Building a $350 budget PC or a $500 gaming box gives you a fairly narrow path of parts and platforms to choose from to get the best performance for your money. But if you have more to spend, things get decidedly more excited and complicated at the same time.
If your budget hovers around $1,000, the type of system you could build depends mostly on how much you care about serious gaming, or how much you prioritize a powerful CPU for tasks like content creation and other high-end productivity workloads.
Below, you’ll find my favorite parts picks for a $1,000 DIY desktop, whether you’re fine with Intel integrated graphics (which is sufficient for casual gaming and playing many AAA titles at low settings), or you want a powerful gaming rig that can deliver smooth frame rates at resolutions of 1080p and higher.
Before buying though, be aware that you may not need to purchase all of these parts if you or someone you know has an old PC hanging around that they aren’t using. Be sure to check out our guide to scrounging useable parts from an older PC, as well as our PC parts picking tips story, which will be helpful should you decide to stray from the parts listed below.
Also, before we get into the components for the build, it’s worth noting that I chose Newegg.com pricing for all the parts. While some of the parts could be found for a bit less elsewhere, Newegg had all the parts I was looking for. Amazon did as well, but didn’t provide direct links to rebates on a few of the parts, which was important for keeping our buying budget near that magical $1,000 mark.
Intel’s integrated graphics aren’t going to please many serious gamers. However, the company’s HD 4600 graphics on the CPU below are sufficient for media playback and casual gaming. You’ll even be able to play most demanding games, so long as you limit your resolutions and stick to low settings.
Skipping a dedicated gaming card frees up a lot of budget to deliver an otherwise high-end roster of parts that should please content creators and enthusiasts who want one of the speediest systems a reasonable amount of money can buy.
MSI Z97S Plus: $124
I like this motherboard for its relatively low price and its inclusion of six USB 3.0 ports at the back, and its abundance of internal SATA ports for adding drives. The Z97S Plus’ real selling point is that it supports both emerging next-generation storage options: SATA Express and M.2. So no matter which format becomes the norm, you’ll be well equipped to drop in a future drive that isn’t bottlenecked by the current SATA III specification.
This board also has lots of spare slots if you want to add expansion cards in the future, including support for three AMD cards or two Nvidia graphics cards. Note that there’s no WiFi/Bluetooth included here. So if you aren’t going to connect via Ethernet, you’ll want to choose a different board, or just opt for an inexpensive wireless expansion card or external USB adapter.
Intel Core i7 4790K: $340
Intel’s latest and greatest high-end CPU (leaving out the arguably excessive $1,000 Extreme Edition CPU and X79 chipset, which is best suited to those who need three or more graphics cards for extreme 4K gaming), the Core i7 4790K is a quad-core, eight-thread beast with a stock clock speed of 4GHz.
As fellow Digital Trends colleague Matt Smith pointed out, this chip, code-named Devil’s Canyon, doesn’t seem to be as overclock-able as Intel seemed to imply before it was launched. Nevertheless, it’s still a powerful part that will chew through demanding CPU tasks like high-end content creation and HD video editing with relative ease. Unless you need the absolute best performance for things like professional editing rigs or university-level research, this is the best choice you can make for a high-end CPU.
Corsair Hydro Series H50: $50 (after $10 mail-in rebate)
You could live with Intel’s stock cooler if you don’t intend to overclock. But even then, the stock cooler isn’t likely to be very quiet. Enter Corsair’s Hydro Series H50. At $50 after a $10 rebate, it should keep CPU-related noise and temperatures down, even under heavy workloads.
RAM is fairly expensive at the moment, especially considering the ever-dropping cost of SSDs. So we chose to stick with 8GB for this build. Those who frequently work with huge files will want to jump up to 16GB, but 8GB is plenty for running Windows and games. Plus, you don’t need to splurge on high-speed RAM with metal heatsinks. Repeated testing has shown that, in general, faster RAM doesn’t make much of a difference in most situations, and the 1,600MHz speed of this Kingston RAM is plenty fast enough for almost everyone.
