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Build A Better-Than-Xbox-One/PS4 PC For £500

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Well, don’t take that entirely literally. I’m just writing that to get your attention and/or I can’t think of a more accurate way to do it within the character limit. Obviously you can’t build your own Xbox One or PlayStation 4 – they use some custom hardware not available to PC-builders to do their next-generation thing, they’re running bespoke operating systems (and all the horror-DRM that goes with it) and contain it all with in a comparatively small black monolith that sits underneath your TV. Additionally, console games can be made to specific hardware requirements, which can entail a far great degree of optimisation than trying to target a hundred thousand million different PC configs. No matter what the console generation, the PC comparison can never be an exact one. What you can do, though, is build yourself a PC that has a little more grunt under the hood than these apparent future-machines, for pretty much the same amount of money.

To be honest, while hitting the £420 price of an Xbone is eminently possible, I’d recommend you spend just a little more on a games PC than that – it’ll last you longer, there’s more scope for upgrading later, games will look fancier and you won’t have to spend a week trawling price comparison sites. Either way, the idea that a beefy games PC costs thousands of dollars/pounds is an outdated and wildly inaccurate one.

We’re going to struggle to match the PS4’s relatively sensible £350, I think, but the Xbox One’s ludicrous £420 is another matter. Also, an off-the-shelf PC for that money won’t quite be up to scratch – really, you’ll need to be willing to spend £600 minimum. I’m discounting that side of things entirely as I’ve always built my own systems, but Jim’s going to make a cameo at the end of this post with some recommendations on that front. Meanwhile, if you (or a conscripted friend/relative) can scratch build or upgrade an existing system you’re laughing.

To be honest, the major complications in price-matching the new consoles is case, power supply, hard drive and operating system – the core components of processor, motherboard, graphics card and memory come in at the right price. If you do have anything you can recycle, including an existent copy of Windows, it’s going to help. Let’s not factor in a monitor though, unless you’ve spotted somewhere that gives you a free HDTV when you buy an Xbox One or PlayStation 4.

Let’s start with CPU. As resident hardware sage Jeremy rightfully sneered recently, Intel’s new Haswell processors are a pretty pitiful step forwards from their previous generation of chips on the desktop (the idea is they’ll be more worthwhile in laptops, due to their power-saving aptitude and improved integrated graphics). However, if you’re building your own PC right now, you might as well get one – it’s your best bet in terms of future proofing, as it controversially introduces the new socket LGA 1150, which will hopefully stick around for a couple more processor generations – so you can upgrade to something meatier down the line. I’m going to recommend the 3Ghz, quad core Haswell Core i5-4430, but to be honest that’s a much stronger chip than the eight-core AMD Jaguar in the Xbox One and PS4.

If you’re wondering how it could be eight cores good, four cores better, either read this or let me pass you over to Jeremy. “The eight core AMD Jaguar CPU, even if you had all eight cores available for playing games, would still be roughly half as fast as a current quad-core Intel CPU. the only slight issue is threading, but I would say the absolute best case scenario is that the console CPU will be half the performance of an Intel quad.”

The Core i5-4430 goes for £140 in the UK (example), or even a bit less if you want to put the hours into shopping around and gambling on lesser-known etailers. That needs to be paired up with an LGA 1150 motherboard, the cheapest of which is around £50 – such as this MSI one. Shop around, maybe consider ebay sellers, and you could well get down to £40-odd. You’ll need to spend more if you want more ports or, heaven forfend, multiple graphics card slots, but if you’re not a power user this’ll do you just fine. It is possible that the cheapest motherboards will prove not up to muster when later generations of CPU wheel around, so it may be wiser to spend a little more there – it’s the wheel of fortune either way.

You’ll need to plonk 8GB of DDR3, 1600Mhz RAM into there – same quantity as on console, although the PS4 has the much faster GDDR5 type. No, you don’t need any more than that – games won’t use itThe jury’s a little out on what that may mean in practice – on paper it certainly beats any PC, but as it’s shared memory for both CPU and GPU it’s more complicated than that. Jeremy again: ” GDDR5 has lots of latency vs DDR3 for a CPU, so it’s bandwidth vs latency. Who the hell knows! To be honest, current CPUs (more powerful than the PS4’s) aren’t bandwidth limited, so I doubt the PS4 will gain much in CPU terms from all that bandwidth.” The Xbone, at least, is doing the DDR3 thing too, so there’s nothing to worry about there. 8GB of DDR3 1600 will set you back £50 (again, legwork and/or secondhand will result in a bit cheaper if you can be bothered), bringing our running total to £245.

