Aaaand we’re back! This is the first Builder’s Guide in the last month and things have been crazy. Between the Haswell launch, AMD’s new Radeon R-200 series, the GTX770 and GTX760 in addition to Steam Machines, hands-on time with the PS4 and the Xbox one at rAge 2013, the entire landscape has changed in just over forty day’s time. There have also been massive price jumps for memory and SSDs and our exchange rate with the Dollar is still not as favourable as we’d like, despite the US government grinding to a halt for almost two weeks now. While the rest of the world loses their heads, let’s stick to daydreaming about hardware, shall we?
Changes are afoot in the industry…
Several big, big things are causing enthusiasts to stop and analyse the current situation of the industry. Firstly, we had Intel’s Haswell launch a couple of months ago that showed no apparent increases in computing power. As has been the case since Sandy Bridge, Intel is aiming not only for efficiency but also an all-in-one solution with their graphics chips. The integrated HD4600 graphics core in select Haswell processors is a big step up from HD4000 and even challenges AMD’s APUs. Iris Pro, a much more powerful solution for higher-end markets, tends to rival a Geforce GT650M. Intel is serious about improving graphics performance.
That’s why you need to brace yourself for 2014. With Broadwell, Haswell’s successor, on schedule, the budget systems you see in the buyer’s guide could be completely Intel-dominated. The R4500 budget would certainly get chewed up there and it’ll also be soldered in as well, limiting your upgrade options. If Kaveri doesn’t deliver on price and performance, it’s going to get ugly.
Not only that, go open up a new tab and see for yourself how memory prices have skyrocketed. 8GB of DDR3 1600 memory now costs an absurd R950 or more. And that’s only going to get worse because we have a new range of graphics cards from AMD coming to crash the party as well as several AAA games like Watch_Dogs, Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag that have high system requirements. Feeling the same pinch in your wallet when Crysis was launched? That’s going to happen again, only this time it’ll cost you a lot more.
The trend for larger games that have sandbox environments, destructable environments, persistent worlds and increible visuals is also going to push up standard memory requirements. Whereas before you could have gotten away with 4GB of memory thanks to the proliferation of PC-console ports that didn’t break the bank in terms of system requirements, you’re going to have a much harder time running the next Crysis on 4GB or less memory. There’s also the 64-bit requirement for new games, the booting out (finally!) of Windows XP and Vista support and the Playstation 4 and Xbox One which raise the bar for minimum hardware builds much, much higher.
Such a change also makes it easier for developers to become lax with hardware and memory optimisation, allowing games to bloat up due to less time cleaning up the code and streamlining things. But we have to hope that developers only use what they need and if they need more, it must be for games and virtual worlds that are beyond the scale possible right now.
And we now have to temper our expectations as to what our hardware will do. I’m in the Battlefield 4 beta and I expect to only be able to run the game at 1080p with medium settings and scoring in the low 30fps region. Those APUs from AMD will remain stuck at 720p and medium settings. Some people, like myself, are fine with such an idea, but the majority of gamers do want things to look a little good. Sadly, it all comes back to money and how much more you’re willing to spend to get better performance.
For now, we’re also not going to focus on the possibilities of AMD’s Mantle API, or TrueAudio, or how the Frostbite 3.0 engine could have a considerable bias for AMD hardware in the future. That’s a subject for a future column all on its own and everything is speculation until AMD clears the air in November at their developer conference.
With that long-winded introduction, let’s kick off the first build in the guide!
R4500 Budget: (720p with medium-to-high settings and 2x AA, 1080p with low settings and no AA)
Our budget build begins with the APU we’ve always tried to include here – the AMD A10-5800K. Boasting four cores, an unlocked multiplier for overclocking and graphics equivalent to a Radeon HD6670, it’s a potent chip for gamers on a budget. We’ll compliment it with the standard G.Skill DDR3-2133 8GB kit, but cringing all the while at the ludicrous price. Three months ago, this kit was almost R849 from Wootware.
We’re stuck with less money overall even though we opted for a cheaper motherboard, so we have to stick to a run-of-the-mill 500GB hard drive, a standard DVD writer and a ATX chassis with a bundled 350W power supply. It won’t set the world on fire in terms of quality, but it gets the job done. Even though we have headroom for some overclocking and tweaking, we’ll be limited to how far the VRM’s can go without running into overheating issues.
