Power computing for less $$$
November 26, 2012 10:12 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to buy a gaming computer for less than $500? Should I be buying components and putting it together on my own, or just waiting for the best deal on a prebuilt system? And what websites should I be using to price things?

I have a six-year-old laptop. I want something that runs Starcraft 2, LOL, TF2, Civ 4/5 on the higher graphic settings. I obviously can't afford something top-end on my price range, and that's fine. Basically, I want to put a box together that has the best 2010-2011 technology that 2012 money can buy.

This computer is somewhat representative of what I'm looking for, but looking at the reviews the company seems to have lackluster tech support and shoddy components. I can probably put together a system on my own, if it's cheaper, but I have no idea the best way to price components or to even figure out what I should be looking for. Oh, and if it matters, I'd prefer Windows 7 instead of Windows 8, although it's not a big deal.

(Basically, I want an updated answer to the question in this thread, except with relevant 2012 websites, pricing, and specs :-)
posted by Happydaz to Technology (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of this depends on how capable you are at putting a PC together, and how much of a timesink it is for you. Generally, yes, the best way to get the right gaming computer four you is to buy the components separately and put them together. However, for some people this is easier said than done, and for others who aren't necessarily going to have a hard time at it, their time is worth more than the money they'd pay for a pre-built system. There was a time, for instance, when we'd basically have PC building parties where everyone would come over to someone's house and help them build their PC and drink beer and eat pizza. That was fun. These days, I don't really have the time or inclination to build a PC by myself and know few people who have the time to help out in a meaningful way.

The absolutely easiest way to price components is just by looking. Everything tech: CPUs, hard drives, RAM, power supplies, everything comes in "dinky," "moderate" and "l337" tiers (I mean, not necessarily three distinct groups always, but there's differentiation), and reasons for these tiers existing. Go on the forums and find out why these tiers exist, and figure out which item you need in which tier. Building your own PC takes a while, so I'd also watch out for deals on components. If you save $20 on RAM, $100 on an HD, $50 on a motherboard, $25 on the CPU, etc. etc., you can build a $1000 rig for $500 just by being vigilant.

If you are doing this yourself, your best bet is to either get a buddy who has done this, or spend a good portion of time on the forums. I can't recommend a specific one, but plenty of them have a "I'm doing this for the first time, help!" sticky thread that you can peruse and get ideas from.
posted by griphus at 10:23 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

you will get the best bang for your buck if you put it together yourself.

The System Builders Anonymous forums over at Tech Report were the best in helping me pick out components in my price range. If you don't feel like reaching out on the forums, they also have suggested components to make up a system, like their econobox.
posted by royalsong at 10:24 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Based on the requirements your're talking about, you may have some difficulty hitting that price point.

I just bought a system from CyberPowerPC.com. I got:
Intel Quad Core
2TB hard drive
nVidia GTX660ti w/ 2GB
850 watt power supply
Case with 5 fans.

CyberPower built it, tested it, installed Windows 7 (with zero crapware) and shipped it for $1150. This machine plays Starcraft 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Team Fortress 2, Aion, and Planetside 2 (just released last week) with all of the graphics setting at "WOOHOO" with stellar framerates.

With regard to building a machine yourself from parts, it's primarily a matter of how skilled are you and how much is your time worth.
posted by DWRoelands at 10:28 AM on November 26, 2012

Pcpartpicker.com is a great resource, used it to find the best prices on the components I wanted. Build for sure! It's so easy. What I did: "built" my system on the Origin PC site to make sure everything was compatible. Plugged everything I wanted into pc part picker and bought and assembled myself. I made a top of the line comp that was ard 3k when I put it together on the Origin PC site, for about $1600. That was for something meant to also do intensive graphics work so I imagine you shd have no trouble making a decent gaming rig with your budget
posted by raw sugar at 10:28 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I recently got an excellent deal on a laptop that was on clearance because the store was moving out all the windows 7 machines. So that's something to consider right now...
posted by natteringnabob at 10:41 AM on November 26, 2012

Bit-tech's build guides are always very good, IMO.
posted by Strass at 10:46 AM on November 26, 2012

Best answer: PC Perspective's Hardware Leaderboard is another great resource for building your own PC, updated monthly with their recommended builds. Their low end gaming system is estimated at $502 this month.

