Part 2: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

Pricing, Methodology, And A Sample Chart

In order to establish a cost for our combinations of hardware, we used Newegg to price out each pair of processors and graphics cards. Although this could be taken a step further by factoring in the cost of the motherboard, memory, and power supply, for the purpose of this series, we will leave those other variables out, as our supplementary choices were specific to pulling off x16/x16 multi-GPU CrossFire/SLI testing.

This “Cost” chart has been updated to reflect a number of fairly significant pricing changes occurring since the completion of Part 1 in this series. Most of these are, unfortunately, not in favor of the consumer. In Part 1, our CPU/GPU combinations ranged from $177-$745, which has now increased to $191-$761. Daily pricing fluctuations on Newegg reflect an increase from $1-$10 for three of the Intel CPUs used, while the Core 2 Quad Q9550 has suffered a $45 increase. The two lower-cost AMD CPUs remained the same price, while the Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition dropped $13 to $176. 

On the graphics card front, sub-$100 Radeon HD 4850s are becoming a thing of the past, and now start around $110-120 for the cheapest in-stock model. The GeForce GTX 260 has remained the same at $165, while the Radeon HD 4890 dropped $10 to $180. The GeForce GTX 285 has gone up $44 to $370, while the GeForce GTX 295 went up $15 to $480. You may find a rare closeout deal on the vanishing Radeon HD 4870 X2 making for a good buy, but our searches of numerous well-know sites put in stock models at $450 and up. The current price range for CPU/GPU combinations being used in Part 2 is from $212 to $656. 

Plotting six GPUs paired up to four CPUs at four different resolutions in our typical horizontal bar charts was a less-than-ideal exercise. While having the advantage of displaying the exact FPS in data labels, the bigger picture was all but lost in an overwhelming number of rather humongous charts. Instead, we switch things up for this series and will plot all data in line charts. This was an idea presented to us by the guys over at Nvidia as we discussed this project with them. 

We’ll use a separate line chart for each resolution and cover one game per page. The y-axis represents average frames per second (FPS), and to keep our data as spaced out as possible, we won't use zero as our starting point. In the x-axis, you’ll see the CPUs tested, ordered from least expensive to most expensive. Our six GPUs are listed down in the legend, with each brand represented by a blue or red series. Each specific model is then distinguished by the shape of the data point, with triangles representing the most expensive, diamonds in the middle, and squares signifying the least expensive cards.

Let’s break this down even further with some sample data. First, we set a target line (in green) at our desired FPS for the game. Then, we plot all of the data. Each data point landing above the target line represents an acceptable level of platform performance for the CPU/GPU combination in the game in question and resolution tested. For data points below the target line, the platform performance is too low.

In this example, all six GPUs start below the target line, as CPU 1 is not powerful enough to deliver the desired performance at the tested settings. We insert a dashed light blue vertical line at the first point a data series crosses over the target line, which provides us a quadrant where we know “too little CPU performance” is causing the platform bottleneck. Data points in the remaining lower quadrant represent low platform performance from either too little graphics muscle, or a combination of too little GPU/CPU.

Now let’s focus on the upper quadrant of data points, which do reach the target or desired level of playability. The cheapest acceptable solution in this case is CPU 2 and GPU 3. If we follow GPU 3’s series even further, we see little benefit from stepping up to a higher-performance CPU. As a result, we can surmise that, in this example, our cheapest solution is also well-balanced. Pairing more GPU with CPU 2 adds a little performance, but shifts the platform out of balance towards a CPU bottleneck, as both of the high-end GPUs pick up a substantial performance boost when paired with more CPU power. By studying the charts, you’ll soon see that CPU limitations are represented by steep upward slopes, while GPU-limited situations are illustrated by flat horizontal lines, such as those seen on GPU 1 and 2 in the example.

Inevitably, someone will bring this up. So let’s just say clearly right now that there are some variables and limitations to a story like this. For starters, not all gamers have the same frame rate demands for the various types of games that they play. In competitive online shooters, high frame rates are desired as to not give the competition an edge in reaction time. In single-player games, gamers typically want to maximize visual quality while maintaining acceptable performance. Of course, each person’s idea of what is acceptable will vary. We’ll try to explain how and why we chose the target for our minimum recommendations in each game, and of course plot all data so that readers can see what best suits their individual preference.

Also, as with all game benchmarking, testing methods or the maps/levels tested will provide varied results from one to the next. At Tom’s Hardware, we typically use repeatable tests as long as they still relate to the demands of game play. But then again, even the style or tactics practiced by individual gamers will account for varied performance during actual game play. For example, do you practice stealth tactics, snipe from afar, or blaze down a path with a vehicle-mounted machine gun ripping up all of vegetation in sight? Each style will, at times, place different demands on the system components, resulting in different levels of performance. While a “worst-case” scenario is the safest general situation to paint, it still may or may not represent the performance your gaming style will generate. With that said, let’s get to it.

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    Top Comments
  • 1898
    BlackDays:
    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.
    10
  • Other Comments
  • Anonymous
    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.
    0
  • Anonymous
    Readers, don't use this as your only source of info before buying a PC. The writer left out the Intel i5-750 (which has a price range around $189-209, and outperforms all of those CPUs EXCEPT the i7.) Not only that, but LGA1156 motherboards are typically cheaper than the LGA1336 mother boards. Sure, the i7 has hyper threading, and triple channel memory support, but you're gaming here, not running high end video and 3D programs that would actually make great use of hyper threading. The only benefit I can see, is if you have the extra cash to throw around and you plan on running the applications. I guess a second benefit would be expandability, since you won't be able to upgrade the 1156 chips to Intel's next line of processors, the i9. The i5 can really over clock like a beast with the right motherboard, too.

