Hello and welcome, gamers, to the bi-monthly System Builder’s guide, this time for the month of January 2015. This time we’re doing things a little differently, with some changes made to the budgets and some new products that make some builds now viable. You’re probably all still hurting in your wallet following Christmas, but there’s no harm in looking at what’s out there. Follow me!

Changes are afoot in 2015

A couple of things have changed for the System Builders Guide for 2015. Some of them are for the better, some are for the worse. Most of it, really, is market-related so perhaps you’ll see more price-whinging from me because I see how these things change on a monthly basis.

So, as a plus for this edition of the guide, a high-end AMD build makes its return and that’s only because of a better motherboard choice becoming available – MSI’s 970 Gaming. While most AM3+ boards are stuck behind the times, the 970 Gaming supports both Crossfire and SLI (an unusual distinction for the 970 chipset) and has support for front-panel USB 3.0 and comes with the updated Realtek ALC1150 audio chipset.

Yes, it’s not going to blow socks off but it is a step in the right direction. With no new products for the next year expected for the desktop market, AMD needs to work on its partnerships with vendors like MSI, ASUS and Gigabyte even harder to keep their engines going. The focus is mainly on the APU side, but AMD can’t afford to completely abandon their enthusiast market. MSI throwing them a bone with the 970 Gaming is all that I needed to be able to recommend a AMD system again.

For the worse, I’m sure there’s no need to delve into the Rand’s performance of late, but it’s not getting better for the moment. AMD’s A10-7850K currently sits at almost R3000 – you’d have to be high to purchase one today. Almost everything else is seeing a uptick in price as well – Intel’s Core i7-4790K is now at R4500 or more, which is a ghastly price for that kind of performance. It needs to be closer to R3700 to make sense.

This all gets worse with the Skylake launch later this year. With local distributors and vendors sitting with stock that doesn’t move as quickly as it did compared to last year, they’ll be even less incentivised to stock and sell Intel’s new products close to launch and my guess is that most will wait it out before they replenish their stocks. DDR4 memory is also dropping in price slowly but surely, though there’s little benefit to running it if you’re using 2133MHz modules. To make DDR4 make sense, you need to be running at 2400MHz or higher to see any performance or efficiency gains.

In addition, 2015 has now seen the shutdown of Prophecy as a retailer and Sybaritic enter liquidation. Kalahari and Takealot are merging into an Amazon-like Voltron. If you think the PC market is shrinking worldwide, down here in sunny South Africa that trend is intensified as the value of our currency drops. Things may get better towards 2h 2015, but about the only thing I’m expecting to drop in price are solid state drives. Almost everything else will see an upward trend.

Onwards to the builds!

R4000 Budget – Just The Basics

720p with Low-to-Medium settings and 2x AA
Processor Intel Celeron G1840 2.8GHz LGA1150 R542
Motherboard MSI H81M-P33 LGA1150 mATX R637
Memory Samsung Single-sided 4GB DDR3-1600 R499
Graphics MSI Geforce GT730 1GB GDDR5 R947
Power supply Thermaltake 350W bundled
Chassis Thermaltake V2S ATX R476
Optical drive LG GH24NS95 24x DVD-RW SATA R168
Hard drive WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R727
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R3996

Because this is a builder’s guide for gamers, I’ve changed around the budgets and taken out the R3000 build. It was cute but not really in the spirit of what we’re trying to do here. We start off with our new R4000 build, selecting a dual-core Intel Celeron G1840 processor, a run-of-the-mill MSI motherboard and a stick of Samsung magic RAM to serve as our platform. The reason why it’s called magic RAM is because these modules traditionally overclock very well, though we won’t be doing much of that here. At 1.35v, it also runs very cool, helping a bit in the efficiency area.

A newcomer to the GPU market, Nvidia’s GT730 is essentially the same as the GT640, but with GDDR5 memory to boost performance overall. Most GT640 cards were equipped with DDR3 memory and it wasn’t able to keep up with the Radeon R7 250s of yesteryear. The GT730 isn’t going to blow socks off, but it’s decently equipped with the tools it needs to run games decently. 1080p gaming is doable, but only if the games you’re indulging in are light on resources.

Finishing off the build, we pick out a Thermaltake case with a bundled PSU, a standard DVD-RW for installing our games and a 1TB Western Digital hard drive. Will this rig play GTA V? Of course, but with a few things turned down at 720p to hopefully keep average framerates above 30fps.

R6000 Budget – The Basics, With Gusto

720p with Ultra settings and 4x AA, 1080p with High settings and 2x AA
Processor Intel Core i3-4160 3.6GHz LGA1150 R1482
Motherboard MSI H81M-P33 LGA1150 mATX R637
Memory Samsung Single-sided 2x 4GB DDR3-1600 R998
Graphics PowerColor Radeon R7 260X OC 2GB GDDR5 R1649
Power supply Thermaltake 350W bundled
Chassis Thermaltake V2S ATX R476
Optical drive LG GH24NS95 24x DVD-RW SATA R168
Hard drive WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R727
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R6137

Moving up in the world, Intel takes our second spot in the guide with a Core i3-4160 processor, the MSI board from the previous build and 8GB of Samsung RAM. 8GB is fast becoming the minimum recommendation for running games these days and overall, a system with 8GB RAM performs better than one with 4GB thanks to applications taking on more bloat and Chrome continuing to hog system memory.

