Under The Hood: The Best $1500 Gaming PC

Ah, Winter. The temperature drops and Australians instantly retreat indoors to the warm embrace of a cuppa and their slippers. You know what that means? It's the perfect time to play video games.

You've squeezed all the entertainment you can out of the old Xbox 360's circa-2005 hardware. It's time to think about a new machine dedicated to real, serious, hardcore gamting. That's right — PC gaming.

Whether you're in it for console-crushing graphics, massively-multiplayer gaming, or just want to play games from genres that don't end in "person shooter," the PC's the platform you should be on. It's not as cheap as getting a console, but if you buy smart now, a good gaming PC will stay on the bleeding edge for years, with only a few minor upgrades.

That's why we decided to round up four $1500 gaming PCs from some of the best builders in the business. You can buy a PC for less, but you'll be forced to make compromises that will make your rig seem outdated soon. Also know that you can get a bit more performance for you money if you build your own computer from parts, but there's a lot to be said for the convenience and predictability of buying from a system vendor.

Testing Methodology

Most computer sites will fill their system reviews with page after page of Powerpoint-style benchmark charts, sometimes stretching a single review across 10 pages or more. We're not going to do that, for two reasons:

First, it's overkill. If you're the type that likes to pore over 25 different benchmark bar graphs, you probably already know where to find them. Second, because the four systems we reviewed are all pegged closely to the $1500 price point, they have very similar core hardware, and are going to perform very similarly.

So we looked at performance, using the PCMark 7 and 3DMark 11 benchmarks. But instead of obsessing over 5 per cent differences, we also took a look at the factors that would actually affect you every day if you bought the system. That's things like size, noise, form-factor, looks, and — importantly — how easy it will be to keep these systems updated, so you can keep gaming for years without shelling out for another $1500 rig.

Some of these systems haven't made it to Australia, yet either, so that means that you'll have to add the additional price of importing the rig into your calculations.

With all that out of the way, let's get to the systems.

Fourth Place: Puget Systems

Puget Systems is the smallest vendor in the competition — a distinction that comes with positives and negatives. On the plus side, the whole process of buying a Puget PC has a personal touch, letting you keep track of your system online as it's built. When you place your order a website is generated where you can follow along as the Puget staff builds your machine, tests it and benchmarks it. All the rigs came with a step-by-step work log, but Puget Systems set itself apart with online photos and thermal scans of the system before it shipped. Sadly, Puget Systems is based in the US, meaning that any system you buy will need to be imported.

This test used Puget's Spirit configuration. The computer's black mid-tower case isn't nearly as flashy as any of the other competitors, but it's definitely practical. There's enough room inside that dropping in a new video card or swapping out some RAM will be a breeze, but the whole thing is still a reasonable size and able to fit comfortably under any desk.

But as we said earlier, there are drawbacks to going with a "boutique" vendor like Puget Systems. Because they don't deal with the same kind of volume as a bigger PC maker, they can't squeeze their margins quite as much, meaning you just don't get the same hardware for your money. Where the other systems have identical processors and graphics cards, the Puget system features a slower CPU, video card and RAM, as well as the puniest hard drive of any of the systems.

The system will still play any modern game with maxed out settings at a standard 1080p resolution, but if you've got a 30-inch panel or want to game on multiple monitors, you'll start to see the difference. And even if you're only interested in gaming at 1080p, the fact is that this system's going to show its age faster than any of the others. Puget Systems specialises in higher-end gaming computers, and as you get into the $2000 and up range, the performance different should go away. Unfortunately, at the $1500 level, we just can't recommend this build.

Puget Systems Spirit Specs

• Dimensions: 8.25" x 17.5" x 19.25"

• Processor: Intel Core i5-3450

• Video Card: ATI Radeon HD 7850

• Memory: 8GB @ 1333MHz

• Storage: 500GB HDD

• PCMark 7 Score: 3368

• 3DMark 11 Score: 6771

• Gizrank: 2.0

Third Place: Maingear

Maingear's entry is the Potenza Super Stock, a full-powered gaming rig in a crazy-small custom chassis. This is the only PC of the bunch that you couldn't build on your own, since the tiny case isn't sold separately. And even if it were, fitting all the hardware inside looks like the PC-building equivalent of solving the puzzle box from Hellraiser.

Don't let the small size fool you, though — Maingear's system uses the same powerful internals as even the biggest competitors in the roundup. The Potenza has enough power to play Battlefield 3, Skyrim or Batman: Arkham City at 1920 x 1080 with settings maxed out and framerate to spare.

The Potenza is also stocked with a 30GB SSD caching drive, which works with the main 500GB hard disk to give you high-speed transfers on commonly used data. This means that Windows feels more responsive, and boots very fast — from powered off to the desktop in under 30 seconds.

The main drawback to the Potenza is the same as its biggest strength: size. The system's hardware should be good for top-quality gaming for at least 2 years, but when it does start to get behind the times, updating it is going to be a massive pain. The tightly-packed hardware looks like a nightmare to replace even for a veteran PC builder, and some video cards simply won't fit in the space available. Additionally, the Micro-ATX motherboard only has two slots for RAM, so if you want more memory, you'll have to completely replace the 8GB that comes with it. There's also no room for a sound card, if that's your thing.

