Build a speedy Windows 8 PC for under $500

With the Windows 8 launch just around the corner, you may need a hardware upgrade to prepare for the new OS.

Whenever Microsoft releases a new desktop operating system, users inevitably ponder the purchase or assembly of a new system. Although Windows 8s controversial interface changes and obvious accommodations for mobile hardware may cause die-hard desktop users to approach the new OS with trepidation, Windows 8 offers many enhancements worth an upgrade.

First and foremost, Windows 8 is streamlined to perform well on lower-end hardware than its most recent predecessors. Its minimum requirements are similar to Windows 7, but Windows 8 uses less memory, consumes less disk space, and its UI elements arent as graphically rich.

[ FREE DOWNLOAD: Windows 8 Deep Dive Report | Windows 8: The 10 biggest problems so far ]

Windows 8 also leverages most GPUs to accelerate more OS elements in hardware than does Windows 7. All of these changes in Windows 8 culminate in an operating system that simply doesnt need high-end hardware to run well.

Knowing that, we set out to build a speedy Windows 8-ready system for under $500. With such a limited budget, dedicating a significant amount of money to any single component isnt a possibility. With the right balance though, half a grand should be plenty of cash to put together a nice Windows 8 system with minimal compromise.

Choosing our components

Lets get whats probably going to be the most controversial decision out of the way first: The heart of our sub-$500 Windows 8 system is an AMD A8-3870K APU, or Accelerated Processing Unit (basically a CPU + GPU combo). The 3870K sports a quad-core CPU running at 3.0GHz and an integrated, on-die Radeon HD 6000 series GPU.

We chose this APU for a few reasons. First off, even though Intels desktop processors offer better overall performance, AMDs integrated GPUs are superior to Intel graphical processors in terms of performance, compatibility, and driver support. The A8-3870Ks four CPU cores may not be as fast as Intels most affordable quad-core processor, but theyre plenty fast for Windows 8 and compete well enough with similarly priced Intel processors.

The AMD A8-3870K APU won’t break any benchmark records, but its 3GHz frequency and quad-cores make it fast enough for all but the most demanding tasks. The 3870K’s on-die Radeon HD 6550D GPU is also better than anything offered by Intel, especially when it’s paired to a second GPU for even better performance.

Another benefit to using the AMD A8-3870K is that its integrated GPU can be paired up to certain discrete cards for a boost in performance. The XFX Radeon HD 6570 card we chose for this build, for example, can work in a Dual-Graphics CrossFire mode with the 3870Ks integrated Radeon HD 6550D for a significant performance improvement. This is important to note because youd have to pair an Intel CPU with a much more expensive discrete graphics card to get the kind of performance the Radeon HD 6570 and A8-3870K can offer.

AMD’s dual-graphics technology allows A-Series APUs to be paired with certain graphics cards to increase performance. This XFX Radeon HD 6570 and the Radeon HD 6550D integrated into the A8-3870K aren’t terribly fast on their own but, when working in tandem, they offer pretty good performance for the money.

Our plan from the start was to build a stylish, compact Windows 8 system that you would be proud to show off to your tech-savvy buddies.  As such, we chose the slick BitFenix Prodigy case for our rig. The Prodigy is designed for mini-ITX motherboards, but is actually a bit larger than typical mini-ITX enclosures. The extra space, coupled with its attractive aesthetics and smart design, made the Prodigy a good fit for our build.

The BitFenix Prodigy, however, doesnt include a power supply. Since we needed to score a PSU as well, we did some searching for a quality power supply from a well-respected brand. We settled on the Corsair Builder-Series CX430. Not only does the CX430 offer more than enough juice for our rig, but Corsair is known for building reliable power supplies. The Corsair CX430s price was also phenomenal, as youll see in our final price check.

We could have saved a few bucks by going with a cheap case and power supply for our sub-$500 Windows 8 build, but decided not to skimp. The BitFenix Prodigy and Corsair CX430 are nice enough components to last through a couple of upgrade cycles.

Since our case required a mini-ITX motherboard and we decided to install an AMD APU in Socket FM1, our motherboard choices were somewhat limited. ASRocks A75M-ITX, however, was somewhat affordable and offered all of the features we needed, so we picked one up.

We returned to CorsairFor our memory needs for quality product at an excellent price. The A8-3870K officially supports memory speeds up to DDR3-1866MHz, so we grabbed a dual-channel, 8GB kit capable of running at that frequency, which also fit within our budget.

As for storage, we grabbed a basic SATA DVD burner from Lite-On, simply because it was the cheapest option. We dont foresee using it much but, for those times when you need to copy a disc, install an old game, or make an archival backup, having a DVD burner can come in handy.

Additionally, we also acquired a 500GB Seagate Momentus XT hybrid solid state drive. We would have preferred using a solid state drive for the OS volume and a fast hard drive for bulk storage, but unfortunately our budget wouldnt allow it.

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