TURN AN OLD PC INTO A GAM­ING RIG

PLAY ALL THE LAT­EST TI­TLES FOR UN­DER $300

TechLife Australia - - FRONT PAGE - [ ALEX COX ]

IF YOU’RE LOOK­ING for a sec­ond PC, a com­pact gam­ing box, or an up­grade from an an­cient rig that coughs out dust and grind­ing re­quests to be put out of its mis­ery ev­ery time the fans start spin­ning, you might be tempted to take out a new credit card and a lien against your home to af­ford the lat­est gear. But ac­cept­ing a small amount of com­pro­mise means you can build a new rig that will mus­cle through the ma­jor­ity of top ti­tles and won’t cost the earth — in fact, it could cost less than a con­sole and do a bet­ter job.

What sort of com­pro­mise? The first is ac­cept­ing that you don’t need a mon­ster GPU. The cur­rency min­ing crew has swal­lowed up all the good ones. Rar­ity and the in­con­ve­nient re­al­i­ties of mar­ket forces mean the prices are sky high, and un­til the bub­ble bursts (which could be com­ing soon, ac­cord­ing to some news out­lets), there’s a solid fi­nan­cial ar­gu­ment that stay­ing away from the high­est end is best for the av­er­age PC gamer. You also don’t need a su­per-mod­ern CPU, par­tic­u­larly if you’re lean­ing toward gam­ing. Pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions still have a lot of mus­cle left, and they’re still com­mon enough that they’re ripe for ex­ploita­tion.

The other big com­pro­mise might sting: You’re go­ing to have to drop your aes­thetic as­pi­ra­tions. Tinted win­dows, pretty RGB ac­cents, and gor­geous wa­ter-cool­ing lay­outs are all well and good, and we won’t ar­gue that they don’t play a big part in the allure of the mod­ern PC, but they cost money we sim­ply don’t have to spend. Our plan means set­tling for a ma­chine that’s more func­tional than fancy, some­thing that gets the job done with no fuss and no ex­pense other than that which is strictly nec­es­sary, and that of­ten means a no-frills black box. Put those cares aside, pick up the right com­po­nents, and you’ll have a highly ser­vice­able and fun­da­men­tally de­cent ma­chine. You won’t get any sort of for­ward up­grade path, but for the money, who’s com­plain­ing?

PICK UP A PC

Used hard­ware can be a mine­field. Head to Craigslist, and search for “gam­ing PCs”. You’ll see a bunch of pla­s­ticky mon­strosi­ties that are def­i­nitely show­ing their age, you’ll find some un­re­al­is­ti­cally priced ma­chines that are clearly ei­ther not as de­scribed or hot­ter than a three-dol­lar bill set on fire, and you’ll find in­cred­i­bly well-heeled and burned-out boxes from peo­ple des­per­ate to re­coup some of the in­vest­ment they’ve made on a new PC. They’ve up­graded be­cause that old PC isn’t just a few steps be­hind — it’s at the end of its life.

We rec­om­mend look­ing in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion: at of­fice PCs that have out­lived their leases. Yes, they’ll have been well used, but they’re un­likely to have been thrashed. And of­fice PCs, pre­vi­ously op­er­ated un­der ser­vice con­tracts, are made of en­ter­prise-class com­po­nents guar­an­teed to work well to­gether and for a long time. There are thou­sands of these ma­chines kick­ing around, cast off in floor-wide up­grades, and the good news is that the cur­rent crop packs some pretty mean hard­ware.

There’s a bunch of brands to look out for — see ‘Best bud­get brands’ op­po­site — but the key spec to watch out for is the CPU. Ig­nore first-gen Core i3 or i5 chips as, while they’re OK, the price dif­fer­ence in ma­chines tot­ing sec­ond or even third-gen chips is neg­li­gi­ble at best, and later pro­ces­sors and chipsets in­clude tech­ni­cal up­grades be­yond just speed. Even a Haswell CPU might be on the cards (our par­tic­u­lar ex­am­ple ma­chine, packing a Core i5-4590, was a steal), but they’re less com­mon in this class, and you should ex­pect to pay a lit­tle more.

