Hello and welcome, gamers, to the bi-monthly System Builder’s guide, this time for the month of August. I’m publishing this half an hour out from Microsoft’s conference at Gamescom 2014, so it was a bit of a rush to get this done on time. Little has changed in the market since our last version of this guide back in June, although price drops and stock levels have changed the recommendations in some of the builds, most notably the death of the Radeon HD7950 as stock finally filters out from the retail channel. I’m actually thoroughly depressed at that – we won’t see the same kind of face-smashing GPU horsepower for under R3000 for a long time.

I also promise this month to not mope about the prices of AMD’s APUs which SHOULD be a hell of a lot cheaper than they are currently. Anyway, on with the builds!

R3000 Budget – Costs Almost Nothing!

720p with Low settings and no AA, game and movie streaming
Processor AMD Sempron 3850 1.3GHz R549
Motherboard MSI AM1I mini-ITX R424
Memory Corsair ValueSelect 4GB DDR3-1600 CL11 R537
Graphics Integrated Radeon HD8280
Power supply Antec 90W bundled
Chassis Antec ISK110 VESA R844
Optical drive
Hard drive Transcend SSD340 64GB SATA 6GB/s R606
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R2983

AMD’s AM1 platform continues to be my pick for the low-power segment. This build still packs in the quad-core Sempron 3850 along with the MSI AM1I mini-ITX motherboard and 4GB of DDR3-1600 memory, this time from Corsair. Being a system-on-chip, it’s pretty easy to keep the hardware and chassis the same and upgrade to whatever new APU fits into the AM1 socket a little down the road. So, by the time 2016 rolls around, it should be possible to fit in a better, faster quad-core using the Puma architecture.

I was asked about a month ago for an alternative Intel build to this one. GPU-wise it’ll be very “meh” but you can switch out the APU and motherboard for ASUS’ J1800I-C, pairing the Intel Bay Trail Celeron J1800 with a passive heatsink and decently specced motherboard. You also need SoDIMM, laptop-spec memory to help keep the board to the super-low profile.

But hey – it’s a passively cooled quad-core machine that now has almost zero moving parts! And both the Intel AND AMD builds use less power at load than a lightbulb.

R3500 Budget – Just The Basics

720p with Low-to-Medium settings and 2x AA
Processor AMD A6-6400K APU 3.9GHz Unlocked R916
Motherboard MSI A78M-E35 socket FM2+ R755
Memory Kingston HyperX Fury Blue 4GB DDR3-1866 R633
Graphics Integrated Radeon HD8470D
Power supply Thermaltake 350W bundled
Chassis Thermaltake V2S ATX R469
Optical drive LG GH24NS95 24x DVD-RW R166
Hard drive Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200RPM R708
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R3647

In speccing out the R3.5k build, I had some serious dilemmas. Now that reviews and user reviews of the Athlon 5350 are out in the wild, it seems that it’s a pretty potent chip, all things considered. Being a quad-core SoC helps its case a lot and the fact that it features 128 GCN-class stream processors definitely helps it a lot in the gaming segment, where some GPU muscle is preferable over whatever Intel’s weak HD Graphics can muster at this price point.

I also considered the longevity of the platform. Where is AM1 going next year? Would the user ever require moving to a better, more powerful hardware solution? AMD certainly has beefier upgrades on the way from the Puma family and Kabini (which is the socketed AM1 family) itself is pretty performant. But given the role of socket AM1 in low-power, low-price computing, it’s probably never meant for this kind of use in the first place.

So, I’ve stuck with socket FM2+. The A6-6400K is an unlocked dual-core part with 192 stream processors based on AMD’s VLIW4 architecture and it’s easily enough for a lot of games at 720p, with some older titles being fully playable at 1080p with decent refresh rates. Coupled to that is Kingston’s HyperX Fury DDR3-1866 memory, a lowly 4GB module, to help improve the memory bandwidth of the GPU. Elsewhere the build moves to a regular ATX chassis with a 350W power supply, a DVD re-writer and a 1TB hard drive for the operating system and regular storage.

Mostly “meh” but it’s a decent start otherwise. It’ll be mostly GPU performance holding this rig back, though so adding in a Radeon R7 240 or Geforce GT730, with either one packing GDDR5 memory, would be a big upgrade from what we have here.

R4500 Budget – The Basics, With Gusto

720p with Medium-to-High settings and 2x AA, 1080p with Low settings and no AA
Processor Intel Pentium G3240 3.1GHz LGA1150 R682
Motherboard MSI H81M-P33 LGA1150 R661
Memory Corsair ValueSelect 4GB DDR3-1600 CL11 R537
Graphics MSI Geforce GTX650 1GB GDDR5 R1313
Power supply Thermaltake 350W bundled
Chassis Thermaltake V2S ATX R601
Optical drive LG GH24NS95 24x DVD-RW R171
Hard drive Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200RPM R708
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R4673

This month’s build for R4500 sticks to mostly the same hardware as the June build at the same price point, but there are a few differences here. With stocks of the Pentium G3220 disappearing, its replacement from the Haswell refresh, the G3240, takes its place. With the slight jump we’ve seen in recent weeks with RAM prices, I’ve also dropped to using bog-standard RAM from Crucial in this build. Money’s tighter this time around and spending it on frills like LED light isn’t going to help here. MSI’s H81M-P33 returns, but only because there isn’t really a better replacement in the same price range.

