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System Builder’s Guide: June R3000 to R9000

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Hello and welcome, gamers, to the bi-monthly System Builder’s guide, this time for the month of June. Things are still a bit messy following E3 2014 and many of the NAG staff and contributors are still digesting all the little things that we’ve seen. However, one thing is patently clear from the recent expo – PC gamers will get most of the multi-platform titles and there are several PC-only games that look incredible as well (Civilisation: Beyond Earth, anyone?). Console exclusives may be very tempting, but PC gaming offers a much cheaper spend over time if you’re patient and wait for those flash sales which chop down the prices of new games really quickly. So if you’re looking for a new build this month or are stepping in for the first time, there’s something for everyone.

Intel is moving in with crushing force…

This month’s guide comes just on the cusp of a completely new market and set of hardware for Intel. Devil’s Canyon launches on 30 June and brings with it new voltage control techniques, a bigger eye to making power delivery smoother, new thermal paste under the heatspreader to transfer heat over better (and remove the need for de-lidding) and a more mature production process, which should allow for higher overclocks. Along with Devil’s Canyon, there’s also an unlocked Pentium G3258, which will allow enthusiasts to pop it into a H97 or Z97 motherboard and overclock the hell out of it. AMD, by comparison, doesn’t have anything along those lines and definitely isn’t in a position to compete against an unlocked, dual-core Haswell CPU that can climb as high as 4.4GHz.

Well, maybe overseas they can, but not here. Oh no. Pigs will grow wings and fly sooner than AMD stands a chance against Intel locally.

But that’s not the end of it either. Next month, there’s going to be the Haswell-E launch together with socket 2011-3, the X99 chipset and consumer-bound DDR4 memory for the first time ever. It is brand new water to tread for Intel and there’s no telling how well the launch will actually go. With DDR3 prices as they are, DDR4 will almost certainly be at least 30% more expensive. To counteract that, though, it’ll ship with larger default capacities and power consumption and heat will be way down. And starting speeds will be in the 2133MHz and higher range.

HAWT DAMN.

But that’s not what concerns me most in this month’s guide. Recent game launches have begun to make their mark on gaming systems – it’s no longer possible these days to recommend 4GB of RAM to anyone looking to play games and assure them that it’s going to be fine, because they won’t be. From 2014 onwards 32-bit OSes won’t cut it and 4GB of RAM is too little. With games like Call of Duty: Ghosts, Watch Dogs, and Titanfall all recommending a minimum of 6GB of system memory, that pushes the onus onto system builders and gamers to upgrade their RAM to allow for the bigger games.

We all knew this was coming at some point, honestly.

But to what extent this was going to affect hardware choices was a relative unknown. Despite the game-breaking bugs in a few areas, Watch Dogs offers us the best glimpse of the kind of hardware we’ll be requiring at a minimum these days. A Core i3 processor, 8GB of DDR3-1333 RAM and a Radeon R7 250X is the minimum required hardware to play the game at 720p with medium settings, 2x AA and decent frame rates. Playing at 1080p? You need a AMD six-core chip with 8GB 1600MHz memory and a Radeon R7 265 or Geforce GTX660 just to make the game run comfortably at medium settings.

Its nothing with how poorly the game is optimised, but it’s rather a indication of how developers are going to be targeting AAA games to certain hardware sets in the future. You will always need at least four cores, 8GB RAM and a beefy enough GPU to run whatever game at the required resolution. Battlefield 4 was the first game to demonstrate this properly and from now on, there’s also going to be a heavier emphasis on CPU-based physics, which is why Intel processors are still topping the recommended charts these days.

This is also one area where AMD needs to up their game considerably or risk being left in the dust. Not all developers will be capable or willing to use Mantle, or to make their game engine more efficient and faster as more cores are added to the system. Whatever they have up their sleeve to replace socket AM3+ needs to come now, not two years into the future.

OH YES AND ONE MORE THING

You guys all remember Take2? You remember when it was good? Well, that was before Tiger Brands bought it out, changed the name to Takealot and then told the original owners to not do business over the net for the next three years. Now that it’s up, they’ve started Raru.

