The System Builder’s Guide has been around for roughly two years. I started writing this bi-monthly column in March of 2012 and before that I contributed to the System Builder’s thread on the NAG Forums together with JP “Chevron” Dormehl since its inception in 2009. I’ve been writing and compiling these guides ever since and it’s mostly been unchanged in the presentation – a wall of text, some options in green highlights that were linked and a little total at the bottom. Starting from this month to coincide with the April issue of NAG Magazine’s 2014 revamp, I’m switching the look a little bit to something that’s easier to understand and nicer to look at. I can’t promise there won’t be walls of text but I can promise it will be prettier. Follow me after the jump!
The road so far…
Our last edition of the guide was in February, just over two months ago. I predicted that things would get more expensive and difficult to find and that AMD processors would cease to become viable options without cheaper socket FM2+ motherboards and chips and a decent replacement for AM3+. Well, only the first thing came around, as FM2+ motherboards are now available in decent numbers and at good prices, too. The only issue is that APUs are now overpriced compared to their Intel siblings and only in the first two builds for this month will they make sense – beyond the R4500 budget, Intel typically takes over because their offerings are cheaper and just as powerful and motherboard selection is plentiful.
To that end, I’m still not going to be recommending AMD CPUs by default, not until motherboard selection improves and prices for socket FM2+ APUs drop. Steamroller might be a very strong architecture when compared to K10 Stars, Bulldozer, Piledriver or Jaguar, but the end products are not as cheap or as thermally efficient as Intel’s Haswell. That position would change greatly if pricing and availability would improve, but they haven’t.
This guide is also plopping onto your browser the day after Nvidia’s R337 driver launches on the web, complete with a new Geforce Experience app and a few new features that greatly improves GPU performance. I won’t deny that this will weigh in heavily on my GPU decisions further down the line. Although AMD’s driver team has been doing good work, I can no longer ignore Nvidia’s improvements for Shadowplay, streaming to Twitch, Physx and, thanks to the R337 beta driver, a lot more CPU performance in a manner similar to Mantle, but without the great deal of game re-engineering that goes along with it.
It doesn’t mean that common sense takes its leave when I’m faced with the option of a Geforce GTX660 and a Radeon R9 270X that I’ll choose the weaker Geforce instead, but it does mean that given the fact that Nvidia’s engineers now understand their drivers, the DirectX renderer and their hardware much better and in a more deeper fashion than ever before, it would be very easy to spot a cheap Geforce GTX760 that’s only a little more expensive than the R9 270X and opt for that instead.
Also, an interesting twist revealed itself last month to me – Takealot is now selling computer hardware at a price that’s as low as other vendors, with free shipping for most items. Although I’ve always linked to Rebeltech for their low prices and huge selection of hardware, I’ll be mixing in Takealot this month to see how things go. It may only be a once-off thing for the company but if they continue to keep pricing low, its inevitable that they’ll become South Africa’s version of Newegg.
The builds in future builder’s guides will look like the ones you’ll see below. There’s a header to show off the budget. a smaller cell below it for the settings that most games should be playable at and the bulk of the table is taken up by the parts, with a side column detailing what each part is along with clickable links to the online store and a price. I made these tables to collate things better but it also forms a check-list for anyone assembling their own build elsewhere.
Use these tables for reference, cut them out and take them with you to shops, print them out and stick them somewhere for motivation, do whatever takes your fancy! Note that because there’s not enough space in the table, I’ll be listing alternative GPUs in the text below as well as alternate configurations – I’ll try keep that short so you don’t have to do much scrolling.
Going over budget was entirely because the cheaper FM2 motherboard from MSI that I used in February’s build has been replaced by a newer, better model, the A78M-E35. It’ll do nicely, considering that it has six SATA 6.0GB/s ports, two DIMM slots, front and rear-panel USB 3.0 ports and a decent layout. With it I’m pairing AMD’s A6-6400K APU with some decent overclocking ability (not that you’ll need it that much) and some very interesting Crucial Ballistix RAM, which I’ve never seen at any other vendor before. These are really decent DDR3-1866 modules and would do nicely to skirt around the bandwidth issues of the integrated HD8470 graphics for the kind of use this machine will see.
The rest of the build is quite “normal,” with a Seagate 1TB hard drive doing the storage duties, a 24-speed DVD writer and Thermaltake’s V2S bundle, which isn’t that bad considering that the bundled PSU is okay. At full blast, this machine won’t even touch on the PSUs capabilities and should ensure a decent lifespan for the hardware. Should you wish to add some SSD storage to the build or replace the hard drive altogether, Sandisk’s SSD Standard 128GB is a good place to start, even if the storage space is minute compared to the hard drive.
Are there Intel equivalents to this build? There are, but the GPU performance of such a build would be questionable. Still, you can swap in the Intel Pentium G3220 and the MSI’s H81M-P33 to drop the total build price to under R3400. However, you wouldn’t be able to play games with anything approaching good quality settings, so it’s best for a workhorse role.
