Over the last few weeks I decided to finally pick up a gaming PC. Those of us who stick mostly to console games have plenty of reasons to avoid gaming PCs: high price points, few games are exclusive, controllers are not the main interface, required technical knowledge of hardware and software (if you plan to upgrade, which you should), and did I mention the hours of headaches and troubleshooting you have to do to get a god damn game to run? The sole reason I, and probably most other console gamers, have almost always stuck to consoles is that they are a pre-certified plug-and-play device. You may be able to tweak settings here or there, but you plug the box in and run the game, simple as that. While standardized hardware has various performance issues, you will never buy a PS3 game that won’t play “with your setup” or a 360 game that crashes constantly because you neglected to update your hardware drivers (not the update to the actual game). Time, money, knowledge, three things all of us seem to have less and less of and are acutely required for a PC. Those are the challenges – the benefit is that almost every game in existence has a version on the PC and once you get your setup running, gaming can be a very convenient and cheap endeavor. In fact, the benefits are so abundant that I could not ignore the PC as a viable gaming platform any longer. What I didn’t count on was the frustration of getting PC gaming advice from PC gamers who seem to have little, if no, consideration for the fact that you are a console gamer. Thus when it came time to get help or advice, these aforementioned barriers snuck back in on a microscopic level.
Last night I got to play, for the first time ever, the same game on a console and on a PC with all the settings on high and to me it was all worth it. This isn’t the case with many games, considerations and settings need to be consistently adjusted for my budget setup, but one thing still remained constant: every game played and looked better on any settings than its console counterpart. I must warn you that the following brief documentation goes over what I went through, purchased, and what my gaming rig is now. PC gamers will use buzz words like “budget”, “entry grade”, “not ready for the future”, and various other negative connotations to dig into my choices, but at the end of the day I run a dazzling version of Metro 2033 so I’m not all that concerned. If you are a PC gamer, you will easily be able to scoff and snort at the pathetic attempt I have made to create a rig, and you are probably correct. What I do know is I am quite pleased with my gaming PC that cost roughly $400 to make. On the other hand, if you are a console gamer and want to delve into this PC world for roughly what a PS4 or Xbox One cost, hopefully this will help you see that it can be done and how. I will link all hardware because it allows you to see tech specs on what I’m talking about.
Building A Gaming Rig
The base shopping list of a gaming rig that is homemade, and all gaming rigs should be, are as follows: motherboard, processor, power supply, cooling, casing, graphics card, RAM, hard drives, Operating System, extras (if applicable). While I know plenty of this information and how to build all these things, local Craigslist and some eBay listings can skip much of this for you and allow you to get a decent, if slightly dated, PC on the cheap. For me I knew I wanted a good gaming-based quad-core processor, DDR3 RAM (this is dependent upon your motherboard, so you have to make sure it supports it), and plenty of cooling options pre-installed. I knew I wanted a Windows 7 64-bit OS and because many games today rely heavily on the graphics card, I wanted the motherboard to be able to support a big one. I avoided any pre-bundled computers like the plague (Acer, Dell, HP, etc) and stuck mostly to people who have obvious knowledge in buying rigs. Also with pre-built ones you’ll want to check the processor for gaming specifically because of small facts like an AMD Athalon is quite poor for gaming and not intended for its use, but a Phenom II has been noted for reliability in the gamespace. I knew I would have to make some changes, so I waited around for a solid starting point PC under $300 and finally found one for just that amount on Craigslist. Here’s what it had:
- AMD Phenom II 3.4 Ghz quad-core processor – Quad core isn’t necessary for too many games these days, but weak processors can bottleneck gaming capabilities. Phenom II had a good reputation for a budget chip and 3.4 ghz was decent for today’s games.
- 550 watt power supply – Don’t know much about power supplies overall but I did know that mid-to-high end graphics cards required 400 watts or more so I knew I was safe if I go higher end.
- 4 GB DDR3 RAM – DDR3 is basically the standard right now from what I know. It’s upgradable on the motherboard to 16 GB, which is plenty, it’s a twin stick setup (which means I may pay a bit more to upgrade), and 4GB RAM if you’re only gaming is okay, 8 GB is preferred.
