Help with buying a new mid-range windows gaming PC?
November 10, 2009 11:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking at purchasing a new PC for gaming, wanting to spend between $1000 and $1500 total, would prefer not to put it together myself, and am waaaay out of the loop on hardware at this point, particularly graphic cards.

I've been pricing out desktop builds from some of the major manufacturers this morning and I'm realizing that while I'm comfortable making some basic price/performance calls as far as CPU and memory, I'm completely out of touch with the GPU market and need some guidance.

I'd like to be able to play current releases without flinching, at crisp resolutions. I'll be happy with non-distracting performance: 30fps is great, 60fps is not something I'm going to care about so much.

I'd rather just buy a box from someone and have done with it than do much work myself inside the case, but as far as buying my own GPU to install in an otherwise standard box that's certainly not outside my comfort zone.

Looking at Dell's builds for both their normal beefy desktop line and their Alienware stuff, it seems like a lot of the latter is Ooh, Shiny packaging. I don't need a pretty box. But options for GPUs are pretty slim on non-gamer boxes, which has me wondering if going in that direction for a reasonably bullshit-free desktop build and then slotting in my own card is the smarter move.

Any specific advice on targeting a good-enough-for-current-games (biggies on my list include Dragon Age now, Mass Effect 2 and Diablo 3 when they drop, for example) GPU on the saner side of the price/performance break? Any particular good deals/providers for a solid out-of-the-box system in my price range?
posted by cortex to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I've been really happy with my Gateway FX-Series tower. I'm not sure what the lineup looks like right now, but I've had mine about a year and a half now and it's still flying and playing things at top settings. Cost about $1100 at the time, I believe, which was basically the same price at which I could've bought all the OEM parts. Give their site a look.
posted by Rallon at 11:42 AM on November 10, 2009

studio xps 9000
specs core i7 920 processor
4 gigs ram
nvidia geforce 260 gpu
640gig hdd

Anything else can be upgraded later cheaper then what dell sells

Fast processor and decent gpu.
posted by majortom1981 at 12:06 PM on November 10, 2009

The Ars System Guide, though aimed at people who build their own systems, is a good source for getting a sense of what's out there right now.

Their middle-of-the-road system (budget of $1400-1600) has the following core specs:

Intel Core i5-750
4GB DDR3-1333 RAM
Radeon HD 5870 or 5850 / nVidia GeForce GTX 285

An Alienware PC specced out to that level will exceed your budget, but only by a hundred dollars or so. Also, it will have a faster processor.
posted by jedicus at 12:09 PM on November 10, 2009

Check out the AnandTech purchase guides. They have different price target ranges, and show what components they would purchase and assemble.

It's an assemble-different-bits type of deal, but do go over the systems in your pricerange. That way you'll have a good handle on the value of any preassembled system you'll get.

But I recommend assembling the computer from scratch anyway. It's not much more difficult than Legos, and teaches you one heck of a lot about computers, life, and everything.
posted by krilli at 12:11 PM on November 10, 2009

Just saw Jedicus' comment. Didn't know Ars had this type of guide. I'd trust the Ars Technica guides over the Anandtech ones.

Other thoughts after reading other's posts:

I'd get an NVIDIA GTX 275 graphics card. I do development work in NVIDIA CUDA, and this is by far the most bang-for-buck card. The ATI cards may be good but I don't have any experience with them.

I'd get the cheapest Cure i5 processor also, or at least the one from the point at the price-curve where it's still a linear slope. The Core i5/i7 platform is pretty great. That, or an AMD processor. The Intel Core 2 stuff is not worth buying anymore.
posted by krilli at 12:15 PM on November 10, 2009

This build is pretty cheap for what it's packing.
posted by joydrop at 12:22 PM on November 10, 2009

3rding using Ars Technica's guide as... well, a guide. They've been doing this stuff for years and have a healthy debate in their forums to come up with the specs the community thinks is good. Here'ss the discussion about the current guides. They spent about a month coming up with the specs.
posted by jeversol at 12:31 PM on November 10, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, I've seen Ars' builds before (a few years ago I was still in DIY mode, would read their yearly build-outs), so that's a good reference as a guide. If I was going DIY still I'd probably use it as a straight reference for parting it together and call that good.

At this point, wanting to avoid the (for me) stressful aspects of putting it all together myself, I'd be pretty happy paying a small premium to get something comparable in value/performance without the assembly, basically.