Don’t, what­ever you do, opt for an old of­fice box with a Core 2 CPU or a Pen­tium. They’re ut­terly in­ad­e­quate, even if you’re just look­ing to put to­gether a new me­dia cen­tre. They’re not worth the sil­i­con they’re etched out of, par­tic­u­larly given that there’s no way you’ll be dig­ging up a Kaby Lake Pen­tium, which ac­tu­ally moves pretty fast, when you’re look­ing in this bracket.

WHERE TO LOOK

There are sev­eral av­enues to fol­low if you’re look­ing for an ex-lease PC. First, eBay, which is a vast repos­i­tory of older hard­ware. Use all the tricks. Fil­ter by the spe­cific level of CPU you’re look­ing for, by ma­chines with 8GB RAM, to save you up­grad­ing later on, and by the ma­chine’s des­ig­na­tion — look for ‘re­fur­bished’ rather than ‘used’. Check the list­ings. Scour through them, and read the de­scrip­tions; if a seller hasn’t even both­ered to check out the specs of a ma­chine and type out an in­for­ma­tive list­ing be­fore try­ing to flip it on­line, they don’t de­serve your busi­ness. Ama­zon is a good place to look, as many re­sellers lurk in its un­der­belly, but prices tend to be a lit­tle higher there. Per­haps the best op­tion is to seek out a re­cy­cler or re­seller close to you, or go to the source, like a lo­cal of­fice IT depart­ment. If you can see a ma­chine work­ing be­fore you buy it, all the bet­ter, and col­lect­ing your­self re­duces cost and negates po­ten­tial ship­ping nightmares. No­body wants to re­ceive a PC in sev­eral pieces.

Wher­ever you shop, be fru­gal. We can’t tell you pre­cisely what to pay, be­cause that de­pends on your bud­get and what’s float­ing around at any par­tic­u­lar time, but sav­ing

IF THE MA­CHINE DOESN’T QUITE MATCH YOUR SPECS, CON­SIDER HOW DIF­FI­CULT IT WILL BE TO BRING IT UP TO SPEED, AND WHETHER IT’S WORTH STEP­PING UP, OR BUY­ING CHEAP, THEN UP­GRAD­ING LATER.

a buck or 20 is the whole point of this ex­er­cise. Don’t dodge a bar­gain just be­cause it looks too good to be true. The sec­ond-hand mar­ket is volatile, and dif­fer­ent sell­ers have wildly vary­ing ideas of the value of their stock. Pe­rus­ing eBay quickly re­veals the sort of prices you don’t want to pay.

ES­SEN­TIAL QUES­TIONS

There’s a stack of po­ten­tial pit­falls that come with buy­ing a sec­ond-hand ma­chine, some of them avoid­able, some of them not so much. Let’s start with Win­dows; make sure you get a ma­chine with a le­git­i­mate in­stall on board, and prefer­ably one with the COA sticker still glued to the PC’s case. You’ll likely come across a lot of hard­ware that orig­i­nally ran Win­dows 7 or Win­dows 8.1 — en­sure from the seller that the key on the box has been prop­erly tran­si­tioned to Win­dows 10, and is the same key used in the in­stall on board. A le­gal copy of Win­dows 10 forms a big part of the value of these ma­chines; of­ten they can be found for less than the cost of a re­tail Win­dows 10 key.

Next, en­sure that the PC you’re buy­ing can do what you want. This means a whole lot of re­search be­fore hand­ing over your cash. Dig up the orig­i­nal data sheets, look at im­ages on­line of the case opened up, re­search ev­ery last de­tail. If the PSU is pro­pri­etary and of­fers lit­tle to no over­head, steer clear. Maybe it’s fine, but the PCIe slot can’t sup­ply enough power to juice up a de­cent GPU. Per­haps, as we learned to our peril when pur­chas­ing our ex­am­ple ma­chine, the CPU sup­ports VT-d in­struc­tions, but the chipset on board the pro­pri­etary moth­er­board does not. Thor­oughly list your re­quire­ments and check them off one by one — don’t miss any, or you’ll shed a tear when you go to start up a vir­tual ma­chine, and find it can’t use your GPU...

