Need a new PC, but don’t have a ton of cash? We’ll show you how to build a machine that can do anything—from browsing the web to playing games to encoding video—for a mere $647
In many respects, it’s more difficult to build a great cheap PC than it is to build a more expensive one. In fact, the less money you have to spend, the more vital it is that every dollar delivers measurable value. With that in mind, we sat down with one simple goal: to build the best inexpensive, multipurpose PC that we would want to use ourselves. We didn’t start with any particular budget, but at every turn we shaved as much from the cost as we could—trimming the fancy case, ditching an unnecessary 800W PSU, and scuttling the spendy Core i5 CPU.
The result is an incredibly lean, but still powerful machine featuring a quad-core CPU, a GPU capable of playing anything on a 22-inch panel, and… well, you’ll have to read on to see the rest. Rest assured, though, this is a machine that would be welcome in any of our homes, whether we’re playing games, editing video, touching up photos, ripping movies, or simply surfing the Internet. Oh yeah, we’ll also show you how to assemble the components like a pro, one easy-to-follow step at a time.
And just to keep the whole thing good and honest, we stopped by our local Best Buy and bought the best comparably priced system they had, which we pitted against our ultra-budget machine in a steel-cage match to the death. Want to see who wins? Read on to find out.
Parts of the Whole
The key to building a killer budget PC is knowing where you can and can’t cut costs
(click to enlarge)
A. Rosewill R220
An all-aluminum, toolless masterpiece of design the Rosewill R220 is not. It is an eminently serviceable budget mid-tower that will hold all the hardware you’ll ever need in your cheap PC. You should definitely beware of sharp edges when working in this humble enclosure, but you needn’t worry about your rig overheating, thanks to the case’s many fan mounts. And you won’t find a better looking case for $20.
B. Stock AMD CPU Cooler
While there are definitely better coolers out there, when you’re operating on a tight budget you can’t beat the low, low price of $0. The stock cooler that comes with the boxed retail version of a CPU is more than sufficient—at least until you’re ready to start overclocking. Stock coolers even come with a pre-applied thin layer of thermal paste, so you need not spend an extra penny.
C. Sapphire Radeon HD 5770
Oh, times are good when you can get technology so current it still has that new PC smell on it. In this case, it’s the scent of our ATI Radeon HD 5770 and its DirectX 11 capability. As we wrote this, DX11 titles were just starting to trickle out. Even without DirectX 11, this card is a capable performer in DX9 and DX10 games, too.
D. Cooler Master RS-460
The one place you shouldn’t scrimp is the power supply. Sure, there are cheaper generic supplies, but do you really want to trust your precious PC to a power supply that’s leftover Cold War surplus? We don’t think so. The RS-460 provides ample power for our budget PC, and includes all the necessary connectors, including a 6-pin PCI Express power connector.
E. Seagate 500GB Barracuda 7200.12
OK, OK, we know 500GB is a little thin, especially in the days of $75 terabyte drives. But a bigger hard drive is a relatively simple upgrade down the road, and the single-platter Barracuda 7200.12 performs well, despite its low price and modest capacity. It’s not as speedy as some of the 2TB drives out there, but for $55, can you really complain that much?
F. Gigabyte GA-MA74GM-S2
MicroATX is normally anathema to folks who consider themselves power users, but when you’re trying to build a budget badass, it’s one compromise you should consider making. After all, besides the GPU, what other add-in boards do you use anymore?
G. Patriot 4GB DDR2/800
If technology were a theme park, RAM would be the old-fashioned wooden roller coaster. First, it was so damned cheap that consumers would cry tears of joy whenever picking up 2GB sticks. Now, the roller coaster is headed back up that rickety track and consumers are wondering how high it will go. Fortunately, we got ours at a somewhat decent price—but who knows what it’ll cost in a month?
H. AMD Athlon II X4 620
Intel may have introduced the first quad-core for the PC, but AMD’s the one who brought it down to a price the average Joe could afford. For $99, the Athlon II X4 620 offers the best bang for the buck available today.
I. Samsung SH-S223C
While there are higher-rated 24x DVD-RW drives out there, in the real world, where there’s no 24x media, Samsung’s SH-S223C is still a top dog. With great burning and reading performance, and the best DVD ripping speeds we’ve tested yet, this is the DVD-RW drive to beat. You say you wanted Blu-ray in your uber-cheap machine? It just ain’t worth the money, honey.
J. Windows 7 Home Premium OEM
Since the release in October, Windows 7 has received nearly universal acclaim, and for good reason. This is the best version of Windows Microsoft has ever shipped. With kick-ass security and the speed and reliability of Windows XP, there’s no reason to buy another operating system—especially when you can buy the OEM edition of the OS for just $105.
1. Prepare the Case
The very first thing you’ll need to do when building your new PC is prepare the case. Remove both of the sides and put them someplace they’ll be safe (and unscratched) and then grab the bag of fittings that came with the case. In there, you’ll find several hex-sided motherboard standoffs, which are threaded to mount in the holes on the case’s motherboard tray. Assuming you’re using the exact same hardware we did, you’ll need three standoffs to supplement the ones already built into the tray. Grab your motherboard and eyeball it to make sure you put the standoffs in holes that line up with the holes on your motherboard.
