Hello and welcome, gamers, to the bi-monthly System Builder’s guide, this time for the month of March 2015. We’re looking at the budget market today, where tight budgets and limited hardware selection makes us all hum and haw over minute differences between motherboards, processors and chassis. Today, I hope to solve a lot of that angst for you with my templates for builds at various price ranges between R4000 and R10,000, but keep in mind that when it comes to computers, you honestly do get what you pay for – spend more money, and more performance is suddenly on tap. Luckily, we can stretch things a bit here and there where it makes sense, and you’ll see a lot of that today. Follow me after the jump!
Of Linux, SteamOS and Windows 10
We’re only three months in to 2015, but things have been turned upside-down so many times in the past two weeks that I’m not sure where to begin. Not only has Valve been championing SteamOS and gaming on Linux this past week, we’ve also seen the rise of Khronos Group’s new API in the news, codenamed Vulkan. That’s going to turn the API situation into a really messy one, because suddenly we have three low-level APIs all competing against each other and there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on which one we can expect to win the war. All through the various editions of the SBG, I’ve mentioned numerous times that the so-called “Windows tax”, which is the license fee for the most basic, 64-bit edition of Windows that can be considered acceptable for gaming use, needs to be considered outside of the equation, but is still a necessary component of getting your desktop functional, especially if you’re not keen to switch to Linux just yet. There’s been no news about how much Windows 10 will cost and Microsoft itself has announced that there won’t be a “Home” or “Professional” version of Windows 10, so that further complicates things.
Does this mean that we don’t have to worry about including the price of software inside any of the builds below? No, because even though Linux gaming has moved forward, commercially-developed software still maintains an advantage over open-source software in terms of feature sets and product support. I think its awesome that we now have the option to not use Windows for gaming purposes at all, but there will still be a huge number of gamers who feel more comfortable with it than other competing desktop operating systems. Additionally, two of the biggest publishers still don’t have Linux support for their gaming clients, namely Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. As soon as those fall into place, as well as the Galaxy client from Good Old Games, then things will really get going.
Hardware-wise, I don’t think it’ll come as any surprise to anyone to tell you that price hikes have changed the builds set out below. Yay. Hurrah. What Fun. I won’t dwell on that too much, though, because that’s just how things are right now. On to the builds!
Kicking off the builds for this month, we start with the humble one, the lowest-end build that is still suitable for most gaming needs at this price range. We stick to Intel’s Celeron G1840, the stock Intel heatsink, MSI’s budget-minded H81M-P33 and a single stick of DDR3 memory. Although these Samsung 1.35v modules can be overclocked to around 2133MHz, perhaps more, that won’t be much of a help in this build, though it will improve overall power efficiency.
Moving to graphics, we’re still sticking with the Kepler-based Geforce GT 730 with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. Although it is true that for the price of the Intel processor and the GT 730 one could supplant both with a AMD A8-7600, but the graphics performance would be reliant on overclocking the RAM and getting another module for running things in dual-channel mode. Even with the A8-6600K allowing for CPU overclocking, there just isn’t enough room in the budget to make an APU build work optimally. With AMD’s Radeon HD7730 out of the picture, the Geforce GT 730 is left to rule the budget market alone. If you do get one of these, make sure the core clocks are above 900MHz and that effective memory speed is 5.0GHz. The GT 730 also had a Fermi-based model before being updated to Kepler, so some people would have been caught unawares without looking carefully at the promised clock speeds.
There’s a new chassis and power supply here from Antec, as the Thermaltake V2S saw a hefty price increase and isn’t as nice on the inside as the VSK-3000. Keep in mind that the chassis only supports two 3.5-inch drives for better airflow and allowing for longer GPUs to be mounted inside, so you may have to buy extra drive mountings to use the 5.25-inch drive bays for more storage. Our DVD rewriter and hard drive are the same from January’s build, with a slight increase on the WD Blue. All in all, our build is only slightly above budget, but still manageable for most people at this price point.
R6,000 Budget – The basics, with gusto
720p with Ultra settings and 2x MSAA, 1080p with High settings and 2x MSAA
Moving up to the R6000 budget, the extra breathing room really opens things up for us. Keeping the same MSI board from before allows us to put the extra funds into a Core i3-4160 processor and another 4GB of Samsung DDR3-1600 memory. With more games now standardising on multi-threading with more than three cores and requiring 4GB at a minimum, these two upgrades will allow us to launch and run every game currently available on the market without worrying about performance too much.
The graphics card is arguably a downgrade from the January build. Price increases on the Radeon R7 260X 2GB moved it out of our window of consideration for now, allowing the Geforce GTX 750 1GB to squeeze in instead. It is a Maxwell card, so it is fully DirectX 12 compliant, supports Nvidia-specific technologies like G-Sync and Shadowplay and it’ll run very quietly as well, thanks to super-low power consumption. Overclocked, it can match the stock performance of a GTX 750 Ti, so there’s plenty of performance left on the table for those of you comfortable with tweaking things a bit. Just keep in mind that it does only have a 128-bit memory bus, so don’t go piling on 4X MSAA and expect things to run nicely. 2X MSAA may be a better fit for the 1GB frame buffer and FXAA or SMAA would yield higher performance for the same memory consumption.
