Tuesday, July 31, 2007 at 8:19am by The Free Geek
You need a new gaming rig and you need it on the cheap. Unfortunately, one of the most intense ways to use a computer is through gaming. This means that you’ll need above-average hardware to perform gaming functions. “Expensive” is the operative word, as $500-$600 will get you into an entry-level computer that will play Solitaire or online poker. But you want more, right? You want a fairly sophisticated video card to render those 3D third-person games in a playable manner and a CPU that’s geared for high performance.
One major problem with inexpensive systems is that they contain basic video cards built into the motherboard. This setup pulls from the processor and system memory (RAM), so an inexpensive computer just doesn’t contain the juice you need for a grand visual gaming experience. What you need is a system that contains a video card with its own processor and memory so your images don’t suffer. The separate video card is key to a more realistic game play, but you’ll need other components as well…
The following list starts with one solution for the large budget, then offers advice and then all the parts you’ll need to build a new system without paying an arm and a leg (begin with as little as $300!). No matter how much you spend, the following tips will save you money on your ultimate gaming system.
Customize Your System
Most gamers who have added video cards to their systems will tell you that they spent at least $200-$800 on the video card alone. True hardcore gaming systems can set you back $2000 minimum. So, as far as this first tip goes, you might want to consider your expectations for your gaming experience. If your budget allows you to go the route of a custom-built system with the best components immediately, then you’re set. On the other hand, if you don’t have any money, but you have your hands on a credit card with no annual fee and 0% APR, you can purchase that system now and pay over time at no more cost than if you paid cash up front.
Additionally, when you can purchase all the components at once, you can control the exact configuration you need from the get-go. But, where will you save money? You need to determine an upgrade path for future improvements, otherwise you’ll spend more money in the long run.
Make sure that the motherboard is capable of supporting a faster CPU, for instance, as you may want to purchase a more dynamic processor sometime down the road. You might also check whether the motherboard in this new system can handle a PCI Express graphics card, as this technology is overshadowing the AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) that has been the standard for gaming graphics for years (see #14). Finally, make sure that this new computer can handle generic rather than name brand components so that you can save on new replacements as you need them.
Lower Your Initial Expectations
If your budget is limited, you’ll need to lower your initial expectations for your system. But don’t lose heart – you can still build a system that will allow you to improve performance over time. And, you also get to configure your system on the front end. Get your hands around a computer that contains fairly generic parts and tons of expansion slots and you’ll be ready to improve that system as your income improves. Take into consideration that Microsoft systems which contain Vista require above-average hardware (especially RAM and video processors) to run, let alone to play Solitaire; so, if you’re bent on acquiring a Microsoft system for hard core gaming, you want to look for a computer that carries Vista Capable. “Capable” (as opposed to “Premium Ready”) will run a stripped-down Vista version. Still, you’ll need a system that can take a video gaming card that carries its own processor and memory.
Look For Bargains
Look through local classified ads for computers that are going for rock-bottom prices if you don’t already own a used computer system. When you can begin with a basic system, you can slowly build that ultimate gaming rig. This tip reiterates the generic capabilities. The generic platform provides the most flexibility when you upgrade, as you aren’t forced into working with the original vendor for parts.
Reuse Old Parts
No matter how you acquired an old computer system, you can use many of that older system’s parts for your new rig. You can reuse components such as your monitor (especially if it’s a good CRT rather than LCD – see #15), keyboard, mouse, floppy drive, CD_ROM drive, and computer case. In some cases you might be able to keep your old graphics and sound cards, especially if they aren’t built into the motherboard. When you salvage as much as possible from your old computer, you’ll need to replace only the core components such as the CPU, motherboard, RAM, hard drive, etc.
Determine the System’s Purpose
One way to determine what you need to salvage and what you’ll need to purchase is to decide how you’ll use this new system. Plus, you’ll need to consider your budget. For instance, if you want to use a system for email and surfing the Internet, then you don’t need a dual-core processor. But, if you want to use it for gaming, you might not need high-end graphic cards, either. (The next two tips speak to how you can save on the components you’ll need before you begin to build.)