Still, the Maingear Potenza fits a remarkable amount of power in a tiny form factor. If desk space is a concern for you, this might be the perfect choice.

Maingear Potenza Super Stock Specs

• Dimensions: 7.5" x 9.4" x 15.6"

• Processor: Intel Core i5-3570K 3.4GHz Overclocked

• Video Card: Nvidia GeForce GTX 670

• Memory: 8GB @ 1333 MHz

• Storage: 500GB HDD + 30GB SSD caching drive

• PCMark 7 Score: 5511

• 3DMark 11 Score: 9090

• Gizrank: 2.5

Second Place: Digital Storm

Now this is a good, old-fashioned gaming PC. Just look at that white Corsair Graphite 600T case-it's absolutely huge, totally ostentatious, and looks vaguely like a Stormtrooper. It's got a window, for Christ's sake. A window, so you can see the aftermarket lighting. This is the kind of case that will make you the coolest kid at the LAN party, if you don't throw your back out getting it there.

The hardware's about the same as you find in the Potenza, although it forgoes the SSD caching for a single 1TB hard drive. It boots slower, but if you're the downloading type, the extra 500GB could come in handy. The CPU is also overclocked to a healthy 4.4GHz, and the case has tons of room to drop in extra memory, storage, and additional cards. The GTX 670 video card is great for running in SLI mode, which means that you can add a second copy of the same card for a big boost in performance. This can be a perfect way to extend the life of your computer without paying too much, and the Digital Storm system is the only 670-sporting PC in our list that's got enough room to double up.

The case has a full complement of USB, audio and Firewire connections right in front, and it never gets too loud. It's so convenient that you almost wonder why everybody doesn't use cases like this. Until you remember exactly why everyone doesn't use cases like this: It's frickin' huge. The PC is far away the largest and heaviest of the bunch. If your desk has a designated cabinet or alcove for a computer, this system won't fit in it. If you put the system on top of your desk, either because it doesn't fit underneath or you just really want to show off the custom lighting, you can kiss your peripheral vision goodbye.

Digital Storm is great for shipping, too. The company is more than happy to ship across the pond for you.

This Digital Storm system is powerful, looks great, and will be easy to keep updated for years to come, but if you're thinking about buying one, bust out the measuring tape and make sure you've got room first.

Digital Storm ODE V2 Specs

• Dimensions: 10.5" x 20" x 23.25"

• Processor: Intel Core i5-3570K 3.4GHz Overclocked

• Video Card: Nvidia GeForce GTX 670

• Memory: 8GB @ 1600 MHz

• Storage: 1TB HDD

• PCMark 7 Score: 3976

• 3DMark 11 Score: 8242

• Gizrank: 3.5

First Place: Origin

If you got a sort of Goldilocks/baby bear/papa bear vibe from the last two systems, you're not alone. The best system in the test splits the difference. Its compact case is small enough to sit unobtrusively on top of your desk, but spacious enough that you should be able to upgrade parts without having to find your Operation tweezers.

The Origin system also has something notably lacking from every other system: a real solid-state drive. You can probably blame it on vendors trying to maximise performance for the price, but we would never build a $1500 system these days without an SSD — the drive is just a great way to improve the overall experience of using your PC, even if it doesn't affect your Battlefield 3 frames-per-second. An SSD means faster boot times (the Origin system had the fastest boots of the bunch, at 27 seconds), games with much quicker load times, and just generally a faster experience in the OS.

Despite being the second-smallest PC in this competition, the Origin had the overall best performance scores, helped out by its speedy SSD and heavily-overclocked CPU.

The system still has some of the drawbacks of the smaller Maingear-–although it's more spacious than the Potenza, you can still expect any updating to be more difficult than in the Puget Systems or Digital Storm rigs. And, it lacks space for an additional video card or sticks of RAM. The system can also get quite loud, and the plastic arches on the top and bottom of its Bitfenix Prodigy case are flexible, so plugging in a USB device to one of the side ports causes the computer to jiggle disconcertingly.

Despite those inconveniences, the Origin system is just the best deal for the money, with impressive performance, a much-needed SSD, and a very cool form factor.

But despite the fact that Origin have an Australian store, it doesn't stock the Chronos locally. It only stocks the Genesis and the weaponised monster-system that is the Big O. The Big O is so big in fact that prices can go right up to $23,000.

Bottom line: if you want the Chronos, you'll have to import it.

Origin Chronos Specs

• Dimensions: 9.75" x 15.5" x 14"

• Processor: Intel Core i5-3570K 3.4GHz Overclocked

• Video Card: Nvidia GeForce GTX 670

• Memory: 8GB @ 1600 MHz

• Storage: 500GB HDD + 120GB SSD

• PCMark 7 Score: 6063

• 3DMark 11 Score: 10893

• Gizrank: 4.0


Comments

    I got the Corsair Graphite 600T case, and yeah it's huge.
    but my god do i love it, awesome cable management, silent fans and impressive airflow.