- Plenty of cooling setups – This rig had a thermal cooling system for the processor, huge fan over the processor and PCI slots to cool the warmest parts, and the massive case was roomy for upgrades and moving air with lots of vents. This allows you computer to breathe, which it needs to do to prevent overheating.
- 160GB SATA hard drive with a clean install of Windows 7 64-bit and an additional 300 GB SATA hard drive for archived storage. There are also 2 more SATA slots should I choose to upgrade further or add an SSD (solid state drive – increases performance).
- Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT graphics card – This is where tech starts to get hazy for me. This was an amazing card in 2007, and although heavily dated today and you will go low-medium graphics in 1080p on a TV it’s still compatible with most cards on the market. I also know that Nvidia has drivers that cover most of their cards, so a stable driver with the 8800 should work well with an upgraded card as long as I did my research first. The other graphics option is ATI’s Radeon cards, which don’t seem to perform any better or worse, but I just dig PhysX particle effects so I’m sticking with Nvidia despite the so-so quality of consistently updated hardware drivers. In short, this card could play ugly (by PC standards, gorgeous by console standards) versions of anything I had on Steam.
I knew I wanted to do some custom upgrades without paying too much and I wanted to slightly customize my rig. This is where some software/windows knowledge helped, but it’s nothing a little online searching won’t hurt. For starters the motherboard drivers weren’t installed – Windows 7 doesn’t automatically know what to do with all your devices, you have to download software (drivers) to tell Windows how to act with something. It was a bitch too because the Gigabyte motherboard had 3 different supplies for a network/ethernet port and only had downloads for one, which of course wasn’t mine. Nope, mine was the rare one that was only being hosted by some file hosting site a random forum poster had done for the community, but eventually I was up and running. I thought the 8800 would be sufficient for my uses, but to display in 1080p (required by my TV’s HDMI port) I had to adapt the DVI port (no biggie, cheap adaptor/cable) but while the 8800 can run most games, it can’t necessarily run them in 1080p (1920×1080 resolution). This became my biggest priority. Looked into SSDs and more RAM, but they didn’t provide speed benefits (a few frames per second or shorter load times) to justify the current budgeted purchase, 4 GB worked decent for my needs, and the graphics card was basically going to define my ability to game. So which card do I go with?
Here’s where the advice from PC gamers and non-PC gamers differed heavily. No non-hardcore PC gamer wanted to recommend a card, they simply told me what they had,which was subject to things like specific setups and price. PC gamers basically suggested $250-$500 graphics cards and made the blanket statement that if I wanted decent gaming I would just have to pay for it. Ironic to me since the whole world seems to be up in arms over a mere $100 for the Xbox One but PC gamers expect budget-concious people to drop $150-$400 more than I wanted to spend (tried to get something good for $100). Not only that, but just because a model number is higher, the card is newer, or the specs seem better meant a damn thing in terms of performance. I did learn (thank you Rick) that in the modern Nvidia cards, gaming-focused cards are the X60-X90 models (ie: 660, 670, 680, etc as opposed to 610, 620, 630, etc). Also there are advanced models labeled “TI” and “TI Boost” that can also increase performance. The card to get is a 660 (preferably TI) as an all around solid card for most modern games, which will usually run you $200-$300 at retail. I was not going to purchase that in my budget. Additionally I wasn’t able to find a decent card for around $100 on eBay or Craigslist.
After talking with some people, reading thousands of forum posts, and countless bar graphs and annoying review articles I decided that the best value for output was the Gigabyte Nvidia 650 TI. Note that this is not the aforementioned gaming model number. I chose it because it was a Gigabyte model (Nvidia doesn’t manufacture its own cards, other companies manufacture them including Gigabyte) that was known to be quiet and cool, it was stock, and performed well in 1080p on many games today for only $120 at MicroCenter (no mail-in rebates either, just on sale). That was definitely within my budget and the upgrade would double the graphics RAM (512 mb in the 8800 vs. 1 GB in the 650 TI), go up to DDR5 instead of DDR3 (preferred for graphics RAM), HDMI port integration, and Direct X11 support vs. Direct X10 with the 8800. Also when just doing Google searches for game performance, there was a great article (sorry lost the link) that literally compared the benefits of one over the other. When you compare performance, the 650 TI typically performs 40 percent better than the standard 650 ($10 less) despite having similar specs at face value (there are shader cores and architectural explanations that are over my head), and the 650 TI doesn’t perform that much worse than the 660, especially at half the price. I also was trying to decide between 1 GB or 2 GB models and I read that due to only using a single 1080p display that there wouldn’t be much, if any, difference and the cost difference was $30. I also did some research and the current Nvidia drivers I had installed for my 8800 (the guy who built my PC pre-installed updated drivers) was the newest without having issues with the card (I had to be careful, the newest driver was known to burn out the 650 TI). Ideally I could just plug and play.
