There’s really never been a better time to buy into PC gaming than now. From the console-PC convergence introduced when Sony and Microsoft picked up the x86 architectures for their platforms, to new tech on new process nodes redefining our performance expectations at every price point. From VR and 4K gaming being pushed into the mainstream, to nascent cloud gaming infrastructures foreshadowing the intensely interconnected world we’re soon going to find ourselves in, this generation, more than any other, has been lead by PC paradigms, and by growth in the PC space.
Steam statistics point to a total count of 125 million registered users. There are twice as many mainstream PC gamers as there are gamers on eighth-gen consoles. Going by the specs alone, PS4 Neo and Xbox Scorpio offer compelling performance, but the shift towards console hardware iteration makes PC all the more compelling: While you may now have to drop $400-500 on a new console every 3-4 years for an ideal experience, in most cases, a simple GPU upgrade would be enough to bring even an aging PC up to snuff. Have an antique Core 2 Duo setup lying around from circa 2008? Slap a 750 Ti in it, cap your framerate at 30 FPS and you’ve got an eighth-gen console right there for under $120.
With that scaleability in mind, how much can you get from a PC that costs roughly as much as a console? A lot, surprisingly. Read on for our PC setup that will offer you a categorically better gaming experience than what you’ll find on PS4 and Xbox One, but in the same price-range. With the PS4 Neo and Xbox Scorpio on the horizon, a build like this one might become redundant in a year or so, but that’s the beauty of it: A year on, when Scorpio and Neo make their presence felt, we’d expect the RX 480 to be selling in the $150 range.
If you’re angling for more performance then, that’s you’re upgrade path right there. But let’s look at our build, as it stands, right now. Keep in mind that we haven’t factored in peripheral costs here. We’re guessing that you probably have an old keyboard and mouse lying around somewhere. Unless you’re looking to dominate in DotA tournaments, a run-of-the-mill 800 DPI mouse and that keyboard you scrounged out of the cupboard should be enough.
If you’re hoping for a console experience, you’re in luck too, since anything from an SNES controller to a DualShock 3 can and will work off a PC. As for the lack of a monitor in this build, we’re applying broadly the same logic: You don’t factor in the price of a TV/monitor when buying a console, do you? Assuming you have an HDTV, the HDMI cable that you’re PS3 is outputting through will suffice for your Console-Killer Build.
Keep in mind that we’re not factoring in OS costs here, honestly, that’s an area where you have substantial choice about when to purchase. For starters, if you have any Windows 7/8 machine lying around, you can transfer that license right over to your new build. And even if you don’t, Microsoft offers a free 3-month trial of Windows–that’s a lot of gaming time without spending a dime. And if you’re not comfortable with the outlay then, SteamOS (or just plain ol’ Ubuntu) are still viable options, with quite a few AAA games like Dying Light getting native ports, not to mention WINE (yeah, it’s spotty, but where there’s a will, the opensource community usually find a way). We leave your choice of OS to you.
With that being said, let’s get to the build:
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-H81M-H ($40):
The Gigabyte GA-H81M-H is truly a bottom-of-the-barrel LGA 1150 board. While a forwards-facing H110M board paired with a Skylake processor would offer a bit more futureproofing, the breakdown of Moore’s Law (at least with Intel’s product rollouts) means that you’re apt not to notice a difference in games if you’re still on Haswell.
Heck, an overclocked 2500K from 2011 will still give a stock-clocked 6500 a run for its money. With that being said, the GA-H81M-H is just fine for our purposes here: The Crucial 1600 MHz DDR3 module we use is plenty fast to not be a bottleneck. Apart from the single PCI-E X16 slot for your graphics card, the H110M here will give you basic connectivity: 3.5mm audio output, a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the back (and 4 more USB 2.0 ports), a 6 GB/S SATA connector for your hard drive, and video outputs, though of course you’ll be using the 960’s HDMI out.
The Gigabyte GA-H81M-H is a bargain: With Haswell on its way out, this is one of the cheapest boards available on the market. Of course if you are looking for an upgrade path, Skylake need not be the only way to go. Adding an i5-4690 is definitely an option here.
Graphics Card: MSI GTX 950 OCV1 (with rebate) ($115)
Maxwell is dead. Long live Pascal. Actually, that’s not a bad thing at all, if what you’re looking for is a solid midrange performer that doesn’t break the bank. With the announcement of Nvidia’s new Pascal parts this year, the entire Maxwell line has received significant price cuts.