It seems like the GTX 260 is showing up in a lot of the standard builds I'm seeing; I don't know how much of a price vs. performance difference there is compared to the 275 or 285.
posted by cortex at 12:37 PM on November 10, 2009

The ATI Radeon HD 5870 is a really hot item right now, and the chip fab is having yield problems. I'm dying to get one but I just got a 4850 back in the spring. All reviews and indicators though are pointing at it being a gfx chip with a ton of life in it, much like the Nvidia 8800 line that stayed viable for about 3 years in an extremely volatile market segment.
posted by Liver at 12:39 PM on November 10, 2009

Consider taking your spec to a local whitebox vendor. There aren't tons of them out there in the world, what with Newegg having destroyed the market for them, but I can't imagine there isn't a little local indie place in PDX that would do a one-off custom build for you, or have a standard build that's close to what you want.
posted by majick at 12:41 PM on November 10, 2009

The Radeon 5870 and 5850 are the top performers out there right now, and the 5850 is not terribly expensive ($260), if you can find one. You might consider configuring a pre-made system with the cheapest possible graphics card and picking one of them up and putting it in yourself.
posted by sinfony at 12:55 PM on November 10, 2009

I've been building PC's a long time and $1000+ sounds overkill for a mid-range gaming computer. You can get a high clocked C2D computer (better for gaming than quads per clock speed) for $500-ish, and spend another $200 on a mid-range GPU.

IMHO going for a i5 or an i7 is a waste of money, when C2Quads and Quad Phenoms can be had for 1/3 the price.
posted by wongcorgi at 1:16 PM on November 10, 2009

Response by poster: The Radeon 5870 and 5850 are the top performers out there right now, and the 5850 is not terribly expensive ($260), if you can find one. You might consider configuring a pre-made system with the cheapest possible graphics card and picking one of them up and putting it in yourself.

This is sounding like the simplest comfortable route, yeah. I've found a couple of solid-looking major-manufacturer builds that include a cheap gpu I can chuck out in favor of a GTX 285 or one of the 5850/5870 cards, so that may be the way I go.

I can't imagine there isn't a little local indie place in PDX that would do a one-off custom build for you, or have a standard build that's close to what you want.

I was surprised to see less immediately visible info about builds (rather than just components) from the local store I'd done this stuff with in the past. I'll try checking with them, though, yeah.
posted by cortex at 3:33 PM on November 10, 2009

Expandability in off the shelf systems will suck. That will be a problem if you find you need an extra PCI-E x4 slot for a raid controller, or you want to go SLI. For a $1500 investment that seems like a bad compromise.
I'm not gaming, and I think I may have read where people think SLI is pointless nowadays. Other than for SLI, having extra x4 or greater PCI-E slots is more for power users of a different kind (audio video editing stuff, RAID controllers, server class network controllers.

To get best value for your money, my typical advice is to get the best motherboard you can find, and then cheap out on everything else, remembering to upgrade as the better stuff drops in price. But ya, that might be too much work for you at this point.
Also, intel is confusing the marketplace again with i5/i7. The problem is cyclical, sometimes CPU sockets change so fast that a motherboard only stays on top for 6 months, but sometimes a good motherboard choice can remain state of the art for more than 3 years.

My feeling is that Dell and others offer best value in the sub $1000 heading toward sub $600 categories. I suspect that at $1500 you don't get a lot more out of them than you get at $1000. Certainly not sure about that though.. Also, Dell prices are inflated unless you get in on a one-day-only special.

I've always recommended doing something to improve on typical hard drive performance. That has traditionally meant recommending very nice 15K SCSI gear on the used market. Recently truly fast solid state discs have become available. I think you want one.
posted by Chuckles at 9:11 PM on November 10, 2009

As far as graphics go, the Radeon 5000 family is the best there is right now. They are the only cards out so far that support direct X 11. The nVidia 300's should be coming out Q1 next year, but nVidias higher end stuff is generally more overpriced at launch.
Maybe also an SSD for your boot/OS disk. I have never even actually used one (despite being a huge hardware nerd) but I understand they make a noticeable difference.
Go for the DDR3 RAM if you can, I don't think this makes a lot of difference now, but could future proof you some.
posted by baserunner73 at 4:12 AM on November 11, 2009

I recently realized that I'm way behind and games are getting really good. The advice I've been getting is that it's getting to the point where PCs just can't compete with consoles. I'm leaning toward a PS3, personally.
posted by cmoj at 10:28 AM on November 11, 2009