Once you’ve found the proper spots, screw the standoffs into the motherboard tray, giving them a final twist with a pair of pliers (or your fingers) to lock them in place (image A). Then use a screwdriver handle to pop the ATX backplane connector out of the case, and replace it with the one that came with your motherboard (image B). It snaps into place from the inside, but you may need to loosen or remove the 12cm fan that sits directly above it to get enough clearance. Finally, you can remove any unneeded expansion slot covers from the case—you’ll need the second and third slots from the fan for your GPU when it’s time to install it. To remove each cover, simply wiggle it back and forth until it breaks loose (image C).
2. Install the CPU
Before you install your CPU, you should make sure you’re grounded relative to the machine and components. Either use an antistatic strap or make sure your skin remains in contact with a ground while you work on the machine. Before you can drop the CPU into the socket, you’ll need to lift the retention arm (image A). Then look at the bottom of the CPU. If you compare the layout of the pins on the bottom of the CPU to the socket layout, you’ll see it can only fit one way. Line it up parallel to the motherboard and carefully lower it into the socket (image B), being extremely careful not to move the CPU from side to side or insert it at an angle—that can bend the pins. Finally, you’ll want to lock the lever back in place beside the socket (image C).
3. Install the Memory
Installing memory is relatively simple but requires more force to install than most components. For that reason, we typically recommend installing the RAM when the motherboard is on a flat surface, before it’s in the PC. It’s a good idea to lay the mobo on the plastic bag or foam lining that it shipped in to protect it from shock. To install the RAM, make sure the retention clips are in their fully unlocked position, then line up the notch in the RAM module with the keyed part of the slot (image A). When it’s lined up properly, follow the guides on the side of the slot to gently slide the module into place, applying even pressure across the top of the module. Finally, make sure that the retention clips are locked in place (image B). Repeat the process for the second module.
4. Mount the Mobo
Next, you’ll need to mount the motherboard in the case. Before you slide it in, check the back of the ATX backplane connector and make sure that any excess pieces of metal won’t block your ports. This is a fairly common rookie oversight that requires almost complete disassembly of the PC to fix, so you don’t want to miss it. If you find any obstructions, simply fold them up into the inside edge of the case.
After that, it’s time to carefully lower the motherboard into the case (image A). Make sure your ports line up with the holes in the ATX backplane, and double-check that there are motherboard standoffs behind all the mounting holes on your motherboard. Once you’re sure everything is good, you can start screwing down the board using the screws that came with the case (image B). We recommend starting in one corner, then screwing down the opposite corner, and working around the board until everything is locked in place. It’s important that you don’t overtighten—using too much force can damage your motherboard.
Finally, you’ll need to connect the front-panel headers (image C). Consult the motherboard manual to find the exact location of the front-panel power, reset, and light connectors. The power and reset switches don’t require a particular orientation, but the lights do—as a general rule, the colored wires are positive, while the white wires are negative. You should also connect the USB header and front-panel audio cables now, as well. They’re clearly labeled on the board and keyed to only work in the proper orientation, so it’s difficult to mess this up.
5. Mount the Cooler
If you bought a retail CPU, which we recommend for first-time builders, you won’t need to fool with thermal paste—there’s already a thin layer of thermal paste on the bottom of the CPU cooler (image A). Remove the protective cover from the paste—if it has one—and position the cooler so its lever is on the same side of the socket as the PCI slots. Use your fingers to hook the clips on the lever over the nubs on the black plastic retention bracket (image B). Then if you flip the lever, it should cinch the entire cooler down onto the CPU and the retention bracket. If it doesn’t, you need to release the lever and try again because the clips probably popped off one of the nubs. Finally, connect the fan’s 4-pin power lead to the motherboard power connector labeled CPU_FAN (image C). If your fan connector has only three pins, you can still connect it to the 4-pin motherboard header, you just need to make sure the notch on the back of the connector lines up with the guide on the motherboard header.
6. Install the Videocard
With the motherboard, CPU, and cooler firmly locked in place, it’s time to add the videocard to your system. Before you can put the videocard in its slot, you’ll need to unscrew the goofy card-retention device on the back of the PC (image A). Once that’s removed you can line up the edge of the videocard with your board’s PCI Express slot—it’s blue—and gently press down on the edge of the card until it slides into the slot (image B). Affix it in place using either the hooptie retaining clamp that came with the case or a more traditional screw. Then you’re ready to move on to the next step.
7. Install the PSU
You’re almost done! Next, you’ll need to install your power supply. It goes into the top of the case, fan-side down, and is secured from the outside of the case with four screws—our PSU came with them. Slide the power supply into its appointed spot (image A), making sure the holes on the PSU line up with the holes in the case. We recommend starting one or two of the screws with your fingers before you tighten any of them down, to avoid warping the case. Once the PSU is locked in place, you’ll need to connect three power leads—the large 24-pin connector that goes into the motherboard’s main ATX power connector (image B), the 4-pin supplemental power connector that’s by the CPU, and the PCI Express power connector that plugs into the end of the videocard.
