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Can We Build a Gaming PC on a Console Budget?

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Put your money where your mouth is.

There's no debating that a souped-up gaming PC will outperform an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 any day of the week, but it'll also cost you a lot more at checkout. However, what about a gaming PC that isn't top of the line, say, one that was built for $550?

This is the question we put to the test: could we build a gaming PC from scratch that could provide a gameplay and visual experience on par with a next-gen console, for around the same price as a next-gen console? While the PlayStation 4 is substantially cheaper, we wanted to make this exercise as competitive as possible, and that meant allowing ourselves the luxury of a slightly higher budget. Our own Mark Walton and Peter Brown each built one machine; one based on Intel and Nvidia chipsets, and the other on AMD hardware. Then, we put them to the test to see if Mark and Peter used their budgets wisely or if they would have been better off buying a console for great graphics on a fixed budget. The text on this page covers the basics of our test, but be sure to check out the videos below for a more in-depth look at Mark's and Peter's process and results.

Rules and Goals

We aimed to stay within a budget of $550--roughly the most you can pay for an Xbox One in North America. In addition to acquiring the bare essentials for a PC--CPU, GPU, RAM, motherboard, power supply, computer case, and hard drive--each editor had to include the cost of a mouse, a keyboard, and a Windows license. No piracy or preexisting parts allowed!

The other goal was to build a machine that performs as well as or better than an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 in cross-platform games. The list of benchmark candidates included Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Battlefield 4, Thief, and Titanfall.

Mark Walton - AMD Gaming PC

Mark Walton's AMD PC
Mark Walton's AMD PC

Gaming PCs live and die by the GPU and CPU. AMD's budget offerings are a far better value for the money than either Intel's or Nvidia's. For less than the price of the cheapest Ivy Bridge-based Core processor from Intel, you can pick up six-core chips from AMD that happily outperform it. The same goes for AMD's GPUs, which offer excellent performance for less than the Nvidia equivalent.

My plan was simple: stick as much money into the CPU and GPU as possible, and work with what's left--and if I could make the computer look half decent too, all the better.

ComponentTypePriceStore
CPUAMD FX-6300 Vishera 3.5GHz$109.00Amazon
MotherboardASUS M5A78L-M/USB3 AM3+ AMD 760G$48.49Newegg
CaseFractal Core 1000$39.99Newegg
PSUEVGA 100-W1-500-KR 500W$44.99Newegg
GPUPowerColor AX7850 2GBD5-DH Radeon HD 7850 (open box item)$107.00Newegg
RAMHyperX XMP Blu Series 4GB DDR3 1600$40.00Newegg
StorageSeagate Barracuda ST500DM002 500GB 7200 RPM 16MB$50.95Amazon
OSWindows 8$70.00eBay
Key/MouseV7 Standard PS/2 Keyboard and Mouse Combo$10.19Amazon
Subtotal$520.61
Sales Tax$45.55
Total$566.16

GameSettingsAverage Frame Rate
Assassin's Creed IV1080p, Ultra, AA42
Battlefield 41080p, High, AA72
Battlefield 41080p, Ultra, MSAA42
Thief1080p, Ultra, AA87
Titanfall1080p, Very High, AA60

Note: Click the links under "settings" to view the complete list of settings used during testing.

I was pleasantly surprised at just how well this system worked. All the games I tried hit frame rates 60fps, and--with the exception of Battlefield 4--did so at the highest settings. Rendering games 1080p60 is an achievable goal on a budget, then, as long as you're realistic about which games you'll be able to do it with, and at what settings. If you're after a bit more oomph and some peace of mind for future releases, though, spending a few extra bucks here and there will give you a big boost in performance.

More RAM is the obvious choice. It doesn't cost much to bump it up to 8GB, and the less time the PC has to spend thrashing the hard drive for a swap file the better. An extra $70 toward an R270 GPU would be a wise decision too. It's good value and overclocks extremely well, putting it firmly in the high-end GPU segment for just a fraction of the cost. There's also the option of an SSD for a more responsive feel, an aftermarket cooler for CPU overclocking, and a nicer-looking case, but they're not essential.

