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Building a Low Cost Enthusiast Desktop PC System For Under £550

In Computer Hardware, Electronics, Gaming, Overclocking & Tweaking on July 23, 2009 at 3:57 am

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Requirements

Let’s take a look at how we’d ‘spec’ a system designed to meet the needs of enthusiasts while also keeping costs low:

1) Decent performance in processor-intensive tasks such as video editing/encoding/decoding and other hyperthreaded software

2) Gaming performance at moderate resolutions such as 1680×1050

3) Potential for overclocking

4) Upgradability

The Budget

We want this to be a mid-range system of sorts. I plan to do a really low-cost budget performance/gaming rig for something like £350-£400 soon, but for this system let’s choose more of a mid-range budget. Something in the region of £500-£600 should be fine, so let’s settle on £550, give or take. The average laptop is atleast £500-£600 and we want a system that far outstrips even a high-end laptop in performance.

Guru3D.com showing the use of AMD's Overdrive utility for easy overclocking

Guru3D.com showing the use of AMD's Overdrive utility for easy overclocking

The Plan

To meet these requirements I think I’ll try a AMD build with a mid-range ATI graphics card. An Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 would be excellent for tasks such as gaming which require only two cores but high clock rates, but for processor-intensive tasks that utilize all cores in such as hyperthreaded software the performance would be lower.  The AMD Phenom II X3 triple core AMD processors should be a good balance for cost-effective gaming with good overclocks, while having at least an extra core as opposed to something like an E8400. So an AMD socket AM3 system build around the X3 710 or 720 ‘Black Edition’ (BE) would probably be a good bet – The AMD ‘Black Editions’ are excellent overclockers. There is also the option of unlocking the fourth disabled core on AMD Phenom II processors running on some mainboards.

Crossfire support is also easier to come by than SLI, and this is especially true on AMD mainboards – afterall, AMD owns ATI. A decent powersupply that will leave open the option for Crossfire would be a great advantage and should satisfy the “upgradability” criteria for graphics intensive applications. Throw in a moderately capable casing with some extra fan options, and the system should have plenty of ‘future proofing’. The AM3 support will also allow for replacing the X3 triple core with something like the Phenom II X4 955 which is currently the top-end AMD processor.

The ‘Spec’

Coolermaster 334 - The case, and therefore the 'look' of our new system

Coolermaster 334 - The case, and therefore the 'look' of our new system

Enough talk. Let’s get down to the system. Here’s the build I picked:

AMD Phenom II X3 Tri Core 720 Black Edition 2.8GHz (Socket AM3) – Retail  £105.00
HIS ATI Radeon HD 4870 1024MB GDDR5 TV-Out/Dual DVI/HDMI (PCI-Express) – OEM (H487F1GP)  £103.99
Asus M4A78T-E AMD 790GX (Socket AM3) PCI-Express DDR3 Motherboard  £98.99
OCZ ModXStream Pro 700w Silent SLI Ready Modular Power Supply  £64.99
OCZ Platinum AM3 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3 PC3-10666C7 1333MHz Dual Channel (OCZ3P1333LVAM4GK)  £47.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 500GB SATA-II 32MB Cache – OEM (WD5001AALS)  £44.99
Coolermaster Elite 334 Midi Case- Black (No PSU)  £30.99
Samsung SH-S223B/BEBE 22x DVD±RW SATA Dual Layer ReWriter (Black) – OEM  £16.99

AMD Phenom II X3 Tri Core 720 Black Edition 2.8GHz (Socket AM3) – Retail  £105.00

HIS ATI Radeon HD 4870 1024MB GDDR5 TV-Out/Dual DVI/HDMI (PCI-Express) – OEM (H487F1GP)  £103.99

Asus M4A78T-E AMD 790GX (Socket AM3) PCI-Express DDR3 Motherboard  £98.99

OCZ ModXStream Pro 700w Silent SLI Ready Modular Power Supply  £64.99

OCZ Platinum AM3 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3 PC3-10666C7 1333MHz Dual Channel (OCZ3P1333LVAM4GK)  £47.99

Western Digital Caviar Black 500GB SATA-II 32MB Cache – OEM (WD5001AALS)  £44.99

Coolermaster Elite 334 Midi Case- Black (No PSU)  £30.99

Samsung SH-S223B/BEBE 22x DVD±RW SATA Dual Layer ReWriter (Black) – OEM  £16.99

Total: £513.92 (with VAT)

Delivery Charge: £12.50

Grand Total: £528.30
I’ve used Overclockers.co.uk for my build because they have a wide selection of parts, a very good web portal which makes it very easy to pick out all the components for your build, and they generally  have some of the best prices for retail computer components in the UK. However, I am not endorsing them or vouching for their quality of products or service in any way. I have heard/read both good and bad reviews of them (the bad reviews seem to focus mostly on poor after-sales service), so if you decide to buy from them or any other retailer make sure you do your digging.

Justifying Choices

Processor: The AMD Phenom II X3 720 BE 2.8GHz  as we discussed previously is excellent overclocker with three cores (a real fence-sitter: not dual core, nor yet a quad) and a pretty low price. With proper cooling its possible to take this processor right up to 3.8GHz.

AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition

AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition

Mainboard: Asus M4A78T-E AMD 790GX; a good enthusiast board with solid overclocking and a wealth of features such as Crossfire, Hybrid Crossfire support and an integrated Radeon 3300 GPU! — this should allow for some nice powersaving when the discrete GPU isn’t needed.

Asus M4A78-T 790GX Enthusiast Board

Asus M4A78-T 790GX Enthusiast Board

Graphics Card: HIS 4870 with 1GB frame buffer; at £100 odd this is cheaper than some of the more expensive 4850s, while offering standard 4870 performance! It also allows for some overclocking and handles all modern games at pretty high resolutions – though you may want to crank it down a notch on GPU-killers like Crysis.

HIS ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB
HIS ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB
Memory: OCZ Platinum AM3 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3 1333MHz;  It’s a good price for a decent memory kit. 7-7-7-20 timings. While I could go for more expensive and better memory, I picked this kit to keep costs low.
Power Supply: OCZ ModXStream 700w; I calculated power requirements with dual 4870 to be a little over 500w (being very conservative), so even a 550w or 600w supply would be enough. However, this 700w supply currently costs the same as the 600w version and is one of the cheaper supplies available. The extra power will always come in useful for adding more components to the system and/or future upgrades without having to replace the PSU.
OCZ ModXtream 700w with SLI/Crossfire Support and upto 86% Power Efficiency

OCZ ModXtream 700w with SLI/Crossfire Support and upto 86% Power Efficiency

Conclusion

The final system is cost-effective thanks to the use of the AMD Phenom II platform, and a Radeon graphics card. At £530, the system does leave a lot of options for overclocking and future upgrades. Just adding a few things to the system could very well make this a high-end PC. Depending on the main function I’d start by picking a good CPU cooler, a better case and possibly a Radeon HD 4890 which offers performance equivalent to a GTX 275 (and in some cases even beating a GTX 285). However, for the majority of users (even enthusiasts), the system should be able to meet their needs admirably. The Phenom II X4 810 costs only about £10 than the 720 BE, so it would make an excellent option transforming this system into an all-round quad core machine. However, keep in mind, the 720 BE is a much better overclocker and this can make a difference in many types of software and games which only make use of two cores.

In my next article on systems, I hope to build a low-cost portable laptop-replacement desktop system. Let’s see how that goes. 🙂 Until then, adios!

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  1. This bit of hardware looks awesome, thatnks for the review.

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