA 3 a respectable workout. I'd say the same thing about USB 3.0, but USB 3.0 devices are beginning to appear en masse. USB 3.0 external hard drives are just a bit expensive right now as they are new, but their speeds are very impressive. External backup to a external USB 3.0 drive (as opposed to an external ESATA drive) is quite believable. You know it's mainstream when it's available at Wal-Mart.
Other than the sexy new ports, this board is nearly the same as the one it replaces. It has only a single PCI-Express X16 slot, so no Crossfire here, but then budget builds don't usually include multiple graphics cards. Also, it's reported that the AMD770 doesn't support multi-GPU configurations at all, so the 4870X2 and 4850X2 are not candidates either. Gigabyte's Ultra-Durable line (with "UD" in the model number) are 2 oz copper PCBs are still my favorites. They have run solid in my last three builds and overclock like nobody's business. They're just problem-free boards. In general, I'll always stick with the big four: Asus, Gigabyte, MSI and ECS, but right now, Gigabyte and I are dating. This motherboard has a nice layout and is somewhat improved over the - avoiding having anything directly under/behind the PCI-E X16 slot. The one design decision I can't quite figure out is the replacement of two PCI-Express x1 slots with older PCI slots. I'd find the X1 slots more useful in the future, but in all fairness, the only slot we're likely to use is the X16 slot for the graphics card. This board does support several types of RAID and DDR3 1866 memory when overclocked. (We will be using its stock DDR3 1333 speed.) It's still a budget rig, but that doesn't mean it has to be slow. More information on this motherboard can be found at Gigabyte's web site.
Memory - This Gigabyte motherboard uses up to DDR3 1866 memory. Going with DDR3 gives a little performance boost here and creates the possibility of taking this memory forward in the future. Unfortunately, growing memory prices across the board made it impossible to keep the price around $80, which was the price back in January. The OCZ memory used in the March 2010 build - OCZ3P1333LV4GK (as a two by 2GB kit) has not gotten great reviews. Therefore, I'm picking an alternate CAS 7 DDR3 1333 part that's both cheaper and has more favorable reviews, the G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) Model F3-10666CL7D-4GBRH.
Graphics Card - I find a good match of graphics card to CPU is to get a graphics card that costs roughly from the same cost as the CPU to about 10-15% more than the CPU. This is likely to change at some point, but it's been holding for a while now. In the case of the budget build, I generally try to keep the CPU right around $150, which would mean a graphics card price from $150 to 172.50. So, even though I've splurged with a $160 CPU, I still want to keep the graphics cost around the level. Ideally, I would like to stay right at $165. I'm still waiting for an Nvidia GPU to enter the fray here. Nvidia has GTS 250s at the $120-$150 level, but those are just not the performers needed today and not a particularly good balance with the AMD 955 BE CPU. The next thing up is the GTX 260, which starts at $180. There's just nothing in between.
Since the ATI Radeon HD 5770 is pretty much the only game in town for the budget build (and not a bad card either), I've chosen to go with the PowerColor PCS++ HD5770 with 1GB of GDDR5 at $155. (It has a $15 rebate at the moment, too.) The card has DirectX 11 support and Eyefinity support. This model is slightly factory overclocked as well with an 875MHz core clock (as opposed to 850MHz) and a memory clock of 1225MHz (as opposed to 1200MHz). It also includes a coupon for Dirt2. There's more info on this card at PowerColor's web site.
Sound - For this build, we're going with the integrated sound provided by the motherboard. While I still prefer discrete sound cards, the difference isn't worth the cost in a budget gaming rig. Save that money and put it into decent surround sound speakers.
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've again selected the Antec Three Hundred Illusion Black Steel ATX Mid Tower Computer Case, which has had a $10 price decrease to $60. (This price changes +/- $10 every time I do one of these reviews.) The Illusion is a step up from the regular Antec Three Hundred because it includes the two front Antec TriCool fans, which are worth well over the $10 price difference. I looked at a number of cheaper cases in order to try to keep the price down. Most of them just don't have enough fans included to convince me they have the cooling needed. (They all have the cut-outs for the fans, but they just don't have the fans.) By the time I add a fan or two, I found myself back up the cost of the Illusion. I've done a build with the Antec Three Hundred (not the Illusion version), and I find a lot of things to like about it (many of which were the same or similar to the Cooler Master case).
Power Supply - Since this is ostensibly a single graphics card build, we don't need to put a 1000W power supply unit (PSU) in this build. On the other hand, it is not a good area to scrimp on the PSU either. 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. We don't need to go top end, but we do need a name we can trust. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes PC Power & Cooling, FSP Group (Fortron), OCZ Technology (who now own PC Power & Cooling), Enermax, Corsair, BFG and Antec. I also hear good things about Cooler Master, Mushkin, Thermaltake, XClio, Zalman and some of the new Rosewill PSUs, but I've never used them personally.
