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Monday, February 16: Sub-$500 Gaming PC

Washington's Birthday Observed

Patrick Norton

I know that if you already have a PC with an ATX case, a 300-watt (or bigger) power supply, a CD-ROM (or CD-R/RW, DVD, etc.), and a hard drive, I can help you build a kick-ass gaming PC for $362. If you need a case, a power supply, a CD-ROM, and a hard drive, well, it'll cost a whopping $471.

At the core of our cheap gaming PC is an AMD Athlon XP 2100+ CPU, a speedy MSI nForce2 motherboard, 512MB of PC2700 RAM (if you can find PC2700 in 128MB sticks, you can save money by getting 256MB of RAM), and a DirectX 9–ready ATI Radeon 9500 graphics card.

The Parts That Count

Most games live in your processor, main system memory, and graphics card. The hard drive and CD-ROM drive are there to feed those parts the data.

A faster hard drive loads your game levels faster, and a faster CD-ROM drive loads your games onto your hard drive faster.

With this in mind, scrounge! Call every local computer store. Hit Price Watch (http://www.pricewatch.com). Shop at companies that offer super-cheap or free shipping. Don't order anything overnight. Be patient.

Inventory

  • CPU: Athlon XP 2100+, $71 (http://www.amd.com).

  • Motherboard: MSI K7N2-L, $90 (http://www.msicomputer.com). The MSI K7N2-L has the NVidia nForce2 IGP chipset, built-in 10/100 Ethernet, audio, five PCI slots, and USB 2.0.

    Want FireWire and the SoundStorm APU surround-sound audio? It'll be a bit more—say, $137 for the Asus A7N8X Deluxe (http://www.asus.com) or $147 for the MSI K7N2G-L (http://www.msicomputer.com).

  • Memory: Two sticks of 256MB PC2700, $65. If you can find 128MB sticks, buy a pair instead. You need two sticks of DDR RAM to take advantage of the nForce2's Dual Channel DDR.

    Willing to spend more money? You'll get better performance from the CAS2 PC2700 than the CAS2.5 that comes with most generic DDR RAM.

  • Graphics card: ATI Radeon 9500 Pro, $136. You could go with an nForce2 motherboard with onboard graphics. The motherboard will cost $30 to $40 more, but newer games, such as Unreal Tournament 2003, will bring the onboard graphics to its knees. ATI's Radeon 9500 is the cheapest DirectX 9 graphics card.

  • Hard drive: 60GB EIDE drive, $66. On Price Watch, 20GB drives start at $49 and often aren't listed with a brand. 60GB drives start at $66 and are usually Maxtor or Western Digital.

  • CD-ROM drive: Generic 40X CD-ROM, $25. If you're using the CD-ROM drive only to install games and listen to the occasional audio CD, don't break the bank. If you want faster audio extraction (for making MP3s) and the ability to burn audio discs and data backups, get a CD burner ($50).

  • Case and power supply: Generic parts on Price Watch, $18. Recycle an old case. Buy a case from a yard sale. Watch for the best power supply you can get.

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