2020 Gaming PC Build Guide Part 1: The “Budget” Machine

If you are anything like me, then chances are you try to extract as much performance out of your hardware as humanly possible, upgrading over time and only switching platforms when you feel there’s no way up without wasting inexcusable amounts of money on a dead end. Have you reached that point with your current build? We are here to help with some (hopefully) well-timed parts lists.

As it’s often the case with this sort of stuff, I’m going to list a a few different options for some of the parts, though since I don’t really know where you, dear reader, are located, I won’t be giving exact prices and places to buy the hardware, instead giving you an average cost for the whole build if you happen to be based in the US. It’s also important to note that not all computers need to be built with gaming in mind, so the GPU section can be tweaked as needed if, for instance, you happen to be in the market for a computer focused on graphic design first and foremost, and gaming is just an extra perk. In some cases, you could even get away with an AMD APU (or an equivalent Intel CPU with integrated graphics, though your options would be far more limited gaming-wise). With that out of the way, it’s time to build!

Part 1 – 1080p gaming on an acceptable budget, 2020 Edition

For this particular build we are going to aim for something that can handle ultra quality settings on most titles we throw at it, since we aren’t really looking for an ultra-budget machine (otherwise we wouldn’t be building a new system, to be honest). So it’s a budget system when compared to the absolute beasts people can build, but not the lowest we could go. You can also definitely do 1440p gaming with this rig, though you will have to turn down settings depending on the game and the GPU you end up choosing.

CPU: AMD Ryzen 1600AF/2600/3600

Budget limited? Pick the 1600AF and you won’t regret it, as it’s way closer to its Zen+ cousin (the 2600) than the original 1600 (which was a pretty good part when it came out, don’t get me wrong). It’s often cheap, it should work on most AM4 boards out of the box, and it’ll give you great gaming performance. If you can’t find one, go for a 2600 or a 3600, depending on price. The 3600 is definitely a better pick if you like to tinker with emulators, thanks to its increased IPC (Instructions per cycle), but it comes at a premium. All these options come with included coolers that aren’t half bad, and they are all unlocked parts (though I wouldn’t recommend overclocking the 3600, as I’ve read reports of Zen 2 parts degrading way faster than previous CPUs).

Motherboard: This is a somewhat “open” category, but I’d recommend a good B450 board (that way you don’t need to look for stores that perform BIOS updates if you are getting a 1600AF/2600). A personal recommendation would be the MSI B450 Tomahawk (or its MAX version if you are going with the 3600, as it’s Ryzen 3000 series ready direct from the factory). With that particular board you get good VRMs (which will ensure you can upgrade to a beefier CPU like a 3900x in the future), a good featureset, good RAM support and it even looks pretty cool from an aesthetics standpoint. You can go with an older gen board and still use Zen 2 CPUs, but you will need BIOS updates before you start building (you can also go with a newer/higher end board, but you’ll be paying a premium that isn’t really worth it for a budget build).
Update (5/7/2020): If you can go with a B550 board (once those come out), then I’d recommend that over the B450 I recommended above, as you’ll have compatibility with Zen 3 CPUs (Ryzen 4000), something that will not be present on B450 motherboards, sadly (previously we had information that said the opposite, but AMD confirmed today that Zen 3 will require a B550/X570 board).

RAM: 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4 3200MHZ+

When it comes to RAM, you should aim for 16GB as that’s the current sweetspot for gaming. All the Zen CPUs benefit from higher speeds, some to more extent than others (Zen and Zen+ benefit more than Zen 2, if I remember correctly), but you should also be aware that Zen and Zen+ CPUs (like the 1600/AF/2600 in this particular case) are somewhat picky with the RAM kits they like, so you might not be able to get your kit to run at its rated XMP speeds (basically, overclocking profiles that have been tested by the kit’s manufacturer, the sticks themselves will probably start at 2133-2400MHZ, which is the minimum speeds you’ll be able to achieve, even if you got a not-so-good kit). I’d say that as long as you go for a reputable brand you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting your RAM to run at its rated speeds, but don’t quote me on that, as there’s always an outlier somewhere. The board you picked will also impact your chances of getting your kits to run at their XMP speeds, so consider that as well (which is why I recommended the Tomahawk earlier, as I’ve had no issues getting kits to run at 3200MHZ on that board). I recommend going with two eight gig sticks instead of a single 16GB one, as that will let you use dual channel.

GPU: When it comes to graphics cards, there’s a good number of options that all make sense for a good budget build. If you trust AMD’s driver team, then you can’t go wrong with a 5700/5700 XT (or a 5600 XT if your budget doesn’t let you buy the higher priced units). I personally haven’t had the pleasure of tinkering with one of these beauties, but friends who own them are pretty happy at the moment (though you should keep in mind that AMD is often slower than Nvidia when it comes to driver updates, and that the 5xxx series cards launched with pretty noticeable software issues, which have been since solved in most cases). If you don’t trust AMD’s driver team, then go for a GTX 1660 Super/ RTX 2060 KO/ RTX 2060 Super, depending on your budget. Now that AMD’s software issues have been mostly fixed, you’ll get somewhat lower performance with Nvidia’s offerings, but you will get peace of mind that their drivers are often more stable. The RTX cards also feature DLSS 2.0, which will give you a pretty big “free” performance boost in games that support it. Sadly, at the moment that’s a pretty small sample, but hopefully more developers will start implementing it in the future. Of course, you also get hardware accelerated ray tracing, but that’s also a pretty niche market at the moment.

