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.



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.



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://sup­

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.

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