Moar places to buy things! Also, free shipping is always a pro.

Anyway, onward with the builds!

R3000 Budget – Costs Almost Nothing!

720p with Low settings and no AA, game and movie streaming
Processor AMD Sempron 3850 1.3GHz R542
Motherboard MSI AM1I mini-ITX R442
Memory Patriot Value 4GB DDR3-1600 R452
Graphics Integrated Radeon HD8280
Power supply Antec 90W bundled
Chassis Antec ISK110 VESA R844
Optical drive
Hard drive Transcend SSD340 64GB SATA 6GB/s R629
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R2909

AMD’s AM1 platform is very interesting in that it offers buyers a lot of computing power for very little money. It’s designed for sale in countries where computers need to be low-priced to be attractive and that’s certainly very true for South Africa. Everything, even Biltong and beer, is increasing in price. What we have here is the AMD’s Sempron 3850, a 1.3GHz Kabini-based quad-core APU with integrated Radeon graphics. Its not going to blow socks off and there’s every chance that it won’t be used as your regular workhorse. But, it does have a lot going for it.

AM1 specifically focuses on power efficiency and the Sempron 3850 has a 25W TDP. In fact, recent testing by PC Perspective showed that even the top-end Athlon 5350, with the same 25W TDP, drew less than 25 actual watts from the wall when coupled with a decent power supply. That’s right on par with Intel’s Bay Trail platform and low enough to not even make a dent in your power consumption in the household. These chips also can be used for any number of things – very light indie gaming, Blu-Ray 1080p playback, Steam In-Home game streaming, internet browsing and light compute workloads. There’s even the possibility of running these as very low-cost, custom file servers or proxy servers.

Compared to Bay Trail you might wonder why choose the cheaper platform when Intel offers, on average, more performance and it’s all down to one thing – socketability. The Kabini platform is a complete system-on-chip, which means that at any point in the future you can upgrade your rig by just buying a new AM1 processor. AMD has dedicated themselves to keeping the platform going, so we’ll see at least two more generations of chips before they move on to AM1+ and DDR4 memory, which brings with it even lower power consumption.

It’s true that one could substitute in a Intel Celeron processor and motherboard along with a bigger chassis and power supply, but then you lose not only the efficiency, but the ability to mount this thing behind a monitor and use a wireless keyboard and mouse to reduce clutter. It’s meant to be a low-power, low-cost machine that will do anything that a bigger one can, just for much less money and with a slight performance hit to go with it. I can dig that.

R3500 Budget – Just The Basics

720p with Low-to-Medium settings and 2x AA
Processor AMD A6-6400K APU 3.9GHz Unlocked R844
Motherboard MSI A78M-E35 socket FM2+ R766
Memory Crucial Ballistix Tracer LED DDR3-1866 4GB R536
Graphics Integrated Radeon HD8470D
Power supply Thermaltake 350W bundled
Chassis Thermaltake V2S ATX R476
Optical drive LG GH24NS95 24x DVD-RW R169
Hard drive Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 7200RPM R639
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R3430

In the April edition of this guide at this price point, I had to go over budget because of a motherboard switch, which pushed prices up considerably because I didn’t want to cheap out on having less SATA ports, or a crappier board layout. This month, however, things are different – we’re now well below budget thanks to some price drops all-round, a welcome sight for this guide because I’ve been tracking the meteoric rise of the price of computer hardware for two years now. Seeing RAM prices coming down more brings tears to my eyes.

Nothing changes much on the hardware front. AMD’s APUs are still sure-fire bets for the low-end market and the A6-6400K makes short work of the kind of pressures it’ll be under, be those gaming, productivity, photo or light video editing along with web browsing. The integrated Radeon graphics help out a lot to keep the budget down and the unlocked multiplier means you can raise the clock speed to something like 4.5GHz and enjoy speed boosts for free. With Intel’s Pentium G3258 at least two months out from landing on our shores, that gives AMD some extra time to grab market share here.