As far as an Intel alternative is concerned, you could swap out the motherboard and APU for the Pentium G2020, a Gigabyte H61M-S1 and this Gigabyte Radeon HD7750. That system would perform better than the APU for the majority of games out there that don’t use more than two cores. However, with games like Company of Heroes 2, Hitman: Absolution and Battlefield 4 scaling nicely beyond two cores, it will be left behind in titles that require a Core i3 or a quad-core AMD processor as a minimum. Additionally, Nvidia has no competitive card at the same price as the Radeon HD7750, leaving team red to corner the budget market no matter what platform you choose.
R6500 Budget: (720p with Ultra settings and 4x AA, 1080p with medium settings and 2x AA)
This was a sobering build for two reasons; 1) I couldn’t opt for a different memory kit because there are no cheaper and better 8GB dual-channel kits on the market right now and, 2) socket AM3+ boards are getting a little hard to come by on the cheap these days. That’s just our martket, really, because this isn’t an issue overseas. Regardless, though, price incrases on the memory and motherboards force us to go with the cheaper, but just as capable Haswell Core i3-4130. It can address four threads at a default clock speed of 3.4GHz and has Intel HD4400 graphics, enough to make things like Quicksync run pretty quickly.
This build also eschews and kind of real tweaking capability. The only thing we can muck around with here is the memory speeds and timings and the graphics card clock speeds. All in all, it’s a step back from our build in the same price bracket back in August, although this time it’s a little cheaper thanks to our efforts to scale back a bit. I opted to keep the G.Skill memory, as there’s room for the kit to scale down to DDR3-1600 speeds with CL8 timings.
We’re also using a Radeon HD7770 so our recommended, or expected, game settings have also taken a hit as well, dropping from 1080p and high settings to 1080p and medium. Some games will be playable on high, some won’t. As for an AMD alternative, there is the option of switching in a FX-6300 and the ASUS M5A78L-M LX V2 although overclocking will be limited.
R9000 Budget: (1080p on High details and 4x AA, 2560 x 1440 with low to medium details and no AA)
Our high-end build for the day required a bump up to the R9000 budget, but considering the hardware on offer this time round, it’s not a bad compromise. We’ve upgraded to a Haswell Core i5-4440, a better motherboard and a colour-matched memory kit with decent timings and some overclocking capability. As far as the basic parts go, I feel they mesh together quite well.
The graphics is taken care of by the AM89D Radeon HD7870. Its faster and cheaper than competing Geforce GTX660 cards and also offers two free games as part of Nvidia’s Never Settle Forever campaign. Although to be fair, having a Geforce card would somewhat complete the whole “green” theme, although that’s being a little too OCD about the colour. I just like the fact that the memory matches the board and would be colour-coded with the correct slots.
As far as performance is concerned it should be on par with the previous R8500 built from August, but the August build will be a tad faster thanks to the overclocking options available by manipulating the Turbo Boost settings on Ivy Bridge processors. Its interesting, though, that this build is only about R250 more expensive than our last one, but doesn’t offer more flexibility. We’ll have to wait for Haswell motherboards and processors to drop in price as retailers wait for Ivy Bridge stock to clear out.
You’ll also notice that I’ve elected to not include a DVD writer. Many gamers are buying more and more digital titles on Steam, Origin and uPlay and it’s much more beneficial to have more storage space instead. As the trend into digital purchases continues, I won’t be adding DVD writers to any of the builds valued over R8000. That money can be better used elsewhere.
At this price point our options for socket AM3+ motherboards are still limited, which makes the red team a little harder to keep in budget. I can recommend, though, that you swap out the processor, motherboard and memory for the FX-6300, the ASUS M5A97 EVO R2.0 and this set of Corsair Vengeance memory. It’ll be similar in performance for the most part, although it will take a modern title that relies on multi-threading to send the six-core in front of it’s quad-core competitor. It will still be a while before the status quo changes for AMD.
That’s all for this week folks! Tune in next time on Wednesday for the next steps in the buyer’s guide looking at budgets between R11,000 and R16,000. I’m ratcheting up the prices thanks to the increases we’ve had to make here as well as to accommodate for actual hardware changes. You know, it’s pretty pointless to bump up the budget if all we’re doing is just using similar components and not leaving in any gaps for substantial performance improvements.