Hello and welcome, everyone, to this month’s System Builder’s Guide, the first for the new year! In today’s episode, we’re at the budget end of the guide that deals with rigs that most of our readers could actually afford. Times have been tough for the computer market with the overall trend for buying pre-built systems decreasing year-on-year, but thankfully this hasn’t really affected the enthusiast market, and component manufacturers like Gigabyte and ASUS are doing more business this year than they’ve ever done before. For the stronger brands, things are really looking good and there’s an energetic air about the tech industry this year. Unfortunately for emerging markets like South Africa, though, it’s not going so well with week 2 of 2016 halfway over.
What goes down seems to only continue to go down
I think it’s fair to say that 2016 will be a depressing year for everyone. Thanks to our tanking currency, things are just more expensive right off the bat. In the past month of turmoil, we’ve lost almost R1.50 to the U.S. dollar, raising the prices of almost every PC component by at least 10%. That increase, as you can imagine, pushes up things a heck of a lot, to the point where a friggin’ Intel Core i7-6700K costs almost R7,000 alone. I can tell you now that it’s not going to fit into the R20,000 budget, because the accompanying motherboard, GPU, power supply, chassis, and SSD have all seen increases in price. In this guide alone, I dropped the R8,000 build because there’s just no point trying to fit into that price point – all you land up with is the same overall idea as the R10,000 build, and you might as well spend the extra money for the increased quality and performance.
If you’re not completely set on buying your hardware at retail, though, there are other avenues to purchase it from. One reseller on Carbonite, for example, regularly sells off dozens of brand new, but second-hand processors for dirt-cheap prices, with a personal warranty attached. Sometimes complete platforms, only a month old, get sold off there as well. In times of hardship like the rand losing value fast, these second-hand classifieds sellers offer up an enticing way to build up your system for less money.
Overall, though, it’s hard to get excited about the latest technology when we know the Rand’s decline is almost certain, as has been the case for a few years now. The situation even affects the decent amounts of AMD motherboards that retailers had in the past – now we have next to nothing, because AMD’s weaker brand power means that most consumers just go to Intel by default, allowing distributors to only stock what’s really going to sell. Entire systems like OEM desktops, gaming laptops, and even Chromebooks will all be subject to price increases over the next few months, and there’s no sign of things improving in the short-term.
For now I think, the best advice is to save up as much as you can, and buy the best CPU platform that you can afford. If you sink more of the budget into a stronger CPU that tends to be a good idea, because most of the performance increases now come from GPU upgrades, and most Haswell Core i5 processors will still be plenty powerful to drive an Oculus Rift, for example. You can keep the platform and just upgrade the GPU or the storage.
For the basic budget build, quite a few changes and compromises were made to get close to the budget. I decided to stick to AMD’s Athlon 5350 quad-core, if only to ensure that it’ll launch any game you buy just fine, along with a single stick of RAM and a mini-ITX motherboard, which was selected purely because of budget constraints. With AMD replacing all of their sockets in 2016 with socket AM4, there will sadly be no upgrade path for this system, but it’s still a good deal more capable than Intel’s quad-core Braswell processors which are soldered in to the motherboards they come with.
The usual GeForce GT 730 1GB GDDR5 graphics card is out of stock again, leading me to go back to my other first choice, the GDDR5-equipped Radeon R7 240. The VRAM plays a crucial part in making games run well, because the lack of bandwidth on DDR3-equipped GPUs is just not enough for higher framerates in most games. Luckily the R7 240 is also a power-sipper, and doesn’t need much of anything on the power supply side to run properly.
With the omission of the DVD drive, I have some wiggle room to fit in a 1TB drive, but this time it is Toshiba’s 7200RPM spinner, not the usual WD Blue. While the price for both drives has gone up in the last two weeks, this is still a decent drive, and 1TB of storage is more than enough for most people. The chassis changes from Gigabyte’s M5 to the old Thermaltake V2S, which comes with a somewhat decent 350W power supply. It’s not Corsair-levels of quality, but it’ll do for now.
R7,000 Budget – The basics, with gusto
720p with High settings and 2x MSAA, 1080p with Medium settings and 2x MSAA
Our R6,000 budget moves up to R7,000 to accommodate price hikes and fit in with our changing economic climate. Even though things seem dire elsewhere, R7,000 is affordable for many people, and we get a lot of bang-for-buck performance out of this machine. The CPU switches to Intel’s Core i3-4170, which is driven by the budget-minded ASUS H81M-K, and two 4GB Patriot memory modules, which is a large leap in performance over the AMD AM1 platform. I could have gone with Skylake on this particular build, but that would have required making compromises on the memory and GPU, something I’m not prepared to do at all. Skylake-compatible budget motherboards are also in short supply, and only the MSI H110M PRO-VD seems to be available in a few retailers for just shy of R1,200.
The graphics card gets a big jump in performance, switching up to the Radeon R7 370 with 2GB of VRAM. With some overclocking, this card is able to best the GeForce GTX 750 Ti, though it’s price is rather high for the performance on offer. It’s not the perfect 1080p card, but it’ll run most games pretty well so long as you drop to medium settings. NVIDIA has no real contender at this price point, so it remains off the table for now.
Because of the power requirements of the system with the GPU included, accounting for a bit of overclocking on the GPU, I decided that moving up to Thermaltake’s V2 with a 450W PSU was needed to extend the headroom a bit. It’s not that good-looking, but it’ll do. Once again, I’ve swapped out the WD Blue for Toshiba’s 1TB drive, saving a few bucks on the budget.
With the final build of the day, we’ve come up to a system that’s at the bottom of the mid-range market, and the new sweet-spot for budget buyers. I’ve moved things up to Intel’s Skylake family, with the Core i3-6100 providing the muscle, and Gigabyte’s B150M-D3H providing the platform. It has four DIMM slots, which is nice, as well as a PCI-Express M.2 connector which is also NVMe-capable and SATA Express ticking the box for another feature. As far as budget boards go, I think this is one of the better ones I’ve come across in recent years, and Intel’s Skylake definitely seems to have lifted the standard quite a bit. A single stick of Corsair’s Vengeance LPX memory completes the platform.
For the GPU, I’ve selected the GeForce GTX 950, which is probably the most capable 1080p GPU that you can buy for very little money. With a little bit of overclocking, this card manages to catch up to a GeForce GTX 960, which costs considerably more. Because it’s only a 1080p card, I’ve taken out the suggested settings for running games at 2560 x 1440 resolution, as the 128-bit memory bus of this GPU isn’t really adequate for that kind of load, in addition to the 2GB VRAM being too small for many modern games.
The power supply jumps up to Cooler Master’s Vanguard-S 450W, which looks and performs much better than the ones in the budget Thermaltake chassis. Everything is housed inside Bitfenix’s new Nova chassis, which has good airflow and an efficient design, as well as basic cable management options. Having space for two front intake 120mm fans is welcome, though there’s no dust filter for that.
That’s all that we have time for this week folks! Tune in next week for the mid-range builds, which also have several big changes in store price-wise. Will the Rand stay at the same rate? Will the prices hold out long enough for you to purchase something? Find out next time on Drago-uh, I mean the NAG System Builder’s guide.