Guerilla Gaming – Building an Entry-Level Gaming PC
Ultra-budget PC Builds
Skill Level: Beginner
Nerd Rating: 12.7 out of 10*
So you want to get into PC gaming but you don’t have a lot of money? Welcome to the Guerilla Gaming club. This article will show you how to build your very own entry-level gaming PC for less than the cost of a next-gen console. A lot less. You’re welcome. Take that extra money and buy yourself a bunch of games.
Since I know most of the folks who are reading this are mostly into consoles, I want to take a second to ease your mind about how hard it is to work on a PC. First, you have to remember that computers are designed to be taken apart and put back together, unlike consoles. In fact, they’re designed to be assembled by nincompoops like me. So, if you have ever fixed a broken console you can certainly fix/upgrade/build a PC. When you open a computer case for the first time, you may be intimidated by the number of wires running every direction. Relax. Take a breath. You can do this. You’re not going to be touching most of those wires anyway. When you find out how easy it is, you’ll laugh.
First, you need to identify your starting budget. Since we talked about doing this for less than the new gaming consoles, we’ll set a starting budget of $350. This means we will be using some used parts, and that you’ll spend a little time cleaning and prepping your game machine. Don’t worry, it’s fun, especially for nerds like us. This also assumes you’ll have to buy a copy of Windows, so the actual hardware budget is $250. If you already own Windows 7, you can get an even better starting platform.
Because you want to use your system for gaming, you’ll need a little power in the processing department. I’ve included the names of some desirable processors here. Although Intel owns the gaming CPU world right now, there are a lot of worthy CPU’s from both companies that will work for gaming.
For our build we’ll concentrate on AMD processors. There are several reasons for this. First, they are cheap and readily available. Second, the ones we’re after are based on AMD socket AM3- there are plenty of these motherboards available and it’s a currently used technology, something that’s not necessarily true with the boards required for older Intel chips. Lastly, when paired with an inexpensive video card they work fine for entry-level gaming. Just look at what I do with the POS. If you can’t find an AM3 chip, socket AM2 CPU’s will work as well. They are certainly cheaper, but unlike the AM3 they are an older technology. They still work great, but if a major component fails you won’t be able to replace it as easily as if you are working with AM3. To identify an AM3 processor/board, refer to the section below.
Look for Athlon II processors. They are readily available in X2 (dual-core), X3 (triple-core) and X4 (quad-core) varieties. A more gaming oriented family called Phenom is out there too, but are less common and command a higher price. The nomenclature for Phenom processors is similar to Athlon. Both of these CPU families overclock well but since that involves extra cooling capacity, and therefore extra money I wouldn’t worry about that right away. Plus, you can easily blow up your rig if you don’t know much about overclocking. Just keep that little fact tucked away inside your brain in case you ever want to experiment.
Start by looking through your local classified ads, Craigslist for instance. By doing so, you’ll get a good idea of what used systems are going for in your area. And, you just might run into a great bargain, ending your search quickly. HP is a company that used a lot of Athlon CPU’s, so you may be able to find a used HP tower for a little bit of money. One of the benefits of buying a used tower that was made by one of the big boys is that you should end up with a valid Windows product key. If you do look into a used factory tower, get one that’s in a Micro ATX mid tower case or larger. Avoid cases smaller than Micro ATX as they may require a special power supply and the airflow is very limited compared to a larger case. Also, the smaller the case, the more difficult it is to work inside.
If you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for there, call up some local pawn shops and see what they have on their shelves. Most pawnbrokers in my area have scads of desktop towers they can’t sell, so squeeze them to get a great deal. You’ll be spending about $100 on a new power supply and video card, so set yourself a limit of $100-150 if you have to buy an OS, hard drive or both, and $200-250 if you already have a Windows product key or you’re looking to buy a used system that has a hard drive and OS.
No matter where you buy, test the system before you hand over your hard-earned cash. Open the case and make some basic notes about the interior:
- Is it relatively clean or coated with dust?
