How to build a killer gaming PC for under $1,000

If you want to play this fall's biggest titles, this is what you need.

Update: Just a day after this guide was published, the developers at CD Projekt Red announced that Cyberpunk 2077 is being delayed again and will now be released on November 19.

Because of COVID-19 related delays, the second half of 2020 is going to be packed with high profile PC game releases. Of particular note (to me, anyway) are Cyberpunk 2077, which was pushed back to November 19, Death Stranding, which is slated for release on July 14, and Horizon Zero Dawn, which is still listed as coming out "summer of 2020." So what kind of PC do you need to play these hot new titles? And what's the best way to get the gear you need on the cheap?

Well, last week we saw the release of Death Stranding's recommended specs, and because it and Horizon Zero Dawn share the same engine, it's likely that they'll need similar amounts of horsepower. The specs present three tiers of performance, but for the sake of this guide, we're going to focus on the "60 fps" tier. When I first saw these specs I was actually a little surprised by how modest they are, but keep in mind that these are specs for 60 fps at 1080p.

From the Steam pre-order page:

  • OS: Windows 10
  • Processor: Intel Core i7-3770 or AMD Ryzen 5 1600
  • Memory: 8 GB RAM
  • Graphics: GeForce GTX 1060 6 GB or AMD Radeon RX 590
  • DirectX: Version 12
  • Storage: 80 GB available space
  • Sound Card: DirectX compatible

As you can see, we're not talking about top tier hardware. The Core i7 listed above came out in 2012, and the Ryzen 5 1600 can be found for as little as $100, so we're not talking about the upper echelons of CPUs by any means. It gets a little weirder in the graphics department: The GTX 1060 6GB is a low-ish end part, perhaps something you'd find in a gaming laptop, whereas the Radeon RX590 is just a factory overclocked RX580, which was a high-end part that you can now easily find for around $150-180.

But what about Cyberpunk 2077? We don't have recommended specs for it yet, but we can make some inferences from CD Projekt Red's last game, The Witcher III. Here we see the same i7-3770 CPU recommendation as above, but the graphics cards recommended — a GTX 770 or a Radeon 290 — are just very old and definitely not worth buying. In an Anandtech benchmark, we can see that the Witcher III is getting right around 60 fps in 1080p with either a GTX 1060 or an RX580.

So if you are building a PC today to play this fall's games, you could absolutely put together a budget build with a used RX580. The GTX 1060 6GB is a little bit hard to find these days, but you could get a GTX 1660 Super for around $200-250.

Don't buy the low- to mid-tier parts of today, buy the top-tier parts of yesterday

So let me level with you: I've been on the prowl for PC parts deals since the days of the AGP video card slots (RIP) and I will impart upon you the sage advice that was bestowed upon me: Don't buy the low- to mid-tier parts of today, buy the top-tier parts of yesterday. Right now the RX580 is exactly that — last generation's top AMD card. But right now we're in the period just before AMD and Nvidia drop brand new cards. Leaks are popping up left and right about the new Nvidia RTX 30XX and AMD's "Big Navi" GPUs. So does it make sense to wait?

If you're a deal seeker? Maybe not. Instead, let me give you some tips on how to find some killer deals.

First, let's talk about the foundation of our build. Even though I know Intel and Nvidia fanboys will come after me like an angry mob, I am going to recommend a full AMD build. These days, with the resounding success of AMD's 7nm Zen 2 architecture, there just isn't much reason to spend more money on an Intel CPU with fewer cores (at the same price point). Plus, Intel seems to enjoy making its customers buy new motherboards all the time, leaving me sad and confused. What "lake" are we on?

You might be thinking, Okay bro, but what's your justification for not using Nvidia? It is true that Nvidia GPUs will give you higher performance per watt than AMD, and a lot of random stuff is optimized for Nvidia GPUs, like Yuzu, the Nintendo Switch emulator. But here's my counterargument: All current and next-gen game consoles (except the Switch) use what is essentially a souped-up AMD APU. Current Xbox One and PS4 consoles use the same Polaris GPU architecture as the aforementioned RX580. So, since we're talking about two console ports (Death Stranding and Horizon Zero Dawn) and a multi-platform title (Cyberpunk 2077), to me it makes sense to choose a GPU that these development teams have already optimized for, given their console releases.

The build

Anyway, with that out of the way, here's what I recommend you buy right now if you're trying to get ready for these hot fall releases:

I put together a sample build on PCPartPicker that you can check out here (with a few parts substitutions for what's in stock as of this writing). Yes, it comes out to a somewhat pricey $850, but there are ways to find good deals where they matter. The best way I've found is to visit /r/buildapcsales which, as the name suggests, is a subreddit dedicated to PC hardware sales and discounts, and using /u/BapcsBot to get notifications of new sales. I would do this for GPU and power supply (PSU) deals because the prices of both have inflated since the coronavirus pandemic locked up manufacturing supply chains. Using this bot will save you money and let you know when the stuff you need is in stock.

If you really need to cut costs, though, I would feel comfortable with an RX580. At the time of this writing, you can get an 8GB model for around $169, which is a pretty killer deal if you ask me. I have several of these cards (as well as some Radeon VIIs, Nvidia 1080s, and 1070s) and with a little bit of overclocking they can still manage high framerates in modern games like Control. You won't get all of the eye candy with an RX580, and you won't be playing these games in 4K, but for people like me who are fresh console converts, it'll still be a step up from what you can get on the PS4 Pro. Do not cheap on the PSU, though. Have you ever seen a PC eject sparks out of its ass? I have. Learn from my mistakes.

If you're willing to spend more money and future-proof your machine, you will probably want to wait to see what AMD and Nvidia's new graphics card offerings look like later this year, if even just to confirm that you want to buy something a little older, like a 5700 XT or an RTX 2060 KO. We're also waiting to see what AMD is cooking up with ray tracing; something that Nvidia is doing now with its RTX cards, and that we've seen demoed on the PS5, but won't make an appearance on the PC until AMD releases its Big Navi cards at the end of this year.

The games we're talking about here — Death Stranding, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Cyberpunk 2077 — these are absolutely my kinds of games. I love single-player narrative games. I watched a 40-hour playthrough of Death Stranding, saw its insane plot, and still can't wait to play it. In the meantime, keep your eyes on the deals subreddits, and I'll see you on the Chiral Network.

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