System-builders-600-x-272

Hello, boys and girls, welcome to the second episode of the System Builders Guide for March 2015. Here we’re going into the mid-range builds, which typically offer you much more bang for your buck and a good deal of performance hidden away behind software sliders and BIOS settings to increase clock speeds. As before, I won’t rant too much about the price increases, but spoiler warning – they are there and they do ruin the party.

R12,000 budget – Almost hitting the spot

2560 x 1440 with high details and 4x AA, UltraHD 4K with medium settings and 2xAA
 Processor   AMD Vishera FX-8320 3.5-4.0GHz Unlocked R2263
 CPU cooler   Zalman CNPS10X Optima R395
 Motherboard   MSI 970 Gaming socket AM3+ ATX R1457
 Memory   Kingston HyperX Fury Black 2x 4GB DDR3-1866 R1120
 Graphics   PowerColor Radeon R9 280X 3GB GDDR5 R3499
 Power supply   Super Flower Golden Green HX500W Gold R769
 Chassis   Cooler Master Centurion 6 Silver R703
 Optical drive   —
 Hard drive   WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R749
 Solid state drive   Crucial M550 128GB (Marvell 88SS9189) R955
Total (Rands): R11,950

Kicking off the mid-week guide, we stop at the new R12,000 budget. There’s not too many compromises here, although price increases for AMD’s FX-8350 force my hand down to the FX-8320 instead. Like the R10k build I had in last week’s guide, we’re using the Zalman CNPS10X Optima cooler and the MSI 970 Gaming motherboard, although this will be the last AMD build we’ll see here – reason being that the upgrade from this board is the ASUS Sabertooth 990FX R2.0…and that board doesn’t have a mSATA or M.2 slot. It doesn’t even have SATA Express. R3300-ish moola for a board that just enables you to overclock FX chips to their limits and run those 220W FX-9000 monsters. Its a bit of a waste, honestly.

Going down the list, we’re sticking with two 4GB DDR3-1866 DIMMs from Kingston. These can be overclocked a bit, though the reference speeds and stock bandwidth is more than most people will need. What really ramps things up is the Radeon R9 280X with 3GB of VRAM. Yes, it is older technology compared to last week’s GTX 960, it doesn’t even get to hop on the FreeSync bandwagon. Raw performance is higher, though, and it will hand higher resolutions like UltraHD 4K much better, due to the extra 1GB of VRAM and the wider memory bus.

However, this isn’t the perfect card for everyone and its not fully DirectX 12 compliant, so you may end up missing out on a few features and eye candy in the long term. The only desktop architecture that fits that role is Maxwell, but there’s nothing based on it in Nvidia’s stable that sits in between the GTX 960 and 970 at a price that would fit this budget. Perhaps, in the future there will be a GTX 960 Ti that does do that, but right now the upper mid-range market belongs to AMD.

The chassis, power supply and hard drive stick with us from the R10k build from last week, but our storage does get a boot with the Crucial M550 128GB, on special for under R1000. If you were looking for a SSD that doesn’t break the bank but delivers on performance, this is absolutely the one to get. Don’t even blink when you’re clicking the Checkout button.

R14,000 budget – The sweet spot

2560 x 1440 with ultra details and 4xAA, UltraHD 4K with medium settings and 2xAA
 Processor   Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5-3.9GHz Unlocked LGA1150 R3588
 CPU cooler   Zalman CNPS10X Optima R395
 Motherboard   ASRock Z97 Pro4 LGA1150 ATX R1671
 Memory   Kingston HyperX Fury Blue 2x 4GB DDR3-1866 R1120
 Graphics   Powercolor Radeon R9 290 PCS+ 4GB GDDR5 R4399
 Power supply   Super Flower Golden Green HX500W Gold R769
 Chassis   Cooler Master Centurion 6 Silver R703
 Optical drive    —
 Hard drive   WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R749
 Solid state drive   OCZ ARC 100 240GB (Barefoot 3) R1499
Total (Rands): R14,893

We arrive at our budget sweet-spot, but this isn’t a happy build. Recent price increases have made the cookie-cutter build fetch much higher prices than it should and there’s nothing we can do about it. A R500 price hike on the Core i5-4690K puts us way beyond budget. In addition to that, there’s been a slight increase on all Z97 motherboards in the past two months, which means that I had to drop the stunning MSI Z97S Krait for the cheaper ASRock Z97 Pro4. I also had to reign in the memory a bit, opting for slightly cheaper Kingston modules in blue heatsinks to match the motherboard.