Let's do a back-of-the-envelope estimate of power consumption for this build. The two main power using components are the graphics card and CPU (in that order). What we're interested in is the worst case power requirements. The AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition uses up to 182W according to this Guru of 3D article. That's the total power consumption of the system though, not just the processor, so the graphics card uses a little. We're interested in worst case though since that's what the PSU has to be able to supply. The ATI HD 5770 (1GB) uses up to 108W according to this Tom's Hardware article. (Read the text under the graph.) Those two components alone total up to 290W. Finding the exact power requirements of the rest of the components - the motherboard, disk drives, DVD-RW drive, memory and fans is somewhat trickier as the values aren't always published. Based on several articles such as ,  and , I'm going to use 50W for the motherboard, 15W per disk drive, 20W per DVD-RW drive and 15W per RAM DIMM. This comes to 50+(2x15)+20+(2x15) or 130W. Combined with what we had before that's a total of 420W. Assuming we want no more than a 70% load on the PSU (50% is a good target, too), we need at least a 600W power supply.
Given that all of the calculations are worst case, a 650W PSU should be plenty. The best PSU for the money (as it has been for several builds in a row) is the OCZ StealthXStream OCZ700SXS 700W PSU picked for the last build. This is the same PSU as in the last build list, but with the price reduced (yet again) to $70. I have the OCZ GameXStream OCZ700GXSSLI 700W power supply in my gaming machine, and I like it very much. As of this writing, there is a $20 mail in rebate card that makes it effectively $50.
Hard Drive - At least this cost didn't go up any further (as it has in the last couple builds. If you don't wish to try to use RAID 0 for speed, my single drive pick is still the Western Digital Caviar Black WD1001FALS 1TB 7200 RPM 32MB Cache SATA drive, which has 1TB of space for $100. The motherboard supports RAID 0 (as well as 1 and 0+1) and RAID 0 striped drives truly make a system run faster, so my suggestion for the last build was to go with a pair of Western Digital Caviar Black WD7501AALS 750GB 7200 RPM SATA 7200 RPM Hard Drive drives. We need a pair for RAID 0, so that's a total of $180 for 1.5TB of (fast) disk space.
DVD-RW - DVD/RW drives are truly commodity items. Still need one for loading Windows though. For this build, I chose the Lite-On iHAS-324-98 24X DVD Writer, retail version. Why retail this time? Because we need the SATA cable. (The motherboard only includes two and the disk drives will be using those.) The software doesn't hurt either. Neither does a $4 price reduction since March.
Operating System - Here we go with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit OEM version for $95. That's down $10 from March. This particular version is for system builders, which means you get to do your own product support. I'm not sure how that's any different than the retail version when it comes right down to it. I always end up tracking down my software issues myself. There's just so much info available on the web I've never found the need to use the Microsoft telephone support system.
|CPU||AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition||$160|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte GA-770TA-UD3 AM3||$90|
|Memory||G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1333 Model F3-10666CL7D-4GBRH||$103|
|Graphics Card||POWERCOLOR PCS+ AX5770 Radeon HD 5770 1GB GDDR5||$155|
|Sound||Integrated sound on motherboard||$0|
|Case||Antec Three Hundred Illusion black mid-tower||$60|
|Power Supply||OCZ StealthXStream OCZ700SXS 700W Power Supply||$70|
|Hard Drive||Western Digital Caviar Black WD7501AALS 750GB 7200 RPM SATA 7200 RPM Hard Drive (Times 2 for RAID 0)||$160|
|DVD/RW Drive||LITE-ON Black iHAS-324-98 SATA 24X DVD Writer||$26|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit||$95|
|Total||The final damage (less tax & shipping)||$919|
I would like to have a bit beefier graphics card in there. Make no mistake, the ATI HD 5770 is a very good card, but I'd like to have been able to stay with the Nvidia GTX 260 or 275 I had in past build or move up to the ATI Radeon HD 5830 or the Nvidia GTX 465. Unfortunately, the cost is too prohibitive. The release of the Fermi boards didn't cause any price drops in mainstream range as not even the GTX 465 can be considered mainstream at its current price levels.
With only a couple changes, this system is exactly the one I recommended in March. While this one still exceeds my self-imposed limit of $900, it does so by only $19. March's system was virtually identical, but totaled $973. Small price reductions in the same components or using alternative ones added together for a decent savings. I'm happy to still be under $1000 for a system with this much power. As always, this build is not intended to be the rock bottom build that can play average games. With DDR3 memory, RAID 0 hard drives, a fast CPU and a decent graphics card, this system should run any game out there fairly well.
If you build this system (or one based off of it), I love to hear from you with any problems, praises or jeers you have by emailing me.
Bonus Build! - I had been doing a bonus build where I essentially swapped out the AMD CPU and motherboard for Intel-compatible versions. I'm going to cease doing that for a while. The AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition at $160, just spanks the snot out of anything Intel has in the price/performance area. The Intel Core i5 750 would be my budget choice, but in benchmarks, it occasionally beats, but more often loses to the AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition. Given that it's $40 more and that the P55 motherboards tend to cost more than AM3 motherboards, it's silly to go this route at this time.