Hello and welcome, gamers, to the bi-monthly System Builder’s guide, this time for the month of May 2015. This month, we have a bit of a theme in the mix – machines that will run Linux without too much hassle! This version of the guide took quite a bit longer than others to figure out and I spent several weeks following common issues that people were seeing with recent hardware. Unfortunately, with the focus being on machines that could run Linux pretty flawlessly, I’ve had to resort to not recommending AMD hardware for the time being. Elsewhere in the world the motherboard selection is far better and cheaper, and its just a fact of life these days that GCN-based Radeon graphics cards don’t play too well under Linux for now. Oh well. Follow me after the jump!
The penguins are sneaking into the base
Normally when I write these builds, the intro paragraphs are the last thing to be added. This month’s theme takes me on a different path to previous guides and my research prior to beginning on this slant took me all over the internet. Having any sort of consideration for an operating system that isn’t Windows skews things quite a bit, with more attention being paid to platform compatibility and how different hardware vendors approach supporting open-source initiatives. Five months into 2015, things are beginning to heat up in the OS wars. Windows 10 supposedly has a launch set for July. Apple’s OS X continues to integrate further and further into iOS this year. Google’s Chrome OS is getting app virtualisation for Android apps and Valve is stepping on everyone’s toes with SteamOS and being the first to integrate the Vulkan API into their Source 2 Engine.
More than ever, we can ill afford to ignore the impact of the open-source community in the framework of games and general computer use. These days, with applications and services becoming web apps, Windows’ dominance is no longer assured.
What are the primary concerns of building a Linux desktop for games specifically? Well, hardware support is one of them. As evidenced by my previous writings on Linux and using it as my default OS, AMD’s platforms and chipsets have a so-so history of working out of the box for Linux distributions. Because of their existing market dominance, Intel’s platform is better-supported by default, so things common to their chipsets like on-board USB 3.0 usually works without a hitch. Intel’s graphics processors are also natively supported in the Linux kernel, which means less problems for someone picking out hardware for a Linux rollout in a work or home environment.
Out of all the motherboard vendors on the market today that I’ve looked at, three of them offer some method of updating the BIOS without needing a Windows install on hand. They are ASUS, Gigabyte and MSI. MSI has the particular disctinction of also offering a Linux-compatible BIOS updater that can be executed from the desktop, while ASUS and Gigabyte allow you to download the update files in zipped format for pre-loading on a flash drive which you access in UEFI. To my knowledge, ASRock doesn’t do either of these things yet and neither does BioStar, Foxconn, EVGA, or any of the other motherboard vendors that fill up the rest of the market.
From a support perspective, I can understand why this is the case. You don’t want to have to be re-tooling your support staff to handle troubleshooting multiple operating systems. For business and corporate products the stance changes to one of necessity (see Dell’s XPS 13 Developer Edition notebooks and Lenovo’s extensive Linux support for their business machines), but at no point do I expect Gigabyte to support anyone trying to use the Multibeast tool to install OS X onto their purpose-built Hackintosh. There’s just no financial incentive or logic to doing it.
Going by the number of anecdotes, forum threads and polls I looked at over the course of the last month, most people choose either ASUS or Gigabyte on the Intel platform – which makes sense, because these are the two dominant manufacturers in the motherboard and graphics space. If Intel was still a player in the motherboard space, they would have been the top choice for a Linux desktop.
A second concern is driver performance, specifically for the graphics card. In the Linux ecosystem, both AMD and Nvidia have been doing a lot of work to ensure compatibility for their respective products, but AMD puts more work into their FirePro lineup than Radeon, which is one of the reasons why Radeon GPUs based on the GCN architecture still have shitty performance compared to their predecessors based on VLIW5 (part of the Terascale family). Nvidia, meanwhile, has had stable and responsive driver support in their closed-source Geforce drivers for over a decade now. Everything from Fermi to Kepler to Maxwell works as expected. This is one of the reasons why Valve partnered with Nvidia first for SteamOS testing and initial rollouts, while AMD was left on the sidelines to fix their software and work on performance improvements.
Its true that their Catalyst 14.10 Omega drivers improved things massively, and their recent inclusion of new drivers into the Linux kernel both brings performance up significantly and makes out-of-the-box functionality better, but its still nowhere near to where things should stand for consumers today. AMD can’t afford to not watch this space and make sure they’re ready for anyone making the switch to Linux, but their position in the market now leaves them in the dust anyway. Anyone thinking about using a Linux-based distribution for gaming reaches for Nvidia first, which is why those Steam Machines with AMD GPUs aren’t going to be tremendously popular for now.
