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How To Build the Ultimate Gaming System on a Budget, Part 3: Choosing the Graphics Card

Cyrus Peikari continues his step-by-step account for building a wicked cool game system. Excitement builds as we hunt down the finest components for our dream gaming system on a budget.
Editor's Note: This is part 3 of a 4 part series. Here are links to part 1, part 2, Choosing the Motherboard, and part 4, Putting It All Together if you're joining us late. 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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Parts I and II of this series described how to choose two critical components—the mainboard and the high-performance RAM—that are necessary for building our ultimate high-end gaming machine on a budget. The next important piece is the graphics card.

For the graphics card, the sky is the limit on how much you can spend. Graphics cards can really break the bank. However, it's possible to get excellent performance for first-person shooter 3D games like Doom 3 while still remaining in budget. For our setup, we chose the ASUS Radeon 9600 XT/TVD. The ASUS Radeon 9600 XT/TVD packs a lot of power—more than I've found in any other card under $200. This card should be able to handle all the advanced features of Doom 3, while providing a high frame rate.

One thing that I like about the ASUS Radeon 9600 XT/TVD is that it adds support for video-in capture as well as video out. It allows you to capture video input in multiple formats. It even comes with software to program VCR-like functionality so you can digitize your favorite shows while you're away.

Another advantage is the card's looks (see Figure 1). It's a bright board with a chrome heatsink that is forged into the shape of the ASUS logo—another very cool feature that will look good in our box. The fan is embedded into the heatsink, which gives it a lower profile than some boards.

Figure 1Figure 1 View of the attractive, low-profile ASUS Radeon 9600 XT/TVD heatsink.

One of the best features of the ASUS Radeon 9600 XT/TVD is its SmartDoctor software, which allows you to easily overclock the card directly from the operating system. In addition, the smart cooling allows the software to adjust the fan speed on the fly, based on demand. Thus, the fan spins up all the way when under heavy 3D load processing, and then quiets down when you come back to 2D. This is another mark of attention to detail when building a custom case for quietness.

ASUS Radeon 9600 XT/TVD cost: $189.

Choosing the CPU

The CPU is one place where we can really cut back on price. If you're always trying to buy the absolute fastest CPU, you'll waste hundreds of dollars without a noticeable performance boost. For example, a P4 3.6 GHz feels only slightly faster than a 3.0 GHz, for all practical purposes. You won't notice the difference, until your credit card statement slaps you in the face at the end of the month.

You can buy the bare CPU, since in a high-performance system with a windowed case mod you'll want to install a custom heatsink. Most custom fans also come with included thermal paste. This paste is necessary to increase the effective surface area, because at the microscopic level there isn't adequate contact between the CPU die and the heatsink without this amorphous intermediary. You can also choose to buy any of various commercial brands of silver paste—but make sure they have a high silver content, as some manufacturers tend to skimp on this expensive ingredient. Silver is a better conductor even than copper; a quality paste will ensure that your thermal compound is not the rate-limiting step in heat dissipation.

Intel P4 3.2 GHz bare CPU cost: $199.

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