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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. We’re still doing the whole Linux thing for this month, but this whole Nvidia and Intel thing is tiring, you know? Man, AMD really needs to pull up their socks in this area. Hit the jump to commence the drool!

R12,000 budget – Almost hitting the spot

2560 x 1440 with high details and 4x AA, UltraHD 4K with low settings and 2xAA
 Processor   Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5-3.9GHz LGA1150 Unlocked R3199
 CPU cooler   Zalman CNPS10X Optima R404
 Motherboard   ASRock Z97 Anniversary LGA1150 ATX R1484
 Memory   Kingston HyperX Fury Black 2x 4GB DDR3-1866 R978
 Graphics   Galax Geforce GTX 960 EXOC 4GB GDDR5 R3699
 Power supply   Super Flower Golden Green HX500W Gold R739
 Chassis   Fractal Design Core 2300 ATX R636
 Optical drive   —
 Hard drive   WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R784
 Solid state drive   —
Total (Rands): R11,950

Kicking off the mid-week guide, we stop at the new R12,000 budget. Because our focus has been on compatibility with most Linux operating systems, we aren’t going too crazy on the overclocking in this build. Jumping up from the locked Core i5 in the previous R10k budget, we now have a Z97-based board from ASRock and the Core i5-4690K, giving us the ability to tweak to our heart’s content and extract the most performance we can out of the setup. Keeping things cool is the Zalman CNPS10X Optima, whose model number is now ingrained into my skull through the years that its been a feature on this guide. Cooler Master’s Hyper 212X is, unfortunately, a little too expensive at this point in time to make a comeback.

As before, we have a GTX 960 graphics card because Nvidia’s GPUs get the most love from the Linux community, but its not the kind of peformance jump I was hoping for. It does have 4GB of VRAM now instead of 2GB, but that’s only delaying what is inevitable – the fact that the GTX 960 is, at best, a mid-range contender for this year and the next. The 128-bit memory bus is going to make running games with very high details a little taxing, which is why I’ve downgraded the suggested settings for playing at UltraHD 4K down to low instead of medium. Although there is a lot of performance available in the GTX 960 once you overclock it, it is still not able to get around the inherent bandwidth limitation or the lack of execution units necessary to speed along a 4K display properly.

Due to some minor price increases here, I’ve decided not to include a solid state drive for now. It simply eats away at the budget for the graphics card and the CPU platform, and I’d much rather have that money allocated to something that dictates performance on a wider scale. The chassis, power supply and hard drive for storage remain the same as in previous builds seen this month. There’s really no need to tinker with what works already, especially because this rig, even when overclocked, will struggle to draw more than 400W of power from the wall.

R14,000 budget – The sweet spot

2560 x 1440 with ultra details and 4xAA, UltraHD 4K with low settings and 2xAA
 Processor   Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5-3.9GHz LGA1150 Unlocked R3199
 CPU cooler   Zalman CNPS10X Optima R404
 Motherboard   ASRock Z97 Pro4 LGA1150 ATX R1649
 Memory   Kingston HyperX Fury Blue 2x 4GB DDR3-1866 R978
 Graphics   MSI Geforce GTX 960 GAMING 4GB GDDR5 R4099
 Power supply   Super Flower Golden Green HX500W Gold R769
 Chassis   Fractal Design Core 2300 ATX R636
 Optical drive    —
 Hard drive   WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R784
 Solid state drive   OCZ ARC 100 240GB (Barefoot 3) R1499
Total (Rands): R14,017

We arrive at our budget sweet-spot, the famous Intel Cookie-Cutter setup. If you’re not aware of what that is, its basically the pairing of a Core i5 K-series chip, your choice of a mid-range board at R1500 or so, with 8GB of mostly-cheap DDR3 memory and a SSD. For the last four years, this has been the best bang-for-your-buck option, and its been such a powerful staple that people on Sandy Bridge systems who followed this setup still have no reason to upgrade. Just add on water cooling and you’re set for days (not that this build features such a thing) of gaming, coding or video conversion.

With this build we have the same basic setup as the one prior to this, with a few upgrades to the general hardware setup here and there. The motherboard has changed to ASRock’s Z97 Pro4 to allow for higher and better overclocks, while also serving as an upgrade path for moving to M.2 SSD storage in the future, as well as SATA Express. Its not exactly future-proofing, but at least you’ll be able to take advantage of these new storage mediums with time.

