Wednesday, May 01, 2013

The Best PCs You Can Build for $300, $600, and $1200

 
 

Sent to you by Chris Hunter via Google Reader:

 
 

via Lifehacker by Alan Henry on 5/1/13

We've walked you through building your own computer before, but what we didn't do at the time is give you a suggested parts list for that new computer. In this post—which we'll update regularly as prices and components change—we'll walk you through the parts and hardware we'll need for three different system builds: a budget workstation, a mid-range powerful PC, and an enthusiast's system for gamers and media professionals.

While some consider the desktop a dead platform, there are still plenty of us who use them as much as or in addition to laptops or tablets, love to play PC games, or just enjoy getting our hands dirty and building our own systems. Before we go any further, we should point out that these PC builds are designed to optimize your all-around computing experience, with some emphasis on PC gaming. What components give you the best bang for your buck depend heavily on what you're planning to do with the system: your parts may be different if you're building an HTPC on the same budget, or a super-speedy file server for your home network.

We've talked about our own experiences building a system and why it's important already. If you're ready to set out on the task of building your own computer, here are the components you'll need to build the best system you can get for your money.

Update - May 2013: Perhaps the biggest change to this update is that we've opted to include an even more budget-friendly build than our $600 PC. Our new $300 workstation is geared towards someone who just needs to get things done and might do some gaming, but doesn't need to crank up the settings or drive a massive 1080p display. It's also an AMD build, which you simply can't beat when you're looking to build a system on a budget. Our $600 and $1200 rigs are still Intel builds though, but going small in the $300 rig doesn't mean you don't get an practical, powerful machine that's capable of tackling everyday tasks.

Next, we've decided to use PCPartPicker to put together our builds. We love it, and think you should use it too—it gives you more flexibility in your part buying, helps you eliminate possibly incompatible components, and makes sure you get he best prices for the items you plan to buy, even if it means you have to buy them from different retailers.

You'll notice that below: we've linked to the most affordable versions of each component at the time of this writing. Prices change all the time, so if you're checking this a few months out and the prices have gone up (or hopefully, down!) just head back to PCPartPicker and see if you can find a better price. You'll also recognize several components in our updated builds from their previous counterparts. Part of this is because we have yet to see newer models of some critical components. We haven't seen new processors from Intel or AMD since last year. Plus, while we've seen some new high-end graphics processors from AMD and NVIDIA, the bang-for-the-buck mid-to-high end cards are still the same. Similarly, while hard drive and SSD prices have dropped a bit, RAM prices have gone back up since our last update. Still, we've managed to squeeze in some upgrades here and there.

Oh, and we should note: We know the new Intel Haswell CPUs are on the way next month! Once they're out, available to consumers, and we get our hands on some benchmarks, we'll update this guide again.

Build Versus Buy

The old debate over whether you should build your own system or buy a pre-built one is an old, long-standing argument that will never be easily washed away. However, there are some benefits to building your own system that can't be weighed in terms of dollars and cents. You may be happier with your own hand-built system, or you may be able to score bargains and rebates that lead to a more powerful computer stuffed with higher quality components than a manufacturer would use.

Building your own PC also gives you complete and full control over that system's components and extendability. Unlike buying an OEM PC, assembling your own gives you the ability to make decisions about when and how you'll upgrade that system in the long run as opposed to simply taking what the manufacturer sells you. For example, you can buy into a new motherboard chipset early and wait to spend money on the next generation of graphics card later, giving yourself a timely upgrade when the moment-or your budget-is right.

Ultimately, while it may be easier to just pull out a credit card and buy whatever's on sale from your preferred OEM, there's something about assembling the components of a system that you've selected for your needs, powering it up, installing your favorite OS, and using it every day that's' incredibly rewarding.

Choosing The Right Parts

There was a time when building a PC was all about buying the most expensive and most powerful components you could on the budget you had. While some of that is still true, even budget components can be remarkably powerful, and if all you're planning on doing with your system is word processing, surfing the web, and some light entertainment like streaming video or listening to music, almost any system build will work for you.

