Build it on a Budget: A sub-$500 get-work-done rig

Look, not every computer you build has to be a tricked-out gaming rig with flashing LEDs and a complete water-cooling system. Some of us just need a machine that we can use to get work done in an efficient manner. This is where my heavily thought-out budget build comes into play. And we’re not talking about really cheap APU crap — we’re going all-out Intel 2nd-gen Core i3 that will even have enough room for some expandability in the future, all for under $500.

This budget system will serve you well for most everyday tasks, as well as other more slightly intensive activities like some gaming, streaming movies and music from the web, and even bigger projects like editing photos and home movies.

This build assumes that you already have a mouse, keyboard, and monitor lying around to use with your new system and that you’ll only need the basic components to get up and running. Also, I’m assuming off-the-bat that you already know how to build a computer from scratch, but if you don’t (and there’s no need to be ashamed), Lifehacker has a great guide that’s perfect for the computer-building novice.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the components that will make up this sub-$500 workhorse.

The Case and Power Supply: Rosewill R103A Mid-Tower Case w/ 350W Power Supply – $39.99

The R103A isn’t an Antec Twelve Hundred by any means, but it certainly will get the job done, and the included 350-watt power supply will give us more than enough juice to power our budget build.

The Motherboard: ASUS P8H61-M LE/CSM Micro ATX Motherboard – $70.99

Asus is certainly a trusted name in motherboards and the P8H61-M is no exception. It’s a budget board that will serve you well throughout the life of your machine. It sports six USB ports, four SATA ports, a PCI Express slot (for a future graphics card), and DVI and VGA ports for the integrated graphics.

The Processor: Intel Core i3-2105 3.1GHz Dual-Core Processor – $134.99

I went with Intel for this budget build, but you’re free to substitute in AMD if you choose. However, the Core i3-2105 is quite a bang for the buck. The 3.1GHz dual-core chip is a solid processor that will certainly be able to keep up with most tasks you throw at it, and the HD 3000 integrated graphics will play most basic games that you’ll want (From my experience, the HD 3000 graphics play Portal 2 without a hiccup).

The RAM: Crucial 4GB DDR3 1333 Dual Channel RAM – $27.99

4GB is the sweet spot for memory in most budget builds, but it’s so cheap nowadays that you’re free to upgrade to 8GB if you so choose, just be aware that the motherboard I chose only has two DIMM slots, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem here — 2x4GB memory kits are very common.

The Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Blue 320GB Hard Drive – $74.99

Unlike RAM, hard drives are ridiculously expensive right now, but prices should go back down to normal before year’s end. I obviously would have gone with a larger hard drive if the budget was a little higher, but 320GB is enough room for the main system files, all of your programs, and a selection of media files.

The Optical Drive: Samsung 22x DVD Burner – $16.99

Selecting an optical drive is pretty simple and they’re really cheap: Just select something that works for your needs, but because of the low prices, there’s no reason not to go for an all-out DVD burner just ’cause.

The OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit – $99.99

A bulk of the price for the budget build is from the operating system. I chose Windows 7 by default since that’s what most of you will probably run, but feel free to save yourself $100 and use Linux or try your hands at a Hackintosh with a $30-copy of Mac OS X Lion.

Total price of the budget build: $465.93

Conclusion

As you can see, we have a bit of room to work with as far as our $500 budget. There’s $34.07 left over. That’s not a lot of money, but you could use it to upgrade the hard drive to a higher capacity or double the amount of RAM like I mentioned earlier.

Obviously, don’t take my word for everything I suggested here. I know everyone has their own opinions on what should have been included and excluded. Also, don’t feel obligated to use only Newegg/Amazon to buy your components. Feel free to use another e-tailer, especially if you can find the components cheaper there.

If you have any questions about your own budget build, you can leave a comment below or you can visit the many online resources available to you. Tom’s Hardware Forums is just one place that can provide you with a lot helpful feedback.

Image Credit: Iwan Gabovitch

Holiday Gift Guide 2011: Build a Gaming PC Edition

This year I decided to use my holiday wish-list to build an entire desktop PC. I mean, as long as a majority of the parts needed to build a high performance machine are gifted to me over the holidays, in the end all of them can be combined for the common goal of playing Skyrim for 100+ hours with the maximum refresh rate and graphics settings.

So from one PC gamer to another, here are a few essential and non-essential recommendations to build a high-end gaming machine. Let the PC gaming rig wish-list begin.

CPU / Motherboard

The year 2011 showed the world some great processors (most notably Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture and AMD’s Bulldozer), and it should not be difficult to pick out one for the list that satisfies all your gaming needs (as well as your Secret Santa’s budget).

1. Intel Core i7-2600K or Intel i5-2500K CPU ($220-$320)

This is where it all begins

According to this article by Tom’s Hardware, Intel has the best CPUs around for $200-$300. In the article, the quad-core i5-2500K is recommended for its lower cost and 3.3 GHz clock frequency with the Sandy Bridge architecture, but the i7-2600K gets a step ahead with its 3.4 GHz processing speed and by having hyper-threading technology (essentially making it 8 cores instead of 4) as well as an integrated memory controller that quickens the access rate of the DDR3 RAM.

In the end, the only noticeable difference here is price ($220 for the i5, $320 for the i7), so don’t immediately jump on the Core i7 train if you don’t think the family will fork out the extra $100.

2. EVGA Z68 Motherboard ($299)

Once the CPU is picked out, be sure to then find an appropriate motherboard suitable for the architecture. This EVGA board was chosen not only because it has the right socket for the Core i5 and i7 (the LGA 1155), but mostly because it has six PCI-Express 2.0 slots. That’s right, six. That means that technically you could put six video graphics cards in parallel and run them simultaneously. Furthermore, it allows for DDR3 Memory with speeds up to 2133 MHz (which is fast, by the way) and plenty of SATA/RAID connectivity.