Watch for New Releases in Components
For instance, you can often find video cards that deliver many of the same features and performance as high-end components for half the price. Some call it the “sweet spot,” when components contain just as many features as high-end counterparts, yet they’ve been through several price drops. These ‘sweet’ prices usually occur just before or after a new edition or upgrade is released, as the new release will cause older components to drop off the radar and off the high-end price list.
Shop Around For Components
You might be loyal to one or more vendors; but, when it comes to components that can increase your gaming experience, the best advice is to shop around. Don’t be turned off by e-commerce, as shipping charges on small components may be less expensive than the gas it takes to run to the nearest computer parts store. Avoid impulse shopping, because you might find a better deal tonight. First, know what you need, then shop around and compare prices.
If you’ve waited this long to build a gaming system, you might find that if you wait just a little longer you can afford a better system. Look for free shipping and rebates while you’re shopping for components. Sometimes you can save a bundle through holiday sales as well. When you time your purchases to save money, you’ll be able to build a better system for less. This strategy will allow you to purchase the generic components that will take upgrades when your salary improves.
Buy Only What You Need When You Need It
Before you purchase anything, consider what you need and when you need it. For instance, you might need a new CPU, motherboard, and video card now. But, you might not need that new sound card or speakers just yet. Once you lay out a plan for your purchases, you can deal with buying new or refurbished components over time. This plan will help you save money as you wait for your budget to recover from your last purchase. You can determine what you need from the rest of this list, which deals with all the new components you’ll need for your gaming system.
The Moderate CPU
The CPU, or ‘brains,’ for your computer contains the logic circuitry that performs any software instructions you may run, so your gaming performance is directly related to this tiny microprocessor. But, you may not need the latest, fastest or most expensive CPU (Central Processing Unit) on the market for your current gaming needs. In fact, the compatibility between the CPU and the motherboard is the most important issue in your CPU quest.
AMD and Intel processors have led the market for years with their processors and the dual-core processor market has opened up even for budget-minded gamers. The geeks at Tom’s Hardware Guide managed to build a gaming rig with a Pentium D 805 clocked at 2.66 GHz and equipped with two processor cores both with 64 bit support for $130 from Newegg.com. While the Pentium might provide one solution, you have many other options available.
Look for CPU speed, which is measured in either megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz) and is referred to as the CPU’s “clock speed.” The higher the speed, the better the performance – but, as you may know (or may learn), clock speeds aren’t the only consideration when choosing a powerful CPU. Some high-speed CPUs require cooling systems, some come with cooling systems, some don’t need additional cooling, and this CPU requirement can add to the bottom line. Your budget CPU choice is a lot like Goldilock’s bed – not too slow, not too fast, but just right. The best advice here is to take your time, look around, read reviews, and consider your motherboard purchase.
The Motherboard With Possibilities
If the CPU is your gaming rig’s brain, then the motherboard is that rig’s central nervous system. The motherboard relays the CPU’s information to all the necessary components through its connections to all your inner workings. Choose your CPU first, but consider the motherboard before you purchase the CPU as you may discover that a certain CPU at a low price might require a motherboard beyond your budget.
The motherboard will contain different connections for the CPU and for all other components that you need for your gaming rig. You can purchase motherboards that contain video and sound cards, but, as I mentioned previously, you don’t want an on-board video card as you’ll want to install a separate card for good 3D game performance. Try to find a motherboard that supports PCI Express connections (from $59 up) for your new video card (see #14). With that said, you might consider the embedded sound card to save money. If you want to go all out and your budget can face the music (so to speak) for super sound or for audio production, then you’ll want a separate sound card (see #16). No matter what you decide about the sound card, make sure the motherboard will allow you to upgrade to more RAM or to a more demanding CPU in the future.