- How many memory slots does the motherboard have? How many are filled? Check the memory size/speed as described below, and write down what you see.
- How many hard drive bays are in the case?
- Is there an optical (DVD) drive?
Plug it into a keyboard, mouse and monitor- make sure the tower either boots to desktop if it has an OS installed…
or at least POSTs (Power On Self Test) to BIOS (Basic Input Output System) if it doesn’t have a hard drive or Windows is not installed.
Even without a hard drive connected a system should POST. If the system doesn’t have an OS/hard drive, it won’t recognize USB mouse input. But you should still be able to enter the BIOS menu and navigate with the keyboard. Leave it on for several minutes to detect any CPU/power supply issues. Once running, the CPU monitors itself for core temperature. If it overheats, it will cut the power to the system. Likewise, if the power supply is weak or faulty it will often shut down shortly after you turn it on.
In BIOS, check to make sure the system is recognizing the installed memory. Memory detection should be shown on the Main BIOS menu. Walk away from any system that will not POST to the BIOS menu, no matter how cheap it is. Also, if the system unexpectedly shuts itself down during your test, leave it. If the owner will not let you turn it on to test it, move on.
If you think there’s a problem, for instance if the BIOS menu shows an odd result pertaining to system memory, go through the process below. Or, if you’re at a pawn shop, have their rep do the following.
Don’t kill your PC
BEFORE YOU REACH INSIDE A COMPUTER CASE, PRESS THE POWER BUTTON FOR AT LEAST TEN SECONDS AND ALWAYS GROUND YOURSELF TO GET RID OF ANY STATIC ELECTRICITY. The simple way to ground yourself or a tool is to touch some metal portion of the case before you touch any components. If you don’t think you can remember to do that, spend a couple bucks in advance and get an anti-static wrist strap. This is a velcro strap that has a metal snap button on the strap. The button touches your skin and is connected to a wire that terminates in an alligator clip. Snap the clip onto a solid metal portion of the case (the frame or a screw head that is out of the way of where you’re going to work.) Once connected, the strap dissipates any static charge that builds up insuring you will never zap a delicate part. I’m an idiot, so I always use a strap, an anti-static mat, or usually both.
Referring to the motherboard diagram, notice the memory slots have two locking clips- one on each end of the memory module or DIMM (Dual Inline Memory Module). Gently depress these tabs so they move down and away from the DIMM. The memory module should now easily come free from the slot. On one side of the DIMM, look for a little label that gives details on the memory.
You will typically see this: The size of the memory module (expressed in MB or GB) and one or both of the following designations- DDR2/DDR3 or PC2/PC3 followed by the memory speed or bandwidth. Speed is represented in similar fashion to CPU speed and is measured in MHz. Common DDR2 speeds are 233, 400 or 800MHz. DDR3 is common in 1066, 1333 or 1600MHz. To calculate bandwidth, if it is not shown, multiply the RAM speed by 8. So, DDR2 800MHz RAM corresponds to PC2 6400. To install the memory, be sure the RAM module is facing the correct direction (slots are offset in DDR2/DDR3 so they’ll only go in one way) and press the module back into place. As you push the DIMM into the slot, the locking tabs should rotate up and back into the locked position, giving you a click. That’s it, memory installed.
What you’ll need:
One Philips screwdriver
One small flathead screwdriver
Small portable vacuum cleaner or store-bought compressed air can
Larger vacuum, like a shop-vac is useful for cleaning the outside of the case, but not necessary
Once you are satisfied that the system works, take it home and clean it thoroughly. I use a small portable vacuum for working inside the case, and a Shop Vac to clean vents, etc. on the outside. You can also use a can of statically-neutral compressed air, available in stores but I use vacuums because I want to remove dirt, not just blow it around. No matter what you use, be sure the business end of the hose is plastic. If you need to get into nooks and crannies an artist’s paint brush (nylon bristles) works well. Even with a largely plastic brush, it will usually have a metal band that joins handle to bristles- ground it first. Common areas of dust accumulation are around wires, in and around the hard drive/optical drive bays, on the motherboard (especially corners near the edges of the case), between the RAM modules and definitely in and around the CPU heat sink and fan. After you have cleaned the rest of the inside, turn your attention to your CPU. Shown below is a common AMD setup. In addition to screw-down fans, you may also see an arrangement that has two plastic clips on either side of the fan. In either case, first remove the fan power connector from the motherboard. This connector may be held in place by a small notched clip. If so, ground a small flat head screwdriver and pull the clip gently away from the connector while pulling, again gently. The power connector should come out easily.
