System Builder’s Guide: January 2018 R5,000 to R10,000

Welcome, NAGlings, to the bi-monthly System Builder’s Guide. It’s a new year and we’re already more than halfway through January already. Crazy how times flies, isn’t it? This episode of the guide talks about the mining industry’s effects on gamers a bit, but it’s a subject that has been done to death now that we’ve had to suffer component shortages four years in a row in the same period of the year. But while some people say that it’s a terrible time to build a new gaming PC, I’d contest that it’s still a good time to get in. By compromising a little on things here and there, we can still build some potent systems today.

Damn those miners…

Welcome to 2018. It’s a new era for the hardware industry. The establishment has been rocked by accusations of malicious compliance and incompetence. The situation is looking more bleak by the day for Intel, facing performance drops of up to 25% across its modern CPU stable, with untold performance losses in older hardware that will remain unpatched for decades to come. AMD is looking good CPU-wise, but gave up the GPU race to NVIDIA in the latter half of 2017.

Everywhere you look, it’s a dark and desolate landscape marred by the side effects of the mining industry and price-fixing. On the component side, miners are snapping up every cheap processor and RAM kit they can find, in addition to sweeping up scores of motherboards, power supplies, and other basic necessities for rig builders. AMD’s Radeon RX Vega 56 has been out of stock more times than I can count, and back orders for Radeon RX 570 and RX 580 cards only get filled three to four months after they’re made.

Thanks to price-fixing of DDR4 memory chips by the biggest players in the game, DDR4 memory kits now consume more of any given build’s budget, in addition to the mobile market both eating away at the available stock and raising the prices of their handsets by extraordinary amounts to offset the price increases. This has an effect on the production of GDDR5 memory for graphics cards as factory lines prioritise DDR4 production over GDDR5, and HBM produced by Samsung and Hynix struggles to keep up with even basic demand. The situation looks more dire with the announcement of an Intel-based APU with AMD graphics, along with a single stack of HBM v2 memory.

Things would really be much easier if it wasn’t so easy for mining operations to buy up hardware straight from the factory floor.

Thanks, MSI. Your marketing is really helping right now.

In other news, there’s no change in the availability of budget Intel Coffee Lake motherboards yet. I discuss this annoyance below when thinking about what to pick for the R10,000 budget, but the reality is that there’s nothing out there that’s cheap and affordable (unless R2,000-odd for a Z370 motherboard is affordable to you). Intel really screwed the pooch on this launch.

One change that hasn’t happened quick enough is the move to small form-factor NVMe/SATA drives using the M.2 slot standard. This would be a big cost savings for SSD manufacturers looking to increase their sales revenue, and just about every cheap motherboard has an M.2 slot nowadays. I was really hoping for cheap M.2 drives to start replacing 2.5-inch SATA drives, but that hasn’t happened yet. I guess we’ll just have to be patient.

And in case you’ve been living under a rock, take note that all of these builds here today support Linux and Linux-based games. With AMD’s move to finally include the full Radeon driver and display stack in the latest Linux kernel, as well as their renewed effort to support their platforms better with the latest version of the Radeon drivers, things are looking good on the Linux front for gamers on a tight budget who can’t afford Windows 10 and don’t want to pirate it. NVIDIA’s closed-source drivers are also better than ever, and support the GTX 1050/Ti quite well. Phoronix just recently updated their GTX 1050 results as well in a multi-GPU showdown. Keep in mind that those tests are run on a dual-core chip, so some of the games are CPU-limited. Hopefully Michael fixes that shortly.

R5,000 budget

720p with Low-to-Medium settings and 2x MSAA
Processor AMD A10-9700 APU 3.8-4.2GHz (socket AM4) R1,349
CPU cooler Stock AMD cooler
Motherboard ASUS PRIME A320M-K mATX (socket AM4) R1,037
Memory Dell Value 4GB DDR4-2133 R763
Graphics Internal Radeon R5 graphics
Power supply Cooler Master MPW 450W ATX R521
Chassis Antec GX200 black mATX R480
Solid state drive WD Green 120GB SATA (Silicon Motion SM2256S, TLC NAND) R839
Total (ZAR): R4,989

Our budget build for the month stays in the AMD camp once more, using AMD’s A10-9700 APU as its base. Previously, builds at this price would have incorporated a discrete GPU for extra power, but sadly there’s not enough room anymore thanks to price increases for memory and storage. With a quad-core processor based on Bristol Ridge, and Radeon R5 graphics based on GCN 1.2, it’s enough to power any game you might want to play at 720p with low settings. The RAM is bog-standard stuff, and in order to save money I went with Dell-branded instead of anything else from the bigger namebrands.

That’s basically console-level graphics quality settings, but the aim here is to save money and preserve functionality. Plus, if this YouTube run is anything to go by, it’s quite serviceable in a number of AAA games even at high settings. This performance is better than what we could have extracted from the Radeon R7 240 I usually have in this section, so I’m pretty happy with the compromise. Pity about that RAM pricing though.

Skipping along to the power supply, this months unit comes from Cooler Master. I’d usually pick the Corsair CS450 here, but it’s very long in the tooth these days, and the internal design hasn’t really been improved either. Cooler Master’s MPW is made by HEC and the same platform is found in other models from EVGA and BeQuiet. It’s barebones, but it’ll do. Antec’s GX200 has turned into the new budget king for now, packing in two front intake fans and another at the rear, removable dust filters for the front intakes and the power supply, and a front-facing USB 3.0 port.

