Hello and welcome, everyone, to this month’s System Builder’s Guide. In today’s episode, we’re at the budget end of the guide that deals with rigs that most of our readers could actually afford. While we’re on the verge of a switch to Intel’s Skylake family, some market pressures are keeping me from doing so, though I don’t see any problem with getting a Haswell-based machine at the moment, since there’s nothing technically outdated on them just yet. Follow me after the jump!

Its a Lake in the Sky, but you can’t swim in it yet

I had contemplated changing this into the first part of the System Builder’s Guide that featured a Skylake build with a Core i5-6400 processor, but there are no cheap LGA 1151 motherboards available today, and the only listings that I can find are on Landmark PC’s site, which lists all boards as out of stock. While this isn’t a problem for now (it really just launched the other day, you know), this may become an issue for retailers trying to clear out their existing inventories. Between now and November, I expect that there’ll be some clearance sales going on to flush out old stock, and certainly there’ll be a big push to switch out to DDR4 memory at the same time. AMD builds will suffer from a move like this, but since I haven’t included AMD in my guides with exception to their APUs for some time, this doesn’t sound too bad to me.

The bigger issue, though, is that Intel is probably not on top of their game with the 14 nanometer process. Yes, they may have started off their launch with the high-end K-series processors, but consider the fact that Broadwell processors are still nowhere to be seen – yield issues are almost certainly preventing that. If budget and mid-range Skylake boards don’t arrive here on time, and Intel doesn’t improve yields, retailers and distributors will be caught in a hard place where they may be forced to restock with Haswell-based hardware that they may be unable to sell later. If you’re a hardware retailer or distributor and you’re reading this, hit me up via Twitter and let me know if I’m right.

The good news is that DDR4 prices are now roughly in line with DDR3, and lots of retailers are dropping their prices on older stocks in order to get people to buy them in anticipation of an upgrade to Skylake. This is good for anyone considering a X99 build, because your memory now is about 50% cheaper today than it was two or three months ago. Higher-frequency kits are still more expensive, but DDR4-2666 seems to be the sweet spot where the price you’re paying for it makes sense. Most kits are still able to bump up to DDR4-2800 as long as you have a capable board and processor, which is nice.

Solid state drives also seem to be coming down in price a lot slower in recent weeks, probably due to the rising Rand-Dollar exchange rate. There do seem to be efforts to curb this trend, however, as I’ve seen deals like a OCZ Trion 100 120GB for as low as R900. The rest of the world continues to see drastic drops in SSD prices and those will eventually filter down to us, so I’m expecting to finally see a 256GB drive for around R1,100 by the time I revisit this guide in November.

On to the builds!

R4,000 Budget – Just the basics

720p with Low-to-Medium settings and 2x MSAA
 Processor   AMD Athlon 5350 AM1 2.05GHz R879
 CPU cooler   Stock AMD Heatsink
 Motherboard   MSI AM1I mITX R431
 Memory   Patriot Signature 4GB DDR3-1600 R346
 Graphics   MSI Geforce GT 730 1GB GDDR5 R1,047
 Power supply   Gigabyte 320W bundled
 Chassis   Gigabyte M5 mATX w/ 320W R499
 Optical drive   LiteOn iHAS124 DVD-RW R186
 Hard drive   WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R831
 Solid state drive   —
Total (Rands): R4,219

Owing to some really crazy swings with the Rand-Dollar exchange rate in the last few months, we’ve seen prices on hardware fluctuate weekly for anything that’s even remotely popular. Despite the fact that our build comes up a bit over budget, nothing on here is too crazy in terms of performance. The only crazy thing, really, is that I’ve moved back to mini-ITX for this price point because it just makes sense, especially with AMD’s AM1 platform thrown into the mix.

So I’ve thrown out the Intel Bay Trail-based system I had in here two months ago and have replaced it with AMD’s Athlon 5350 quad-core processor and MSI’s AM1I motherboard. Not only is this system actively cooled with the stock processor fan, it also has a higher thermal limit as well, enabling better overall performance than the Intel Atom Q1900M. I’m sticking with Patriot’s ultra-cheap single-rank 4GB DDR3-1600 memory, which is fine because AMD’s Kabini architecture doesn’t have a dual-channel memory controller anyway.

