The Dorm PC 2.0
Being broke is no excuse
For some of you, "back to school" isn't just a term thrown around by smarmy marketing executives. Some TR readers will actually be going to college in September. Being away from home has its perks, but it's a lot less fun without a good gaming PC. College ain't cheap, though, and buying a top-of-the-line gaming rig is out of the question for most. Even if it isn't, college dorms don't always have rooms to house full-sized gaming towers.
In light of all this, we've slapped together a special back-to-school build that combines a low price tag, a decent gaming GPU, and a small-form-factor enclosure.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2120||$124.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$38.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7770||$124.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$89.99|
|Enclosure & PSU
We've also taken the liberty of recommending a matching display and peripherals.
|Keyboard/mouse||Logitech MK260 combo||$29.99|
We outlined our reasons for picking the Core i3-2120 over the AMD alternatives on page two. In a nutshell, the Intel chip consumes less power—which matters even more in a small-form-factor build like this one—and we expect it to perform better overall. We could have saved a few bucks by opting for one of Intel's dual-core Pentium CPUs, but we think the performance benefits of the Core i3's Hyper-Threading capabilities are worth the extra dough.
ASRock doesn't often get our nod in the system guide, but in the strange and sparsely populated world of Mini-ITX motherboards, the firm has more compelling budget offerings than top-tier vendors like Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. The ASRock H67M-ITX looks like a particularly well-rounded option. It has Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge CPU support, USB 3.0 connectivity, a pair of internal 6Gbps Serial ATA ports, one external Serial ATA port, and a PCIe 2.0 x16 slot to accommodate our discrete graphics card. Not bad for $85. The Newegg user reviews are encouraging, as well.
Given our low-budget aspirations, we considered stepping down to 4GB for this build. However, our ASRock board, like most of its Mini-ITX brethren, only has two DIMM slots. That means a future upgrade would involve tossing out the 4GB kit and buying a whole new 8GB kit. You might as well spend the extra $16 or so and use the 8GB kit from the get go.
The Radeon HD 7770 ain't the fastest gaming GPU on the planet by any means, but it's cheap, consumes very little power, and still performs well enough to run Battlefield 3 at the "Medium" preset with a silky-smooth frame rate. That's just fine for the Dorm PC.
Our budget is a little too tight for a solid-state drive, so instead, we're featuring the same 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3 hard drive as in our other builds. A terabyte should be plenty to balance educational material with games and, er, Linux ISOs, and this is a pretty fast drive by mechanical standards. We like its low noise levels, as well.
Note that we're skipping the optical drive. Optical storage is becoming increasingly useless, and students are better off spending the money elsewhere—like on books or crates of Ramen noodles. If you disagree, then check our alternatives section on the next page.
Enclosure and power supply
The Silverstone SG05BB-450 returns from innumerable other SFF system guide builds. There's a reason we keep picking this enclosure. Its footprint is just the right size to accommodate Mini-ITX motherboards, yet there's room enough for full-sized discrete graphics cards, and Silverstone puts a big honkin' 120-mm fan at the front to keep everything cool (and quiet). To top it off, the enclosure comes with a built-in 450W power supply stamped with the 80 Plus Bronze logo, which signifies efficiency in the 82-85% range.
This particular model even has front-panel USB 3.0 ports. That's always a plus.
Display, keyboard, mouse, and speakers
It's surprising how affordable 1080p displays have gotten lately. Acer's S220HQLAbd only costs around $130, yet it has a 21.5" panel with a 1920x1080 resolution, LED backlighting, 250 cd/m² brightness, a 1000:1 contrast ratio, and of course, a DVI input. Sure, the panel is of the TN variety, but what do you expect for this kind of price? Newegg users seem overjoyed with this panel; 76% of them awarded it five eggs out of five.
There's no reason to complicate things on the peripherals front. Logitech's MK260 combo gets you both a wireless mouse and a wireless keyboard for very little scratch. Thankfully, that keyboard has a normal layout with a full-sized backspace key and a regular paging block. 64% of Newegg users have awarded the MK260 combo five eggs, which definitely inspires confidence.
Logitech's K523 2.1 speaker setup is also very popular on Newegg. It looks like a solid option for filling your dorm room with the thumping beats of... well, whatever music you're into. Less expensive speaker setups can be found, of course, but we'd rather not cheap out too much and recommend something that sounds like an old transistor radio.
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