You don't need to spend a grand on high-end gaming components if you're putting together a system for your friend who doesn't know or care what graphics card is going into the box. At the same time, that doesn't mean they're doomed to a computer full of sub-standard components. We explained a few months ago that you should carefully assess your need before rushing off to start pricing out components, and that advice is still true today.

Ultimately, there's no reason for you to rush out and buy the most expensive components you can afford unless you're an enthusiast and want the most top-of-the-line system you can afford. Here we'll detail two separate builds, a high-end system for enthusiasts and power-hungry users, and a mid-range build that will cost about half as much but still pack a punch.


The $300 Budget System

The first few times we did this guide, a few people noted that $600 and $1200 were more than enough to spend on high-powered PCs, but a good machine at around or less than $400 would be a great project. Well, here you go—not only is it possible to come in under $400, we opted for $300, and the system we put together on that budget is no slouch.

The Parts

This parts list assumes that you'll need the basic components: a case, a motherboard, processor, memory, storage, graphics card of some type, power supply, and an optical drive. We're going to assume you have a perfectly good USB keyboard, mouse, and display you can repurpose for use with your new system. Before you blindly buy what we're about to suggest, take a moment and look at our Lifehacker Night School article on choosing PC components, where we discuss some of the things you should think about before buying your components. For example, our $300 PC here is made for economy and general use, not necessarily high-end gaming or video editing. Remember to consider what you'll use the system for before buying.

Here are the parts for our budget-friendly PC, complete with prices current as of this writing:

    • The case: Rosewill FBM-01 MicroATX Mini Tower Computer Case - $29.55

      It's compact, it's roomy enough to actually get your hands in there, and it's small enough to go on top of or underneath a desk without taking up too much space. It's not the sexiest case in the word, but it's all black, lightweight, sports front-side USB 2.0 and audio in/out ports, has dual fans for airflow, and is well reviewed and regarded. Plus, you really can't argue with the price tag. You could step up to a full-size tower if you want and spend some more money, maybe on a $40 NZXT Source 210 (not to be confused with the NZXT Tempest 210 we use later in this guide) if you have more to spend. For the money and the size though, this'll do just fine.

    • The power supply: Antec EarthWatts Green 380W Power Supply - $45.99

      This build won't take a ton of horsepower. We used PCPartPicker's calculator to estimate the total wattage our final build would draw (~150W) and this 380W power supply will handle that nicely and fit in our mini tower nicely. Plus, it has enough juice to power some upgrades if you ever want to add or upgrade the system, and you can take it with you to a more powerful build or roomier case if you wish. As always, just make sure you do the math on the wattage your system will likely pull down before you select a power supply, and try to buy from someone with good reviews and a solid track record of quality. If you're not using PCPartPicker, try the eXtreme Power Supply Calculator.

    • The motherboard: MSI A55M-P33 AMD A55 (Hudson D2) FM1 MicroATX 2xDDR3 Motherboard - $47.98

      We may have let the cat out of the bag, but our budget build is an AMD-based system. Like we said, that doesn't mean it's a slouch. For example, this build will give you six USB 2.0 ports, six SATA II ports, gigabit Ethernet, supports up to 16GB of RAM, and 7.1-channel on-board audio, so we won't need to pick up a separate sound card. It packs on-board video-out, and since the AMD Trinity that we're about to slap into it is an APU, it'll handle graphics nicely. It doesn't pack top of the line features like SATA III or USB 3.0, which is a bummer, but the price is right, it's a nice, small Micro ATX board, and honestly, your peripherals are probably all (or mostly) USB 2.0 anyway.