Sounds like a bit overkill for the wish-list? Then I guess the ASUS P8Z68 would work as well. That one is under $300 and comes with just two PCI-Express 3.0 slots for graphics cards.

Graphics Card / Memory

Speaking of graphic video cards, there are lots of beautiful options to choose from this 2011 season and each one has its share of pros and cons (see: Tom’s Hardware for more research). But most notably, here are two options from both ends of the arena.

3. GeForce GTX580 or Radeon HD 6950 ($269-$499)

Two graphics card options; two different prices. The GeForce GTX580 is from EVGA and comes with 1.5GB of video memory and a 772 MHz clock, while the Radeon HD 6950 is from HIS and comes with 2GB of memory and an 840MHz core clock. Both allow for DirectX 11, 2560 x 1600 screen resolution, and at least three DVI/HDMI ports for output.

So why the price difference? Well the GTX 580 is SLI capable, meaning that it can be run in parallel with a similar device (like a second or third GTX580) and share the graphics processing power. How crazy is that? The only issue there is that if one wanted to run two at a time, that means that at least $1000 would have to be spent to achieve this goal. So maybe save one of them for next year.

4. G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB DDR3 Memory 2100MHz ($50-60)

Nowadays, memory comes in sticks of two and runs with DDR3 from 1300 MHz to 2100 MHz. These G.Skill Ripjaws (really, they are called that) are at 8 GHz and can run up to 2133 MHz. And they’re not $300, which is a pretty nice change from the other items on our wish-list.

Since the motherboards I’ve recommended in this article come equipped with four DDR3 dual channel slots, up to 16GB of memory is possible.

Power Supply / Drives

Now that the brains of the gaming PC have been chosen and added to the wish-list, the next step is to pick the other internal organs that complete the base computing components.

5. Corsair 750W Power Supply ($90)

This is the component that will give your future Frankenstein PC life, so don’t be stingy on the wattage or the price when adding this one to the list. This 750W beauty by Corsair linked above is an acceptable option for giving juice to the overpowered components, but if you’re feeling the need to go overboard the 950W option goes for just $150. That’s almost a thousand watts of gaming power!

6. Hard Disk Drive ($119-$249)

Right now, hard drives are not that cheap. So for the sake of the wish-list as a whole, a 500 GB drive at 7200 RPM is a good starter at a slightly reasonable price of $119. Western Digital still seem to be the king of the hill in terms of reliability and operating speeds, so any one of their Caviar Black, Blue, or Green products would be sufficient for one’s wish-list.

7. LG DVD/Blu Ray Drive ($65)

This is no-brainer for computer components: If you buy a PC game, most likely you will have to insert a disk of some sort to install/play it (unless one has jumped onto the digital download bandwagon). So when building your new PC, it wouldn’t hurt to add the Blu Ray reader/burner drive option to the holiday list just in case that whole digital streaming revolution doesn’t pan out.

Peripherals / Externals

Now that the internals have been selected, it is time to add the external inputs to the list as well. These recommendations are a bit fuzzier than the others, mainly because the price of these components will depend on how much your Secret Santa feels like spending on you (case in point, an optical mouse can be as cheap as $7 and a keyboard as inexpensive as $5).

This looks 'shopped. I can tell by the pixels

8. A Good LCD Monitor or Two ($190 each)

For a couple hundred bucks each, one can get their monitoring set up quite nicely. The LCD monitor shown in the picture above is a standard 23″ monitor with a 1920 x 1080 screen resolution and DVI/HDMI ports. Just don’t stare too long at it, you may hurt your eyes.

9. Gaming Keyboard ($9-$199), 10. Optical Mouse ($12-$69), 11. Audio Speakers ($20-$49)

In reality, these are going to be based on your personal preferences. Once again, for the sake of the list I would recommend going cheap on these so that money can be spent on the more crucial components, but if you’re curious as to what might be “cool” and “extreme” for your PC, here are some options.

For a keyboard, the $110 AZIO Levetron Mech4 seems to be right up the alley of gamers with its mechanical keys, modular design, and anti-ghost technology. For a mouse, try out the $69 Corsair Vengence M60, designed with a special “sniper” button and FPS gaming in mind. And finally, for a simple audio speaker bundle try out the $45 Creative Inspire T3130 speakers with 2.1 watts of acoustic harmony.

12. Computer Case ($40-$300)

Keep your computer from running around naked. Buy a tower for it.

Finally, let’s pick a computer case to drop all these gifts into. Again, this choice is entirely based on preference. Pick a case that suits your personal likes and dislikes (preferably medium to large to fit all these beastly components) and add it to your wish-list. The Antec Nine Hundred mid-size case for $99 is not a bad choice in terms of space and affordability.

Grand Total

So now, here’s the brilliance of this combinational theory. Since your family and friends will be buying your components individually, they can expect to spend around $100 to $400 for just one gift. But once all the computer gifts come together, you end up with a single PC gaming work horse at a total cost of about (let’s see here…carry the one, subtract the two, divide by the sales tax): $1500 to $2400. So just think, the bigger your family is, the more they can spread this cost over all your gifts!

One other thing to note is the factor of un-gifted gifts. It is a known fact that during the holidays, we don’t always get what we want. But the beauty of the theory is that even though you may get only 7 out of the 12 computer component items I mentioned, those 7 are still bundled to a common goal and value, so you still feel like you accomplished something with your wish-list. Let’s see Aunt Edna’s knitted socks gift do that.

So PC gamers, if you’re in the market for a serious new platform this holiday season, be sure to put my theory to work. What could possibly go wrong?*

*Actual results may vary, things might actually go wrong.