How do we combat that? Its simple. Whenever you purchase new hardware for your system, send the vendor that made your product feedback and make sure to mention that you’re using Linux with it. If you have gripes with Linux on your hardware, voice those. OEMs and vendors do look into their support feedback to see what their customers are doing with their systems and what issues might be considered a problematic trend and being able to see growth in Linux use will persuade them to devote more resources to it. It won’t happen overnight, but certainly within a year they’d be able to use some of the data gathered to begin to see trends and patterns in Linux use.
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. When it comes to extremely low budget stuff, Intel still does just fine here, starting us off with the humble Celeron G1840 and a H81-based motherboard from MSI. I’ve worked with this particular board before and the UEFI menu does give you the option of flashing the BIOS via a USB drive, so that ticks our requirement for hardware support outside of the operating system. We can all breathe a sigh of relief this month because memory prices seem to have dropped somewhat for the moment, allowing us to nab a 4GB DDR3-1600 module with Patriot’s brand on it for a sane price.
With the GDDR5-equipped GT 730 out of the running for the second time this year, I’m forced to switch over to the DDR3 version, which means reduced bandwidth and lower overall performance. Because there are no more Radeon cards with the Terascale architecture available at this price point, we’re also pretty much stuck with this Maxwell variant of the GT 730. Still, 720p with medium settings is more than reasonable performance for the money and at least you’re not going to run out of VRAM while playing Evolve with your buddies.
Moving down the table, nothing changes from our last build in March, with the exception of the DVD rewriter. Thermaltake’s V2S is still our chosen housing for budget builds and the WD Blue 1TB drive is still great value for money. With time, maybe we’ll replace that with a SSD, but so far the prices are too high for the 256GB variants. With more and more AAA titles heading to Linux-compatible platforms this year, the issue of lack of storage space is rearing its head pretty quickly.
It is at this point that I’d like to point out something interesting. AMD’s AM1 platform offers up the cheapest socketed quad-core chip on the market, the Athlon 5350. If the price for this chip were to drop to, say, below R800, it would honestly be a compelling alternative to the G1840. Not only are you netting somewhere around 80% of the performance of the G1840 in the worst-case single-threaded scenarios, you’re also grabbing an extra two cores, something that’s going to come in handy for games based on the Vulkan API. Plus, the Kabini APU family is natively supported in the Linux kernel, so hardware compatibility shouldn’t be an issue in this case.
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, we’ve gone with Intel’s slightly refreshed Core i3-4170, as the 100MHz slower Core i3-4160 is out of stock at most retailers. We’re also sticking to MSI’s H81M-P33 motherboard, but we’re doubling up on the RAM count because 4GB just isn’t enough these days for any OS, even Linux. My only wish is that these prices stay low for the remainder of the year in order to push the prices of the other brands down as DDR4 production ramps up for Intel’s Skylake launch.
The graphics card gets a boost to the GTX 750, Nvidia’s answer to the Radeon R7 260X. The GTX 750’s achilles is the low amount of virtual memory, but this can’t really be helped given Nvidia’s rather off-hand affair with their cheaper GPUs, even though a 2GB variant with GDDR5 RAM would be very well received. Performance with this Maxwell-based card should be right around the GTX 650 Ti Boost and when overclocked, it pulls in a good performance for 1080p gaming. This EVGA variant has a PCI-Express 6-pin PEG connector, so there’s quite a bit of overclocking headroom left on the table.
The rest of the build doesn’t change – fitting, since Intel’s platform makes choosing expensive boards for their Core i3 processors a needless affair. The power draw of the Core i3-4170 isn’t high enough to stress out the three-phase power delivery as well, so we’re pretty safe here.
If AMD’s Athlon X4 860K was locally available, it would fall around the same price point as our chosen Intel processor. The 860K’s benefits are, of course, having four actual integer cores available and an unlocked multiplier, which opens up the possibility of performance gains once you start tweaking it. Motherboard choice with the FM2+ socket is also rather decent, so that would be a great alternative to the standard Core i3 and H81 combo that I always see in budget builds.