    • The CPU: AMD A-Series A4-3300 2.5GHz Socket FM1 APU (CPU+GPU) Dual-Core Processor - $39.99

      Don't underestimate AMD's A-Series APUs. They can handle more than you might think, and they're a staple in our favorite HTPC builds. Because it's a combination CPU and GPU, this also means we don't need to add a stand-alone graphics card in our build. The A4 has the equivalent of an AMD Radeon HD 6410D built right into it. This budget system doesn't have to drive a living room TV at 1080p, so we stepped back a little to a slightly more modest A4 model. It'll still handle everyday duties easily, and web video at 1080p on a wide-screen display without blinking an eye. You can even fire up some of your favorite games on this thing—and while you won't be able to max out the settings, if you turn them down you'll get modest framerates. If you don't do any gaming at all though, the A4 gives you a speedy processor that can handle everyday tasks like surfing the web, watching web video, listening to local or streaming music, and getting actual work done.

    • The memory: Kingston HyperX Blu 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3 1600Mhz RAM - $39.57

      RAM prices have gone up a bit in recent months, which is kind of a bummer, but that doesn't mean there aren't bargains to be had. This 4GB kit will be enough to get our budget PC up and running with enough RAM for just about anything it'll need to do. The board can support up to 16GB, so if you want more RAM, you can always buy bigger sticks, but keep in mind there are only two slots on it.

    • The storage: Western Digital 7200RPM 1TB SATA III Hard Drive - $66.61

      Hard drive prices have stabilized since the holidays, and if you catch a sale, you can do well enough to pick up an SSD for your mid-range system along with a standard spinning, high-capacity hard drive. This $67 1TB model is speedy, sports a 64MB cache, is a solid 7200RPM drive, and is affordable enough that we decided to use it again in our $600 build below (spoilers!). If you have a different brand allegiance when it comes to drives, try this similar Seagate 1TB model for a few more dollars. Whichever you choose, make sure you make note of the warranty, and, of course, keep your data backed up. Every hard drive fails, it's just a matter of when.

    • The optical drive: Lite-On 24x CD/DVD Burner - $17.98

      There isn't too much to worry about when selecting an optical drive: just get something that works for your need (for example, this ASUS assumes you won't be watching Blu-Ray videos on your PC. If you are, you may want to look at a Blu-Ray drive, like this ASUS Blu-ray drive, which will cost you a bit more but allow you to watch those Blu-ray discs on your system) and select a well-reviewed drive from a reputable manufacturer. If you have an optical drive from a previous build, even better.

    • The total: $287.67
    • Buy this build from PCPartPicker

    The Sub-$600 Midrange PC

    Long gone are the days where you should immediately budget at least a grand for a decent self-built system. Unless you absolutely have to have a top of the line PC, this mid-range system will power through everyday tasks, handle PC gaming, streaming movies and music from the web, and even those bigger projects like organizing the family photos or editing home movies.

    The Parts

    Again, we're going to assume you have a perfectly good USB keyboard, mouse, and display you can repurpose for use with your new system. Our $600 PC here is made with bang-for-the-buck in mind, something that will earn you high performance without breaking the bank—not necessarily silent operation or tons of expansion bays. Remember to consider what you'll use the system for before buying. You may very well want to tweak some of the components we suggest below.

    Here are the parts for our mid-range PC, complete with prices current as of this writing:

      • The case: NZXT Tempest 210 - $44.99

        The NZXT Tempest 210 is a roomy mid-sized case that, thanks to its steel body, is both lightweight and should last you longer than just this build. It's large enough to accommodate all but the largest components, and roomy enough to move your hands around inside without too much of a squeeze. The case is loaded with grips to easily remove drive bays inside without a screwdriver, slots to route your cables through cleanly, extra fan grills for superior airflow and cooling, it's just a nicely designed case. You also get a pair of 120mm fans for your money, an enlarged CPU cut-out to accomodate after-market cooling, and front-side audio and USB ports (including a USB 3.0 port) are a nice bonus in this budget case. Plus, our own Whitson Gordon swears by NZXT cases, both for their interior space and how easy it is to install and remove components from them.

