Hello and welcome to today’s System Builders Guide. This month’s actually, because it’s kicking off the November 2018 edition. We’re coming up to the end of the year and the market has, finally, fully recovered from the nastiness of 2017 – a horrible year for the hardware industry, where we saw price fixing impact SSD prices, RAM and GPU shortages up the wazoo, and shortages for all sorts of related components for accessories for GPU mining such as wire shelves, power supplies, and cable ties. It was a mess. Things are a little less of a mess now, but we’re not out of the woods yet. RAM pricing is still set to drop in the coming months as Intel’s supply woes ease up, and the market is expecting to grow a little with the launch of additional new Coffee Lake Refresh processors as the year closes. If you’re building a PC this week, it’s not a bad time to get in, but do consider saving up some money for a bigger RAM kit in the future when the prices are slashed.
A Ryzen storm
It’s been a while since I wrote an entry into the SBG, and a lot has happened in the intervening months. For one, Intel lost its manufacturing lead in the foundry space and began to shift production into high-margin, low-unit parts to make up for the fact that they were experiencing a shortage in production capacity. For this to happen to Intel of all companies was unthinkable – they hire the smartest people in the world to work on chip production and supply chain management, and when it runs, it’s a well oiled machine. No company has ever managed to match Intel’s ability to just crank out products at lightning speed. But it seems that tripping over their own feet was their own downfall, with Intel spending more time than it would like managing and mitigating the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities. Ten months later, they are still eating away at their product’s performance in the server space, and they’ve had to move their expected launch of 10nm-based products into the second half of 2019. Intel’s come to something of a crossroads recently, and only time will tell if they’ve picked the right path.
During this time, AMD came in with a refresh of Ryzen processors in the form of the Ryzen 2000 series, and things just seemed to continue to get better from there. Most notably, AMD won over some of the enthusiast market by proving that their features such as Precision Boost Overclock and SenseMI was able to get the most out of their processors with little effort from the user. The Ryzen 7 2700X is one of AMD’s strongest plays in a long time, and as a bonus its stock cooler is both decent and RGB-fied. Intel still ships their Coffee Lake K-series chips without coolers. AMD has lost the GPU market to NVIDIA almost completely, though. Strong showings from the Radeon RX 550, RX 570, and RX 580 don’t help the public perception that NVIDIA is the better choice, and RX Vega 64’s competitiveness against the brand new GeForce RTX 2070 is really only a happy mistake because it is cheaper at this moment. There’s a lot on AMD’s to-do list that still needs to be ticked off.
On the NVIDIA camp, things are weird. Not only is the company preparing to launch the GTX 1060 GDDR5X variant sometime this year, they’ve become rather uncompetitive locally in terms of pricing. Most GTX 1060 6GB cards are more expensive than Radeon RX 580 8GB cards available from retailers, and the RTX cards command insane prices relative to their performance. The RTX 2070 starts retail at R10,499. The RTX 2080 is at R14,999. The RTX 2080 Ti should be around R21,000. I remember writing about the first GeForce GTX Titan almost a decade ago and remarking about how cheap the card was with local prices reaching around R10,000.
NVIDIA has succeeded in their long-term goal of raising their average selling price for their high-end cards, and it’s not impossible to imagine them leaving the budget market behind to AMD as they chase higher margins. The PC market is still shrinking after all, and there seems to be nothing else to do but raise prices to increase their revenues.
Moving to other things, there are new entrants into the power supply and storage markets locally. Super Flower is being brought into the country by Wootware, and their cheap Bronze FX SF-450 looks like an okay deal, but it’s a rebrand of an older CWT design. It’s a decent unit, just treat it like a much older pre-Haswell design, because it is. Regular readers might also have noticed that FSP has landed in the country and has a local distributor for their power supplies. FSP’s Hammer is quite new and hasn’t been reviewed properly, while the Hydro MX family looks very nice for the price. Short-list the Hydro MX if you’re in the market for a new PSU.
When it comes to SSDs, we’re still waiting for Seagate to come out with their new drives that they announced recently. Seagate bought out LSI a few years back, and we’re probably going to see a resurgence of Sandforce-powered drives for the first time in years. Western Digital is already playing in the market with their familiar Green, Blue, and Black drive labels. If you’re shopping for a new drive for the first time, you’ll see that we now have options from Mushkin, Plextor, Gigabyte, HyperX (Kingston’s gaming-focused offshoot), and TEAM. SSDs have become so easily available in reference form to manufacturers that we’re seeing almost every company imaginable jumping into them (and I thought Gigabyte should have done this years ago!).
As a consumer, you needn’t worry about the reliability of these drives from known brands, because they’re all made in the same factories as brands like ADATA, Transcend, Corsair, and Hynix, but you will want to pay attention to the warranty coverage. As SSDs become more and more reliable, five-year warranties become more and more common, and it’s very likely that most SSDs will outlive you in terms of when their flash wears out from normal use. Don’t buy regular hard drives – give in to the need for speed, and pick up a SSD instead. ADATA’s SU650 500GB is a pretty good starting point.
One of the biggest hurdles in building PCs on a budget these days is the price of memory. It is the single biggest pain point for anyone assembling a system, let alone a builder’s guide, because you want to deliver good value on budget, but RAM eats into that and gives you measly allocations in return. Our budget now increases to reflect that, and we’re now at R6,000 for a full system. Our platform is a Ryzen 3 2200G with Vega integrated graphics. Using AMD’s stock cooler saves us a bunch of money, and it’s not that horrible either. MSI’s motherboards in the Ryzen camp are quite impressive this time around, and the B350M PRO-VDH allows us to overclock the processor, support four RAM modules, and have other expected functionality like a M.2 slot and rear USB 3.1 ports. The VRM heatsink is also not decorative, which is nice.
