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

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

Here are links to each of the four articles in this quarter’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $600 Gaming PC
Day 2: The $800 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $1,000 Performance PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected
Day 5: The $1,600 Alternative PC

Introduction

Surprise! You thought our System Builder Marathon ended last week, right? Well, we were busy working on one final follow-up that doubles the price of Don's $800 machine to see if the limitations of this quarter's narrow price band can be overcome at a still-reasonable $1,600.

Most of Tom's Hardware's editors were enthusiasts before they ever dreamed about covering technology in print. We read dozens of competing review sites to gather the most unbiased balance of opinion and test results before finally plopping down our hard-earned dollars on a handful of parts.

Now, a lot of the components we write about show up at our offices before they're even available to everyone else, and sometimes that pile of free stuff pulls us away from the realities of saving up over the course of weeks or months for a value-packed system to replace once-modern technology. Fortunately, regular interaction with our audience helps keep us grounded.

We continue building our own boxes and participating in the comments for each of the stories we write. Because of this, we're pretty good about anticipating the responses we're going to get for each of our System Builder Marathon machines. Although we're not prophets, we have a pretty good bead on the ways of the enthusiasts. We knew that tightly framing this quarter's competition around the expected price/performance pinnacle would leave a lot of you searching for something more.

That anticipation compelled us to order the parts for an upgraded version of our $1,000 PC for a fifth-day bonus build more than a month ago, priced at $1,600.

But wait. We've been sitting on the parts for a month. The Marathon was published last week. What took us so long to get this story done? What did I fail to anticipate? Today's piece is loaded with twists and turns. Grab a cup of coffee or tea, and join us as we put this last System Builder Marathon machine together.

Q1 2013 $1,600 Alternative PC Components
ProcessorIntel Core i5-3570K: 3.4 GHz Base Clock Rate. 3.8 GHz Turbo Boost, Quad-Core, 6 MB Shared L3 Cache$230
Graphics2 x PowerColor PCS+ AX7870 Myst Edition 2GBD5-2DHPPV3E $520
MotherboardGigabyte Z77X-UD4H: LGA 1155, Intel Z77 Express$170
MemoryCrucial Ballistix Tactical BLT2K4G3D1608ET3LX0: DDR3-1600 C8, 8 GB (2 x 4 GB)$48
System DriveMushkin MKNSSDCR240GB-DX: 240 GB, SATA 6Gb/s SSD$180
Storage DriveWestern Digital WD1002FAEX: 1 TB, SATA 6Gb/s Hard Drive
$105
OpticalAsus DRW-24B1ST: 24x DVD±R, 12x DVD±R DL$20
CaseFractal Design Define R4 w/Window$120
PowerCorsair HX750: 750 W Modular, ATX12V v2.3, 80 PLUS Gold$120
CPU CoolerNoctua NH-D14$81
  Total Cost $1,594


The 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.

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Top Comments
  • 22 Hide
    Crashman , March 7, 2013 4:39 AM
    StickmansamWhy not the 7870XT like Sapphire calls it?
    That's fine, please tell AMD to do the re-brand!
  • 13 Hide
    Fulgurant , March 7, 2013 5:11 AM
    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 Hide
    Crashman , March 7, 2013 3:10 AM
    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.
Other Comments
  • -6 Hide
    Azn Cracker , March 7, 2013 3:06 AM
    Aren't the 7870 myst only $240 a piece?
  • 13 Hide
    Crashman , March 7, 2013 3:10 AM
    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.
  • -3 Hide
    mikenygmail , March 7, 2013 3:14 AM
    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.
  • 12 Hide
    Crashman , March 7, 2013 3:24 AM
    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
  • 7 Hide
    stickmansam , March 7, 2013 4:10 AM
    Why not the 7870XT like Sapphire calls it?
  • 22 Hide
    Crashman , March 7, 2013 4:39 AM
    StickmansamWhy not the 7870XT like Sapphire calls it?
    That's fine, please tell AMD to do the re-brand!
  • 5 Hide
    pyro226 , March 7, 2013 4:40 AM
    "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...
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , March 7, 2013 5:03 AM
    I like that build better.. :D 
  • 13 Hide
    Fulgurant , March 7, 2013 5:11 AM
    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.)
  • 12 Hide
    Crashman , March 7, 2013 5:12 AM
    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...
  • 5 Hide
    Fulgurant , March 7, 2013 5:16 AM
    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.
  • -3 Hide
    DarkSable , March 7, 2013 5:26 AM
    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.
  • 10 Hide
    Crashman , March 7, 2013 5:58 AM
    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.
  • 1 Hide
    de5_Roy , March 7, 2013 7:24 AM
    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.
  • 0 Hide
    flong777 , March 7, 2013 7:48 AM
    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.
  • 9 Hide
    Crashman , March 7, 2013 7:51 AM
    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.
  • 4 Hide
    merikafyeah , March 7, 2013 7:52 AM
    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.
  • 5 Hide
    mayankleoboy1 , March 7, 2013 8:11 AM
    Crashman on reply overdrive :lol: 
  • 4 Hide
    chesteracorgi , March 7, 2013 8:26 AM
    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.
  • 2 Hide
    ojas , March 7, 2013 11:02 AM
    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...
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