      • The power supply: Corsair Builder Series CX500 500W Power Supply - $49.99

        Most PC builders, especially starting off, tend to completely overestimate how much power their components will actually need. At the same time, you don't want to buy a power supply too weak for the components in your build, or buy one from a flaky manufacturer or a no-name brand. Stick with trusted vendors on this one, and spend a little more if you have to. This 500-watt power supply from Corsair should be enough for our components, and Corsair is a trusted name. Pay attention to warranties and return policies as well, but try to make sure you're getting the right amount of juice for the system you're building. If you have a few more dollars, the same power supply comes in a modular version for $70, which is out of our budget but will keep your case nice and clean. There are some great calculators on the web that will help you determine how big your power supply should really be, like the eXtreme Power Supply Calculator.

      • The motherboard: ASRock Z77 Extreme3 LGA 1155 ATX Intel Motherboard - $119.99

        Whether you're a gamer or you're building a system for productivity, this LGA 1155 board is rock solid, reliable, and sports some high-end features for not a ton of money. You'll get 6 USB ports (two of which are USB 3.0), four 3.0Gb/s SATA ports and two 6Gb/s SATA ports, gigabit Ethernet, and on-board sound, so we won't need to pick up a separate sound card. It packs on-board video, (so you could ditch video card below and save some more money), but you'll need a CPU that supports integrated graphics processing, since the board won't do it for you alone. Still, this is a great, upgradable board that's perfect if you want to upgrade to a more powerful processor, or an SSD that can push data through those 6Gb/s SATA channels.

            • The CPU: Intel Core i3-3220 Ivy Bridge 3.3Ghz Dual Core Processor - $120.98

              As usual, we're going Intel in the mid-range build. Again, there's no reason you couldn't sub this out for an AMD processor (and AMD-compatible motherboard) if you wanted to, and AMD's Trinity platform, which sports some seriously solid integrated graphics for cheap. However, we landed on the Ivy Bridge Core i3. It's a solid processor that fits in our budget, offers better gaming performance than you might think, and will tackle almost anything else you throw at it. If you aren't much of a gamer but run a lot of CPU-intensive processes, like converting or editing video, we recommend upgrading to the Core i5-3570. It'll give you a bit of extra power for those tasks, and its integrated graphics mean you can ditch having a video card altogether and stay under budget.

            • The memory: G.SKILL 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3 1600 RAM - $36.99

              RAM prices have spiked since our last update, and this 4GB kit that used to be $20 is now well over $30. Still, it's a solid set, and it fits into our budget. One of the most important things about buying memory is to make sure you get RAM that's compatible with your build, and that's from a reputable memory manufacturer. G. Skill is well known and makes high quality desktop memory. Our board is dual-channel, so we want to make sure we take advantage of it, and 4GB of RAM is enough for our everyday PC. Of course, if you have more to spend, you could add more to the build, maybe with this 8GB kit (2x4GB) from G. Skill for $61.99.

            • The storage: Western Digital 7200RPM 1TB SATA III Hard Drive - $66.61

              Like we mentioned, Hard drive prices have recovered a good bit from where they were even a few years ago, and this Western Digital model will serve your mid-range PC well. It packs SATA III, sports a 64MB cache, is a solid 7200RPM drive, and its price can't be beat. Still, hard drive prices haven't dipped so much that we could slap an SSD into this build, although we really wanted to. Again, it's a Caviar Blue, meaning it's one of Western Digital's all-purpose, everyday use drives, so don't expect crazy read/write speeds like a Caviar Black, but the cache and spin speed are right for the price. If you have a different brand allegiance when it comes to drives, try this similar Seagate 1TB model for a few more dollars. Whichever you choose, make sure you make note of the warranty, and, of course, keep your data backed up. Every hard drive fails, it's just a matter of when.

                  • The graphics card: AMD Radeon HD 7770/NVIDIA GeForce GTX 650 - $129.99/$129.99

                    Our budget allowed us to upgrade graphics cards from our last builds, since prices have fallen a bit. As usual, we're offering up an AMD and NVIDIA option so you can choose your side accordingly. Like so many other components, it's easy to get caught up in which brand you prefer, but both of these cards pack enough power for everyday tasks, full HD video, and more than casual gaming. These cards can handle just about anything you throw at them, on high-to-max settings even. If you're powering a 1080p display, maybe something upwards of 22"-27", you shouldn't have much of a problem, although you might need to turn things down if your framerates suffer. We might be a little optimistic, but you should be able to crank up Dishonored or Bioshock Infinite to high and get solid framerates with these cards. If you're not gaming at all, you won't even notice—streaming and local video will play silky smooth.

