Introduction

The last time that we looked at requirements for a modern gaming PC was just after the launch of Doom 3. Several months later, not a whole lot has changed other than prices. One thing that has changed is that Half-Life 2 has now been released on the world. Unlike Doom 3, Half-Life 2 uses Direct3D for graphics, so it is less likely to strongly favor NVIDIA cards. We'll get into that more in a bit. Suffice it to say that one of the most common comments on our Guides is that the systems spend either too much or too little on gaming components. Therefore, we felt that it was time to dedicate a Guide solely to the topic of gaming. While these systems are certainly capable of handling most other tasks quite well, we are not going to be dwelling on that. After all, there are few applications that are as demanding of a modern PC as games.

The format is going to change slightly, as many of the components that we use are discussed further in our other Guides. Rather than rehashing details of each and every component that we choose, we are going to list a complete configuration for several budgets with comments on what is good and bad, as well as what sort of performance level can be expected in today's games. We will be targeting Budget, Mid-Range, and High-End Gaming, although you may find that the final price for each category is slightly higher than in the non-gaming Guides. For Budget, we're shooting for around $750 to $1000 for a complete system, shipped within the continental United States. We are not including the price of the Operating System, taxes or the time it costs to put the system together. Our Mid-Range target price is $1500, and the High-End will be somewhere between $2000 and $3000 (depending on whether or not you want to use all of the high-end components). Modifying the builds in order to reduce the price is certainly possible, particularly on the Mid-Range and High-End systems. We will also offer suggestions for upgrades on our component summary page.

Before we get to the actual recommendations, we want to get one thing out of the way. Anyone who follows the gaming scene should know already that AMD's Athlon 64 systems outperform Intel systems in virtually every recent title. Our primary systems for each category will, thus, end up with AMD processors, but we will also include a couple of alternatives to spice things up a bit. Since we are looking at hardware that is immediately available for order, there are certain parts that we might like to recommend which are simply not available yet, and we will do our best to mention these where applicable.

Student Gaming
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  • spartacvs - Wednesday, January 05, 2005 - link

    I decided to wait and I'll most probably go for nforce4. One thing I reallly like about your guide is the fact that there is many budgets. Most of the guides provides 3 systems (budget, price/performance and power) but more systems is really helpfull. Reply
  • Careless Joe - Tuesday, January 04, 2005 - link

    RE: the "Cheap" psu in the budget case. Its a re-badged fortron. Very reliable. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, December 04, 2004 - link

    Just FYI, I recently upgraded from the integrated audio on my MSI K8N Neo Platinum to an Audigy 2 ZS. My benchmarks in Half-Life 2 (using a measley 9800 Pro) went up a whopping 1 FPS. It might matter more with a faster GPU, but for my setup the sound card didn't matter much. It did, however, eliminate some static/noise from the audio. I couldn't hear it on the speakers, but on headphones it was very noticeable.

    Was it worth $75? That depends on how much disposable income you have and how annoying any extra static is. Since I often use headphones on my PC at night (no need to wake the wife and neighbors), it was annoying enough for me that I went and spent the money. For most people - particularly those using moderate to cheap speakers - you probably wouldn't notice.
    Reply
  • SDA - Saturday, December 04, 2004 - link

    Jarred, very true.. I've seen people defend PowerStream purchases after being told that they're the same as Tagans (which I don't do, by the way; I hate to even implicitly insult something that someone else owns) by saying that OCZ is a good name and is better-recognized, as if that really has anything to do with PSU performance. If you ask me, I don't think that sort of thing should really be factored into recommendations.. if someone wants to pay more for a brand name (when it has been demonstrated that there's no functional advantage), they're probably in the minority. (If someone wants to pay more for the PowerStream's looks, they need 20ccs of taste, stat. .. kidding, PowerStream owners ;)

    Oh, and spartacvs, just remember that integrated audio (non-SoundStorm integrated audio, anyway) will eat more CPU than a dedicated sound card will. It's not much of a big deal with today's overpowered PCs, if you ask me, and you still get plenty of bang for your buck (infinite bang for your buck, actually, since integrated audio is free).
    Reply
  • spartacvs - Friday, December 03, 2004 - link

    JarredWalton, yes, I think I understand your argument: AGPat the end of his life and PCIe is comming in.
    I had bad information about integrated audio. Integrated audio is not fantastic but I'm sure it'll be a majhor improvment over my old sb live!value 4.1... And, as I said, it's a way to save a few dollars. Something I, unfortunately, have to be very cautious these days :(

    Thank you very much for your wise comments.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 03, 2004 - link

    SDA - I understand that the internals are the same. For some people, however, the outside (and the brand) will matter. It doesn't bother me much, but convincing others of this is more difficult to do. I always prefer the weight test for PSUs (assuming you're at a store where you can pick up the PSU). All things being apparently equal, always go with the heavier PSU. :)

    Spartacvs - *all* motherboards include integrated audio these days. What Nforce4 doesn't include is the SoundStorm audio that was in Nforce1 and Nforce2 (certain models). NVIDIA is supposed to be working on a high-definition audio solution, but when that will actually arrive is a little difficult to say. The audio that will be on Nforce4 is the same as what is on most Nforce3 boards these days, so don't worry too much about that. If audio is really important to you, pick up a Creative Audigy 2 ZS (for games) or the M-Audio Revolution 7.1 (for more serious audio work).
    Reply
  • SDA - Friday, December 03, 2004 - link

    That depends on your definition of close, Jarred ;) The only real differences between them are cosmetic (shell, sticker, brand). The components, layout, and design are nearly identical.

    If you're having trouble with this concept, here's a parallel for you: Alienware's older notebooks (before they switched to Uniwill) and equivalent Sager notebooks (with a comparable configuration, obviously). Same platform, same layouts, same chassis, same components (possible that they used different brands of memory or something, but that's about it), same party assembling them; the differences are almost entirely cosmetic, and the ones that aren't don't apply to functionality.

    Hopefully this is all a little clearer now, the world of computer hardware is really far too convoluted for its own good..
    Reply
  • spartacvs - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    Ok, thanks for you answer. The place I want to buy have most of the memory brands. It's just muskin, they have only a few models.
    As for the MB. What I don't like about nforce4 is the lack of integrated audio. It increase the price tag a little bit more and I'm tight on money :(
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    SDA - Just pointing out that they're not identical. Close, perhaps, and which you like more is probably more a matter of preference, but they certainly aren't identical.

    Spartcvs - Corsair, GEIL, Kingston, OCZ, and quite a few others are decent RAM. For value RAM, Kingston and Corsair are probably the most widely spread, but I don't really know what other countries are like in terms of availability. The difference between the motherboards is more difficult to quantify. I really like Abit boards, but I'm not as keen on the VIA chipset - NVIDIA just seems more stable in my experience. Either one is still a fine motherboard, and there are several other socket 939 NForce3 250 boards available. Now, though, waiting for NForce4 non-SLI might be a good idea - get one of those for ~$130 and get a 6600GT PCIe card.
    Reply
  • spartacvs - Thursday, December 02, 2004 - link

    Hey guys, I have a few questions.

    Fisrt, I do not overclock my system and will most probaly go with the Antec 2650 case because it's smaller and still a good case. Will also take the 120 GB HD because 160 is overkill for me (hey I hardly fullfill my actual 40 GB).

    I hesitate between the abit board and the msi one. What do I lose going for the abit rather than the msi? The Abit is a via chipset, right?

    Where I want to buy they don't have much of the mushkin memory. Can you recommand another brand (and model please because there is so many type of memory modules, it's easy to be lost).

    Thanks
    Reply

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