Building an affordable gaming PC is always a good investment: Not only is it useful for every day tasks, it can also be utilized for professional applications (like video editing) and, of course, gaming. With the GTX 650 and GTX 660 being so readily available at a budget, there's no reason a $500-$600 gaming PC build couldn't play most modern games at respectable graphics settings. The GTX 650 alone, for instance, runs Battlefield 3 quite successfully at medium settings in 1920x1080 resolution at around 40FPS (see benchmark chart below); that's a lot of power for a $120 card.
On top of this, Gearbox's recent Borderlands 2 has blown us away with its PhysX demonstrations and pretty graphics direction, and luckily, it can be played on just about anything. Building a DIY gaming PC for Borderlands 2 on a budget (around $500) is actually quite easy; you'll find our build below with the rationale explained for each choice.
PhysX is definitely recommended for Borderlands 2 since nVidia's physics calculation protocols are plugged into the game; if you use a PhysX-enabled card, it will reduce strain to the CPU by offloading real-time physics calculations to the GPU, and will allow some functionality that won't be present on non-PhysX GPUs. Now let's look at that parts list for our build:
|Budget Parts List||Name||Price||Rebates/etc.||Total|
|Video Card||EVGA GTX 650||$120||-$10||$110|
|CPU||Intel I3-3220 3.3GHz||$130||Free Shipping||$130|
|Memory||8GB 1600MHz HyperX Blu||$40||Free Shipping||$40|
|Motherboard||ASRock H77 Pro4/MVP||$80||-||$80|
|Power Supply||Corsair 500W PSU||$60||-$30, Free Shipping||$30|
|Hard Drive||500GB Seagate 7200RPM HDD||$55||Free Shipping||$55|
|Optical Drive||Samsung Optical Drive||$17||-||$17|
|Case||NZXT Source 220||$60||-||$60|
And here it is! With two times the CUDA cores as last generation's similarly-priced GTX 550 Ti, the GTX 650 is a solid performer for any gamer on a budgeted build; Nvidia's benchmarks (bear positive sampling bias in mind) have placed the GTX 650 slightly above their GTX 550 Ti on the charts, and have noted that in their testing, the GTX 650 easily ran Skyrim and Battlefield 3, and though it struggled a bit with The Witcher 2, it still ran at a playable 30FPS.
The card itself should be able to play Skyrim on max settings and BF3 on medium quality settings (all at 1920x1080) -- here's a chart to help you make an informed choice in the event you're considering the GTX 660 v. GTX 650:
And here are the card's specs relative to other cards (copied from this previous article), which should underscore its relative power:
|Specs||GTX 690||GTX 680||GTX 670||GTX 660 Ti||GTX 660||GTX 650|
|Memory Clock||6GHz GDDR5||6GHz GDDR5||6GHz GDDR5||6GHz GDDR5||6GHz GDDR5||5GHz GDDR5|
|Memory Bus Interface||384GB/s||192GB/s||192 GB/s||144GB/s||144GB/s||80GB/s|
|Features / Misc||2x8-pin
We've opted to use one of Intel's 3rd Gen Core i3 CPUs (Ivy Bridge) for its low-cost and high gaming performance. More cores doesn't necessarily equate more performance -- in gaming, since many games are still programmed to efficiently utilize two cores (and almost none take advantage of hyperthreading), quad-core CPUs tend to have a less noticeable performance impact on games than other component upgrades might.
Where more cores would come in handy, though, would be if you're actively rendering and encoding videos (on a daily basis); most rendering software is multithreaded and will take all that it can get in terms of RAM and CPU cycles, so if that's something you do even semi-professionally, it may be worth considering a quad-core alternative.
The i3-3220 clocks in at 3.3GHz and offers 3MB of L3 Cache and a usable IGP, should you ever need one; it all runs on a refreshingly low TDP of 55W, meaning even less power consumption and thus lower PSU requirements.
Some of you may have recently read our Overclocking Overview, so just to make things clear: You won't be overclocking this system due to a few factors, the most immediate of which is the limiting chipset (H77 instead of Z77), but also as a result of the CPU's relatively limited multipliers and options. If you want to overclock, let us know and we'll help you change the build.
