Building a cheap gaming PC – Part 2

In part one of this series, I ran through the build of the first machine, the Optiplex 9010. This was the more ‘high end’ of the builds, and the machine I set out to build in the first place. So what of the 7010 I never intended to order? Well I set myself a challenge to see what I could throw together for ~£100.

With the £36 Optiplex 7010 as a base I decided that 8GB of memory would be enough for it, given that I already had 2x2GB sticks (One from the 9010 and one that the 7010 came with) I went and purchased another 2 of them from CEX for £3.50 each to bring me up to 8GB, which should be just about enough for a gaming system.

Next was the CPU, the Pentium was agonisingly slow and would bottleneck any half decent graphics card, so it had to go! I sprung for a modest, but much better Core i3-3220. It cost me a grand total of £12 from CEX, so the price was right. Next up I needed storage, so at £8 a pop from CEX I grabbed another 500GB mechanical drive. It’s no SSD but it will do for what I am trying to achieve with this build.

Keeping in mind the £100 budget, but still wanting decent performance didn’t leave me with many options. I was already at £63 deep at this point and I still needed a power supply and a graphics card! Again, I wanted to go new for the PSU as it’s something that can bring down the entire system if it goes wrong. Luckily I found a factory refurbished Corsair VS450 on SCAN PC for £27, so I grabbed it, bringing us up to £90… dangerously close to the £100 budget. I was wondering how I was ever going to get a decent GPU for anywhere even close to £10…

But then I stumbled upon a GTX580 on eBay, it was listed as ‘make and offer’ and marked as ‘not working’ with the description citing a driver issue. I figured it was worth the risk and made an offer of £20, £10 over my budget, but I knew the seller wouldn’t have taken £10! I waited and a few hours later my offer was accepted. The card was a full size one so I knew some modifications would need to be made to the case to make it fit, if I could even get it working properly.

So I got all the parts together and installed Windows 10, and all seemed well except there were no video drivers. On first boot, Windows downloaded the Geforce drivers and installed then, and then I got the same driver error that the seller had said in the listing. I thought this was very strange, given this was a completely fresh install. I rebooted the machine, but this time noticing that there were two ‘out of place’ pipe symbols ( | ) on the VGA bios screen, which concerned me. After googling around and trying a few re-installs I figured it was most likely a hardware issue and I’d wasted £20.

Before I resigned myself to binning the card and jumping back on eBay, I thought I’d try one last thing… The oven! This is a pretty well documented tactic for fixing broken electronics. The basic idea is that you heat the board up just enough so that it melts and re-flows the solder, re-forming any bad joints and (hopefully) fixing the card.

I stripped the card down to a bare PCB, put it on a baking tray raised up by little foil balls and pre-heated the oven to 200c (~390f) and baked until golden brown for 8 minutes. I shut off the oven and opened the door, waiting a couple of minutes before carefully removing the card. I applied new thermal grease to the chips and re-installed the heat sink, fans, shrouding, etc that I had cleaned thoroughly while the card was baking.

Getting ready to test the oven fresh GTX580

In order to fit the large card into the 7010’s small chassis I had to make some modifications. I needed to drill out the rivets holding in the lower drive bay (see the picture of the 9010 in my earlier post, bottom right) and given the heft of the card, I used one of the old PCI slot covers to make a card support bracket. Given that I now didn’t have anywhere to mount the hard disk, I made some adapter brackets out of a couple more of the old PCI slot covers so that I could mount the 3.5in drive in the un-used 5.25in bay. Given the ‘tool less’ design of the case, this was a bit more painful than it could have been, and I may yet order an adaptor online to use, but for now it works fine.

I installed the card in the Optiplex and crossed my fingers… powering the machine on, I saw the VGA bios screen (sans |’s) and the machine booted in to Windows. I was pretty excited and then all of a sudden the screen went blank. Crap, my little cooking adventure had been for nothing! But then it came back on, at the right resolution, it was just windows installing the drivers! Cautiously optimistic, I began installing some benchmark software to see if my freshly baked GPU was a) stable, and b) any good.

The completed 7010 build

So here is the final spec of the machine, and the cost of each item.

Item Price From
Dell Optiplex 7010 £36 eBay
Intel Core i3 3220 £12 CEX
2x2GB DDR3 1600MHZ RAM £7 CEX
2x2GB DDR3 1600MHZ RAM £0 eBay
Sparkle Geforce GTX580 1.5GB £20 eBay
500GB SATA HDD £8 CEX
650W PSU £27 SCAN
Total £110

In part three, we will benchmark both systems and see how they stack up performance/cost wise to some pre-built machines, and see what it would have cost to build similar spec machines with new parts!

 

Building a cheap gaming PC – Part 1

Recently, I decided I might want to get back in to PC gaming. The last time I built a PC or really played any (at the time…) modern titles was in 2007/8 when I was rocking an Athlon 64 x2 5600+ with a Geforce 8800GT, needless to say my MacBook Pro with its shitty Intel graphics would probably be faster than that machine ever was! Unfortunately the MacBook Pro sucks for playing anything modern my 2018 standards so I would need something with a little more oomph in the graphics department!

