Its baaaack! For the last time this year we’re running through our System Builders guide and its running right up in the festive season. So if you’re looking for a kickass rig for a loved one, or a simple system that doesn’t need to play everything with super-high graphics details, this is the guide to look out for. We begin this December with the low-end part of the guide, starting from the lowly R4500 budget stretching all the way to R9000 Hop inside to see what your money can get you this December!

AMD’s future hinges on Kaveri’s success

This month’s guide starts off on a rather sombre note, and the reason is because AMD has very few CPU and motherboard options for fans of high-performance gaming. There are no good socket AM3+ motherboards with all the modern bells and whistles at a cheap price, the FX family won’t be seeing a Steamroller update next year, and Intel continues to dominate thanks to partnerships with motherboard manufacturers and constantly lowering their pricing of Haswell-based products.

In this week’s episode of the buyer’s guide there are no builds that have an AMD alternative. None. Where previously I could recommend a FX-6300 in the place of a Core i3 processor, today I can’t because not only are they constantly out of stock, pricing has also jumped tremendously. Hell, a A10-6800K, which is meant to be priced closer to the Core i3 family, costs as much as a Core i5 processor.

Unless you’re shopping for an APU, going with an AMD CPU today is a much less attractive option. Our market now is pretty much Intel-dominated. You can thank Dirk Meyer for putting us in this position and Rory Read for resigning us to it temporarily.

From here on out, AMD is banking everything on Kaveri. Socket FM2+ gives them a chance for a clean slate and the advances they’re making with hUMA memory access, OpenCL acceleration and Mantle are all going to be needed if Kaveri is going to work. And if the plan comes together properly, neither Intel nor Nvidia stands a chance against the might of heterogeneous computing with GCN graphics cores.

But that means that several things are going to be neglected, starting now. Socket AM3+ is a dead end – don’t buy into a new system with it unless you need the extra cores and can get a good motherboard at a decent price. AMD has no plans to give it more love and it won’t be seeing an updated chipset either. There aren’t even ITX motherboards supporting socket AM3+, which was a bandwagon that AMD completely failed to board.

Socket FM2 motherboards also won’t be seeing any new products, so if you want an upgrade path, don’t buy an FM2 motherboard. From here on it’s FM2+ all the way and at least we can take comfort in the fact that the Trinity and Richland families do work on the new socket.

Graphics cards based on the old VLIW5/VLIW4 architecture are not going to be part of AMD’s future. Mantle will not run on those architectures, they won’t see much in the way of driver improvements and AMD has finally replaced the aging HD6670 with the HD7730 and the R7 240 in most markets.

R4500 Budget: (720p with medium-to-high settings and 2x AA, 1080p with low settings and no AA)

AMD A8-6600K @ R1577

MSI FM2-A55M-E33 @ R637

G.Skill Ares Blue DDR3-2133 8GB @ R1099

Seagate Barracuda 500GB SATA HDD @ R679

LG GH24NS95 DVD-RW @ R176

Cooler Master Elite 344 w/400W PSU @ R642

Total: R4887

I kind of expected some minor price hikes for the holiday season and here we are, spending almost R300 more on a system that is a tiny bit weaker than the one we configured in October. Instead of the full-fat A10-5800K, we have the A8-6600K and with it, a dip in both overall graphics and CPU performance. But that shouldn’t impact you too much – AMD’s Resonant Clock Mesh (RCM) technology that’s been embedded into their Richland APUs keeps clock speeds at their maximum boost levels for the most part. Games should run at 720p with medium settings and at 60fps pretty well.

Elsewhere, there’s a few things that change from the October build. Because the cheap-as-chips Thermaltake chassis and PSU bundles haven’t been in stock for a while, I opted for the Cooler Master Elite 344 with a bundled power supply. Its Cooler Master-branded and probably based on a CWT design, so there’s no worry about it exploding or anything. Or, well, setting fire to your house.

At this price point, there’s no real competition from Intel. You can get a cheaper Intel Celeron G1620, the ASUS H61M-E and the Radeon HD6670 but what would the point be? You’d only be seeing a minor jump in minimum framerates and you’d still be bandwidth-limited thanks to the DDR3 memory on the GPU. On the other hand, though, some games, like GRID 2, would be able to use the integrated Intel HD graphics to render some extra effects in-game. That’s pretty much the exception, however, not the norm.