Crucial MX100 256GB: $115
Crucial’s MX100 SSD is being lauded all across the component review world for its excellent balance of performance (nearly as good as the pricier MX550) and price. After all, this is a brand-new SSD that’s selling for $115 with 256GB of space, which is an adequate amount as SSDs go. If you have more to spend, you might want to opt for the 512GB model, which sells for about $213 and should last longer, due to its extra NAND memory chips.
In case you can’t fit everything on your SSD, I included a hard drive. This drive has 1TB of storage for $60, and a four-start Newegg rating with over 900 reviews. ‘Nuff said.
Asus DRW-24B1ST: $20
It’s a DVD drive for those times when you can’t get what you need from the Web. It’s cheap, reasonably speedy, and has an impressive 5 star Newegg rating from over 5,000 customers.
Corsair CX500M: $50 (after $10 mail-in rebate)
This modular power supply is fairly inexpensive, well regarded, and has more than enough overhead to handle this build, plus an additional graphics card (as long as you don’t drop in anything extreme like an R9 295×2 or a GTX Titan Z) down the line. You could save $10 or so if you don’t opt for modular cables, but less cable clutter means better internal cooling, as well as a more attractive build.
You might balk at the idea of building a $1,000 system in a $50 case, but we like the Source 210 Elite. It’s available in white or black, has a USB 3.0 port up front, and doesn’t feel overly cheap. It also has room for eight hard drives and seven expansion slots without being a huge hulking tower, or putting much strain on our budget.
Windows 8.1 (64-bit OEM): $100
A lot of people hate it, but I like it (especially after the latest updates). Alternatively, you can choose your preferred flavor of Linux or Windows 7. Just please don’t use XP. Windows 7 also costs $100 from Newegg.
Total: $1,017 after $30 in rebates
For this system, the priority switches from CPU performance to delivering high frame rates while keeping overall performance reasonably good and enjoyable. Many of the parts are the same here as the build above, so I’ve only called out the parts that differ below.
MSI Z97S Plus: $124, Intel Core i3-4360: $160
If frame rates are your priority, you’re going to have to be flexible on the CPU front, or just spend more money. Intel’s Core i3-4360 is a brand-new CPU (part of Intel’s mid-year “Haswell refresh”) that drops down to just two cores, though it can crunch through four threads at once with software that’s written for Hyper-threading. Despite its fairly modest price, at 3.7GHz, its stock clock speed isn’t far behind the Core i7-4790K’s. Don’t be fooled by the Core i3 in the name: this is still a powerful processor.
Note that we also had to skip liquid cooling in this build to stick to the (roughly) $1,000 point. The stock cooler that ships with this chip should be well suited to keeping things cool and quiet (thanks to two fewer cores and a lower power rating). However, if you have a bit more to spend, consider picking up a self-contained liquid cooler, or a good aftermarket air cooler to keep the fan noise and CPU temperatures lower.
XFX AMD R9 280X TDFD: $250 (after $20 mail-in rebate)
Graphics card prices tend to fluctuate quite a bit. At the time of this writing, the XFX AMD R9 280X is a comparative steal. It should outperform stock-clocked Nvidia GTX 770s (which generally cost much more), and deliver enough graphics horsepower to plow through today’s games at 60fps and1080p, or higher if you don’t mind occasionally dipping below that fps threshold.
Most other R9 280X-based cards are selling for closer to $300. Keep in mind that most of the pricier R9 alternatives feature codes for free games (while supplies last). The XFX card (at least on Newegg’s site) doesn’t appear to come with any though. Still, if it saves you $50 or more, that’s money you can use to go out and buy a game or two of your own choosing.
Total: $1,037 after $30 in rebates
Have more to spend? Our first thought would be to spend an extra $100 or so and opt for the 512GB version of Crucial’s MX100 SSD. Many will also want to opt for a higher-end case. There are hundreds to choose from and a lot of what’s best for you comes down to taste, so there’s not much point in making suggestions. Just make sure the case you choose has room for the parts. If you’re sticking with the above motherboard, that means you’ll need a chassis that supports ATX boards.
You also might be tempted to splurge on more RAM. Our advice on that front: live with 8GB for now and see if you really need more. You can always buy two more 4GB sticks down the line when (hopefully) memory prices will be lower.