                  • The optical drive: Lite-On 24x CD/DVD Burner - $17.98

                    There isn't too much to worry about when selecting an optical drive: just get something that works for your need (for example, this ASUS assumes you won't be watching Blu-Ray videos on your PC. If you are, you may want to look at a Blu-Ray drive, like this ASUS Blu-ray drive, which will cost you a bit more but allow you to watch those Blu-ray discs on your system) and select a well-reviewed drive from a reputable manufacturer. If you have an optical drive from a previous build, even better.

                  • The total: $587.52
                  • Buy this build from PCPartPicker

                  If you have a bit more to spend…
                  We know that $600 is pushing the limit of "mid-range," but we wanted to make sure we got quality components in that offered a solid all-around build. That doesn't mean there isn't room to improve it, or cut it down a bit if it's too much. You could get below $500 by swapping in a cheaper processor (like the graphics-heavy AMD A10-5800K noted above, or even a Sandy Bridge Intel G850) or opting for less powerful motherboard. If you go AMD, note that you'll need an AMD-compatible motherboard as well. But, if you have a little more to spend, you can get some big boosts for not much more money.

                  If you have a few more dollars to spend, consider upgrading the RAM in the system from 4GB to 8GB using the kit mentioned above (or max out the board, if you want). If you're interested in gaming, you could probably get away with a beefier graphics card than the ones we opted for above. For example, this AMD Radeon HD 7850 is a step up from the 7770 in our build, and it's only about $40 more. A little more will get you the 2GB version of the 7850. If you're an NVIDIA fan, consider GeForce GTX 650 Ti 2GB model, which is $20 more than the one we picked, but a killer card. A little more will net you the overclocked, 2GB NVIDIA GeForce 660.

                  Of course, if you have more money to spend and you're not looking for gaming performance at all, consider upgrading the RAM in the system first, then using the rest of your budget to pick up an SSD to drop your operating system on so that 1.5TB drive can sit secondary holding your large files. You can pick up even a 64GB SSD for around $70.


                  The Sub-$1200 Enthusiast's PC

                  Now that we've covered two systems that can be purchased and assembled on a decent budgets, now it's time to have some fun. First, we're not targeting our upper limit here, we just want to give you an idea of some of the high-end components that would make a good enthusiast's build. If you're a fan of PC gaming, have to play the latest releases as soon as they're out, have multiple huge, high-resolution displays, or just want the beefiest box you can afford, this build is for you.

                  The Parts

                  As with the $600 PC above, we're going to assume you have the basics, like a keyboard, mouse, and display. In this case though, we're going for the big, pretty, and powerful, as opposed to trying to keep the budget down. We won't necessarily aim directly for our high-end, but we will slap in some pricier components that we know would make a noticeable difference in your computing experience if you had them in your system.

                  Again, remember to consider your use case before buying – the people who'll really love this build will be PC gamers, media professionals, and enthusiasts who want to futureproof themselves or just prefer the top of the line.

                  Here are the parts for our mid-range PC, complete with prices current as of this writing:

                          • The case: Corsair Carbide Series 400R - $99.99

                            The Corsair Carbide 400R was our choice of case last time, and it's still a great model. Its price hasn't changed, but that's okay. It's sleek black, lightweight steel and plastic, and has 6 expansion bays and 8 PCI slots on the rear. It has top, rear, and optional front and side case fans to keep your system cool, and a front-side I/O panel for power, USB 3.0, and audio. You won't get a power supply with the case, but the 400R is a robust case that will stand the test of time, and has plenty of room inside for upgrades if you want them, or long graphics cards or after-market CPU cooling. Warning though: there are some very pretty cases on the market – buy one that has the features and look that you want. Looking for a side-window? Grab the pricier Carbide 500R. Want more options? We just did a Hive Five on desktop computer cases with some great picks (although most were a bit more expensive, like the winner: the $180 Cooler Master HAF X), or you could save money with the slightly smaller $60 Cooler Master HAF 912, or spend nothing and repurpose an old case from a previous build.

