How to build a cheap but powerful gaming PC for $500

She's got it where it counts, kid.

Adding it all up

And that’s it! Here’s the rundown on the full build.

  • Asus Strix Radeon RX 470 OC Edition - $200
  • Intel Core i3-6100 with included CPU cooler - $118.29
  • Gigabyte GA-H110M-A micro-ATX motherboard - $54
  • SilverStone 1-to-2 PWM fan splitter cable - $4.39
  • GSkill Ripjaws V 8GB - $35
  • Rosewill Line-M - $35
  • EVGA 430 W1 - $32
  • WD Caviar Blue 320GB - $22

Add it all up and you’ve got a grand total of $500.39 at the time of writing. (Warning: PC prices can fluctuate daily.) Rounding down to the nearest dollar, I’d call it mission accomplished! This $500 gaming PC would chew through games at 1080p resolution, blowing through most titles at 60fps with most graphics settings cranked high. It’d utterly blow away today’s consoles, and that likely includes Sony’s new PlayStation 4 Pro.

There’s one part of this rig I feel bad about, though: Not including the cost of Windows.

new windows 10 logo primary Rob Schultz

Virtually all gamers use Windows, and at $110 on Amazon, a Windows 10 license ain’t cheap. But there’s a good reason for not including it here. You can pick up Windows 10 Home OEM product keys for under $30 on Kinguin, a little secret that both Paul from Paul’s Hardware and I have used for a while now. Just be sure to spend the extra buck or so on Kinguin Buyer Protection, as the site’s kind of like an eBay for software, and sometimes shady resellers will sell you a used product key. (You’ll need access to another computer to create Windows 10 installation media, though.)

Shaving $30 off the cost of this build to include Windows would require even more painful compromises. It would be better to install Linux at first and save your pennies for a month rather than cut deeper into this build. (There are tons of superb Linux-ready games now, tool!) But if you absolutely, positively have to squeeze the cost of Windows into the $500 total, you could replace the Core i3-6100 and the H110 motherboard with AMD’s FX-6300 ($90 on Amazon) and a $50 AM3+ motherboard like Gigabyte’s GA-78LMT-USB3 ($55 on Amazon). You’d be sacrificing future upgradability, as we discussed in the CPU section, but the difference in price between the two processors is enough to snag you a Windows license from Kinguin.

Alternatively, you could swap the $200 Radeon RX 470 for an older GeForce GTX 950, which you can frequently find for $100 on sale. (PC Part Picker’s great for finding discounts.) It’s a massive step down in terms of raw graphics firepower, but Nvidia’s card would still deliver 1080p gameplay that outshines the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. You’ll need to tinker with graphics settings more to hit decent frame rates, though.

Don’t be tempted to cut costs by using a no-name power supply. Just don’t.

Peripherals?

PC build guides—including this one—often don’t factor in the price of a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, as many people already have these lying around, or know people who have spares lying around. If you don’t, however, expect to spend a few dollars more.

The Razer Naga is an example of a more expensive gaming mouse.

A basic keyboard ($9 on Amazon) and mouse ($7 on Amazon) will set you back a mere $17 total, though you can spend much, much more on keyboards and mice designed specifically for gamers. Gamer-centric peripherals are definitely a worthwhile upgrade, but not something you need to blow your budget for up front. Your PC’s core hardware is more important. If you don’t have a spare monitor and can’t scrounge up a free one from a pal, Craigslist, or local swap shop, a basic 22-inch 1080p monitor can be found as cheaply as $90 on Amazon.

Don’t buy it though.

Instead, if you need to buy a whole new monitor, just grit your teeth and connect your PC to your TV until you’re able to spend a bit more for a monitor with better gaming specs, like the aforementioned 22-inch FreeSync-compatible ViewSonic display ($120 on Amazon). It’s still no high-end gaming monitor, but spending the extra $30 for a panel with a low 2ms response time and FreeSync support will result in a smoother, more satisfying overall gaming experience.

What I’d change if I had $100 more

If you wind up with an extra $100 to spend on the build—maybe you downgraded the Radeon RX 470 to a GeForce GTX 950, or perhaps your loaded grandparents slipped you a cash-stuffed card on your birthday—I’d suggest putting it towards correcting this build’s most glaring compromises.

First, I’d grab a small SSD, like the 64GB ADATA Premier SP600 ($33 on Amazon), to use as the primary boot drive for Windows and a home for your most-used software. The speed boost is well worth it.

Next, I’d upgrade the motherboard to one with the H170 chipset, like the Gigabyte GA-H170M-D3H ($90 on Amazon). It’s still not high-end despite the big leap in price over H110 boards, but it’s worth investing in the greatly expanded feature set of H170 if you can swing it. Considering that our pick for an H110 motherboard costs $55, we’ll call this a $35 upgrade, bringing us to $68 total for this and the SSD.

A better case would be good to have, and you can find nice ones like the NZXT Source 220 for $50 on Amazon, but I’d recommend spending the rest of your extra cash on a Kinguin-supplied Windows license.

Bringing it all together

That’s it! With these parts in hand, the only thing standing between you and a killer PC gaming experiences is actually putting it all together. If you need help with that, be sure to check out PCWorld’s comprehensive guide to building a PC.

Were my compromises different than the ones you’d make? I want to hear about it. Share what you’d change (and why!) in the comments below. You might just convince a fellow PC enthusiast to choose another path.

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Brad Chacos

PC World (US online)
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