Instead of the Geforce GTX 970 I had at this price point before, we have the Powercolor R9 290 PCS+ edition, which is an overclocked version of the regular R9 290 with a much better cooler and a semi-custom PCB. What we lose thanks to the switch is full DirectX 12 support, but we still are able to enjoy the future benefits of FreeSync, TrueAudio and HSA-enabled applications that will put the GPU through some serious work. The performance is great, make no mistake, but the GCN  1.1 architecture is at an advanced age now, slipping into almost 15 months as you read this. AMD’s new GPUs should be on the horizon, but it will be a while before they are available locally at decent prices. As always, money talks and in this build particularly, it forced me to compromise on looks and style to maintain the same level of performance.

Though it pushed up the budget tremendously, I decided to keep in a SSD that is big enough for at least one game and Star Citizan. OCZ may have been in a bit of trouble in the past, but under their new overlords, Toshiba, they’ve gradually returned performance and reliability back to the days before the Vertex 4. Using the Barefoot 3 controller and 19nm Toshiba flash, the ARC 100 puts out some impressive performance, hitting over 400MB/s in sequential 4K write speeds – performance usually reserved for drives costing much more from the likes of Samsung, Crucial and SanDisk. Jolly good!

R18,000 budget – Not quite high-end

2560 x 1440 with ultra details and 4xAA, UltraHD 4K with medium settings and 2xAA
 Processor  Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5-3.9GHz Unlocked LGA1150 R3588
 CPU cooler  Corsair Hydro H75 water cooler all-in-one R1077
 Motherboard  ASRock Z97 Extreme 4 ATX LGA 1150 R2151
 Memory  Kingston HyperX Fury Black 2x 4GB DDR3-1866 R1130
 Graphics  EVGA Geforce GTX 970 Superclocked 4GB GDDR5 R5015
 Power supply  Antec TruePower TP-750 750W R1077
 Chassis  Cooler Master CM690 III Mid Tower R1185
 Optical drive   —
 Hard drive  WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R749
 Solid state drive  Samsung 850 EVO 250GB (Samsung MGX) R2016
Total (Rands): R17,988

We come to the last build for today, the R18,000 build that is somewhat high-end, but isn’t really there yet. The Core i5-4690K is now cooled by a Corsair Hydro H75, all the better to overclock to higher speeds with. To help with that, the motherboard gets a slight upgrade to ASRock’s Z97 Extreme 4, bringing all the bells and whistles that the Z97 chipset has to offer at an affordable price point. There are two M.2 slots for SSDs, so it should be plenty future proof for any storage upgrades you might want to do in the future.

The graphics card finally changes back to the Geforce GTX 970, this particular example coming from EVGA. The Superclocked cards are still based on the reference Nvidia design, so if you ever want to watercool it there are blocks available. We get all of the goodies from Maxwell here, including DirectX 12 compliance, G-Sync compatbility, Nvidia’s MFAA (which eases up on memory bandwidth requirements) and the wonderful idea of a 512MB super-cache on the GPU. No, I’m not being sarcastic – that second pool of VRAM is actually useful to developers if they make sure to fill it with textures and game data that is less frequently used.

My hunch is that Nvidia’s driver team is also using that second segment to run all your desktop UI stuff, so that ALT-TAB-ing out of a game doesn’t make the game stutter when you hop back in (at least, this is my theory). The only problem, though, is running two of these in SLI – because of the memory arrangement on the GTX 970, in SLI the cards have to mirror their memory buffers, so any transfers from each of the card’s secondary pools happens at a much slower rate than usual, leading to possible hitching in games and stutter in a lot of titles. It will take more driver optimisation to make this issue go away, but it is a problem for any SLI GTX 970 user right now.

We also have a much better power supply in the form of Antec’s Truepower 750W. Paying just over a grand for this is a bargain, because it is semi-modular and comes with the full five-year warranty. Its not gold-rated, but it can push way over the rating on the label if needed. Next up is the Cooler Master CM690 III, which has lots of space internally despite not being a full ATX design and features drive cages that can switch between 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch form factors if you feel like putting in more hard drives instead.

And finally, this is the first build to have the new Samsung 850 Evo inside it. This drive is pretty hot stuff, being the second drive family to feature Samsung’s 40nm 3D V-NAND memory and the MGX controller. It is blazing fast, eclipsing almost every other drive in the same performance segment and easily ripping Intel’s SSD730 apart. The fun part is that this configuration could go even faster if this was the MEX PCI-E M.2 controller instead of the SATA-based MGX, but I won’t be putting in any M.2 drives into the SBG until the price war brings things down to more affordable levels – then we’ll see some intense action.

That’s all that we have for this week folks! Tune in this time next week for the high-end builds and remember to bring napkins for the drool! Catch you next time, BYEEEEEEE!