PC gaming is often called out for having a very high barrier to entry. Although the games are cheaper, the hardware is more expensive. The goal of this build guide is to create a $500 PC that will play current generation games well at HD resolutions. This build will perform best on resolutions of 1680×1050 or below (1280×1024, 1280×720), but it should be passable at higher resolutions for many games. Unfortunately, to avoid cutting too many corners and keep the price down, I had to cheat in two different ways. One, this build does not include the cost of an operating system. Although that may seem crazy, with the wide spread availability of Windows 7 beta, and the likely scenario that most people already have a PC that runs Windows XP that they are upgrading from, it is safe for me to assume that you have access to an operating system. Second, mail-in rebates are factored in to get the cost below $500. Newegg was used for all prices (as of April 10, 2009), so cheaper versions of the same or similar parts may be found elsewhere. Newegg was chosen because we have simply found that they are the easiest place to deal with when buying parts for a new system. If you do some digging around, the same configuration can most likely be found for less than $500 without any mail-in rebates.
Although it was not on par with the performance of the Core 2 platform, AMD’s Phenom series has become an excellent bargain. Because modern games are incredibly graphics card dependent, it is easy to get good performance from a gaming PC with a less than top of the line processor. This system will perform incredibly well for everyday tasks, thanks to a quad core processor, 4GB of memory, and a very fast hard drive. Read on to see what powers this $500 gaming rig.
Foxconn has a legendary reputation for reliability. The company is the OEM for many big name brands, and has had great success with their own brand of motherboards and other hardware. Foxconn has reliable hardware and good support for BIOS updates when needed. Onboard audio, video, and network controllers make this a very feature-complete board. The fact that it is a MicroATX board does limit the number of expansion slots, but this should not be a factor for folks looking to build a $500 PC. The onboard video can be configured to take over in low-demand situations to reduce power consumption when certain AMD based dedicated graphics cards are in use. Finally, the board includes both SATA and PATA connectors, and has PCI and PCI-e add-on card slots.
AMD Phenom X4 9600
At under $100, it is hard to choose anything else to build a budget PC around today. This quad core processor will perform general computing tasks with ease, and is robust enough to handle todays modern PC games. The chip clocks in at 2.3GHZ stock, but can be overclocked to gain extra performance if needed. Combined with the graphics card in this build, this CPU will perform very well in games at its stock settings. Overclocking will most likely only show significant results in benchmarks, and not in general use. The processor has additional power saving technology to add to this build; it can shut down individual cores to reduce the power draw if the tasks at hand do not require the extra computing muscle.
Video Card (GPU)
MSI Radeon HD 4850 512MB – R4850-512M OC
Price: $104.99 after $30 mail-in rebate
The graphics card is the most expensive component in this budget gaming build, and it should be. Modern games are dependent on the graphics card much more than the processor. Although extra processor speed will help increase gaming performance, the gains are not nearly as apparent as those from a video card upgrade. The Radeon 4850 is an excellent value. The card is HDCP compliant and includes an HDMI adapter if you plan to connect this PC to your television. Additionally, the card has a more robust dual slot cooler to keep the temperatures down on a card whose single slot cooler equipped siblings run notoriously hot. This MSI version comes factory overclocked to provide optimal in game performance. With the current $30 rebate from Newegg, this card will give you great bang for your buck.
Four gigabytes of memory will help any gaming system these days. For just shy of $50, this 4GB kit is a little more expensive than other DDR2 memory, but the 1066MHz effective speed will help boost overall system performance, and make overclocking easier. Additionally, the reliability of OCZ memory will keep the system screaming along for years. Remember, to take advantage of the full 4GB of memory, you will need a 64-bit operating system. Right now, the pre-release versions of Windows 7 64-bit are amazingly stable. If you did not get the Beta when it was available in January, don’t fret. It is expected that Microsoft will do another publicly available pre-release “release” soon.
Power Supply (PSU)
Corsair CMPSU-550VX 550 Watts
Price: $59.99 after $30 mail-in rebate
Having so much positive personal experience with Corsair PSU’s, it is impossible for me to recommend anything else for the budget-conscious buyer. This 550 watt unit will be more than sufficient for this configuration, and should provide room for future upgrades or expansion. The unit is cooled by a single fan, which should keep it quiet, and it has plenty of connectors for all the add-on devices you could desire.
CoolerMaster Elite 332 ATX Mid tower RC-332-KKN1-GP
The case is often a matter of personal preference, but I see too many budget build guides recommending $60, $80, even $100 dollar cases. This CoolerMaster case is simple and well designed. It has tool-less drive and expansion card mounting, along with great airflow from front and rear 120mm fans. I have used the older version of this case (Elite 330) for close to 3 years, and have been perfectly happy. Another great option if size is of any concern is the $40 CoolerMaster Elite 360. It is one of the smallest cases that accepts full size ATX motherboards and power supplies. CoolerMaster continues to make the highest quality low cost computer cases on the market.
Hard Drive (HDD)
Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 ST3500418AS
This 500GB 7200RPM SATA-3.0Gb/s, hard drive is one of the first to offer 500GB per platter. With just one platter (the spinning disk inside) in the drive, it will run cool and quiet and consume less power. The increased density from a 500GB platter means the data will travel past the read and write heads at a faster linear velocity; this will provide faster transfer speed and shorter access times, especially on the out tracks of the disk. Partition the disk so that your operating system (OS) and Programs are on the first half, while your documents and other files (music, movies, images) are on the slower second half. This will speed up the OS and application loading performance greatly.
Optical Drive (ODD)
Samsung 22X DVD±R Burner w/ LightScribe
Often, the optical drive is overlooked, with people choosing the cheapest one, or worse, the most expensive assuming it will be the best. This Samsung model has been hailed by reviewers as an excellent optical drive. It is compatible with all modern CD and DVD media, and has the option of LightScribe. If you read our PC Components Guide, you will know that LightScribe discs are overpriced and the process is quite slow, so this feature will probably go unused.
Grand total: $498.92 after two $30 mail-in rebates
It was hard to design a sub-$500 gaming capable PC. This build should be an excellent one, and the design leaves room for future upgrades (for example, the socket AM3 compatible motherboard and robust powersupply). Not many corners were cut to keep this build under $500. The AMD Phenom platform is still a strong one, and should provide many years of happy computing. If you can’t get the resolutions you desire of the graphical quality you were hoping for out of this build, then you will simply need to spend more money. A better graphics card, like the Radeon 4870 or the GeForce GTS250 or GTX260, would be a good first place to spend a little extra money.
As always, happy building!