IT’S TIME TO BUILD OUR BUDGET-BUSTER
DESPITE WHAT YOU MIGHT THINK, speccing out a budget build like this is never easy. In fact, more often than not, not only are the components more difficult to source than their many-thousand-dollars-more counterparts (companies tend to be really reluctant to lend us budget hardware), but making sure that each dollar that we do spend is well accounted for is far more challenging at the lower end of the system-building spectrum than at the mid to high end. Price to performance is the metric of choice here, and everything—and we mean absolutely everything—is about keeping that metric balanced when picking the parts that matter.
Even then, there are exceptions, so let’s talk about some example scenarios. Say this is the only rig you’ll be using for the next 10 years. You’ll want to spend around 30 percent of your budget on the processor, 20 percent on storage, 20 percent on memory, and the final 30 percent on everything else. However, if you’re planning on it being a stop-gap rig—that is, you’re going to be upgrading the CPU at a later date—it might be wiser to drop more cash on the motherboard, memory, and storage, and get a super-budget CPU at this point to keep you going until you upgrade.
That said, it’s about time we covered the rules for this build. First up, there’s the budget, a nice stress-inducing $300 to play with (management does love putting a big number on the cover), then we’re limited to one stick of DDR4, to see how it affected performance at this level of computational use, and finally we had no choice but to use AMD’s latest Athlon (by name but not by nature) 200GE processor, because it’s really cheap, and a competitor for Intel’s Pentium lineup. Everything else was up to us.
ALL GOOD PC BUILDING STARTS with preparing your work area. You’ll need a couple of Phillips screwdrivers, maybe a pair of scissors for cable ties, and that’s about it. A magnetic screwdriver is useful, in case you drop any screws, and a bowl to hold them in is also a good call. Static isn’t a huge deal nowadays—just make sure you’re grounded before you start, by touching something metal that’s not a component. Once done, take your case, and give it a full strip-down. Remove every panel you can to make things as easy as possible when inserting hardware. This is also a good time to take your hardware out of the boxes for inspection. Remember: Antistatic bags are conductive on the outside, and can retain charge, so never place any hardware on top of them.
SO, YOUR CASE IS STRIPPED of everything, the hardware is unboxed, what’s next? Rear I/O shield, always the rear I/O shield. Pop this bad boy into position by aligning it with the ports on your motherboard, and pushing it from the inside of the case. It’ll click into position. On cheaper ones, you might need to bend the pins to make sure your motherboard can fit into position afterward, because they’re notorious for getting stuck in ports, and generally being in the way. On more expensive motherboard options, the rear I/O shield is generally padded, and more of a premium affair—it’s only at the absolute budget end of the spectrum that you’ll encounter them like this. Some even come pre-attached.
WE’RE GOING TO DO THINGS differently, and install the PSU first. There are only a few parts that need to be installed in a strict order, and this is usually to do with clearances or logic. For instance, CPU before cooler, fans after mobo, and so on. When it comes to your PSU, it can vary. For a case with good cable management routing, you can leave it till last. For us, getting it in early lets us figure out where we’re going to route our cables, particularly the troublesome CPU power at the top of the board. In the Arcadia, there’s no top cutout for the CPU; usually, we’d be cheeky, and run it under the motherboard, and pop it out of the top, but that wasn’t possible. Instead, we’ve run it out the back of the motherboard tray, up through the top, then along the top edge. It’s not the tidiest solution, nor the easiest, but it’s the best option we have.
NEXT UP IS the motherboard. By default, your case should come with the stand-offs pre-installed. If they’re not, look inside the box of bits and pieces that comes with your case. Then, depending on the size of your motherboard, locate the correct mounting holes in the chassis. These will be labeled “M” for microATX, “A” for ATX, or “I” for ITX. Some holes are the same across all three types of board. Line the stand-offs up with the holes on your motherboard, and screw them into place. Some cases (Cooler Master in particular), come with an adapter you can add to a Phillips screwdriver to secure them in place, or you could needle-nose pliers, after tightening by hand. Then line the motherboard up with the rear I/O shield and the stand-offs, and secure it with the correct screws.
