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How I built the ultimate low-profile Starfield gaming PC for under $1,200

I fired up my power screwdriver and built the Starfield gaming rig of my dreams that's spouse-approved and quiet enough to be in a family room. Check out my components.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

My big pile of parts.

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

There was a time when I built a lot of PCs. For years, I probably built 10-15 machines a year. Some were for me, some for family, some for friends, and there was a long line of special-purpose servers. 

But about 10 years ago, that stopped. Most of my production work shifted to being done on Macs, which come from the factory so turnkey that you can't even install more RAM or storage. I started using NAS appliances, which are smaller and quieter. My Linux machines moved from big case servers to tiny Raspberry Pis hanging off the back of my 3D printers. And my Windows machines became an ongoing series of almost-powerful-enough laptops.

Also: How to build a gaming PC for $2,500

I'm not saying my move away from building PCs was the right move. It just happened to be where my life was going. 

But I like games, though I've never been much of a Twitch player. I like strategy games, city sims, and RPGs. One series of RPGs I particularly gravitate to are those made by Bethesda. I played Morrowind on one of the PCs I built, but by the time Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Fallout 4 came out, I had firmly moved to the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. I've been playing Skyrim (which came out in 2011) on and off on my PS4. While I'm not one to buy a lot of games, I bought two for my PS4, Skyrim and Dishonored. Both were Bethesda games.


Inside the build

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

But there was one thing I really missed from my PC Morrowind days: cheating. I'll admit it. I won't make it through one of these games if I can't Kobayashi Maru the gameplay. Yes, Skyrim has limited mods on the PS4, but it's nothing like the ability to completely redefine the game that exists on the PC.

Also: Game console showdown: PS5, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, and more

Then, Bethesda announced Starfield, the first completely new game property from Bethesda in 25 years. I decided I wanted to play it. And I wanted to play it on a PC. I wanted to mod it and tweak it to my heart's content. Tweaking the game is as much fun for me as playing. I'm not alone in my interest in Starfield. It rocketed to 10 million players in its first three weeks, Bethesda's biggest launch, ever.

I pitched the idea of bringing a gaming PC into the living room. My wife loves video games. She's a far better gamer than me. But we still haven't seen the need to move to the PS5, and adding a whole new machine into our family room was an issue. We used to have a completely overloaded family room, with the tech so loud you could hear it in the kitchen. But now, with just some Macs and the PS4, it's blissfully quiet. 

She agreed to having a new PC in the living room, but requested that it be low profile, whisper quiet, and come in at under $1,200. She'd seen me ogling those uber-high-performance rigs touted on YouTube, and there was just no way we could justify spending three or four grand on a gaming PC. But $1,200? That we could swing.

And so, my Starfield gaming PC project was born. Here's what I spec'd out and what I built. It's exactly what we wanted.

What Starfield wants, Starfield gets

I started out the build by digging into the Starfield specs. Most games supply a list of minimum system requirements, which means the game will run, barely. What you want to look for are the recommended specs. Here are those for Starfield:

  • Processor: AMD Ryzen 5 3600X, Intel i5-10600K
  • Memory: 16 GB RAM
  • Graphics: AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT, NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080
  • DirectX: Version 12
  • Network: Broadband Internet connection
  • Storage: 125 GB available space

Interestingly, Starfield is an AMD-promoted game. This means that the developers had a special incentive to optimize the game to run on AMD hardware. I've built most of my PCs on AMD hardware quite successfully, so that's what I decided to do. I'd build an AMD-based machine.

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Since the GPU was the most important (and most expensive) part of the build, that's where I decided to start. I just picked the specific GPU -- the AMD Radeon RX 6800 XT -- that the devs recommended. And then I went from there.

  • 1x HDMI 2.1 VRR and FRL
  • 2x DisplayPort 1.4 with DSC
  • 1x USB-C for additional video
  • 16GB RAM

I knew I wanted the RX 6800 XT GPU and I knew I wanted at least 16GB RAM in order to hold all the textures and other game features I might want. There are different models and vendors, but this model, from XFX, was an Amazon's Choice selection. 

I based my decision on the rather enthusiastic reviews, and on one more factor: I could have this card within a couple of days. All the other 6800 XTs were going to take two weeks or more. The supply seems to have let up since I ordered, but a few weeks ago, availability was tight.

At $529, this one component used up almost half my budget. But the whole reason for building a gaming PC is to have access to a powerful GPU. It was my most important purchase. Everything else would have to be made to fit into the rest of the budget.

  • Cores/Threads: 6/12
  • Base Clock: 3.7 GHz
  • Max Boost Clock: 4.6 GHz
  • Cache: 35MB (L2 + L3)
  • Memory Support: DDR4-3200

There's no doubt that the Ryzen 5 5600X isn't the latest and greatest hotness. But high-end AMD processors can go for $1,000 -- and even more. What I chose was the generation beyond the recommended model for Starfield, which is a slightly older generation CPU and architecture. That helped keep the CPU, motherboard, and RAM prices down, and helped fit everything into my $1,200 budget.

I paid $155 for my CPU. A few weeks later, it's now listed on Amazon for $169.

