How to assemble a gaming PC on a budget
Before the Internet, building a PC for gaming or otherwise was a much harder task than it is today. My father and I would buy “Porta Portese” – an Italian ad-centred newspaper – and check the prices of components in the ads of local hardware stores. CPU is a bit cheaper here, RAM was on sale there – we’d then pick an afternoon to go around all those shops, and would usually spend the evening assembling it.
Nowadays everything is much simpler: the cost of a decent PC is a significantly lower percentage of the average salary than it was 20 years ago, assembling no longer requires you to read the motherboard’s manual to physically set the jumpers to match your CPU model and there are plenty of websites to compare the prices of hardware across your entire country – you make a list, you order everything online and off you go. IO shields are just as sharp and prone to cut your hands as they were before though.
This article will not include a screen in its budget, nor other I/O peripherals: in fact, these devices are physically and conceptually outside the PC itself. Their choice varies significantly on too many factors to cover here.
Hardware and vendors have changed over the years. Still, the relative importance and cost of devices have not since dedicated GPUs became mainstream, with the notable exceptions of SSDs, that are now only 3.5/4 times more expensive than traditional hard drives and roughly 24 times as fast – having a moderately sized one for your OS disk is a no-brainer. What follows is a list of the critical components of a gaming PC that will fit within the £1.000 budget, as of July 2020.
Your GPU will still be the most expensive component on your PC, and for a good reason. With very few exceptions, the majority of modern games are GPU-bound rather than CPU-bound. This means that, when it comes to increasing performance, a pound spent on GPU will produce better results than a pound spent on CPU or RAM. While many CPU manufacturers include an integrated graphics chip in the processor, this will only really work for basic games. For a computer to be worthy of the title of “Gaming PC”, it requires its own dedicated card.
And when it comes to discrete GPUs, the war is still between the two long-term competitors – Nvidia and AMD. Both have their pros and cons, but at this price point, the differences are not really all that significant. Sure, Nvidia’s RTX line supports real-time ray-tracing (for the few titles that support it) and Dynamic Foveated rendering for VR applications among the rest. Still, the few headsets that support this feature today require much more powerful hardware than the one that can fit inside a £1.000 PC. AMD’s RX 5600 XT or Nvidia’s RTX 2060 are both solid choices.
On the CPU side, AMD’s dominance in this bracket is still unparalleled: the Ryzen 5’s family have a single-core performance that is only slightly inferior to Intel CPUs that are much higher in the price range, making a choice extremely simple. A Ryzen 5 3600, either “flat” or in its unlocked, slightly more expensive version (for those of you comfortable with the thought of overclocking it), will fit the bill perfectly.
It is worth pointing out that overclocking has also gotten much simpler over the years: it used to require playing around with the motherboards jumpers. It entailed a much higher risk to your chip’s integrity. Still, today it is possible to attempt it directly from the BIOS. It is comparatively difficult to fry your CPU thanks to the safeties that modern processors have in place against excessive overvolting. I will not go in the details of doing so, as this far exceeds the scope of this article.
Your choice of CPU will influence your choice of Motherboard - in this case, one with the AMD X570 socket; you won’t require much more than the entry level:
This is all you realistically need, with the more expensive versions adding minor quality-of-life
improvements such as integrated WiFi, more beautiful internals (for those fancy windowed cases) and coloured LED lights.
Any MSI, ASRock or ASUS models compatible with your processor will do fine.
The Ryzen 5 3600 CPU comes with a stock cooler. You don’t have to get another one (unless you wish to overclock it). Still, a good aftermarket model will improve airflow and potentially make your setup last longer. Below the £1.000 mark, there is not much spare cash to splash on water-cooled solutions, so a fan-based cooler around £50 is an excellent place to start. Unlike other components, the choice of make and model is much more varied, so I will not name any names. Just browse your favourite retailer for this price range and pick one that is compatible with your aesthetical tastes.
Moving on, more and more games require significant amounts of RAM; as such, even for a relatively “budget” build, 16GB are recommended. DDR4 comes in different clock speeds, and 3200 Mhz is a reasonable sweet spot for price/performance; 16 GB kits can be had around £75.
Random Access Memory (the technically correct name of your memory) can also be overclocked, just your CPU (and GPU); however, the advantages of doing so are often minimal and usually not worth exploring.
There is little reason for not having an M.2 solid-state drive in your build; the mSATA interface overcomes the bottleneck that traditional SATA presented for classic SSDs, and most motherboards on the market nowadays have one. 512 GB is a pretty decent size for a PC in this bracket and can be had for around £85.
It is also a good idea to have a standard disk-based hard drive for mass-storage; those come in 1, 2 or 4 Terabytes versions and start as cheap as £35, with the pound/GB ratio only getting increasingly less expensive the bigger the disc gets.
Moving on, if there is one component where it is not worth to save pennies, that has to be the Power Supply Unit (PSU); should someone be unfortunate enough to buy a premade PC, he or she will quickly realize that this is the first place where the retailer tries to improve its margins. It is not uncommon to find unbranded, dodgy-looking, non-certified units that barely hold together under current load and leave little to no room for upgrading.
One thing to keep in mind is that the Wattage listed on a PSU unit is the maximum amount of energy said the unit will draw from the wall socket; the actual amount of energy transferred to the computer will vary depending on the quality of the device. A good PSU will not provide less than 80% of its theoretical maximum, hence the introduction of the *80 Plus Power Supply Rating System*. Your unit must be able not only to supply enough energy to your PC to run, but it should also have enough breathing room for potential future upgrades: more hard drives, more RAM or a faster GPU, as well as additional USB devices, have the potential to increase the overall power consumption of your PC, so plan ahead.
As for what level of 80-Plus rating to choose, most of the time the lower level is more than enough; the energy savings will seldom justify the extra cost unless you plan of keeping your machine turned on most of the time.
Finally, we need to talk about the computer case. Although the initial choice may be mostly about pleasing your aesthetic sense, a large case with a good number of fans mounted on it will improve the airflow of your PC, lowering the temperature and decreasing noise. A case with enough room and hooks for cable management will contribute to an orderly airflow as well as making the entire build more pleasing to the eye. It is very difficult to recommend a range or brand in particular not only because of the sheer amount of models but also due to how subjective a choice this is. Do you prefer a minimalist, less-is-more black or grey case? Suit yourself. Are you more partial to a shiny aluminium frame? Lian-Li is right over there. Do you want your computer to glow in a kaleidoscope of alternating colours? Most brands provide plenty of entropy-increasing variants full of RGB LEDs.
As I said there’s plenty to choose from – but if I was to toss around a few names, those would be Cooler Master, Antec and NZXT, all of which have at some point or another graced my household with their beautiful lines.
After all your boxes have made its way to your household, it will be time to finally assemble your PC. I will not write about the build process, as doing so would probably deserve its own article. I will just mention that doing so is much easier than you can possibly think and that there are many guides on the subject on video websites. In fact, most of the time, all you will need is a couple of screwdrivers (flat/cross-shaped) and perhaps zip ties to keep the cables together where needed. Just don’t watch The Verge’s one!