The graphics card remains a GTX 960 for the sake of the budget, but we’ve moved up to MSI’s variant from the Gaming line. The reason why is all related to the port output – some versions of the GTX 960 have two DVI ports, one HDMI 2.0 port and only one Displayport 1.2 connector. This one uses Nvidia’s reference I/O layout, with a single DVI-D connector, one HDMI 2.0 port and three Displayport 1.2 connectors for hooking up three G-Sync monitors in Surround. That’s not to say that any of you will ever do that (on a 128-bit memory bus? Hell no.), but its worth having more flexible options for multiple monitor setups than having to stick to older, outdated standards.

As before, the rest of the rig remains the same, but we have a storage upgrade in the form of OCZ’s ARC 100, their in-house drive that is the first to be designed in conjunction with Toshiba, their new owners. Utilising Toshiba 19nm flash memory and the Barefoot 3 controller, the ARC 100 ends up being blazing fast for its price range, easily giving bigger names like Samsung and Crucial a run for their money. Time will tell if OCZ returns to the heights they once used to look down from in the SSD market, but the ARC 100 is a good sign that they’re on the mend.

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 LGA1150 Unlocked R3199
 CPU cooler   Corsair Hydro H75 water cooler all-in-one R1120
 Motherboard   MSI Z97S SLI KraitATX LGA1150 R2151
 Memory   Kingston HyperX Fury White 2x 4GB DDR3-1866 R978
 Graphics   Gigabyte Geforce GTX 970 Windforce 3X 4GB GDDR5 R5699
 Power supply   Super Flower Golden Green HX750W 750W Modular R1149
 Chassis   Cooler Master CM690 III Mid Tower R1085
 Optical drive   —
 Hard drive   WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R784
 Solid state drive   Samsung 850 EVO 250GB (Samsung MGX) R1874
Total (Rands): R18,039

We come to the last build for today, the R18,000 build that is somewhat high-end, but isn’t really there yet. We have a slight theming thing going on here with the white-and-black colour scheme from the motherboard, MSI’s Z97S SLI Krait. Its one of the few cheap Z97-based boards that has SLI compatibility, so its worth a look if you’re ever thinking of going that route. It also happens to come in this sick black-and-white theme, so I just had to compliment it with white DIMMs from Kingston. Cooling is handled by Corsair’s H75 all-in-one liquid cooler, but its positively ancient in today’s market and on the way out to make way for newer units that feature Corsair’s digitally-managed pumps and fans.

The graphics card finally gets a jump to something befitting of this price range, the Geforce GTX 970. Forget all the half-a-gig jokes for a moment, this card has all of the power you’d need for a rig like this. Its one of Nvidia’s strongest mid-range plays to date and it shows no signs of letting up – each new driver update just makes it go faster and as of this writing, its faster than the Radeon R9 290 while consuming about 50% less energy at load. Couple that with all the other efficiency improvements that Nvidia’s made over the last few months and its clear that there’s no better solution than this card at the moment (under Windows, the R9 290 would be my default choice). I’ve chosen Gigabyte’s version for the reference port output as standardised by Nvidia, which is more than fine by me.

Our power supply requirements change as a result of moving to the GTX 970 and Super Flower’s 750W unit allows us to move to SLI in the future, though you would be nearing around 550W with overclocking thrown in to increase performance. We don’t need fully modular cables either, so the Golden Green platform is a better choice economically than Super Flower’s Leadex family. Our chassis changes to Cooler Master’s CM690 III, one of my favourite chassis of all time and a really flexible one at that. Its not a full-tower design, but it looks like one inside.

Finally, we’ve returned to Samsung’s 250GB 850 Evo as our system drive. This SSD is blazing fast, one of the best in the business, and comes with a super-long 10 year warranty to sweeten the deal. This is Samsung’s first drive with the MGX controller and their proprietary 3D V-NAND flash memory, a combination that is still highly regarded among enthusiasts. Samsung is also one of the most proactive vendors in the game so far, so there’s no chance of you being left in the lurch five years from now. Heck, treat that drive well, and it will outlive you!

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!