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Just Enough Overclocking To Game...

System Builder Marathon, Q2 2013: $650 Gaming PC
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Aside from manually setting up XMP memory settings, but with a 1T command rate, I limited my tweaking to the graphics card. Having already run stock numbers, I discovered that, out of the box, my $650 PC fell just short of solid 1920x1080 performance in all games.

Today’s overclocking effort makes a departure from my normal practice of dialing in the maximum stable overclock, and then dropping it a notch or two in the interest of extended stability. The Tahiti GPU's performance advantage over Pitcairn comes at the expense of higher power consumption, leading to more heat, and in this case quite a bit of noise. I suspected this going into the build, but didn’t know if I'd find the fan intolerable or not. 

Thankfully, this rig remained nice and quiet at idle, as PowerColor tunes the graphics fan to remain silent when it can. Even in games, it's slow to spin up, which is probably a good thing, since I imagine some RMAs are based on noise alone. Enthusiasts won’t be fooled, though. And for many, this card simply runs loud and hot. Of course, this largely depends on the frequencies you use, ambient room temperatures, and airflow inside your chassis.

Of our test games, Far Cry 3 tampers with GPU temperatures most, and just standing still for 10 minutes outside the Amanki Outpost produces a pretty quick and realistic burn that even out-heated 30 minutes of actual gaming (where the GPU load varies more). Our stock GPU climbed to 87 degrees Celsius and the automatic fan curve peaked at 60% duty cycle. Under a load like this, the GPU bounced back and forth between its base and boost frequencies, spending little time at 975 MHz. GPU load was also reported as bouncing back and forth between 64 and 100%.

Simply raising the power limit +10% prevented this throttling, allowing a constant 975 MHz core speed. But at a solid 99% load, the GPU then crested 90 degrees Celsius and the fan shot up over 80%!

To overclock further, I needed to override the automatic fan profile. I certainly wasn't about to change the thermal interface material on a card we’d be giving away. I also had to set some limits to avoid testing an overclock I wouldn't use in the real world. Therefore, I bumped up the fan's rotation speed in 10% increments to determine an acceptable range. Somewhere north of 50%, I'd be reaching for headphone. And at 90% and above, the noise was simply intolerable, even with headphones over my ears.

Pressing on, my next step was to customize a fan profile in MSI Afterburner to ramp up more quickly. While the stock profile would typically be quieter, the effect of my change, under heavy load, was GPU temperature reduction at 975 MHz to 75 degrees Celsius using 70% fan duty cycle. In warm climates, you might want to tinker with this card's fan profile, even if you don't overclock to improve the lethargic curve's response time.

I decided that 80 degrees Celsius, resulting in 80% fan rotation, was my tolerable maximum. From that point, my fan profile would ramp up to 100% at 85 degrees, and I’d quickly know when my overclocking efforts exceeded those limits. I'm convinced that this Tahiti GPU had more to give, but 1100 MHz successfully smoothed out gaming at the resolution I was shooting for. Knowing that its memory wasn't going to be as scalable, I left the GDDR5 data rate alone. The final frequencies gave me a peak of 77 degrees Celsius and 74% rotation, which was both cooler and quieter than the automatic profile trying to juggle AMD's boost frequencies.

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  • 1 Hide
    Madn3ss795 , June 16, 2013 11:16 PM
    Just 1 question: Why not a 4gb ram stick instead? That board only has 2 RAM slots, so wouldn't it be better to use just one and save another for upgrading later?
  • 2 Hide
    nokiddingboss , June 16, 2013 11:19 PM
    a great starting build at a very reasonable cost. it was a good read mate. gotta <3 the 7870xt for gaming. best bang for the buck. if only the i5's are a little cheaper... next quarter perhaps?
  • 2 Hide
    sbudbud , June 16, 2013 11:27 PM
    Quote:
    Just 1 question: Why not a 4gb ram stick instead? That board only has 2 RAM slots, so wouldn't it be better to use just one and save another for upgrading later?

    I think this is for performance reasons, dual channel memory beats single channel in performance but more memory is better. I guess the reason is that 4gb is the sweet spot in terms of what is recommended and that going single channel 4gb for future upgrade to 8gb dual channel will has diminishing returns..
  • 2 Hide
    thasan1 , June 16, 2013 11:35 PM
    ahh finally, i was wondering what happened to system builder marathon..
  • -2 Hide
    thasan1 , June 16, 2013 11:36 PM
    but why mini ITX rigs?
  • -3 Hide
    sarinaide , June 16, 2013 11:44 PM
    $650 called budget, clearly my definition and the going opinion is far from budget, with it possible to build a ATX Intel or AMD system for a little extra but a lot more performance. I did see the Day5 $400 Ultimate Purist M-ATX, this I gotta see, my guess is another Intel build.
  • -2 Hide
    jestersage , June 16, 2013 11:46 PM
    Thank you for acceding to reader requests for an itx based SBM!