The motherboard you choose will dictate the type and amount of RAM you can have. You will want to get SDRAM (older, less expensive, not as fast), DDR SDRAM (no reason not to buy – newer, reasonable prices, fast), or RDRAM (newest and, therefore, most expensive). You’ll also need at least 1 Gig’s worth of memory for gaming performance. This is one component that you’ll want to purchase from a known manufacturer. Memory can be replaced easily, but when you purchase 1 to 2 Gigs of quality RAM on the front end you’ll end up saving money over the long haul. Look for Kingston or Samsung, but you might take a chance on an unknown brand if the price is right and the reviews are good and if your budget is limited (such as this G.SKILL Value 1GB DDR at $59.99 + $4.99 shipping as compared to some Kingston brands all over $70).
SATA Hard Drive
This is where all your data is stored, so your system’s purpose is important to consider before you make this purchase. For normal use you probably need between 80GB to 120GB. But, if you play games that include high-end graphics and complicated levels, this will add to the space you need. You’ll also need to consider the hard drive’s interface, or the hardware that manages the data exchange between the hard drive and the computer. You’ll discover that the most common interface is ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment), and that it comes in two forms: ATA (AKA Parallel ATA or PATA), and the newer and faster SATA (Serial ATA). If you can manage the SATA, that’s the way to go if your motherboard supports this technology.
A quick search for SATA hard drives revealed some great deals at Tom’s Hardware, where a Seagate 320GB SATA-300 Hard Drive with a speed of 7200rpm goes for $89.99. This hard drive can hold up to “640 Action-Packed Games!”, which means you can run a few of your most complex games and still have plenty of room to handle email and play around with a mid-size MP3 collection. Don’t choose a hard drive with a speed less than 7200rpm, as your action games will suffer from anything less.
Take the PCI Express on Video Cards
The connection for your new video card is important, as it can connect to your motherboard via either an AGP or PCI Express slot. AGP has been the norm, but it’s now old news because the PCI Express can handle much more data. The other advantage to the PCI Express (don’t confuse this with the outdated PCI standard technology) is that you can connect more than one video card to your system. With that said, there’s nothing wrong with the AGP connection, as some of the best video cards come in AGP.
If you go with AGP, you may find that you’ll need to replace this technology as games become more sophisticated. If you go with PCI Express and a motherboard that supports it, you’ll open the door to future possibilities. Stick with nVidia or ATI, as these companies specialize in video cards for gaming. You’ll want to find a card that contains a minimum 256MB on-board memory, a GDDR3 bandwidth, and a high fill rate (the rate that pixels are ‘drawn’ onto screen memory) to render quality 3D graphics. Plus, you’ll want to consider your output. You can work with high-definition output (you’ll need a monitor that supports DVI), output to a TV screen (probably TV-Out) or to multiple monitors (dual monitor support). Some cards carry options for at least two different outputs.
A video card purchase isn’t easy, as there’s so much to decide on the front end. But, think about how you plan to upgrade your system over time. For instance, if you decide to go for the ATI RADEON X1300 Pro 256MB AGP Video Card until you can upgrade to a PCI Express, you’ll pay $124 for an excellent card. But, if you go for the PCI Express now, the price difference is negligible. In fact, I found a nVidia GeForce 6600LE 512MB PCI Express Card w/TV-Out DVI for $94.99 at Computer Geeks. Compare the difference in size from ATI’s 256MB to nVidia’s 512MB (the ultimate experience) for a smaller price. If you plan ahead, this PCI Express option will define your motherboard purchase as well.
Monitor: LCD vs. CRT
If your budget is limited (and even if it isn’t), the CRT monitor remains the best monitor for gaming. Why? Because although LCDs are phasing out CRT monitors, manufacturers remain loyal to CRT evolution (see some flat screen CRTs). Plus, CRTs maintain a better color range and a faster response to graphics and video, they can handle multiple resolutions, and they’re fairly rugged – all this as opposed to the LCD’s limited color range and response rate to graphics and videos, a singular resolution, and fragility. On the plus side, an LCD monitor can be easier on the eyes (no flicker), they require less power, and they’re smaller and lighter.
