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Hello and welcome, gamers, to the bi-monthly System Builder’s guide, this time for the month of Movember. I took a break from writing the guide as rAge Expo, computer hardware failures and life in general kept on pushing the next version further and further back. We’re into the budget segment for today, concentrating on low-cost setups and value for money. There’s not many real surprises in store for today, although we do see the return of an old favourite that may give you pause and think about sticking to 2-minute Noodles for the rest of the month. Follow me!

An update on the local market

Since the last version of my System Builder’s Guide, some things have changed drastically. Takealot and Kalahari recently announced they were merging, with Takealot taking over the business of Kalahari and parent company Naspers quietly exiting the online retail segment. Its not known exactly how the thing is going to be run – will Kalahari absorb into Takealot completely? Will they see improving service levels finally as a result of the merger? Will they use the same delivery systems?

All that and more remains to be seen. Its one thing for companies as big as these two to promise better customer service, but if the scale of the operation begins to take precedence over customer service and satisfaction, then consumers will have to go off in search of alternatives.

If you’re not keen on the merger and want to buy from elsewhere, there are several great options. All of these retailers offer good customer service, go out of their way to make you feel like you’re valued and do try their hardest to hang-ten with the big guys, despite being smaller companies without the massive scale that Takealot commands. Check them out!

R3000 Budget – Costs Almost Nothing!

720p with Low settings and no AA, game and movie streaming
Processor AMD Athlon 5350 2.05GHz R856
Motherboard ASUS AM1I-A ITX R460
Memory Patriot Signature 4GB DDR3-1600 CL9 R461
Graphics Integrated Radeon HD8400
Power supply CFI 90W bundled
Chassis CFI ACD2 ITX VESA R390
Optical drive
Hard drive
Solid state drive Sandisk Ultra Plus 2.5-inch 128GB R837
Total (Rands): R3004

While most of my buyer’s guides concentrate on gaming performance, I’m rather fond of little builds like this which try to be as minimalist as possible. Though we’ve only gone over budget by R4, we have a much more impressive system as a result of price drops and hardware changes. The main one that I’m not particularly happy with is the chassis change – dropping the long-running Antec ISK110 for the cheap and less cheerful CFI ACD2, which is the cheapest ITX box that still comes with an internal PSI and VESA mounts for mounting it onto the back of your monitor.

Hardware-wise, we’ve used the extra funds to bump up to the Athlon 5350, which is a quad-core APU based on the Kabini family with GCN graphics and a clock speed of 2.05GHz. Its not going to blow socks off, but there are a lot of Youtube videos out there which show what’s possible with this tiny chip.

Elsewhere we have a memory change to cheaper Patriot RAM with lower latency at CL9 and, thanks to SSD price wars that will soon escalate for the holiday season, a 128GB Ultra Plus from SanDisk. Considering that a Transcend SSD340 64GB drive was here last time for R606, this is well worth the extra cost.

While this machine is capable of some gaming, it’s not a gaming machine. Its more for light usage or working on Office applications, surfing the net or acting as a streaming set-top box for something like XBMC. There are similar offerings from Intel, but Bay Trail is not a socketed chip, whereas processors on AMD’s AM1 platform are all SoCs. It also uses less than 80W at full load, so if you’re looking to be more frugal on your power usage, this is a good place to start.

R3500 Budget – Just The Basics

720p with Low-to-Medium settings and 2x AA
Processor AMD A6-6400K 3.9-4.1GHz Unlocked R967
Motherboard MSI A78M-E35 Socket FM2+ mATX R681
Memory Crucial Ballistix 4GB DDR3-1866 R610
Graphics Integrated Radeon HD8470D
Power supply Thermaltake 350W bundled
Chassis Thermaltake V2S ATX R469
Optical drive LiteOn iHAS 24x DVD-RW R195
Hard drive WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R769
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R3691

Our R3.5k build remains the same as previous setups, making use of an APU from AMD once again with the A6-6400K providing some decent computing chops to get stuff done. It is an unlocked chip that allows for overclocking, but 4.2GHz is about the best you’ll do on the MSI A78M-E35 because beyond that you need to cram in more voltage and deal with more excess heat.

I’ve always felt that this build provides stupid value for money and it continues to be the best all-round option if this is all the money you could scratch together. It still offers playable framerates in games with the settings made low enough and still runs perfectly fine for most productivity applications. If I wasn’t a gamer, I’d be rocking one of these setups with a 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM.

As prices decrease, the A6-6400K will be replaced by the A6-7400K, based on the Kaveri APU family with Steamroller CPU cores and GCN graphics. Socket FM2+ isn’t going anywhere for a while, at least not until 2016 when it gets replaced by AMD’s Zen processor family and a DDR4 controller. Until then, Intel’s Pentium processors can only hope to outdo this build’s processor performance, as AMD has a big lead in on-die graphics.

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 R715
Motherboard MSI H81M-P33 LGA1150 mATX R637
Memory Corsair ValueSelect 4GB DDR3-1600 CL11 R515
Graphics Gigabyte Radeon R7 250X OC 1GB GDDR5 R1399
Power supply Thermaltake 350W bundled
Chassis Thermaltake V2S ATX R469
Optical drive LiteOn iHAS 24x DVD-RW R195
Hard drive WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R769
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R4699

We finally arrive at something more closely resembling a traditional gaming machine with the R4.5K build. We’re still rocking the Haswell-based Pentium G3240 and a MSI H81-based motherboard, both of which offer little in the way of frills and get the job done. I have been tempted before to put the Athlon 5350 in here instead for the extra two cores, but that’s the limit to upgrades on the AM1 platform, whereas LGA1150 allows us to go all the way up to the Core i7-4771, if you so desire. Though reviews of the 5350 have shown it to be tremendously capable given the low-end nature of the hardware we’re talking about here, it’s just not based on a socket that’s as flexible as LGA1150.

