Hello ladies and gentlemen, gamers and geeks! Welcome to this month’s edition of the System Builder’s guide, coming to you one day early because things happened and I don’t want to be still writing this on Wednesday as I begin preparing the system I have for benchmarking for a long, long, series of torture tests with different graphics cards. Today’s edition of the guide starts and ends a bit differently and that’s all down to one consideration that I’m taking into account now: Can it play Far Cry 4? If that question perplexes you, read on to find out the reasons why. #4 is the best!
The more things change…
One of the trends I’ve been tracking is game performance on processors. Techspot has this fantastic assortment of game tests that they run for some AAA titles and occasionally indie games as they launch – the aim, as they say, is to evaluate the game’s performance on a number of different configurations to isolate what issues it may have for certain hardware configurations and what you need to get at least 1080p 60fps smoothness with decent detail levels. Over the last few years, there’s generally been parity between Intel processors and their gaming performance, and this especially true when you examine the results from the latest Intel Haswell processors.
At maximum detail settings, on 1080p, the Core i3-4360 comes within spitting distance of the Core i7-4770K, and this is not taking into account the clock speeds that the i7-4770K can boost to, or the fact that it generally has more threads to play with. Games today don’t seem to need any more CPU horsepower than they’re already able to use, but we’re beginning the ascent into requiring quad-core processors by default. Far Cry 4, Witcher 3, and Dragon Age: Inquisition all demonstrate that game developers are targeting systems with four cores or two cores and four threads exclusively – not just for the overall higher processing power they provide but also for the fact that having the same number of cores as most of the other high-end processors makes the job of task scheduling easier.
Additionally, the other issue is that even though I’ve recommended AMD’s FX processors before, I think that perhaps this should be the point where I no longer do that. The value for money is there, but this is a builder’s guide for people looking for a gaming rig, right? Well, look at that Core i3 scoring better in the minimum fps tests than a FX-9590, which is considerably more expensive and uses more than three times the power consumption to pull through that performance (and consider the fact that this kind of performance is seen in many, many modern games). That should tell you something.
In conclusion then, this is what’s going to happen – at the low-end, I’ll probably substitute in one of the quad-core Bay Trail processors from Intel or one of the Kabini socket AM1 processors from AMD, if they’re cheaper or better value for money. Both of those configurations will be enough horsepower to drive a suitably low-end discrete GPU from either AMD or Nvidia and it’ll be enough for playing games at 720p. Some titles might benefit from being played at 1080p instead to lighten the load on the CPU (as seen in PC Perspective’s brief tests with similar hardware), but the reality is that the results aren’t going to knock you off your feet – but then again, at least you’ll be able to launch the same games that require a quad-core CPU in the first place.
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. As I’ve said before, the builds starting off this month need to have quad-core CPUs. While the Celeron 1900 isn’t the best out of the Bay Trail platform, it boosts up to 2.45GHz and is completely passive, which are some decent tradeoffs for being stuck with a soldered-in chip. ASRock’s bundling of it with the Q1900M motherboard sets the tone for this build – as cheap as possible – and we complete the platform with a single stick of Patriot memory. Its super-cheap for 4GB of DDR3, which is about its only redeeming quality.
Offsetting the rather poor on-board graphics performance (as far as games are concerned), I’ve added in a Radeon R7 240, with this particular variant shipping with 1GB of GDDR5 memory! I cannot tell you, in words, how happy I am that I finally found a GPU at the low-end that comes with GDDR5. Honestly, anyone who really thinks that their 2GB DDR3-packing product is good needs to have a psych assessment. Even on a 128-bit bus, performance with DDR3 memory is rather dismal. In this configuration, the R7 240 delivers performance similar to the GDDR5 version of the Geforce GT 730 and the Radeon R7 250.
Housing everything is Thermaltake’s V2S, here for another tour of duty. With these low-end components inside, the power draw will barely crack 70W at full load, so this PSU is horribly inefficient at its job and very much overkill for what we’re doing here. Along with a mostly-OK DVD writer (who uses discs these days? Haha, joke’s on me because I’ve been installing games with one all week!), we also have the WD Blue 1TB hard drive. Seeing as 256GB SSDs are still not at sub-R1000 levels, we’ll have to stick with the old spinning platter technology for now. I know that a sub-R1K 250GB SSD is possible with today’s prices, we just need to see someone import them for that price direct from the manufacturer.
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, a few price fluctuations bring our total cost down to just R28 over budget, but that’s only because of specials currently being run by Rebel Tech on the Core i3-4160. If that wasn’t an option this week, we’d be stretching bast R200 over budget. The performance of this chip is generally quite strong, and it is joined by the ASUS H81M-K and two sticks of DDR3 memory for a total of 8GB. Even without a graphics card, that’s already a good setup for a basic productivity-orientated machine.
