Build a respectable gaming PC for under $650
Last year, in preparation for Battlefield 3, Alex Bout created a basic part list that could run the game with moderate settings and a solid frame rate. This year, I wanted to see how much further we could push the specs on more or less the same budget. I was pretty surprised by what I found.
I'd like to start off by saying that the approach taken with this build is just one of potentially many you could take depending on your individual preferences and budget. I've included some options for components that people might want to switch out for something else to give the list some added flexibility.
These builds presume that you already have a monitor, but not a case or a valid copy of Windows. If you do, then you can either put that money toward upgrades here and there, or you can just save a few bucks.
If you've never built a new system before, there are plenty of resources you can use to help guide you through the process. Depending upon your specific needs, however, gaming builds will run much better for longer than the stuff you can get from Dell, HP, and pals. Plus, you have the advantage of knowing more about your system than pretty much anyone else.
With that in mind, let's dig in.
We'll start with the CPU, the brain of your new machine. As the description implies, it is one of the most important parts of the system, and it will dictate a lot of the other decisions you have to make about which parts you will be using. Namely, it can affect the motherboard and RAM, which, in turn, can dictate your selection of video card, hard drives, case, etc.
Because of its importance, for this build, we went with the latest generation of quad-core Intel Core i5 processors. Running at 3.3GHz, it's kind of a beast. It'll chew through anything on the market and leaves plenty of wiggle room for upcoming titles.
After Market CPU Cooler - Rosewill RCX-Z90-CP
As any system builder will tell you, heat is the biggest enemy of computers. Modern PCs throw out positively stupid amounts of heat, and while the heatsink and fan provided by the manufacturer is pretty good, after-market solutions are usually your best bet. Thankfully, aftermarket coolers can be very inexpensive.
As long as you pick out a decent brand and it fits within your budget, the exact product doesn't matter too much. Here we went with a cheap, but reliable option.
Motherboard - MSI LGA1155 B75MA-E33
Okay, so now that we have the brain sorted, let's move on to the skeleton, the core of your system: the motherboard.
Everything else from the CPU to your graphics card communicates with every other piece of the system through the motherboard. A bad choice here can bottleneck the rest of your system. More expensive boards have a lot of extra features that can save you some headaches in the long run.
Unfortunately, for this setup, we don't have that option. Instead, we'll be balancing price and performance. Like I said before, the motherboard determines what other parts you can use in your system. Now, for this budget build, we selected an MSI Micro ATX.
Memory - Corsair 16GB (CMV16GX3M2A1333C9)
Memory is what your computer uses to store programs and documents that it's actively using so it doesn't have to keep pulling all of that information from the much slower hard drive. The more RAM you have, the less your system has to waste time looking for the data you need.
Unlike last year's build, which only had 4GB, we chose to step it up to 16GB. The downside here is that the sticks we selected run a tad bit slower than last year's build.
I've included a faster option with a bit less space if you prefer that route instead.
The cost of solid state drives has come down quite a bit. Enough that we can reasonably include it in a budget system. We'll be using an OCZ Vertex 30GB. It's a 2.5" drive, so you might need to be a bit careful when installing it in the case, but for our purposes, it will work just fine.
The addition of the SSD is completely optional, but will give you a pretty significant speed boost for booting up your PC and loading whatever programs you choose to install on it.
Next, we went with a Seagate Barracuda 1TB HDD. At only 5900RPM, it's definitely on the slow side, and if you swap anything out, I would recommend ditching the SSD for a higher RPM HDD.
Video Card - MSI Radeon HD 7770
In terms of gaming, your video card will be doing almost all of the heavy lifting. There are two primary companies that make the graphics processors that are built into video cards: AMD and NVIDIA.
The former is generally better on a dollar-for-dollar comparison, while the latter typically heads up the absolute top-of-the-line products. For our purposes, AMD's current-generation 7000 series will be perfectly acceptable. It's one of the faster cards currently available -- especially at that price level.
For a budget build, the only thing we really need to be concerned with for the case is that the size of the motherboard matches. If you wanted to spend a bit more, you could get larger cases that have better airflow, tool-less entry, and a smattering of other handy features that will help you keep your PC in good operating condition.
Power Supply - OCZ ZT Series 550W Fully-Modular 80PLUS
Our power supply is going to take the alternating current from your wall outlet and convert it into a smooth direct current. Because the components in a computer are so sensitive, cheaping out here is one of the worst ideas you can have. Not for performance reasons, but for your-PC-will-die reasons (I know from experience).
Keeping that in mind, we went with a known brand, OCZ, and opted for one with 80 PLUS certification. That reduces the likelihood that the power supply will wig out and kill your machine, and the 80+ certification means you won't be wasting too much money on inefficiency.
As long as you can install all your OS and get on Steam or GoG, you should be good to go.
Operating System - Windows 7 Home Premium
Last but not least we have the operating system. As of right now, you're cheapest gaming-focused option is Windows 7. There are other choices, like Windows 8 (which launches on the 26th of this month) and Linux (which has the advantage of being free), but the former will run you a little bit more and the latter almost certainly won't have the same kind of software support you'll want and/or need on your new system.
Full part list and price breakdown:
Intel Core i5-3550 Quad-Core Processor 3.3 GHz - $209.99