System Builder Marathon, Q1 2013: $1,600 Alternative PC

The Less-Obvious Benefits Of Spending More

Today’s $1,600 build started out as an upgrade to my original $1,000 Performance PC, and should have contained only the components needed to make that build perform better. At the end of the day, however, I had to spend a little more on a motherboard that didn't help my performance, but rather addressed a couple of show-stopping flaws. Those issues were revealed when I paired an E1-stepping CPU with 1.65 V RAM, and then added a very heavy cooler with a very high-tension mounting kit.

Because I had problems with both the CPU memory controller and motherboard flex, I can’t be completely sure that Noctua's NH-D14 isn’t responsible for the whole mess. I only know from experience that the big cooler had a negative impact on at least three of my ASRock Z77 Extreme4 motherboards. And I’m not willing to talk about what might have happened to my fourth motherboard sample in my mad rush to find the problem.

I also know that Intel explicitly states that 1.50 V plus or minus 5% is the limit for Ivy Bridge-based processors, while at the same time validating the use of 1.65 V memory. I further know that the Z77 Extreme4 automatically sets 1.665 V for DDR3-2133, that ASRock’s set voltage levels are slightly lower than its actual voltage levels, and that nobody has given me proof of the E1-stepping Core i5’s ability to cope with voltage levels approaching 1.7 V.

In the end, I was forced to either give up the big CPU cooler or try a different motherboard model. In the end, I was forced to scale back to low-voltage RAM. And, in the end, I was left with ten days, two processors, and four motherboards wasted.

All of that work, and I still don’t see any increase in overall value when it comes to the performance-per-dollar charts. I do like that the system is quieter, that its case is more durable, that its power supply has more connectors, and that the extra hard drive provides room for all my old media files.

I also like that it can game at 5760x1080. You see, the $1,000 PC, for all of its performance and overall value hype, simply couldn’t be called a consistent triple-display performer. Most games needed a second GPU to produce smooth 5760x1080 frame rates, and some game settings even required the second card simply to reach 2560x1600.

The only thing that could make the $1,000 PC a universal gaming box is if we limited it to 1920x1080. Real quality-seekers will find real gaming quality in the $1,600 build, which also has a better case, motherboard, CPU cooler, and more storage capacity. Even though we paid money to get those non-gaming improvements, the second card still pushes this system’s gaming value far beyond that of our original $1,000 build.

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    Top Comments
  • Crashman
    StickmansamWhy not the 7870XT like Sapphire calls it?
    That's fine, please tell AMD to do the re-brand!
    22
  • Fulgurant
    pyro226"a board damaged a processor that in turn damaged every board it touched, which in turn would damage every processor it touched" and ram damaging a CPU?I think I'm a bit afraid to build computers now. If either of those situations would have happened to my $600 build, I would have cried and given up...


    That sort of thing happens once in a blue moon. Don't let it bother you.

    I guess Tom's tale of woe summarizes why Intel recommends against higher than 1.575 volts on the memory controller of Ivy/Sandy:

    http://www.intel.com/support/processors/sb/CS-029913.htm#4
    IntelWhat are the Intel® Core™ i7 desktop processor DDR3 memory voltage limitations?
    Intel® recommends using memory that adheres to the Jedec memory specification for DDR3 memory which is 1.5 volts, plus or minus 5%. Anything more than this voltage can damage the processor or significantly reduce the processor life span.


    In any case, the performance benefits of overclocking memory on a Sandy/Ivy platform seem so miniscule that it's scarcely even worth considering. Buy memory capable of an appropriate speed @ 1.5V, and leave it be.

