Affordable All Rounder
Times are tough, credit is getting crunched faster than your breakfast cereal and the newspapers are full of more doom and gloom than an Orwellian novel – best then to collect your job seeker's allowance and get yourself an affordable gaming PC to ride out the recession with!
Joking aside, if your budget is stretched and cash is tight, the thought of building a new PC can seem daunting, but you’d be amazed at how much performance you can get for around the £400 mark, and even more so if you’re not opposed to a little overclocking to get the best out of the hardware.
However, this is the most competitive end of the market for manufacturers and competition for sales is now even more furious than ever. Prices can fluctuate massively, especially with the added issue of the weakened pound as we’ve seen prices shift by literally £20 inside of a month. While we’ve done our best to find competitive pricing for the components listed below, it’s always worth checking around the bigger e-tailers in search of bargains and special offers.
Of all the months since we started our buyer's guide, for £400 we think this May build is the best value bundle we've ever put together so far.
Graphics CardFirst Choice: ATI Radeon HD 4770 512MB
UK Pricing: £77.53 (inc. VAT)
US Pricing: $99.99 (ex. Tax)
It seems that the more wallet friendly end of the graphics market is now well and truly in AMD's hands, as the ATI Radeon HD 4770 is now the third different AMD card to have occupied the spot of recommended affordable graphics card, following in the footsteps of both the Radeon HD 4850 and HD 4830.
The HD 4770 isn't just a refresh though, as the RV740 GPU at its heart is manufactured using the latest 40nm process from TSMC, thus making the GPU itself smaller and less thermally demanding, while also lowering power consumption too. We also found the stock model to be a champion overclocker
, with a whole lot of extra performance ready to be opened up with a little patience and luck.
The models we were given for review seem few and far between on e-tailer shelves however, and most are selling the HD 4770 using a block aluminium cooler rather than the dual slot, dual heatpipe model we tested. Nevertheless, stock performance remains the same and the HD 4770 is able to at least match, and for the vast majority of tests it betters Nvidia's competing 9800 GT in every game we tested.
It's a wonderfully capable card at lower resolutions, especially at 1,280 x 1,024 or 1,680 x 1,050, and is particularly capable when you start to crank the anti-aliasing settings upwards, which can really help image and visual quality at these lower resolutions. For a mid-range gaming system, there's not much that can touch it for the price.
ProcessorFirst Choice: Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5200
UK Pricing: £53.85 (inc. VAT)
US Pricing: $69.99 (ex. Tax)
While its on paper specs of just a stock speed of 2.5GHz, 2MB of cache and an 800MHz front side bus might seem limited, there’s nothing diminutive about the performance you can easily get out of this little budget dual-core wonder chip. Despite a gradual upward creep in prices following high demand and rubbish exchange rates, it’s still a good £20 cheaper than similarly clocked chips with 1,066MHz FSB and 3MB of cache, making it fantastic value.
The real beauty of this 45nm Wolfdale CPU though is the low FSB and high 12.5x multiplier, giving it a huge amount of overclocking headroom. Even a novice should be able to safely hit speeds of over 3GHz with this chip, and Rich managed to push the retail sample we received from Novatech to a whopping 4GHz using only basic air cooling – not bad for £54!
Even if overclocking is as foreign to you as a razor is to Joe, at stock speeds the E5200 is still more than capable of tackling modern games while remaining very cool and consuming very little power. Simply put it’s an absolute little stormer of a processor and, for the price to performance ratio, there's very little out there which can touch Intel's Pentium Dual-Core E5200 at the moment.
UK Pricing: £65.98 (inc. VAT)
US Pricing: $73.86 (ex. Tax)
Unfortunately Gigabyte is no longer sending stock of the EP31-DS3L to the USA, but the slightly more expensive Gigabyte EP43-DS3L is a worthy stand in. Based on the newer P43 chipset design and boasting a superior ICH9 southbridge and six SATA ports, it's a little bit better featured than the P31 with ICH7, although it still lacks CrossFire or SLI support needed for multi-GPU configurations with its single PCI-E x16 slot. However, on a budget we always
recommend a better single GPU over two mediocre ones.
Nevertheless, the board layout is still very good and the quality of the BIOS remains high, making overclocking intuitive and simple, although it does lack the ability to save BIOS setting profiles. We've spec'd the EP43-UD3L for our US friends because the DS3L is more expensive and harder to find in the States, yet, the UD3L is actually slightly newer with a better spec as well - you lucky devils!
While it’s worth mentioning that for just $10 more you can get yourself a Gigabyte EP45-DS3L based on the enthusiasts' favourite P45 chipset, for the purposes of our budget and overclocking our E5200, the EP43 is still a fine choice.