Because we’re lacking a graphics card, the rest of the budget goes into the RAM. RAM is the killer of budgets this year, but we’re still able to slip in a pair of 4GB sticks for around R1200. They’re not clocked high enough out of the box to get the most out of the APU, but most system builders using this combination should be able to overclock their RAM to DDR4-2933 with timings at CL17 or CL18. Memory bandwidth yields more performance for Raven Ridge than reduced latencies, so it’s worth your while to tinker with it.
Because chassis with bundled power supplies are a rare find these days, we have to go with separate components. I would have liked to make this an ITX build, but ITX socket AM4 motherboards aren’t cheap enough yet, and the cases are too expensive. We’re instead going to use the Cooler Master MasterBox 3 Lite and a Corsair 350W power supply. The MasterBox 3 Lite has space for two 120mm intake fans at the front of the case and a single 120mm at the rear. Together with the power supply’s exhaust, this case will tend to positive pressure once the side panel is on, which is good for reducing temperatures and controlling dust levels.
Finally, solid state drives are dirt cheap. Plextor’s 240GB S3C is a good deal. Even if you’re upgrading an older rig, there’s no excuse not to go solid state these days.
With the R6,000 budget build slotting in here, there’s no point in writing about the hardware choices or the platform. However, an extra R2,000 to the budget is substantial, and it nets us a big performance boost. While normally this is where Intel would step into the picture with a Core i3 processor, that hasn’t been a financially viable option for several months now. Ryzen 3, on their other hand, has kept its price quite low down with little fluctuation, and that’s why we’re not switching to Coffee Lake here. There’s simply no point, and it would be a side-grade at best. And we’d lose the ability to overclock the CPU.
With the extra money in the budget, a discrete GPU has been added in to boost gaming performance. NVIDIA’s GTX 1050 cards are seeing a slow hike in their prices relative to the Radeon RX 560, and this Gigabyte variant seems to be slightly discounted to clear out stocks. The GTX 1050 is faster, but since we’re working with a tight budget, the RX 560 will do just fine and it will even have a bit of overclocking headroom. With the extra horsepower gaming at 1080p targeting 60fps is quite doable, but we’re still going to have to limit ourselves to medium settings because these mid-range cards are lacking in memory bandwidth and in dedicated texture and raster units. Gigabyte’s card is at least a dual-slot blower design, so it’ll be running quite cool and reasonably quiet once you add two front intake fans to the MasterBox 3 Lite.
Ending off the builds for the week, the R12,000 budget build is another all-AMD machine. With AMD’s first-generation Ryzen processors receiving discounts and price drops, and with Intel’s prices increasing with each month, the Ryzen 5 1500X is a seriously good deal. It’s essentially a Core i7-6700K for half price, with a decent and quiet boxed cooler, and it’s still got a bit of overclocking headroom left on the table. It’ll be mated to the MSI B350M PRO-VDH motherboard and kitted out with the same G.Skill DDR4 kit we’ve had in the other builds today. Budget constraints basically force our hand here, but we’re not getting a bad deal. The power phase setup on the MSI board might limit heavy overclocks beyond 4.0GHz, and that can only be remedied with a better board. MSI’s B450M Gaming Plus might be a good option for not much more money if you’re at all concerned about it.
Graphics-wise there’s a massive performance jump pushing us to a higher targeted resolution and quality setting. AMD’s Radeon RX 580 is an excellent mid-range card, and the Gigabyte AORUS variant listed here is cheaper than every GTX 1060 6GB I can find. It’s been a while since AMD was able to compete locally thanks to residual damage from the mining boom in 2017, so it’s a welcome change to be able to recommend higher-end AMD cards to people again. Plus, the AORUS cooler is really nice, and will do that whole low-temp-fan-off thing so there’s less fan noise while you’re on the desktop or not doing GPU-intensive work.
The rest of the build gets a nice upgrade thanks to the higher budget. Our power supply is now a Bronze-rated semi-modular design from Corsair, and hiding all the unnecessary cables is going to help with the build into Cooler Master’s MasterBox Q300L, because it has a massive side window into the internals. The Q300L, I feel, is the best value mATX case out there right now. It comes with front and top dust filters, has enough space for any kind of build you can imagine, including custom water cooling loops, and the front-panel IO has been moved to the side of the case. With most gamers having their PCs on their desk, this means that if you sit with it on your right, you’ll be able to access the front ports without needing to get off your chair. Steve Jobs once said that lazy people make the best problem solvers, and I like to think that someone at Cooler Master saw their chance to make the perfect case for the lazy gamer.
Lastly, remember that I said SSDs are dirt cheap? Well, here’s a 500GB SATA drive for less than R1,500. A year ago, a 500GB drive at this price point was unthinkable, and it was at least twice as expensive for current models. ADATA’s SU650 is relatively new, but it’s only the start of a wave of new drives hitting lower price points. A year ago I made the decision to drop hard drives from my recommendations because they weren’t worth the hassle of using them as a system drive, and it was only a matter of time before SSDs made more sense price-wise.
That’s all for today! Tune in next week for another episode of the System Builder’s Guide.