If you had told our PC gaming ancestors that in 2015 you could build yourself a gaming rig for £300, they would have laughed in your face and gone back to playing Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe on their £3,000 33MHz 486. But the world has moved on and PC gaming, led by Steam, is now a huge industry and the hardware needed to get involved is cheaper than its ever been. More importantly though, it’s also more powerful.
There are some key reasons you’re now able to put a gaming rig together for just £300 and it’s all to do with the specific components that have been released over the past year or so. Without the combination of Intel’s Pentium Anniversary chip, the flouted overclocking limitations on Gigabyte’s B85 motherboard and Nvidia’s bargain-priced GTX 750 Ti, a machine built on this budget would scarcely cope with the rigours of Minesweeper.
But it's those smart little components that form the core of this budget hero we've concocted – and they make this a great machine for dealing with the latest games at 1080p, even at the highest possible settings.
But while the hardware is obviously a huge part of what makes this all possible, we do have to give a nod to the longest-lived console generation there has been in modern times. The PS3 and Xbox 360 pioneered the 1080p resolution as the de facto standard for gaming – and so it has remained in the mainstream, for almost a decade. But as console hardware remained the same, PC components kept advancing, and today, running the latest games at 1080p is nothing out of the ordinary for a £100 discrete GPU.
This isn’t just a bare bones PC, either – the bargain price includes case, keyboard and mouse. Just plug this setup into your existing monitor and you’ll be gaming in no time. Of course, prices tend to fluctuate a bit, so these are what we got them for, although you may be able to find better deals.
With the PS4 and Xbox One basically PCs under the hoods – and serving up non-stop day-one patches and stability issues that consoles were supposed to be the answer to – it's never been more appealing to get yourself gaming properly on a PC at the right price. But how have is it all put together? Well…
CPU: Intel Pentium G3258, £47.90
The dull G3258 nomenclature really doesn’t do this processing hero justice – you might know it better as the Pentium Anniversary Edition, though. It was launched to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Pentium and packs two cores of Haswell power into a bargain package.
Now, some would suggest that without the added bonus of Intel’s HyperThreading tech, this resolutely dual-core chip is too much of a nostalgic throwback for worthwhile gaming. That might be true were it not for its not-so-secret weapon: overclocking. Even with the stock Intel CPU cooler, we were able to get it running stably at 4.2GHz, and that speed arguably makes more difference to gaming performance than more expensive multi-threading capabilities.
Motherboard: Gigabyte B85M-D2V, £41.25
The price of this wee board is astounding, but so is its functionality. The mini-ITX form factor means that there’s only space for one pair of DIMM slots and a single PCIe 3.0 x16 connection, which somewhat limits its upgrade possibilities. But for a budget build, you wouldn’t expect to be going multi-GPU any time soon.
It still has support for SATA 6Gbps and USB 3.0 connections, plus an upgrade path for your CPU up to a Haswell Core i7. And because it’s a B85 chipset, it has overclocking support, too. It shouldn’t, according to Intel – but the mobo manufacturers have been happily flouting overclocking restrictions for a couple of CPU generations now.
Graphics Card: Zotac GTX 750 Ti, £99.99
The first flush of Nvidia’s Maxwell architecture was a sneak peek into what was to come with the more high-end GTX 980 and GTX 970 cards. The GTX 750 Ti displayed impressive performance with an incredibly low power draw and price – and still does.
But this Zotac version is just £100 and can cope happily at 1080p resolutions with most modern games at decent speeds. Knock the graphics settings down a notch in-game and you will find impressively smooth frame rates. It’s not quite as quiet as the more expensive, passively cooled Palit card we’ve looked at before now, but it runs a fair chunk cooler and just as quickly.
Chassis, PSU, Keyboard, Mouse: Gigabyte GZ-MA02 4-in-1, £47.98
To be fair, without this bargain little Gigabyte package, this machine would be a rather bare bones affair and nowhere near so functional. There is nothing hugely exciting about the understated, simple black mini-tower chassis, but it’s got an effective front panel and space for all your budget components inside.
The real kicker is that this bundle comes with a 450W power supply, which is more than capable of coping with the parts we’ve chosen and provides some headroom for possible upgrades, too. It also comes with a keyboard and mouse combo, which means you just need a monitor to plug it all into and you’re good to go.
Memory: Crucial 4GB DDR3 1,333MHz, £26.99
Storage: Western Digital 500GB Caviar Blue, £35.99
And here's how you put it all together…
1.) Check It All Works
Of course, when it comes to building from scratch you’re likely to have to do some troubleshooting along the way. To make things easier, start by putting the main bits together outside of the case. Plug the CPU, cooler (don’t forget thermal paste) and memory into the motherboard, drop in the graphics card and plumb in the PSU. Attach it to the monitor and start it up to make sure it reaches the POST.
2.) Time to Move in
With the main parts set up outside the case any potential problems will be easier to isolate, but it will of course all start up perfectly... Detach the cabling and GPU to make it simpler to slide into the chassis, but you can leave the memory, CPU and low-profile Intel cooler attached. Attach the motherboard’s backplate to the chassis and screw the board et al into the case’s mounting points.
3.) Plug in the Juice
Once the board is securely screwed into place, it’s a good time to attach the chassis’ front panel connectors to the board. Use the motherboard manual to locate the right pins on the board and plug the USB and audio cables into the headers on the board. Now plug the power supply points into the ATX 12V socket and longer main power slot, drop in the GPU and make sure it’s attached to the PSU.
4.) Check for Movement
That should be everything plumbed into the chassis now. Don’t slide on the side panel just yet, we want to make sure all the fans are spinning before we do that. Plug your new rig into a monitor, attach the keyboard and mouse and connect it to your network. Now, cross your fingers and hit that power switch. When the machine bursts into life make sure all the fans are spinning and close up.
5.) Overclocking for Starters
Once the machine reaches the POST screen it will more than likely ask to be taken to the UEFI BIOS to set up the new CPU. If not, hit DEL or F2 and take it there yourself. Quickly check the temperature of your CPU in the BIOS, all being well it should be around 30-35 degrees celsius. Now you can overclock – throw the multiplier up to 42 (for 4.2GHz), hit the RAM’s XMP settings and let’s get you an OS.
6.) Windows for Free
Sadly, you’ll need another machine for this – or have already done this step previously. You need to head here and download the Windows Technical Preview ISO to get a genuine free Windows OS. Install it to a 4GB USB stick using the Windows USB/DVD Download Tool and boot your freshly machine with it. In fifteen minutes you’ll be up and running.
This article originally appeared in PC Format magazine, covering the latest PC games, hardware and the most entertaining ways to get more from your rig