Moving to graphics, the Radeon R7 240 makes way for NVIDIA’s Geforce GT 730 graphics card with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. It won’t blow your socks off for most games and if I’m honest, it’s only halfway decent for use at 720p. For the price, there’s nothing else that can really come close to this level of performance, although there are some Radeon R7 250 cards that would be a better choice if you’re willing to stretch the budget a bit more.

For the rest of the system I’ve moved from a ATX tower down to this mini ATX tower from GIGABYTE. The M5 chassis is very similar internally to the Cooler Master Elite 344 series of cases, but the difference is that there isn’t a removable drive cage, and the case ships with a bundled power supply. I would have opted for a mini-ITX chassis like the CFI 8989, but that doesn’t have space for a dual-slot graphics card. Finally, this build adds in a DVD drive (LOL) and a WD Blue spinny disk drive for storing all the games you’ll probably never play.

Because this system has a SoC as its main processor, and has NVIDIA discrete graphics, I’d like to point out that this is a candidate system for running Linux instead of Windows, or SteamOS if you prefer. AMD’s AM1 platform has great support under Linux and NVIDIA pays a lot of attention to driver peformance. If you’re looking to save on your software costs as well as hardware, that is an option.

R6,000 Budget – The basics, with gusto

720p with Ultra settings and 2x MSAA, 1080p with High settings and 2x MSAA
 Processor   Intel Core i3-4170 3.7GHz LGA1150 R1,695
 CPU cooler   Stock Intel Heatsink
 Motherboard   MSI H81M-P33 mATX LGA1150 R668
 Memory   Patriot Signature 2x 4GB DDR3-1600 R692
 Graphics   Gigabyte Radeon R7 260X 2GB GDDR5 R1,667
 Power supply   Gigabyte 320W bundled
 Chassis   Gigabyte M5 mATX w/ 320W R499
 Optical drive   LG GH24NSC0 DVD-RW R223
 Hard drive   WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R831
 Solid state drive   —
Total (Rands): R6,275

Our R6,000 budget build comes up a bit over our virtual limit, but it’s nothing too drastic. Shaving off the DVD drive would help a bit, especially if you buy your games digitally anyway, but it remains useful even in 2015 (except if you’ve recently bought The Phantom Pain). Prices surprisingly haven’t risen too much on many of the components here, but I had to use a cheaper motherboard and chassis in order to accommodate a price hike of around R300 on the Core i3-4170. As Intel prepares to seed Skylake parts into the channel, Haswell products will become cheaper, but with the exchange rate’s increase in the past month, I don’t see it getting cheaper to build this rig anytime soon.

Although our platform is familiar, it will soon be replaced with Skylake hardware in the next System Builders Guide after rAge in October. We have the Core i3-4170 utilising the boxed cooler to save money, MSI’s H81M-P33 motherboard and two sticks of Patriot’s Signature memory. While DDR3-1600 is no longer considered speedy, it gets the job done for most games and applications. Alongside our platform we’ve also got a Radeon R7 260X with 2GB of GDDR5 memory, replacing the somewhat slower GeForce GTX 750 I had in here two months ago. Both cards have similar power requirements, but the R7 260X is just better equipped to play games at higher framerates at 1080p, more or less matching the much more expensive GeForce GTX 750 Ti.

The rest of the system is familiar, as these components also appear in our R4k system. I wish that these cheap chassis didn’t have rear 80mm mountings for fans, but that’s what we have to deal with when we’re trying to get a bundled pair of components on the cheap. At least there’s space for a front 120mm fan for cooling down the GPU. The lack of front-panel USB 3.0 support doesn’t hurt the build, as the MSI H81M-P33 doesn’t have a supporting header anyway.

