Gaming on a budget

Even those of us who do enterprise tech all day at work have lives. When the aging Dell rigs my kids have been using began to lag while playing the kinds of games they like I knew it was (finally) time for some upgrades.

Although we have a new Wii-U and Xbox 360 here at Case Lembo, those consoles have the disadvantage of (a) a limited selection of vendor-exclusive titles; and (b) in the case of the 360 a premium priced subscription to access multi-player networks. In addition, while PC technology continues to advance by leaps and bounds month-by-month, by its very nature the console market is much more static, and therefore tends to fall behind.

For my one son’s PC, a Dell Inspiron 620, all that was really needed at this point was a power supply, memory and graphics card upgrade. Dell is infamous for shipping with underpowered PSU’s (Power Supply Units), and even the latest releases of Intel’s integrated video fall short for many of the current crop of graphics intensive multi-player games. But the Inspiron 620 shipped with a 3 GHz Intel Core i3 2120, based on the Sandy Bridge architecture, and so is a more than sufficient CPU for those games.

What we (my son and I) did for this machine was install the following:

Antec 450W PSU (VP-450)
8GB (2×4) Corsair Vengence DDR3 1600MHz Kit (CMZ8GX3M2A1600C9)
Sapphire Radeon HD7770 1GB DDR5 PCI-E Graphics Card (11201-17-20G)

He was actually able to insert and seat both memory and graphics card more deftly that I. Potential.

My other son’s machine was an older Inspiron 530 that was finally ready for retirement. It had seen an operating system (Vista to Windows 7) and PSU upgrade about a year ago, but the Core Duo E2160 CPU was past its prime as the engine for any kind of gaming platform (raw statistics might suggest otherwise, but those rarely match real-world performance). Basically he was going to need a new computer. We would be able to salvage the optical and hard drive for the new system, since both were SATA and had been previously upgraded (we actually wound up installing another spare 1TB 7200 Seagate Barracuda HDD in the final build since it was newer than the one in the 530).

What we got for him was:

Intel LGA1155 DDR3 1600 Micro-ATX Desktop Motherboad (BOXH77EB)
Intel Core i3 3220 CPU
Antec 450W PSU (VP-450)
8GB (2×4) Corsair Vengence DDR3 1600MHz Kit (CMZ8GX3M2A1600C9)
Sapphire Radeon HD7770 1GB DDR5 PCI-E Graphics Card (11201-17-20G)
Fractal Design Core 1000 Micro-ATX Mini Tower Case
Windows 7 Home Edition (OEM)

The Fractal Design case is overall well-designed, although getting the board seated on the standoffs was a little challenging. A half-centimeter more clearance on opposite the rear would have been welcome. An ATX mid or full tower might have made that easier, but I wanted something that my son could move around without having to bring in a forklift. As it happened, my son was able to fit the board in once I gave him the chance. Mounting the optical and hard disk drives were also easy for him to do. Small fingers are an advantage inside a cramped case.

The cushioned feet were glued on a little off-center. Clearly whoever installed them had missed the quality control lecture that week. Ventilation through this case is impressive. The 120mm fan in front does a good job of pushing air from the outside across the motherboard. The front grill has a full size filter in it that should prevent the build up of dust over time (there’s also a ventilation grate on the side where another fan can be mounted. It currently doesn’t have a filter but we’re considering installing one).

One thing I really liked about the Intel motherboard was the lack of legacy ports. While we sourced most of the parts for the build from Amazon the motherboard and CPU were purchased from our local computer shop, who mounted the CPU and our memory in the board and bench tested them (while my son watched). Clearly Intel makes some of the best engineered boards on the market, and it shows.

Having to buy another copy of Windows for a legitimate replacement for an existing computer irked me. Although I could have gone down the whole “tell Microsoft the old board failed and this was a replacement” route to transferring the existing license to the new machine, I didn’t spend a corruption free decade at the bar to start compromising my ethics now. Not over $100, and certainly not in front of my sons. The problem here is with Microsoft. Windows licenses should be transferable between motherboards when the previous machine is being scrapped. Period. Enough said.

The result of our efforts were very satisfying. Although my boys aren’t quite at the point of looking at upgrading and building systems as an art form, I think they came to better appreciate what goes into their machines.

And that’s a good beginning.

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About phil

My name is Phil Lembo. In my day job I’m an enterprise IT architect for a leading distribution and services company. The rest of my time I try to maintain a semi-normal family life in the suburbs of Raleigh, NC. E-mail me at philipATlembobrothersDOTcom. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own and not those of my employers, past, present or future (except where I quote others, who will need to accept responsibility for their own rants).