Forget next-gen consoles: build a power PC for less
20th May 2013 | 13:38
Don't wait for the new consoles for next-gen gaming, build a power PC now for the same price...
This was always going to be a year of transition. The one-trick gaming brick of yesterday is increasingly looking more like a Raspberry Pi running an Acorn emulator than an all-singing, all-fragging modern games machine.
Obviously, as champions of the PC we're going to be touting it as the saviour of gaming this year, but this perspective is increasingly entering mainstream consciousness.
Barely a day goes past when we don't get called up by members of the mainstream press, definitely at the behest of Rupert Murdoch himself, asking about this PC gaming thing.
Wasn't it meant to be dead? Nvidia says it's seeing more and more console gamers making the switch to the PC; either upgrading their old rig or starting anew. Sure, PC sales have dropped recently, but gaming hardware sales are still continuing to go up.
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Nvidia has seen GTX sales significantly rise, against all its expectations. The dip in the PC market has come at the low-end, especially on the laptop side, as tablets increasingly replace the machines people simply used for browsing them intermawebs.
So, what are the options in the world of PC gaming hardware? Well, that's really the beauty of this ecosystem: the options are seemingly endless. We've put together three different builds for the newcomer and seasoned PC gamer alike, covering the direct, under-the-TV console replacement build, the budget build and the system for the full-blown PC gaming experience.
What's been most interesting writing this feature though, is discovering just how cheap it has become to build a basic PC that will play the most demanding of games at full HD resolutions. With the next-gen consoles expected to cost between £300 to £400 at launch, we can spend that and get next-gen quality gaming right now. Why would anyone go back to those one-trick gaming bricks?
The direct replacement
The small machine for sofa-surfing PC gaming
We'll admit that there are things the consoles do well and that's mostly low-end gaming plugged into your HDTV. The lounge has not been a particularly friendly environment for the gaming PC traditionally.
Sure, you could get a little media machine to sit under your TV and frustrate you with its weak performance and complete lack of gaming chops, but thanks to the ever-increasing power of low-end graphics cards and the rise of powerful mini-ITX boards, you can now easily put together a small games machine. And, with Valve making strides into the front room with Steam's Big Picture Mode, PC gaming slumped on your sofa has never looked so good.
It's not going to be cheap, though. Intel is the only company making competitive mini-ITX boards at the moment, and the combination of CPU and mobo is still rather pricey compared with what you can pick up on the standard-size AMD side.
Still, we've built a gaming machine for about £500 that will sit contentedly by your TV and run the latest PC titles on high settings and at impressive speeds. And we haven't really had to sacrifice too much in terms of gaming fidelity at all, despite that half-height low-end GPU.
The beauty of this sort of machine is that as well as some decent gaming performance, it will also do everything a proper PC system can do, from encoding HD video to letting you loose on the wilds of the internet.
The shopping list
CPU: Intel Core i5-3470 @ 3.2GHz - £143
Motherboard: Asus P8H77-I - £76
Memory: Crucial Tactical LP 8GB @ 1,600MHz - £38
Graphics card: Sapphire HD 7750 - £83
Storage: Samsung 830 250GB - £136
Chassis: Thermaltake Element Q (w/220W PSU) - £50
We ran all the gaming tests at 1,920 x 1,080 and on the next rung down from the very highest graphical settings. Batman: AC and Max Payne 3 were run with FXAA and DiRT with 4x MSAA for the post processing settings. They were also all run with DirectX 11 settings turned on.
There are obviously alternatives to the components we've used. You could pick up a cheaper Intel i3 CPU for £100 for example, sacrificing some of the general performance, but still keeping most of the gaming performance.
Upgrading the GPU is tougher though, as you'll need a beefier PSU with at least one six-pin PCIe connector, and currently there aren't any more powerful half-height graphics cards. The Element Q should cater for larger cards, but the 220W PSU inside isn't going to.
The CM Elite 120 will house a full ATX spec third-party option. Pack in the Silent Storm 500W PSU that we've got in the budget build with the Elite 120 chassis and you'll be able to choose a modern GPU to jam into the mini-ITX build.
The budget option
Console yourself with and affordable gaming PC
One of the big perceived barriers for PC gaming has long been a question of price. At the beginning of the last generation of consoles we were still sitting on DirectX 9 graphics hardware and the majority of our gaming PCs were dual core at best. It took a little while for the mainstream PC hardware of the time to catch up with the pseudo DX10ish Xbox 360, and even then it was much more expensive to get to the same level of performance.
