Description

The HP Envy laptop I had been using to play the Total War series had picked up a bad habit of overheating and triggering the failsafe emergency shutoff, so I needed an upgrade. While I've modified and built a number of machines from spare used parts over the years, this was my first relatively modern build based on mostly brand-new parts. The goal was to get in under $450 for something that would manage 720p 30fps with Ultra textures and MSAAx2, and to that end I succeeded - if anything, I found frame rate ended up largely CPU-limited (as Total War is poorly optimized for multicore processing). Had I a chance to do it over, I'd bump up the budget to $550 to get an unlocked CPU and Z-class motherboard.

No that I'm working on a new, higher-end build this PC will soon be appearing on Craigslist and LetGo ahead of the holidays in the hopes of finding a good home with a young gamer! (And padding my new build budget.)

Part Reviews

CPU

This is a perfectly capable CPU for a budget desktop workstation, but for games that aren't optimized well for parallel processing the locked clock rate can be limiting.

CPU Cooler

Not much to say here - it came free in the Intel Core i3-8100 box (which, as a locked processor, is rather undemanding).

Motherboard

I ordered this mistakenly thinking it had two M.2 connections, but in any case the stock BIOS only supports NVMe via AHCI so you can't use two M.2 SSDs in an Intel RST RAID configuration even if you opted for a PCIe Gen 3.0 x4 adapter card in the third slot.

If you're planning on supporting lots of external peripherals via USB 3, consider that this board does not offer 10Gbps USB 3.1 or USB-C. Also, it places the PCIe x1 in the second slot, rendering it useless with a two-slot GPU which additionally forces you to waste the PCIe x4 slot on a x1 device like the TL-WN781ND below. It does however put the IDC 10-pin header conveniently close to the fourth slot so that even just a 3" ribbon cable can reach a bracketed DB9 RS232 COM port for serial cable.

Nota bene, this board does not come with TPM but requires the 13-pin https://www.gigabyte.com/Motherboard/GC-TPM20_S (not the https://www.gigabyte.com/Motherboard/GC-TPM20 for older models with a 19-pin header). But chips like the i3-8100 have a logical TPM device embedded within Intel Management Engine that can be enabled for BitLocker support via the (regularly updated) stock BIOS ROM.

All that said, it absolutely fit the bill for a budget desktop workstation, home theater PC or entry-level gaming rig. And if you're building a somewhat hardened system, having the option to add a discreet TPM along with DualBIOS makes it relatively safe and easy to secure the ROM from Intel ME exploits without losing any measured boot or cryptographic processing functionality while running little risk of bricking the board even if you have to flash the SPI with a SOIC clip for me_cleaner.

So while it's of no use to overclockers, it offers a vastly superior upgrade path to OEM offerings and plenty of configuration features that either don't exist or are considerably harder to find in anything off the shelf. I would definitely recommend it to fellow hobbyists and tinkerers who are looking for a reasonably modern, functional, inexpensive, straightforward and reliable base to build on.

Memory

Cheap, reliable, widely available and mercifully free of LEDs.

Video Card

I bought this new for $164.99 on sale via Amazon in November 2018 and it could definitely handle 720p 30fps+ with MSAA 2x, or 1080p 30fps+ without - or would have if the locked i3-8100 I paired it with didn't bind the frame rate first. Now available used for around $100, it's a great value, especially if you're looking for a small case build thanks to it's compact form factor.

Case

I like the minimalist design and low price, and since I tend to avoid RGB LED items I had no problem with the opaque presentation (rather preferred it). I ended up adding another 120mm fan behind the grid-filtered front panel to promote positive air pressure in the dusty basement office where it was used. The only significant criticism is that it's listed with three SATA drive mounts, but in reality it's three 3.5" SATA drive mounts, as there's only mount points spaced (and hardware included) for two 2.5" drives. I ended up using zip ties to mount a third SSD on the back side of the interior support.

