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.
PC build guides
Building a budget gaming rig often poses more challenges than one with a budget of $2,000 or more. Budget builds can be easier to assemble, but picking parts can be a bit of a nightmare when you're 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 won't break the bank.
Since our last update, we've dropped down to a cheaper motherboard and switched to the more-bang-for-your-buck GTX 1060 3GB GPU, bringing the price to less than $700. For those willing to spend a bit (but not too much) more, we recommend bumping up the mobo and CPU. It'll set you back an extra $100 or so, but future-proof your system by another few years.
We based this build on prices we could find at the time we updated this article, but prices do change. You will find current prices for the parts in the above table, including prices for non-US locations.
CPU: Intel Core i3-6100
It was tough to choose this CPU, it really was. But after long deliberations and fretting over cores, cache, 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 3.3GHz turbo, 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 over $60 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 liquid cooler too. If you take that route, you'll also need to bump up to a motherboard that supports overclocking. It'll be more expensive, but will definitely help you stretch the life of your system by a few years.
GPU: Nvidia GTX 1060 3GB
This year, Nvidia's Pascal architecture blew the lid off the status quo GPU landscape. On the high end, the GTX 1080 and 1070 offer ridiculous improvement over last year's cards, both in terms of price and performance. But the goodness doesn't stop there—it trickles all the way down the company's line of 10-series cards. At the same time, AMD's new RX 480 and 470 offer excellent performance at a mid-tier price point.
We recently tested a full slate of graphics cards, evaluating them not on absolute performance but rather which offers the most bang for your buck. In those tests, the GTX 1060 3GB came out on top. With cards readily available at close to MSRP ( / ), most games are easily able to break into the 60fps or higher range at 1080p and nearly max settings. And if you fall a bit short now and then, tweaking a few settings should make up the difference without a drastic drop in quality.
The GTX 1060 comes in two memory sizes: 3GB and 6GB. The 6GB will give you a bit more breathing room if you're worried about VRAM issues, and is a worthy upgrade if you don't mind spending a few more bucks, but overall the 3GB card is worth more for your money, and perfect for this budget build.
Motherboard: MSI H110I Pro
There's no qualms about it—the H110I Pro is a cheap motherboard. But it gets the job done, and does so at a very budget-friendly price point. It's compact and easy to install, and features a simple and easy-to-navigate BIOS, which is appealing to newbie builders.
That said, the board does come with a few caveats. The H110 chipset doesn't support overclocking, even if you have an unlocked CPU. It also only supports a maximum of 32GB RAM, despite being compatible with Skylake processors that support up to double that. Of course, 32GB (let alone 64GB) is borderline overkill, even for a high-end machine. Either way, we're only using 8GB, so no issues there.
If you're wary of using such a budget board, we recommend jumping up to the Gigabyte GA-Z170N-WiFi. It's a fair bit more expensive, especially for a budget build, but it offers a number of upgrades over the H110. By going with the Z170 chipset, you’re able to overclock your memory if need be, and it 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.
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.
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. The SanDisk Ultra II performs reasonably well for its price and represents a decent middle-of-the-road option. Even though it lags behind some SSDs, its performance is still head and shoulders above what any HDD could give you. There are plenty of other inexpensive SSDs these days, especially in the 240GB class, but the Ultra II has proven reliable over time.
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 price, 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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