A True "Budget" Gaming System

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We all hear the term “budget system” thrown around loosely when talking about a low cost
computer gaming system. But often times I see the so called “budget system” costing more
than $500, and people seem satisfied with that solution.

That is from people that can afford $500! All of us computer gaming enthusiasts budget a fair amount
of money to our passion, and from that perspective $500 does seem relatively cheap.

But factor in the rest of America. This includes seniors on a limited budget, young teenagers or
pre-teens, families barely making it, college students, people in general that can’t justify spending
half of one thousand dollars, which could go along way to paying bills or tuition. Many families
already have at least one computer, and the priority for a gaming system is way down on a very
long list.

Enough of the economics – let’s see what we can really build that will game most of the current
titles while working an absolute minimum budget (all of the prices are readily available on Pricewatch.com from reputable vendors; unless otherwise mentioned, shipping included).

CPU – $40

This will get you an Duron (Applebred) 1.4 GHz. I chose this for several reasons:

First of all it will be based on a thoroughbred “B” core which will insure 2000 MHz to 2200 MHz at a reasonable core voltage, 1.775v or less.

Second, it can be turned into a full fledged XP by simply using a number 2 pencil to
connect the last L2 bridge for the full 256K of L2 cache. I haven’t seen one yet that
failed to be stable with this mod despite the rumors of faulty L2 cache being
disabled. Also, every 1.4G Hz Applebred I have seen is unlocked, but that’s not a
requirement. It will come with a 12X multiplier stock, which will work with a cheap
motherboard without any multiplier adjustments.

An alternate choice is a run of the mill 1800+, no mods necessary and at a cost of
$50, though it will most certainly be multiplier locked.

Motherboard – $45

Biostar and Shuttle both make nForce2 motherboards with basic overclocking adjustments such as 1 MHz FSB increments and both CPU and DDR voltages.

Generic 550-watt case – $35

Just make sure the case has a side port for one 80 mm fan and one in the rear. One in the front with outside air venting in is a plus, but not a requirement. Make sure the generic power supply has dual fans. It won’t be as strong as a namebrand 400-watt, but with dual fans it should run cool and be more than adequate.

CPU Heatsink/fan – $12

A Thermaltake TR2-M1 or TR2-M2 is very cheap these days, both of which should be more than sufficient to keep our overclocked T-bred cores in the low 50’s under full load, both offering quiet operation.
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256MB x 2 DDR memory – $75

There are many vendors online selling Buffalo Tech PC3200 sticks for under $37 bucks each. These are guaranteed to be compatible in most everything and run easily a minimum 400 MHz DDR. If you want to go a cheaper route and save more money, any generic PC2700 these days often runs 400 MHz or more. Best Buy and Office Max offer rebates quite often that put the cost at $29 or even $19 per stick before tax.

Generic CD-RW and floppy drive – $35

Available from any decent vendor on Pricewatch.com

Hard drive – $39 plus tax

Office Max, Staples and Best Buy routinely offer specials on 80 MB, 7200 rpm, 8 MB cache buffer quality drives after rebate.

Video Card – $65

Most of you will disagree, but bear with me. Geforce 4 Ti4600’s are common place on E-bay or refurbished at Newegg for this price.

Using the older 44.03 Detonators (for a 15% boost over newer DX9 optimized drivers), a 4600 @ 300/700 (easy overclock) will score 14,000 – 15,000 on 3DMark2001 – very strong DX8 performance. For the latest DX9 titles, it will not render any DX9, using DX8 only, giving it faster framerates than a 9600 Pro or XT in Halo or UT2004. Older titles like UT, Quake 3, UT2003 will play faster on a 4600, as long as no AA or AF is used. And yes, it will play these older titles strongly up to 1600 x 1200 resolutions.

IQ won’t be quite as good, but it will still look great and play smoothly. We could add more to our total price with a 9700 or 5900 series card, but under the circumstances mentioned above almost all mid-range cards will fall short in the raw FPS performance compared to the venerable Ti4600.

Our nForce2 motherboard will have onboard LAN and a very decent audio solution. Add $10 for a couple of
80mm fans and we are finished.

What do we get and how much did we pay? Cost comes in at $356 with PC3200, as little as
$321 with a good rebate on generic PC2700.

What we get is an Athlon XP clocked at an average speed of 2100 MHz on a minimum
166 MHz FSB. That’s 2600+ territory, not exactly cutting edge but more than enough to qualify
for a “budget system”. With a little luck we will get 2200 MHz on a 200 MHz FSB, approaching
3200+ speeds. Unknown to most end users, a Barton core averages only 3 to 4% more speed
in a variety of benchmarks over an equally clocked T-bred at the same FSB speeds.

I’m not gonna’ bore you with graphs and exact FSB comparisons. I will tell you what this little
system can do in general.

Using OpenGL rendering, it will average 70 FPS in UT 2003 at 1280 x 1024 resolution. It will play Halo at 1024 x 768, showing only the slightest slowdown in a very few extremely heavy firefights, but not enough to ruin gameplay. For you older Unreal Tournament junkies, it averages 125 FPS at 1600 x 1200 resolution in OpenGL or 140 FPS rendering in DX8. Doom 3 will play at 800 x 600 smoothly with a few details turned down, still faster than most so called mid-range video cards.

I have built 5 or 6 of these for relatives and friends, all giving at least this much performance. I
have one built as a spare gaming system, it is the same 1.4 Applebred running 2200 MHz (11 x 200)
400 MHz DDR. Clocked at 320/710, the Ti4600 belts out 15,200 3DMark2001 points.

For direct comparison, I have a mobile Barton @ 2400 MHz with a 9700 Pro and a P4 Northwood 2.26B @ 3.2 GHz with a 5700 Ultra. Yes, these systems will play a higher resolution and be able to utilize AF and AA if needed. But honestly, when I am playing UT2003 online on a hot server, I can’t tell the difference while fighting for my life. The game play and enjoyment are just as intense with the lil’ ole “budget system”.

I just laugh when I hear the salesman at Best Buy tell the uneducated customer how fast a system costing more than twice as much will be with a Geforce 5200! Or how the $599 special with monitor and onboard graphics will play games great.

Chuck Mixon

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