Interesting timing, Tom's just came out with Building A Balanced Gaming PC. I just skiped to the conclusions, which make it clear that you don't have to go any higher than an early core2duo for very solid modern gaming performance, and the best s775 systems are as good as any i5/i7 system right now:
The dual-core Pentium E6300 managed to deliver playable performance in each game except for Crysis and Grand Theft Auto IV. However, this 2.8 GHz CPU was rarely in balance with the graphics cards, even at playable settings. Adding 200 MHz, a faster FSB, and three times the L2 cache, the Core 2 Duo E8400 faired far better in these games, only failing in Crysis when a 1920x1200 resolution required a match-up with the GeForce GTX 295. That being said, the Radeon HD 4870 X2 and all three Nvidia GeForce cards still often required a quad-core processor, such as the Core 2 Quad Q9550, to be balanced in these games. The Core i7-920 didn’t necessarily beat out the Q9550 in minimum targets reached, but the individual charts still depict many performance advantages garnered by stepping up to this architecture.
Which brings back another point, which for some reason I didn't get to last comment. It actually makes a lot more economic sense to upgrade more often, but never to the high end. You can put together a quad core s775 system without graphics or SSD for something in the $300-400 range. That leaves money for an awesome graphics card and an SSD, and only just touches the lower limit of your budget.
posted by Chuckles at 11:08 AM on November 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

"I recently realized that I'm way behind and games are getting really good. The advice I've been getting is that it's getting to the point where PCs just can't compete with consoles. I'm leaning toward a PS3, personally."

Can't compete in what way? Even a fairly modest PC by today's standards will run circles around either of the major consoles. Sure, there are more major releases on consoles these days, but there are a plethora of games that are either better on PC (e.g. Dragon Age) or PC-only (e.g. any serious strategy game).
posted by sinfony at 11:14 AM on November 11, 2009

I recently realized that I'm way behind and games are getting really good. The advice I've been getting is that it's getting to the point where PCs just can't compete with consoles. I'm leaning toward a PS3, personally.

Arguably, when consoles are big, everybody is developing for consoles, so all the good games are console games. Also, consoles are certainly much less hassle, plug'em in and they work kind of thing. Finally, price performance on consoles is pretty good. However, in terms of raw state of the art computing/graphics power, consoles simply aren't close to their contemporary PC counterparts.
posted by Chuckles at 11:19 AM on November 11, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, I'm omnivorous; I've got a 360 and some less-beefy consoles and like them a lot, but I also like PC gaming and miss it in the last couple years where I haven't really had machine/setup that was letting me do what I wanted on that front. Both models have their strengths and play well to different game types, and this isn't really a question about which way to go on on that front in any case.

After being kind of dismayed at the state of my local shop, I cycled through the big online manufacturers again this morning to try and fine-tune my thinking a little based on feedback here and ended up putting in an order for a Dell XPS 9000 for just over a grand; it's a pretty decent balance of stock features, and comes with a sad little GPU that I'll replace with one of something solid in the $2-300 range to get the machine up to speed.

Thanks for the info and opinions, folks. I'll update if there's any surprises, but as a headcheck and source for further reading this was really useful.
posted by cortex at 11:49 AM on November 11, 2009

... just make sure the power supply can handle the new GPU, both wattage and connector-wise.
posted by krilli at 8:03 AM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: Yeah, if I could have paid Dell to drop in something with another hundred watts just for really generous clearance I would have just to not even have to think twice about it. But the power supply shipping with it should be able to take the extra couple hundred watts from a peak-performing GTX 285 with plenty of room to breath, from what I could determine, so I think it'll be no issue. But I'll definitely report back on that front too if there's any surprises.
posted by cortex at 8:58 AM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: Wrapup:

Dell arrived and is working great. Even the minimized amount of wrestling I did with the details feels a little silly now—several years between computers means anything is going to knock my socks off, essentially.

After some frustration with trying to even find a reliable source that was stocking 285s and 5800 cards, I went back to the drawing board and vetted the 5700 series as well, and came to the conclusion that a 5750 would probably be more than enough card for me for the near future. That seems to have been borne out so far, which is great.

Ordered that and Dragon Age and a 21.5" widescreen that does 1920x1200; those all showed up the day before the computer; swapping the card out went off without a hitch.

Dragon Age is playing like a dream at high specs. And I've got a lot of catching up to do on PC releases from the last three years or so as well.

And the card that shipped with the computer is a GT 220, which is significantly better as far as I can tell than the Geforce 7300 currently in my Mac Pro, so once I figure out the details on that front I may swap those and try bootcamping the Mac as a backup PC. But that's another story.

Anyway, thanks again, everybody.
posted by cortex at 11:57 PM on December 5, 2009

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