Building PCs for gaming can get expensive. It’s easy to put together a cart or two that quickly swells to two or three thousand dollars. Can everyone afford such a machine? No. Some - actually, many - people have stricter budgets and bills to pay. But that doesn’t mean you can’t build a PC you can be proud of. If you're prudent about part choices, you can still build a PC that will play most games available today at reasonably good settings.
Building a budget gaming rig often poses more challenges than one with a budget of $2,000 or more. Budget builds can easier to assemble, but picking parts can be a bit of a nightmare when trying to stretch every dollar as far as it will go. This guide is here to give you a bit of insight if you’re looking for a rig that will set you back around $700 before surcharges (like taxes and shipping).
Don’t get it twisted: This PC will not offer you top-of-the-line performance at 1440p, or even the latest games at ultra settings and 1080p. Well, at least it didn't prior to the RX 480's arrival. AMD's new powerful budget-minded GPU changed our view of what we can expect in a $200 graphics card.
We based this build upon prices we could find at the time we updated this article, but prices do change. You will find updated prices for the parts below.
CPU: Intel Core i3-6100
It was tough to choose this CPU, it really was. But after long deliberations and fretting over cache, cores, Hyper-Threading, and clock speeds, the determining factor that slapped me in the face was price.
Intel’s Core i3-6100 is a dual-core CPU with 3MB of cache, Hyper-Threading, and a clock speed of 3.7GHz that retails for under $120. In comparison, the i5-6400 is a quad-core CPU with a base clock of 2.7GHz (and a turbo up to 3.3GHz) and 6MB of cache that goes for about $183. While both CPUs have the same number of threads, the i5 does so with physical cores instead of Hyper-Threading. That means each thread gets its full 1.5MB of cache, rather than having to split up that cache with a second thread.
Even with its lower base clock of 2.7GHz and a turbo of up to 3.3GHz, the i5 on its surface looks like a worse buy than the i3, which isn’t true if you look at all of the variables at play. However, considering that the i3 is nearly $70 cheaper than the i5, I decided to go with the i3 part. This allowed budgetary breathing room for better parts elsewhere. If you’ve got a few extra dollars to spare, the i5-6400 or i5-6500 are both worthy upgrades for this build.
All of Intel’s non-K (locked) Skylake CPUs come with heatsinks and fans, which are just fine for keeping these processors’ heat under control. If you want to upgrade to an i5-6600K or i7-6700K, you’ll have to pay for an aftermarket air or water cooler too.
GPU: AMD Radeon RX 480
In the world of affordable graphics cards, there are plenty of aging models to choose from. The R9 380 was a great card for its price (and it still is, now at even lower prices), but AMD recently replaced it with it's Polaris-based younger sibling, the Radeon RX 480.
The new RX 480 is probably AMD's most compelling offering right now, even if it's not meant to be AMD's standard bearer going forward. It offers good performance, though it doesn't offer the kind of performance leap you'd see from a GTX 1070 or GTX 1080. What it does do is offer great 1080p gaming performance that inches past the GTX 970 and falls just under the R9 390. And it does this while staying at the price point that the R9 380 used to occupy.
At the end of the day, the RX 480 doesn't blow our hair back, but it's bang-for-the buck is better than other cards you can buy right now. If you're looking for value, this is the card to get.
That said, the RX 480 comes in two memory sizes: 4GB and 8GB. While the 4GB model is meant to sell in the $200 range, the 8GB model is priced $40 more at launch. (From what I've seen at launch, those ranges are about the same in GBP too.) Keep in mind that these price ranges are just the reference blower models from the launch date. As the weeks roll by, add-in board partners like MSI and Asus will undoubtedly have custom cooler designs that will make the RX 480 ecosystem a little more diverse in terms of pricing.
If you're on the fence between a 4GB model and an 8GB model, I'd recommend going for an 8GB model. A 4GB model will get the job done just fine at 1080p in most games. However, 8GB offers more room for textures and shaders so those HD texture packs will have plenty of space in the video card's memory. The 8GB model will also help future-proof your purchase a bit more, which will help keep the card relevant as newer games come out.
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170N-WiFi
One of the advantages of going with the i3-6100 as the CPU in this build is that it allowed me to put a little more money toward the motherboard. I’m a big fan of using H chipset boards over Z boards when using a locked CPU, but I made an exception to my rule here for a couple reasons.
First off, the H170 chipset generally limits you to DDR4-2133 RAM without any overclocking options for your memory. And, of course, you can’t overclock your CPU either. By going with the Z170 chipset, you’re able to overclock your memory if need be. The Z170 chipset also offers an upgrade path that allows you to take advantage of an unlocked Skylake i5 or i7 in the future. When talking about budget PCs, an upgrade path isn’t something to sneer at.
Gigabyte’s mobo delivers all the basics like USB 3.0, 802.11ac, Bluetooth, and even includes M.2 and USB Type-C connectors. The location of the USB 3.0 19-pin connector is a bit of a head scratcher at first glance, though. When you look at it, you’ll notice that the connector got moved to make way for a SATA Express connector at the edge of the board. The funny thing about this is that I have yet to see a consumer SATA Express drive. With the advent of PCIe storage (mounted via PCIe ports or M.2), the addition of SATA Express on a consumer motherboard seems more than a bit miscalculated; PCB space is precious in the mini-ITX form factor.