And while the grid filters on all the vents are perfectly functional at keeping relatively large particles from passing through, the attempt to keep the top surface flush with a countersunk filter affixed magnetically largely fails owing to it's tendency to slide on the smooth, matte finish - nevermind that the placement seems ill-considered considering the fact of gravity and the risks to electronic circuits presented by almost any liquid.

Power Supply

Inexpensive, unobtrusive, quiet, reasonably efficient, has a proper rocker-style cutoff switch and performed with rock-steady reliability for the last year: What's not to like?

Wireless Network Adapter

Reasonably priced only at $9.99 or less - anything more than that isn't advised as it only supports up to 150Mbps which means it's not capable of modern broadband speeds, nevermind for NAS on a wLAN. The TL-WN881ND is still suspect at $14.99 for 300Mbps, especially considering that you can get the 1200Mbps H50193 for $19.99, while the either the WIE7265 or WIE8260 offer that and Bluetooth 4.2 besides for $10 more.

Case Fan

I'm not a fan of the "put an LED on it" trend, but I have to admit, having a soft, white light for tinkering in a case while the machine is running can come in handy.

Monitor

Found for $14.99 at the local Goodwill, it's more sturdy than elegant but still understated while being reasonably crisp and bright - and therefore a good value at twice the price for at gaming at 16:10 1050p <= 60fps, which is about as much as can be expected from a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB or an Xbox One S in any case. It does not offer integrated audio, but then integrated audio is often quite poor anyway. It also does not offer HDMI or DisplayPort, but then again, it didn't cost much more than an HDMI to DVI adapter that can be found at any BestBuy in order to connect it to a console.

Mouse

I like the fit and matte, "rubberized" finish and altogether it's a perfectly fine, functional product at a more than reasonable price - but the loose scroll button action and lightweight construction does feel cheap in the hand. Then again, that's just a subjective assessment, and it may have suffered in comparison to my all-time favorite pointer, the Lenovo Laser Wireless Mouse (0A36188), which I tragically managed to break - but only after many, many years of smooth, faithful service.

Still, at only about twice the price, the Lenovo 0A36188 is much more than twice as nice. But the M310 will certainly do in a pinch.

Speakers

Picked this up secondhand for only $9.99 and even at four or five times that price it offers great sound - the tiny subwoofer set near your feet under a desk can be cranked up to produce a toe-tickling rumble that's surprisingly strong for its size.

A particularly nice feature is that it evenly mixes the signal from up to three inputs, including a male 3.5mm, a female 3.5mm and a stereo RCA, so it's perfect for a multi-monitor, multi-machine setup and makes it easy to layer music from the collection on your mobile phone over the sound effects from your first-person shooter.

And if you're family or your roommate starts to complain about the din, there's a 3.5mm headphone jack right alongside the volume knob.

Comments

  • 2 months ago
  • 1 point

nice for a change, don't really see full setups being built at this price point. good job +1

  • 2 months ago
  • 1 point

Thanks! An equivalent build would be a bit cheaper today than when I bought everything last year - alternately, improved parts could be sourced for the same price. But it's a reasonably useful gaming/home theater/video editing workstation at 720p or 1080p for not much more than a top-line console. I'm putting it up for sale to help fund my next build and hoping to find someone new to DIY who's at the stage where they've done enough research on the feasibility of modernizing an aging OEM box to know that it's unnecessarily difficult if not impossible in most cases and is ready to trade up for something as a base system with a reasonably long upgrade runway. Gigabyte's website suggests the B360M-DS3H can run an i9-9900, which if true isn't too shabby a shelf-life for a full setup (monitor, speakers, controller, etc.) that I'm looking to sell on LetGo or Craigslist for about $350.

  • 2 months ago
  • 1 point

And here I am spending more money for a overpriced GPU. This really shows that you can still build nice systems for a nice price. Very cool build! What are your plans on your new build, specs?