How times have changed… the next-gen consoles are set to ship at the end of the year with current, mid-range PC components and a touted price tag of between £300 and £400. To us that seemed like a challenge: build a gaming PC for less than £400 that will still be happy gaming at full HD resolutions when the new consoles tip up.
When it comes to pricing, the erstwhile budget hound will find a home with AMD. It's no surprise then AMD is supplying the hardware for both the PlayStation 4 and the new Xbox. Of course, that also comes down to Intel and Nvidia not wanting to surrender its hardware wholesale to Microsoft or Sony.
So we've built a six-core machine running AMD's 970 chipset and the latest Piledriver FX-6300 running at 3.5GHz. Coupled with a £100 HD 7770 this is a machine that's capable of hitting over 40fps, on very high DX11 settings with tessellation, in the likes of Batman: Arkham City. In fact we even topped 70fps in DiRT Showdown with 4x MSAA - that's some proper gaming chops right there.
Now, these settings aren't the top options in the benchmarks, but are still only one rung down the ladder with post processing effects on.
The shopping list
CPU: AMD FX-6300 @ 3.5GHz - £100
Motherboard: Gigabyte GB-970A-DS3 - £50
Memory: Corsair XMS3 4GB @ 1,600MHz - £20
Graphics card: AMD HD 7770 - £100
Storage: Seagate 1TB HDD - £53
PSU: Storm Silent 500W - £14
Chassis: Silverstone PS02B - £30
Despite being a cheaper rig than the small form factor machine, the full-size graphics card means that it comes with better performance at the same graphical settings. You can increase the gap even more with a £25 upgrade to the HD 7850 1GB card, adding between 10 and 20 per cent extra performance.
Again there are other options, notably the amazing HD 7850 1GB edition. For just £125 it's a fantastic graphics card, capable of running games on the very highest settings at playable speeds. At just £25 over the HD 7770 it means we can still stay below the £400 upper limit.
The only serious compromise on this build is the lack of an SSD, opting for the 1TB HDD instead. You can pick up 120GB drives for about £70, but that's barely enough for an OS and a few games, making it very much an unnecessary luxury in a budget build.
The serious gaming behemoth
The depth of hardware available to PC gamers is immense, and means we can put together gaming rigs for as little as £367 or spend an absolute fortune. Potentially, you could spend thousands on an eight-core Xeon for your X79 with four GPU cores thrumming away in your solid gold chassis.
Realistically, though, if you want to put together a top-end gaming rig right now we probably wouldn't recommend spending over £1,000. That's still a huge amount of money to spend on one device, but it does mean you'll be covered for a good few years of high-end gaming. It will also mean you have a great base from which to upgrade if you do decide you need some extra performance in one area.
We've put together a balanced base rig, combining the best gaming CPU you can buy with a decent closed-loop liquid-cooler to allow you to overclock. The base clock of the 3570K is 3.5GHz and all it takes is changing the multiplier to '46' in the BIOS to hit a sweet overclock. The cooler takes care of the load.
The new HD 7870 XT is included for the simple reason that for under £200 it's an incredible card, offering the top AMD GPU in a new, cheaper, slightly cut-down setup. Our SSD/HDD combination also gives you the perfect mix of storage capacity and fantastic SSD performance.
You might say we've been a little conservative with the RAM, keeping with the same 8GB kit we've used in the compact machine, but the low voltage means you can push up the clocks to 2,133MHz if you wish. We prefer the lower latency, giving us better performance than just a higher frequency.
The shopping list
CPU: Intel Core i5-3570K @ 4.6GHz - £166
Motherboard: Asus P8Z77-V Pro - £139
Memory: Ballistix Tactical LP 8GB @ 1,600MHz - £38
Graphics card: Sapphire HD 7870 XT - £191
Storage: OCZ Vertex 4 256GB - £164
Seagate: 2TB HDD - £70
PSU: OCZ ModXstream 500W - £46
Chassis: Corsair Graphite 600T - £130
Cooler: Cooler Master Seidon 120M - £48
We've left this rig running the benchmarks at the same settings as the other two machines to highlight the performance difference you get with the higher-specified components. The powerful HD 7870 XT card means that at 1080p you can run any modern game at the top settings without worrying about losing frame rate.