Of course, if you want raw savings over features, you can drop the price of this build by around $40 by going with ASRock’s H170M-ITX/ac. There’s actually something worth considering with ASRock’s mobo, too: The motherboard offers ASRock’s non-Z OC feature for memory. If you build on this mobo with a compatible Samsung or Kingston memory kit, you can overclock the memory to 2800MHz from 2133MHz. The downside to this is that I haven’t yet been able to find a list of memory kits that are supported, so it’s kind of hit-and-miss.
Memory: 8GB Kingston HyperX Fury DDR4-2133
There’s no shortage of options when you’re shopping for memory, especially when you’re looking at the cheap kits. At 2133MHz, this kit occupies the lowest rung of the DDR4 ladder. That doesn’t mean it can’t serve you well.
This kit from Kingston offers XMP 2.0 support. Then again, so do most kits nowadays. The kit is also a potential suitor for ASRock’s non-Z OC, though we haven’t tested it just yet. (I’ll be investigating this further.)
Memory in this frequency bracket—and several rungs higher—is highly commoditized, so the buying advice is basically to find a reputable brand and find the capacity and speed you’re looking for. If two competing kits look similar in price, capacity, and speed, check the timings. Finally, choose a kit that matches the aesthetic you want in your case. (That sometimes means paying a little extra for a different color, though.)
SSD: 240GB SanDisk Ultra II 2.5-inch SATA
SSD storage isn’t cheap, and in a budget build it can be tough to find an SSD that stands out, especially if Samsung’s 850 Evo is out of your price range. Crucial's BX100 has been featured before in our buying and build guides, but I replaced it with the SanDisk Ultra II because the BX100 has been discontinued.
Unfortunately, the Crucial's BX200 doesn’t live up to its predecessor’s performance, which edged me over to the Ultra II. The Ultra II performs reasonably well for its price and represents a decent middle-of-the-road option. Even though it lags behind some SSDs, including the BX100, its performance is still head and shoulders above what any HDD could give you. The Ultra II matches many of the Samsung 850 Evo's stats on paper, and it won’t break the bank either.
HDD: 1TB Western Digital Blue 7200RPM 3.5-inch SATA
The WD Blue isn’t what’s usually thought of as a performance drive. It’s actually built for workstation use, not high performance. However, this model spins at 7200RPM, which is more than the 5400RPM that you’d expect from a basic drive. Still, it's a less sexy drive than the WD Black (around $72 at Newegg), which is a favorite of mine.
The upside to going with the Blue is its price. After all, the drive is dirt cheap for 1TB of storage. Though it won’t serve up files as lightning fast as an SSD might, it will do the job without hurting your wallet.
As an alternative, consider jumping up to a larger budget SSD like the Silicon Power S55 480GB and skip conventional storage altogether. We've tested the S55, and while it's not the fastest SSD, the value proposition is strong.
Power supply: SeaSonic G Series 550W 80 Plus Gold
Like memory, most power supplies from major vendors tend to be of high quality, and I don’t recommend skimping on PSU quality. This semi-modular 550W SeaSonic is 80 Plus Gold certified and comes with a 5-year warranty. For this price, you won’t find many other modular PSUs that offer that.
Unless I’m building in a really, really tight case, I generally recommend going with a semi- or fully-modular power supply. With detachable cables, you can ensure that you only use the cables you need. (I rarely end up using the Molex connectors, for example). You can keep the spares tucked away for future upgrades, or replace a cable if it becomes damaged. This can greatly improve airflow and will aid in cable management.
When looking for a power supply, I recommend looking for a unit with an efficiency rating of at least 80 Plus Gold and a warranty of no less than five years. I’ve suffered from a failed PSU once before (circa 2004). It’s a bit terrifying to have your screen suddenly blacken with a popping noise and notice a faint smell of burnt electronics in your room. Do yourself and your PC a favor and invest in a good PSU. Your precious components will thank you.
Case: Thermaltake Core V1
I’m a big fan of the mini-ITX form factor. If you’re one who goes to LAN parties, or just wants a machine that takes up less real estate on or under the desk, mini-ITX is where it’s at. The downside to mini-ITX cases is that they can often be a royal pain in the the butt to build into. Not so with Thermaltake’s Core V1.
The case by default is a horizontal-layout, meaning that the motherboard lays flat and the GPU stands upright. This is nice since it puts less stress on the PCIe port. This is only “by default” because the case has four symmetrical removable panels. That means one side can easily become the bottom, and you can choose where to put the window. That’s pretty neat.
In terms of size, the V1 is small enough to fit on a desk, but big enough to accommodate a 10-inch (255mm) video card in the “inner chassis,” though there’s a cutout that allows for another 1.2 inches of length.
Under the motherboard tray, you’ll find the drive cage and PSU compartment. I like these dual-chamber designs, especially in small cases, as they provide a place to stash cabling.
With a miniature price tag, the Core V1 is a good inexpensive case that’ll let you show off your build.
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