Peter Brown - Intel/Nvidia Gaming PC

Peter Brown's Intel/Nvidia PC
Peter Brown's Intel/Nvidia PC

A budget of $550 is unusually small for a gaming PC, especially when the cost of an operating system is factored in. My strategy for this build was centered around a few key tactics.

First, I planned to keep the system's power draw as low as possible to save money on the cost of the power supply. I wanted to build small because smaller form factor cases and motherboards are usually cheaper overall unless they're particularly fancy. I also decided to use an unusually modest CPU. Intel makes excellent processors, but this quality isn't limited to the Core line. As long as I wasn't going to risk bottlenecking the GPU's performance, I looked for the simplest and cheapest option available. That way, I could focus on the linchpin of a gaming PC: the GPU. In this instance, I was aiming for Nvidia's Geforce GTX 750 Ti due to its great price/performance ratio.

ComponentTypePriceStore
CPUIntel Pentium G2130 3.2 GHz$74.99Newegg
MotherboardBiostar H61MGV3$36.99Newegg
CaseTopower TP-1687BB-300$34.99Newegg
PSU300W SFX Power Supply (included w/case)n/aNewegg
GPUEVGA GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2 GB$154.99Newegg
RAMTeam Elite 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3 1333$39.99Newegg
StorageWestern Digital Blue 500 GB 7200 RPM 16MB$54.99Newegg
OSWindows 8.1 64-Bit$99.99Newegg
Key/MouseRosewill PS/2 Wired$12.98Newegg
Subtotal$509.91
Sales Tax$38.24
Total$548.15

GameSettingsAverage Frame Rate
Assassin's Creed IV1080p, High, FXAA40
Battlefield 41080p, High, 2x MSAA50
Thief1080p, High, FXAA55
Titanfall1080p, High, No AA50

Note: Click the links under "settings" to view the complete list of settings used during testing.

Like Mark, I was surprised how well my rig performed. I had faith that the GTX 750 Ti would hold up under light pressure, but given its partner in crime, the Pentium CPU, I presumed that I would have to dial down the in-game settings a bit more. In practice, all it took for most games to play near 60 frames per second at 1080p was to disable a few flourishes like ambient occlusion and aggressive anti-aliasing. With my $550 PC, I was able to handily outperform the Xbox One in every case, and the PlayStation 4 in most cases, which says a lot about the value of the PlayStation 4 given its lower $400 price point.

If I had had a larger budget, I would have sprung for a better CPU and a bit more RAM. My inexpensive Pentium CPU held up quite well considering that it cost only $80, but it was typically running at full speed with little to no remaining overhead. Unfortunately, given my skimpy power supply, there's little hope for tossing a better Nvidia GPU into this build down the road without other additional upgrades. In the end, with our meager budget, Mark's AMD focus gave him a slight advantage in terms of performance and upgradability.

Closing Thoughts

As it turns out, you can build a gaming PC for around the cost of an Xbox One that will outperform both next-gen consoles given the current stock of cross-platform games. You'll also enjoy a massive library that neither the PlayStation 4 nor the Xbox One will ever be able to match from a pure numbers standpoint. Plus, your PC is upgradable, and its functionality in non-gaming areas only adds to its value. AMD has an advantage when it comes to the balance of price and performance on the low end, but there's nothing stopping you from mixing and matching components from different manufacturers, which very well might be the best plan if you've got a larger budget to work with.

Keep in mind, too, that current cross-platform games on consoles perform best on a PlayStation 4, which currently sells for $100 less than an Xbox One. If you were to try to build a gaming PC for $400 to $450, our experience has taught us that you would end up with a machine that can't compete with either next-gen console. Though we both succeeded in our goal, $550 was proved quite limiting when it came to picking components.

If you had a budget of $550, which platform--PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or PC--would you choose? How would you build a gaming PC on a console-size budget? Let us know in the comments below.

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