The rest of the build doesn’t change at all because our power requirements haven’t moved up high enough to warrant swapping out for a bigger chassis or power supply. The great thing about Nvidia and Intel’s efficiency drives is that even a Geforce GTX 960 would be perfectly happy with that 350W PSU, and your power consumption under load would still be below 200W. That kind of efficiency is really awesome.
The first of the sweet-spot builds takes the form of an all-AMD arrangement, the second time this year I’ve finally been able to include the red team back into the guide. Price drops on the FX-6300 brings down the six-core chip to just higher than the Core i3-4160, but it brings along the benefits of having an extra two threads. That can be used for running more background processes, handling your streaming programs, or aiding in video and photo editing for when you need to get some work done. It remains a very capable chip, one of the best options out of AMD’s CPU offerings.
After reviewing some feedback I received from readers, I decided that ditching both the Core i3-4160 and the ASUS H97M-E was perfectly fine for this budget. Many people aren’t yet interested in running a M.2 SSD as their main system drive and most will simply opt for SATA-based drives instead. So, the move to the 970 Gaming is mostly without issue. There is front-panel USB 3.0 support, Realtek ALC1150 sound with an amp for improving headphone sound on the front panel audio jacks. There’s even support for Crossfire and SLI, which is rare in budget boards.
Graphics gets a major boost from the PowerColor Radeon R9 270X, a returning favourite of mine that has way more bang-for-buck than other Geforce or even Radeon cards in the same price range. The only drawback to using the Pitcairn-based GPU is that it misses quite a few new technologies that have dominated the headlines in the PC industry recently – FreeSync, Colour compression, power efficiency, DirectX 12 support – those are all things that the R9 270X won’t be supporting in full. Considering that the only competition from Nvidia is the Geforce GTX 750 Ti, though, I’ll gladly trade support for those technologies in return for much higher performance.
The power supply switches to a Super Flower 450W unit with Gold efficiency. These PSUs are quite a bit better built than the rivaling Seasonic S12II 520W and come with a five-year warranty, though it is only available through Wootware. They’re also pretty quiet thanks to the use of double-ball-bearing fans, so that’s pretty cool. Our chassis changes as well to Cougar’s MX300, a new entrant into the budget market. Inside it’s very similar to the Cooler Master CM690 III, only it has been squished down and won’t allow you to change the 2.5-inch bays into 3.5-inch sized bays to allow you to put more hard drives in there. We are also over budget here, but unfortunately that’s not something we can change without changing hardware that may impact performance negatively. It sucks, but that’s how the cookie has crumbled.
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
We end off today’s builds with something that looks like a mid-range build, but falls just shy of actually being one. AMD’s FX-6300 replaces the FX-8350 that used to be here, because that chip has seen a price hike in the last two months. Currency! Who gets it? Keeping the six-core cool is Zalman’s CNPS10X Optima, another returning favourite of mine. Though we keep the same MSI 970 Gaming motherboard, we can now use the better cooling on hand to overclock the chip a bit. I don’t think 4.0GHz on all six cores will be too hot to handle for this setup. The RAM on hand changes to Kingston’s Red Hyper-X Fury, but that’s more to do with adding in a dash of colour and possibly getting it to run at 2133MHz.
Graphics-wise, we make a departure from the Radeon R9 270X to the Geforce GTX 960. The Maxwell-based card may only have a 128-bit memory bus and yes, it only has 2GB of RAM, but that’s quite enough for the resolutions we are targeting here. The performance on tap is a little higher than the older Radeon HD7950 and it even bests the GTX 760, which is quite an achievement. There are several drawbacks, however, to doing this. If you want to put two of these cards in SLI, you’ll be stuck at the 2GB VRAM limit for quite some time, at least until the Windows 10 launch and when DirectX 12 games that allow for VRAM pooling become available. The 4GB models are much more expensive and if you’re planning to buy two of these cards, you might as well buy a GTX 970 anyway.
While storage doesn’t see any changes, I did move up to a 500W version of Super Flower’s Golden Green PSU, even though it is way more than this build will ever need. The chassis also moves to Cooler Master’s Centurion 6, another recurring favourite of the guide. I’m not sure when Cooler Master will switch out this design for a new one, but I do hope that it carries more USB 3.0 ports on the front. Unfortunately, we can’t stick a SSD in here just yet, but I’m still hopeful that my prediction of a massive price war starting after Computex 2015. Perhaps by then, we could see a 256GB drive in here instead.
That’s all that we have time for this week folks! Tune in this time next week for the high-end builds. Catch you next time, BYEEEEEEE!