Now for the big, expensive part. While they’re both touting AMD-ATI graphics processors, neither the Xbone or the PS4 use an exact match for an existing PC graphics card. However, the best of the pair, Sony’s effort, with its 1152 shaders, isn’t far off an AMD-ATI Radeon 7870 with 1280. If you’d prefer join Team Green, the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 Ti has 1344, but it’s also a little pricier. The 7870 goes for about £170 (for instance) – again, careful searching might well knock up to £20 off that – and our total thus becomes £410: ten pounds less than an unquestionably lesser Xbox One, and with the infinitely greater flexibility of a PC. This is not a sub-par system, either: it’s one that will chew through almost anything at 1080p on high settings.

Noticeably absent still is a hard drive. Now, you can pick up a second hand £160 for a tenner all over eBay, and we’re still at £420, but if you don’t have one already now really is the time to grab yourself an SSD. With the arguable exception of a new graphics card, switching from olde worlde platter-based drives to an SSD is the single most effective PC upgrade there is. Unfortunately stretching to a 256GB drive, let alone higher, takes us too far above our budget, but Samsung’s reliably tasty 128GB 840 SSD can be had for £73. There we are with a rather juicy new PC for £483.

Alternatively, if you do have an old hard sat around that you can use to keep non-speed-reliant files such as movies, music and even most games on, a fairly decent 64GB SSD, enough to give Windows and a few core apps an enormous boost, goes for £45. Really though, aim for 128GB – that way a few favourite games can benefit too.

Case, PSU and operating system remain unaccounted for, of course. Power supply’s easy – this £17 puppy is enough for this system, and eerily takes us to exactly £500. You can run all your components from inside a cardboard box if you’re not worried about burning your house down and/or the parts taking damage), but maybe you should just stump up another £25 for this case. It’s got all you need realistically, it looks quite nice, and it matches the monolithic aesthetics of both Xbone and PS4.

£525 and we’re done – without working particularly hard to find the absolute cheapest components, to be honest. I reckon you could manage it for £500 if you’re willing to put the hours in.

To be honest, I’m going to simply cut out operating system in this case. If you’re reading RPS, you have a PC already, and thus surely have a Windows key already. Unless you’re planning to run both PCs at once, you can easily talk Microsoft in letting you re-activate on the new PC. And, if we’re comparing to Xbone, Xbox Live subscription costs are going to rapidly rise above the £40 cost of a copy of Windows 7 or 8 (there’s no cast iron reason to upgrade to 8, which is generally a little more expensive; it’s a little quicker in some ways, but from experience of using it as my main OS for six months now, it won’t make a meaningful difference regardless of inevitable apologists’ claims).

If you’re for some reason dogged about price-matching an Xbone rather than going up to £500, again you’ll either have to re-use old parts or look for where you can save money in the other components. As mentioned, the Haswell i5 is much beefier than the consoles’ CPUs, so you could go lower there – perhaps finding an Ivy Bridge (the previous generation of Intel chips) i5 going cheap – second hand ones abound for sub-£100 – or holding out for the forthcoming lower-clocked Haswell i5s. Another option is a dual core i3, but you should really stick to an i5 if you can.

You could also drop the graphics card to a 7850, which at 1024 shaders is only a nose behind the PS4. You can find those for £125, though that’s the 1GB model which may limit you a little. Alternatively you could go to the GeForce 660 vanilla (i.e. no Ti suffix), which would save £15 (this one, for instance). In any case, compromising a little on both CPU and GPU will keep you sub-£500 for sure.

And there we have it. A pretty darn corking PC for £525 max, as low as £420 if you have parts to recycle, but more than likely we’re looking at around £500 with a bit of careful shopping and/or scrimping. Am I allowed to say ‘Xboned’ yet? No, you’re right, I am a 34-year-old man and I should be above such low humour by now.

XBONED LOL

ALTERNATIVELY: BUYING A CUSTOM PC
Jim’s note: Lol, indeed. I’ve been building PCs for about eighteen years now, and I have long tired of people asking me to build for them, but I do understand the reticence to brave the issues that self-building might entail. As such I’ve regularly spec’d up builds for folks on various custom sites such as Chillblast, PCSpecialist, and Cyberpower (or their equivalents in other countries.) I checked out those sites in light of this article and I can report that they all offer reasonable custom-built systems, ready to use, for under £600. You aren’t going to get the value that you will building it yourself, of course, and as a rule of thumb you can expect to be paying about £100 more than you would for a self-build. However, they do come with warranties, and take some of the fear out of putting stuff together yourself. You can fit out out a similar PC to the one Alec outlined above, or go even lower than that, on any of these websites. Cyberpower currently offers the cheapest complete system I can see, for about £480, although it’s significantly lower specification than what is outlined here.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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