Hello and welcome to this month’s edition of the System Builder’s Guide. Today’s guide is the start of a new format for the guide, one that better reflects how people are buying computers today. While we’re all hoping for the day when a R6,500 machine manages to keep up with a PlayStation 4, the reality is that our market just can’t get down to those pricing levels just yet, though we’re getting close. The resurgence of some quad-core options from AMD definitely helps things along, and some price stability helps keep the R10,000 sweet-spot build in the same place. Hit the jump for more.

Changing things up for good

For the longest time, the System Builder’s Guide has tried to offer builds at particular price points, separated by at least R2,500, in the belief that R2,500 would buy you a significant bump in performance to warrant that kind of spend. The reality is that those days are long gone. In its place, we only have small performance increases that don’t justify the spend, and our economic climate has gated off performance that had previously been accessible to many more people. Today, R10,000 is what you’ll need for a machine that is close to a no-compromise build for 1080p gaming.

Things are changing for budget gamers, albiet it’s taken far too long to arrive at this point. New CPUs from AMD allow you to snap up a quad-core processor for a relatively cheap price. The Athlon X4 845 is a Carriz0-based CPU that retails for around R1,300, and has enough horsepower to drive discrete GPUs costing at least twice as much. The Athlon X4 870K is also an attractive option for as little as R1,800, offering an unlocked multiplier for anyone looking to do some tweaking. Its performance profile isn’t that far from Intel’s shiny new Core i3-6100.

AMD desktop 2016 cpu update (4)

In fact, opting for the Core i3-6100 instead of the X4 870K tends to work out about R500 more expensive, and the savings could be put into getting a better GPU, a different chassis, or possibly a larger SSD. AMD is an option again with these parts, and I hope that we don’t end up seeing these chips jump up unnecessarily in price like their socket AM3+ counterparts did. AMD also ships their new 95W cooler (pictured above, on the left) with the X4 845 and 870K, so swapping it out won’t be required immediately, as was the case in the past.

On the RAM side of things, we’re beginning to see massive price drops on DDR4 memory, with DDR4-2133 8GB sticks retailing for less than R600 – that’s crazy pricing coming from nearly R900 for a single DDR3 stick at 1866MHz, and R1,200 for 16GB of RAM is really pleasing. Price improvements still need to be realised on the higher-frequency modules, and I’d argue that it makes sense for RAM manufacturers to start moving to having 8GB DIMMs as the baseline. If anyone really wants to encourage adoption of DDR4, there’s an easy way to do it – price a 8GB DIMM at the same level as a 4GB DDR3 DIMM.

When it comes to SSDs, we’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel locally. ADATA’s SP550 240GB drive retails for R1,137 on Rebel Tech. That works out to R4.73 per gigabyte, 50% of the per-GB price of an average 240GB drive two years ago. With some promotions and price drops, this drive could see a price approaching R900, which would be an instant recommendation over a similarly-priced 1TB hard drive. Because of how far SSD prices have fallen for the budget brands, this edition of the SBG also represents the second, and probably final attempt I’ll make at fitting a SSD into every build. Hard drives are simply hot, redundant storage space at this point, and those of you who prioritise storage size before speed are welcome to change their builds to suit their requirements.

As for the changes to the guide itself, there’s one final change I’m making to the format – the removal of in-between builds. The budgets will no longer be separated by only R2,500, because the expected performance boosts just aren’t happening. Instead, each edition of the guide will feature two builds each at the following price points:

  • R5,000 – Just the basics
  • R10,000 – The budget sweet spot
  • R15,000 – The sweet spot
  • R20,000 – The high-end entry
  • R25,000 – Hurting that wallet!
  • R30,000 – You paid how much?
  • R60,000 – Bonus round!

The R60,000 build is a bonus round on it’s own, where I explore what you could build with that much money if you were taken hostage by angry men in full leathers riding chocobos, holding laser pistols to your head and demanding that you spend it all at once. It might seem a tad high, but there are people out there buying gaming machines at this level. My chat with Evetech at rAge 2015 revealed as much when I asked them how many high-end builds they typically did, and the answer was “at least two a month”.

R5,000 Budget – Just the basics

720p with Low-to-Medium settings and 2x MSAA
 Processor   AMD Athlon X4 845 3.5-3.8GHz FM2+ R1,317
 CPU cooler   Stock AMD cooler
 Motherboard   MSI A88XM-E35 V2 FM2+ R1,014
 Memory   Patriot Signature 4GB DDR3-1600 R327
 Graphics   Sapphire Radeon R7 240 1GB GDDR5 R1,184
 Power supply   Thermaltake 350W bundled
 Chassis   Thermaltake V2S ATX w/ 350W R517
 Solid state drive   ADATA SP550 120GB SATA (Silicon Motion SM2256, TLC NAND) R838
Total (Rands): R5,197

For the basic budget build, quite a few changes and compromises were made with the extra money on the table. Sticking to my requirement that all builds must feature a quad-core CPU, I chose AMD’s Athlon X4 845 over the older AM1 chips I had previously chosen. While the AM1 platform is great, the Athlon 5350 isn’t getting any faster, and more games have launched that require higher single-thread performance. Being based on Carriso, the X4 845 promises to deliver handsomely on that requirement, whilst sticking to a low price that puts it within range of many consumers. The last time an overclockable quad-core processor was this cheap was in 2012. The X4 845 also comes with AMD’s redesigned cooler for FM2+ chips, and I’d recommend using that for the build to save money.