If your machine dies and you need to test with another processor or board, you’re going to have a much easier time borrowing the right hardware from a friend who has a Haswell rig than you would have finding someone who owns an AM1 system.

Graphics-wise, the big changes comes in the switch from the Geforce GTX650 to the Radeon R7 250X. I’ve been waiting for prices to come down on this particular GPU and it’s a very capable performer with the given quality settings the machine should be capable of. Though I’ve chosen an overclocked version from Gigabyte, there’s still a little bit of headroom left in there for some more performance to be extracted. AMD even has their own version of Shadowplay using the Raptr client or any other game recording software that works with AMD’s VCE chip.

Elsewhere, not much changes. SSDs are still expensive, so we can’t yet sneak a 128GB drive in here without making a compromise elsewhere.

R6500 Budget – The Budget Sweet-spot

720p with Ultra settings and 4x AA, 1080p with High settings and 2x AA
Processor Intel Core i3-4160 3.6GHz LGA1150 R1410
Motherboard MSI H81-P33 LGA1150 ATX R834
Memory Corsair ValueSelect 8GB DDR3-1600 CL11 R1030
Graphics MSI Radeon R7 260X 2GB GDDR5 R1875
Power supply Corsair VS350 350W R434
Chassis DeepCool Tesseract Midi tower R389
Optical drive
Hard drive WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R769
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R6641

Our first taste of proper performance happens with the jump to R6500. There’s been a CPU upgrade from the Core i3-4150 to the Core i3-4160. It’s a 200MHz jump in clock speed and a drop of 5W in the TDP, so it’s a win-win any way you look at it. The motherboard changes to the ATX-sized version of the MSI H81-P33 because it offers more connectivity and we bump up to 8GB RAM, now the default for any machine intended for gaming purposes. Its not strictly required for the majority of games out there, but it makes multi-tasking with a 64-bit operating system easier and accommodates the vision of developers who build bigger and bigger games.

Graphics takes a side-step to the Radeon R7 260X, changing from the Geforce GTX750 I had in here earlier. Though similar in performance, the R7 260X has a larger 2GB frame buffer, which helps when playing games like Crysis 3 or Battlefield 4, which easily chew through 1GB on medium settings at 1080p. I would have expected that the Radeon R7 265 to have dropped in price by now to fit in here, but that’s not going to happen for a while. Even on Wootware, the Powercolor R7 265 still hovers at around R2000, which isn’t low enough to fit into the budget here.

One change that had me stumped for a while was the move to the DeepCool Tessaract, a mid-sized ATX chassis that replaces the Zalman ZM-Z1, which seems to have seen a price hike everywhere. While it isn’t the same kind of build quality, there’s a lot to like in the Tessaract from the cable management, to the drive cage design, to the cooling setups made possible with the top-mounted grilles. There’s not much one can expect from a R400 chassis, but it offers quite a lot for a brand that isn’t usually known for any sort of quality in the low-end market.

If you’re looking to add in some more AMD flavour in here, it’ll cost you more to move to a FX CPU and compatible board, so I’m no longer recommending it based purely on price hikes that have made it unattractive for now. I’m no longer optimistic about AMD’s chances in South Africa when it comes to their CPU and motherboard platforms, while the GPU segment carries on as normal.

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 R2481
Motherboard ASRock H97 Pro4 R1281
Memory Crucial Ballistix 4GB DDR3-1866 8GB R1220
Graphics Powercolor Radeon HD7950 3GB GDDR5 R2399
Power supply SeaSonic S12II 520w R693
Chassis Cooler Master Centurion 6 Silver R703
Optical drive
Hard drive WD Caviar Blue 1TB 7200RPM R769
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R9582

Our R9500 build comes close to the Intel cookie-cutter setup, but some snags along the way took me a while to work out. There’s a slight price hike on the Core i5-4590, which chips away at any leeway we had in the budget. In addition, the ASRock H97M Pro4 went out of stock, so I deliberated for a long time before deciding that the ATX-sized version would be okay, even though we lose nice additions like the rotated SATA ports and the better port layout. Still, the ATX version keeps the Intel networking and the 7:1 audio sound card with optimisations from ELNA.

RAM gets swapped out for the Crucial Ballistix 1866MHz modules, even though we’re not going any overclocking on the CPU. Its easy enough to dial the frequencies in on the UEFI BIOS on the motherboard, giving us a slight boost for programs and games that utilise more memory bandwidth.

The star of the show is the returning Radeon HD7950. Wootware seems to have convinced PowerColor to find more in the back of their warehouse and will be bringing in the 3GB cards. R2399 for all that muscle is insane value for money, easily beating out or otherwise matching competing cards like the Radeon R9 270X and the Geforce GTX660 and GTX760, which are all much more expensive. It is based on old GPU tech and it’s going to see its way out of the door for good at the end of the year, but for now it’s still a bargain for the massive performance on tap. Its even enough for playing some games at UltraHD 4K resolution.

Going lower down the list, the selection of power supplies locally has always been dismal, so it’s always great to see Seasonic PSUs available once again for decent prices. Its not going to be the best PSU in the world, but the S12II still offers rock-solid stability and good component selection. The cables should be long enough to reach everywhere inside the Cooler Master Centurion chassis as well, replacing the Silencio 352 which saw a big price hike to around R900. The black version doesn’t seem to be available any longer, but the silver stripe on the side of the chassis still looks classy.

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