    I have similar preferences as the author when it comes to what I'd change here... a step down in graphics, a step up in CPU performance and bring up RAM to 8gb. I'm not very concerned about noise. I almost always put on a headset when I game.
  • 0 Hide
    MuadDibTM , June 17, 2013 1:31 AM
    Great job on the build and the article. Would have liked a noise comparison as well. Just so we'd know what we're talking about when going for a mini-ITX build.
  • -3 Hide
    bigshootr8 , June 17, 2013 1:57 AM
    Yea I'm a bit confused why you wouldn't go down to a 7850 2 gigabyte model and then spend the extra money on 8 gigabytes of memory instead ><
  • 2 Hide
    ARICH5 , June 17, 2013 2:51 AM
    jeez, it sounds like your face-palming yourself for getting the i3 through this whole article.
  • -3 Hide
    Larry Bob , June 17, 2013 3:21 AM
    You should have gone with the Sapphire 7870 XT instead for the cooler.
  • 3 Hide
    ojas , June 17, 2013 3:26 AM
    Quote:
    Just 1 question: Why not a 4gb ram stick instead? That board only has 2 RAM slots, so wouldn't it be better to use just one and save another for upgrading later?

    Guessing dual channel mode.

    Quote:
    but why mini ITX rigs?

    Um why not?

    Quote:
    $650 called budget, clearly my definition and the going opinion is far from budget, with it possible to build a ATX Intel or AMD system for a little extra but a lot more performance. I did see the Day5 $400 Ultimate Purist M-ATX, this I gotta see, my guess is another Intel build.

    Yes, lets not read the article at all and rush to the comments section. SBM defeats its purpose if we're going to stick to the same old stuff. What you're looking for has already been covered many, many times before in previous SBMs.

    Quote:
    Yea I'm a bit confused why you wouldn't go down to a 7850 2 gigabyte model and then spend the extra money on 8 gigabytes of memory instead ><

    Because there are more games that would benefit from a 7870 than 8GB of RAM? And anyway, 8 gigs is a relatively cheap upgrade, compared to the GPU.
  • 0 Hide
    ojas , June 17, 2013 3:29 AM
    AES-NI for core i3s may about to become a reality with Haswell.
    http://asder00.blogspot.it/2013/06/intel-desktop-skus.html

    http://techreport.com/news/24956/upcoming-intel-desktop-cpu-specs-possibly-detailed-in-leak
  • 2 Hide
    pauldh , June 17, 2013 3:36 AM
    Quote:
    jeez, it sounds like your face-palming yourself for getting the i3 through this whole article.


    No, not at all. Just contrasting the shift in platform balance from CPU to GPU. i3-3220 was perfect for this high-res mini-ITX gaming PC. Wouldn't have changed that up at all at this budget.

    However, it's not the way to go for winning the SBM (overall performance/value), factoring the 60% applications weighting. With an upwardly locked multiplier, we knew exactly how this i3 would rate there (been there, done that already).

  • 0 Hide
    ryanrich83 , June 17, 2013 4:10 AM
    I have a build with the same Cooler Master Elite 120 case. Good to finally see it included in a SBM article.

    For the money, it is hard to beat in an ITX case. There are better options, like the BitFenix Prodigy, but they cost almost twice as much.

    Only downside to the case is the noise. Fans are running at near max to keep temps tolerable.
  • 0 Hide
    Killroyjenkins , June 17, 2013 4:27 AM
    If you were going to leave the cpu at stock frequency, why not then undervolt it too? Certainly that would reduce heat a bit and could help with the graphics card issue.
  • -1 Hide
    airborn824 , June 17, 2013 5:33 AM
    a budget PC with i3 instead of AMD? o find that odd. anytime you get a CPU under 200 its obvious to go AMD.. Isnt it? or is society blinded by shiny s?
  • 2 Hide
    ojas , June 17, 2013 5:53 AM
    Quote:
    a budget PC with i3 instead of AMD? o find that odd. anytime you get a CPU under 200 its obvious to go AMD.. Isnt it? or is society blinded by shiny s?

    1st thing: when gaming is priority, go Intel

    2nd thing: Below $200, look at the i5s. There isn't much point to lots of GPU muscle if you're going to be held back by a CPU bottleneck.

    3rd thing: The moment you hit thermally constrained spaces, Intel is the company of choice.
  • 0 Hide
    David Siebert , June 17, 2013 6:29 AM
    I could not help myself so I built my own version of this on PC parts picker.
    I used a different case and power supply and bumped the ram up to 8Gb and swapped the 500GB hard drive for a 120GB SSD. I can in under 650 after shipping and rebates.
    You could do a 64GB SSD and the 500GB drive for the same price but I figured Hard Drives are cheap and you might have one sitting around that you could add if you did this build or add one when you find a good deal.
  • 0 Hide
    David Siebert , June 17, 2013 6:59 AM
    Here is my version of the $1200 itx build.
    http://pcpartpicker.com/user/lwatcdr/saved/1MTa
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