MSI’s A88XM-E35 V2 is my chosen motherboard for this build, with just the right amount of compromises made to reach this price point. It replaces MSI’s 760GM board for the AM3+ platform, and shares some of the same connectivity options, which includes six SATA 6GB/s ports. Front-panel USB 3.0 would be welcome if the chassis supported it, but if you buy a USB 3.0 5.25-inch bay adapter, that’ll give you more ports at the front. I’m skimping heavily on the RAM to fit everything into the budget, and 4GB of DDR3-1600 memory should do for now. Picking up another stick of RAM is recommended, but because I’m only including a CPU in here, we can get away with the lower frequencies.

The graphics card is once again the Sapphire Radeon R7 240 with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. It’s not the best card available for the mid-range market, but it’ll do for gaming at 720p, with some light stuff able to run fluidly at 1080p (think MOBAs and older Source-era titles). The Athlon X4 845 might be capable of driving faster GPUs with ease, but this way we’ll have eliminated any CPU bottlenecks that affect the games you’ll be playing on this machine, and at least everything will launch just fine. Any game that requires 6GB of RAM might struggle, but something like Middle-Earth: Shadows of Mordor or Dragon Age: Inquisition will launch and run just fine at the right settings.

The chassis is Thermaltake’s ageing V2S, but it’s still the cheapest option around with a decent power supply. The cooling options for it are a bit meh, but this build won’t be producing much heat at all. Finally, I’m sticking to my promise of fitting a SSD into every build, and the only drive in this machine is ADATA’s SP550 120GB drive. The TLC NAND memory helps drive down the price a bit, and performance should be decent, if a bit low compared to other MLC drives at 120GB. If it’ll serve duty as a budget LAN rig for light games, there’ll be plenty of storage space available. For any larger games, ADATA’s Sp550 240GB drive isn’t that much more expensive.

R10,000 budget – The budget sweet spot

1920 x 1080 with High details and 2x MSAA
 Processor   AMD Athlon X4 870K 3.9-4.1GHz Unlocked FM2+ R1,796
 CPU cooler   Stock AMD cooler
 Motherboard   ASUS A88XM-A mATX FM2+ R1,312
 Memory   G.Skill ARES F3 2x 4GB DDR3-2133 CL10 R729
 Graphics   Gigabyte Geforce GTX 950 Xtreme 2GB GDDR5 R3,545
 Power supply   Cooler Master Vanguard-S 450W Modular R786
 Chassis   Bitfenix Nova black ATX R610
 Solid state drive   ADATA SP550 240GB SSD (Silicon Motion SM2256, TLC NAND) R1,137
Total (Rands): R9,915

With the second, and final build of the day, we come to the R10,000 price point. Sticking with AMD once again, (words that I haven’t been able to use in ages) I chose the Athlon X4 870K, an unlocked CPU from the Godavari family, which is basically a refresh of Kaveri. While it isn’t based on Carrizo like the X4 845, it definitely is capable of bringing home the bacon, and comes within striking distance of the Core i3-6100 in several game benchmarks. Being an unlocked chip is the icing on the cake, and it’s quite normal to see people reaching overclocks of 4.7GHz on air cooling with these chips.

The backbone of the build is ASUS’ A88XM-A, a mATX motherboard that is a little more suited to some overclocking and tweaking than MSI’s from the previous build. The number of available RAM slots gets bumped up to four, but otherwise nothing much changes on the expansion options. What is an improvement is the digital power phases, which should help with providing some stability with some safe overclocks. Clashing with the colour scheme is a 8GB kit of G.Skill ARES RAM, which runs at 2133MHz with CL10 timings. The X4 870K doesn’t have built-in graphics, but there are some performance benefits to running these chips with higher-clocked memory, and since overclocking is allowed, I might as well start with the highest supported memory frequency.

The graphics card gets a big boost to the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 950. Gigabyte’s Xtreme variant is a very high-clocked version of the GTX 950, with a base clock of 1203MHz and a boost of about 1405MHz. That puts it on the same performance level as the much more expensive GTX 960, which doesn’t have the same kind of oomph for the price it commands. The Xtreme edition also looks a bit more premium, with a steel backplate covering the card fully, and a 8-pin PEG power connector which might allow a bit more overclocking headroom. Some enthusiasts might not appreciate the high overclocks out of the box, but at least you’re getting a guaranteed level of performance. It’s also G-Sync capable, so if you’re planning to nab one of those displays in the future, you’ll be ready for it with this card.

The chassis and power supply both see bumps up in quality and performance. The cheap Thermaltake power supply in the V2S is replaced by Cooler Master’s Vanguard-S 450W unit, which is capable of a sustained 450W load and is rated for gold efficiency. It has 8-pin PEG connectors, so we’re covered to power the GPU properly, and it boasts a five-year warranty. The V2S chassis is replaced by Bitfenix’s budget-minded Nova, but it’s anything but budget in terms of the design. There’s lots of leeway in terms of fan placement and cooling, and some basic cable management is included to keep things tidy.

Finally, ADATA’s SP550 240GB drive serves as the storage for this build. The price is good and the performance is decent, although with TLC NAND on anything that doesn’t have a Samsung label, it really becomes a guessing game as to how much performance the manufacturer can extract from it. Samsung’s engineers truly perform black magic with their TLC drives, and I’d love to see that kind of performance on offer from other brands. Still, the SP550 is faster than even the fastest hard drive on the planet, and it’s only going to get cheaper from here.

That’s all for this week! Tune in next Wednesday to see the R15,000 and R20,000 builds!

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