That means that the MSI 950 OCV1 we have here costs only as much as a 750 Ti used to. The GTX 950 launched at the $150 price-point, and is part of Nvidia’s consolidation strategy, a stand-in upgrade for the much of the mainstream Kepler crowd–the GTX 650, 650Ti, and the 60. It slotted itself right above the 750 Ti. The 750 Ti remains an option if you’re out to retrofit an old or prebuilt system since it doesn’t require a 6-pin cable. Apart from being a nice deal (which it is), the MSI 950 offers some compelling performance at 1080p. Though this model ships at close to stock clocks, the GTX 950 is a great overclocker, so you can easily squeeze another 15 percent performance out of it without touching voltages.
We’ve deliberately opted for a GTX 950 here because it’s the cheapest part available which offers a meaningful edge over the PS4 and Xbox One. A GTX 750 Ti –which offers broad performance parity with the PS4–can be had for even less (as low as $96 with rebates). However, bumping things up to the 950 will allow you to dial up the visuals a notch above the consoles, without having to compromise on framerate. Check out our collated performance evaluation on the screen, for a performance comparison between the 950 and the PS4 across various modern titles.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
- The Witcher 3 High Settinsg At 1080p: Average fps of 35 – GTX 950 2GB
- The Witcher 3 PS4 Generally Runs at a locked 30fps with drops down to 27-28 at times. (native 1080p resolution)
Right off the bat, you can see that the GTX 950 offers superior visuals, at a higher framerate in almost every game we benched. In The Witcher 3, notable for dropping beneath the 30-FPS mark frequently on console, the GTX 950 averages 35 FPS. This offers us enough breathing room to lock at 30 FPS without worrying about dips below. Moreover, the 950 hands in this average at High Settings, a notch above both the PS4 and Xbox One.
- Fallout 4 Ultra Setting At 1080p: Average fps of 50 – GTX 950 2GB
- Fallout 4 PS4 Generally Runs at a locked 30fps with drops down to lower 20s in some locations (native 1080p resolution)
The difference is even starker in Fallout 4. Bethesda’s latest runs at an inconsistent 30 FPS. The experience is marred both by screen tear and substantial dips in framerate, down to the lower 20s. Having played Fallout 4 on PC with our 980 Ti/i5 build, we feel that the consoles’ woeful performance here is mostly down to CPU-side bottlenecking, as even our rig experienced drops to the 40’s in CPU-intensive city areas ingame. The Pentium G3258 we’re using features drastically better IPC compared to the PS4’s Jaguar processor, which more than compensates for its lack of physical cores. Together with the 950, Fallout 4 averages 50 FPS at the Ultra Preset. Again, we’re talking significantly higher framerates and visual settings.
Grand Theft Auto 5
- GTA5 Very High Setting At 1080p: Average fps of 61 – GTX 950 2GB
- GTA5 PS4 Generally Runs at a locked 30fps with drops down to higher 20s in some locations (native 1080p resolution)
Moving on to GTA V, things look to be much the same. In terms of visuals, the PS4 version hews closely to the PC’s Very High Preset, though running at a locked 30 FPS. With the 950, we’re able to pull off Very High at 61 FPS, making for a categorically smoother experience.
Call of Duty Black Ops 3:
- Call of Duty Black Ops 3 Very High Setting At 1080p: Average fps of 44 – GTX 950 2GB
- Call of Duty Black Ops 3 PS4 Generally Runs at a locked 60fps with drops down to low 50s in some locations (dynamic 1080p resolution)
Our Black Ops III results may be a tad misleading at first, with the PS4 enjoying an apparent performance lead. The PS4 version of Black Ops III employs dynamic resolution scaling, dropping framebuffer resolution in more intensive areas to ensure that the framerate sticks to 60 FPS. As such, the PS4 technically doesn’t run the game at 1080p. We’re looking at an effective resolution that dips between 1080p at one end and a hair above 900p on the other. The GTX 950 hands in a 53 FPS average (which could be pushed up to 60 with a moderate overclock), with settings pushed up to the Extra Preset. While it can’t quite deliver framerate parity, the GTX 950 offers substantially better image quality here.
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Extra High Setting At 1080p: Average fps of 53 – GTX 950 2GB
- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain PS4 Generally Runs at a locked 60fps with drops down to lower 50s in some locations (native 1080p resolution)
With Metal Gear Solid V, our results are once again similar to Black Ops III. While the GTX 950 hands in a lower framerate, it is running the game at Extra High. Dropping a few settings such as the LoD and shadow resolution a notch will still offer a visual experience that’s comparable to the PS4, while handing in that consistent 60 FPS update.
