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How To Build the Ultimate Gaming System on a Budget, Step by Step, Part 1

📄 Contents

  1. Designing the Dream System
  2. Choosing the Case
Once you have experienced the "feel" of a custom, high-end machine, you can never go back to Dell. Here we show you why.
Editor's Note: This is part 1 of a 4 part series. Here are links to part 2, Choosing the Motherboard, part 3, Choosing the Graphics Card, and part 4, Putting It All Together. And when you're ready to put your system to the test, see what Cyrus had to say about the Doom 3 experience at Quakecon 2004.
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Doom 3 owned me. It was a scorching day in Dallas when I first encountered the beast. I was one of the lucky few invited to QuakeCon to try the first live demo of ID Software's most anticipated game of all time. Despite the heat of the Texas sun, inside the Adam's Mark hotel was cold, dark, and damp. The world's largest LAN party lay sprawled before me: thousands of custom-modded machines glowing in ultraviolet splendor, each a masterpiece of design. It was more than the eye, or the mind, could hope to encompass.

It's been over a year since the first alpha demo of Doom 3 was leaked on the Internet, and over eight months since the prerelease version debuted at QuakeCon. However, while the gaming world holds its breath, there is still no sign of the final release. In a way, this is a good thing, since ID Software's John Carmack will not rush the game to market until it's perfect.

If you're a serious gamer like me, you may be thinking about competing at QuakeCon next year, or one of the many other cons that now offer fat cash prizes. Or, you may be a high-tech enthusiast who simply wants the ultimate gaming system that can be had for a reasonable price. (Or you may just want a system that can comfortably beat your friends at Half-Life or Counter-Strike, but also allows you to do high-speed video capture, editing, and DVD burning.) One thing is sure: Your current rig won't be able to handle Doom 3, unless it's fairly new and expensive.

In this series of articles, I'll show you how to build the ultimate gaming system on a budget. If you search the web, you'll find very few guides that actually show you how to build an entire Pentium 4 system, from scratch, step by step. Most guides are several years old, since it's easier now to simply order prebuilt systems from Dell. However, if you buy any off-the-shelf machine, you'll be disappointed. Not only will you be laughed out of any serious LAN party, but you also will get crappy components and poor gameplay, all at a much greater price.

In this guide, I'll describe every component you'll need to buy, down to the exact model numbers. Of course, most of you are smarter than me, so you'll want to choose your own designs and components to modify this template. (Note that this article is written in April 2004. Prices for the components discussed will drop each month after the article is published.) However, my goal is to describe on paper exactly how to build at least one high-end system that's completely tested and known to work—and work well.

Designing the Dream System

The key to a successful machine is spending time in the design phase. If you don't spend a good deal of time thinking about what you want and how to achieve it, you're certain to end up wasting money and being dissatisfied with the final result. These are the general design goals of our system:

  • Powerful. The system should have the capability to handle the latest first-person shooter at a high frame rate. No one, outside of the game's designers, knows exactly how fast the hardware will need to be for Doom 3. However, based on veiled hints from ID software, and leaked comments on the web, the system we're building should comfortably handle all of the game's features.

  • Fast. The rig must handle video capture, processing, and DVD burning fast enough to be almost transparent. You are planning to use this system for more than just gaming, aren't you?

  • Stable. This is a hot rod—a street racer, not a minivan. You're going to push your system to the max and beyond. While this is a budget system, I'll show you where you really need to splurge to get components that are stable and reliable under load. Although we won't get heavily into overclocking in this article, it's important to design your baseline system with high tolerances. By building extra overhead with quality components, you can overclock with more confidence.

  • Cool. Cooling is vital for a high-end Pentium 4 system. Modern chipsets run hot, and CPUs can now roast large fowl in record time. Cooling is thus vital for a modern system, especially when you overclock. Although we won't get into water cooling in this article, we'll cover the basics of how to design an adequately cool system for gaming and reasonable overclocking.

  • Quiet. You won't notice computer noise when fragging opponents, but during off-gaming times a P4 system can be loud enough to drive you insane. We're going to put special emphasis on choosing only components that lead to a whisper-quiet computing experience. This means that you have to pay attention to every aspect of the system. Our box is going to have a minimum of 10 fans, including the video card, mainboard chipset, CPU, power supply, and chassis fans. Remember, you're only as quiet as your loudest fan.

  • Esthetically pleasing. I'll spend a good deal of time talking about esthetics. Specifically, we'll design a combination ultraviolet, windowed box that's optimized for good airflow and cooling. So you won't get laughed out of a LAN party when you show up with a beige box and ugly flat-ribbon cables.

If you're like me, you spend 2–3 hours a night playing Quake, at 5–6 days a week, year after year. So you not only want a system that's fast, reliable, and pleasurable to use, but also quiet, cool, and visually stunning.

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