Part 3: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

What does it mean to build a truly-balanced PC? How great would it be to piece together a machine bottlenecked by neither CPU or GPU? We set forth to measure the perfect balance in seven different games and four resolutions in this third of many parts.

1) Building A Balanced Gaming PC: Part 1
2) Building A Balanced Gaming PC: Part 2
3) Building A Balanced Gaming PC: Part 3

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, as we continue today with Part 3 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 potions 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. Part 2 covered these same graphics cards paired with three AMD Phenom II processors. So far we have concentrated on stock performance, but it is now time to turn our attention towards overclocking. Additionally, we'll later dedicate two stories to exploring the benefits and scaling of graphics horsepower with ATI's CrossFire and Nvidia's SLI technologies. Along the way, we'll try to add new products to the mix, taking into account recent hardware launches. Here in Part 3, we migrate to Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit, introduce ATI Radeon HD 5000-series graphics, and set up an additional Intel Core i5 LGA 1156 platform.

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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  • builderbobftw
    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.
    14
  • ColMirage
    fatkid35first!

    Facepalm...

    Glad to see the last part of the series. Very useful!
    12
  • Other Comments
  • fatkid35
    first!
    -31
  • ColMirage
    fatkid35first!

    Facepalm...

    Glad to see the last part of the series. Very useful!
    12
  • liquidsnake718
    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!
    -3
  • IzzyCraft
    A metro 2033 graph wouldn't be interesting it would start at 0 and end at 5 for most set ups :D
    8
  • Anonymous
    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
  • duk3
    ColMirageGlad to see the last part of the series. Very useful!


    They mentioned a part 4 in the article, with overclocking AMD processors.
    0
  • kaintfm
    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.
    1
  • agnickolov
    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...
    0
  • manitoublack
    Bought 2 GTX295's on release and run them on my i7-920, in SLi at 640MHz. Still over a year on and there still almost top dog.

    Great review Toms, and makes it easier to sleep at night knowing that 14months on little can touch what I've got regardless of the $1600AUD buyin.
    -10
  • FUtomNOreg
    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.....
    3
  • micky_lund
    haha...the i5s so close to the i7 in everything :D....such as an awesome buy for gaming, on the intel side at least
    6
  • Lewis57
    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
  • gti88
    Wolfdale will still be a decent CPU until 2012, I guess.
    0
  • bikermicefrmars
    Where's i3, please include it in tests with same clock speed as E8400 and show its performance!
    0
  • kartu
    5770 wasn't even considered? :(
    8
  • Anonymous
    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.....;(
    0
  • Anonymous
    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.
    -18
  • builderbobftw
    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.
    14
  • JohnnyLucky
    Looking forward to reading the next article in the series.
    1
  • shin0bi272
    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.
    -5