But Borderlands 2 recommends a quad-core CPU, will an i3-3220 CPU be enough for Borderlands 2?
Yes! Although it may recommend an older generation quad-core (a la the Q6600), we've found the i3 CPUs capable of running Borderlands 2 on whatever settings the GPU will scale to (meaning, if the GPU is capable of running the game on high settings - which the GTX 650 is - then the CPU will be able to keep up). Your biggest limitation will be Fraps or live video recording.
We recently used Kingston's HyperX Blu memory in another build -- in terms of cost-to-performance, it's right up there with the entry-level Vengeance and Ripjaws lines; RAM's fairly stable in price right now, and at 8GB of 1600MHz memory (CAS-9), the main separation between all the manufacturers' offerings is price. Specs vary by marginal amounts and, for a locked H77 chipset, there's no need to be concerned with massive heatspreaders or overclocking potential.
This'll do the job just fine.
For this build, ASRock's affordable H77 Pro4/MVP board fits conveniently within the budget and remains compatible with all the parts. Now, you may be asking yourself: "Where the heck is Z77? What's the difference between H77 and Z77?" Fair question. H77 and Z77 are largely the same, aside from a few major elements: H77 motherboards are not capable of sustaining SLI/CrossFire arrays and the overclocking options are entirely locked-down. H77 boards don't allow modification of core speeds and other overclocking features that are found on Z77 boards.
There are other differences, but not much else that we'd expect gamers to worry about. The motherboard we selected is a full-sized ATX board and natively supports DDR3 1600MHz memory (up to 32GB of it, in fact), and will even take advantage of USB3 and IGP offerings (through its rear display port).
Never skimp on a power supply! This 500W Corsair Builder series PSU supplies more than enough power for the build laid out herein, and even offers a bit of upgrade room. Power efficiency curves will vary based on the PSU, but as a general rule of thumb, it's recommended that you stay within 60%-80% load of the PSU's maximum capacity. If you purchase an overly powerful PSU, it'll just end up being inefficient and wasteful. The same goes for something that strains at more than 90% load (a result of the additional heat, among other things).
It's not modular, but it's tough to ask for that within this price range.
As much as we strongly encourage SSDs for systems, there's still a place in this world for magnetic storage and their shiny platters. SSD prices have come down considerably, but for this build, we really need something sturdy that will get you started for cheap. This 500GB Seagate 7200RPM HDD will do just that. It's ample storage for any starter gaming rig, but if you can afford an extra $60, it's worth looking into a 120GB SSD (such as Corsair's FORCE series or Kingston's HyperX series; Samsung and Intel also make great drives, albeit generally more expensive).
I'd suggest that your first upgrade be an SSD, though you'll have to migrate or re-install Windows if you plan to use it as your primary drive, which is really the only use I'd suggest for it.
HDDs will still get the job done, though, especially at $500-$600.
I look forward to the day that I can stop listing this component. You can now install Windows via USB and most games are distributed electronically, but since physical data is still something demanded by the modern world, it's best to play it safe and grab an optical drive. If you feel like cutting costs, grab any SATA optical drive from old machines and use that. Saves $20.
The most fun part of any build, in my opinion! The GPU and CPU are certainly exciting, but those choices are largely templated and dictated by the market, so they're predictable. Cases give room to have some fun and experiment with offerings you haven't tried before.
After working with NZXT on our Switch 810 review, we've been fans of their build quality and focus on important features - like cable management and proper ventilation. The NZXT Source 220 is a clean case layout, so if you're looking for something that more closely resembles a Transformer, there are certainly plenty of options out there (the entire HAF series is the most popular, though Cougar has recently put some bulky cases on the market). This case will easily fit the components, ships with ample cooling (1x120mm rear, 1x140mm top), and even has cable routing holes in convenient places. If you've got an extra $10, I'd recommend adding a front 120mm intake fan for good measure.
That's it for this build! If you have any questions at all, leave a comment below and let us know how we can help you out! You can view our hardware forums here, for more in-depth questions.