  • 2 months ago
  • 2 points

In the lull between Total War releases and Civilization VI DLC it dawned on me that Red Dead Redemption 2 had been released, and since the original Red Dead Redemption was something I desperately wanted to play but had neither the time nor the console I figured now that I have no life it was time to finally buy a console, so I got a used Xbox One S from Gamestop and played both a couple of times through. Then the Goodwill where I scrounge miraculously had an LG 27UD68-W for $49.99 which ultimately necessitated trading in the One S for a used One X, and now that the PC version is (somewhat theoretically) available I'm essentially trying to recreate the demo box provided by Rockstar as described by a Polygon reviewer: An i9-9900K with 32GB DDR4 on a Z390 motherboard with a GeForce RTX 2080 Ti 11GB or equivalent. I've found refurbished models of the GPU for around $900-950 and negotiated a line of credit from family for a total budget of about $2400 (or $2750 if I can sell the setup described here).

The monitor tops out at 60hz, and while even Nvidia admits the 2080 Ti can't really play RDR2 at 4K 60fps at fully High settings, Medium-High capped at 60fps with the 99th percentile dropping to 48fps seems like a reasonable improvement over the One X's Low-Medium 4K 30fps. I am curious if two 2070 Supers with NVLink might perform a little better, but I'm thinking better to get an SLI-capable motherboard like the ASUS TUF Z390 and save a slot for a second 2080 Ti when I can afford it as a means of future-proofing.

Until this budget build, all of my tinkering had been about breathing life into old systems with mostly found parts - my last project before this was based on an HP a465c I found on a sidewalk one afternoon and turned into a fully HD-capable PLEX media server by stocking it with 3,256MB DDR, 192GB (32GB+160GB) of SATA SSD for the OS, applications and caching backed by 320GB (160GBx80GBx80GB) of IDE HDD in a softRAID 0+0. I recently found a 128MB AGP GPU in another consumer OEM castoff from the early-mid aughts that should be able to take enough load off the CPU to drive a Sanyo PROxtraX projector with a 30-foot throw I found for $70 (down from the original MSRP of $4,995) for bright, smooth fullscreen video at 1200x768 across a proper 9ft-diagonal, retro-reflective canvas movie screen I happen to have but I haven't fully tested it yet. That sort of thing.

(I realize running a full ATX mobo that essentially uses the CPU almost entirely as a RAID controller is a lot more energy ineffecient than a Nasberry Pi or whatever, but the above system - projector included - cost me maybe $100 out-of-pocket and saved a bunch of toxic chemicals and rare earth elements from the great electronics recycling meltdown furnace in the sky, so that's something.)

So besides running RDR2, this next build is all about actually working with near-latest-gen parts for once in my life! :P

  • 2 months ago
  • 1 point

The 2080 ti does like 20 more fps over the 1080 ti. You can save some serious money and just buy a 1080 ti.

  • 2 months ago
  • 2 points

See, just as I'm tempted to chain two 2070 Supers, it also occurred to me to do 2x1080 Ti since they can be had used on eBay for less than $500 and a number of benchmarks have them outperforming the 2070 Super. The question then becomes: Is it cheaper to buy a 2080 Ti now and another later or two 1080 Tis now and trade them in for two 2080 Tis later when I get a 5k+ or higher-frequency 4K display? And that could only be answered by doing the depreciation math based on assumptions about GPU pricing over time that I'm not confident I'm qualified to make yet. Part of the reason I'd choose the new 2070 Super over a used 1080 Ti is mostly because it would be easier-slash-less-risky to return new stock for a full refund if they don't turn out to benchmark significantly better than a single 2080 Ti. There's also not a lot of reliable data on how well or poorly optimized RDR2 is for SLI configurations yet.

(I've also been lurking on alibaba.com looking for potential deals like the off-brand Manli Gallardo 1080 Ti for around $400 new, but returning them to Shenzhen for a refund if they don't work means the $100-per GPU savings might not pencil out against the risk premium.)

Hence it's back to my the pcpartpicker theorycrafting mines for me! :)

  • 2 months ago
  • 1 point

I would recommend to get rid of the HP keyboard. Terrible input lag, kinda hard to remove keys, membrane, and the time when you press the key to when the letter is typed is slow. I hate when I accidentally type in "teh" instead of "the". This never happened with other membrane keyboards!