The RAM choice is interesting because these Crucial Tracers actually have LEDs on them, which can be set to do different things. You can have them reflect activity, memory usage levels and even have them lit up statically in either red or green. Some system customisation is always nice at the low-end and if you’re poking in your chassis in the dark, the extra light inside helps as well. It’s also not a bad kit speed-side, shipping out of the box with DDR3-1866 speeds with CL9 timings.

Alternative Intel choices? Well there are Pentiums out there that could deliver similar performance for most of the workloads, but they’d be pitiful for gaming. Even the combination of a Celeron processor and R600 – R700 graphics card won’t be as cost-effective either. However, you can speed things up with Crucial’s new MX100 SSD. These drives have the same controllers as the M550 line, but with lowered speeds and cheaper 16nm flash memory. Even on launch, the 128GB model is selling for just under the RRP at around R1000 and it’s a great addition to any system that could do with ridding itself of mechanical storage.

R4500 Budget – The Basics, With Gusto

720p with Medium-to-High settings and 2x AA, 1080p with Low settings and no AA
Processor Intel Pentium G3220 3.0GHz LGA1150 R635
Motherboard MSI H81M-P33 LGA1150 R661
Memory Crucial Ballistix Tracer LED DDR3-1866 4GB R536
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD R7 250 1GB GDDR5 R1229
Power supply Thermaltake 450W bundled
Chassis Thermaltake V2 w/ 450W PSU R601
Optical drive LG GH24NS95 24x DVD-RW R171
Hard drive Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 7200RPM R639
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R4472

The next step up in our guide sticks to the same hardware as the April guide as well. Here we’re lumping Intel’s Pentium G3220 and MSI’s H81M-P33 together with the Crucial Tracer memory and at the price we’re paying for this hardware, there’s not much reason to complain. I would have much preferred AMD’s Athlon X4 750 in here for the extra cores and overclockability, but finding those chips locally is a pain in the ass. The Pentium G3220 performs well enough to not bottleneck most of the low-end GPUs and with many games still hanging on to two threads, it’ll work out just fine for the majority of them. For now. Starting from August I don’t think I’ll be able to recommend dual-core processors for gaming any longer.

However, as I’ve said in my opener, the way the game industry is shifting with regards to PC ports is equal parts alarming and financially straining. We simply can’t fit in 8GB of memory here, try as we might. There’s the Radeon R7 250 with 1GB of GDDR5 RAM to mitigate most of the issues you’ll see with frame rates, however  we’re still cutting it fine with 4GB of RAM. Perhaps in the August edition of this guide I’ll revisit some R500 budget increases across the board to compensate for that.

For those of you interested in an AMD APU build instead for the simplicity, swap in the MSI A78M-E35 and the AMD A8-6600K APU in place of the processor, motherboard and GPU in this build. If you’re willing to go a bit over budget, adding in another stick of the Tracer memory is highly recommended.

R6500 Budget – The Budget Sweet-spot

720p with Ultra settings and 4x AA, 1080p with High settings and 2x AA
Processor Intel Core i3-4130 3.4GHz LGA1150 R1438
Motherboard MSI H81M-P33 LGA1150 R661
Memory Crucial Ballistix Tracer LED DDR3-1866 8GB R1072
Graphics MSI Radeon R7 260X 2GB GDDR5 R1757
Power supply Corsair VS350 350W R375
Chassis Zalman ZM-Z1 Midi tower R380
Optical drive LG GH24NS95 24x DVD-RW R171
Hard drive Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 7200RPM R639
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R6493

We arrive at our budget sweet-spot. R6500 is the minimum amount you need to budget for a rig that will play absolutely everything with decent settings at 1080p and with acceptable framerates that just hit 60fps in most cases. Compared to the April build, a lot changes were made here to accommodate the higher minimum requirements for modern games. The Haswell-based Core i3-4130 could have been replaced with a Haswell refresh variant, but not enough H81 or H87 motherboards come with the latest BIOS pre-loaded to support them out of the box. A drop to the MSI H81M-P33 was required to stay in budget and include the extra memory. Yep, we’re returning to 8GB here.