The GPU recommendation swaps this month to the Geforce GTX650 because stock of the previous Radeon R7 250 seem to be low. The GTX650 offers some nifty features like streaming to Twitch using Geforce Experience without much performance loss and Shadowplay game capturing with reasonable compression. You also get access to applications and plugins that make use of Nvidia’s CUDA engine to allow the GPU to accelerate certain workloads. The alternative here is Gigabyte’s Radeon R7 250X and it matches the Geforce’s capabilities spec-for-spec, right down to both cards being able to support up to there monitors on their own.

I would offer an AMD alternative built with the A8-6600K, but not only would it be the weaker choice, that chip’s also currently out of stock at most retailers. A Haswell-based dual-core and discrete graphics is the better pick in this case.

R6500 Budget – The Budget Sweet-spot

720p with Ultra settings and 4x AA, 1080p with High settings and 2x AA
Processor Intel Core i3-4150 3.4GHz LGA1150 R1402
Motherboard MSI H81M-P33 LGA1150 R661
Memory Corsair ValueSelect 8GB DDR3-1600 CL11 R1074
Graphics Gigabyte Geforce GTX750 OC 1GB GDDR5 R1810
Power supply Corsair VS350 350W R451
Chassis Zalman ZM-Z1 Midi tower R396
Optical drive
Hard drive Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200RPM R708
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R6502

Price fluctuations in the low-end made me consider my options a lot more and some changes in the hardware market have made picking out a build a little trickier this month. I had considered sticking in the Pentium G3258 along with ASRock’s H97M Pro 4 in here but the reality of the G3258 is that it’s still a dual-core chip in a world that’s moving to having a quad-core processor in the machine by default. It needs to be clocked to at least 4.4GHz to see the same kinds of speeds as a Core i3-4150 in a benchmark that uses more than two cores. That not only means the chip will die out sooner, but you’ll need to invest in better cooling as well. That’s an expense we can do without for now.

Moving down the build, we’ve bumped ourselves up to 8GB of RAM and switched alliances to the Geforce GTX750. In previous months this would have been the domain of the Radeon R7 260X, but some bright spark at AMD thought it would be okay to tell their partners that making 1GB versions of that card was fine. Without cheap 2GB variants of the R7 260X, switching to Maxwell makes more sense because it’s newer hardware and a more efficient architecture. Wootware’s offering of refurbished PowerColor GPUs with low warranty terms doesn’t sit well with me either, as nice a bargain a Radeon HD7850 2GB would have been.

The switch to the Zalman ZM-Z1 and Corsair’s VS350 gives us better cooling capability and a better PSU. It’s not strictly required, but most people will be tempted into overclocking the GPU to see how far it can go thanks to that extra power connector. That also gives us more thermal and power headroom to accommodate the AMD-based version of this build, which would swap in a quad-core FX-4300 and MSI’s 760GM-P23 motherboard. Nothing fancy, but it’ll get the job done just as well as the Intel can, sans front-panel USB 3.0 connectors.

R9500 Budget – The Beginning of Mid-Range

1920 x 1080 with Ultra details and 4x AA, 2560 x 1440 with Medium details and 2x AA
rocessor Intel Core i5-4590 3.3-3.7GHz LGA1150 R2369
Motherboard ASRock H97M Pro4 R1137
Memory Kingston HyperX Fury Blue 8GB DDR3-1600 CL10 R1268
Graphics Powercolor Radeon R9 270X TurboDuo 2GB GDDR5 R2475
Power supply Corsair Gamer GS600W R936
Chassis Cooler Master Silencio 352 R695
Optical drive
Hard drive Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200RPM R708
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R9588

Rounding off the guide for today, I had a little bit of trouble picking out the hardware for the R9500 build. Although the processor gets a small bump in clock speed thanks to the Haswell refresh chips arriving on our shores and the motherboard stays the same, the recent small price hike in DDR3 memory has required me to look elsewhere for a 8GB dual-channel Kit. Kingston’s HyperX Fury line does the job well enough and fits in with the H97M Pro4’s colours.

The disappearance of the Radeon HD7950 from most retailers is saddening. You’ll not see that kind of high-end power for a while now and the only replacement is the much more expensive R9 280, which doesn’t always duck down to a decent price. Finding a cheap R9 270X is also difficult and our only option is the TurboDuo version from PowerColor. With the drop in hardware and bandwidth we’ll also need to readjust our performance expectations, with playability at UltraHD 4K with medium settings no longer a realistic goal.

Finally, I’ve moved from the Seasonic 520W to Corsair’s GS600 and with the Corsair Carbide 200R out of stock that leaves me to settle with Cooler Master’s arguably more attractive Silencio 352. The ATX case market seems to also be in a bit of a lull this month, perhaps leaving a lot of the newer designs and yearly refreshes of old ideas to the Holiday season. Still, I’d be perfectly happy with what’s on offer here.

That’s all for this week’s edition of the guide! Tune in next Tuesday for the jump to the mid-range budgets in the R11,000 to R16,500 segment. Adios!

Discuss this in the forums: Linky

More stuff like this: