Welcome, NAGlings, to the bi-monthly System Builder’s Guide. This month we’re again only doing two episodes, as incredibly unrealistic GPU prices make things tougher on System Builders who have money in the bank, but no high-end GPUs to purchase and a large chunk of their budget going to memory. The combination of these two things makes it difficult to recommend spending anything more than R15,000 on your system, but we’ll see how things pan out next week. For today, we’re looking at budget builds between R5,000 and R10,000, and I think you’ll agree that they’re great value for money.
The tide is coming in for Coffee Lake
With Intel’s Coffee Lake motherboard selection now expanding to the budget B310, B360, and H370 chipsets, Coffee Lake is finally a viable option for PC builders looking to team blue for their new platform. It’s unlikely that Intel will ditch this socket as quickly as they did Kaby Lake, but it does look like this is the end for LGA1151. The next generation of Intel’s chips at 10nm codenamed Cannonlake probably need extra pins for power management and expanded PCIe connectivity. However, now that AMD’s Ryzen family offers a tempting platform promising forwards compatibility for the next two to three years, there may be more builders and enthusiasts who move to team red instead, saving themselves a large portion of the cost of upgrades because they only need to upgrade the BIOS and sell off their older processor to raise some funds for an upgrade. We’ve seen over the last few years that people are holding on to their computers for longer than ever, upgrading to SSDs to extend the longevity of their hardware, so long-term upgrade paths may become a bigger factor in choosing your next platform.
But what Coffee Lake brings to the table isn’t enough for a lot of enthusiasts, myself included. The K-series chips at 95W simply run too hot for comfort, and you have to invest a significant amount of money to keep temperatures down while overclocking. The upcoming octacore Coffee Lake-S chips will push the thermal limits even further for the platform, and the lack of solder is proving to be a pain point. Even companies like Silicon Lottery who offer overclocked K-series processors through their binning processes have to delid the chips so that Intel’s thermal paste can be replaced with something more effective. In thermally constrained environments, Intel’s products will not be able to hold on to their boost clock speeds for more than half a minute, pretty much removing the performance gains they’ve made over Kaby Lake.
On the graphics front things are improving. With the mining boom settling down, but seeing spikes every so often in Ethereum’s and Monero’s value, stocks are available more often than not. Prices for the Radeon RX 580 4GB are slowly coming down to sensible levels, and that means that GeForce cards will also see price drops soon. Retailers might have enjoyed the higher sales volumes and price hikes on their end, but without miners sucking up all that they can the gaming market won’t support these higher prices. However, thanks to increasing prices for GDDR5 memory, and the lack of supply from memory vendors, we might see price spikes again in the second half of 2018. It sucks, but there’s not much we can do about it. NVIDIA’s GeForce Partner Program throws an additional spanner in the works by messing around with established brands for Radeon cards, so you can expect some price fluctuations there as well.
It’s the same story with DDR4 memory, unfortunately. Memory vendors are not committing to making more chips or opening more factories to service the market, and instead are raising prices and being more selective with who they supply memory to in order to maximise profits. The mobile markets get first dibs because they can move a lot of stock in a short space of time, and that clears up inventory that the memory manufacturers don’t want to be left with. Then it’s the OEMs, then the component manufacturers, the console manufacturers, and other smaller companies that need DDR4 memory for their projects and products. In a few years, the IoT market will consume more memory than smartphones, and production will shift to favour DDR3/DDR3-L more to meet demand. It’s a weird time to be alive, isn’t it? Donald Trump is the most powerful man in the world, North Korea is talking about denuclearisation, and you can’t buy memory worth a damn for less than R550.
At least SSDs are doing well. With greater general availability of TLC 3D NAND flash memory, we’re going to see some price drops in the coming months from some SSD vendors. Brands like Mushkin, Transcend, ADATA, and SanDisk are likely to start a price war to drive down prices, while more premium brands like Samsung and Crucial will probably keep prices at a higher tier. The margins on SSDs are thin, so I don’t forsee a lot of brands joining the fray and trying to compete on price alone.
Overall, there are good times ahead as the PC industry slowly recovers from the fifth consecutive mining craze in a row, but I don’t see this lasting long. Enjoy it while it lasts, folks.
The starter R5,000 build is more capable than it has been in the past thanks to AMD’s new Ryzen APUs replacing their old Bristol Ridge processors. The Ryzen 3 2200G is a quad-core processor with 4MB of L3 cache in a single CCX, and attached at the hip via Infinity Fabric is the Vega 8 graphics, boasting 512 stream processors and eight ROPs. The combination isn’t designed to blow you away, but it’s more than capable for any general workload where a Core i3 would normally be used, and as a bonus it can play games really well at 720p. AMD has really hit a home run here with Ryzen APUs, and they will go on to power some really neat small-form-factor devices and premium notebooks from AMD’s partners.
Because we’re under a tight budget, a B350 motherboard wasn’t an option for this build, so we’re stuck with AMD’s budget A320 chipset. ASRock’s A320M-HDV has everything one needs to get started, and it also supports M.2 drives, but it won’t be doing any overclocking. That’s okay, because we’re also crippling performance by only using one stick of DDR4 from G.Skill in here for now. General system performance won’t be affected at all, but gaming will certainly take a knock as half of the potential memory bandwidth in the system is now missing. When you have the budget, a second DDR4 module is highly recommended.
Powering the build is Corsair’s VS350. It’s cheap enough, but my feeling is that it should be much cheaper than it currently is, or possibly Corsair should have a 250W variant with some of the unnecessary connectors chopped off. Still, we have the option of upgrading to a discrete GPU in the future, so it’s nice to have that option. Everything gets shoved into Thermaltake’s Versa H18, which is a really nice and cheap mATX chassis with a lot of room and flexibility, especially with the cooling options on offer. Finally, we’re on the cusp of a price breakthrough for SSDs, and the first we’re seeing of this is some super-cheap SSDs from Mushkin dipping well below R5 per gigabyte. These aren’t the fastest drives on the market, but they are certainly the cheapest around.
With the GPU market still coming off the back of a mining boom, prices for even mid-range graphics cards are a bit inflated. GeForce GTX 1050 cards are still around R300 more expensive than they should be, and the general lack of well-priced options from AMD in general doesn’t help the low-end market. We might see this change soon enough as stocks return to normal, but for now things are pretty much ruled by NVIDIA.
For R7,500, there isn’t much more value-for-money than the previous R5,000 build tacking on a discrete GPU and an additional 4GB of DDR4 RAM. Such a combo is easily able to play any game on the market today, and the Ryzen 3 2200G is no slouch in the CPU department. The addition of a Palit GeForce GTX 1050 gives this system enough horsepower for any modern title at 1080p with ultra details, and you can expect framerates around the 55fps mark. A few adjustments here and there will give you a solid 60fps experience no matter what you’re playing.
Just keep in mind that Palit’s local warranties only last for two years, so you should be saving up for a replacement by year three at least in case something happens to it out of warranty.
Jumping up to R10,000 for the last build of the day, we’re finally on to Intel’s Coffee Lake platform. The heavily discounted Core i3-8100 from Wootware forced my hand here, and it’s such good value for money against AMD’s offerings that I can’t pass it up. This is the first quad-core processor in the Core i3 lineup that Intel has ever launched, and Coffee Lake is the start of a new core count war between AMD and Intel. Ryzen 2 isn’t far away from launch as you read this (expected 20 April 2018), but Intel’s Core i3 lineup is safe for the moment.
The second wave for Coffee Lake is another chance for Intel’s partners to make an impression, and its resulted in some really neat motherboard designs and colour schemes, like MSI’s B360M Gaming. It’s a very attractive black and red colour with MSI’s trademark reinforced PCI Express bracket, red DIMM slots, and six rotated SATA ports. With USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C and very few LEDs, this is one of the best-looking budget boards I’ve seen in a while from the company. It helps that our chosen G.Skill RAM is also red, so we’ve definitely got a theme going on here.
Graphics duty is handled by MSI’s GeForce GTX 1050 Ti Gaming X. I could have chosen any other GTX 1050 Ti at a similar price point because they’re all inflated to around the same level, but why not keep colour-coding along the way? MSI’s Gaming X variant uses a premium TwinFrozr VI heatsink design and although it doesn’t have a backplate, the red stripes do light up. GTX 1050 Ti cards can typically run any game at 1080p with maxed out settings delivering around 60fps, and there’s always a good amount of overclocking headroom left on the table for you to exploit as well. It’s a good value card, but thanks to the mining boom they’re a lot more expensive than they should be. R2,500-R2,700 for this kind of performance would be much more reasonable.
Ending off the build is a repeat of our power supply, chassis, and storage options. It would be really neat if Thermaltake offered the H18 locally with the tempered glass panel, because that would show off our lovely colour-coded build quite nicely. There are plenty of full-panel cases out there to choose from if you’re looking for that kind of aesthetic, from Cooler Master’s Masterbox 5 Lite all the way to NZXT’s glass-paneled S340. It’s up to you how much you want to spend on the chassis, but it is typically something that people hold on to for a few years. And as before, we have the Mushkin Source 250GB SSD as our main boot and storage drive. If you need more space, the 500GB model isn’t that much more expensive.
That’s all for this episode of the guide. Keep your eye out for the other builds coming next week!