How to turn a server into a budget gaming PC
You can either DIY your own gaming PC or buy a ready-to-use version. The first option requires prior hardware knowledge, while the second costs significantly more depending on the model you choose.
Is there some kind of middle ground? One of my colleagues in the hardware department had the idea of jazzing up a cheap server on a budget and using very little DIY. Admittedly, when only you invest 600 Swiss francs, you won’t be able to play games in 4K. However, every game you do play in Full HD should give good enough images. And that’s without having to turn the graphic settings all the way down.
A compact Dell server serves as the basic framework for our project. The built-in processor is an Intel Xeon E3-1225 and with its 3.2 Ghz, it should be able to deliver enough performance for our use.
But when it came to the integrated graphics card and 4 GB RAM, it was a whole different kettle of fish. My solution was to build a GTX 1050 Ti and an additional 8 GB RAM module into our budget PC. Two identical modules would obviously have been better, but it still worked seamlessly and it turned out to be the cheapest option. To help the Dell switch on and work faster, I added an additional 120 GB-SSD, which was compatible with the 290 W power adapter.
The good news is, you hardly need any knowledge of hardware for the installation part. Carefully slot the graphics card into the blue PCI-E slot and add the RAM module to the ones already there. Make sure to use the same coloured slot as the colour on the module. Once you’ve done that the SSD obviously needs power, so link it to the mainboard with a SATA cable. If in doubt, use the pre-existing 1 TB hard drive to get your bearings.
But before you can start gaming, you need to install a copy of Windows because as yet there is no operating system on the PC. Given there Dell machines aren’t fitted with disc drives, you’ll need a USB stick bootable with Windows.
Now let’s look at the games themselves. By this stage you should be able to use the server for gaming. I installed a few of the most common games and checked how they performed in 1920x1080 resolution. For most of the games I had the graphics settings on maximum and V-Sync off.
Min: 110 fps, Max: 220 fps, Av: 180 fps, set to Maximum
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is always one of the most played games on Steam. As it has already been around for a few years, you don’t need a fancy machine for it to be compatible. The game doesn’t have an integrated benchmark, which is why I just used the FPS Benchmark Mod. It lets you have fun with image quality and anti-aliasing. However, once a smoke grenade explodes in the demo, the speed reduces to 27 pictures per second. You only seem to get such a big fps drop in this benchmark. In a normal game, for instance, I could throw as many smoke grenades as I wanted and the frame rate wouldn’t be affected. Basically, this PC can easily cope with you fighting a few terrorists or anti-terrorists.
Min: 45 fps, Max: 60 fps, Av: 50 fps, set to Maximum
Battlefield 1 is one of the best-looking games on the market, so we were happy to discover it could play on our machine. With all the settings on maximum, the fps varies between 45 and 60. It could even go higher if the 60Hz office monitor didn’t keep stalling. On a side note, DirectX 12 is slightly less stable than DirectX 11.
Min: 50 fps, Max: 78 fps, Av: 60 fps, set to Maximum with Vulkan
Like Battlefield 1, Doom is more than just a game with one of the most impressive graphics around at the moment. Both of these games also happen to be resource-friendly. All of the settings are as above, and using Vulkan API, the game still played smoothly.
Ghost Recon Wildlands
Min: 38 fps, Max: 58 fps, Av: 50 fps, set to Medium
Min: 31 fps, Max: 45 fps, Av: 40 fps, set to Very High
Ubisoft’s open-world playground also demands a fair amount from high-end PCs. So you can forget ultra now if you set much store by a decent frame rate. However, you can still play under 60 fps without any issues. With the preset on Medium, the game is a lot more visually appealing and runs fairly smoothly. On High, the image quality can be affected depending on the weather and how many opponents you have.
Min: 40 fps, Max: 60 fps, Av: 50 fps, set to Maximum without Weapon Debris or HBAO+
Although the post-apocalypse doesn’t look particularly appealing, it does demand a fair bit of computer performance. The GTX 1050 Ti does a great job with Fallout 4. If you’re playing in the third person, it does require more fps. If you add Weapon Debris and HBAO+, the fps can drop under 40 at times. But even then it doesn’t stop you playing. In summary, if you like your frame rates high and effects to look good, you’re sure to enjoy Fallout 4.
How all the games fared
A nimble machine with just one snag
As you can see, with a bit of help, the Dell manages to run most games on High to Maximum presets incredibly smoothly. For one or two of the games you’d probably have to turn the settings down. But all in all, you get a lot of performance for your money. As for the set-up phase, it didn’t grow legs and require more work than expected.
In fact, doing it this way worked out a bit cheaper than buying a whole new system. It goes without saying that the PC also works well with multimedia applications, not least because of the Xeon processor. However, there is one snag.
When I tried to build in a stronger power supply so I could connect a GTX 1060, I realised the inbuilt mainboard didn’t have the right plug. Rather than letting you attach 24-pin and 20-pin plugs that any power supply worth its money would, this one was only compatible with the 4-pin and 8-pin variety.
In the end, I had to use an adapter. You can get hold of these online, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend them. The reason being there is no guarantee the board will work with the additional wattage. This is why you can really only upgrade your system so far.
However, what this experiment showed is that in almost no time at all you can turn a Dell server into a great little PC, easily able to play almost all current games.
These are the parts we used in our budget PC. At 600 Swiss francs, it was significantly less than buying a comparable system brand new.
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Senior Editor, Zurich