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The Digital Foundry 2015 budget gaming PC guide

It’s a busy week ahead for Digital Foundry, so unfortunately there was no time available to produce a new article for our Sunday slot. Instead, we’re re-publishing our budget PC construction guide. Six months on, the Core i3/GTX 750 Ti combo continues to hand in a worthy PC gaming experience for not much money. We’ve also recently reviewed the new Skylake Core i3 – prices are a little high there right now, but the piece has some interesting observations about how to get more performance out of a budget processor – including the Haswell Core i3 featured in this piece. Expect to see more from this budget build in our upcoming articles.

Building a capable gaming PC has never been easier – or indeed cheaper. There’s a multitude of options of available, but we went into our own budget gaming build project with one objective in mind: to run the latest games well and to attempt to match the overall experience offered by the current generation of consoles. Could we match or even exceed PlayStation 4 performance with a computer constructed for a mere £300/$400?

Obviously we’d be looking to extract the maximum amount of performance from a minimal financial outlay, and here’s where things get a little complicated: prices at the bottom end of the PC spectrum fluctuate quite widely, so by the time you read this, the parts we’ve chosen may be more expensive, or they may be cheaper. Take for example one of our chosen components – Intel’s entry-level overclocking monster – the Pentium G3258 – cost us £45 when we bought it. These days it’s anything from £50-£60. While we generally buy from Amazon (for the excellent returns service – more useful than you might think when building your own PC), we recommend that you shop around for the best prices, and refer to your favourite bargains website for best value – HotUKDeals.com is a good shout for British readers.

Below you’ll find our list of components used in the creation of our budget gaming PC. All that’s missing is an operating system. We’ll leave this particular element of the system up to you, but if you’re particularly low on funds, the current Windows 10 preview is free to use and in our experience works just fine for gaming with only minor compatibility issues (bear in mind that it is beta code). Windows 7 licenses are a good option and can be sourced relatively cheaply, and let’s not forget that Microsoft is pledging to allow any and all users of Windows 7 or 8 to upgrade to its next OS free of charge. Even those who haven’t activated their existing OS get the new operating system for free during the first year of its release.

At the time of writing, buying our chosen components exclusively from Amazon would see the entire parts list weigh in at around £320 for a system based on the Pentium G3258, and £355 for the i3 system. We reckon that with a bit of shopping around, plus some daily scanning of the bargain forums, you could save perhaps £20 on the motherboard, graphics card and RAM.

Order our budget PC components from Amazon with free shipping:

The beauty of building a PC is that you get to choose your own parts, and doubtless many of you have your own selections in mind – so let’s put some context behind our list of components. While we sounded a note of caution about the Pentium G3258 in our review, the PC hardware sites continue to recommend it highly, and for just £53 we were curious to see just how close it would come to our goal – particularly as it typically overclocks to a minimum of 4.2GHz, without the need for a custom cooling solution. In case the cheapo Pentium fell short as we suspected it might, we had our own Core i3 4130 to hand – though if you’re building a new PC now, the i3 4150 is actually cheaper and 100MHz faster. Moving up from the Pentium to the i3 adds around £30 to the cost of the system, so comparisons there are going to be very interesting.

The graphics hardware chosen may seem controversial – Nvidia’s GTX 750 Ti is much slower on paper than AMD’s Radeon R9 270X and R9 285, both of which are available for not much more money, in the UK atleast. Unfortunately, AMD’s DirectX 11 driver is inefficient compared to Nvidia’s, meaning poor performance in CPU-heavy titles resulting in lower frame-rates and off-putting stutter when the processor is under load. We simply can’t recommend an AMD card at this time in scenarios where CPU power is limited. Our tests with Call of Duty Advanced Warfare and The Crew are revelatory – though it’s a different story if you have the funds for a full quad-core i5 processor, where AMD suddenly looks a lot more compelling, particularly the Radeon R9 280 [?] with its 3GB of VRAM, selling for just £139.

There are few surprises elsewhere in the build. MSI’s H81M-P33 is a really basic board, but it has surprisingly robust overclocking capabilities, including a lot of features seemingly imported from the firm’s excellent Z97 boards. The Gigabyte all-in-one case offers a decent quality chassis, reasonable keyboard and mouse plus a 400W power supply. As this system won’t break a 160W peak load, the relatively meek PSU should work fine – the GTX 750 Ti doesn’t even require additional power, though the power supply does offer a six-pin PCI Express power cable. In terms of RAM – just get the cheapest branded modules available, whether it’s 1333MHz, 1600MHz or beyond. What’s important when it comes to memory is the amount of it: you absolutely need 8GB to run recent games well these days – 4GB simply won’t cut it.