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Pricing, Methodology, And A Sample Chart

Part 3: Building A Balanced Gaming PC
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In order to establish a cost for each combination 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, and again most of these are unfortunately not in favor of the consumer. The few remaining GeForce GTX 260 and Radeon HD 4890 graphics cards currently both start at $200, so you’ll notice those two cards overlap.

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. We’ll continue to use the same sample chart, but actual data charts for Part 3 will plot five processors paired with seven graphics 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 gameplay. 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
  • 14 Hide
    builderbobftw , May 12, 2010 1:45 PM
    Quote:
    Its total nonsense, buying pc for gaming today. I have Xbox360 and PS3 + Nintendo DS and also QuadCore based gaming PC. I dont play on PC anymore, im only using it for browsing, listening music and communicating with others. Netbook should be totally sufficient for such task, i will never buy PC for gaming in future. GO and buy gaming console, if you have good TV, and you will be sitting around 2 - 2,5 meters from screen, graphics is pretty good - totally sufficient.


    if the diffrence bewteen console and PC isn't night and day, you must be using a 5450.
  • 12 Hide
    ColMirage , May 12, 2010 4:22 AM
    fatkid35first!

    Facepalm...

    Glad to see the last part of the series. Very useful!
Other Comments
  • 12 Hide
    ColMirage , May 12, 2010 4:22 AM
    fatkid35first!

    Facepalm...

    Glad to see the last part of the series. Very useful!
  • -3 Hide
    liquidsnake718 , May 12, 2010 4:37 AM
    I love how on the first page picture of all the games on this article show the games that truly take a toll on GPU's and CPU's. You are however missing Metro 2033 and Dirt 2 in DX11 which obliterates some GPUs in DX11!
  • 8 Hide
    IzzyCraft , May 12, 2010 4:56 AM
    A metro 2033 graph wouldn't be interesting it would start at 0 and end at 5 for most set ups :D 
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , May 12, 2010 5:23 AM
    The choice of Corsair Dominator for the RAM is surprising, given that there are equally fast and stable choices at a much lower price point. OCZ, G Skill, Crucial, etc. I still love their power supplies though.
  • 0 Hide
    duk3 , May 12, 2010 5:27 AM
    ColMirageGlad to see the last part of the series. Very useful!


    They mentioned a part 4 in the article, with overclocking AMD processors.
  • 1 Hide
    kaintfm , May 12, 2010 5:27 AM
    The choice of Corsair Dominator for the RAM is surprising, given that there are equally fast and stable choices at a much lower price point. OCZ, G Skill, Crucial, etc. I still love their power supplies though.
  • 0 Hide
    agnickolov , May 12, 2010 6:05 AM
    And where is the Core i3 530? This is the real gaming gem of a CPU, but I hardly see it in any reviews @ Tom's...
  • 3 Hide
    FUtomNOreg , May 12, 2010 7:40 AM
    Very enlightening though, given my current rig's specs, thoroughly depressing. Curse you for breaking my delusion that my PC was adequate! I feel an overwhelming urge to upgrade coming on.....
  • 6 Hide
    micky_lund , May 12, 2010 8:02 AM
    haha...the i5s so close to the i7 in everything :D ....such as an awesome buy for gaming, on the intel side at least
  • 0 Hide
    Lewis57 , May 12, 2010 10:35 AM
    A great article. I'm impressed with the I5 in all these charts. It would of been nice to use something a bit beefier than the i7-920 to see if that itself is causing a bottle neck.
  • 0 Hide
    gti88 , May 12, 2010 10:48 AM
    Wolfdale will still be a decent CPU until 2012, I guess.
  • 0 Hide
    bikermicefrmars , May 12, 2010 11:46 AM
    Where's i3, please include it in tests with same clock speed as E8400 and show its performance!
  • 8 Hide
    kartu , May 12, 2010 12:26 PM
    5770 wasn't even considered? :( 
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , May 12, 2010 1:09 PM
    I am very suprised that the quad core processors seem to give better results with the 5870. I wonder why that is. I still have my Q6600 OC'ed to 3.2...I was thinking that I should upgrade to teh i5 750...but after seeing this article...I am struggling to find a reason.....well unless I have a lot of money for a dual GPU card.....NOT.....;(
  • 14 Hide
    builderbobftw , May 12, 2010 1:45 PM
    Quote:
    Its total nonsense, buying pc for gaming today. I have Xbox360 and PS3 + Nintendo DS and also QuadCore based gaming PC. I dont play on PC anymore, im only using it for browsing, listening music and communicating with others. Netbook should be totally sufficient for such task, i will never buy PC for gaming in future. GO and buy gaming console, if you have good TV, and you will be sitting around 2 - 2,5 meters from screen, graphics is pretty good - totally sufficient.


    if the diffrence bewteen console and PC isn't night and day, you must be using a 5450.
  • 1 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , May 12, 2010 2:15 PM
    Looking forward to reading the next article in the series.
  • -5 Hide
    shin0bi272 , May 12, 2010 2:35 PM
    so you guys claim we should be looking to buy a 285 (dx10 card) and a core2 duo 8400 (socket 775)? Exactly what are you smoking? yeah here go buy this 1982 ford mustang... its a mustang for crying out loud... its just the WORST mustang ever made. And its old technology so you could do a lot better by buying a newer one that will last longer and have better technology.
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