There are more alternatives to this build than either of the others, mainly because pricing and form factor aren't so important. If you're into productivity, such as video and photo manipulation, you may want to go for the i7-3770K with its extra four threads and some more memory. You may also want to change the GPU.
We've used AMD cards in all the builds because they offer the best performance and price balance in this generation, but if the likes of GFE and PhysX are important, the Nvidia GTX 670 is a great alternative. It's a brilliant card - at £300 it's pricey but it will give you a decent boost.
Rig building in twelve easy steps…
1. Temptation - resist it
The temptation to start throwing all your new bits into the chassis as soon as the box of delights turns up can be overpowering, but resist! It's a lot easier to test and tell which components, if any, need to be returned if you set the parts up outside of the case. Rest the motherboard on the anti-static bag it came in, and sit it on top of its box ready to receive its new goodies. Start by installing the CPU.
2. Check and seat the vitals
Attach the CPU cooler first, with a pea-sized blob of thermal paste in the middle of the chip. Now drop in the memory and the graphics card, making sure everything is securely settled in place. Nine times out of 10 a failed boot is memory-related, so make sure that's seated properly. You can also connect the storage drives to make sure they are recognised by the board.
3. Plugged in and juiced up
Time to attach that many-tentacled beast, the power supply. The key parts to remember to attach are the wide mainboard plug, the PCIe power connectors and the CPU power cable. With the GPU connected up to the monitor, you can power up for the first time and glory in how all your gear works straight away. If not, then remove the offending components and retest. 'Tis why it's easier out of the case.
4. Tool time
With everything now working perfectly, you can take it all apart again and start to get everything jammed in your new chassis. You can leave the CPU and RAM in place though, making things a little easier when it comes to dropping in the mobo. First though, we need to screw the PSU in place and get those cables routed around neatly. Make sure to orient the supply so it's sucking in air from the outside.
5. Sliding in your board
It's time to get the beating heart into your PC. We have the technology! Stick the backplate into the chassis and drop the board in place. Before you re-attach the CPU cooler, wipe the paste residue from both the contact plate and the CPU itself, and apply some fresh. To keep a good contact between the cooler and chip, a fresh globule is recommended. Now plug in all the power connectors - you're so close.
6. Fix the pixel-pusher in place
Before we fire her up for the second quick test, we need to get the supermodel component: the graphics card, safely ensconced in its new home. Make sure the way is clear of cabling and seat the GPU in place, ensuring it's properly pressed down. Screw the card in place from the back and secure the power cables. We can leave the storage drives out for the minute so we can test the core components.
7. Test and test again
It's worth taking the opportunity to plug in all the necessary front panel connectors now - such as the power and reset switch, LEDs and so on. Plug your monitor back in, give the power button a wee shove and watch the screen light up. At this stage, there's no reason for anything not to work here, but it's good to check everything is seated properly.
8. Install your data centre
You're so close you can almost taste Windows' sweet, sweet nectar. But power your system down and let's get some storage in there so we can get the operating system and some lovely current games installed, shall we? Plug the SATA cables into the motherboard first, making sure to use the SATA 6Gbps sockets if you've got compatible drives.
9. The (optional) optical drive
Adding an optical drive is almost an optional step these days. We haven't included a drive in the components list because we're not entirely sure if it's necessary anymore, although we know some of you disagree. With the rise and rise of digital downloads, we haven't installed a game from optical media in years. Still, it's just a question of plugging in the cables.
10. Getting your in and outs right
Now, plug in your keyboard and mouse, push the button and we're good to go! As you hit the post screen, tapping [Delete] will take you into the BIOS. It's a little too early to make with the overclocking just yet, but this is the time to sort out the boot options. Make sure your SSD, rather than HDD, is the first port of call for your PC. You'll also want to check your RAM is running at the right speed.
11. Whacking on Windows
Once you've got your rig all set in the BIOS, you're ready to install your OS. This is where the optical drive comes in handy, but it's almost as easy to create a USB drive with the Windows installation on it as a bootable stick. Well, so long as you've got another PC with an optical drive that is, and a large enough capacity USB drive. Make sure your OS is pointed at the boot drive and you're good to go.
12. All set for game time
So there you have it! There is now only the fun stuff to go now, like driver installations and getting your entire Steam library downloaded. All the time you're waiting for the OS to install can be spent deciding which game you want to install first. And thanks to the awesomeness of the machine you've just built, any game will run like a dream. Congratulations, you've just built a fantastic wee PC.