If the ma­chine doesn’t quite match your specs, con­sider how dif­fi­cult it will be to bring it up to speed, and whether it’s worth step­ping up, or buy­ing cheap, then up­grad­ing later. You could, for ex­am­ple, save a lit­tle has­sle buy­ing a PC with 8GB RAM or more, but check the prices of up­grades, and com­pare them to ma­chines with less RAM. Just as there are stacks of these ma­chines on the mar­ket, there are stacks of com­po­nents from ma­chines that have been parted out for profit; go back to those co­pi­ous notes you made to en­sure that what you’re buy­ing is com­pat­i­ble.

AFTERMARKET UP­GRADES

A lit­tle ex­tra RAM is es­sen­tial, and it’s just the

EVEN THE LOWLIEST MA­CHINE SHOULD BE ABLE TO HAN­DLE THE NVIDIA GEFORCE GT 1030. IT’S TINY, OF­TEN AVAIL­ABLE IN LOW-PRO­FILE HALF-HEIGHT FORM, AND THERE ARE VER­SIONS, SUCH AS GI­GA­BYTE’S FAN-COOLED $119 CARD, THAT HAVE A SIN­GLE-SLOT FOOT­PRINT.

tip of what you can do to these ma­chines. You’ll want to do all you can to com­pen­sate for the in­her­ent weak­nesses of an age­ing of­fice PC, par­tic­u­larly the pro­ces­sor be­ing a few steps back from cut­ting edge. But, alas, you’ll likely be work­ing with a very lim­ited plat­form. So what can be done?

First up, grab a SATA SSD for the op­er­at­ing sys­tem. It doesn’t have to be huge or out­ra­geously fast, but you must buy new — who knows what hellish bar­rage of read and write cy­cles a used one has been through? Sil­i­con Power’s 60GB drive is per­fect, a $39 up­grade at time of writ­ing. In­stalling it isn’t sim­ple, though; you’ll likely need a right-an­gle SATA cable due to case space con­sid­er­a­tions, and you’re un­likely to get a 2.5-inch drive mount in­cluded with your ma­chine. That’s an ex­tra you’ll have to source in­de­pen­dently. Mass stor­age may also be a po­ten­tial up­grade, par­tic­u­larly if your ma­chine comes with a measly ca­pac­ity, as this cat­e­gory so of­ten does. If you don’t re­place the spin­ning hard drive, con­sider it ex­pend­able: its life­span will have been sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced by wear over time.

Next, think about whether you should up­grade the CPU, then look in your box of unused CPUs to see if you al­ready have a will­ing vic­tim. In our ex­pe­ri­ence, buy­ing a CPU to up­grade an of­fice PC is a long way from be­ing cost-ef­fec­tive. Usu­ally, you’ll find used CPUs on the mar­ket for around the price of a fully func­tion­ing ma­chine. Bump­ing a Core i5 up to the equiv­a­lent Core i7 is some­thing you should in­te­grate into your orig­i­nal pur­chase, rather than do­ing as an up­grade, and given that the CPU is (weirdly) one of the least im­por­tant parts of our bud­get build, it’s not worth bang­ing your head against eBay for too long while wait­ing for one to come up. They’re not com­mon — jus­ti­fy­ing the ex­pense of a Core i7 on an of­fice desk­top is tough even for the high­est-fa­lutin ex­ecs — but they are out there.

The up­grade com­po­nent that re­ally gets an of­fice PC cook­ing (per­haps lit­er­ally, if you’re short on case space) is a new GPU. This is, as you’ve likely guessed, the rea­son that buy­ing an old PC for gam­ing makes any sense: That dated CPU might let it down, but the vast ma­jor­ity of mod­ern games lean more heav­ily on graph­ics power than they do on the pro­ces­sor. You’re build­ing a PC with a known bot­tle­neck, but one with sur­pris­ing abil­ity for very lit­tle money.