Elsewhere, the only major change is the graphics card. We’ve switched from the GTX750 to the Radeon R7 260X. We’ve done this mainly for the larger amount of VRAM as well as the two free games from AMD’s Never Settle bundle that are bundled – that’s two games you potentially didn’t have before, or Steam codes that you can sell for a hundred bucks apiece.

All in all, this build is fairly pedestrian as far as part selection goes. The only “luxury” item, really, is the LED RAM. Swapping in the MSI A78M-E35 and the AMD A8-6600K APU would require increasing the budget a bit, but in return you gain some overclocking ability, which helps tremendously here. There’s not a lot of headroom thanks to the 350W power supply, but 4.5GHz with Turbo disabled should be possible.

R9500 Budget – The Beginning of Mid-Range

2560 x 1440 with High details and 4x AA, UltraHD 4K with Low-to-Medium settings and 2x AA
rocessor Intel Core i5-4570 3.2-3.6GHz LGA1150 R2319
Motherboard ASRock H97M Pro 4 R1203
Memory Crucial Ballistix Tracer LED DDR3-1866 8GB R1072
Graphics Powercolor Radeon HD7950 3GB GDDR5 R2799
Power supply Seasonic M12II 520W 80Plus Bronze R684
Chassis Corsair Carbide 200R Mid tower R658
Optical drive
Hard drive Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 7200RPM R639
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R9374

Rounding off our guide for today, we’re stopping at the R9500 price point. Prices have een a nice mixture of stable and dropping and the rapid rollout of the Haswell refresh processors and 9-series motherboards has dropped the price of the older parts quite a bit. Here we’re retaining the Core i5-4570 from the Haswell family, but the motherboard is now ASRock’s H97M Pro 4, rather than the old Z87 Pro 3. The reason for the switch is mainly for the better hardware, the more stable power delivery and the better selection of chips – the H97M Pro 4 has Intel Gigabit LAN instead ot eh regular Realtek stuff, along with the fact that it looks much more attractive.

Those rotated SATA ports aren’t bad either. We are missing out on the things that make the 9-series platform interesting, though – mainly the lack of M.2 SSD support, which would have made the board choice much more valuable. There’s nothing like that on the 8-series platform. If you’re still on the fence, though, I’d suggest waiting. Eventually prices will sink a bit lower and we may see H97 motherboards with M.2 or even SATA Express connectors for a reasonable price.

Going down the list, we’ve bumped up to the increasingly rare Radeon HD7950. Its functionally identical to the Radeon R9 280 but just comes with a cheaper price tag, as well as the requirement that you have to use a monitor with Displayport or an active adapter using Displayport if you want to run your Eyefinity setup off the card. It doesn’t qualify for the AMD Never Settle promotion any longer but that’s okay – it’s the performance we’re after, not the free games at this point. Overclocking this card not only gets us to Radeon R9 280X levels, it’ll also overtake the GTX760 and almost match the GTX770 if you’re lucky enough to get the memory to 1500MHz (logically 6.0GHz).

An AMD alternative build actually would make some sense in here for the first time, but the board selection locally won’t match anything Intel has to offer for the same price. You can swap in the FX-8320 eight-core unlocked processor with the ASRock 970 Pro3 socket AM3+ motherboard. The FX-8320 won’t bottleneck the HD7950 and you’ll see a increase in overall framerates and smoothness in games like Watch Dogs or Battlefield 4, both of which use more cores really well. With GTA V coming out for PC later this year, you’ll need something like the R9500 rig to max it out completely.

That’s all for this week’s edition of the guide! Tune in next Tuesday for the jump to the mid-range budgets. Let me know in the comments below and in the forums how you like the redesign? Yes, no, maybe?

Discuss this in the forums: Linky

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  • Alex Rowley

    this is really helpful. I’ve been looking to get a new cheap motherboard that’s decent because I need more RAM for my PC and my current motherboard only supports DDR2 ram which is hellish expensive.

    Question though. I don’t actually know that much about CPUs so i was wondering which ones listed here are better than my Intel core 2 Duo E8400 3.00GHZ?

    • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wesley-Fick/184346154999538 Wesley Fick

      The Pentium G3220. And I’m not even joking. According to this Passmark benchmark list (http://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu_list.php)…

      The Core 2 Duo E8400 scored 2166 points and ranks #791. The G3220 on the other hand scored 3191 points and ranks #545. The Core i3-4130 pulls in 4832 points and ranks #299.

      Sadly Passmark is the only known list of processors with performance stats that can be this easily compared, but there you have it.

      • Alex Rowley

        Lol shit I knew it was old but daaaamn. At least it won’t cost a lot to upgrade.

      • Dave

        Ahhh nice link, good to see my 2600k is still semi-decent. Not time for an upgrade just yet then.

        • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wesley-Fick/184346154999538 Wesley Fick

          A 2600K hasn’t been slow since day one, actually. There’s literally no reason to upgrade to Haswell unless you want the new connectivity and features. Skylake is coming in 2015, that’s the one you want.

          • Dave

            Yeah I got it last year only so it was already phased out, but it seemed for the price I paid I was getting a lot more power than the other price range equivalents, so I’m glad to see it’s ranked higher than what else was on offer. I think the supplier was clearing stock or something. Thanks for the heads up though, skylake will be one to look out for!

  • BinaryMind

    I’m using a Raspberry Pi as a home server but it’s just not cutting it anymore – keeps crashing. Does the R3000 setup here contain any fans? My goal is to have a completely silent server that is low power and up all the time. The case looks fanless but does the CPU have one?

    • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wesley-Fick/184346154999538 Wesley Fick

      Its a very small, fairly quiet 40mm fan. The Kabini chips have a 25W TDP, so it doesn’t need a lot of active cooling. Just keep in mind that most Kabini boards only have two SATA slots and the R3k built is using a ITX motherboard. It does sip much less power than other solutions out there, but needs a low-power PSU to be properly efficient.

      If you want more flexibility, a cheap AMD Sempron 145 and MSI 760GM-P23 combo would cost a grand, give you six SATA slots with (limited) RAID capability and the stock fan is very quiet.

      If you’re looking for a home server solution, though, I would suggest thinking about a HP Microserver. They are incredible little machines for home automation, NAS storage and even media playback if you have a discrete GPU in there. Fill it with Seagate SV or Western Digital Red drives if this thing is going to be on 24/7 for NAS duty.

      http://www.takealot.com/computers/hp-proliant-microserver-g7-n54l,34082761

      http://mybroadband.co.za/vb/showthread.php/333460-HP-ProLiant-MicroServer

      • BinaryMind

        I have thought about those micro servers but they have fans. The problem i that I can only really put the thing in my bedroom as that’s where my router is and there just isn’t another place to put it where it wouldn’t be in the way. But if it’s in my room, I will have to deal with the fan noise at night.

        maybe I’ll just stick with the raspi and just deal with the random restarting. Thanks though :)

  • MR.F

    Thanks for the 411, how about : http://www.evetech.co.za/PC-Hardware/sapphire-vapor-x-radeon-r9-270x-2gb-256bit-graphics-card-442.aspx

    on the ‘R9500 Budget – The Beginning of Mid-Range’?

  • James

    Im considering an upgrade at the end of the year, only question I have for now, would a lowend mother board have a noticeable impact on performance?

    • Alec van Zyl

      Not really it is all really about what your motherboard can support if it has multiple ram slots(atleast 2) 1 slot for your graphics card and supports whatever processor you have(or will have) then you are set. At least until DDR4 Ram comes out but don’t worry about that too much right now

      • James

        Ah, excellent thank you :D

    • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wesley-Fick/184346154999538 Wesley Fick

      Alex is right. There’s little to no performance difference between a H81, H87, or Z87 board, but you do pay extra for more stable power delivery, features and connectivity.

  • bokka1

    When will we getting an updated article? I need to buy a new PC. :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wesley-Fick/184346154999538 Wesley Fick

      Look for a new one next week Wednesday. :)

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