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Part 2: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

Nothing can be said in this conclusion that is more valuable than the actual data itself. If, for some reason you skipped the individual charts, jumping right to the conclusion, you’ll likely not grasp what this story is all about: balance. 

For each chart, we recommended a minimum level of CPU and GPU needed to play the game at that particular resolution. By tallying results of all 28 tests (seven games times four resolutions), we’ll summarize how often each solution was able to reach our targeted level of performance.

Again, a word of warning here: while valuable in many ways, this chart has the potential to be misused. Our minimum recommendations are just that--minimums--and only a guideline for obtaining maximum image quality and playable performance, as affordably as possible.

Apart from the GeForce GTX 285, which failed to reach the target framerate in Crysis when paired with anything less than Intel's Core i7-920, all of our graphics solutions met the same exact same targets today as in Part 1 of the series. Rather than summarizing graphics performance again, we will concentrate on the CPUs and drawing some conclusions from our first two “stock clocked” data sets.

One look at the totals chart for Part 2 and it’s easy to see that the graphics card will determine what resolution is playable for each game. In fact, these lines are so flat that looking at this chart alone would almost mislead us to believe the CPU has little impact on frame rates at all. This is far from the truth when it comes to outright performance or even the sweet spot of CPU/GPU balance. The fact remains that a $100 CPU does a far better job than a $100 GPU when it comes to maxing out a low resolution like 1280x1024.

While the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition was sufficient to play all seven games, the Radeon HD 4850 was only powerful enough to push our ambitious levels of detail and AA in two of these titles. This doesn’t make the Radeon HD 4850 a bad gaming card, it just means settings will need to be adjusted down to find the desired compromise between performance and image quality.

Often, this least-expensive (acceptable) solution is still unbalanced, and would benefit from adding more CPU muscle to the mix. There is certainly good evidence to support the use of a quad-core processor for gaming. Of course, spending too much on the CPU and reducing the graphics budget can quickly result in a GPU limitation, especially as you scale resolution.

At the end of the day, you can't generalize or summarize the amount of hardware it takes to cut through your favorite game smoothly. Instead, it's necessary to look at the individual charts for each game and resolution. Also consider that these test systems were clean and only running the essentials. Additional background applications and multi-tasking would give us more reason to step up to a higher-end CPU. 

Last round, we saw the stock Pentium E6300 severely hold back our graphics cards and even prevent playable performance in two of the tested games. As with the Pentium E5x00s (some of our favorite budget gaming CPUs), the real value in these chips is exposed through their massive overclocking headroom. The AMD Phenom II X2 550 BE, Phenom II X3 720 BE, and Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 all reached the same number of targets overall, only falling to the quad-core models in Crysis when a 1920x1200 resolution required a match-up with the GeForce GTX 295. While the E8400 did manage to deliver higher overall performance than the Phenom II X2 550 BE in most games, it didn't lead by much and often struggled to keep up with the more affordable Phenom II X3 720 BE. It will be interesting to see how all of these processors stack up to one another and compete with the quad-core CPUs when we overclock in Parts 3 and 4 of the series.

The Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition (the top processor represented in today’s data) performed admirably, even slightly besting the more expensive Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550. When comparing this similar level of performance, keep in mind the LGA 775 platform does utilize DDR2-1066, rather than the DDR3-1600 memory used on the AM3 platform. While both these processors manage to offer playable performance in the same number of situations as the Core i7-920, neither was powerful enough to allow the GeForce GTX 295 to take as many victories as it did dropped into an X58-based platform in Part 1.

Until it was limited by graphics performance, Intel's Core i7-920 held a significant lead between the first two parts of our series. Clearly, it's important to use a high-end CPU (and even overclock it) if you want to see the best possible performance in a graphics card review. However as we have seen thus far, that's not going to relate to the performance a gamer can expect in a less-muscular platform. Most enthusiasts are on a fixed budget, and many can’t afford the money for a tuned LGA 1366-based platform, such as those often used for our testing. Those folks can study the charts in this series to decide on the best balance for their games, resolutions, and budget. For those who want the best performance with the smallest price tag, we’ll shift focus in our next two parts towards overclocking, a procedure many enthusiasts use to maximize the performance that can be squeezed from their budgets.

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  • 10 Hide
    1898 , December 1, 2009 6:24 AM
    Please, if you want to criticise something make sure you've understood it (read in this case) thoroughly. Otherwise you'll look like an idiot.

    Anyway, this series is made out of win!
    Thank you.
Other Comments
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , December 1, 2009 5:43 AM
    What effect does having a motherboard that unlocks the 4th core on the X2 and X3 have? In power consumption and overall performance? I'm not asking a redo of all the data, just asking for speculation by someone more knowledgeable, if I can get it.
  • 1 Hide
    winner4455 , December 1, 2009 5:57 AM
  • 10 Hide
    1898 , December 1, 2009 6:24 AM
    Please, if you want to criticise something make sure you've understood it (read in this case) thoroughly. Otherwise you'll look like an idiot.