                          • The power supply: CORSAIR Enthusiast Series TX650 V2 650W High Performance Power Supply - $89.99

                            Speaking of Corsair, the company makes good power supplies, and 650-watts of juice should be enough to power even the most demanding components. If you want one, $15 will buy you this model in a modular variety. Either way, this case doesn't have windows, we'll save the dough. You read Lifehacker, you can probably manage your cables. This power supply is quiet, comes with a +12V rail a high-powered graphics card, and offers enthusiast-level power output at a solid price. There are more expensive power supplies out there, but this one gets the job done without being overkill.

                          • The motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-Z77X-UD5H LGA 1155 Intel ATX Motherboard - $174.98

                            It's definitely pricey, but this board picked up an editor's choice award at AnandTech for its ports, power, and features, and that's a big deal for AnandTech (who's normally a bit critical of Gigabyte boards.) Want USB 3.0? This board has it. Need dual LAN? Sure, why not. The board supports Intel's latest Core processors, and even offers a few tools for overclockers. The board also has built-in support for Crossfire (AMD) and SLI (NVIDIA) for high-end gaming with multiple graphics cards, sports 6 USB 3.0 and 4 USB 2.0 ports, on-board HDMI, dual gigabit Ethernet, supports on-board RAID, has 9 SATA ports (5 at 6Gb/s and 4 at 3Gb/s) and packs built-in audio and video. It's definitely a high-end board for a system builder who needs the features or isn't concerned about the budget. If you don't need all of that, you could save a few bucks and drop down to the $139.99 GIGABYTE GA-Z77X-UD3H, or the $134.99 ASRock Z77 Extreme4, just do your homework first.

                                  • The CPU: Intel Core i5-3570 Ivy Bridge 3.4Ghz Quad Core Processor - $211.69

                                    Intel's Core processors are still the clear market leaders in power and performance. After all, this is the same processor that Tom's Hardware put in their $1000 gaming PC, and our friends at Logical Incriments think this—not the i7—is the best processor for high-end performance, especially in gaming. We think it'll handle whatever you throw at it pretty handily, and besides: The only difference between the i5 and the i7 is the hyperthreading, which you'd only miss if you're doing high-end video encoding, 3D rendering, or video editing. For gaming and everyday use, you won't notice it's missing at all. Want to overclock and get a little more for your money? Grab the $219 i5-3570k instead. If you'd rather have an i7 instead, the Sandy Bridge i7-3770 is a little more expensive at $289.99 or its overclockable cousin, the i7-3770K for $316.17. If you do 3D rendering, video editing and encoding, or regularly run applications that can make use of the hyperthreading, then by all means, spring for the i7. We tried to cram an i7 into this build, doing so would have bumped us over budget.

                                  • The memory: G Skill 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3 1333 RAM - $59.82

                                    Let's be clear, 4GB of RAM is probably sufficient for most systems, but this is an enthusiast's PC. Double the RAM from the previous build and your computing experience will overall feel faster and snappier. Depending on what you use the system for, you could scale back to 4GB, but if you're going to do serious gaming, you'll want the extra RAM. To that point, more memory is better than faster memory, so don't feel bad for picking DDR3 1333 over something technically faster. Buy with caution, and keep in mind what you're going to be doing with the system. If you have the budget to go wild, you could just load up the board and call it a day.

