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Sample builds: budget to mid-range

Here's where the rubber meets the road. We have parts lists that span a range of budget options. We did our best effort to present balanced rigs at various price points, but the whole point of building a PC is that you can customize it as you see fit. Feel free to swap parts around as needed to fit your budget and performance needs.

Econobox

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Ryzen 5 2400G $163.00
Cooler

AMD Wraith Spire (included)

-  
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-AB350M-DS3H $64.99
Memory G. Skill Ripjaws V 8 GB (2x4GB) DDR4-3200 $108.99
Graphics Radeon Vega 11 IGP -

 

Storage Toshiba TR200 240 GB $58.65
Enclosure Cooler Master N200 $39.99
PSU Corsair CX450 $44.99
Total   $480.61

The Econobox offers a stepping stone into the world of a balanced desktop PC. This is also the system that got the biggest shake-up for this edition. The recent arrival of AMD's Vega-infused Ryzen APUs added a wrinkle to our selection process, albeit a welcome one. Buyers perusing the low end of the CPU market are now spoiled for choice. Ryzen APUs include four Zen cores and a pretty-competent IGP that can offer most of the performance of a low-end GeForce GT 1030. That's a recipe for success if we ever saw one, and the choices for our most affordable build reflect that.

The Ryzen 5 2400G we have in this machine packs enough general-purpose processing punch to handily beat the Core i3-8100 in most day-to-day tasks, and its Vega graphics processor should handle light gaming with aplomb. We point to games like Minecraft, Rocket League, and Dota 2 as good examples of what you can expect to easily play on the Ryzen 5 2400G, so long as you don't expect 1920x1080 gaming in AAA titles or enable too much graphical detail. The included AMD Wraith Spire cooler is plenty adequate for cooling this chip, and you can expect the fan atop it to be pretty quiet most of the time. Best of all, the Ryzen 5 2400G supports FreeSync with any compatible monitor, while Nvidia doesn't officially support G-Sync on its lowest-end GT 1030.

We're using an SSD in our most affordable build, too. Seeing as a good number of people are using cloud storage for most of their needs and considering the expected tasks for this machine, we figure it's high time for an affordable 240-GB solid-state drive, in this case the Toshiba TR200. It's always pretty easy to add a hard drive if there's a need for more storage, too.

Econobox Alternative

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Core i3-8100 $119.99
Cooler

Intel stock cooler (included)

-  
Motherboard Gigabyte B360M DS3H $67.57
Memory G. Skill Aegis 8 GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2400 $86.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GT 1030 $89.99
Storage Western Digital Blue 1 TB, 7200 RPM $44.00
Enclosure Cooler Master N200 $39.99
PSU Corsair CX450 $44.99
Total   $493.52

Here's a budget-conscious machine of a different tack than the regular Econobox. The choice of CPU for this build is Intel's Core i3-8100. This quad-core chip offers fine performance for entry-level gaming and productivity tasks, even if its four cores are sometimes outperformed by the Ryzen 5 2400G in heavier productivity workloads.

If you're primarily gaming on a budget, though, the combination of the Core i3-8100 and a GeForce GT 1030 is a pretty potent one for this price bracket. You can play older games and esports titles at pretty-good frame rates at 1920x1080, and you should also be able to fire up some AAA titles at modest quality settings. While AMD's Ryzen APUs offer impressive performance for IGPs, there's really no replacement for a discrete graphics chip with its own pool of GDDR5 RAM for the best performance from a cheap PC. The GT 1030 clears the 33.3-ms overall 99th-percentile frame time we want for a good gaming experience by a wide margin, while the Ryzen 5 2400G just falls short of it.

For storage, we dropped down to a Western Digital's Blue 1-TB hard drive for this build, as it's really easy to fill a 250-GB SSD with just a handful of games. You can always pair it with or swap it for a Toshiba TR200 240 GB for $58 or so.

If you're wondering why we're not recommending Intel's Optane Memory for this build, the reason is simple: it's not cost-effective. In order to gain substantial benefits from an Optane module, you'd likely need to spring for the 32 GB version, and that gumstick currently goes for close to $60. Simple math tells us that the $104 you'd spend would be about enough for a basic 500-GB SSD, and the consistent performance of the SSD is worth the capacity tradeoff. Should the economics around Optane modules change, we'll gladly revisit this particular topic.

Middle Ground

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Core i5-8400 $179.99
Cooler

Intel stock cooler (included)

-  
Motherboard Gigabyte Z370 Aorus Gaming Wifi $159.99
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws V 16 GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3200 $179.99
Graphics

EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 ACX 3.0

$329.99
Storage Crucial MX500 500 GB M.2 $119.99
Toshiba P300 3 TB $76.80
Enclosure Fractal Design Define C $89.99
PSU Corsair CX550 $49.99
Total   $1,186.73

If the Econobox Gamer was our first jolt of Coffee Lake, then the Middle Ground is the proverbial refill. We picked out the Intel Core i5-8400 CPU, a fantastic all-rounder that's more than suited to the task of feeding our GeForce GTX 1060 6 GB graphics card. The combo is powerful enough for 60-FPS-or-better gaming at 1920x1080 with detail levels turned up. A good number of AAA titles should also play easily at 2560x1440 on this box, too.

We've stepped up to 16 GB of RAM in this build, a welcome move helped by RAM prices coming back down from the stratosphere. Our 3200 MT/s kit can be used with its XMP profile on our Z370 motherboard, and given how little one saves for stock DDR4-2666 RAM, the upgrade can be worth it in certain corner cases.

Over in the storage department, a Crucial MX500 500-GB solid-state drive has more than enough room for a handful of top-tier games, and those that don't fit can easily go in the Toshiba P300 3 TB hard drive that we've paired with it. The Fractal Design Define C case is one of our favorites, and it's pretty compact considering it can take in ATX motherboards.

Sweet Spot

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Ryzen 5 2600X $209.99
Cooler

Noctua NH-U14S

$63.69
Motherboard Gigabyte X470 Aorus Ultra Gaming $139.99
Memory G. Skill Ripjaws V 16 (2x8GB) DDR4-3200 $179.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 Ti $509.99
Storage Samsung 970 EVO 500 GB $197.99
Western Digital Blue 4 TB $103.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Define C $89.99
PSU Seasonic Focus Plus 650 W $89.99
Total   $1,585.61

This is probably the system with the best overall value in this System Guide. Generational hand-offs always bring a tear to our eyes, and the direct replacement of the previous edition's Ryzen 5 1600 with the newfangled Ryzen 5 2600X is a particularly touching one. The 2600X's 4.2-GHz single-core clock is a healthy figure for the Zen+ architecture. Even better, a good cooler lets the Ryzen 5 2600X run all of its cores at about 4 GHz, leaving little room or reason to overclock. To let the Ryzen 5 2600X shine, we picked out the super-quiet Noctua NH-U14S.

The Ryzen 5 2600X powers the excellent GeForce GTX 1070 Ti. This card wasn't the best value when it originally arrived, but it's a pretty good choice now. GTX 1070s are no cheaper, GTX 1080s are substantially more expensive, and Radeon RX Vega 56 cards are still overpriced, making the GTX 1070 Ti's near-GTX-1080 performance the best value in high-end gaming at the moment. This combination of CPU and graphics card ought to be good for smooth and fluid running in the vast majority of games at 2560x1440 with high detail levels. We also step up the SSD to Samsung's recently-released 970 EVO NVMe unit, which is about the fastest one you can get for $200 with a capacity of 500 GB. An 80 Plus Gold-rated Seasonic Focus Plus 650-W PSU caps off the build.