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.

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The Momentus XT is a great compromise because its 7200RPM hard drive is paired to 8GB of SLC NAND Flash memory. The NAND is used to cache the most frequently accessed bits of data on the hard drive, which results in SSD-like performance. Plus it all works without having to install any caching software, thanks to Seagates proprietary firmware and caching algorithms.

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Windows 8 has more modest memory and storage requirements than Windows 7. We still wanted to give the OS plenty of breathing room though, so we opted for 8GB of fast Corsair RAM and a 500GB hybrid solid state drive from Seagate. The optical drive was cheap enough to include for giggles, although we don’t foresee using it much.

Assembling the system

To get our system ready for Windows 8, we first had to assemble it. We began by installing the APU and memory into the motherboard. Both the memory and APU are keyed to fit into their slots/socket in only one way, so their installation is fairly straightforward. The A8-3870Ks bundled cooler also shipped with thermal paste preinstalled, so mounting the APUs cooler was simply a matter of putting it into position and locking it into place using the included mounting bracket.

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The foundation of our sub-$500 Windows 8 build was an ASRock A75M-ITX Mini-ITX motherboard. It doesn’t offer much expansion, but its small form factor, native USB 3.0 ports, and PCI Express x16 slot made it a good fit for the build.

With the motherboard, APU, and memory fitted together, we then installed them into the case. First we installed the custom IO shield included with the motherboard by snapping it into the necessary cutout in the case, and then simply slid the motherboard into place and secured it with the included screws.

After putting the motherboard/APU/Memory assembly into place, we moved on to the rest of the components. The Seagate Momentus XT was mounted to a drive tray with a quartet of screws and slid into place; next, we stuck the optical drive into the only available external drive bay in the BitFenix Prodigy and secured it with screws, and then we connected all of the front panel cables for the power/reset switches, USB ports, and activity LEDs to the motherboard. When that was done, we installed the graphics card into the only slot available on the motherboard and then shifted our focus to the PSU and data cables.

We think saving the PSU and data cables for the end makes it easier to neatly route everything through the case. In the BitFenix Prodigy, there are strategically-placed cutouts that make routing cables a cinch, but we took our time with each one, making sure to bundle up and tie down any excess. If you take the time to route your cables efficiently and bundle up the excess wire, you should be left with a neat and well-packed PC interior.

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Despite its small form factor and relatively cramped quarters in comparison to larger mid-towers, the BitFenix Prodigy offered ample room to neatly route cables out of the way of major components. There also was ample space above the APU socket.

For more detailed instructions, and the potential pitfalls associated with building a system, wed suggest checking out two articles on PC building best practices for hardware and software; theyll make the process go much smoother if you havent had much experience building your own PCs.

Once all the hardware was assembled, we then installed Windows 8 from a USB flash drive, updated the OS, and installed all of the drivers necessary for our particular components.

The results

Before we talk about our affordable Windows 8 systems performance, lets break down the parts list and pricing to see if we were able to hit our $500 target:

Processor: AMD A8-3870K 3.0GHz Quad-Core Desktop APU - $108.99 Graphics: XFX Radeon HD 6570 1GB Graphics Card - $44.99 (after a $15.99 mail-in rebate) Motherboard: ASRock A75M-ITX Socket FM1 Mini ITX Motherboard - $89.00 Memory: Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 Memory - $46.99 Storage: Seagate Momentus XT 500GB 7200 RPM Solid State Hybrid Drive - $79.99 Case: BitFenix Prodigy Mini-Tower - $79.00 Power Supply: Corsair Builder Series CX430 430W Power Supply - $24.99 (after a $20 mail-in rebate) Optical Drive: Lite-On iHAS124-04 DVD Burner - $16.99

If youre keeping track, that puts the grand total for the hardware we used at $490.94 (after rebates).

Success! We could have easily shaved a few dollars off the total by going with a different motherboard, case, and PSU, but we wanted to use quality parts throughout and not settle for sub-par components. Generic cases with chintzy power supplies are widely available, but their quality cant come close to BitFenixs or Corsairs.

As for performance, were fairly happy with the results. The system powers up and boots in only 22.9 secondsand thats including the time it takes to complete the BIOS power-on self test (POST). When we timed the boot process from the moment the Windows loading screen appeared until the Windows 8 UI was ready, it took only 9.8 seconds. Shutdown was even faster, taking only 6.5 seconds on average.

System-level and graphics benchmarks tell the story of a decidedly mid-range rig. The system posted a PCMark7 score of 2689, which isnt bad. The PCMark score could have been much higher (in the neighborhood of 3500) had we gone with a pure solid state drive instead of a hybrid, but we werent willing to sacrifice capacity and couldnt spring for a large SSD. Thankfully, the hybrid drive will improve and offer more SSD-like performance once it caches our most recently accessed bits of data.

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When our build was complete, we took some time to bundle, tie-down, and neaten all the cables and ended up with one heck of an immaculate interior. This is what the machine looked like fully assembled.

3DMark11 reported a score of P1537 for the system, when using the benchmarks Performance preset. That score is really good considering we only spent $45 on a discrete graphics card. Because we were able to pair the discrete Radeon HD 6570 with the integrated Radeon HD 6550D in AMDs Dual-Graphics mode, performance was much higher than using either GPU alone. The Radeon HD 6570 scored only P712 on its own.

Overall, were very pleased with this system. Day-to-day performance while working or playing is really quite good, and we think the system looks great.

If youre thinking about building a new rig for Windows 8, keep this guide handy and dont feel like you need to spend a ton of money to have acceptable performance.

This story, "Build a speedy Windows 8 PC for under $500" was originally published by PCWorld.

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