"Why didn't you tell me about this sooner?"
It's a question I've heard with increasing frequency the past few years, uttered by friends who've finally dipped their toes into PC gaming, discovering what it has to offer them. Before taking the plunge, they had been wary, citing the prohibitive cost and overly complex nature of PC gaming.
So what changed?
PC gaming did. It matured. Now, you can build a PC for $500-$700 that will play anything you want from the comfort of your own couch. Not only that, but building and maintaining a computer is cheaper and easier than ever. Anyone can get into it without having to invest a significant portion of their time and money to do so.
There's no reason to worry about frequent upgrades or crazy driver hassles, now that the pace has softened.
While building a computer may seem intimidating, don't worry: it's actually a lot like Legos! The instructions are clear (and tutorials on building a PC can be found all over the internet) and almost always in picture form, parts are deliberately made to prevent people from, say, jamming their RAM into their PCIe slot, and the hardware itself is generally well made.
Plus, there's nothing quite like the satisfaction that comes with building your own computer.
What follows is my recommended build, and it comes in well below the $700 limit. Of course, you're more than welcome to adjust things as you see fit-this should be able to run your games at a butter-smooth 60 frames per second at 1080p resolution on moderate settings, but don't expect to try anything crazy, like ubersampling. Just bear in mind that your parts need to work together. If you're having difficulty selecting parts, PC Part Picker is a great tool that should help you on your way.
- Case: If a computer is like a brain, the case is the head that houses it all. Because we're trying to build a small, TV-friendly PC, you might consider Fractal Design's minimalistic Node 304 Mini ITX case ($90). There are plenty of cheaper Mini ITX cases out there, but Fractal Design's build quality, noise minimization, and cooling qualities are excellent.
- CPU: You know the part of your brain that does the whole ‘conscious thought' process? That's a CPU, which comes in two main brands, AMD or Intel. AMD processors tend to be less expensive, so we're picking the AMD A8-3870K, a solid 3 GHZ processor that, at $90, won't break the bank.
- Motherboard: Functioning like your nervous system, the motherboard is the bit all the other bits plug into so they can communicate. Since the processor's an AMD that uses an F1 socket, and the case is designed for the Mini ITX form factor, you'll need a compatible motherboard. ASRock's A75M-ITX is a highly-rated mobo, it's fairly inexpensive, too ($90).
- Graphics Card: Taking on the visual processing duties is the graphics card, which interprets the data it's given to create coherent images. Sapphire's take on AMD's Radeon HD 7770 ($100) won't be running games at 4K resolution, but it won't have a hard time running most games at pleasing settings in 1080p either.
- Hard Drive: Without long-term memory, we'd be like Drew Barrymore in that movie where she forgot stuff all the time. A hard drive is the device that stores a computer's data. For our purposes, a 7200 RPM drive is fine. For this build, we're running with a simple 500 GB Seagate drive ($60).
- Memory: If a hard-drive is long-term memory, then RAM, or memory, is a computer's short-term memory. Data is taken from the slower long-term memory and streamed to the short term memory, which is where the CPU processes the data it's been given. Many people have been recommending picking up Samsung's new 30nm RAM, and it's not hard to see why. It's fast, inexpensive ($25 for 4GB), and draws less power than standard memory.
- Power Supply: Without a power supply, your computer won't run, so it should go without saying that you'll want to pick a good one. In my experience, power supply issues have accounted for nearly all computer-related mishaps, so it's a good idea to pick a supply from a trusted brand. My personal favorite is Corsair, and at $70, you can't really go wrong with their CX 600 series.
That's a $525 machine right there—cheaper than the PS3 was at launch. For a limited gaming experience, you can transfer Ubuntu to a USB drive, install it, set up Steam, and be on your way... but like most people, you'll probably want Windows. If that's the case, you'd do well to pick up the 64-bit OEM version of Windows 7 ($90). Steer clear of Windows 8, which has compatibility issues with some games.
If you don't feel comfortable ripping a disc of Windows on an ISO, or you just want an optical drive in your machine, try either this ASUS DVD Burner ($20) or this LG Blu-Ray disc drive ($50). UPDATE: Even with the addition of Windows, we're looking at a $615 machine! Because you can't fit a disc drive in the case, you'll have to install Windows via a USB drive, which is super easy. Microsoft even has a tool to assist you. If you don't feel comfortable with that, you can use an external USB DVD drive.
There are no Xbox Live or Playstation Plus fees to worry about, free games and mods open up a world of opportunities, and, of course, massive sales from retailers like Amazon, GreenManGaming, GoG.com, and Steam. At the time of writing, the Tomb Raider reboot is selling on GreenManGaming for $45, with a further $15 in credit. That's already $15 less than console prices, with a further $15 to spend on other games. Bioshock Infinite also has a $15 credit! Why spend $60 when you could spend so much less?
I often buy games on release, but regularly save about $25 a game over console prices. That means that after just a handful of release date purchases, I'll have saved more money by choosing to play on the PC rather than consoles.