R8,000 budget – The budget sweet spot

1080p with High-to-Ultra settings and 4x MSAA, 2560 x 1440 with High details and 2x MSAA
 Processor   Intel Core i3-4170 3.7GHz LGA1150 R1,724
 CPU cooler   Stock Intel heatsink
 Motherboard   ASRock H97 Anniversary LGA1150 mATX R1,202
 Memory   Patriot Signature 2x 4GB DDR3-1600 R692
 Graphics   Sapphire Radeon R9 270 Dual-X 2GB GDDR5 R2,620
 Power supply   Corsair VS550 550W R675
 Chassis   Raidmax Vortex 402 v4 Black ATX R476
 Optical drive   —
 Hard drive   WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R831
 Solid state drive   —
Total (Rands): R8,220

Moving up a notch, we arrive at the budget sweet-spot, where your budget mostly gets you great performance in just about every game without requiring an overclock to achieve it. Here our platform only swaps out the motherboard, from the lowly MSI H81M-P33 to ASRock’s H97 Anniversary. The reasons for the switch were mostly to benefit from the PCI Express setup (no legacy slots!) as well as to gain access to an extra two memory slots and two more SATA 6GB/s ports. I’ve also retained the Patriot memory, as it still doesn’t drag any other components down in performance yet.

Graphics duties are handled by Sapphire’s Radeon R9 270 2GB, an older card from AMD’s stable. While it has been reborn as the Radeon R7 370X, that card is still a ways from launching globally, so this is the next best thing. 1080p and 1440p performance is good and the card pulls its weight at a relatively bargain price point. However, being based on Pitcairn/Trinidad, it does not have support for AMD FreeSync, pulling down the value proposition a bit. It is much faster than the competing GeForce GTX 750 Ti, which is priced similarly.

The rest of the system gets a bump up in components. With the Super Flower HX450W out of stock, I’ve resigned to selecting Corsair’s VS550, a PSU that I own myself. The chassis changes from the GIGABYTE M5 to the Raidmax Vortex 402. It’s not a great looker with all of the plastic on the front, but it does have a USB 3.0 port on the front panel, and it has a good internal design with cable management. There’s no SSD in this build, unfortunately. You lot will all have to suffer with a spinny drive for just a bit longer.

R10,000 budget – The beginning of mid-range

1920 x 1080 with Ultra details and 4x MSAA, 2560 x 1440 with Medium details and 2x MSAA
 Processor   Intel Core i3-4170 3.7GHz LGA1150 R1,724
 CPU cooler   Stock Intel cooler
 Motherboard   ASRock H97 Anniversary LGA1150 mATX R1,202
 Memory   Kingston HyperX Fury Blue 2x 4GB DDR3-1600 R794
 Graphics   Gigabyte Geforce GTX 960 OC 4GB GDDR5 (bundle MGS V: The Phantom Pain) R3,572
 Power supply   Super Flower Golden Green HX500W Gold R849
 Chassis   Cooler Master N400 Windowed ATX R797
 Optical drive   —
 Hard drive  WD Black 1TB 7200RPM R1,065
 Solid state drive  —
Total (Rands): R10,003

With some difficulty, and the sacrifice of a SSD, I managed to make this build fit in pretty well, but only just. There aren’t any drastic changes made here and to be honest, not having a lot of choice in hardware as retailers begin their switch to offering Skylake products doesn’t help at all. There’s still a distinct lack of cheap Core i5 Haswell-based processors floating around and the only place where you can get those these days is through an unofficial channel. If everything would just drop prices by R500, that’d be great.

The platform here only changes as far as the memory is concerned, which is really only for cosmetic purposes since the processor cannot be overclocked. Where I’ve poured the most money is into the rest of the system, starting with the GPU. NVIDIA’s GTX 960 often bumps up against the GTX 770 and Radeon R9 280X in the performance races and the bundle of MGS V can’t be ignored either, since that is a R500 incentive to stick to team green. The low power requirements and high overclockability of the card also make this build a little more friendly to tweakers, though you can only take it so far.

I also bumped up the power supply to Super Flower’s HX500W unit, the chassis to Cooler Master’s gorgeous N400 with a side window, and the hard drive to the WD Black 1TB. With price increases on the CPU, the GPU and the PSU, there wasn’t enough in the budget left for a 128GB SSD, though I think that this might be a good thing, what with games taking up ludicrous amounts of space these days. I’d only put a 128GB drive into a notebook, honestly.

That’s all that we have time for this week folks! Tune in this time next week for the high-end builds. Catch you next time!

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