The Under $1000 Thunderbird Gaming Machine

By: Russ Pitts

Since we know that you have nothing better to spend your money on than new computer equipment, here’s a quick and easy way to part with about a thousand of your hard earned dollars.

The upshot? When all is said and done, you’ll be left with a gaming machine that can go toe-to-toe with most other site’s multi-thousand dollar “Dream Machines” for a fraction of the price.

The secret is specialization.

It’s my firm belief that a gaming machine should game extremely well, and everything else is gravy. Aside from the basic stuff that all machines can do these days (i.e. browse the net, word process and organize Gramma’s cookie recipes) I want nothing from my gaming machines other than blazing fast 3D processing and smooth performance, and these days you can get both relatively cheap.

I started with an AMD Thunderbird at the core of this box because the numbers don’t lie. T-birds equal or outperform their PIII equivalents in almost every gaming scenario. If you need proof, check out Anand’s marks.

Plus, AMD’s chips are far cheaper than Intel’s. Hey, the Blue Man Group isn’t cheap you know.

I picked the 800mhz Thunderbird to maximize my cost/performance on this machine. 800-900 seems to be the sweet spot right now, and I can always upgrade when the time is right.

To mount this bad boy, I chose the Asus A7V mobo because Asus just plain makes good boards. I’ve been using Asus boards for 6 years now, and they’ve never let me down.

128MB of RAM should be enough for any gaming box, so I picked up 256MB. RAM is cheap. You should always buy as much as you can afford when you first build your new box. Chances are you might not be able to find a perfect match later on when you decide to upgrade, and we all know how important it is to keep your RAM matched up. (Right?)

For video, I went again with Asus. Their GeForce2 models rank right up there with everyone else’s, and there’s no substitute for a name you trust.

The GeForce2 GTS is the best video card out there for the money. If you’re looking to obsolescence-proof your new box (and don’t mind spending a hundred extra shekels) go for the GTS Pro 64MB DDR card. It might hurt that part of your brain that likes having money in the bank, but it’ll be worth it.

Likewise, you can save a few bucks by going with the MX variety. Whatever you’re looking for, and however much you want to spend there’s a GeForce2 card that’s right for you. I wouldn’t put anything else in my new machine, and neither should you.

There isn’t much debate about sound cards these days, and for good reason. The Creative SBLive! is the best sound card we’re likely to see for years. I paired that card up with the Creative 52x CD-ROM player, but any CD-ROM will do.

As for speakers, I’m not going to tell you what to buy. I’m still using a five year-old pair of Altec-Lansing speakers that cost me about $65. I’ll probably upgrade to the Klipsh THX speakers soon, but you should really go down to the store yourself and listen to a pair of speakers before you buy.

For hard drive space I went with the fast, reliable and on sale IBM Deskstar 20GB, 7200 RPM, UATA/100 drive. It’s fast, quiet and so cheap I can go back for another one in a couple of months.

Then I threw in a handful of cheap stuff; the Smartlink ethernet card, mouse, keyboard and joystick salvaged from numerous previous game boxes and wrapped it in a nice case with a 300W power supply (important for power-hungry Thunderbirds). Viola! A smoking game machine for a relatively small dent in the bank account.

No DVD. No CDR/W. No scanners, or printers, or digital camera video toilets. Just one thousand dollars worth of pure gaming goodness. Games not included.

The Breakdown:

All of the parts for this box were purchased at my local computer store (i.e.,Central Computer in San Francisco) unless otherwise indicated.

If you’re adept at using pricewatch, or choose to use a little less memory and the GeForce2 Mx card, you could probably save a hundred bucks or so, but even with my impatience and impulse buying I cleared the one thousand dollar mark. Barely.

CPU
AMD Thunderbird 800mhz $129.00

Motherboard
ASUS A7V Socket A $159.95

Memory
256MB PC133 SDRAM $115.00

Graphics
ASUS AGP-V7700 GeForce2 GTS Pure 32MB DDR $205.00

Sound
Creative SBLive! Value $59.00

CD-ROM
Creative CD-ROM Blaster 52x $49.99
(CompUSA)

Hard Drive
IBM Deskstar 20GB 7200 RPM, UATA/100 $125.95

NIC
Smartlink 10BaseT/100 BaseTX Ethernet $12.00 (www.mwave.com)

Fans
CPU/2 Aux case fans $36.00

Floppy
Teac $16.50

Case
ATX Mid-Tower w/300W Power Supply $52.00

Keyboard
(generic) $15.00

Mouse
Kensington Mouse-in-a-Box $15.00

Total System Cost (before outrageous sales taxes): $960.39