SSD: Aim for a 512GB+ drive if possible, drop down to 240GB if your budget doesn’t let you buy that.

If you are building a new machine in 2020, you NEED an SSD, as it’ll give you a noticeable speed boost on most tasks. If you can afford a 512GB+ drive, you won’t regret it, as it’ll let you run some of today’s most storage space-hungry titles, significantly lowering their load times in most cases. If you can’t afford a 512GB+ drive, go for a 240GB for your OS and smaller titles, it’ll still be a worthwhile buy. When it comes to the type of drive, you could either pick up a SATA or NVME device (SATA drives can either be 2.5″ units or M.2, while NVME units will use your M.2 slot almost exclusively). Right now, NVME drives don’t give you a noticeable speed boost in gaming, but that could change quickly, since both the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X feature NVME solid state drives and developers could start taking advantage of higher units in the near future.

HDD: I’d recommend getting a 2TB drive so you can store big games or other files that don’t really benefit from the extra speed of the solid state drive.

Case: I’m going to do something relatively different here and recommend a specific case. Which one? The Fractal Design Meshify C, which offers a pretty good balance of good looks and performance. There’s enough expansion slots to ensure you can upgrade your system in the future, great airflow, and a fair number of fan mounts. The downside is that it’s not available everywhere (I had to import it, but I live in a particularly difficult place when it comes to hardware). If you are in the US, then chances are you won’t have too much trouble getting your hands on it, and it shouldn’t destroy your economy (it can be found for around a hundred dollars). If you can’t get your hands on something like this, then look for mid-tower ATX cases that have enough room for expansion and good airflow. I’d recommend getting something with a mesh front, as that will give you better airflow if you set up your fans correctly.

PSU (Power Supply Unit): This is the part you DON’T want to cheap out on. If your PSU dies, it can take half your system with it, so don’t pick a cheap one, and if you are using your existing PSU, please check that it’s a good quality unit and that it has enough power for your new system. For a machine like the one we are building today you will not need more than 550 Watts, so look for units in that range. There are far too many good models for me to recommend a specific one, so instead I’ll leave a link to this PSU tier list on the Linus Tech Tips forum. As long as you pick a 550 Watts unit from the B (or superior) tier, you’ll be fine. If you plan to upgrade to a beefier system in the future, then consider picking a 650 Watts unit from the A (or superior) tier, as that’ll save you cash in the future (unless that beefier system is something like a 3700x/2070 Super, you can totally get away with the same 550W PSU I recommended for this build, as that was a bit more than the system actually requires, in order to leave room for an upgrade like that one).

Overall price of the system: Depending on the parts you chose, you’ll be looking at an average of a thousand dollars if you are in the US. Please note that I didn’t include an optical drive (as they are increasingly rare nowadays) or operating system. Going with the 5700 XT instead of the base 5700, or with the RTX 2060 Super instead of its base KO counterpart will increase the cost of the system by around a hundred dollars, though you will get a noticeable performance improvement if you are aiming for 1440p gaming.

Now for some comments on why I chose AMD CPUs over their Intel equivalents. I didn’t do it because I’m a “fanboy” of a particular chip manufacturer (as you can see, I also recommended Nvidia cards if you don’t want to deal with potentially unstable AMD GPU drivers). I did it for two reasons: the first one being that the current AM4 platform should last for one more CPU gen from AMD (Ryzen 3/4xxx desktop parts), and the second one being that the Ryzen 5 CPUs feature simultaneous multithreading, something that will come in handy for future games that require more processing power. Remember when everyone recommended 4c/4t i5 CPUs for gaming? Go look up benchmarks for new games on those systems and you’ll see how that recommendation held up. Better to prepare for the worst now and not scramble for a whole new platform in the future. There’s also the extra cost that comes from needing to buy a CPU cooler if you decide to go with an Intel build. AMD’s stock coolers are surprisingly good, even the low-end Wraith Stealth units that ship with the Ryzen 5 3600 (non X).

Another thing I haven’t mentioned above is that both Intel and AMD plan to release new CPUs this year, so if you don’t feel the need to upgrade right now, you might want to wait (though the current pandemic might make things hard for you if you try to buy the new hardware as soon as it comes out). GPU-wise, we are in a similar situation with AMD shipping RDNA 2 units in the next-gen consoles scheduled for the end of the year (and presumably, revealing RDNA 2 PC parts before that), and Nvidia promising to reveal its Ampere line of GPUs soon-ish as well.

And with all of that out of the way, it’s time to end the first part of our 2020 gaming PC build guide. If this was helpful, look forward to the next part that should go up in the following weeks, taking a look at a more high-end build meant for 1440p+ gaming.

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