A Guide To Building A Mid-Range Gaming PC
Buying a PC can be a tough decision, as there are vast chasms of pixelated differences between a R5,000 gaming machine and a R10,000 gaming machine. There’s also a definitive eye-popping difference between a R10,000 and R20,000 gaming machine. What is important to realise is that the movement upwards in price brackets nets you a smaller percentage increase in performance.
For example, a R7,000 build could be around 30 percent slower in games than a R10,000 build. Consequently a R12,000 build will be about 15 % slower than a R15,000 build–and so on. These percentages are pulled out of a “sun-don’t-shine kind of place”, but in a V for Vendetta inspired moment, I’m using lies to tell you the truth of diminishing returns.
The mid-range is probably the best place for a gamer to spend cash, because the mid-range satisfies what I have cheesily called the “Three P’s Model”: Purpose, Price and Performance. Each segment, from the low budget gaming PC to the ultra high “cost as much as a car” PC, offers variations within this Three P model, often favouring one aspect to the detriment of another.
For example, a budget orientated PC offers a palatable price tag, but it’s Purpose (to be a gaming PC) and Performance (its ability to be a Gaming PC) will suffer in the long run. Similarly an ultra high end PC can break the bank but allow you to frag/loot/teabag in graphical nirvana until you deplete your small cache of stale bread and water. This is why the mid-range is king; it gracefully balances out the Three P’s for the most effective compromises between them.
A balanced PC offers the most bang-for-buck performance while still being flexible enough to ensure some degree of upgradeability, to keep up with future developments. After doing some research I’ve decided that the budget for a mid-range PC falls between R10,000 and R12,000.
This verbose wordsmithery is an attempt to offer guidance and possible refinements to be made in your choice of gaming mistress. Hopefully–beyond it being purely a pc build guide–I can offer some degree of introspection which nudges you to spend more wisely on hardware, and if possible help you save some cash.
Choosing Your Motherboard & CPU
The combination of motherboard and CPU is the first stepping stone to building your PC. In this generation of hardware from Intel, and to a lesser degree AMD, there is a wide variety of choice for a mid-range PC. To initially help narrow down your choices of CPU and motherboard ask yourself: do you envision yourself overclocking your CPU? This basic question will send ripples through your final build, affecting your choice of CPU, motherboard, ram, cooling and PSU.
In case you didn’t know, Intel has quite deviously “monetised” the overclocking scene by offering two of effectively similar chips in their higher end segment: one that can overclock like a bat out of hell, and one that has its overclocking spark physically snuffed out. Therefore, if you have an overclocking itch, you can buy the pricey, high-end Ivy-bridge CPU–like the 3570k and 3770k. However, bear in mind you will also need a pricey overclocking motherboard, such as the P67, Z78 and Z77 chipset.
I would implore you to invest in an overclocking capable setup though; as in this generation of hardware it is dead easy, with most motherboard manufacturers even coming out with automatic overclocking options built in. Also, overclocking will allow you to stretch out the longevity of your system as the years roll-on by.
However, if you don’t succumb to the allure of overclocking, don’t feel ashamed. Intel’s neutering the overclocking balls off their mid- to high-range does not mean these chips are slouches. The emasculated 3570 and 3770 chips are still great to invest in.
AMD fans will notice that I have not cared to mention any AMD based system for the mid range, and this is purely because AMD’s top-of-the-range chip, the FX 8350, even when overclocked close to 5ghz, is still is not faster for gaming than Intel’s neutered 3570 running at a stock speed of 3.4ghz. The fact that the FX 8350 is more expensive than the 3570 also does it no favours winning the bang-for-buck award. So I cannot, out of good conscience backed by hard numbers, recommend a high-end AMD system over Intel’s mid-range for gaming.