All said and done, the GTX 950, paired with the Pentium G3258, will offer a compellingly better experience in AAA games than the PS4.
Processor: Pentium G3258 AE ($50)
Ah, the G3258 Anniversary Edition. It’s a blast from a past when, with a bit of skill and patience, you could eke twice your money’s worth by overclocking your midrange Pentium processor. These days, Intel’s been taking their market dominance very seriously, arbitrarily locking off overclocking on non-“K” processors.
The Pentium brand, once Intel’s flagship, has been relegated to the bargain bin. It’s what you slot in when you’re client’s too cheap to opt for an i3. Things are pretty grim at the low end of Intel’s product stack. But the G3258 AE is something different. It’s a one-off product which was launched in time for the Pentium brand’s 20th anniversary. And unlike every other low and midrange Intel processor on the market, the Pentium G3258 ships with an unlocked multiplier. Moreover, Intel’s given the greenlight to AIBs to allow for overclocking just the G3258 on budget boards like the H81M.
It’s a unique product and a unique situation. On the face of things, the G3258 doesn’t look like much. It’s a Haswell-derived Pentium processor, basically an i3-4130 that’s clocked lower, without hyperthreading, and slightly less cache. The difference is that the G3258 can overclock. And by overclock, we mean it can hit 4.5 GHz easily, with a few units that can go even higher. And of course, it costs much less than an i3. If you’re buying a G3258 for gaming, you’re going to want to overclock it. At 4.5 GHz, it can keep pace with entry-level Haswell i3s like the 4130. Be sure to watch your thermals, though.
PSU: EVGA-100 N1-0400-L1 ($20)
With relatively low-power parts like the GTX 950 and Pentium G3258, power supply needs are fairly modest. The GTX 950 has a TDP of just 110W. Nvidia recommends a 350W PSU. At 400W, the EVGA-100 N1-0400-L1, apart from having the most unwieldy name ever, offers enough juice to run a 950 with a bit of overclocking headroom thrown in. It’s also fantastically cheap at $20, after a $5 rebate.
RAM: Crucial Ballistix 8GB DDR3 at 1600 MHz: ($31)
The Crucial Ballistix is a quality 8GB RAM module, clocked at a cool 1600 MHz. While that doesn’t exactly reach the stratospheric heights of DDR4, in-game performance generally doesn’t scale much with RAM speed. Like much of the rest of this build, the Ballistix is reasonably priced, solid performer.
Hard Drive: WD Blue 1TB: ($50)
A 1 TB hard drive is the bare minimum you’ll want to settle for. Although the console ship with 500 GB storage configurations, you’re going to need a lot more than that if you’re going all-digital via Steam. We kid you not: In my current build, I’ve got a Seagate Barracuda 1 TB paired with a 4 TB WD Blue SSHD. And I’m still running out of space. While you might notice it at first, smaller capacity drives will fill up sooner rather than later, especially when games like GTA V eat up 63 GB of space. With 1 TB, you’ve got a definite storage edge over the consoles. You definitely won’t be deleting games as often.
Case: Rosewill Dual Fans MicroATX Mini Tower: ($32)
For a relatively low-profile build like this one, with power-sipping parts like the GTX 950, ventilation’s not a huge priority when looking for a case to buy. Heck, you could put this rig in a wooden box and it (probably) wouldn’t set your desk on fire. But we’re being a bit more reasonable here. This Rosewill case is a relatively dimunitive mini-tower. It’s got a window on the side, if LED lighting’s your thing. While it’s definitely chubbier than a console, the relatively small form factor makes it more viable to fit this case somewhere behind your TV or media centre, particularly useful if you’re after an…er authentic console experience.
Total Outlay: $338
While it’s certainly possible to build an uber-build that chews through most AAA titles at 4K/ultra (I’m writing this on a 980 Ti/i5 rig often connected to a 4K TV), the brilliant thing about PC is the platform’s inherent scaleability: At $338, our build not only costs less than a PlayStation 4, it also offers substantially better performance. Moreover, because it’s a PC, it’s viable to use the build as a productivity station as well. Two birds one stone, eh? And when the PS4 Neo and Xbox Scorpio hit the market, the RX 480 provides an excellent GPU upgrade path for a much lower outlay than if you were to buy a new console.
What’s your take on our build? Let us know!