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|Motherboard||ASRock Z77 Pro4-M||$110|
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3450||$200|
|Memory||2x2GB G.Skill DDR3 1333MHz||$33|
|Graphics||Radeon HD 7770||$110|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar Blue 500GB||$60|
|Power||Corsair Builder Series CX500||$50|
|Case||Cooler Master HAF 912||$60|
|Monitor||Acer S231HLbid 23"||$160|
|Speakers||Cyber Acoustics CA-3602||$35|
|Peripherals||Logitech G400 + Lite-On Standard Wired||$43 + $8|
|Core System Total||$641|
|Core System + Monitor and Peripherals||$887|
Motherboard, Processor, Memory
At $200, the quad-core Core i5-3450 is a little pricier than we'd usually pick for our Entry-Level Rig, but given the impressive performance of Intel's latest architecture, it's hard to recommend investing in anything else -- including AMD's Bulldozer chips. The i5-3450 is clocked 300MHz slower than the $250 i5-3570K and it has a weaker integrated graphics core (HD 2500 versus HD 4000), but you likely won't notice the former or use the latter.
If you intend to overclock heavily or plan to rely on Intel's integrated graphics, we suggest upgrading to the i5-3570K and motherboard in our Enthusiast's PC.
Assuming you don't already have a 6-series H67, P67 or Z68-based motherboard on hand, you might as well shoot for a 7-series board. As of writing, ASRock is driving a hard bargain in the $110 range with its Z77 Pro4-M, a Micro ATX board with one PCIe 3.0 x16 slot, two PCIe 2.0 x16 slots (wired for x1 and x4), four DIMM slots supporting up to 32GB of RAM, two USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gb/s ports, one 6Gb/s eSATA port, optical S/PDIF out and more.
The ~$100 bracket isn't usually associated with gaming graphics cards, but that's precisely what you get with the Radeon HD 7770, assuming you can live without maxed quality settings. For about $130, you get a card that outperforms the HD 5770 and 6770 (our previous picks) by a wide margin in most titles while consuming substantially less power. In our testing, the card achieved very playable frame rates in various games including Crysis Warhead, Crysis 2 and Civilization V.
Opinions vary when it comes to the necessity of a dedicated sound card. While integrated solutions were less viable for serious computing setups a decade ago, in our opinion they're absolutely fine for entry-level or even mid-range usage today. If you're of the opposing mindset, by all means buy an audio card if you have $100 to burn. If you're going to invest in a sound card, you might as well go the full mile with a SB X-Fi XtremeGamer, Asus Xonar DX, or HT Omega Striker.
Building a new rig in the $800 range is a bit of a bummer because there's no wiggle room for an SSD. However, if you have about $100 to spend on storage you'll be within the range of Seagate's 500GB Momentus XT hybrid drive. Granted, it's not as quick as a full-fledged flash drive, but it performs like a quieter, less power-hungry VelociRaptor (Western Digital's 10,000RPM drives). Being only a tad more expensive than our chosen 500GB drive, it's a luxury well within reach of the average user and we suggest you make the jump if at all feasible.
You're probably thinking Atec's Neo Eco 520W power supply isn't up to snuff for a new gaming rig. If that's the case, we invite you to take a look at some of our recent GPU reviews which show system power consumption rates. Our X58-based Core i7-965 Extreme Edition and Radeon HD 5670-packing test system pulled about 154W at idle and 243W at maximum load. If you need a little more proof, electricity load meters start at about $20. The CX500 offers solid parts, 38A on the +12V rail and a three-year warranty.
The Cooler Master HAF 912 comes with two 120mm fans, one for intake and another for exhaust, and supports up to three additional blowers. Like its pricier siblings, the HAF 912 has plenty of room for high-end components and touts many of the same quality features. Highlights include a top-notch cable routing, a CPU retaining hole, removable dust filters, and liquid cooling outlets -- not to mention the same aggressive design, which we happen to be fond of.
Monitor, Speakers, Peripherals
There are tons of monitors on the market suitable for the Entry-Level Rig, but making the right choice simply boils down to your budget and taste. We firmly believe that a 23-24" display is worth the money and will provide a better experience than something in the 20-22" range, especially if you're considering high resolutions. At $120 it's easy to see why 21.5" 1080p displays are so appealing, but the fact is, unless you're sitting right on top of the screen or have spectacular vision, the small text can be too difficult to read. That said, we understand the value of such displays and if you know it's going to suit your needs, don't let us scare you off.
If you're super strapped for cash, Hannspree's SL231DPB or Acer's S231HLbid is about the best you're going to do for $150. Unless you're going to make the jump to an IPS panel, most of the budget-oriented ~24" TN screens are of a similar quality. In other words, it's safe to buy one of the cheaper options. Hanspree's unit has marginally better horizontal viewing angles, has integrated speakers and is LED backlit (weighs slightly less and consumes a bit less power), whereas Acer's is a tad brighter and has more ratings.
As convenient as it may seem to have speakers built into your monitor, it's one of those things that is just too good to be true. In most instances, integrated speakers are barely a step above not having any sound at all. Budget 2.1 setups from reputable companies such as Logitech, Altec Lansing and Cyber Acoustics can be found at $20 to $40 and some of the more popular models include the S120, VS2621, and our recommendation, the CA-3602.
If this system will be used for any serious gaming, a mouse that ships with cheaper combo sets won't cut it. The Logitech MX518 is a solid gaming mouse that has been around for a while and at less than $40 it's among the cheapest options. Our pick (the G400) is a revamped build of the MX518 with an improved sensor (1800DPI versus 3600DPI), a less restrictive cable and more.
We recently published a round-up review of 12 popular gaming mice if you're looking for a more in-depth look at what's available. The keyboard is a less crucial element for most and a no-frills $8 model from Lite-On seems to be keeping a lot of people happy. If you are more picky about keyboards (and some of us TS staffers definitely are) check out the Enthusiast's and Luxury builds for other choices.