A $100 PC You Can Actually Build

by Turbolence1988MAR 24TH, 2019

BUILD OVERVIEW

All prices are current as of March 23rd, 2019 via the retailer links below.


Total build cost: $104 plus shipping on HP 3400/3500 MT

UPDATE, Mar 26, 2019: Demand for the Ozbox was incredible! UCW unfortunately sold-through their inventory of the HP Pro machines in less than a day, but they're working hard to resupply their store with comparable computers for the same price, with our promo code still applying to all purchases. Head over to their website to browse current inventory.

If you’re strapped for cash, getting into PC building is an agonizing exercise in window shopping. With the cost of components being as high as they are, building a competent machine from all-new parts for anything short of $500 is a major challenge. Sure, some corners can be cut, but at the end of the day even the most basic rig will cost at least $250 to put together and won’t be able handle much outside basic office and web browsing tasks.

So...if we can barely pretend to be productive on a budget, how on earth are we supposed to game on a budget?

Well, we’re going to have to turn away the new market and take a long, hard look at used components. Though computers get faster at a dizzying pace (Moore’s Law comes to mind), prices for used gaming hardware don’t seem to fall off as fast as the technology evolves. Individual motherboards, CPUs, and graphics cards hold their value longer than they should, with some “enthusiast” components still demanding close to their original MSRPs. Where’s the value to be had? In the second installment of the OzTalksHW Build Lists, we’re tackling one of the most restrictive budgets out there: $100. It’s here that we’re veering off course from our typical all-new-component builds to find the best value in the used market.

This one will be a bit different from our other Build Lists, since we’re looking at what we’re considering another entry in the vaunted “OzBox” series. For this exclusive build, we worked with both Upcycle Computer Werks and Central Valley Computer Parts to bring you one of the best-value gaming computers we could put together for less than the cost of a single modern GPU. The promo codes shown below are exclusive for OzTalksHW readers and viewers to put together their own 2019 OzBox, a machine capable of running most modern games fluidly with modest graphics settings. It’s possible that supply could run out by the time you read this, but with some patience and persistence these prices are not far off from what could be found on the used market.

As an additional incentive, Upcycle Computer Werks has agreed that for every ten computers purchased using the OzTalks exclusive promo code shown in the sidebar, the company will donate a computer to a family in the Atlanta, GA area in need of one.

Now, let’s take a look at what’s in this all-new, all-used OzBox!

Editor’s note: As we readied this article, product availability and shipping costs changed from our original vision. UCW has several models available at or below the price shown above with varying processors. Here we’ll be highlighting the i5-3470 model, but i3 machines are available at a reduced cost with lower CPU performance. The choice is yours.

Prebuilt Machine: Hewlett-Packard HP Pro 3400/3500 MT

View at Upcycle Computer Werks ($51 after promo code "oz15")

Click here to view UCW's in-stock machines if the HP Pro is sold out.

Upcycle Computer Werks specializes in off-lease and refurbished computers that are primarily used in large corporate settings (think office PCs and some engineering firms). Most of what you’ll find available for public sale are OEM machines from the likes of Dell, Lenovo, or Hewlett-Packard, among others. Here, we’ve arranged a discount on one of their more recent offerings: an HP Pro microATX tower with an Ivy Bridge i5. Whether the 3400 or 3500 is received will depend on stock availability, but both models are visually similar and have the same components. Differences between the two will be in non-essential components that have no impact on performance.

Operating System: Windows 10 Pro 64-Bit

All HP Pro 3400/3500 MT systems from Upcycle Computer Werks have Windows 10 Professional pre-installed. We don’t have too much to say about Microsoft’s latest operating system here; it’s the essential OS for games today with enough backward compatibility that most games dating back to the start of the Windows XP era can run natively.
  
The license included with this computer is valid for the single machine and cannot be resold or transferred to another device.

CPU: Intel Core i5-3470 Quad-Core Processor, 3.2 GHz Base Clock, Up to 3.6 GHz Boost

With only four threads on tap, the CPU is certainly no match for today’s 8 to 16 thread behemoths. But the i5-3470 has enough speed to keep from bottlenecking modern midrange video cards on most of today’s AAA games. The situation may change within a year or two as processors age, but this i5 should provide plenty of power for gaming, emulation, and productivity uses. There are better CPUs for media creation and rendering (an i7-3770 would be a good choice to upgrade this system), but the i5 and a little patience will get the job done. Just don’t expect to stream with this CPU as it simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to run a game and encode video simultaneously.

Motherboard: Proprietary Hewlett-Packard Design, microATX, AMERIBIOS 8.17

The major differentiator between OEM systems and built machines is the motherboard. OEM motherboards are typically manufactured to spec to fit within oddly-shaped cases, accept proprietary power connectors, and meet a budget limit by having them custom manufactured on contract. That’s the case with the HP Pro 3400/3500 MT, as while the motherboard appears to be a standard microATX in physical appearance, the chassis doesn’t have quite enough room to accept an aftermarket board.

Though we’re stuck with what HP gives us, the motherboard loadout isn’t half bad:

  • Four rear USB 2.0 ports, two front USB 2.0 (no 3.0 at this price, unfortunately)
  • DVI + VGA ports for integrated graphics
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 3.5mm stereo onboard audio with line out and microphone, front audio jacks
  • 2 DIMM slots for up to 16GB DDR3 RAM
  • Four SATA ports, two available
  • One PCI Express x16 slot, three PCI Express 1x slots, one mini-PCIe slot

The PCI express slots are a boon here, as they could allow for extra expansion cards such as video capture devices or USB3 hosts to be used alongside the GPU. The board’s mini-PCIe connector can also be utilized with a laptop WiFi + Bluetooth adapter to modernize the build, if desired.