For graphics we stick with the Geforce GTX 750 from two months ago, now with a small price drop. Although there are definitely competing options from AMD, at the same price point the GTX 750 walks all over the Radeon R7 250X. We’d need to step up to the R7 260 to see performance parity and at most online outlets that ends up being the more expensive card, even with 2GB of VRAM onboard. The GTX 750 will do for now and it has easily enough chops for gaming at high settings at 1080p.
The rest of the build is lifted off from the R4000 setup. Its actually pretty ridiculous how even this setup doesn’t touch the limits of the bundled power supply. The only thing that may be an issue is the lack of 120mm fan vents at the back of the chassis – it only has space for two 80mm fans, and those are considerably noisier than their 120mm counterparts. Trapping heat in the case may be an issue unless you put a 120mm fan in the front for some extra airflow and move the hard drive up to allow the air to flow though more freely.
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 very nice flow to it that makes the build seem more balanced. Using the same Core i3-4160 I had in the table before, I’ve elected to bump up the motherboard to MSI’s H87M-G43 and stick to 8GB of RAM for now. We get some niceties out of this minor upgrade, namely front-panel USB 3.0 support, heatsinks for the VRAM, four memory slots and the ability to run two Radeon GPUs in Crossfire. While that’s not a possibility with the current power supply, it is one upgrade path that could be taken if you wished.
Graphics-wise, we’re taking a big step up to the Radeon R9 270 with 2GB of memory. This card is based on the Pitcairn/Curacao family from AMD and in its current form is rebranded as the Radeon R7 370. While it loses out to some of the additions that AMD has made over the years, like TrueAudio and FreeSync support, it is still a very strong player at 1080p and more than capable of running any game out today smoothly. Thanks to AMD’s evolving driver performance, we might still see them eke out more performance with DirectX 12, coming soon to a PC near you. Nvidia’s closest competitor is the GTX 750 Ti and, I suppose, the GTX 960, and you would do well to consider the latter even if it means paying an extra R500 or so.
The rest of the build takes quite a step up, aided by tossing out the DVD drive. We now have the Super Flower HX450W powering everything and although this is only a promotional price, it is a damn good one considering that almost no Seasonic-derived power supplies have Gold status with a 5-year warranty at this price point. While our storage stays the same, we do switch to the Raidmax Vortex 402 chassis. Its kind of scary on the outside, but inside it packs in enough cooling options and flexibility for most mid-range builds. Good internal design and airflow should really be what a chassis is all about.
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. In keeping with my opening statement about now considering how much CPU power we really need for these low-end builds, I decided to keep the Core i3-4160 here for just a bit longer. While the motherboard remains the same, I did switch to slightly more expensive Kingston memory, mostly because of the blue heatspreaders and the generally better compatibility with various motherboard vendors. Spending R10,000 on a machine with a Core i3 does sound ridiculous, yes, but we have more than enough CPU horsepower to keep our graphics card fed.
The real shocker, honestly, is that moving up to the Core i5-4460 doesn’t yield as much of a boost for games as we’re meant to think it does. The only upgrades from a Core i3 Haswell processor are to the Core i5-4590 or the Core i5-4690K. Nothing else really makes sense.
Our graphics card gets quite a boost to the GTX 960, again from Galax who is killing the prices of other vendors quite nicely, averaging in about R600 cheaper from the regular brands you’d be told to buy. While it definitely isn’t branded with a familiar name, the quality everywhere else is top-notch compared to the likes of ASUS, and there’s even a backplate included! Performance-wise, we’re looking at a 20% jump from the Radeon R7 370, which is very impressive for just R300-ish more.
I splurged a bit on the rest of the build because I can’t quite make the jump to the Radeon R9 380 without dropping the SSD I’ve now added in. For the first time in a while, I threw in a 120GB SSD to act as a boot drive. Its definitely not going to handle all of your games, but its enough for Windows, several of your most-used applications, and perhaps a game that you currently play more than others, like The Witcher 3, GTA V, or Battlefield 4. Secondary storage is handled by the WD Black 1TB, which comes with a five-year warranty. That’s where you keep your media, less-played games, and any applications or data you don’t need on the boot drive.
Finally, the chassis changes from the Raidmax Vortex to the Cooler Master N400. While I wasn’t all that impressed by the N300 or its bigger brother, the N500, the N400 picks a nice spot in the middle, offering a windowed side panel, front panel USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, enough expansion slots for hard drives and the like and, quite possibly, one of the few chassis that allows to fit in a 120mm radiator at the rear, a 240mm radiator at the top, a 240mm radiator on the side and another 240mm radiator at the front while also ducking under R800. That’s really impressive.
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!