Welcome, NAGlings, to this month’s System Builder’s Guide. We’re five months into 2017 and things have changed quite a bit since my last SBG in January 2017. AMD’s Ryzen platform is in full swing, Intel is encouraging overclockers to not tweak anything at all, and DDR4 prices are shooting up even as production increases and more people are buying RAM. There are even small changes in the flash memory market that are impacting SSD prices today, so things are getting a little tricky if you’re trying to find a right time to buy new hardware. The next two months present a window of opportunity because most companies are preparing their earnings calls, or presenting new stuff at Computex, and no-one really wants to rock the boat with pricing for now. The next quiet period is September to October, so plan accordingly if you don’t have a budget set aside right now.
Ryzen to the occasion
AMD’s Ryzen platform presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for AMD in that they have a chance to make a good, clean, first impression on the PC gaming market. There’s no “Phenom”, “FX”, or “Athlon” branding to be confused with here, but a totally different brand name with somewhat familiar numbering that echoes that of Intel’s products. The intention here is clear – provide alternatives to Intel’s products, but don’t offer exactly the same things so that customers are swayed to your side of the fence.
Intel’s problem at the moment is that Kaby Lake is pretty decent, but they have now had their hand forced for the first time in a decade. According to leaks on the internet and to sources I’ve spoken to, they’ve had to bring up the launch of their X299 platform, along with the Kaby Lake-X HEDT processors, a whole three months forward in order to have something to display at Computex 2017, when AMD is also expected to show off their Naples platform to consumers and interested business partners who might want to buy into a server platform that isn’t Xeon-based. Naples will have consumer parts as well using a different socket, which will compete with X299, and at the same time it’ll have a server-bound socket which competes with Intel’s Xeon processors based on the Broadwell-E architecture. It’s a blitzkrieg on all three fronts (consumer, professional, and server), and Intel can hardly keep up with the advances AMD is making in machine learning either, offering a Vega-based machine learning accelerator called Radeon Instinct.
AMD’s aggressive strategies are all coming into play now, and it will be interesting to see if they can keep up the pace. Intel is a massive company that cannot be as nimble as it used to be, and responding to Ryzen will require some drastic measures – but none of those have happened yet. Two months in to AMD’s launch, Intel still hasn’t budged on the pricing of their processors by much at all, and they’re not saying anything about their Coffee Lake and Cannon Lake successors either. They are, I think, a little unsure about how to respond. Dropping prices might show weakness to their investors, while bringing up product launches and making drastic changes to their roadmap, on top of the ones that have already taken place, might show that they never took their competition seriously. Doing nothing shows that they don’t perceive AMD as a threat, and not changing the price shows a level of stubbornness typical of tech companies who have the market almost sewn up for themselves.
Will it work? Probably not. Many consumers make their selections according to price, and if Ryzen offers similar pricing, but more performance, I reckon that the numbers will move to about a 60-40 split in terms of market share after three to five years. The bulk of this will be consumers that are buying according to price, and since AMD offers somewhat similar pricing, a lot of these purchases will be decided on coin flips. Savvy consumers who desire more cores and more performance will tend more towards AMD’s offering for now, though. I also expect that the majority of Intel’s market share will come from their brand strength. You don’t get to be Intel, as things currently stand, with poor marketing, and in that respect they’ve done an excellent job. AMD needs to put Ryzen and Vega into the hands of people who have a large social reach or a large fan base, like game streamers and esports teams, or Youtubers and bloggers, in order to make their brand seem like a more natural choice for their target audience.
Ryzen aside, the next two months are going to be interesting. AMD has their Financial Analyst Day coming up on 16 May, and NVIDIA just revealed their first Volta-based GPU (more on that later today) at GTC 2017. Intel and AMD will be at each other’s throats at Computex. Leading up to E3 2017, we’re going to hear more talk from AMD and NVIDIA about their new GPUs for the high end market, and we’re also going to see a marketing push by companies wanting to hop on the bandwagon with their own products – most of it will be peripherals, VR headsets, storage and RGB-lit things, which all sell well when new platforms emerge.
We’re also going to see, I wager, some ARM-based products from the heavy hitters in the Android market that run Windows 10 S, that will be based on new chipsets like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, or Huawei’s Helios P20. Companies like Imagination Technologies might hop in with their own ideas of what these new devices should be and what they should do, but the bottom line is that ARM-based notebooks and all-in-one desktops will be coming. Perhaps Samsung will be brave enough to offer socketed chipsets and motherboards for DIY desktop computers that can run Windows 10 S or Linux. These options already exist in the server world, and they’re equipped with all the common connectivity options we see in computers today – SATA 6 ports, NVME compatibility, DDR4 DIMMs, even PCIe graphics slots. We are definitely living in the best timeline.
Our budget build for the month, for the first time in months, switches back to the Intel camp. The Pentium G4560 is a dual-core processor, but it’s the first low-end chip from Intel on the desktop space that comes with hyper-threading, enabling another two virtual cores just like the Core i3 family. In fact, apart from the clock speed, the lack of AVX 2.0 acceleration, and some minor extensions, this is a Core i3 processor in all but name. That gives a dramatic performance boost to builds at this level, and to be honest it’s been sorely needed for quite some time. While Intel was happy to play coy and keep dual-core processors in the Pentium and Celeron lineups, it now has a product that is not only well-priced, but quite comfortably takes on every AMD chip in the same segment as well as Intel’s own parts. If this processor had its multipliers unlocked, it would be the holy grail of budget overclockable processors.