Once you have disconnected the fan, either pull the clips away from the mounting bracket or unscrew the four small Philips-head screws, one on each corner of the fan. If your fan has screws, store them where they won’t get lost until you are done. After you have removed the fan, set it aside and vacuum the heat sink as well as you can. Don’t jostle the heat sink; you can inadvertently damage your CPU but do take the time to run the vacuum along the sides of the heat sink as well as the top. Once you are satisfied with the heat sink, take care of the fan. Move outside if you wish and use a small brush to clean both sides of the blades as well as the inside of the blade housing. Finish by using your vacuum to get rid of any dust remaining around the fan motor, or anywhere else you couldn’t reach with the brush. Reinstall the fan and remember to plug it back in to the motherboard.
While you have the hood up, go ahead and write down any info you can find on motherboard manufacturer and model number. It’ll come in handy later.
Now you should be ready to fire it up and do a more thorough test. It’s good to have a few things ready just in case software problems surface. McAfee makes a good standalone malware scanner called Stinger, and it can be found here. Stinger is not an anti-virus program. It is designed to scan systems already infected that have been cut off from the internet by the virus. It’s a good idea to visit this page every six months or so and get the latest version.
Start the system in safe mode. To do so, press and hold the F8 key after you press the power button. Choose Safe Mode. The system will boot in low-res mode. Safe mode text will appear in all four corners of your screen. Run Stinger to remove any viruses/malware. Once the scan is complete, reboot the computer and check to see if anti-virus is installed. If it’s McAfee or Norton, chances are it’s expired. Remove it from the system, or renew/update the program. Since this is a budget build, I’ll suggest some free anti-virus programs that work well. Avast, AVG and Vipre all have free version available and they will all do the job. Connect to the internet and take care of anti-virus FIRST.
Once that’s done, go through the programs installed on the computer (if it’s not a fresh install) and remove anything you don’t want/recognize. On Windows XP or Vista, run Disk Cleanup, then Disk Defragmenter. Both these programs are located under Start>All Programs> Accessories>System Tools. On Windows 7, Defrag is automatic so just run Cleanup.
If you have to do a fresh install of Windows, don’t fret. There are actually benefits to doing so. All the Windows operating systems have the ability to create multiple virtual disks on one hard drive. These are called partitions or volumes, and you can create as many as you need. For this build, two (or three) will suffice. The first partition will contain your operating system. When you insert the Windows DVD, one of the first screens you will see is this one:
If the hard disk is already split into several partitions, remove them so you have one big un-partitioned space. Then, depending on the operating system you are installing, create a volume large enough to hold the OS and any updates/service packs that will add size to the installation. For XP, 15GB is plenty. For Vista or 7, 30GB should do it. To calculate the proper number to enter at the prompt, multiply the number of GB by 1024, so 30GB is 30720MB. Once you’ve created this initial partition, proceed with the install as normal.
Once your OS is installed, you’ll want to make another partition for all your programs.
To get to the utility follow the path below:
Start>Control Panel>Administrative Tools>Computer Management>Disk Management>
This utility will allow you to create additional virtual disks on your hard drive. The instructions are pretty much self-explanatory, but I’ll go briefly into the ones you’ll use. A System partition is generally the one that contains the operating system. If you have more than one OS installed, you’ll have more than one of these. An Active partition is one that can be used by your computer, but contains information other than an operating system. By definition, your System partition is also Active. NOTE: Once you create the second partition you’ll have to make it Active in that partition’s dialog menu. Optionally, you can plan for and create a third partition to use for system backups.