Graphics sees a huge boost to the PowerColor Radeon R7 260X. This is about a five-fold increase over the GT730’s capabilities and it only needs a single 6-pin PCI PEG power connector. If the bundled Thermaltake PSU doesn’t have one, an adapter will suffice as this card draws very little power on its own. Nvidia’s Geforce GTX750 Ti would be a good alternative to this, but in many cases the cheaper cards only have 1GB of VRAM, limiting their performance somewhat with games at 1080p. If you’re able to score a Radeon R7 265 instead at the same price, that’s even better.

The primary reason why AMD doesn’t have an alternative build here is mostly budget constraints. Socket FM2+ APUs have seen big hikes in prices since the middle of 2014 and the motherboard selection, while good, doesn’t dip low enough to make it fit into the budget here. Given the unusual price hikes for AMD’s products specifically, that forces the AM1 platform into the same space as FM2+, which it shouldn’t be.

R8000 Budget – The Budget Sweet-spot

1080p with High-to-Ultra settings and 4x AA
Processor Intel Core i3-4160 3.6GHz LGA1150 R1482
Motherboard ASUS H97M-E mATX R1355
Memory Samsung Single-sided 2x 4GB DDR3-1600 R998
Graphics PowerColor Radeon R9 270X 2GB GDDR5 R2399
Power supply Antec VP500-PC 500W R483
Chassis Coolermaster Silencio 352 Midi tower R600
Optical drive
Hard drive WD Blue 1TB 7200RPM R727
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R8044

Our R8000 budget keeps the platform mostly the same, but upgrades to better components. The MSI board is immediately replaced with ASUS’ H97M-E, one of the cheapest H97 motherboards with a M.2 socket for high-speed solid state storage. Because we’re not overclocking the CPU, no exotic cooling was required, keeping costs down overall. Once again, Samsung’s memory does its duty in this rig.

Because most performance improvements these days come from better graphics cards, we’ve sunk most of our virtual budget into a Radeon R9 270X. Performance compared to the R7 260X should be almost 40% higher depending on the game, which is enough to warrant the extra spend on it. As there is little benefit from moving to a Core i5 at this point apart from some CPU-limited games like Metro: Last Light, the rest of the budget went into a better-quality chassis and power supply, keeping the build looking good and quiet as well. Don’t be fooled by the Silencio brand here – it’s just as capable as any other mATX chassis in the high-end market.

If I had my way here, there’d also be a SSD in the build, but that’s not a realistic idea given the budget we have to work with. Most 256GB drives are currently sitting at around R1500, which would require eating up some of the budget for the GPU, chassis and hard drive. Perhaps closer to the end of 2015 this will become a general trend and things will be much cheaper.

R10,000 Budget – The Beginning of Mid-Range

1920 x 1080 with Ultra details and 4x AA, 2560 x 1440 with Medium details and 2x AA
Processor AMD Vishera FX-8350 4.0-4.2GHz Unlocked R2624
Motherboard MSI 970 Gaming socket AM3+ ATX R1432
Memory Kingston HyperX Fury Black 2x 4GB DDR3-1866 R1130
Graphics PowerColor Radeon R9 270X 2GB GDDR5 R2399
Power supply SeaSonic S12II 520w R689
Chassis Cooler Master Centurion 6 Silver R703
CPU Cooler Zalman CNPS10X Optima R333
Hard drive WD Caviar Blue 1TB 7200RPM R727
Solid state drive
Total (Rands): R10,037

Rounding off the builds for today, AMD sees its first inclusion in the high-end space in over a year. With prices for Intel’s chips and boards seeing steady, gradual hikes, it’s good to see a drop for the FX-8350, coming down from its old price of R3100. Coupled with that is the aforementioned MSI 970 Gaming, the most recent AMD board to come out and probably one of the few worth considering alongside ASUS’ 990FX Sabertooth. I’ve also swapped out to some higher-bandwidth Kingston memory, as the Piledriver processors do see performance boosts with faster memory.

The reason why there’s not much else of an improvement over the R8000 build is because I wanted to allieviate the CPU bottleneck, but not by just jumping up to the cheapest Core i5 processor that would still leave me with a locked multiplier. Though I don’t expect anyone to actually overclock the FX-8350, it does have the benefit of having twice the number of integer cores available for multi-tasking and multi-threaded workloads. If you’re one of those people who wants to leave a render running on two cores, dedicating another two to a video encode and using the remaining four for games, that’s a possibility with this chip, which is really AMD’s saving grace in the enthusiast market.

Because this is an eight-core chip, it needs to be kept cool and stock heatsinks are not going to cut it for temperatures or noise levels here. Zalman’s CNPS10X Optima isn’t the highest-end unit available, but it’s the best-performing one at its current price, filling in the gap left by Cooler Master’s original Hyper212. Plus, if you feel like overclocking the FX-8350 to 4.5GHz (easily achievable with most Visheras), it won’t melt into a pile of goop.

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 R12,000 to R18,000 segment. Adios!

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