We’re back with another System Builders guide and this time we’re ducking into the mid-range segment, covering builds between R11,500 and R16,500. Historically this segment of the guide is the least exciting because the hardware doesn’t vary too much. Occasionally there’s a processor change here, a SSD there and a chipset or board change to support new features but overall, the mid-range market is pretty boring. On the GPU side there’s also a performance gap that makes it difficult to spend more than R3000 on a GPU, especially if you’re playing at 1080p. If you want to see how I’ll address that, follow me after the jump!
R11,500 Budget – Almost Hitting The Spot
1080p on Ultra details and 4x AA, 2560 x 1440 with medium details and no AA
We begin the mid-month guide with something that’s very close to the Sweet Spot build, but not quite hitting the same notes. We’ve moved up to the Core i5-4670K and MSI’s Z87-G43, which is a decent step up from ASRock’s Z87 Pro 3 which had a decent layout and build, but didn’t have more VRM phases or larger heatsinks. This way, things will stay cooler and facilitate higher overclocks thanks to the use of Crucial’s DDR3-1866 memory. I’ll stick with it for now because not only is it the best-priced kit at this rated speed, chances are it’ll bump to 2133MHz as well. Zalman’s Optima stays because Cooler’s Master’s Hyper line is only getting more expensive for some reason.
Drilling down, I decided not to make the jump to a hugely better GPU, opting instead for a better Radeon R9 270X. This is Powercolor’s Devil variant and in all respects it’s identical to MSI’s Hawk offering, with the difference that this is employs a triple-fan cooler and more VRM phases. Overclocking should be a cinch. Corsair’s VS550 gives way to the far superior Seasonic 520W PSU. The output is mostly the same but the difference here is that Seasonic’s products are built and engineered like tanks, outlasting the hardware it powers by several generations. Cooler Master’s Centurion 610 is also added in for clearance for the Powercolor Devil as well as having more space for extra storage drives.
Its difficult, given the graphics card we’ve chosen here, to recommend an equivalent card from Nvidia’s stable. ASUS’ GTX660 DirectCU II OC comes close, but it isn’t nearly of the same build quality and doesn’t come with an aluminium backplate. Once you move above 1080p it’ll also be left behind in terms of average framerates thanks to the smaller 192-bit memory bus. Nevertheless, it’s a great GPU for 1080p and if you’re partial to the green team, go for it.
As an aside, I didn’t add it in here because we already have the Sweet Spot build, but taking the R11,500 build and adding in this ridiculously cheap Crucial M500 240GB SSD returns us, one year later, to the magical R13,000 mark. That’s less than R1600 for a 240GB SSD which puts you at roughly R6.50 per GB of storage, way under the R10/GB limit which I’d consider to be sane.
R14,000 Budget – The Sweet Spot
1080p on Ultra details and 4x AA, 2560 x 1440 with medium details and no AA
The next step up in our build doesn’t change things too much. We’ve essentially taken the R11,500 build and improved things here and there. One the cooling side we’ve bumped up to Cooler Master’s Seidon 120V all-in-one water cooler. The rubber hoses on this unit are a little thicker but the mounting brackets are very easy to use, with the added bonus that the fan can be swapped out for a quieter unit and it can be run in a push-pull configuration. The Seidon 120M is also very similar with a slightly different pump and higher price, but at that level you may as well start looking at Corsair’s alternatives. In this build, that roughly R100 price difference is a big factor that would affect other component choices and if I can help it, I’d prefer to not go over budget.
Motherboards have changed out again and here we’re settling on ASRock’s Z87 Extreme4. Along with the Z87 K1ller that it shares DNA with, the Extreme4 is the only motherboard at the R2000 price point that supports three PCI-Express 3.0 slots and also triple Crossfire. Triple SLI support requires certification and some BIOS tricks which ASRock clearly doesn’t feel like paying for, so they’ll leave it this way. The port layout can change from 16x/0/0 to 8x/8x/0 to 8x/4x/4x which is equivalent to PCI-E 2.0 speeds of 16x/8x/8x. Its one of the most flexible motherboards ASRock has ever made and deserves its seat in this build because it doesn’t need expensive PLX chips for some multi-GPU love.