Windows XP users, be sure you create the correct size partition(s) for your needs up front. If you put data on a partition you cannot change the size of the partition without destroying the data that’s already there. Vista and 7 allow the user to dynamically change a volume’s size without losing data.
A special word about operating systems. Although I love XP and still use it daily, in June of 2014 Microsoft is ending support for this OS. I know they’ve said that before, but now there are three newer versions out and this time I think they are serious. Besides, for gaming Windows 7 is the one to have for a number of reasons. If you are using XP or, God forbid, Vista, consider spending the dough on an OEM copy of 7. You’ll be glad you did. In addition to being more efficient than Vista when using system resources, it has native support for the latest 3D graphics protocols.
Now that your new computer is up and running, take some time to go online and research your motherboard. Find the manual and if possible a diagram showing each and every connector on the board. If you have a printer, it’s a good idea to print the diagram for reference while you are working on your tower.
Whew. OK, now the “hard” part is out of the way. The next steps will take a lot less time and make you a bona fide computer hobbyist. Actually, screw that, if you’ve taken the steps already detailed you’ve done more than 80% of the folks who own PC’s. You are already that intrepid pioneer bravely pointing the way to the future.
Crap, that’s the wrong pic. But you get the idea.
First, select a new power supply and video card. I won’t get into video card specifics here, because it’s a huge part of the computer industry. If you are looking for a brief guide, read my GPU article here or go online for more information.
I will comment on power supplies. Remember that your power supply is responsible for feeding all the delicate parts inside your computer, so don’t cheap out and buy a $15 unit. Power supplies can take out your CPU, motherboard or both when they die, so it’s worthwhile to spend a little more on a quality piece. Also, look for a power supply that has an 80-plus certification rating. This means that the power supply turns at least 80% of the power it draws from the wall into useable current for your computer. Not only will this save you money on your electric bill, it generally denotes a better-quality part. Most 80-plus certified units will also feature Active PFC (Power Factor Correction). Cheap power supplies have a simple buss fuse inside that will burn out if the current jumps. Active PFC parts have a more sophisticated system of control that protects against too little and too much power getting to your computer. What that means to you is that these parts will deliver a more stable power flow, resulting in better system performance. And, they don’t cost a lot. There are a number of good power supplies on the market, but for this level of system I like the Corsair CX-430. I’ve used it on a ton of upgrades and system builds and haven’t had a problem yet. It’s delivers plenty of current for a build like this, is efficient and relatively inexpensive. Right you can buy it online for $44.99 with a $20 rebate. For that final price it’s hard to beat this little guy.
What you’ll need:
One Philips screwdriver
One small flathead screwdriver
One small needle-nose plier or diagonal cutting tool
Some zip ties, the smaller, the better
Now, because we will be installing a video card and because the power supply is always the weakest link in a Dell/HP system, I’m going to describe how to remove and replace a power supply. There are three basic wire routes in a PC. You have the wires that go from the motherboard to various devices like the hard drive, optical drive and fans (don’t touch these). There are the ones that run from the case to the motherboard, either the power/HDD/reset block or front USB/audio ports (don’t touch these either). Finally, there are the wires that travel from the power supply (PSU) to the motherboard and drives/fans. These are the ones involved in changing a power supply. Let’s take a look at some of the connectors you’ll be working with, so you can easily identify them and see that you really can’t screw this up.
REMINDER: Depress the power button for at least ten seconds and properly ground yourself before removing any of these connectors.
Remove all the wires connecting the PSU to your computer before you loosen the four screws that mount the supply to the case. As you complete each step, do your best to move that wire strand out of the way by draping it over the edge of the case to allow you easier access.
First up is the main power connector, commonly referred to as ATX 24-pin. This is the connection that supplies all the power requirements of the motherboard. A modern, socket AM3 motherboard will use this connector, as opposed to the older ATX 20-pin connector. When in doubt, count the pins. This connector has a plastic catch on one side, so it can only be inserted into the motherboard one way. To remove, depress the plastic hinge to disengage the latch and pull the connector out of the board. You may have to gently wiggle it to loosen it up. To reinstall, orient the connector correctly with the motherboard and push down until the plastic latch click into place.
