Cheapskate Gamer

Gaming means you need all the latest hardware right? Not necessarily, check out this respectable sub £200 gaming machine.

As many of you guys are probably aware by now, I’m not a big fan of parting with my hard earned cash where I can help it by I do like my PC and I do like gaming. This combination has needless to say lead to some issues and internal conflicts, do I spend big for a solid gaming-beast or do I stay cheap and see what I can build custom for a smaller outlay. Well, my cheapskate side won out as ever and instead of going all out and buying some pre-built gaming machine, I decided that having head a good few months off work and being short on cash as a result I would instead build my own rig as best I could for a small fee.

Now for any of you guys considering building your own computer on a budget, be it for gaming or otherwise then the key is to use what you have and do some research first. I have over the years stripped down a number of machines and kept the odd little bits here and there, maybe you too have an old machine that can be torn apart for the greater good.

Recover, Repurpose and Upcycle

The computer I started with was by no means anything special, it cost me some £150 maybe 2-3 years ago but it looked like this to start;

Motherboard – Gigabyte GA-A55M-DS2 (FM1 Socket)
APU – AMD A4-3300 Llano 2.5GHz Dual-Core + Radeon HD 6410D 443Mhz GPU with stock cooler.
RAM – 2x2Gb Hynix 1066Mhz
HDD – WD Scorpio blue 320Gb 5400rpm
PSU – 300W Zoostorm
Case – Zoostorm case
Others – SATA DVD writer.

Next I hunted out as many spares as I could at home and at those of family. This hunt turned up a rather beastie Xilence PWM cooler, an Akasa CPU cooler, another pair of lower spec Xilence CPU coolers, an old case complete with 750w PSU with 120mm fan, a Seagate Barracuda 500Gb 7200rpm HDD, a USB2 PCI card and multi card reader.

With all these parts stacked up, together with those already in the machine, I started the build. The HDD swap was a no brainer, I prefer Seagate drives as they always seem more durable and the extra capacity is always good to have. The PSU was the same kind of situation. Sure, I’m never going to use all 700w but that doesn’t matter as the unit will only deliver the power required and of course the reduced noise output of 120mm fan is also a bonus. I pulled the Xilence PWM fans off the syncs and screwed them into the case for some controllable cooling too. From here on in, some research was needed.

The Build

At this time, I didn’t want to go so far as to get a new motherboard given the budget restrictions so I kept my CPU search in the FM1 socket range. Also, given the current budget restrictions I didn’t want to have to invest in an independent graphics card so I also stuck to the AMD APU series; The highest spec of these FM1 APUs is the AMD A8-3870K (Black Edition). As you may know the K or Black Edition tags on this line mean that the APU is unlocked and is over-clockable which is great news. With my target now identified it was time to find one. EBay helped out here and after having received one with at least 15 bent legs and returning it, I finally ended up with one delivered from China for only £45 all in.

The APU isn’t for everyone but I’ve always found them to be good reliable little powerhouses. They tend to have quite a large voltage range which makes overclocking and overvolting easy and with only a little time fiddling and tweaking, the clock speeds can be pushed on the CPU, GPU and even Northbridge interfaces. The thing to remember here is that if you want one of these to perform really well without too much work, don’t go too cheap on the RAM. This is because, as with all GPUs, the inbuilt unit thrives on faster RAM.

This lead to the next purchase, the RAM. Whilst I said that these APUs thrive on speedy RAM the motherboard and APU however are documented to support only up to 1866Mhz. With this in mind and an offer on Amazon I grabbed a pair of Kingston Hyper Fury 4GB 1866Mhz for another £50. I opted for 8 GB as I feel it is a healthy amount to have, you can manage on 4 GB whilst 16 GB isn’t really necessary for the everyday user, so 8 GB serves as the acceptable middle ground.

The Outcome

With all these new components and the stack of spares, I bundled it all into a case and ended up with a build like this;

APU – AMD A8-3870K Llano 3GHz Quad-Core + Radeon HD 6550D 600Mhz GPU with Xilence XPCPUAM2HDS.
Motherboard – Gigabyte GA-A55M-DS2 (FM1 Socket)
RAM – 2x8Gb Kingston 1866Mhz
HDD – Seagate Barracuda 500Gb 7200rpm
PSU – 750w Artic Cooling Red
Case – Zoostorm case
Others – SATA DVD writer, USB2 PCI card, Multicard reader and 2x Xilence PWM fans for case cooling.

Whilst this build is still not a bulldozer by todays standards, it performs pretty damned well on most games. It will run heavier games for me at 1600×1050 (Limited by my VGA display) with most graphics options at medium or higher without too much problem.

 

Basically I’ve gained 2 extra and faster cores, double the RAM and some extra storage. That’s a fair boost really for only £100 and the real beauty of this rig is also that despite the fact that the APU is already well obsolete, there is still scope for upgrade here. There is space to add a standalone graphics card, some of which can Crossfire and work with the APU or just invest in a higher spec unit in the future to push it even further as the CPU specs still remain competitive and likely will for a while yet.

I have also been playing with overclocking too but not in great depth at this point. At current it is running at 3300 MHz with 750 MHz on the GPU without playing with voltages. I have read that with correct voltage adjustments that you can under-clock the CPU in order to push the GPU even further or with the GPU disabled entirely, push the CPU up some more.

Conclusion

I know that this computer will never be used at massive gaming conventions and will never achieve really high numbers on arbitrary benchmarking software suites but it will play the games I want nicely and to a level of detail that I am also happy with whilst not being super noisy or a power hogging beast.

I know I had a lot laying around, but I come from a family of computer people so it tends to be the case that very little is thrown out before it is SUPER-Obsolete, having only just cleared out some 32 MB graphics cards. That being said, the PSU is still only £20 online and the HDD you can get new for around the same and cheaper if you go second hand.

Also in the nature of the Recover, Repurpose and Upcycle mantra, the components that were all left over from this build are currently being bundled together with a second hand motherboard (£20) to build an upgraded PC for someone still rocking a 32bit single core which means someone else also benefits which is just great isn’t it!

As a side note too for you recycling types, I kept the little Zoostorm case as I quite like it and because the other case was white! If however you do need a case though and you have a white one lying around, don’t just write it off. Take it outside and spray it black. Car paint is relatively cheap in the bargain stores and I’ve done it in the past. It really isn’t too difficult to achieve a nice stealthy look that matches your black DVD drive!

And another note. For those wondering why I made a point of “PWM” fans, that’s because PWM means “Pulse Width Modulated” which in simple means that the fan speed can be controlled, this can be based on temperature or user control whereas non PWM fans will simply run at a constant speed regardless. The PWM is useful for keeping a constant steady temperature and also for reducing the noise when then the machine doesn’t need the fans all running.