      I built my new rig yesterday with this very case. It is amazing! Best case I have ever worked with.

        I have it too, nice cable management as you said and I don't find it too heavy- but like so many others with this case my fan controller died within a month or so and Corsair are yet to replace it, despite months of being ignored by customer service.

      I have this one too. Just plain awesome.... one thing thought, it is not as heavy as they suggest.

    For 1500, you can get a Clevo P151EM gaming laptop with higher specs, superior cooling.
    You could simply use the laptop as a tower replacement and plug your peripherals to it.

      Higher specs? From what I can find it runs the 670M which gets destroyed by it's desktop 670 cousin running in the top three systems here. For a real world test to look at, the 670 (according to Anandtech's bench) will run BF3, 1080p, Ultra MSAAx4 ~63fps. The 670M according to the couple of random sources I could find with figures hits about ~20fps (eg: http://www.gaminglaptopsjunky.com/gtx-670m-vs-gtx-570m-vs-gtx-660m/)

      Do you have a decent review for the Clevo?

        small price you pay for the option of portability.
        Clevos are around 26fps @ Ultra.

          Since it's about best gaming PC - a 40fps hit is a pretty big price to pay. With the option of portability - how much of your gaming on that machine would be done outside of your normal gaming space - say, on the couch? Or on a bench in a park?

          The main crux though is you stated use the laptop as a tower replacement - which means the majority of the time it won't be moving anywhere.

            If you're a lanner, its easy to justify, take 3 things, laptop, mouse, headphone.

              I'm a lanner and would never substitute a desktop for a laptop. Whatever works for you, though!

                Besides when you look at it the Chronos is actually quite portable.

    Just built my own 2 weeks ago: i7 3770, 2TB HDD, 32GB DDR3 RAM, 2G GTX-670, Blu-ray Writer, Coolermaster HAF 912 Case. Cost me right on 1500. Rather more ram and disk space over SSD

    However the Origin looks like a nicely finished box

      Thats awesome!!!! Where did you get the parts from? I'm looking to upgrade and have been looking at components. Also what motherboard did you use?

      32GB Ram?! Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? You would want to do some insane multi-tasking to make use of that...

      Tailblazers: I bought the parts from MSY. Got the ASUS-P8Z77-M-Pro motherboard.
      Mick: I got 32Gb of 1600Mhz RAM cos I am a network engineer and run GNS3 (network simulator) when im studying at home

    Or you could build it yourself and get better parts.....

      Yep was about to say that. I recently upgraded (and when I say upgraded, I mean replaced just about everything apart from the case and monitor) for less than $1000 all up. And it's got better parts than any of these do.

      im pretty sure thats not the point of the article but hey, what ever.....

        Yeah but building your own PC is very easy. It can be a little daunting at first but its more or less plug and play (obviously you need to take your time and be careful)

      Pretty sure that point was covered in the 4th paragraph...

    I kept my Core i7 3.06 and updated to 16Gb 1600Mz Ram, Radeon HD 7970 and just for kicks a Front panel with 4x USB3 ports and a bunch of card slots. 23" Asus 120mhz monitor. Think I'll wait for the next CPU after Sandy Bridge before I update that. Very Happy camper

    Would love to see a "best build your own PC for $x" article

    These 1500 dollar PC's are an insult for money for value. For 1000 you can built the same system and maybe even include a monitor :S

    I can't seem to find the exact Origin model on their website. Care to link?

    I build my PC this year with about the same specs as the Puget System but with a 2TB HDD (and ThermalTake Case) For $700, thats not including the cost of an OS but still...
    $1500 give me a break :/

    Keep in mind that peripherals typically aren't included in the price of a rig. A decent monitor, "gaming" mouse and keyboard combo will run you another $3-700 depending on how extravagant you want to go, and that still doesn't factor in audio options.

    It can be a pain building your own PC, or hell, some people may not have the know-how to do so, which is why this sort of comparison is still relevant. Just keep in mind the added expenses. All you're buying here is the box.

      Additionally, my current system is slightly better specced than the "Big O" IGN Config (twice the RAM, monitor-grade sound card w/ integrated DAC). Including the cost of 3 23" monitors, 2.1 speakers, headphones and other peripherals. The total cost comes to around $2.5-3,000 with perhaps 3-4 hours labour put into it, excluding OS installation and software configuration.

      $5,699 seems a bit rich for such a machine, especially with the peripherals being an extra cost on top of that. I really need to get into the "boutique" builder's industry.

    I got my new machine from PC Case Gear it's basically this one with a Corsair case - I added a 120GB SSD. great build and good $ value. http://www.pccasegear.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1411&products_id=21069

    I've got the big brother of that Maingear Potenza case, a Silverstone Fortress FB03 and it works great. I'd love to find a smaller version though. Even though the article says the case is custom and proprietary, is anyone aware of something similar elsewhere? I don't have the dosh to shell out for a whole new PC just for the case ;)

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