    Anyway, this series is made out of win!
    Thank you.
  • 3 Hide
    knightmike , December 1, 2009 7:08 AM
    This article truly is revolutionary. I have been waiting for an article like this since I began building my own PCs ten years ago. This article coupled with your CPU and GPU hierarchy chart will go a long way towards eliminating CPU/GPU bottlenecks. This article truly is the first of its kind and I hope to see it at least twice a year if not four times a year. Thank you.
  • 8 Hide
    ibnsina , December 1, 2009 7:18 AM
    Great article, it's educational, looking forward to ATI’s 5000’ series comparisons.
  • -4 Hide
    knightmike , December 1, 2009 7:21 AM
    In your conclusion, you state that a $100 CPU does a far better job than a $100 GPU when it comes to maxing out a low resolution like 1280x1024. Can you elaborate?
  • 3 Hide
    amnotanoobie , December 1, 2009 7:47 AM
    Hooray! Now this is a good reference on the forums when people ask for bottlenecks
  • -6 Hide
    scrumworks , December 1, 2009 8:24 AM
    How can this take weeks to plan? Perhaps if one works 15mins a day.

    Good to see vanilla HD4890 puts up a serious fight for GTX 285. Not that it gets any credit for that.

    You should stop using Vista. It's dead already.
  • 0 Hide
    astrodudepsu , December 1, 2009 9:07 AM
    Good article. Will read parts 3&4.
  • 6 Hide
    sheol , December 1, 2009 9:24 AM
    So now comes the next point - why are nvidia's GPU-s consistently requiring a faster CPU to show what they can do, while Radeons perform very well even with a dual core?
    Best example of course is the GTX295 - are nvidia-s drivers really that lousy, or is there something else at play?
  • -3 Hide
    cypeq , December 1, 2009 11:54 AM
    howray at last :D 
  • 2 Hide
    KT_WASP , December 1, 2009 12:01 PM
    Good article. I was awaiting the part 2 showcasing AMD's line-up. I was starting to think you guys at Tom's forgot about it ;) 

    Overall a good article. But,I think these charts can be deceiving though to someone who is not well versed in PC gaming and the hardware involved.

    For example,I have a HD4850 paired with an aging system that incorporates an Athlon64x2 5200+ 2.6GHz Windsor(2x1MB L2 model), 2GB of DDR2 800 (5-5-5-15 timings) and using XP Home with the latest service pack.

    I have yet come across a game I cant play at acceptable frame rates. Granted, I'm not using an ultra-high resolution, but I do up the graphic settings to high/max. I play modern games, some of which are on these charts, and they all play just fine.

    By setting an arbitrary number of frame rates.. some at 40, and some at 45, as "acceptable" can be somewhat misleading. I think that if your gaming using the two of the lower resolutions represented in this article, then I think you'll be happy with one of the lower tiered CPUs and GPUs paired together. Those combination's will get you very played frame rates at the lower resolutions.

    If your going for the higher resolutions, then of course you would have to up the power of the system.. but, I contend that at the lower resolutions, the cheaper hardware will do just fine, and any more money spent is for benchmark numbers alone.

  • 4 Hide
    AZRAELCRUZ , December 1, 2009 12:54 PM

    Clearly the Phenom IIX3 720 is the Core 2 Duo annihilator because the advantage of its extra core...
  • 4 Hide
    Anonymous , December 1, 2009 12:58 PM
    I'm returning my cards just bought on black friday pny gtx 260 core 216 and pny gtx 275 and exchange them for radeons 4890 and 5850. I'm definitely not going to pay for a new ring around i7-920 to get real benefits.
  • 5 Hide
    superpowter77 , December 1, 2009 1:07 PM
    Interesting article, I'm still shock about nvidia video card limitations, I can't understand why green cards are so CPU dependable. Are those expensive GPU not suppose to offload graphic tasks from CPU's? Why we have to spend more on GPU than a CPU?. I'm building a new ring only to play crysis and farcry2 and will not be spending more than $300 for CPU/motherboard/memory. Now 4890 It's on my list as first choice($179 on sale now), will avoid gtx285 even if they sell it for $200.
  • -6 Hide
    verrul , December 1, 2009 1:48 PM
    look at the 5700 series really close really impressive cards starting to get some in stock paired with the 720 you really cant beat the price/performance combo. and the 5750 will nearly match a 4890 overclocked. under 300 with either card.
  • 1 Hide
    Kelavarus , December 1, 2009 2:05 PM
    I'm in agreement with KT_Wasp here. I've got a friend running a Core 2 Quad, one of the lower versions, not sure which but I think it's around 2.3 Ghz, and they've got a 4850, and they run all their games with the exception of Crysis at all high with no problems. I'm not sure what resolution they play at, but they've got a 1920x1080 screen, so it's definitely not 1024x768. But anyway, completely playable on games like Shattered Horizon and Dragon Age. I don't know what the actual framerates are, but it doesn't stutter at all with no dips and plays very smoothly.
  • 1 Hide
    dark_lord69 , December 1, 2009 2:07 PM
    I wish you did the 4870, cause the 4890 is expensive (Well, more than I want to pay). And I already knew the 4850 wasn't good enough for what I want to run/do.
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