R4500 Budget – The Basics, With Gusto
720p with medium-to-high settings and 2x AA, 1080p with low settings and no AA
The next step up in our build has an Intel twist to it. Although I normally put the AMD A8-6600K in here, some issues needed to be addressed that would have affected performance. For example, not having cheaper socket FM2/FM2+ boards available for selection meant that I would have to stick to single-channel memory, which would have affected total bandwidth numbers and therefore framerates. Additionally, Intel’s Pentium G3220 is just as powerful in most games, with the added advantage of having 3MB L3 cache, cheaper board selection and a much cheaper price.
While the rest of the build is mostly unchanged, graphics duties are now handled by the Sapphire Radeon R7 250. Compared to the integrated HD8570D graphics inside the A8-6600K, it runs at a much higher clock speed along with very fast GDDR5 memory. Overall, it’ll be a better and more consistent experience, not least because the architecture is also GCN, which benefits from AMD’s Mantle API along with a longer promised run of driver improvements. When Microsoft’s DirectX 12 hits or when game developers begin using tiled resources in DirectX 11.2, you’ll be all set with just a driver change.
For those of you interested in an AMD APU build instead for the simplicity, swap in the MSI A78M-E35 and the AMD A8-6600K APU in place of the processor, motherboard and GPU in this build.
R6500 Budget – The Budget Sweet-spot
720p with Ultra settings and 4x AA, 1080p with high settings and 2x AA
We arrive at our budget sweet-spot. R6500 is the minimum amount you need to budget for a rig that will play absolutely everything with decent settings at 1080p and with acceptable framerates that just hit 60fps in most cases. We hit it off with an upgrade to Intel’s Core i3-4130 and ASRock’s H81M motherboard along with the Crucial Ballistix RAM that’s been loafing along for the ride so far. This combination of parts is pretty performant and Intel’s hyper-threading technology has come so far that the i3-4130’s game performance is almost equal to the Core i5-4440. There will be some cases where the gap is much larger, but the Core i3 family is good enough for most scenarios.
Where things majorly differ here is the inclusion of the Maxwell-based Geforce GTX750. Although it only has 1GB of VRAM compared to its rival, the Radeon R7 260X which typically ships with 2GB of memory, the GTX750 is more energy efficient and, with the latest R337 drivers, more powerful. Plus, you’re getting the full benefits of Geforce Experience including Shadowplay and Physx, which when properly implemented can change your game experience significantly. Do those drivers really improve things, though? A 66-page (and growing) thread on the Overclock.net forums seems to agree.
The rest of the build swaps out the Thermaltake V2 bundle for the Zalman ZM-Z1 midi tower, which has a good internal layout and cable management and the Corsair VS350, which is more than enough juice for this rig even when the GPU is inevitably overclocked. If you’re looking for AMD alternatives, they don’t exist, but there is still the option of swapping out the GTX750 for it’s equal, the AMD Radeon R7 260X from MSI. If it sways your purchase decision, the R7 260X still qualifies for AMD’s Radeon Rewards promotion, although you’ll have to check with the vendor first to see if they still have codes available.
R9500 Budget – The Beginning of Mid-Range
1080p on Ultra details and 4x AA, 2560 x 1440 with medium details and no AA
Rounding off our guide for today, we’re stopping at the R9500 price point. Prices have been mostly stable since the February guide and this is a good thing, because online vendors can compete on price again knowing that there’s not going to be severe price changes that affect their bottom line. Here we’ve moved up in the world to the Core i5-4570, ASRock’s no-frills Z87 Pro 3 motherboard and, finally, 8GB of DDR3-1866 memory. You may have to set the XMP profile in the BIOS to run the memory at its correct speed, but this isn’t a hassle when you consider the price is cheaper than any other similarly-specced modules on the market right now.
Going down, we’re switching back to AMD for the Radeon R9 270X because not only is it faster than the competing Geforce GTX750 Ti and GTX660, it’s also much cheaper than either one, at least in Powercolor’s version. The R9 270X has a wider 256-bit memory bus, two 6-pin PCI PEG power connectors for overclocking headroom and a very swanky dual-fan cooler which will ensure that the card never throttles itself.
Should the GTX660 fall down to the same price then it might be worth consideration, however it won’t fare very well once you crank up the detail settings at 2560 x 1440. The power supply and chassis also see small jumps to a 550W unit and the Carbide 200R which is both understated and very roomy internally.
An AMD alternative build would swap in the FX-6350 six-core unlocked processor with the MSI 970A-G46 socket AM3+ motherboard or alternatively the A10-7700K with the MSI A88X-G43 socket FM2+ board. Neither build is perfect but both will put up admirable results – the Kaveri APU would actually post up higher minimum framerates compared to the FX-6300 because Steamroller is much more efficient in gaming scenarios than Piledriver and won’t hold the R9 270X back.
That’s all for this week’s edition of the guide! Tune in next Tuesday for the jump to the mid-range budgets. Let me know in the comments below and in the forums how you like the redesign? Yes, no, maybe?