Planning

I've recently been pining for a proper PC to play games on. Dual booting a couple-year-old MacBook Pro was getting tedious, not least because it made me realize how slow MacOS and/or Mac apps run on the same hardware (Intel i7 with dedicated Nvidia 330M graphics and 8Gb memory) compared to Windows 7. And I'd decided I didn't want another laptop.

I wanted something in the sub-$500 range which could still run a basic MMO game properly - I'm currently playing LOTRO & STO. And I'd like to be able to run something like Torchlight 2 decently, or maybe even a AAA game at lower graphics settings. This meant I was likely looking at a low-to-midrange dedicated graphics card at least, as opposed to the standard crappy integrated graphics many basic PCs include.

Another factor, I have a ton of bits from old computers around. Most pertinent in this situation: a 19" monitor, SATA hard drives of various sizes, keyboards and mice, and a copy of Windows 7. So all I really needed was a "barebones" PC. Here's how it all came together.

I researched for a month or so, looking at all the brand-name PC vendors (all too expensive, and included stuff I didn't need), various stores that build PCs or sell "barebones" PCs, and checking out online reviews and recommendations for video cards and other components. One of my preferred computer stores is Canada Computers based on all positive past experiences, and I shopped on their website quite a bit, putting together potential systems and also looking at their own brand of pre-assembled PCs.

A few weeks ago I noticed when I restricted my price range to around $400 I was seeing quite a few systems built around the AMD A8-3870k "Llano" processor, and also a few guides about how to build a complete low-end gaming system on the cheap. Particularly interesting about this is that the on-chip integrated Radeon HD 6550D graphics processor (GPU) was in several reviews recommended as one of the best options if you're not buying a dedicated GPU card, and both the main CPU and the GPU can be easily overclocked to gain significant improvements. And it was available for under $100. So I focused on a system built around this processor.

I also saw a few references to the brand new AMD A8-5600k "Trinity" processor that shipped just this month (October 2012), but had written it off as being too expensive compared with the older processor, especially since I'd need a newer motherboard as well. The older versions seemed to have deeper discounts, presumably to clear stock. Also, I tend to generally not prefer bleeding edge, both for price and reliability reasons. However, the base speed of the new processor is faster (3.6Ghz vs 3.0Ghz for the old one), and it was widely noted that the Radeon HD 7560D graphics processor on the new chip is a significant improvement.

One other consideration is that the older chip uses a "dead-end" socket, the FM1, which AMD will not make any new processors for, whereas the newer processor uses the FM2 socket which will accommodate at least one more generation of new processors next year or the year after. But still, a budget is a budget, and based on my pricing it was $40-50 more for the upgrade.

The Purchase

This past weekend my daughter and I went down to Canada Computers in Ajax. I had a bill of materials in mind (based on shopping online) that added up to just under $300. I could have just bought the components online and had them shipped, but a) I wanted to save on shipping, and b) I love shopping in computer stores -- I spent 5 years selling computers retail as my first job, and I'd do it again if I could find a way to make any reasonable amount of money doing it.

I chatted with the sales rep and told him what I was looking for, and he tried the expected upsell to the newer processor -- but to my surprise the difference in price between the older and newer processor and motherboard was only $20 as opposed to $40-50 that I'd priced it at online. He also found lower-cost options for the case and power supply, which easily offset the more expensive processor. Yay!

Once done, the bill broke down as follows...

AMD A8-5600K processor$104.99
ASRock FM2A55M-DGS motherboard$64.99
Kingston HyperX Blu 8Gb (2x4Gb) memory$39.99
Topower 500W power supply$32.99
CoolerMaster Elite 343 case$39.99
Pre-tax total:$282.95

We headed home... where I rewired the network for the HTPC in the living room with cables I'd also bought. And then lunch and some laundry. But then! Build time!

The Build

It took about an hour to get all the components assembled -- I took my time, it's been a while since I built a PC from scratch, and I really didn't want to break anything. If I was doing it again it'd probably take half that time -- less has changed in PC technology in the past 10 years than I'd expected, if anything things are more standardized and there are even fewer parts and gotchas.

Originally I was thinking of getting a 60Gb SSD drive since I really just need space for OS and games -- I have a network drive for anything else -- but there was no room in the budget. I wound up using two left-over Hitachi 80Gb SATA server drives that run at 7200RPM and have 8Mb cache. I was going to use RAID 0 to stripe data across them for better performance, but then I had to consider additional RAID drivers during Windows install (which I now realize would've been pretty trivial since I installed Windows from a USB stick - oh well), so I just went with one for the OS and the other for games and apps.

The rest of the hardware install was all quite normal -- install power supply in case; install CPU and head sink on motherboard; install motherboard in case; install RAM on motherboard; run a few power cables and test that you at least get video (yes!); install drives in case; run many wires (front-of-case, remaining power, SATA); tidy up with included wire ties (nice!); and then plug it in and cross your fingers. Success!

The OS and motherboard driver install also went without a hitch, which was a pleasant surprise, I've had bad experiences with drivers in the past. Not really much to talk about there... it all just works! Though I did elect to not install all the optional apps from the driver disc, only the core drivers and a few useful utilities. Oh, and it had to install Norton Security whatever, which I promptly uninstalled. Then install the 127 pending Windows updates... then the games and their updates...

Results

I'm quite pleased with this system across the board, it's one of the nicest systems I've owned in recent memory, including real-world MMO gaming performance. In LOTRO I'm getting 20-30 frames per second (FPS) at full 1440x900 resolution with Very High graphics enabled. I will probably drop that down to High graphics for normal use, and disable a few other options if doing something with lots of other people, which should get me in the 30-40 FPS range. On the MacBook Pro -- which has a dedicated Nvidia 330M with 1Gb memory -- I was running at 1366x768 resolution and Medium graphics settings for normal use, and it would get extremely hot (I actually got a 2nd degree burn from it once). I'll have to start tracking temperatures on this new machine more closely, but so far I haven't noticed any warmth at all when I check the air output, even while playing games.

Drive speed is also significantly faster, with loading times reduced from minutes to tens of seconds. Storage space worked out too, I've already used 33Gb on the OS drive and 26Gb on the data drive, so a 60Gb SSD would not have been enough. Likely SSD for one of the two drives would be faster, but that's an option I can look at in a year or two as SSD $/Mb improves, or when one of the current drives inevitably fails (unless it's still in warranty). It's also nice that one drive or the other will spin down when not in use, which wouldn't be possible with a striped RAID.

So, two thumbs up for the inexpensive low-end gaming PC!