Second, the ATX 4-pin connector. This one provides power to the CPU, specifically the voltage regulator. You’ll find this one close to the CPU. Like the 24-pin, this connector has a plastic latch on one side and only fits in one way. To remove, disengage the latch. To reinstall, orient the connector and push down until it clicks into place. In the motherboard diagram included in this article, the CPU power connector is an 8-pin version for a more powerful, high-end CPU.
Next, you’ll want to go after any separate power leads that are hooked to cooling fans. Fans will hook to the PSU using either small, 3 or 4-pin connectors, or the larger Molex 4-pin connectors. Especially with the Molex connectors, you may have to wiggle the connector to loosen it before it can be removed. Always grab the wire lead by the plastic connector housing, not the wires themselves to avoid pulling the wires out of the connector.
Finally, go after the power wires that are connected to your drives. More modern boards will use SATA power connectors, but some computers will use 4-pin Molex female connectors to power the drives. If the power connections are SATA, they may or may not have plastic latches that need to be disengaged before the connector can be pulled free. As before, if the Molex connectors are tight wiggle them a bit to loosen them up.
Other wire leads you’ll probably see are 6-pin PCI-E auxiliary power leads. If you choose to spend a little more on a video card, you may utilize this lead. If not, fold it up neatly and zip tie it to keep it out of the way.
To make sure you have all the wires leads free, simply grab them all where they come out of the power supply and gently pull them. They should all be free of any internal connections. If not, go after whatever remains.
Once you have removed all the wires, you can remove the four screws at the rear of the case that hold the PSU in place. Notice that one of them is offset, so the new PSU will only mount correctly one way. After you remove the screws, the power supply should move when gentle pressure is applied. If it doesn’t look for a small locking mechanism at the front of the PSU housing. These are usually just convex, knob-like projections. Push that down to release the PSU. Then, slowly remove the power supply from the case, being careful not to bump/rub it against the motherboard or other internals. Usually a slight twist is all that is required. Take your time.
Install the new power supply in the reverse order. Insert the PSU, tighten the screws, connect your drives, then your fans, and finally complete the motherboard connections.
Routing the wires
The goal here is to create an open space around the central part of the motherboard, the CPU and video card regions. This will allow for maximum airflow around the two components that generate the most heat. Since you are starting with the drives, take the time to route the wires away from the central part of the case, using zip ties to secure them to part of the case frame or the data cables leading into the drives. Make it neat, you’ll be proud of the result. When you zip tie a wire lead, don’t draw the tie too tight. Since there should be no real strain on the wires, it shouldn’t take much to tie it to the routing point. Leave enough room so if you have to cut the zip tie you can easily get a needle nose or diagonal cutter between wires and tie without forcing the tool into place. After you zip each tie, nip off the protruding portion of the zip tie close to the lock point.
Next, the fans. There are two ways to connect fans. The easy way is to use the Molex lead from the fan and connect it to the female Molex connector from the power supply. With this configuration, the fan will always be on and running at full speed, providing maximum cooling with minimal connection hassle. The second way is the efficient way. You may or may not be able to do this, depending on your motherboard. Take a look at your motherboard diagram and check for headers labeled case fan. Most AM3 boards have at least one. If you lucked out and got a higher-end board, you could have as many as six. Your case fans should have both 3 or 4-pin flat connectors and the larger Molex plugs. If your board allows it, connect your fans directly to the board. If not don’t worry about it, fans don’t use THAT much power. Whether you go quick or efficient, fold back the unused connector on the fan lead and zip tie it to the main part of the lead so it doesn’t accidentally drop into the fan while it’s running.