                                                • The graphics card: AMD Radeon HD 7950 3GB - $299.99 /NVIDIA GeForce 660 Ti 3GB - $312.98

                                                  We really didn't have to pack such high-end cards into this system, and you don't either frankly, if you're not looking for gaming performance. Plus, since the major titles that have come out since our last update haven't put a strain on last year's graphics cards, we wouldn't blame you if you opted to scale back to a more affordable model. Even so, Anandtech's latest GPU Benchmark tests put these guys ahead of the middle of the pack, with respectable benchmarks. If you're a PC gamer and you love turning up all of the settings on your games, or you have to play all of the latest releases as soon as they're out, pick your brand allegiance (or better yet, check how each of these two cards performs when benchmarked in your favorite games) and go with one of these. If you need even more power and have the money to buy it (really?), consider the AMD Radeon HD 7970 ($399.99) or the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670 ($399.99) for some gorgeous-but-wallet-busting graphical goodness. While we're shooting the moon, how about that $1000 GeForce GTX Titan?

                                                • The optical drive: Lite-On 24x CD/DVD Burner - $17.98

                                                  Surprised? We meant it when we said in the budget section that the optical drive that you buy doesn't really matter. Again, if you're planning to watch Blu-ray video on your enthusiast PC, you'll want to spring for the appropriate drive, but if you're not, we can't find a better optical drive and disc burner for the money. Hey, just because there are more expensive ones out there doesn't mean they're better. Just because you're on an enthusiast's budget doesn't mean you have to throw your money away.

                                                • The total: $1171.41
                                                • Buy this build from PCPartPicker

                                                If you're on a budget…
                                                Sometimes building an enthusiast's PC is more difficult than building a budget one because you have room in the budget to buy high-end components, but you don't want to go overboard or make decisions that waste your money. We hope this sub $1200 build walks the line between spending good money on components that matter without spending too much on the ones that don't.

                                                If this is too much though, some of the biggest money sinks here are clearly the video card and the processor. While you could bump down a more affordable motherboard and save about $30, the real savings is in choosing a less powerful and high-end video card, especially since you can upgrade a video card more easily than a processor. Consider the AMD Radeon HD 7770 ($129.99) we mentioned earlier. If you're an NVIDIA fan, consider the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 650 Ti ($174.99) on for size. All three will play the latest titles on high (albeit not absolute ultra) settings without trouble, and with solid framerates.

                                                A Note About Your Operating System

                                                You're undoubtedly noticing that we haven't included the cost of an OS license in this roundup. The reason for that is because we don't want to assume what operating system you'll install on your build. If you want to go Linux, then your cost is basically nothing. If you'd rather install Microsoft Windows-and we assume most of you would-Windows 8 is where it's at right now (unless you plan to downgrade) at an array of different prices depending on the version you want and where you get it.

                                                Newegg has OEM versions of Windows 8 64-bit for $99.99, which is likely what most of you would buy Enthusiasts can grab the $139 Windows 8 Professional x64 if needed, but odds are you won't need the added features. At the same time, you can probably score a cheaper copy with an educational discount if you have one, or through an employee purchase program if your workplace has a enterprise licensing agreement with Microsoft.

                                                Additional Reading

                                                Don't take our word for these builds. We're sure you have your own opinions on what should have made it in and what should have been excluded. We also stuck with Newegg for pricing and component information, which you certainly don't have to do-especially if you can find the same components you want elsewhere for less (or better ones for the same price!)

                                                One reference that-at least for now-is constantly updated and invaluable for determining exactly how enthusiast you're being when it comes to the components you're buying and how much you should be spending on them is the Logical Increments PC Buying Guide. We used it as a reference extensively here, and the site's recently been redesigned so it's super user friendly. It's a big help, and can serve as a good sanity check if your build is getting out of hand.

                                                Also, make sure to read up on your most critical components before you buy. Anandtech's GPU benchmarks and the Tom's Hardware forums are invaluable when looking for benchmarks and opinions on some of the components you may buy before you add them to your cart. The Reddit Build-A-PC subreddit is also a great place to ask for opinions and guidance if you're having issues or just want the thoughts of people who have been where you are now.


                                                We'll come back to this system builder's guide regularly to make sure it's updated with current pricing information and the best components for each of our builds. Remember though, take our builds as guidelines for your own research and your own PC-building project.

                                                Photos by Adam Snyder, and Edmund Tse.


                                                 
                                                 

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