R8,000 budget – The budget sweet spot
1080p with High-to-Ultra settings and 4x MSAA, 2560 x 1440 with High details and 2x MSAA
The first of the sweet-spot builds, the R8k budget has a few nice things about it. The first is the motherboard upgrade to ASUS’ B85M-G, giving us four RAM slots, six SATA 6GB/s ports and support for USB 3.0 UASP devices, which basically means that external hard drive enclosures and USB flash drives that support UASP won’t bog down in write speed when sending large files to them, or reading large volumes such as backup files during a system restore. RAM stays at 8GB, as it should be for any gaming rig.
The opportunity to score with older Kepler graphics cards rears its head one last time with the GTX 760 2GB. This card just about matches performance of the defunct GTX 660Ti, with a 256-bit memory bus to give it the legs to stretch out at 2560 x 1440. The GTX 760 is also still recent enough to support all of Nvidia’s hardware initiatives, like G-Sync support and support for the GRID streaming service, where you can stream your games to any GRID-compatible device in your home or within your network. Gigabyte’s variant comes with the Windforce 3X cooler, keeping things quiet even when you’re pummeling it with taxing titles like The Witcher 3 or Project Cars. The GTX 760 is also powerful enough that enabling Physx in games won’t be an issue.
Because we’ve taken such a leap with the graphics performance, we had to improve the power delivery and the Super Flower Golden Green HX450W serves that purpose fairly well. With 80+ Gold efficiency, there’s not much more you could ask for at this price point and the entire system is still well under a 300W total power draw from the wall. Few other PSUs from Seasonic or Corsair can match Super Flower’s quality or warranty at the same price point.
Our chassis changes as well to the Cougar Archon. It might not appeal to everyone’s tastes with the orange interior, but it has several things that I wanted out of a budget chassis, namely space for 2.5-inch SSDs and removable fan filters for the front and bottom of the case. Its not premium by any stretch of the imagination, but it works pretty well and delivers good value for money. That’s fine by me, since we haven’t pushed too far over the budget this time around.
R10,000 budget – The beginning of mid-range
1920 x 1080 with Ultra details and 4x MSAA, 2560 x 1440 with Medium details and 2x MSAA
Finally, we end off today’s builds with something that looks like a mid-range build, but falls just shy of actually being one. Price increases across Intel’s Core i5 range have put it largely out of reach for our R8,000 budget, which is why I sunk more money into the graphics card. Here, though, we’re able to jump up to the Core i5-4460, giving us four cores and the ability to turbo up to 3.4GHz. Its not much, but that’s all we have to work with right now. There are cheaper Core i3 processor floating about with clock speeds of 3.8GHz, but I didn’t want a hyper-threaded dual-core in here at all.
Platform-wise, our motherboard and memory changes to the ASUS H97M-E and Kingston’s Hyper-X Fury Black DDR3-1866 memory, both returning favourites of mine. The H97M-E gives us extra USB 3.0 ports on the rear I/O panel and an open M.2 slot compatible with AHCI and NVME SSDs, giving us plenty of upgrade options in the future to meet changing storage needs. The Hyper-X RAM upgrade benefits our jump to a Core i5, but you’ll need to set the frequency to 1866MHz manually in the BIOS, as the CPU doesn’t support frequencies above 1600MHz natively.
Graphics-wise, we take another jump up to the GTX 960. The Maxwell architecture gives us a significant performance boost over the GTX 760 and if your clock speeds are high enough, the GTX 960 will encroach on the GTX 680’s old turf – impressive for a card that only needs a single PCI-Express power connector! Additionally, we’re also getting The Witcher 3 for free, which is nice. Nvidia’s approach with Maxwell has also been to try to do more with less while using less power, so we’re benefiting here from Nvidia’s colour compression as well as more finely tuned power gating inside the GPU core. This version with the EXOC cooler from Galax will also turn the fans off when the temperature drops below 65° Celsius.
Finishing up with the chassis, I searched far and wide for a replacement to the Cooler Master Centurion 6, only to come up empty-handed. There’s just nothing out there that is really the same or better. So I instead settled on the Fractal Design Core 2300. Its a bit weird at first, but the design makes sense – you can fit in a graphics card of almost any length whilst preserving space for up to six storage drives, with space left open in the front of the chassis for a 240mm radiator. The overall look is also understated and more mature, not at all gaudy with disco lights all over the place.
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!