Moving down, I’ve bumped up the PSU requirements to Seasonic’s 620W unit and paired the righ with the Crucial M500 250GB SSD. In previous builds you’ll notice that I omitted water-cooling at this point in favour of an air cooler and a slower 2TB storage drive. Well, I’m not doing that anymore – 1TB should be enough for most Steam installs and to also keep some movies, series and other data backups. The money saved can be better spent elsewhere.
R16,500 Budget – Not Quite High-End
2560 x 1440p with Ultra details and 4x AA, 5760 x 1080p with medium details and 2x AA, UltraHD 4K and low-to-medium details with no AA
UPDATE (22-04-2014): Over the long weekend I noticed that the Core i7-4770 didn’t appear for me in Takealot’s product list, perhaps as a result of some strange issues I was having with Firefox’s browser cache. Tallying it up, the i7-4770 was still cheaper than Rebeltech or Wootware’s offerings and, I thought, more of a bargain because of the higher base and boost clock speeds as well as having the HD4600 graphics enabled for things like Quicksync and putting up extra monitors that you would otherwise have to buy a second GPU for. Replacing the stock cooler for the Seidon 120V is still recommended because Haswell processors get very hot, thus the rest of the build remains as it appeared previously.
We arrive at our last build for the day and we’re very, very close to what most people would consider high-end. The Core i5-4670K is gone, replaced by the quad-core, dual-threaded Intel Core i7-4770. Its one of the cheaper Haswell-based Core i7 processors in Intel’s stable, coming in cheaper than the Core i7-4770K and offering all of the same hardware features. We’ll miss out on the overclocking ability but if you’re going to be playing at ultra-high resolutions in this year’s biggest games, you’re going to want the extra cores, even if they are logical ones. As with the Sweet Spot build, the rest of the rig is mostly the same with no additions made aside from the graphics card.
Graphics is now taken care of by the extremely powerful Nvidia Geforce GTX760 with 4GB of GDDR5 memory. Even though the price gap’s not that big between this card and most Radron R9 280X variants, performance remains pretty similar between both up until you reach triple-monitor and 4K resolutions. Nvidia’s technologies like CUDA and Shadowplay and your experience using this hardware should be pretty pain-free no matter what you play.
Other considerations popped up with this build…
I also decided that the GTX760 was the better choice when considering display output configurations on the R9 280X variants floating about the market right now. Many of these are better performers and good value for money, but they don’t offer something that the GTX760 does – triple monitor love without the use of Displayport adapters. Most of the R9 280X cards in the R4000 price range sport a single dual-link DVI connector, HDMI 1.4a and two Displayport 1.2 mini ports. It appears to be a common issue with OEMs and means that two of your monitors must be connected using Displayport, with the third hooked up using DVI. Adding in a fourth monitor using HDMI is still possible as the HDMI port still has its own clock generator.
If I may also address the issue further, on all R-series AMD cards with two DVI ports you have the option to run three monitors on a single card using just DVI and HDMI. However, because of AMD’s trickery to make both DVI ports use the same clock generator, all the monitors have to be the same make and model for the trick to work, otherwise you’re back to requiring Displayport which either natively runs to the monitor or needs an active DP-DVI adapter. In addition, all three monitors on the HDMI and DVI ports need to be present at boot to work, otherwise you’ll just get a black screen on the monitor sharing the second DVI port.
You know what’s worse? Most cards only support two Displayport 1.2 outputs, so if you have three 1080p monitors with Displayport you need to use a MST Hub to use one connector to share the signal to three monitors (which is also the method to connect six DP monitors to a single card). We’re advancing multi-monitor tech quite fast, but we’re not yet rid of our legacy display connectors which would free us of these retarded issues.
Suffice to say, then, that if you want to play on three monitors with zero hassle and no expensive adapters (you’ll still need a HDMI-DVI converter for the third monitor), Nvidia is your best choice. If you’re sticking to a single monitor and want to use Mantle in the future, the PowerColor R9 280X 3GB with the TurboDuo cooler is your best bet, along with it being a lot cheaper as well.
That’s all for this week’s edition of the guide! Tune in next Tuesday for the jump to the high-end budgets. Let me know in the comments below and in the forums how you like the redesign with the new tables!