Beyond deciding if you want an overclocking or non-overclocking board from Intel, an equally important aspect is the size or form factor of your future motherboard. Within the popular mid-range segment you get Micro-ATX and standard ATX of the overclocking and non-overclocking variety. Each form factor holds a different allure to satisfy different segments of the gamer market. The ATX is the de-facto mid-range motherboard as it has ample real-estate and functions to satisfy any gamer’s needs. Multiple add-in cards (WiFi card, sound card, dual graphics cards etc) can easily fit on the board along with at least eight Sata ports for hard drives. M-ATX is the middle child of the motherboard family. Most M-ATX boards are most often toned down smaller clones of their ATX counterparts and, more often than not, the only differentiating compromises amount to having less sata ports or extra PCI express slots.
Each form factor has its strengths and limitations, and the lower down you go in form factors the more limited you will be in upgrading certain components in the future. Although if you stick to a certain design, say a Micro-ATX based build, because you decided you will never have many internal hard drives or have more than one graphics card, then your choice is sound. Furthermore it makes more sense than spending more on an ATX board and never making use of the extra options it affords. A lack of critical introspection will either mean spending unnecessarily more money on the CPU and motherboard, or it could lead to cursing your past-self for buying your present-self into a corner.
RAM And Hard Drive
With RAM I would offer the common rule of thumb: more RAM running at average speeds is better than having less RAM running at faster speeds. The recommended performance sweet-spot for RAM in an Ivy-Bridge mid-range system is two 4GB kits running at 1600 Mhz. An important piece of advice when buying RAM is to always check whether the vendor is compatible with the motherboard, and if the RAM voltage is correctly specified for the motherboard.
Hard drives are quite important to a gaming computer. Without it where would our Steam folder go? It is also quite ironically the most “boring” part of the computer, bar the DVD-drive. Hard drives, then, are also overlooked by gamers as they bear little impact on gaming performance. This is true to a degree. They don’t alter in any way the FPS or image quality of a game but what they do affect is the general game and PC experiences like load times and install times. It is true that the mechanical drives in a PC are the biggest bottleneck of a modern computer. I can confidently say once you remove that bottleneck by replacing the dinosaur of a mechanical drive with a state-of-the-art Solid State Drive (SSD), your gaming and computer experience will be vastly change. Over the years, SSD’s have come down a lot in price, with some impressive 120GB drives hovering at just above the R1,000 mark. A simple strategy, though, is to use a 1-terabyte mechanical drive as a storage drive and have a 120GB SSD as your Windows and game drive.
The Graphics Card
The graphics card is really the heart and soul of a gaming computer. You can skimp out on the motherboard, and even the CPU to a degree, but never, if gaming is your one and only, skimp out on the graphics card. This slice of polygon pushing silicon is the one item that will make or break your PC as it gets older. Thankfully, we have duopoly in the gaming graphics card market, and because competition is rife, gamers can get ridiculous gaming grunt if they spend smartly and avoid being fanboys.
The pricing goal posts for mid-range graphics cards are between R2,400 and R3,600, where AMD has launched a great cards in this segment. AMD has really stepped up their efforts of wining-and-dining the gaming crowd to ensure that gamers get the “happy ending” they desire; a copulation of a cheap potent hardware with the resultant explosion of gaming goodness.
The mid-range melee would usually be a brawl between the green team’s nippy 660ti and the 660, where the red corner would have the 7870 and 7850. In recent times AMD has shifted the mid-range goal posts away from Nvidia, who has been left fumbling the competitive ball. You are able to get a 7950 at R3,199, a 7870 at R2,549 and a 7850 for R2,059. Consequently, and due to the price of the 7950, the equally performing 670 gtx has been priced out of relevance for a mid range PC. The 7950 is a high end card, but at this price it is firmly placed to go head to head with the mid-range 660ti. Picture, if you will, a baby green seal and a red shark in a small pool. It’s an unmitigated bloodbath.