    (I know Tom mentions Intel's position on memory voltage on the last page of the article, but I wanted to re-emphasize it because I've seen literally hundreds of people dismiss Intel's statement on various hardware forums. When sites like Tom's Hardware push limits, even for questionable performance gains, we all benefit -- but when someone who's on a budget and might not know any better pushes limits on his own, hard-earned hardware, the results might be tragic. Tom's experiments with this stuff so we don't have to.)
    13
  • Crashman
    Azn CrackerAren't the 7870 myst only $240 a piece?
    See This?
    Article TextThe prices in that table were what we paid when the parts were ordered, and a lot of them changed over the last six weeks. For example, the PowerColor card is $20 less, per board. Other prices are up. All told, then, the total cost of buying our machine and replicating the build is within $20 of our original invoice.
    13
  • Other Comments
  • Azn Cracker
    Aren't the 7870 myst only $240 a piece?
    -6
  • Crashman
    Azn CrackerAren't the 7870 myst only $240 a piece?
    See This?
    Article TextThe prices in that table were what we paid when the parts were ordered, and a lot of them changed over the last six weeks. For example, the PowerColor card is $20 less, per board. Other prices are up. All told, then, the total cost of buying our machine and replicating the build is within $20 of our original invoice.
    13
  • mikenygmail
    Please call the graphics cards 7870 LE from the start, like this:
    "Video Cards: 2 x 7870 LE - PowerColor PCS+ AX7870 Myst Edition"
    After all, it is much more than a standard 7870.
    I had no idea it was the LE until I got to the third page.
    -3
  • Crashman
    mikenygmailPlease call the graphics cards 7870 LE from the start, like this:"Video Cards: 2 x 7870 LE - PowerColor PCS+ AX7870 Myst Edition"After all, it is much more than a standard 7870.I had no idea it was the LE until I got to the third page.
    In AMD/ATI model lingo, LE stands for a cut-down part. So a Tahiti-LE wouldn't be a 7870 LE, it would be a 7950 LE. The fact that it carries the 7870 model number is unfortunate, but the article attempts to make it clear that this is indeed a Tahiti-LE
    12
  • stickmansam
    Why not the 7870XT like Sapphire calls it?
    7
  • Crashman
    StickmansamWhy not the 7870XT like Sapphire calls it?
    That's fine, please tell AMD to do the re-brand!
    22
  • pyro226
    "a board damaged a processor that in turn damaged every board it touched, which in turn would damage every processor it touched" and ram damaging a CPU?

    I think I'm a bit afraid to build computers now. If either of those situations would have happened to my $600 build, I would have cried and given up...
    5
  • Anonymous
    I like that build better.. :D
    1
  • Fulgurant
    pyro226"a board damaged a processor that in turn damaged every board it touched, which in turn would damage every processor it touched" and ram damaging a CPU?I think I'm a bit afraid to build computers now. If either of those situations would have happened to my $600 build, I would have cried and given up...


    That sort of thing happens once in a blue moon. Don't let it bother you.

    I guess Tom's tale of woe summarizes why Intel recommends against higher than 1.575 volts on the memory controller of Ivy/Sandy:

    http://www.intel.com/support/processors/sb/CS-029913.htm#4
    IntelWhat are the Intel® Core™ i7 desktop processor DDR3 memory voltage limitations?
    Intel® recommends using memory that adheres to the Jedec memory specification for DDR3 memory which is 1.5 volts, plus or minus 5%. Anything more than this voltage can damage the processor or significantly reduce the processor life span.


    In any case, the performance benefits of overclocking memory on a Sandy/Ivy platform seem so miniscule that it's scarcely even worth considering. Buy memory capable of an appropriate speed @ 1.5V, and leave it be.

    (I know Tom mentions Intel's position on memory voltage on the last page of the article, but I wanted to re-emphasize it because I've seen literally hundreds of people dismiss Intel's statement on various hardware forums. When sites like Tom's Hardware push limits, even for questionable performance gains, we all benefit -- but when someone who's on a budget and might not know any better pushes limits on his own, hard-earned hardware, the results might be tragic. Tom's experiments with this stuff so we don't have to.)
    13
  • Crashman
    pyro226"a board damaged a processor that in turn damaged every board it touched, which in turn would damage every processor it touched" and ram damaging a CPU?I think I'm a bit afraid to build computers now. If either of those situations would have happened to my $600 build, I would have cried and given up...
    I told Chris the system was cursed, but he refused to let the project go after the seventh day. Three more days rescued the content, if not the hardware...
    FulgurantThat sort of thing happens once in a blue moon. Don't let it bother you.
    Once every 12 years is twice in 13 years too often...
    12
  • Fulgurant
    CrashmanOnce every 12 years is twice in 13 years too often...

    Heh, by that I didn't mean to dismiss your hardship. Sorry to hear it, definitely!

    And thanks for all the hard work. Excellent article.
    5
  • DarkSable
    Okay, so you talk about the Ballistix RAM being your secondary.

    I have a serious question for you. Does Tom's know about the overclocker's secret when it comes to RAM? I've been amazed that you guys don't use it in your enthusiast builds, ever. It's pretty much the most overclockable ram ever seen, is low profile, and only costs $50 for 8GB.

