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How to build a budget gaming PC for under £350

Want to play some hot-looking new games but don't want to spend a fortune on a PC? Step this way for everything you need to know.

If you want to play shiny new games like Skyrim, Dirt 3 or Bulletstorm on a PC you're going to need expensive top-notch components, right? Wrong.

In this guide I'll take you through how to go about building a PC from scratch that's capable of handling these blockbuster titles -- for only £350.

The components

The first thing you're going to need to think about when building a custom PC is just exactly what components you're going to choose to stick inside it. We're on a budget here, so it's important to find the best performing components for the most reasonable price, and trade off something a little more costly in one part for something less impressive elsewhere.

The case: Pretty fundamental. You're going to need something for all your components to slumber inside. I opted for a Fractal Design Core 1000 mATX (£32.38). Because we won't have many different drives to fit in it, it's slightly smaller than your average desktop tower, so it'll save some space under your desk. You could scrimp a bit more here, but the cheaper options I found were incredibly ugly, and this is the part you're going to have to look at.


The Micro ATX tower (left) is smaller than normal, and looks fine to me.

The Motherboard: I chose a pretty bog-standard model, the Gigabyte GA-H61MA-D2V GEN3 (£39.13), as it has PCI express ports for plugging in the graphics card, offers USB 3.0 and -- crucially -- it's cheap.

The CPU: I plumped for the Intel Pentium G840 (£50.21). It's not one of the latest Ivy Bridge generation and it doesn't have the glitz and glamour of the Core series, but it's very reasonably priced and has a fast 2.8GHz clock speed.

The GPU: Arguably the most important factor for a dedicated gaming PC is the graphics card. Nvidia has recently launched the new GT640 chip, which promises respectable performance while keeping both its size and operating power to a minimum. That chip is housed within the Zotac GT 640 (£75.17) card I opted for.

The RAM: A strong helping of RAM is important, but for purely gaming, you don't need to go overboard. A 4GB stick (£17.28) will cope adequately, but doubling up to 8GB will help out with general computing tasks when you're not tackling the latest shooters.

The PSU is a Powercool PSUPC450AUBAM (£31.90) and the hard drive is a 500GB Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D (£47.98), which should offer enough space for more than a few of your favourite games. Totting up that little lot comes to £294.05 plus postage.

What hasn't been factored into the build is a monitor -- odds are you'll want to hook it up to your TV or your existing monitor. You've probably got a keyboard and mouse knocking around somewhere already too. I also haven't included a sound system, as you can use your current speakers or headphones. For a properly immersive experience, I suggest going for a decent speaker setup with a dedicated subwoofer or a good pair of closed-back headphones -- they'll make those headshots sound delightful, but are probably out of the question on a tight budget.

You're also going to need a copy of Windows 7, which can be bought for £50. If you already have a multi-licence copy, you can install that and put the money towards some games.


Look at all those delicious components.

The build

Constructing a PC from scratch isn't enormously difficult any more, as all the pieces are designed to slot together like some sort of wonderful technology jigsaw.

The motherboard is easily attached to the case and the RAM, CPU and GPU all slot into place without hassle. The only issue I found was mounting the hard drive in place, as the case didn't seem to want to allow us to install it as normal -- it turned out we needed to mount it vertically rather than horizontally.

It's best to follow the instructions in the various manuals if you're not sure what you're doing. The components are delicate when they're exposed like this so make sure you don't remove them from their static-free packaging until you're going to install them and ensure everything is securely in place -- if you haven't clicked your GPU all the way into its slot, it's not going to work properly.


Putting everything together can be a fiddly process, so make sure you consult the manuals when needed.

The performance

Once it's all whacked together you're ready to plug it in, hook up your peripherals, download Steam, crack open a couple of cold Mountain Dews and takes some games for a spin.

To start, I booted up the rally racer Dirt 3 and sent my BMW car whizzing through the Finnish hills with reckless abandon. I set the resolution to the maximum 1,920x1,080 pixels allowed by my monitor, set anti-aliasing (edge smoothing) to 2x and all other detail and shadow settings to high.

That's quite a big ask of a budget system, so I was very impressed to see it was still able to achieve a frame rate of around 45 frames per second. Gameplay was very smooth and free of any noticeable lag -- the gap between pressing a button and seeing the action take place on screen.

I saw a similarly positive result when I fired up the beautifully crafted roleplaying game Skyrim. Again, the resolution was at 1080p, 2x anti-aliasing was active and all other settings were on high. The PC was able to run the game at an average of 40fps, with that jumping to around 48fps in less visually demanding scenes.

It powered easily through Team Fortress 2 as well. That's not exactly the most demanding of games, so I expected a good performance, but it's good to know you'll be able to keep smooth frame rates even when the action gets really crazy.


It didn't break even a tiny sweat when playing Team Fortress 2, so head online and get pwning your mates.

It didn't tackle futuristic space-shooter Bulletstorm quite as well, achieving a lesser 30fps with all graphics on high. That's still perfectly playable though, and you can get a better frame rate if you knock the settings down a bit.

The PC reached its limit however with the extremely demanding Metro 2033. On full 1080p resolution and with the settings on high, it achieved only 8fps, which wasn't even remotely playable. Even when the quality settings were set to their lowest and the resolution was knocked back to 720p, it still struggled to maintain anything above 20fps.

When you're not busy sending cars hurtling round tracks you might want to use the machine as a normal computer, so it's good to know that it's got enough grunt to tackle your everyday needs.


It didn't fly so easily through the demanding Bulletstorm, but it still put in an excellent effort for the price.

On the Geekbench benchmark test it was able to achieve a score of 6,124, which certainly isn't mindblowing, but it's an adequate score that puts it alongside laptops like the Lenovo Essential G570, on paper at least. It's perfectly suited for most office tasks, high-definition video playing and streaming and will be able to do some light editing of your phone snaps too.

Conclusion

In general, the rig is perfectly well poised to handle the majority of the new releases on decent settings, and you'll only need to knock the detail down a bit for the more demanding of games. The most intense shooters, like Metro 2033 and Crysis 2, will be a little out of your reach, but games like Dirt 3 or Half Life 2: Episode 2 will run beautifully. It's definitely not the most powerful of office machines, but its skill with the polygons more than makes up for it.

Have you built a custom PC? Would you try to keep the price tag low or would you sell your family to buy the most powerful components you can find? Let me know how your own projects have gone in the comments below or over on our hand-crafted Facebook page.