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Part 2: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

Part 2: Building A Balanced Gaming PC
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1) Building A Balanced Gaming PC: Part 1
2) Building A Balanced Gaming PC: Part 2

Are you disappointed? Are you frustrated? Are you wondering why your PC won’t game? Before you make a rash decision, resulting in a wrongful upgrade or a new system purchase, you need to know exactly what it means to build a balanced gaming platform. We want to welcome you back to one of our most ambitious projects ever (if you missed Part 1, check it out right here), as we continue today with Part 2 of this multi-part series aimed at educating PC users on what it means to seek balance in their configuration.

Balance is what is often lacking in standard off-the-shelf PCs. Even the configurations flaunting fast processors, lots of memory, and ample storage space typically still don’t have sufficient graphics muscle to get things done in today’s demanding 3D games. It (balance) is also what’s lacking when gamers buy the hottest new graphics card, only to discover that their aging system and slow CPU prevent it from delivering the expected level of performance you often see in our own graphics evaluations.

Of course, we realize that the Tom's Hardware audience is far from your average PC user. Perhaps you’re an enthusiast who already knows his or her stuff. After all, you’ve done your research. You thrive on the latest hardware reviews and have long been building your own machines, allotting the proper portions of budget to the components that will best suit the system's intended purpose.

Well, we encourage you to read on and form your own conclusions, as there will be plenty of data to scour, tested and presented in a way you likely have never seen before.


In this series, we combine various levels of graphics cards and processors to determine which offers the best balance in a number of different games. Rather than turn down graphic settings to reach playability, we keep them cranked as high as possible in order to determine exactly how much hardware muscle you need to enjoy these games as the developers intended them to be seen. Keeping the same level of eye candy, we’ll also test various resolutions, simulating the experience of several different monitor sizes, too (right up to 30").

As you might imagine, testing numerous graphic cards paired with numerous processors in numerous games very quickly turns into a massive data set. In order to cover the broadest range of hardware and still keep the project manageable, we chose a handful of CPUs from Intel and AMD, and several graphics cards from both ATI and Nvidia. Too large a project to be wrapped into a single story, it will be split up into a multi-part series, and potentially even an ongoing saga covering newly released hardware, drivers, and games.

There are three main goals for this series:

First, we want to simply present the raw data, gleaned by pairing various CPUs and GPUs. Typical graphics card reviews try to eliminate system-oriented limitations by using a high-end CPU. We've heard many of you complain about this, and are addressing it here. Typical CPU reviews often use a high-end graphics processor and/or lowered detail levels to eliminate GPU-oriented bottlenecks. Reasons for that should be obvious, but here in this series, we’ll have the opportunity to see how the hardware you own today performs versus faster or slower setups. Second, we aim to recommend a minimum level of hardware for each game and at each resolution. This is where theory turns into pragmatism and the story becomes a buyer's guide. Third, we'll show you exactly where the best balance between your CPU and GPU truly resides, with as little “bottlenecking” as possible. 

In Part 1, we took a look at how six different graphics cards perform when paired with four Intel CPUs, two dual-core models and two quad-core chips. Here in Part 2 we continue the series with a look at these same graphics cards paired with three AMD Phenom II processors. Again, we concentrate on stock performance in this edition, but will later turn our attention toward overclocking. Additionally, we'll dedicate two stories to exploring the benefits and scaling of graphics horsepower with ATI CrossFire and Nvidia's SLI technology. Along the way we'll try to add new products to the mix, taking into account the recent ATI Radeon HD 5800-series and Intel Core i5 launches.  

Before we move onto today’s data, we’ll again take a peek at the hardware we use in this series.

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  • 10 Hide
    1898 , December 1, 2009 6:24 AM
    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.
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
    YAAAAAAAAAAAY part 2!
  • 10 Hide
    1898 , December 1, 2009 6:24 AM
    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.
  • 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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