Hello, boys and girls, welcome to the last episode of the System Builders Guide for May 2015. Here we’re going into the high-end builds, where we’re still trying to make sensible financial decisions while at the same time allowing things to get a little crazy. This is the last day that I’m doing the whole Linux thing for this month, for our next update the focus will be back to the hardware itself and not operating system compatibility. In the future, gaming on Linux may make big enough dents for me to consider it in the same way that I do now for Windows, but we’re not yet at the point where I would be able to recommend a particular build that would work out of the box no matter what OS you plan to be running on it. Onwards!
Kicking off the month-end guide, we stop at the R20,000 mark. Historically, this segment has been the most volatile. I’ve had almost everything under the sun fit into this budget and its been the one most altered by price increases over the last few years. Issues like rising memory prices, waning public availability of Xeon CPUs locally, as well as fluctuating SSD prices make it one of the more unstable build lists I’ve had to keep up. About two years ago, a Core i7-K processor, 16GB of RAM and a high-end single GPU would fit in here. Today, not so much.
Prioritising the budget with the realities of being limited in hardware selection made me once again consider Intel’s Xeon processors, the chips traditionally used in servers. Here we have the Xeon E3-1231 V3, which is basically a Core i7-4770 with a little less clock speed, disabled on-board graphics and a lower price than the Core i7-4790K that would normally work its way into here. I chose to pair it to ASUS’ Z97-Pro Gamer motherboard. Its like a ROG, only cheaper and a little less slick, but we’re still getting a lot of hardware improvements over MSI’s Z97S Krait, which we had in cheaper builds. I’m also still sticking to the Corsair H75 Hydro, but I don’t know for how much longer these coolers are going to be on the market.
Between this week and the last, Takealot’s Gigabyte Geforce GTX 970 shot up in price, forcing me to move to Raru which was offering it for cheaper. Overall performance from the previous R18k build shouldn’t change too much, though consider that we don’t really have any better options in the GPU market right now. We still have the same amount of system RAM and the same power supply, but our chassis and storage setup does change a bit, moving to the totally sick NZXT S430 chassis and a 2TB drive from Western Digital for secondary storage.
On the subject of the SSD choice, I’ve been looking around for Crucial’s BX100 drives and they’re very scarce locally. They were only sold for about a week on Wootware a couple of months ago and since then, I haven’t seen them locally. GTX Gaming, a small online store, seems to be the only place where the 500GB model is in stock at a good price. I haven’t heard anything bad about them yet, nor have they obtained a bad reputation on the Carbonite forums, so I think this is a safe bet. This is part of the wave of SSDs that are participating in this year’s price war, thanks to Silicon Motion’s cheap-yet-reliable controller that is quickly becoming the market replacement for Sandforce.
Fun fact: the R25,000 budget option has almost always featured a dual GPU solution. At this price point, where roughly R9,000 to R11,000 was available for the graphics budget, it made sense to run two GPUs from the second-highest tier of whomever was ruling the benchmarks at that particular point in time. Two months ago, I had two Radeon R9 290 cards in Crossfire, but this time I only have a single GTX 980. Am I mad, possibly?
No, not really. Since 2007, when Nvidia first got SLI working on Linux operating systems, it has been broken and bug-filled beyond comparison. The only games that work out of the box for SLI systems are all powered by the id Tech 4 engine. Other engines just simply do not like running SLI or Crossfire under Linux (precisely the reason why there isn’t yet a Steam machine with dual GPUs). It gets worse when you come to how the game is rendered – using alternate frame rendering works, but doesn’t scale well. Split-frame rendering works better, but results in your cards not going as fast as they really can. The reality is that Linux just isn’t the best platform for multi-GPU gaming and that will remain in the domain of Windows operating systems until Nvidia, AMD, game developers and Khronos Group all collectively pull up their socks and fix it.
Back to the build, though, its decidely high-end and looking pretty good. We have a water-cooled Core i7-4790K mated to ASUS’ new Z97-Pro Gamer motherboard. Thanks to the higher budget, moving to 16GB of RAM is possible, and more system memory is always welcome. Our graphics card also changes to the Geforce GTX 980, Nvidia’s best-performing single-GPU card for consumer to date (no, the Titan X doesn’t count for me). It runs free of the odd memory pool issues of the GTX 970 and has a lot of headroom left for overclocking and tweaking. Is it worth the money, being almost twice as expensive as a GTX 970? No, its not, but it is the better performing card at the UltraHD 4K level, so there’s that. Unfortunately, its not enough to recommend putting everything at Ultra, so I’ve lowered the recommended setting down to High instead.
Our power supply doesn’t change, but our chassis does get bumped up to the NZXT Phantom 530, one of the cheapest full-tower cases available locally. Is it necessary to have a full-tower chassis? Nope, not in the slightest, but it does look so gorgeous that you’d want to spend all day gazing at it. The extra room also opens up options for custom water cooling loops in the future as well as putting in extra GPUs, hard drives and more fans. Storage-wise, only our storage drive changes, moving from a 2TB hard drive to a 4TB model from Western Digital’s WD brand.
We end off this week’s guide with Intel’s X99 platform. Its currently the best value-for-money if you’re after more cores and more threads, as AMD’s processor offerings are stuck at eight cores and the regular Intel consumer desktop lineup ends with a quad-core, hyper-threaded processor. The Core i7-5820K offers six cores and twelve threads as well as an unlocked multiplier for overclocking. I’ve chosen to pair it with ASUS’ bargain X99-A motherboard, which still has all the bells and whistles, in addition to 16GB of G.Skill memory, a set of 4GB modules running at 2666MHz out of the box. The Haswell-E platform runs best on quad-channel memory, and this will help us get the most out of the system.
The next few items on the table are leeched from the R25k build, as there’s no real reason to really spend more than this for now. The next step up for graphics cards from the GTX 980 is the GTX Titan X, but local retailers have it priced at around R15,000, way out of budget for this price point. In the next few months we’ll see the arrival of the GTX 980 Ti, which should bring prices more in line with current expectations. As mentioned before, SLI is not an option, so we have to look elsewhere to spend our money.
Ending off the build for today is Samsung’s 850 Evo SSD. It is only slightly slower than the 850 Pro in some respects, but faster than it in many others. The 850 Pro family fares better in workloads that include large amounts of sustained writes and reads, and performs better for server workloads than the 850 Evo (not that this has a bearing on gaming for now). It is one of Samsung’s best drives to date, and will only become faster once it transfers to the M.2 or SATA Express connectors and makes use of the NVME protocol instead of the SATA-based AHCI.
That’s all for this week folks! Its been a rather more frustrating guide to build up, but that’s the reality of where things stand with Linux gaming today – your hardware choice, especially if you want things working mostly out of the box, remains limited, and support for Linux on anything that isn’t based on Intel or Nvidia’s hardware is less than stellar. If you were a Linux gamer looking for a build guide for ideas, I hope this has helped you! If you’re otherwise a Windows user, tune in for the July version of this guide, where things return to normal. Until next time!