Should you want to build an absolute beast of a machine, you're more than welcome to: check out NeoGAF's 2013 "I Need A New PC!" thread if you really want to get into the nitty-gritty. If you do feel like you want a lot beefier computer, pick up an Intel processor, like the i5-3570k and a compatible motherboard. Consider switching video card manufacturers too-Nvidia's got generally faster cards, better driver support, and the addition of Physx enhancements. When it comes to cases, you can't go wrong with Fractal Design-I'm personally using an XL, but my plan is to pick up a Node 605 at some point in the future, stick my current PC's parts in it, and use my XL to house a new Intel/Nvidia machine for gaming.
The Software and Accessories
After building your PC, you're going to want to install all the basic software on it-the initial drivers, programs like Steam, and so on and so forth. If you're interested in being able to use it like a media center as well as a game's machine, you'll want to install XBMC. Additionally, you might want to use a controller, a remote, or use some other accessory. If that's the case, let's cover some basics.
Whenever I do a system rebuild (because it's fun!), the first place I go after installing my OS is FileHippo. It's a fantastic repository for the latest releases of various bits of important software, from things like Adobe Reader to K-Lite's video codec pack.
For software, I'd recommend picking up:
- Google Chrome: Yeah, your mileage may vary. Pick whatever browser you feel comfortable with-even if that means Netscape.
- LibreOffice: Sure, you can spend money on Office, or you can pick up the excellent open source alternative. I own Office, but I barely use it anymore-LibreOffice is great!
- Avast!: Debates about antivirus software are often as heated as debates about choice of browsers. It's worth noting that Avast won't deal with spyware; for that, you'll want something like SuperAntiSpyware. You should have spyware and malware defense on any computer you own. If you don't, please do so now.
- CCleaner: Want to get rid of the random clutter your computer accumulates? Few programs do it better than CCleaner. It also has other tools dealing with things like registry cleaning and software uninstallation. CCleaner's developer, Piriform, also has a defragmentation tool, Defraggler, which I enjoy using.
- Peazip: A relatively recent discovery of mine, Peazip is a great alternative to compression software like WinRAR or 7zip. If you plan on opening zip and rar files, it's worth checking out.
- K-Lite Mega Codec Pack: Do you want to watch movie files on your computer? Most operating systems, whether they're Windows or Mac, come with the drivers to play their kind of video files, but not everyone uses those formats, which is where codec packs come in. If you want to make sure you don't run into video compatibility issues, you're going to want some good codecs and a nice video player. K-Lite Mega Codec Pack includes both. Just make sure you install everything + Media Player Classic when you're setting it up.
- XBMC: It's the best media center software out there, and, like everything else here, it's free. Even if you aren't planning to use your computer as a media center, Lifehacker's article on XBMC is well worth checking out.
- Steam: If you are going to play video games on the PC, you will want Steam. It is the platform that sets the golden standard for PC gaming, and it offers the kind of infrastructure people have come to expect from services like Xbox Live, but with no cost, enhanced social features, a screenshot function, cloud saving, and a myriad of other benefits. For our purposes, Steam is particularly useful because of Big Picture Mode, which allows gamers to navigate their game libraries with a controller, rather than a mouse and keyboard.
When it comes to hardware, you've got a myriad of options-far more than I could even begin to explain. Let's look at a few that will help you have an enjoyable gaming experience.
- Microsoft's near-flawless entry into the controller field has become the de facto standard for people who want to play with a controller, which comes in both wireless and wired flavors. If you pick up the wireless controller, don't forget good batteries! I've recently been informed that rechargeable AA batteries are superior to Microsoft's battery packs. If your heart is set on another kind of controller, there are ways, through software like MotionInJoy, to use a DualShock 3 on the PC as well.
- There are far more PC remote options out there than you can shake a stick at, so it's great that Lifehacker has provided an excellent writeup on the subject.
- If you still find yourself wanting to, say, surf the internet on your computer, or play a real-time strategy game, there are numerous mouse and keyboard combinations for you to select from. Personally, I'm eyeing Logitech's K400, a thin, light, wireless keyboard which includes a laptop-like touch pad, allowing users to forgo the need for a mouse.
So, what now?
PC gaming comes in practically innumerable shapes in forms. It has something for everyone. If you want it to be convenient, it can be. If you want it to be inexpensive, it can be. You will never find a more versatile, flexible, capable way to game. It's precisely because of that flexibility that PC gaming is the hobby I'm most passionate about. I've had so many great experiences with it. I've learned a great deal about myself.
You don't have to jump into the deep end.
If you give PC gaming a go, though, I know you'll be rewarded. Over the past few years, everyone I know who has picked up PC gaming has had an absolute blast with it, discovering new games and new experiences. Their horizons have been broadened, their enjoyment of gaming has increased, and their wallets aren't quite so empty these days.
So go ahead, give it a try.
You might discover a new passion, and what's cooler than that?
GB Burford's childhood discovery that he could modify Microsoft Flight Simulator to allow behaviors the programmers hadn't intended spawned a life-long fascination with video games and their development. Now, he writes about video games and occasionally dabbles with making his own. His Twitter handle is @ForgetAmnesia.