    I don't want to spoil the name and tell everyone, but, well... it's the only ddr 3 ram out there that uses a 22nm process.
    -3
  • Crashman
    DarkSable...overclocker's secret...most overclockable...low profile...only costs $50 for 8GB.
    The problem is that we've seen these claims dozens of times concerning many versions of Samsung's RAM over the past TWO YEARS and, every time we test these claims, they turn out to be exaggerations. This is the first memory set we've tested to exceed the wild expectations set forth by blusterers.
    10
  • de5_Roy
    i anticipated an extra build. but boy it exceeded my expectiations and then some. :)
    really appreciate the hard work and the excellent, interesting article.

    i liked the gigabyte board choice, better than asrock extreme4.

    one question - do the recent events related to asrock extreme4 change your recommendations, especially with heavy air coolers? how about other motherboards (incl. asrock) that seem to offer better features in exchange for pcb strength?

    imo mid/mini/tower cases should include some kind of standardized, customizable suspension support(from the case ceiling) for heavy air coolers. the suspension could be made from wire or metal/plastic (resizable) rods etc. or make more cases like cooler master haf xb lan box. aio coolers like nzxt kraken x40 may be an alternative.
    1
  • flong777
    Interesting comparison. One critique though. I have read dozens of tests on the NH-D14 and I own the NH-D14 and nearly all professional reviewers rave about how easy it is to install. I installed mine in a little over five minutes with zero problems. I doubt it was the mounting bracket of the D14 that caused your problems. You can overtighten the mounting screws on the D14 but you would have to be a klutz to do it. They are engineered to stop at the right tension and I found that the mounting system worked perfectly for me.

    My system is an I-7 2600K CPU and so maybe with the larger mounting surface of the 3570 CPU there may be other considerations. But if that was true, we would read about this problem in the Newegg reviews and we simply don't see the problem that you mention. You may want to look at your installation method.
    0
  • Crashman
    de5_Royone question - do the recent events related to asrock extreme4 change your recommendations, especially with heavy air coolers? how about other motherboards (incl. asrock) that seem to offer better features in exchange for pcb strength?imo mid/mini/tower cases should include some kind of standardized, customizable suspension support(from the case ceiling) for heavy air coolers.
    The funny thing is that both boards appear equally stiff, and both boards appear to be 4-layer boards. I have no clue why the Extreme4 didn't agree with the cooler this time, but I can at least recommend against this motherboard/cooler combination.

    You know what would be better still? Through bolts to the motherboard tray, like we see on SSI-CEB boards.

    But Intel tried that with BTX, and nobody bought it. I personally blame Intel for not making BTX an extension of ATX, since cross-compatibility could have helped the cooler support mechanism and cooling tunnel survive market resistance.
    9
  • merikafyeah
    When people said the NH-D14 was a heavy bastard, I didn't actually think it could warp the board so much that it caused system-wide instability. Damn. If heatsinks get any heavier we're gonna need 4mm thick motherboard PCBs just to mitigate the flexing.
    4
  • mayankleoboy1
    Crashman on reply overdrive :lol:
    5
  • chesteracorgi
    Very interesting. One of the reasons that I prefer closed loop coolers (CLCs) to the big heatsinks is because of the stress they place on the motherboards. The torque is constantly present whether or not you move the machine, Even if you lay the tower on its side it still causes stress. The stresses involved with a CLC is negligible compared to the huge heatsinks of air coolers.

    I think that this is one of the reasons that Intel decided to go with CLCs for Sandybridge-e CPUs. When I had to RMA a CPU (i5 2500K) last year the tech at Intel was aghast at my not using their standard cooler. When I told him that I knew that Intel was using CLCs for their SB-e line and couldn't object, he laughed and approved the RMA.

    I agree with Crashman about the cooler OEMs supplying a stiffening motherboard tray, that distributes the torque, if they are using oversized heatsinks.

    I was actually more interested in this article than in the normal evaluations of systems because of your story of tribulations with the motherboard and CPU. I'm glad to know that you pursued the problem to its end because I would have had problems affording 4 mobos and 3 CPUs.

    And I am sticking to CLCs in my gaming builds and recommendations in the fora. A CLC may be a bit more expensive and a little less efficient that an air cooler, but I have had yet to see one crack a motherboard and the cascading problems you experienced.
    4
  • ojas
    In the light of Intel's warning (1.5v +/- 5%), is it unsafe to use low-voltage DDR3? Like 1.25 and 1.35v? A lot of those models are popular and have 5 stars and good reviews on newegg...
    2