Check the prebuilt system sellers... with specials/sales, you can get better deals prebuilt these days over building your own. CyberPowerPC and iBUYPOWER are two worth checking out.
posted by reptile at 11:05 AM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I hear good things about Reddit's /r/buildapc board. (Considering that they spend all their time maintaining up-to-date answers to this sort of questions, one would hope they'd have a good, informed opinion.)

I'd give their lists a shot.
posted by fifthrider at 11:30 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'll definitely get the most for your money by buying the components and assembling them yourself. That said, I'm not sure you can make a gaming computer to satisfy your requirements for "under $500." Since you specify wanting to be able to run games at the higher settings. You're probably going to have to either be satisfied with running at somewhat lower settings or increasing your budget.

It helps that the games you mention are a bit older.

And what websites should I be using to price things?

Figure out which components you want and then price them yourself by looking at the costs at a variety of retailers. Amazon is a good baseline. You'll find it cheaper elsewhere but it should give you a maximum price. Then check Newegg. And so on.
posted by Justinian at 11:43 AM on November 26, 2012

Oh and add dealzmodo to your RSS feed. They have a daily post where they list the best deals they can find (via deal websites, reddit, etc.) on hardware.
posted by griphus at 11:45 AM on November 26, 2012

My husband put together a pretty good system for about $250 (no harddrive, no monitor) a few years ago from components bought from Newegg.com - the recommendation for Newegg came from a computer scientist friend.

That said, this wasn't for gaming, so he didn't need a Windows license or a good video card, which would have cost a fair bit more - and putting together the components (I think he had to install the main processor on the heat sink, etc) was beyond my technical abilities.
posted by jb at 12:00 PM on November 26, 2012

I bought a PC from woot for <$400 that has served me well for a few years, running most games at high quality. Still runs all the most modern games. All I did was buy a better video card for it.
posted by empath at 12:05 PM on November 26, 2012

Yep; the problem is that a high end video card will be $400.
posted by Justinian at 12:11 PM on November 26, 2012

If you're going to build your own, definitely pick a decent GPU first (highly recommend nVidia currently as it would be able to handle PhysX without much hassle). Secondly is the motherboard (motherboard should be able to handle PCIe-16x and whatever processor you choose...AMD is generally cheaper although not as formidable as Intel's i5 and i7 currently.) RAM is cheap, and you'll be fine for most games with 4-8gb. Only pick out a RAM speed that equals your motherboard's bus speed (lower speeds are fine too if cheaper..but won't be much cheaper). The rest you can skimp on and usually make out ok....the GPU is really where the bulk of games run these days and can make all the difference on frame rates...CPU is normally for AI and other functions and will affect the rest of your PCs performance.

Your HDD should have a decent read rate...normally you're safe with a 7200 rpm. A small SSD with regular storage HDD is a huge boost to performance but would likely put you over the $500 budget.
posted by samsara at 12:15 PM on November 26, 2012

...normally you're safe with a 7200 rpm.

I would say that 7200 rpm should be your floor if you're going with an HD instead of an SSD/hybrid. Look into hybrids; they're a good middle ground between budget and performance for storage (although I'm not 100% how they'd work with gaming.)
posted by griphus at 12:21 PM on November 26, 2012

Yep; the problem is that a high end video card will be $400.

I think I paid like $150 for mine or something. You don't need to spend a ton of money on a card good enough to play most games at decent quality.
posted by empath at 12:25 PM on November 26, 2012

As a companion to the BuildAPC subreddit, r/buildapcsales collects per-component sales on an ongoing basis. The longer you have to collect, the cheaper your overall build will be.