8. Install Drives and Windows
The final step is connecting the drives—you’ll need to mount and connect both the hard drive and the optical drive. First, connect both of your SATA cables—you should have received two with the motherboard. Plug them into the ports labeled SATA 0 and SATA 1 on the mobo (image A). It’s easier to do this before you mount the hard drive; otherwise accessing the ports can be difficult.
Cheap cases rarely include any fancy drive-mounting mechanisms, and this one is no exception. You’ll need to screw in both your hard drive and optical drive using old-fashioned screws. There’s no trick, but you’ll need access to both sides of the case. Slide the hard drive in with the connectors on the motherboard side, then screw it into place (image B). Connect the SATA and power cables to the drive. Repeat with the optical drive, making sure the front bezel of the drive lines up with the front bezel of the case before you mount the screws. Connect the optical drive’s SATA and power cables.
At this point, you should connect your new PC to a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and power; then give it a test boot. If everything goes well, you should be ready to install Windows. Simply drop the Windows 7 disc in your optical drive, reboot the machine, and follow the onscreen prompts. Because Windows 7 is relatively new, it includes chipset drivers out of the box, but you’ll need to download the most recent videocard drivers from ATI.com or Windows Update (www.update.microsoft.com) before you can start using the machine in earnest.
Our $647 PC vs. the Competition
We matched our machine against a range of others to determine its relative value
To see how our budget box holds up, we compared it to four other machines of varying configurations. First up was a $650 HP Pavilion we purchased at Best Buy. The machine is damn-near the equal of ours, with an Athlon II X4 620, 400GB hard drive, DVD burner, and MicroATX motherboard (albeit using a GeForce chipset). The key difference between the two is the HP machine’s use of integrated GeForce graphics in the chipset and 6GB of DDR2 instead of 4GB. The second competitor was the Recession Special PC we built for the September 2009 issue. With its 2.8GHz Phenom II X3 720 (overclocked to 3.6GHz), 4GB of RAM, and Radeon HD 4870, the Recession Special still has some pep, even though it’s just a tri-core. It also cost $800 once the cost of a release version of Windows 7 Home Premium was factored in. The third box we used for comparison was our circa-2007 zero-point box. Featuring a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 CPU, 4GB of DDR2/800, a WD Raptor 150, and dual GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI, it was a very impressive $2,000 rig in its day. The final machine we grabbed was our current zero-point machine: Featuring a 2.66GHz Core i7-920 (overclocked to 3.66GHz) 6GB of DDR3/1600 and a single Radeon HD 4870 X2, it’s no wonder it’s the ruler we use to measure the performance of even the most powerful PCs.
How did our modest rig stack up? Pretty well, all told. First up: gaming. Against the store-bought Pavilion with its integrated GeForce graphics, it was the slaughter you would expect. Our $647 box could actually play games, while the integrated graphics ticked along at single-digit frame rates. In applications, the results were a little odd. While our $647 rig was slightly faster than the Pavilion in MainConcept and ProShow, the store-bought machine pulled ahead by 10 percent in Photoshop CS3 and Premiere Pro CS3. Why? Frankly, we can’t explain it. We expected the benchmarks to be very close, but a 10 percent difference indicates that the HP had some advantage that either comes from its chipset or its hard drive. The additional 2GB of RAM shouldn’t make that big of a difference in those tests. Perhaps there is some secret sauce HP gets from being the world’s number-one PC maker.
Though it costs nearly the same as our hand-built rig, HP’s Pavilion P6210Y PC couldn’t come close to our machine in gaming.
Against our older Recession Special, the tests were mostly even, which, in our book, makes it a win for the $647 machine. That’s because the recession special was overclocked nearly 800MHz to 3.6GHz. The fact that the quad-core drew blood on a few benchmarks proves that having more cores does matter. Still, in the mostly single- and dual-threaded apps, it was hard for our Athlon II to bridge the 1GHz gap between it and the tri-core Phenom II. Of course, there’s probably some overclocking headroom on our $647 machine, especially if you have an extra $35 to spend on a decent aftermarket cooler, such as the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus. Even more interesting was the showdown between our new rig and our previous $2,000 zero-point machine. The $647 machine was actually faster in two benchmarks and drew ties in two others.
Not surprisingly, there was no contest when we compared our $647 PC with the current Core i7-powered zero-point machine. Our budget box was pretty much half the speed of the current zero-point in everything. Of course, it was also a hell of a lot cheaper.
What’s the upshot? You can build a decent all-around machine that even plays DirectX 10 games for less than $650. Enjoy!
|MPC $647 PC
|| HP $650 Pavilion
||DM2009 Recession Special
||MPC Zero Point 2007
||MPC Zero Point 2009
|Premiere Pro CS3 (sec)
|Photoshop CS3 (sec)
|Unreal Tournament 3 (fps)