Welcome, NAGlings, to the System Builder’s Guide. With 2017 right around the corner, it’s probably time to start thinking about those Christmas wish lists with computer components on them. This month the guide doesn’t change anything too much, but we do get to include AMD’s new graphics card, the Radeon RX 470, into the R10,000 budget, and I muse a bit about the future in the November Update. Hit the jump for more.
This is one of those times during the year when I can recommend builds to anyone, but I caution them to wait if they are able to. We’re about two months out of a launch from the CPU giants – Intel and AMD – and that comes with a new generation of motherboards, processors, better connectivity, and improved DDR4 support. Intel’s Kaby Lake desktop parts bring a new chipset, better boost overclocking thanks to revised thermals, and a slight increase in performance from hardware improvements, up to an expected 5% compared to Skylake. The extra 5% performance improvements over that come from Intel binning the chips to ship with higher clock speeds, which means that if you’re on a K-series Skylake chip, there’s not much for you in this update. If you were only interested in making a system with as much SSD storage as possible, then maybe it makes some sense.
However, if you’re on a Skylake-based platform today, don’t upgrade. There’s not much in it for you, and you’d be wasting money. If you’re on any of the older Core families like Haswell, Sandy Bridge, or even Nehalem, then I’d recommend an upgrade to Kaby Lake next year in a heartbeat. The only caveat to this is that you really should be running a Linux distribution with a kernel newer than version 4.6, or Microsoft’s Windows 10 operating system. Windows 7 and 8.1 won’t see much support for the new hardware from here on out.
In the AMD camp, the company is getting ready to launch it’s new CPU family codenamed “Zen”, otherwise known as Summit Ridge, as well as it’s new-ish APU family, Bristol Ridge. Both will ship with the new AM4 CPU socket, which means that we’re back to the way things used to be – a unified socket for the budget processors as well as the mammoth multi-core chips. So much of this new family remains unknown even after AMD has told us about it many times over the past year. Zen is a scratch build design, but Bristol Ridge is the old Bulldozer architecture rearing its head for the last time, and so you have to ask how efficient the new chips will really be. The price of these chips will also be a deciding factor in their adoption. AMD can choose to either undercut Intel and try gain market share rapidly with this launch, or they could play the long game and price things equally, hoping that enough enthusiasts buy them to keep the company afloat while their bank balance begins to swell again.
Along with that, the long-term sustainability of the platform becomes a talking point because of the unified socket – we might enter another era for AMD where they have a technical advantage, but their motherboard partners put less effort into the products because they won’t be replaced as often as Intel’s. Forget for a moment that they’re a lot cheaper to make now because the chipset is gone, the boards simply act as extenders now. All the logic is on the CPU/APU packaging, and if you just upgrade the CPU/APU over time, the system itself evolves with it (barring some things set in place, like the speed of the LAN port and SATA connections, or audio outputs). I think it’s going to be a long road to repair for AMD, and they’re going to need to offer more than just “we’re not Intel and we’re cheaper” to make consumers buy their brand again.
There are also other things afoot that have far-reaching consequences. For example, have you ever seen a consumer-bound eATX motherboard made after 2012 in person? Most of you haven’t, and those of you who have can count them on two hands. The market for large systems with lots of connectivity is dwindling because we’re pushing all of that on to technologies like USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt. And dongles, lots of dongles! It’s even affecting laptops. The new Macbook 2016 only has USB Type-C ports, and needs dongles for everything else. There are several other ultrabook-type devices that are also adopting this trend.
There’s just no point to building hugely expensive systems these days. Even triple and quad-GPU systems are rarer today, relegated to just purely pushing forward benchmark numbers and little else. Perhaps that will change again in the future, as people expect to be able to hook up two, four, or even six VR headsets to a single system for multiplayer, but for now the focus has been on less PCI Express extensibility and more on what else can be crammed into USB and Thunderbolt.
At the same time, we’re reaching a crossroads in storage technology, where SSDs using the NVMe protocol are rapidly outpacing the chipsets they’re connected to. Samsung this past year launched the first NVMe drive to push 3.5GB/s read speeds. For those of you paying attention, that’s twice as fast as the previous NVMe drive from 2015, and eight times as fast as Samsung’s quickest SATA-based drive from 2014. 2017 will see a SSD pushing past that to 7GB/s over a PCI Express 3.0 8x connection, and 2018 will probably see a drive that keeps pace with DDR3 memory speeds. We’re not iterating fast enough to keep up with the incredible pace of the SSD industry, and there will be a point at which progress will stagnate until a new generation of processors and motherboards arrives.