With his little foray back in to PC gaming, I decided I didn’t want to spend too much money, in case I got bored of it again. So inspired by ‘Scrapyard Wars‘ and from doing some research (e.g watching lots of YouTube videos),  I figured anything supporting Intel’s LGA1155 CPUs would be a good, cheap base. LGA1155 includes Intel’s second and third generation Core i7 CPUs, which are still decent even today. With that in mind the cheapest and easiest option seemed to be; find an old office machine or workstation and throw a decent graphics card in it. So off to eBay I went!

I ended up placing bids on two Dell machines, Optiplex 9010 and Optiplex 7010. Both pretty low spec, with 2GB RAM, Pentium G645 CPUs and no hard disks. As is the way when you bid on more than one item, you win both. I got the 9010 for £35 and the 7010 for £36, which actually was a pretty decent price! But now I had two machines… so I figured I’d build two rigs, one ‘high end’ (9010) and one ‘low end’ (7010) see how they go for price/performance and probably get rid of the ‘low end’ machine when I was finished with it.

Both the systems are very similar, both supporting using a Q77 express chipset and having 2x PCIe x16 (one at x4) slots, with the 9010 also having RAID support. The next thing I needed was graphics cards for the machines. My research told me that probably one of the best price/performance cards on the used market was the Geforce GTX970 4Gb (well.. 3.5Gb). Thanks to crypto miners, graphics cards are still fairly expensive, though not as bad as they were earlier in the year. I ended up getting a Geforce GTX580 for a good price for the 7010 (more on that in the next post!)

Getting ready to build

So lets run through the Optiplex 9010 build.

I ended up finding a Gigabyte GTX970 designed for Mini-ITX machines (perfect for me as the dell’s case’s aren’t huge) for £120. A bit pricey, but not really more than these cards go for on average. Next up I needed memory, as 2gb was not going to cut it! I had a look at new memory but I was looking at £39/stick for 8GB DDR3 1600MHz, so back to eBay I want. Prices on there weren’t much better, so out of curiosity I checked out CEX (a second hand ‘entertainment’ store in the UK) and found they had the memory I wanted for £25/stick, so I ordered two of them. No, they aren’t matched pairs and yes they are used but given the ‘budget’ theme of this, who cares. CEX also offer a 2 year waranty on nearly everything they sell, which I unfortunately had to make use of.

One of the sticks arrived DOA, so I took it into the local store and they swapped it out, no questions asked! The new stick worked just fine so it was time to turn my attention to the CPU. The highest CPU that the 9010 officially supports is an Intel Core i7 3770, so I had a look for one of those. Once again I tried eBay but the best price I found was actually at CEX (£85) again, so I ordered it from them, once again having a warranty on a used part.

The machine was coming together now, but I still needed a few items; storage and a power supply, as the 240W power supply that came with the Optiplex would definitely not cut it trying to run an i7 and a dedicated GPU and the hard disk was non-existent! The power supply was a part that I wanted to try and buy new, as if it goes wrong it can wreck the entire system! I ended up going with a Coolermaster Masterwatt 650W Modular PSU (that I bought at a stupid price from Currys, simply because I had some money left on a voucher to use up). This PSU goes for £64 from SCAN, however If I didn’t have the voucher I would have gone with something cheaper, like this refurbished VS650 from corsair.

For a boot drive I wanted to have an SSD, luckily I already had a 240GB PNY SSD that I was using in an old laptop, however these are worth about £34 new. For game/file storage I decided to go for the super cheap option, so I bought two 500GB mechanical drives from CEX for the princely sum of £16 and ran them in RAID0, because why the hell not!

I installed windows 10 pro on the machine, and much to my happiness it activated automatically. The machine didn’t come with a COA, but it would have come with a digital license for Windows 8 Pro when it was new, which seemed to carry across to Windows 10, so I was sorted for an OS.

The complete 9010 build

Unfortunately cable management options are limited in this case, as baring one, the panels are riveted on, so unfortunately I couldn’t hide cables behind motherboard as I would have liked. I think it’s an OK job given the limitations and shouldn’t impede airflow. I am also limited to the size of GPU I can use, with about 22cm (9in) of space to play with, unless I want to mod the case… see below for more on that.

So here is the final spec of the machine, and the cost of each item.

Item Price From
Dell Optiplex 9010 £35 eBay
Intel Core i7 3770 £85 CEX
2x8GB DDR3 1600MHZ RAM £50 CEX
Gigabyte Mini ITX GTX970 4GB GDDR5 £120 eBay
PNY 250GB SSD (£34) Owned
2x 500GB SATA HDD £16 CEX
650W PSU (£68) Currys
Total £306  (£408)

Not including the items I either owned, or had a voucher for, the total cost for the 9010 build was £306, if you include the SSD and PSU it comes up to £408, however I probably would have gone for a cheaper, non-modular PSU if I was buying it with cash.

So far I have been running this setup for about a month and I am very happy with it. It has had no issues whatsoever and runs modern games on high graphics at 1080p very well, actually much better than I thought it would. Stay tuned for the next instalments when we talk a look at what I did with the Optiplex 7010 and then how these machines stack up in terms of price/performance!