Affordable Hardware

Tim proved a few months back that you can just about buy a half decent gaming rig for £400, although you will have to cut a few corners to do so. However, recently hardware and software prices have been going up rather than down, especially for high demand components like AMD’s ATI Radeon HD 4850 and even Nvidia's GeForce 8800 GT 9800 GT.

However, even with fluctuating prices and a tight budget for a full system, you can still pick up some phenomenally impressive hardware more than capable of running modern games and if you’re looking for a reasonably priced upgrade, this is where you should start looking.

This month saw the release of Nvidia's performance Forceware 180 driver, and as we found out, it has significantly lifted the performance of Nvidia's graphics cards in a number of games. The most notable improvements were on the GeForce 9800 GTX+, which is now a much more convincing competitor for the Radeon HD 4850. However, despite the performance bump, the HD 4850 remains the card of choice and a decent custom cooled factory overclocked card is well worth stretching your budget for.

We are a little saddened to see our recommended processor and motherboard increase in price by so much though - last month both would have set you back a good £10 less, although they're still great choices, even with the slightly higher price tag.

PartRecommended ProductUK PriceUS Price
Graphics CardPowercolor Radeon HD 4850 PCS+ 512MB£129.33 (inc. VAT)$169.99 (ex. Tax)
ProcessorIntel Pentium Dual-Core E5200£62.10 (inc. VAT)$78.50 (ex. Tax)
MotherboardGigabyte EP31-DS3L£53.82 (inc. VAT)$78.99 (ex. Tax)
MemoryCorsair XMS2 4GB kit£37.54 (inc. VAT)$54.99 (ex. Tax)
CaseCooler Master Elite 330£32.57 (inc. VAT)$34.99 (ex Tax)
Power SupplyCorsair VX450£48.92 (inc. VAT)$72.00 (ex Tax)
CPU Cooler (UK)Akasa 965BL£14.67 (inc. VAT)N/A
CPU Cooler (USA)OCZ Vendetta 92mm£18.88 (inc. VAT)$22.31 (ex Tax)
Hard Disk DriveSeagate 250GB SATA£33.76 (inc. VAT)$43.59 (ex Tax)
Optical Drive (UK)Sony DRU-V200S£16.92 (inc. VAT)N/A
Optical Drive (USA)Lite-On LH-20A1S-12Premium 64-bitN/A$26.90 (ex Tax)
Operating SystemWindows Vista Home£83.15 (inc. VAT)$109.99 (ex. Tax)
Total £512.78 (inc. VAT)$692.25 (ex. Tax)

Graphics Card

First Choice: Powercolor Radeon HD 4850 PCS+ 512MB
UK Pricing: £129.33 (inc. VAT)
US Pricing: $169.99 (ex. Tax)

The current king of bang per buck graphics card is without a doubt the ATI Radeon HD 4850, delivering fantastic performance for a its price point and even snapping at the heels of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 260 (the one with 192 stream processors) – which sell for about fifty pounds more than the 4850, if you can still get one that is!

As availability of Radeon HD 4850-based products has improved, we’ve started to see an increasing number of pre-overclocked, custom cooled versions from various board partners. While the Palit Radeon HD 4850 Sonic is our card of choice, availability in the UK is pretty rubbish right now. Because of this, the next best option is the Powercolor Radeon HD 4850 PCS+, which impressed us with its affordability and excellent thermal performance.What Hardware Should I Buy? - Dec 2008 Affordable Hardware - 1

While the price might have risen to about £130 it’s still fantastic value, and is certainly preferable to the new lower priced Radeon HD 4830, especially as the Powercolor comes prefitted with an excellent aftermarket cooler to replace the ridiculously toasty stock 4850 cooler.

For your £130, you’re getting a whisper quiet, incredibly efficient custom cooler and plenty of overclocking headroom to get the most out of the card. Even at stock settings, the RV770 based HD 4850 is more than enough to play any modern game at 1,280 x 1,024 and 1,680 x 1,050 resolutions in high detail (yes, even Crysis).

Processor

First Choice: Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5200
UK Pricing: £62.10 (inc. VAT)
US Pricing: $78.50 (ex. Tax)

£65 for an Intel dual-core processor clocked at 2.5GHz? Yes please! It might have gone up by a good £10 in price over the last month, but this processor is still worth every penny. While the 800MHz FSB and 2MB of cache might seem a bit limited, it's a full £25 cheaper than similarly clocked chips with 1,066MHz FSB and 3MB of cache, making it fantastic value.

There’s obviously going to be a slight performance gap in comparison to a more expensive processor with a higher front side bus and cache, but the beauty of this 45nm Wolfdale CPU is the low FSB and high 12.5x multiplier. This should mean that there’s a huge amount of overclocking headroom in this little chip; it should comfortably hit over 3GHz and maybe even in excess of 3.5GHz if you're lucky!

Even if you’re not interested in overclocking it, at stock clock speeds it’s more than capable of tackling modern games while remaining very cool and using as little power as possible. Simply put, for the price to performance ratio, there’s not much that can touch Intel's Pentium Dual-Core E5200 at the moment.

Motherboard

What Hardware Should I Buy? - Dec 2008 Affordable Hardware - 1
First Choice: Gigabyte EP31-DS3L
UK Pricing: £53.82 (inc. VAT)
US Pricing: $78.99 (ex. Tax)

Tim gained some extensive experience with this board while overclocking our £400 PC and found it a fantastic board for the money. While it's limited to just four 3Gbps SATA thanks to its relatively weak ICH7 southbridge, it supports processors with a front side bus of up to 1,333MHz and has a very intuitive BIOS in which it's easy to overclock your processor and get a whole lot more performance out of it - perfect for overclocking our low FSB E5200 processor.

The EP31-DS3L was also rock solid when overclocked and while only boasting one PCI-E x16 slot, making CrossFire or SLI setups impossible, this board delivers a proven stable overclocking platform with more than enough extras for a mid range gaming system.
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