Finally, Western Digital turns in a decent budget SSD for a low price this month, coming in at under R900 for a 120GB SATA drive. Sweet.

R7,500 budget

1920 x 1080 with Ultra details and 2x MSAA
Processor Intel Pentium G4600 3.6GHz (socket LGA1151 V2) R1,389
CPU cooler Stock Intel cooler
Motherboard ASRock B250M-HDV mATX (socket LGA1151 V2) R1,087
Memory Crucial 8GB DDR4-2133 CL16 R1,329
Graphics ASUS Phoenix GeForce GTX 1050 2GB GDDR5 R2,089
Power supply Cooler Master MPW 450W ATX R521
Chassis Antec GX200 black mATX R480
Solid state drive WD Green 120GB SATA (Silicon Motion SM2256S, TLC NAND) R839
Total (ZAR): R7,734

Our medium-priced budget build for the month returns, because there’s finally a reason to include a R7,500 build again. Instead of AMD in this corner, we switch to Intel’s Pentium G4600, a dual-core processor with hyper-threading that is basically a Core i3 processor for much less money. The fact that it lacks the ability to execute AVX 2.0 code natively doesn’t bog it down at all. The higher single-core performance is what we’re after here. It is mated with an ASRock B250M-HDV, a budget board that manages to include a few design features normally reserved for slightly more expensive designs, like the rotated SATA ports and an Intel Gigabit LAN Ethernet port. RAM for this build comes from Crucial, with an 8GB stick that is currently on sale at Raru. I’ll take whatever savings I can get.

Thanks to our efforts to emulate Scrooge McDuck, we manage to shove an ASUS GeForce GTX 1050 into this build. This is one of the best budget GPUs for 1080p gaming at the moment, and its popularity and slight performance edge over AMD’s Radeon RX 560 has allowed it to slip into more systems. Some variants can be found for less than R2,000 on sale, so keep an eye out for them.

We’re still Scrooging ourselves here, so the chassis, power supply, and SSD remain the same. Despite this, we’re still R234 over our budget, and it can’t really be helped with the way things are going with memory prices. Still, that doesn’t diminish the performance on tap here. This is a killer system for those of you on a tight budget.

R10,000 budget

1920 x 1080 with Ultra details and 4x MSAA
Processor Intel Core i3-7100 3.9GHz (socket LGA 1151 V2) R1,913
CPU cooler Stock Intel cooler
Motherboard ASUS ROG Strix B250G Gaming mATX (socket LGA 1151 V2) R1,382
Memory Crucial 8GB DDR4-2133 CL16 R1,329
Graphics ASUS Phoenix GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB GDDR5 R3,074
Power supply Cooler Master MPW 450W ATX R521
Chassis Antec GX200 black mATX R480
Solid state drive WD Green 240GB SATA (Silicon Motion SM2256S, TLC NAND) R1,199
Total (ZAR): R9,898

Jumping up to R10,000, and our last build for this month, I had a lot of thinking to do with the direction I wanted to go. AMD is refreshing Ryzen in April this year, but there’s currently a shortage of Ryzen chips as new stock comes into the country by boat. Along with that will be the Ryzen desktop APUs with Vega graphics, which changes my future plans somewhat. Intel Coffee Lake processors are available now, but motherboards are scarce and only use the Intel Z370 chipset, which means they’re all over the R2,000 mark. Coffee Lake, I feel, has to be one of the most rushed and pointless releases to date. Intel should have waited for the ecosystem to fill out before releasing the Core i3-Core i7 lineup, instead of frustrating consumers who want to actually pick up a Core i3-8100 for a budget system.

That’s why I let things hang back a bit and picked the Kaby Lake-based Core i3-7100 for this month’s R10k build. It is still generally faster than the Ryzen 3 1300X and the Ryzen 5 1400 at stock settings, and doesn’t need any tweaks for extra performance. Keeping it fed is ASUS’ new ROG Strix B250G, a cute little mATX motherboard with lots of connectivity and space for two M.2 NVMe SSDs. It’s not often that a budget motherboard has features like this, though its useful shelf life is very limited. As before, a single stick of bog-standard Crucial 8GB DDR4 is all we can afford for this build.

Thanks to GPU mining farms, AMD’s Radeon RX 570 isn’t available anywhere for its actual MSRP this month, so we’ll have to make do with the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, with this variant made by ASUS. It’s not a big leap up from the GTX 1050, but we’re doing it for the extra VRAM anyway since we want to pile on the graphical effects for our games. In a twist of irony, the best use for this GTX 1050 Ti when you’re not using it for anything is mining when your rig is idle. Might as well cash in on the craze, right?

For the last time in this episode of the guide, we’re carrying over the Cooler Master MPW-450 and the Antec GX200. Our SSD does change though, bumping up to a 240GB WD Green. It’s good value for money at R4.99 per gigabyte, so I can’t complain. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the extra storage as well. Since it’s so cheap, for the other builds I’d recommend picking up the bigger drive if you can arrange the extra money for it. More storage space is always better.

That’s all for this episode of the guide. Keep your eye out for the other builds coming later this month!

Start your weekend with new IT: Chapter Two, Top Gun: Maverick, and Cats trailers, and a lot of mixed feels