To keep the G4560 cool, we’re sticking to the stock cooler for now, although moving to a tower cooler is not a bad idea for those of you who desire lower temperatures while stressing the chip out. This build also marks the first time that DDR4 is used in the lower mainstream segment, and we’re making do with a no-frills single module from ADATA. All of this sits on the ASRock B250M-HDV, one of the most feature-packed budget boards I’ve ever seen. Not only does it come with a M.2 slot, it also has six SATA ports, Intel Gigabit LAN, a 3+2 power phase arrangement, and support for Intel Optane modules (not that you’ll ever use one).
Adding to the build is MSI’s GT 730 2GB, a frequent addition to this table. Now that AMD has started to phase out the Radeon R7 240 and R7 250E graphics cards, there’s only NVIDIA to consider in the low-end market while they build up stock of their next chip. The GT 730 itself is quite old now, and it’s already an underclocked GT 730A reference design. 720p and medium settings might be setting the bar too low for this chip, but maintaining framerate is more of a concern than graphics quality with this budget. Thanks to the Pentium G4560, at least, you have no worries about games not launching because they require more cores. If you manage to get this GPU, overclocking it is recommended, but if you can save up a little longer, AMD’s Radeon RX 550 is a better bet for R600 more.
The other components of the build are quite standard, although I’m still not happy that I have to pick a chassis and power supply bundle again. Getting these items separately would be more expensive, and I suppose there’s no chance of ever overloading the PSU bundled with Gigabyte’s chassis. What I am happy with is the M.2 SSD. ADATA is taking advantage of the standard properly here, using the savings from not having a standard 2.5-inch SATA chassis to cut costs. This does mean that this build will look super-neat thanks to the lack of cables, which is a cool perk.
Jumping up to R10,000, we have our first Ryzen build (and it wont’ be the last). With as many cores and threads as the Core i7-7000 series family, an unlockable multiplier, gobs of L3 cache, and super-low power consumption, the R5 1400 kneecaps almost anything from Intel’s Core i3 and Core i5 lineups in the Kaby Lake family, barring the super-expensive Core i5-7500, 7600, and 7600K which cost almost twice as much.
In single-core applications the R5 1400 can be overtaken by some Intel processors in the same price range which are clocked higher, and this is especially true in games like StarCraft II which are still driven by a single core. But when it comes to multicore applications the R5 1400 surges ahead, placing higher up in the rankings, and when both it and a Core i7-7700K are clocked to 3.5GHz, the R5 1400 will inch just a bit ahead in multicore benchmarks. For Intel, Ryzen is a clear threat to their bottom line, but they can’t make any decisions yet in the mainstream market until the Ryzen 3 family launches later this month. Just about every R5 1400 processor will overclock to 3.7GHz on all cores, and some of them will even reach 4.0GHz with good cooling and a better motherboard.
Adopting Ryzen at this stage of its life still has a slightly unreasonable early adopter cost attached to it. The R5 1400 is a little more expensive than it should be, and the same applies to MSI’s B350M Gaming Pro, although this is a decent entry-level board that allows for overclocking. It has little in the way of frills thanks to its price point, but still manages to cram in red LEDs, a M.2 slot for SSDs, a reinforced PCIe bracket for heavy video cards, USB 3.1 Gen 2 support for the front and rear panel ports, and heatsinked voltage regulators. The other adoption cost that’s higher than it should be is the price of DDR4-2666 RAM, the highest supported speed for Ryzen, but ADATA’s 8GB kit is reasonably cheap and has a matching red colour for the build.
In addition to brand new processors, we also have a brand new GPU this month with the Raden RX 570. Although the chip is a respin of the older RX 470, AMD has improved the production process and in doing so lowered the power consumption. Instead of producing more efficient chips, though, they rather chose to bump up the performance, so the RX 500 series is generally faster than the RX 400. At R3,199, the RX 570 is matched by the GTX 1060 3GB which retails for around the same price, but it’s usually faster than the GTX 1060 3GB. The exceptions are games that play to NVIDIA’s strengths, or that don’t stress the memory too much, but AMD’s performance in everything else is usually better.
Because all the build’s components are quite efficient already, we can get away with using a 450W power supply, and Corsair’s VS450 will do the job. It’s not Bronze-rated or even semi-modular, but for the price I can’t really complain. For the chassis, Cooler Master comes through with the MasterBox 3 Lite, although my preference more strongly lies with Corsair’s Carbide 88R, which has the PSU mounted at the bottom with cable management built-in and a side window. However, it is R200 more expensive, which isn’t insignificant. Finally, I’ve brought over the ADATA SSD from the R5000 build. Unfortunately, 240GB drives are out of our reach this month thanks to the Ryzen 5 1400, but in two month’s time the pricing should have settled down enough to give me more room to work in.
That’s all for this episode of the guide. Keep your eye out for the other builds coming later this month!