Building a racing simulator PC on a console budget

I've mentioned more than once in the past that you can get valid lessons and driving practice out of a good racing simulator.

Sims differ from arcade racing in that the driving techniques for a sim are much closer to real life. And compared to consoles, the PC offers a much wider variety of sim titles (and a much greater variety of sim content). But is it possible to build an adequate PC for this on just a gaming console budget?

The wheel and pedals (get at least a Logitech G29 or G920; a Thrustmaster T300 or TX is pricier and needs add-ons for H-pattern manuals but is also better), plus seat/frame, screen and audio can cost the same either way, so the only hardware difference is getting hold of a low-cost PC and graphics card (GPU, graphical processing unit).

Ex-business desktop PCs are a cheap basis for sim racing after adding a good low-profile GPU.

Ex-business desktop PCs are a cheap basis for sim racing after adding a good low-profile GPU.

Fortunately, when you turn the resolution, render distance and eye candy (shadows, reflections, post-processing and so forth) down or off the most popular PC sim title, Assetto Corsa (the original AC, not Competizione), can be run on a potato (the slang term for a slow machine). The first Automobilista (AMS) is also pretty easy on hardware, as are several likeable older sim titles such as SimBin's collection or Richard Burns Rally.

Driving practice and steering feel are our top priorities (and the reason for wanting sim, not arcade), so we'll aim for normal HD resolution (1920x1080p or a bit less) on just a single screen (but big in surface area is fine; the GPU won't care if it's 24in or 50in).

Looking at the eighth generation of consoles, they're close to $400 new.

Weirdly for tech, we would have had a better result for this budget in 2019, due to prices going up after a worldwide shortage of semiconductors (which are used to make microprocessor chips, and this shortage is slowing the manufacture of many goods with any type of chips, including vehicles).

As a base, we're going to use a small form factor (SFF) ex-business PC bought in refurbished condition that's had everything checked, all data deleted and a fresh reinstallation of Windows 10, plus a 30 or 90 day warranty for peace of mind.

These actually seem more plentiful than ever. For instance, an SFF with an i5 3470 3.2ghz CPU (this will be fine, but faster is available) is as little as $135 delivered, but more like $200 with the RAM and hard drive capacity needed (you'll want 8gb and 500gb, or upgrades to reach that; also look up the specs to see some USB 2.0 slots for the wheel/shifter, and the PCI-E x16 slot in the motherboard for the GPU is version 3.0 not 2.0).

It will need a basic mouse and keyboard; say another $30 for cheapies. And let's assume you'll plug in a network cable from your router for the most dependable connection. That leaves about $170 (maybe a bit more).

The real challenge is getting the best GPU for this little budget. You may get lucky in the used market, but what can we get new?

In order to fit in an SFF case (and keep its power supply) we specifically need the low-profile version of a GPU that also requires no more than the 75W of electricity available directly from the motherboard.

The best possible for an SFF, and there's probably a waiting list, is an Nvidia GTX 1650 4gb GPU with the optional GDDR6 memory. Next best is one with GDDR5 memory. Those are clearly over this budget though, to the point where you might instead consider building a full-size PC from the ground up with a faster GPU that uses extra power.

Next down the list is a low profile 1050 ti 4gb, but there seems to be no genuine new ones and even a used one will be over budget.

SIDE NOTE: If you have a full-size machine beware of the scam 1050 ti cards, which are only a GTS 450, that eBay and other sites are infested with. If it's not a real brand, or it's no brand at all, steer well clear.

The AMD equivalent GPUs have also seen shortages and price increases, so we're looking at a low-profile GT 1030 2gb GPU for anything from $150 to $220 depending on its brand, video outputs and cooling method. That will only use 30-50W (depending which one you get) and still get the job done with usable framerates (about 60 per second with the right in-game visual settings) in AC and AMS as well as many old favourites.

So, the answer to our question is, yes, you can do PC sim racing on a console budget.