Further gutting up the Nvidia mid-range is the extremely capable 7870. At this cool price it is now the direct competitor to the 660 and it simply steam rolls over it. Just to extend your already overstretched jaw even further, thanks to AMD’s Never Settle Game Bundle, you will also get at least two game download codes with purchases of their cards. And not games that have faded from memory either; recently released and unreleased AAA titles like Far Cry 3, BioShock Infinite, Crysis 3 and Tomb Raider. Nvidia has tried similar tactics to beef up their offering, but instead of offering AAA games, they offer in game credit to spend in free-to-play titles such as World of Tanks, Hawken and Planetside 2. It is admirable, but ultimately a lacklustre attempt at offering competing value.
This next piece of guidance is probably the most important. This single item is the most future proofing item you can get for your PC, and it can help you through multiple upgrades and systems over your gaming years. Most gamers overlook the PSU because they see it as an extra expense that has no impact on gaming performance, so gamers usually run out and get the first PSU they lay their eyes upon.
I’m not going to go into an overly technical diatribe on determining which PSU to get, but a good place to get you started is with a simple perusal on the internet, or on the packaging in the store, for a rating from the 80Plus® brand. This is a sure fire way to ensure it’s a good quality unit. Also, don’t let the supposed wattage nomenclature of the unit fool you as well. There is a popular proverb you can remember when buying power supplies: “Spend cheap, buy twice. Spend smart, buy once”.
Devious PSU manufacturers like Gigabyte and their Superb 720W units often proclaim their units in terms of peak wattage and not actual maximum wattage. Units that run at their peak wattage are like an unstable terrorist with your PC parts as hostages; sooner or later it will snap and will take as many parts as possible down with it.
In the gaming segment I strongly recommend going for quality units like the TX/HX or lower-range GS Corsairs, the Antec HCG range or Thermaltake Toughpower units. This is also not to say go out and buy the most expensive Kusile shaming Kilowatt unit. For the average gamer, the adage less is more applies quite well. The sweet spot for powering a modern day, mid-range system is around 550W – 650W. The watts needed to power the CPU and GPU keeps going down every generation, so a decent 650W model is likely to remain the sweet spot for some time to come.
The choice of case is a subjective purchase that will vary between people. It is also a piece of hardware that can last you through many incremental upgrades or total system changes, so choose wisely. The culmination of your PC’s prowess will often rely on the careful selection of your case and the features your case provides. If you want to dabble with overclocking, then a bigger case with good airflow is essential to keep temperatures in check. If you would prefer to have a quiet system, then invest in a case with noise absorbing foam or larger and thus more silent fans. If you have or plan to have many internal hard drives, then a case with enough space for this is essential. If you are a LAN-fanatic, a light weight case or a case with a sturdy handle is essential.
In the end, a case decision is something that’s fluid; you might initially build a system around your case or you might choose a case based around your system. In either case, one piece of advice always applies: make sure everything can fit, including your PSU and graphics card. Some great cases can be found in the R800 to R1,400 range, where I would heartily recommend cases like the Corsair 400R or 500R, Coolermaster Scout 2, CM690II or the Bitfenix Raider and Bitfenix Shinobi.
What Do We Get When We Put It All Together?
A rig that can offer 30+ FPS in DirectX 11, 1080p gaming goodness with a few taxing image quality settings like 4x Anti Aliasing on High to Ultra settings in recent titles such as Far Cry 3.
If you asked me which parts would I personally choose for you, well then.
- Processor: Intel 3570K 3.4Ghz — R2,476
- Motherboard: ASRock Z 77 Extreme4 — R1,697
- Graphics Card: Powercolour Radeon HD 7950 — R3,199 or 7870 for R2,549
- RAM: Corsair Vengeance DDR3 1600 — R650
- HDD: Seagate Barracuda 1TB — R788
- SSD: OCZ Vertex 3 120GB — R1,099
- PSU: Corsair TX 650 V2 — R1,213
- Case: Corsair Carbide 400R — R929 or Bitfenix Raider for R993
- Total: R11,401 – R12,115