PROCESSOR AND CABLE TIME
NOW IT’S TIME TO INSTALL that pretty little Athlon processor of ours. To do this, move out the little lever to the side of the CPU socket slightly, and lift it up. Then, line up the gold triangle on the corner of the processor with the triangle cutout on the socket, and gently drop your processor into place. Give it a little wiggle to make sure it’s seated securely, before pushing the retention arm back down into position. You’ll also notice that we’ve installed our power supply cables here, too, with both the ATX 24-pin and the CPU pin running through the back of the case, and through that top cable cutout to the right of the board. Don’t worry about installing the wrong cable in the wrong hole—it’s physically impossible to do so, because each pin has a specific square or pentagonal plastic housing to prevent you from doing so. Just remember to plug them in, and make sure the CPU or EPS power goes into the CPU connector.
NOW WE COME to the crux of this whole experiment— the single stick of RAM. Yup, just one stick of memory, in all its single-channel glory, will be powering this budget-busting build. When it comes to installing DDR4, there’s not a lot to it. Simply lift the pin on the slot you want to install the memory into, match up the notch on the motherboard with the notch on the stick of RAM, then carefully push the memory into place, until it clicks down securely, and the latch tucks itself into the notch on the stick of memory. For a single stick, we recommend installing it into slot A1 (this should either be written on the motherboard itself, or specified in your user manual)—however, in this configuration, it actually matters very little where you install it. If you’re having trouble with compatibility, you can install your stick in any of the slots, and it should perform just fine.
OUR CPU WAS an OEM engineering sample, so we didn’t get the retail cooler, and had to use one of our own, which comes with a number of Ryzen gen-2 CPUs. It comes with thermal paste applied, so there’s no need to add more. Remove the brackets above and below the CPU socket, and keep the backplate in place. Position the cooler on the backplate, lining up the screws on the cooler with the holes on the mobo. Secure each screw a bit at a time, going diagonally, to ensure equal pressure is applied. If using the included Athlon cooler, leave the plastic brackets in place, and hook the metal latches on the cooler on to them. Rotate the plastic lever on the cooler, and it locks into place. Finally, for both, you install the fan header into the CPU fan header on the mobo.
HARD DRIVES AND TIDYING
IN THE ARCADIA, there’s only one place to mount the 2.5inch SSD: above the 3.5-inch caddy mount. With the ports facing back toward your mobo, you install it vertically into the cage, with the screw threads facing toward you. Line it up with the four holes in the hard drive cage, then screw in from the side facing you. Install the SATA power cable (align the L-shaped power connector with the port), then run a SATA data cable from the drive to one of the ports on the motherboard. Locate the front panel headers, and install them into the correct pins on the bottom-right of the board (refer to your motherboard manual for which cables install into which pins). On to cable management. Use cable ties to attach troublesome cables to your case’s cable tie loops on the back of the motherboard tray. Then throw the panels back on, and secure them.
AT THIS POINT, you’re going to want to install your OS of choice. For our testing, we had no choice but to go with Windows, because that’s what most of our benchmarks rely on. To keep to that sub-$300 budget, though, you’re going to want to install your preferred version of Linux—head to www.linux.
org for more information. If, like us, Microsoft is your jam, but you can’t afford chucking that extra cash at an additional Windows license just yet, you can run an unactivated version of Windows temporarily, and leave your key until a later date. Yes, that does mean you’ll have a nasty watermark on the bottom of the screen, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to run your machine. That said, at this level, there’s nothing Linux can’t do compared to Windows anyhow.
DUE TO OUR SYSTEM’S RELIANCE on integrated graphics, it’s vital that the motherboard supports the processor ahead of time, and has the correct up-to-date BIOS. If your mobo is powering on, but there’s no display, you probably need to update the BIOS. If you have a lastgen Ryzen CPU and free GPU, you can use these to temporarily swap out the Athlon 200GE, install the BIOS update (via a FAT32 USB stick, and the BIOS file from the Asus product page), then swap out the GPU and processor for the Athlon after. Alternatively, contact the reseller or mobo manufacturer, as they might be able to update it for a fee (this requires a return, though). If you’re really stuck, go to https://support.amd.com/en
us/warranty/rma, fill in your details, and enter “boot kit required” in the problem description field. AMD will get in contact to send you a loan boot kit to update the board.