Ever since I went to my first computer expo as a teenager and picked up a GeForce FX 5600, I’ve been hooked on building computers for gaming. I have built plenty of high horsepower computers in my time, double video cards (SLI), i7 cpus, liquid cooling, but people with normal budgets ask me all the time what to buy to get into PC gaming so I decided to see what I could throw together for ~$200.
I searched Craigslist, Facebook marketplace, and friends’ closets for weeks until I came across a couple of Compaq 4300 for $100 a piece that fit what I was looking for. What you want to look for to start with is something with at least a 2nd generation Intel i5 which will be named with a 4 digit number starting with a 2 (ex i5-2400). Don’t worry about spending extra on a -k (ex i5-2500k) model as the extra money would probably be better spent on other things. Most cheap computers only have 2 RAM slots on the motherboard, so aim for at least 4GB when you are searching, and if there are open slots even better.
The CPU in this build is a 3rd generation i5-3470s. The -s indicates a low power model which isn’t the greatest considering its lower 2.9ghz (3.6ghz turbo) clock speed, but it didn’t seem to bottleneck the GTX 1050 video card so who cares? It only came with a single 4GB stick of RAM, which when using the on-board video was a problem even with basic tabbed internet browsing because 50% of the memory was reserved for the graphics. I originally intended on adding another 4GB RAM stick, but after installing a dedicated video card, with its own memory, the bottleneck was mostly eliminated.
Power Supplies are probably the most overlooked components, these are IMPORTANT to check especially if overclocking CPUs or GPUs, or buying ‘superclocked’ video cards. For the purpose of simplicity nothing in this article has been overclocked – not only because of power limitations, but also heat dissipation. Because of the non-atx motherboard in this HP/Compaq, I was stuck using the original power supply. I was worried that the 240 watt power supply included with this Craigslist find would not be able to handle the 75 watt GTX 1050, but since the CPU was a low power model (65watt) and it was only pulling 38-42 watts from the wall during my gaming tests I jumped in with 2 feet and installed the card anyway. Post video card install, I saw it pull up to 118 watts from the wall during my Overwatch test which is well within the acceptable limits of this 240 watt unit.
The most important component for your gaming computer is hands down your video card, even on high end builds expect to spend around half of your budget on this. For this build, I selected the MSI GTX 1050 low profile model for several reasons. The First reason was I knew the power supply was not going to have any 6 or 8 pin power connectors for any video cards that use more than 75 watts, and I also preferred to use a low profile version because of the case it was going in. Along with price, I was pretty much narrowed down to either a RX 460, GTX 1050 or GTX 1050 TI. The TI model is ~$40 more and is ~12% faster, but in the interest of finding the most cost effective solution I went with the regular 1050. The Radeon RX 460 is cheaper option, but it is less power efficient and ~18% slower than the GTX 1050.
Overwatch: Pre-GTX 1050 this title was barely playable at 25 fps even on lowest settings, but after the upgrade it could easily handle the ultra preset on 1920 x 1200 @ avg. 70 fps.
Rocket League: 1920 x 1200 @ avg. 100 fps all settings maxed.
We will be doing more testing and updating the results, but they are overall surprisingly very good for 1080p gaming so far.