Alternatively, when we reach that point in or around 2020, my prediction is that we’re going to see the first experiments of using a PC that has no dedicated storage and no system RAM – someone is going to try build a system that uses something like Intel’s 3D X-point memory to replace both at the same time. You heard it here first, folks.
Our budget build for the month stays firmly in the AMD camp. The Athlon X4 845 continues to be the best quad-core chip for the money locally, retailing for less than R1,200 in most stores. Couple it with a decent motherboard and 4GB of RAM, and you have a complete platform for less than the price of one Intel Core i3-6300 processor. That’s what I’ve done here, but I really wish better socket FM2+ motherboards were available for this price point. Or, alternatively, it would have been better if Intel offered a cheap quad-core Pentium processor for the desktop market. But anyway, it’s decent, and that’s all that we have a budget for anyway. No overclocking will be going on in this build unfortunately.
Picking up the graphics duties once more is the Radeon R7 240 graphics card. This variant comes with 2GB of DDR3 memory, because the 1GB GDDR5 variants are super-rare this month. It’s still faster than the GeForce GT 730 by a few percentage points, and is capable of running games using the Vulkan renderer. Until we have new cards from the Radeon R-series family, or something from the GeForce 1000 series, we’re going to be left with picking up the scraps from older architectures. But, looking at the prescribed settings at the top of the table, I think that’s quite okay. No-one will be pushing this machine too hard.
The chassis stays the same, using Gigabyte’s M1 micro-ATX case with a bundled power supply. Again, it isn’t glamorous, but it does the job. The only thing it misses is a mounting rail for the SSD, because it has no 2.5-inch drive bays, although you can add this cheap adapter from Vantec to slip two drives into a single 3.5mm bay. Speaking of the SSD, ADATA’s SP550 120GB remains with us for now. Although one could find a 1TB drive for the same price from Western Digital and Seagate, at no point should you ever want to use a system with a hard drive in 2016 and beyond. Just… don’t do it.
Jumping up to R10,000, things look a lot better with double the budget. We now move up to the Intel Skylake-based Core i3-6100, a dual-core processor with hyper-threading that just makes it into my required core count. If it was a dual-core, there’d be a lot less games you could play with it, and four cores are now a hard requirement for many new games that launched in 2016. What prompted my switch was also the price – the Core i3-6100 is now only around R400 more expensive than AMD’s Athlon X4 880K, and the price increase is negligible considering the performance on tap. The motherboard is still quite barebones though – Gigabyte’s H110M-S2PH comes with the bare minimum of slots and ports, although the layout is quite good, with all the SATA connectors out of the way of the GPU, and including a USB Type-C port on the rear I/O. The RAM is quite nondescript, but Corsair’s DDR4-2133 memory is quite cheap.
Graphics duty is picked up here by the Radeon RX 470 Nitro+ from Sapphire. It’s around 25% faster than similarly-priced NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics cards, and it also has all the bells and whistles from the Polaris family. That includes things like full DirectX 12 support, support for the Vulkan renderer, FreeSync, a new version of TrueAudio, and better asynchronous compute capability. It’s also quite efficient, consuming less than 150W of power in gaming scenarios. That’s a bit much compared to the GTX 1050 Ti, though, which consumes half as much power, but there are ways to get that down with some tweaking in the Radeon Settings control panel. Also, take a look at that jump in the recommended settings – that’s quite a noticeable boost!
Powering this build is Corsair’s CX430 power supply. Good, cheap PSUs are hard to come by these days, and our currency’s performance means that paying R1,000 for an 80+ gold-rated 400W unit is going to be our reality for the forseeable future. This one is a bronze-rated unit, and is as basic as you’re ever going to get from a decent name brand. I’ve also switched up to the Bitfenix Comrade chassis, which has good airflow, a decent cable management system, and lots of room for expansion. It’s a bit big for the relatively tiny motherboard, but it’ll do just fine. People switch cases far less often than any other component.
Finally, the SSD is Samsung’s 250GB 750 EVO. It’s still a SATA-based drive, but it’ll do the job. Which is odd, when you look at the rest of the build – everything is “just fine”, or “it’ll do the job”. It’s a little crazy to think that R10,000 only buys you a computer that’s good enough, and not one that will have your socks blown off. I wonder where we went wrong on that one, and whether anything will end up fixing it? Perhaps 2017 has the answers we seek.
That’s all for this episode of the guide. Keep your eye out for the other builds coming later this month!