R6500 Budget: (720p with Ultra settings and 4x AA, 1080p with medium settings and 2x AA)

Intel Core i3-4130 @ R1453

Gigabyte GA-P85-D3 @ R1130

G.Skill Ares Blue DDR3-2133 8GB @ R1099

Sapphire Radeon HD7770 1GB GDDR5 @ R1385

Seagate Barracuda 500GB SATA HDD @ R679

LG GH24NS95 DVD-RW @ R176

Corsair VS450 @ R460

Antec One S3 USB 3.0 @ R464

Total: R6846

Moving up, we’re at the R6500 budget and once again, we’re seeing almost a R300 price hike for all our components. This will drop off next year as retailers have their post-Christmas sales, but this doesn’t help our budget at all. Here we’re moving up to a Intel Core i3 processor, a full ATX motherboard for system compatibility and  retaining the 8GB of G.Skill RAM we had in the cheaper build. Despite the fact that we can’t overclock the processor to use the RAM’s higher memory speeds, we have more than enough room to tweak the memory timings at the lower end of the scale to eke out what little performance there is left in the system.

Along with that I’m sticking to my recommendation of the Radeon HD7770. There’s nothing in Nvidia’s stable that can properly counter it at this price point and it qualifies for a free game until 31 December thanks to AMD’s Never Settle promotion. The HD7770 upgrade also allows us to jump into 1080p gaming and its very similar to the GPU you’d find in the Xbox One. If there are any ports from the consoles that you’ll end up playing on your system, it’ll perform similarly to the same game running on the Xbox One.

Elsewhere, we stick to the same power supply, hard drive, DVD writer and chassis combination from October. We don’t need to upgrade any of these to better products because we’re strapped for cash, in addition to not actually needing any extra power or cooling capability. It would just be money wasted in this case.

Once again, we’re not seeing an AMD build here and that’s because the FX processors continue to be overpriced and out of stock on most websites. Socket AM3+, at least in the cheaper end of the market, continues to be a dead-end for most buyers. Once socket FM2+ and Kaveri hit the ground, though, I expect the R6500 segment to be taken up with that APU. Four Steamroller cores and a HD7750 on a single die? Yes please!

R9000 Budget: (1080p on Ultra details and 4x AA, 2560 x 1440 with medium details and no AA)

Intel Core i5-4440 @ R2269

G.Skill Ares Blue DDR3-2133 8GB @ R1099

MSI H87-G41 PC Mate @ R1263

PowerColor AX-R9 270X 2GB GDDR5 @ R2695 (or Gigabyte GTX660 2GB GDDR5 @ R2767)

Seagate Barracuda 1TGB SATA HDD @ R764

Corsair VS550 @ R552

Corsair Carbide 300R @ R679

Total: R9321

Our first sweet spot in the guide is here and there’s that damned R300 price hike again! Despite that, we have a pretty good thing going here – a Intel Core i5 processor, a decent ATX motherboard and the AMD Radeon R9 270X all mate up to make one of the most solid gaming rigs I’ve seen at this price point for a while. Gaming at 1440- should be a cinch for this rig, although you’ll need to dial the settings down to medium for properly playable framerates.

Even with all this money, though, we don’t have enough in the budget for a solid state drive, so a 1TB hard drive will have to do. Once again the DVD drive has been chucked, as it lies idle for most people these days. The money can be better spent elsewhere and here it helps us stay closer to the budget and afford a better power supply and chassis.

This is also one of the simplest builds in this guide – there’s no need for aftermarket cooling, or overclocking, or anything of the sort. Its literally a set-and-forget kind of deal and that PowerColor R9 270X is especially handsome.

Also, there’s no AMD alternative build here. The higher-end FX processors are frequently not in stock and there are no compelling motherboards around to sell them with. This has now become the norm, rather than the exception, as I used to recommend a FX-6300 here. I’m a sad panda.

That’s all for this episode of the guide folks! Our next episode will be up on Monday, 16 December where we move into the mid-range segment and jump into the wash of systems running on Intel’s Core architecture. Stay tuned!

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