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The Console on Steroids
Living-room gaming, PC style

Three and four years into their respective life cycles, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have matured into formidable gaming systems with attractive price tags, loads of good games, and robust online services. The success of these consoles has led to new cries that "PC gaming is dying," which, as usual, are a tad premature. Most major titles come out on all three platforms, and PC gaming has the advantage of great online distribution (thanks to services like Steam) as well as better-quality graphics, since console GPUs are several generations behind at this point.

PC gaming usually tends to be a desk-bound affair, but in this edition of the system guide, we figured we'd try something new. What if you could have a no-frills gaming PC in your living room? It would cost more than a console, sure, but you'd get the aforementioned perks plus the ability to emulate old MAME games, chuck in a TV tuner to turn the system into a DVR, and watch just about any kind of video online or offline. You could even use an Xbox 360 controller, since most ports and cross-platform titles support it, and Microsoft sells a wireless version especially for PC users.

Thus was born the Console on Steroids.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X2 250 $67.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H $89.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $93.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 1GB $179.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $74.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Silverstone SUGO SG02-BF $69.99
Power Seasonic SS-350ET Bronze $44.99
Networking D-Link DWA556 $69.99
Subtotal   $696.92
Controller Xbox 360 wireless controller for Windows $54.99
Mouse/keyboard Logitech LX310 black $49.99
OS Windows 7 Home Premium x64 OEM $104.99
Total  Buy this complete system at Newegg $906.89

You don't need a state-of-the-art processor to play games—just a couple of cores running at a reasonably high clock speed. AMD's Athlon II X2 250 delivers just that at an attractive price, and the matching platform still has at least a year or two of life ahead of it.

We wanted our living-room gaming PC to have a small form factor, either microATX or Mini-ITX. The former seems more reasonable to us; it leaves room for more than one expansion slot and allows us to pick an enclosure that can handle this build's thermal output more comfortably. We would've liked a small motherboard based on AMD's low-cost 770 chipset, but pretty much all microATX AMD motherboards have integrated graphics. So, we brought back the Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H mobo from our Econobox alternatives. This board has all the expansion we need (including DDR3 memory slots), and it includes the new 785G chipset with Radeon HD 4200 integrated graphics, to boot.

We contemplated outfitting this system with 2GB of RAM like the Econobox, but for a pure gaming box with a better graphics card, Crucial's 4GB DDR3-1333 kit seems like a wiser pick.

The Utility Player's favorite returns here. XFX's Radeon HD 5770 1GB fulfills all of our requirements: the performance to run almost any recent game comfortably at 1080p, low power consumption, a quiet cooler that exhausts hot air outside the case, and an HDMI port. The DirectX 11 support and double-lifetime warranty coverage don't hurt, either.

We should pause for a moment to note that, although the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 can output 1080p signals, they certainly don't run all games at that resolution. Far from it. Modern Warfare 2, for instance, reportedly runs at a 600p resolution on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3—that's 1024x600, the same number of pixels as on a 10" netbook display. The Radeon HD 5770, by contrast, will churn out buttery-smooth frame rates in Modern Warfare 2 at a full 1920x1080 with 4X antialiasing and all of the eye candy cranked up.

To put the hardware in perspective, the Xbox 360's Xenos graphics processor is architecturally older than the ATI R600 GPU, which powered the original Radeon HD 2900 XT on the PC. That card has since been supplanted by the Radeon HD 3870, the Radeon HD 4870, and the Radeon HD 5870. The 5770 we picked for this system is something like 3.5 generations ahead in terms of capabilities and a tad less in terms of performance. It's really no contest. (And in case you're wondering, the PlayStation 3's GPU is based on an even older design than the Xenos.)

You're going to want all your games installed on this thing, which rules out a low-capacity solid-state drive or a slower mechanical hard drive that would stretch load times. Western Digital's Caviar Black 640GB has an ample capacity, great performance, and low noise levels, so it's perfect for this system.

As far as optical storage goes, we're going toe-to-toe with the PlayStation 3 and chucking in a Blu-ray drive. Our Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader only costs $30-40 more than a DVD burner, though, so it's not exactly a frivolous expense for a PC you're gonna hook up to an HDTV. The Lite-On drive's black bezel will look right at home on our recommended case, too.

We're building the Console on Steroids for the living room, so we need an enclosure that won't stand out like a sore thumb next to your TV and other home-entertainment equipment. As far as we can see, the Silverstone Sugo SG02-BF will do that just fine. This case is a little larger than a console, sure, but it has room for our microATX motherboard, two optical drives, two hard drives, four expansion cards, and a full-sized ATX power supply. The Sugo SG02 also looks very sleek, with front-panel ports that hide under a door below the optical bays.

Our only gripe is that Silverstone didn't include mounts for fans larger than 80 mm. However, none of our components are going to generate that much heat, so you should have no trouble keeping this system quiet at idle. Fans will spin up under load, but that's a fact of life with stock cooling—or consoles, for that matter, which aren't exactly known for their silence when things kick into high gear.

No need for a monster power supply here, just something efficient and quiet. Seasonic's SS-350ET has a 350W output rating, which should be plenty for all of our components. Just as importantly, the SS-350ET earned 80 Plus Bronze certification, meaning its efficiency should reach 85% at a 50% load and 82% at loads of 20% and 100%. Not bad for less than 50 bucks.

Most people don't like having ugly CAT-5 cables running through their living rooms, so Wi-Fi is a must. Here, we've gone with a 802.11n PCIe x1 adapter from D-Link, the DWA556. The price looks decent, 67% of Newegg reviewers gave it a five-star rating, and the PCIe x1 interface leaves one PCI slot free on the motherboard. 802.11n will be quick enough to stream high-definition video and move things around without spending all day waiting, as well.

Since wires are out, we also require a good wireless keyboard and mouse. Logitech's LX310 bundle fits the bill with a low price tag and a laser mouse that should have no trouble tracking on your coffee table, couch, or thigh.

Of course, actually playing games on your couch is much more convenient with a controller. Here, Microsoft's Xbox 360 wireless controller for Windows brings us the exact same device that comes with the titular console, plus a USB adapter to make it work on your PC. Many cross-platform titles will recognize the controller and configure it automatically to work like on a 360, so there's very little hassle involved. The dearth of split-screen games on the PC led us to include only one controller in our primary config, but you can always chuck in an extra one if you're dying to play Lego Indiana Jones with a friend.

Operating system
We'll talk about operating systems in more detail a couple of pages over, but in the interest of laying out a complete system, we're factoring in the price of Windows 7 Home Premium x64 OEM. The x64 version is a must to take advantage of our 4GB memory kit, and the OEM license will help you save money, provided you don't plan a top-to-bottom hardware upgrade before Windows 8 comes out.