    The writer also left out a great GPU: the Radeon 4870 1GB. Single GPU card, almost perfect for anybody considering running today's games at 22" 1650x1080. Of course, you'd want the 4890 for bigger than that, but still, most of these cards (especially the nVidia ones) are not quite price matched with the performance. A good 4870 can run you $170, and a great 4890 can run you $199. The nVidia "equivalents" (GTX 275, 285, and 260) all run about $260+.

    I'm not sure why these two great products were left out (i5 and 4870,) but if there is a good reason, disregard what I said, but honestly, I don't see the good this article is doing without at least including them.
    -19
  • winner4455
    YAAAAAAAAAAAY part 2!
    1
  • dragonsprayer
    The secret to building a balanced gaming by pc, by WarpedSystems.

    First, i have been building overclocked only gaming pc's since 2003 with zero failures and 3 year cpu warranty.

    #1 cheap cpu - 3.0c northwood - research that far back! CPU = 920 or 750 clocked to 3.8ghz or up too 4.2ghz

    #1.5 cpu cooling: in 2004 we used thermalright xp-90, while we still use the thermal right true, we perfer the noctua - research and use the best coolers.

    rule 1 of air cooling: dual fans! seal the fans - see photos!

    #2 raid, we run dual raid with short stroking - we have been short storking since 2004. Your hard drive arm should move as little as possible a 4 x 1000TB set is 1000GB of raid0 for the c drive. the remaing 3TB is raid 10.

    ssd: we run raid5 on hard drive and single ssd as the c drive, the raid 5 is data drive/game drive. This could be a raid0 or raid10.

    Video card, you put all your money in the video card! A $2000 computer can have a GTX 295 use the i5 750. A $3000 air cooled system will have 2 video cards.

    Power supply = .6 x true max power. this is usually 500 watts to 600 watts of max power. A 750, 850 or 1000 is best. NEVER GO LESS THEN 40% OF AVERAGE! 60% rule allows for a video card upgrade.

    Case ...fans, fans and more fans. Anetec 1200 can not be beat for air cooling. All cases are copies of the antec 900. There are many good cases but you want 1 120mm in, 120mm out rear and 1 120 mm blowing on the video card. or 2 80's or bigger

    antec 1200 has 2 rear 120mm and 2 front - we pull one section on both the 900 and 1200 and hide wires in the lower cubbie. That means we move the bottom cage up 1 slot, we remove 1 3 slot cage.

    check THG links: http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&rlz=1T4GGIH_enUS236US236&um=1&q=warpedsystems+thg&sa=N&start=0&ndsp=18

    finally bios tuning - memory and bus speed are critical, too high is bad!!! Too high is bad! fsb 1600 or 400x4 has been the sweet spot for years. Whether your running a G0 6600 at 3.6GHz 1600fsb or QX9600 at 1l multiplier at 4.4ghz 1600fsb works! Above that you run into many many issues. At fsb 1600 ram timmigs are ddr2 = 2.0-2.1v 4-3-4-10, 4-4-4-12, etc with core 2 ddr3 at 1.91v you have 7-7-7 with the i7/i5 you run 1.64v at 8-8-8-20 or 8-7-8-20. you find true 100% stablity with the correct timings and fsb and you do not get odd phase bus speeds.

    yes, you can tweek the system to 1800mhz but do the tests and you find in most cases you spent more money to get little performance gains and lost stability -- 97-100% stablity. 100% = zero crashes - never!

    temps, video card temps are key. Manually set fan speeds to stay under 75c with 70c the best. Stock temps and high cards run 80-85c even with good systems. You can use really good cooling to reduce that with antec 1200 etc. A 120mm fan does not fit an i7 mobo - we use 92mm fans in the door and hot glue it.


    Conclusion, overclock your cpu, remember the difference between an i7 920 and 975 may only be factory setting and both run the same speed! Buy the best video card, use the best cooling case and cpu cooler. If your not using a SSD ....RAID RAID RAID! RUN RAID! IT IS EASY!

    good luck, you find you get alienware level performance just as i did in 2003 after a few weeks of bios tuning!
    -10
  • 1898
    BlackDays:
    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.
    10
  • knightmike
    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.
    3
  • ibnsina
    Great article, it's educational, looking forward to ATI’s 5000’ series comparisons.
    8
  • knightmike
    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?
    -4
  • amnotanoobie
    Hooray! Now this is a good reference on the forums when people ask for bottlenecks
    3
  • scrumworks
    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.
    -6
  • astrodudepsu
    Good article. Will read parts 3&4.
    0
  • sheol
    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?
    6
  • cypeq
    howray at last :D
    -3
  • KT_WASP
    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.
    2
  • AZRAELCRUZ
    Clearly the Phenom IIX3 720 is the Core 2 Duo annihilator because the advantage of its extra core...
    4
  • Anonymous
    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.
    4
  • superpowter77
    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.
    5
  • verrul
    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.
    -6
  • Kelavarus
    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
  • dark_lord69
    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.
    1