Installing a graphics card and uninstalling the old one was pretty easy, but the task will seem daunting your first time. Make sure to unplug everything, touch metal to ground yourself from static (a static shock can literally kill a motherboard), and remain grounded or with an anti-static wristband while working. PCI express ports are like Nintendo cartridges and the 8800 already had the additional power supply cord attached that I needed for the 650 TI, it was literally plug and play. What I didn’t count on was the massive size, graphics cards are freaking huge! This thing had a massive fan on it (which is good) and took up 2 full slots on my case and blocked a second PCI slot on my motherboard. Furthermore the third PCI slot (just a random one, not express) would be flush with the fan so I didn’t want to chance having anything plugged in. But think about it, this thing eliminated all my PCI slots! Now given it’s a gaming PC, the graphics card is number one and I had no use for those unused PCI slots anyway. Then I turned on my computer, scared at what may happen, and to my amazement all the settings and everything converted over, the Nvidia driver picked up the new card and merely installed some minor packages automatically and had me restart my machine once more then boom, new card working like a charm.
Naturally I had to test this bad boy out. I searched online for what others were using for ideal settings on my card (there are programs that can do this and tons of articles that will help you do even better with drivers, patches, mods, etc., but I’m a console gamer, I just want an easy answer). First up was Metro 2033. I got this in the THQ humble bundle and already had the 360 version. I booted both up – was able to run it in High specs at 1080p and keep the framerate around 35-40 as long as Direct X11 features were disabled – and it blew my mind. Switching between the 360 and PC versions I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s like being the only guy watching SDTV and suddenly seeing HDTV for the first time. Dynamic lighting, effects, details, performance, it was the complete package. Even better, Metro 2033 is a somewhat rare 360 title and I got a buyer today that paid $35 for it. I did the same with Darksiders (better, but nothing fancy), Saints Row The Third (this was extreme, I can run this in Ultra and it looks tremendously better, it even looked better than the PS3 version on low settings with my 8800), Crysis 2 (whole new game vs. the PS3 version), and Left 4 Dead (again, massive difference from highest settings on PC to 360 version, plus no XBL gold required to play online!). Then to finish up the night I ran The Witcher (original) to see how much better it looked and performed (in high settings) than on my cheap laptop that stuttered at the lowest settings. I even ran The Witcher 2 for comparison and although it was an improvement over the 360 version, that console version has some crazy stuff going on because it wasn’t the night and day comparison of other titles. All in all I was pleased as punch. I had a rockstar gaming rig that only had 3 plugs coming out of it (power, HDMI, and ethernet) that was quiet as a mouse and functioned almost completely like a console (especially in Steam’s Big Picture Mode) for only $420.
I may not be ready for the powerhouse titles surely to come out as early as next year, but I feel confident that to a certain extent I will be able to run them with decent settings (and I can always upgrade if not). Furthermore I will have a PS4, so at least in the beginning I can lean on that. Besides, aren’t PCs obsolete after a week? I always avoided PC gaming purely from a cost and headache standpoint, and I’ve incurred both over the last week, but all in all it was a much more pleasant and beneficial purchase than I would have guessed. If you have the money, especially if you can spring $100-$200 more than me for upgrades, you should seriously consider picking up a PC – it will help you play those legendary exclusives like The Witcher and Amnesia, you can pay pennies for $60 consoles games, and have a new toy around. Then again, it is a console generation year and the one thing I have to admit about my PC is this: it’s not as powerful and cost slightly more than a PS4.
Okay, after 2700 words, I’m out. Thanks for reading.