You can reuse many components from older systems, like CD/DVD drives, hard drives, other peripheral cards, monitor/keyboard/mouse, and the case. If you don't have these things already, you can start collecting them off of Freecycle, Craigslist, etc.
posted by bookdragoness at 12:32 PM on November 26, 2012

Best answer: If you're up to it, building it yourself is the way to go. You'll save money and learn a lot about your PC in the process. I built my current desktop, and though I went into it with a ton of trepidation (what if I get a static discharge while I'm working on the motherboard? what if I insert a knock pins off the HD connectors? etc.), I used a static wrist strap, and asked a knowledgeable friend to watch as I worked. Everything went smooth as could be. For the price of a pizza, I saved probably hundreds of dollars. There are also tons of tutorials on YouTube; I found this guy's videos especially good.

When you're shopping for parts, watch Newegg (as jb mentioned), and if there's a Micro Center near you, check them out, too. I got some great deals there when I built mine, and they carry Computer Power User, a free magazine that reviews computer parts. Usually high-end stuff, but it's good to get a sense of what's out there.

As fifthrider mentioned, /r/buildapc is a pretty good source of build criticism. Not always totally helpful (too many "you idiot" or "just spend $500 more and it'll be much better"-type comments for my taste), but overall good. The Logical Increments part guide is especially good. Another good place to check is the Tom's Hardware forums. They give the same kinds of advice as /r/buildapc, but I've found the Tom's Hardware criticisms to be generally more constructive.

PCPartPicker.com, as raw sugar mentioned, can be very helpful to track prices and comparison shop. It can also be useful when you want to present potential builds to other people for inspection. As an example, here's the computer I built myself last year.
posted by jiawen at 12:40 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm always for building your own... saves a lot of money. If you're comfortable doing this it's the way to go.
Coincidentally Tom's Hardware had a $500 gaming PC build this summer during their System Builder Marathon:

posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:19 PM on November 26, 2012

I use Hardware-Revolution.com for advice about the best parts for my budget, then PCPartPicker.com to comparison shop, though I usually end up getting everything through Newegg.com anyway.
posted by platinum at 2:40 PM on November 26, 2012

Yep; the problem is that a high end video card will be $400.

I run a Radeon 6870 ($200ish now) and run most modern games- including all of the OP's- at high graphics. The key is your resolution. I run everything at 1680*1050, which isn't all that taxing for most modern $150 GPUs. It's running full graphics @ 1920*1080 that can still cause issues. Also consider that reducing Anti-Aliasing and Shadows from max to even medium tend to make a huge impact on FPS, with typically minimal prettiness-degradation.
posted by jmd82 at 3:58 PM on November 26, 2012

I built a computer last month knowing absolutely nothing other than newegg's excellent "how to build a computer" tutorials and the manual that came with my parts. The parts I chose were based loosely around a recommended gaming build (~1000$ CAD before shipping and taxes, including a legit copy of windows 7, i5 3570k processor, 128G SSD + 1TB HD, gtx 660ti video card, 8G ram, 750w power supply, etc). Runs awesomely.

It was much easier than I thought it'd be, as long as you make sure everything works together. It was also really fun to see how everything works together. Stressful (paranoid about breaking everything), but fun, and everything worked first try for me!

Suggestions from a noob:

-buy everything around the same "level" of crappy-mediocre-good because otherwise the good parts' performance is held back by the bad parts and you waste your money. This makes choosing parts tricky since changing one part often means you should change others.

-get a knowledgeable friend to glance at your parts before you buy, unless you go with a suggested parts lists from somewhere, since they need to work together properly

-read tutorials online, there are a ton of them in both text and video form! forums too, for specific questions.

-I'm really not sure you can build a computer for 500$ that will play starcraft2 with any decent settings (not sure about the other games), unless you can cannibalize some parts from an older desktop. I'd suspect that if you go up even to 7-800$ it might make a big difference.
posted by randomnity at 4:14 PM on November 26, 2012

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