Let's talk about motherboards. There's a very big trend in motherboards to display all sorts of RGB lighting effects. In fact, I found it really hard to find a case that didn't have a clear side for displaying those RGB effects. Let me be clear. I dislike RGB lighting in my PCs. I liked it when I could get my PCs in beige. It really bothered me once computers started coming in colors and designer effects. I didn't buy a beige case this time, but black is close enough.

As for the motherboard, I wanted features that were not RGB. (Although this board does have some RBG control features for those who want to enable those.) I wanted onboard Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and Bluetooth, as well as onboard audio. I wanted two NVMe ports for storage (so I could later expand easily if I wanted). And I wanted four RAM slots (for the same reason).

Also: The best gaming GPUs (and how much you should spend)

I chose this board from Asus because I've had a lot of success building with Asus boards, and I've also owned a number of Asus laptops, including the one that currently controls my CNC. I found the feature set on this board was ideal for what I needed. It had very solid and well-described Amazon reviews, in which a few folks were happy with the exact configuration I was going with. So I chose it.

It does the job quite well, with the exception of Bluetooth. I just couldn't get Bluetooth to run on this board. Period. See my description of the Bluetooth dongle below for more details.

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

It took me a lot of digging to find this case. As I mentioned, I wanted a case that was solid. I didn't want some plexiglass side that would show the dirt and magnify the sound. What I wanted was something solid and completely nondescript, so when it was placed in one of our living room furniture units, it would fade into the background.

But I wanted the case to do one other thing: muffle the sound. This case has insulated panels designed to help baffle the sound from reaching the outside of the PC.

You can see one such panel through the area marked in red below. That's foam insulation designed to insulate the sound. And it does its job. This is the quietest tower PC I've ever owned.

David Gewirtz/ZDNET

I also chose this case because I've used Antec cases before and had good results with them. The combination of the look, the sound baffling, and a brand I've used (as well as its $99 price) made this the winner in the case contest.

I decided against using the stock CPU fan because it can be noisy. I also opted against water cooling because liquid and family rooms don't mix. The key was to use a bigger fan moving at a slower speed. What I liked about this unit was that it has a large heat sink and supports a large fan.

Also: The best laptop cooling pads to protect your device from overheating 

But what I really liked, and what closed the deal for me, is the fact that it can optionally support a second large fan if more cooling is needed. As I did this build, I didn't know if I'd need another fan, especially after slowing the speed down. So far, I'm running on one CPU fan, but there's a very easy option to expand built right into this cooler. That's a win.

Thermaltake is another brand I'm comfortable working with. My selection process was similar to the CPU fan. I read a lot of user reviews, specifically looking for mentions of "quiet". I selected a bunch of 600-800W supplies and sat down to read the reviews. This one had a number of mentions specifically calling out its quiet functionality. And that was that. I bought.

This is another choice optimized by an Amazon's Choice recommendation. I've purchased G.SKILL before and had no issues. The price for 32GB was quite good, so I picked it up.

Game specs recommend 16GB, but I've been standardizing on 32GB and up for a few years now. Given that bumping the build from 16GB up to 32GB was a difference of $32, I paid the few extra bucks and doubled my available RAM.

Also: The best RAM: Top memory upgrades for work and gaming

That way, if I do find myself needing to use this machine for something other than gaming, there's enough RAM to get most things done.

And then there's storage. I paid $79 for this, but when I checked Amazon just now, the price had risen to $103. Even so, it's a far sight better than the $360 that Apple charges to go from 1TB to 2TB of flash storage. Ah, well. Kingston makes fine storage and so I added it to my build. Eliminating the moving platters of hard drives is one more way I can cut out noise. Not to mention how much faster this is than an old-school hard drive. In fact, the Starfield specs specifically require an SSD vs spinning media -- so there's that.

All that brings me to Bluetooth. I could not get Bluetooth to work on the motherboard. I spent about half a day on it, then gave up. My reasoning is pretty simple: I rely heavily on Bluetooth. There are no speakers on this machine. It will just use Bluetooth earbuds. It also uses Bluetooth for mouse and keyboard. And it all has to be done from a distance. So rather than relying on a radio that's buried inside a sealed metal case, I added a Bluetooth USB dongle. The difference with this one is that it has an external antenna to maximize reception.

Also: Best Bluetooth trackers: AirTag and alternatives

The only thing is, buying this put me $3.08 above my $1,200 budget. Oh, well. It's still a very nice machine.

And there you go, that's my build. I've been playing Starfield on and off for about a week, and I like it a lot. It's a bit different from Fallout 4 and Skyrim, and it's very similar at the same time. If you liked Fallout 4 and Skyrim, you'll like Starfield.

Oh, and in case you're curious, this is my spaceman character.

Screenshot by David Gewirtz/ZDNET

See you around the galaxy!

Also: The best gaming PCs: Top prebuilt rigs compared

So, what do you think? Are you playing Starfield? Will you build a gaming rig? Do you keep yours in the family room? What other games are you looking forward to? Let me know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to subscribe to my weekly update newsletter on Substack, and follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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