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Part 4: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

Part 4: Building A Balanced Gaming PC
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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 fourth 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
  4. Building A Balanced Gaming PC: Part 4

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 4 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.

These first two parts concentrated on stock performance. But in Part 3, we turned attention towards overclocking. We also migrated to Windows 7 x64, introduced ATI Radeon HD 5000-series graphics, and set up an additional Intel Core i5 LGA 1156-based platform. Today, we return to our Socket AM3 platform, pairing the same seven graphics cards with four overclocked AMD processors. Because triple-core Phenom II CPUs were no longer on AMD's pricing roadmap, we replaced the Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition with a similarly-priced Athlon II X4 640. Also, Part 4 incorporates AMD’s affordable six-core Phenom II X6 1055T. Graphics overclocks and driver versions were kept the same so that these results would be directly comparable to the data generated in Part 3.

Still to come, we’ll dedicate two stories to the benefits and scaling of graphics horsepower with AMD's CrossFire and Nvidia's SLI technology. We'll try to add new products to the mix, such as Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 400-series and revamp the benchmark suite with some new DirectX 11 titles.

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

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  • 3 Hide
    wildeast , August 11, 2010 6:33 AM
    "such as NVidia’s GeForce GTX 400-series and revamp the benchmark suite with some new DirectX 11 titles."
    i'll be waiting for that, and maybe some i5 cpu to see what fit sli best
  • 8 Hide
    jsowoc , August 11, 2010 6:58 AM
    "We set forth to measure the perfect balance in seven different games and four resolutions in this third of many parts." (?)

    I think you copied this paragraph from part 3 and forgot to change it to 4... ;-)
  • 4 Hide
    theshonen8899 , August 11, 2010 7:05 AM
    With the amount of love you guys have for the Athlon x3 I was really hoping to see it on here :\
    I guess I can kind of predict where it'd fall though.
  • 2 Hide
    Darkerson , August 11, 2010 7:23 AM
    I love the in-depth articles like these. Keep 'em coming!
  • 7 Hide
    L0tus , August 11, 2010 7:40 AM
    Brilliant piece.

    I wish I had read this before building my system as I can see that I clearly spent too much on my CPU instead of GPU (i5-750 + HD5770) . Would have done much better with (X2 550 BE + HD5850) !

    ...ain't hind sight a b***h!

    Also interesting to see how GPUs really start to distinguish themselves at higher resolutions. Again, brilliant work.
  • 2 Hide
    TheStealthyOne , August 11, 2010 8:01 AM
    I built a computer for my brother using a Phenom ii 550 paired with a 5770, and it screams! Fantastic gaming chip! It just goes to show you can achieve fantastic performance by planning and balance.
  • -1 Hide
    garlik_bread , August 11, 2010 9:10 AM
    Personally, i'd be interested to see results from a card with less han 1GB RAM on the GPU.

    On the lower end of the spectrum, with the lower resolutions, is the 1GB really necessary?

    Basically, i have a 512MB Asus 5770 and want to validate my purchase :D 
  • -1 Hide
    plasmastorm , August 11, 2010 10:22 AM
    Still running a Maximus formula 775 board with a Q6600, 8gb ram and a Radeon 5850 but this is certainly handy for future reference.
    Probably skipping the i5/i7 generation as I can still play anything at max settings on my 22" monitor while running a 2nd for a film tho :) 
  • 4 Hide
    Tamz_msc , August 11, 2010 11:22 AM
    Please test some newer games, which is essential for an article like this.
  • 1 Hide
    descendency , August 11, 2010 12:27 PM
    plasmastormStill running a Maximus formula 775 board with a Q6600, 8gb ram and a Radeon 5850 but this is certainly handy for future reference.Probably skipping the i5/i7 generation as I can still play anything at max settings on my 22" monitor while running a 2nd for a film tho


    i5/i7 isn't a generation. it's like 5 or so.

    It's the same thing as C2D and C2Q
  • -1 Hide
    jonpaul37 , August 11, 2010 12:35 PM
    plasmastormStill running a Maximus formula 775 board with a Q6600, 8gb ram and a Radeon 5850 but this is certainly handy for future reference.Probably skipping the i5/i7 generation as I can still play anything at max settings on my 22" monitor while running a 2nd for a film tho


    I hear ya man, i have a Q6600 @ 3.6 and a GTX 285 and i can rock anything i play with really nice settings at 1920 x 1080 so it looks like i will be holding out for another year or two...
  • 1 Hide
    Onus , August 11, 2010 1:14 PM
    Very nice. I really like this series.
    Suggestions: there's no need to draw curves; they should be point-to-point lines, as the data is discrete rather than continuous.
    For the RPG, I would suggest Dragon Age: Origins as being more demanding at higher settings, and/or Sacred 2 because of its use of PhysX. The latter runs the risk of becoming an ATi vs. nVidia comparison, but still may be useful.
    It would also be useful to have commentary on what bare minimum lowering of a setting or two is most likely to restore playability without sacrificing appearance too much.
  • 1 Hide
    lunyone , August 11, 2010 1:16 PM
    This totally makes my point, when I say a ~$100 CPU and a $200-$300 GPU are a the best budget gaming machines you can get. I usually make ~$100 CPU choices and ~$100-150 GPU choices when I'm building a budget gaming rig!! :) 
  • -4 Hide
    lemieuxxx , August 11, 2010 2:06 PM
    what about the i3 540. Is it horrable i see its not on here.
  • -2 Hide
    wolfram23 , August 11, 2010 2:46 PM
    Great article. Good to see how a faster CPU can really pull out better FPS, and it seems to make much more difference when having dual GPUs - I can only assume the trend would hold true on dual card (sli/cf) set ups, which makes me even happier to have an i5 750 @ 4ghz with my two 5850s.

    I hope Part 5 has i3, i5, i7, X955, X965, 1055T, 1090T and concentrates on DX11 performance (4xx vs 5xxx). I'd also LOVE to see a more in depth look at CF/SLI configs. There's not a lot of in depth looks at CF5770, CF5850, SLI470... there's some, but not a lot and none comparing these set ups to different CPUs.
  • 2 Hide
    felang , August 11, 2010 4:18 PM
    Catalyst 9.12 and only outdated games... is this January 2010 or what? you should at least test BFBC2, it uses as many cpu cores as you can throw at it...
  • 1 Hide
    Onus , August 11, 2010 4:32 PM
    Felang: they wanted it possible for readers to compare the results with previous articles in the series.
  • -1 Hide
    DXRick , August 11, 2010 5:04 PM
    Very nice article! I noticed that HD5970 and GTX295 benefited the most from the i7-920 CPU. This implies that Crossfire and SLI (multi-GPU setups) scale better with faster quads (and duals?). Thus, it would be nice to see how various CF and SLI setups depend on the CPUs in this test.

    Why did you use the older generation of Nvidia GPUs in this test? We are looking at the GTX460/470/480 now, with numerous test showing how well two 460's in SLI do.
  • 0 Hide
    nforce4max , August 11, 2010 5:04 PM
    Nice article, as for the L3 assessment I do agree that the lack of L3 cache does negatively impact performance but at least its not catastrophic as seen with the early days of the Celeron. Personally I use a meager 8250e that I nuked to 2.57ghz and it gets the job done plus it was dirt cheap. $16 after selling off some junked parts.
  • 1 Hide
    tognetta , August 11, 2010 5:19 PM
    I would like to see the great GTX460 here too ...

    Great job, i am thankful that i read it before building my next gaming machine !
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