If you have an old CRT monitor that can adhere to the 85 Hz for non-flicker, stick with it until you can afford an LCD if you want to go that route. Otherwise, you can find many suitable CRT monitors for under $100, whereas a low-scale LCD monitor rarely goes for less than $100. This is one time when a search through the classifieds or on eBay will pay off. For instance, I discovered a Viewsonic 19 Inch E90FB Monitor – VCDTS23307-1M1, one of the gamiest CRTs around, for price ranges from $169-$199 new, but discovered the same monitor refurbished at eBay for $95.
If you can afford to get into surround sound for gaming, then you might want an extra sound card (as opposed to one built into the motherboard) and speakers. Logitech provides quality speakers, and you’ll want at least five speakers and one woofer for the full 5.1 experience. Since your sound card can’t deliver drive to your speakers, you’ll need computer speakers that contain amps. Plus, look for THD (total harmonic distortion) of less than 1-2%, as the lower that number the better the sound. You might put this system on your wish list, as it’s not that expensive and it’s top notch.
If you want to amp up your sound experience with a separate sound card, you can find a 5.1 card for under $100 that will satisfy your gaming audio needs. Also, remember that a high-end sound card install requires more juice than your old processor, as that older system can’t take advantage of that sound card’s features. But, you’ll take care of that problem on the front end when you hunt for that new CPU.
Power Supply Problems
You may discover that your old power supply isn’t sufficient for your high-powered gaming rig. While this power shortage might not present a problem at the beginning, if you build a rig over time, you’ll need to upgrade your power supply to handle at least 500W to power your components, and to also help cool your system. The best way to determine whether you need more juice is to add up how much power each component in your system requires. This number will change over time as you add more sophisticated components, so be sure to keep an eye on this issue. Most gaming systems will require somewhere between 500W and 800W systems. You can find reliable sources for the latter wattage at around $200.
Computer Case Issues
Yes, you can salvage a computer case from a used computer, but you may discover over time that this older case doesn’t work with new components. In this instance, size does matter. One important issue to consider is the number of bays contained in the case, as you’ll need 3.5″ bays for floppy and hard drives and 5″ bays for CD and DVD drives. Another consideration is space for the motherboard. The most common form-fitting factor for motherboards is the ATX, so if your case fits that form, then you’re in shape. Finally, the case needs to be large enough to handle any new power supplies and fans with plenty of front and back venting to avoid overheating any components. You can avoid costs here if you don’t customize your case as long as you have a case on hand that can handle future upgrades.
DVD and CD Burners
If you have some DVD or CD burners on hand, you’re in shape. Otherwise look for burners with sufficient drive speeds. Look for 48X for CD burners and at least 16X for a primo DVD burner. You have the option of buying internal or external drives, and your choice will depend upon your budget. Internal drives usually are less expensive, but external drives provide portability. Plus, DVD burners might cost a little more than CD burners, but DVDs can store much more data than CDs. Go with what your budget dictates and upgrade when you can afford it. I discovered a Philips 20X Internal DVD Burner with price ranges from $34 (with free shipping) to $46, so shop around and wait for sales for your best deal.
Your keyboard and mouse will wear out over time, and you might need headphones and even a new gaming chair to complete your gaming experience. Keep enough cash in that budget for necessities when you need them (like a primo keyboard), and save for all the other extras (like top-notch headphones) once you’re happy with your basic rig.
No matter how you go about building your ultimate gaming rig, you can save money if you’re patient, willing to develop a plan for upgrades, and if you discuss your options with other gamers. If you search for other articles or discussions about building a gaming rig on the cheap, make sure you look for a publication date. Anything over a year old will steer you the wrong way, as many new components have come on the market since 2005. Additionally, prices for those older and newer components have changed dramatically.
If you pinch pennies, you still can begin with a new video card, new CPU, and motherboard for about $300 if you use reuse old parts for the rest of the system. Cut that price if you go for refurbished parts or sale-priced secondhand components to start. Add another $200 for new memory and a hard drive, and you’re set for all the gaming basics. In other words, for the same price as that entry-level computer, you can begin to enjoy the beginnings of your new gaming rig on the cheap.