System Builder Marathon, Q1 2014: The $750 Gaming PC

System Builder Marathon, Q1 2014: The Articles

Here are links to each of the four articles in this quarter’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $2400 Reader's Choice PC
Day 2: Our New Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $750 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected

Introduction

When the System Builder Marathon team started talking about giving each of us our own choice for the theme of this quarter's competition, I knew exactly the direction I wanted to go. I’d resist the temptation to spend more money on enthusiast-oriented part, even forgoing an SSD for snappier boot times. Rather, I’d fine-tune my previous effort and build a formidable yet affordable pure gaming box.

The $650 Gaming PC from Q3 2013 was designed to do all things well, without compromising the machine’s gaming prowess. I used an AMD FX-6300 CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 760 to get there. For the money, both components continually earn our recommendations.

Last quarter, to avoid repeating the same basic build, I was allotted an additional $150, which bought me a Radeon R9 280X graphics for higher-resolution gaming, plus an Ivy Bridge-based Core i5 for better overall performance. The resulting $800 Gaming PC was not only successful for bolstering benchmark scores across the board, but it even trumped the previous quarter's stellar bang-for-the-buck value.

I faced a problem, though. Duplicating those efforts this quarter would have cost me nearly $940 as a result of steep price hikes on AMD's Radeon cards, among other increasing expenses. So, my top priority was honing in on gaming, trimming as much of the prior build's fat as possible. Could I maintain the same performance in games at a more reasonable bottom line?

My first order of business was axing the Radeon R9 280X. Fortunately, prices on that card are stabilizing a bit today. But my options when we placed our orders were more limited. Maintaining the graphics horsepower to match my previous effort would require nothing shy of a $330 GeForce GTX 770, though.

Although I recommend Intel's Core i5 if you can afford it, stepping down to a less-fancy processor then allowed me to shave an easy $60 from the system's cost without giving up alacrity in my favorite games. AMD's FX-6300 would have been a good fallback. Or, I could have pulled from Intel's similarly-priced Core i3 family. A three-module CPU based on the Piledriver architecture would have probably been a better overall value option. But unless I added the expense of a cooler and more overclocking-friendly motherboard, I'd get higher frame rates from a Core i3-4130. High efficiency and locked-out overclocking meant I wouldn't need to dump extra cash into a beefy motherboard, either. Any stable H81-based board would work. I'd sacrifice features and use the savings to help offset the 30% premium charged for 8 GB of memory.

Nailing down my ideal list of components required an almost comical amount of tuning to hit $750. Significant fluctuations in pricing and availability stymied my efforts throughout the day our orders were to be placed. In fact, every single component I selected, aside from the Core i3, was eventually swapped out (in some cases, multiple times), including no less than four different GeForce GTX 770s at $330. When it came time to submit, I lucked out and snagged Zotac's offering for $20 less than any of the competing cards.

As my build came together, the team discussed introducing a new twist. Based on reader input, plus our desire to build nicer boxes, we decided we wouldn't factor in the price of the chassis or optical drive into the final equation. Don and I were free to venture beyond cheap $40 enclosures without giving up our performance parts, while Thomas would no longer be penalized for holding his build to a higher standard of form and function. We could also avoid debating whether the expense of a DVD or Blu-ray burner should be spent elsewhere.

Component  Model  Purchase Price
CPUIntel Core i3-4130 (Haswell)$130
CPU CoolerIntel Boxed Heat Sink and Fan0
MotherboardAsus H81M-K LGA 1150 Intel H81 Express
$58
RAMAdata XPG V2 8 GB (2 x 4 GB) DDR3-1600 AX3U1600W4G9-DGV $70
GraphicsZotac ZT-70301-10P GeForce GTX 770 2 GB $320
Hard DriveWestern Digital Blue WD10EZEX 1 TB$65
CaseRosewill Line-M MicroATX Mini Tower $50
PowerRosewill Capstone-450-M 450 W ATX$60
OpticalAsus 24x DVD Burner DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS
$20

Total Price
$773

Although I was free of previous budgetary constraints, I didn't want to go crazy on the enclosure. After all, my goal was to build a more affordable gaming system. And $750 in hardware is no small chunk considering that you also need to add Windows, a 1080p display, and peripherals. At the last minute, however, I spent an extra $23 tweaking the case and power supply to match my own personal tastes. So let's have a look at the parts I picked.