Finally, connect the motherboard leads. There won’t be many routing options here, just run the wire to the board and plug it in. If the 4-pin wire is excessively long either zip tie it to the side of the CPU fan housing (they usually have convenient slots in the sides of the housing), or gently loop the wire lead to take up some of the slack. This same low-tech method works for any of the small leads inside a computer, notably the CPU fan power lead. Remember, you’re looking for a loop, not a knot. A knot won’t not do you no good.
What you will need:
One Philips screwdriver
And finally, the task you’ve been waiting for, and the one that will result in tastier graphics- installing the video card.
This is much simpler than the power supply project.
Unplug and disconnect all the cords running to the back of your tower, then open your case. Find the PCI-E slot on your motherboard, and match its position to the slot cover on the back of the case. There, you will find either a single screw for each slot cover, or a bracket with a screw in it that holds down all cards fitted to the board. Either remove the screw, then the cover or remove the screw, then the bracket, then the cover.
Open up your new video card and set aside any documentation or discs, you shouldn’t need them right now. Remove the card from its anti-static bag and align it with the slot on the board, holding it carefully only by the edges of the card. This can be accomplished by using your index fingers to hold the card on each edge, while using your thumbs to steady and guide the card by its top edge. Now, this next part is just a bit tricky, but no sweat, take your time. Move the card down into the case until it is just above the PCI-E slot. Now, move it toward the rear of the case until the video ports on the back of the card clear the slot in the rear of the case. Finally, gently lower the card into the slot until it is seated firmly. Most cards have a little metal tab designed to stabilize it against the edge of the motherboard, so if you encounter resistance move the card back toward the rear of the case just a little more before pushing it down into place. Store the slot cover in case you need it in the future and either tighten the screw against the video card tab that miraculously has a slot exactly where the slot cover screw hole is, or replace the bracket and tighten that screw.
Voila, new video card.
Plug in your computer and connect the monitor cable to the onboard port from the motherboard, and go online to either AMD or Nvidia’s website. Locate the model of card you have, and download, save and install the latest drivers for the card (the disc included with the video card will have outdated drivers). Remember where you saved the driver in case issues arise. Follow the path below to check that the card is functioning properly:
Start>Control Panel>System, then click on the hardware tab, then the Device Manager button. Look for Display adapters and expand that field by clicking on the little plus sign. You should see the brand (NVidia or Radeon) and the model number of your card. Click to show details on the device. Check to make sure Windows says the device is working properly and that a driver is installed.
Restart the computer. Press F2 to enter setup (otherwise known as the BIOS menu). Locate the sub-menu that allows you to control the primary display adapter. This is found under the Advanced tab, usually in Chipset. Locate the Primary Display Adapter field and hit Enter. Select PCI-E and press Enter. Press F10, then hit OK to continue to boot to desktop. Switch the monitor cable from the motherboard connection to the one on back of the video card. What you are doing here is telling your computer to look for its graphics capability in the PCI-E slot first, then use the onboard graphics if necessary (the video card fails). DO NOT disable the onboard graphics; if your video card fails and onboard capabilities are disabled, you will have NO display at all. Then, the only remedy is to find the path by consulting another computer that has the same menu, and writing down the correct keystrokes to enable onboard graphics without being able to see what you are doing- hit or miss at best.
Now you should have sexy new graphics staring back at you whenever you play on your PC.
You did it yourself, and you didn’t break the bank in the process. Let’s review the budget…
$100 for a system with working components but no hard drive, another $50 for a hard drive, another benjamin for Windows 7, and $100 for the new PSU and video card. This little system will serve you well, until the urge strikes (and the budget allows) to start building a more serious tower.
Again, you’re welcome.
Gratuities can be sent to me at:
Send Malefico to Japan and Buy Him Some Bukkake Girls
C/O Nerd Bacon
123 Iwish Street,
Somewhere, South Dakota, 20120
This little DIY project should give you something to do on a weekend day and reward you with a whole new universe of games.
*I’m giving this one 12.7 out of 10 because it’s so much fun it may also give you a new passion/hobby, the wonderful world of DIY PC’s. *Actual results may vary. For full details read the standard disclaimer.
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