GRAPH­ICS GRUNT

Un­like the other stock up­grades, it’s im­por­tant to cater your choice of card to the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of your sourced hard­ware. If you’ve bagged an SFF case, you need to con­sider the space avail­able (see ‘Fac­tor­ing in form fac­tors’, left), while tower

cases, how­ever pe­cu­liar the moth­er­board may be, are gen­er­ally flex­i­ble and roomy enough to house any card. It’s not worth skimp­ing on this as­pect, par­tic­u­larly given that there’s a lim­ited num­ber of cards that are suit­able for use in this cat­e­gory — you are un­likely to find an of­fice PC with a six or eight-pin power con­nec­tor com­ing from its PSU. That’s just not a thing that hap­pens, so you need some­thing bus-pow­ered, draw­ing within the lim­its of your PSU’s re­main­ing wattage, which cuts down the op­tions some­what.

Even the lowliest ma­chine should be able to han­dle the Nvidia GeForce GT 1030. It’s tiny, of­ten avail­able in low-pro­file half-height form, and there are ver­sions, such as Gi­ga­byte’s fan-cooled $119 card, that have a sin­gle-slot foot­print. Other vari­ants in­clude pas­sive cool­ing, al­though this gen­er­ally ne­ces­si­tates heatsinks that ex­tend over more than one slot. Check not just the card width but its length, too — if you’re deal­ing with re­stricted space at the end of the slot, some­thing stub­bier, such as an ITX spe­cific card, would likely fit the bill. The GT 1030’s key as­set is both its price, which can dip be­low $100 if you look at the right time, and the fact that it de­mands only around 30W through the PCIe slot in or­der to power it. It may peak slightly higher, so make sure you have at least 45W ca­pac­ity re­main­ing on that PSU af­ter the rest of the com­po­nents are taken into ac­count. The GT 1030 can game, to an ex­tent, and it’s a great op­tion if you want to keep your bud­get to a min­i­mum, but it’s bet­ter suited to video en­cod­ing and mul­ti­me­dia ef­forts. Pro­vid­ing you have around 60W PSU power to spare, the GTX 1050 Ti is a far stronger choice. It’s more ex­pen­sive — at least $230 — but if you’ve saved enough on the base ma­chine, you’ll still bring home a box that packs some se­ri­ous mus­cle for po­ten­tially un­der $400. There are smaller ver­sions (check out the half-height MSI vari­ant), 2GB and 4GB edi­tions, and over­clock­able vari­ants, but don’t buy the lat­ter ex­pect­ing to push it too far. The GTX 750 Ti is an­other strong op­tion, al­though since it’s been re­tired, you’ll need to un­earth a used one.

On the AMD side, you could hunt for the RX 460, an­other card that’s been canned, but it’s a pricey $160+ op­tion even sec­ond-hand. The RX 560, still in pro­duc­tion and de­cently priced at around $200, is a per­fectly pow­er­ful card, but it typ­i­cally pulls the full 75W from the PCIe slot, so a 400W PSU is all but es­sen­tial — a rar­ity in of­fice ma­chines. We’re not say­ing Nvidia is your only choice but, in this con­text, it’s prob­a­bly the only good one.

When you’ve got it, you don’t need a step-by-step tutorial; just slot it in. It’s the eas­i­est up­grade you’ll ever do. And when your GPU is in­stalled, you’ll have a ma­chine that’s far greater than the sum of its parts.

Gi­ga­byte’s GT 1030 is sin­gle-slot, low-pro­file and cheap: per­fect for an ul­tra-bud­get gam­ing box.

Be care­ful when search­ing by brand: All four of these ma­chines are la­beled ‘Op­ti­plex 9010’, but they’re very dif­fer­ent.

Tat­tered it may be, but a COA sticker is your path to a le­git copy of Win­dows.

Of­fice ma­chines can be easy to work on, as they’re built for quick ser­vic­ing.

The GTX 1050 Ti of­fers up some se­ri­ous mus­cle and doesn’t de­mand a huge amount of wattage.

An SSD makes a vast dif­fer­ence in teas­ing a feel­ing of speed from an older ma­chine.

If you have the PSU ca­pac­ity for an RX 560, a 4GB model will net you im­pres­sive graph­i­cal re­sults.

You’ll likely need a con­verter if you use an off-the-shelf PSU with an of­fice PC.

DDR3 isn’t the fastest, but it’s cheap and plen­ti­ful. Check the max­i­mum ca­pac­ity and avail­able slots of your box be­fore buy­ing.

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