Sadly our biggest limiting factor will be the generic BIOS. AMERIBIOS is a universal BIOS that has very limited customization options, and will not allow for any overclocking or fan curve adjustment. Some software utilities may be able to adjust speeds, but successes are few and far between, and even if they can the board’s electrical hardware isn’t strong enough to handle more than the most mild overclock. Of course, the advantage of stock speeds is that durability and reliability are much higher, which is all you can ask for in a $50 PC.

RAM: 8GB Dual-Channel DDR3, 2x4GB, 1333 MHz

On the note of what you get for little money, most used PCs in this price range will be lucky to ship with 4GB of RAM installed, but here Upcycle Computer Werks provides a comfortable 8 gigabytes from the get-go. This dual-channel memory kit won’t win any awards for speed or timing, but the i5-3470 will not be limited by this kit.

We consider 8GB to be the minimum for any modern build, as this is the minimum spec for nearly every game on the market and only a few recent AAA titles will recommend more. This machine should have no trouble playing any game you ask of it, but be mindful of any memory-hogging applications you may have running while you play.

Main Storage: WD Blue 250GB 5400RPM HDD

While we have to be mindful of our budget, if there is any component we recommend upgrading on this machine first, this is it. A 250GB disk drive will only be enough for the operating system and a handful of games before space gets tight. It will work fine to get you started, of course, and can come in handy as a secondary drive when paired with an SSD.

Case: Hewlett-Packard HP Pro 3400/3500 MT

It’s not the most elegant design out there, but HP’s mercifully given us a minimalist case that won’t look gaudy in most environments. The case has the single front 5.25” bay occupied with a DVD-RW drive, and inside you’ll find mounting locations for an additional hard drive or SSD besides what ships with the computer.

Mercifully, the case uses entirely standard sizes, dimensions, and header leads. This means you can swap out any component for an off-the-shelf variant without hunting for a proprietary size or uncommon connector. Any microATX motherboard can be used here, as can any ATX power supply. Unfortunately front airflow is non-existent, so we don’t recommend keeping this case if you upgrade your build down the road.

PSU: ATX Hewlett-Packard Switching Power Supply, 300W

Last, we have a basic ATX power supply to power the machine. This 300-watt switching supply will deliver plenty of power to run the mainboard with our RX460, and it has a small amount of overhead for adding extra disk drives and expansion cards. Unfortunately it’s as barebones as it comes, with only a 4-pin EPS power connector for the CPU and no PCIe peripheral connectors to speak of. Your upgrade options are going to be limited without replacing this unit.

However, it’s plenty to get this machine going, and even has two open SATA 12v connectors for adding disk drives without the need to change power supplies or use adapters.

Video Card: Hewlett-Packard AMD Radeon RX460 2GB GDDR5

View at Central Valley Computer Parts ($53 after promo code "OZTALKS" valid through March 31, 2019)

*if the code doesn’t work at checkout, message CVCP via eBay and they’ll send you an offer at the promo price.

OEMs like HP don’t limit their cost-controlled manufacturing to just motherboards. Major components that are often requested as upgrades, such as graphics cards, can also see OEM-specific designs get mass-produced on contract and sold either separately from their target systems or bundled in at purchase. AMD’s RX460 is one such GPU that HP designed themselves to meet specifications, and some sellers such as Central Valley Computer Parts bought them out in bulk from HP after they were seemingly discontinued.

Besides the MSI-produced custom PCB and cooler, the HP RX460 differs from the AIB and reference versions with slightly lower core and memory clocks, presumably to keep the card within the limits of what the tiny cooler can handle. Performance is still within a couple percent of a reference RX460, and on the whole outperforms many other GPUs regularly found in the $50 range like the GTX 750Ti while being several years newer.

2GB of VRAM will of course be a limiting factor for most new games, mandating Low or Medium texture resolutions, but the card should have the headroom to turn up the visual flair elsewhere. eSports titles will have no trouble maintaining 60fps at 1080p, and triple digits are possible with lower settings. Additionally, driver support for the RX460 is still current, seeing the card attain small performance improvements with each update of the AMD Radeon Software.

Build Summary

So how far does $104 go? If we tripled our budget for an all-new parts build we might get close, but we’ve got a capable machine that can play even the latest AAA games for less than the cost of two such games alone. Most entry-level machines get benchmarked at 720p, but this budget rig surprised us with 1080p gaming for the money:

  • Apex Legends, Low Preset + Some Medium: 77 FPS average, 47 FPS 1% Low
  • Far Cry 5, Low Preset: 40 FPS average, 33 FPS 1% Low
  • Fortnite, Medium Preset: 76 FPS average, 55 FPS 1% Low
  • Rainbow Six: Siege, Medium Preset: 92 FPS average, 61 FPS 1% Low
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Low Preset: 34 FPS average

With performance like this, what isn’t there to like about this machine? If we’re being nitpicky, we can find a few faults, such as the limited upgrade path, no onboard WiFi or USB3.0, and the small amount of included storage, but none of these are deal breakers at our budget. This version of the OzBox is our most powerful and almost our least expensive yet, and if you’re on a budget this will give you among the best value for your money out there today.

We once again would like to thank both Upcycle Computer Werks and Central Valley Computer Parts for their offers to OzTalksHW readers and viewers. Their help was immensely appreciated as we sought the best deals we could muster.

Game on, friends!
- Turbolence1988