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Part 1: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

Part 1: Building A Balanced Gaming PC
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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. Welcome to one of our most ambitious projects ever; this is Part 1 of a 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 portions 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’ll 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 will continue the series with a look at three AMD Phenom II processors paired with the same graphics cards. We concentrate on stock performance in this edition and the next, but will later turn our attention toward overclocking. Additionally, we'll dedicate two stories to exploring the benefits and scaling of graphics horsepower with ATI CrossFire and Nvidia's SLI technology. As mentioned, along the way we'll try to add new products to the mix, taking into account the recent ATI Radeon HD 5800-series and Intel Core i5 launches.  

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

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Top Comments
  • 18 Hide
    winner4455 , November 10, 2009 5:30 AM
    I see a great series coming
  • 10 Hide
    osse , November 10, 2009 8:38 AM
    This is good, this must be the first time in computer history things are beeing done right. And this is sure the best way i ever seen a review done, in my 18 yrs as an entusiastic computer builder. Looking forward to all the updates to come.

Other Comments
  • 4 Hide
    yoy0yo , November 10, 2009 5:28 AM
    Wow, this is an amazingly in depth review! I kinda feel that its sponsered by Asus or Corsair, but I guess you kept with the same brand for the sake of controls etc.

    Thankyou!
  • 18 Hide
    winner4455 , November 10, 2009 5:30 AM
    I see a great series coming
  • 2 Hide
    inmytaxi , November 10, 2009 5:40 AM
    Very helpful stuff.

    I'd like to see some discussion on the availability of sub $400 (at times as low as $280) 28" monitors. At this price range, does it make more sense to spend more on the LCD even if less is spent initially on graphics? I would think the benefit of 28" vs. 22" is so great that the extra money could be taken from, say, a 9550 + 4890 combo and getting a 8400/6300 + 4850 instead, with the right motherboard a second 4850 later will pass a 4890 anyway.
  • 6 Hide
    frozenlead , November 10, 2009 5:54 AM
    I like the balance charts. It's a good way to characterize the data. This article is well constructed and well thought-out.

    That being said - is there a way we can compile this data and compute an "optimized" system for the given hardware available? Finding the true, calculated sweet spot for performance/$ would be so nice to have on hand every quarter or twice a year. I'll have to think about this one for a while. There may be some concessions to make, and it might not even work out. But it would be so cool.
  • 1 Hide
    ghost111 , November 10, 2009 5:59 AM
    Nice one.Now i want to see part two.
  • 2 Hide
    brockh , November 10, 2009 6:05 AM
    Great job, this is the information people need to be seeing; the way people provide benchmarks these days hardly tells the story to most of the readers. It's definitely important to point out the disparities in ones CPU choice, rather than just assuming everyone uses the i7 all the sites choose. ;) 

    Looking forward to part 2.
  • 4 Hide
    sinny1 , November 10, 2009 6:18 AM
    wow! Awesome works! Can't wait til you guys get to the ATI 5000 series. Keep it up! :) 
  • 0 Hide
    Onyx2291 , November 10, 2009 6:22 AM
    This will take up some of my time. Even though I know how, it's nice to get a refresher every now and then.
  • 1 Hide
    scook9 , November 10, 2009 6:47 AM
    amazing article....one of the best I have seen in a long time (from any site)

    you all deserve a raise :) 
  • 1 Hide
    anamaniac , November 10, 2009 6:52 AM
    Very nice.

    The picture on the first page is better than any porno I've ever seen!
  • 2 Hide
    evolve60 , November 10, 2009 7:17 AM
    Quote:
    Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 (Yorkfield) 2.66 GHz, LGA 775, FSB-1333, 12MB L2 cache
    I'm pretty sure that its the Q9450/9400 is the one that runs at 2.66 GHz The Q9550 runs at 2.83 GHz.
  • 1 Hide
    liquidsnake718 , November 10, 2009 7:29 AM
    It took me roughly an hour and a half to read this article at work. Wow these are the types of tests and in depth articles that I’ve been waiting for. Its been about a month to two months since we’ve had such a deep study. The System Builder Marathon reviews and tests were great. The best GPU’s per price/performance are lacking and basic comparisons while this article shows us the true value and capabilities of certain GPU’s and CPU’s.

    Im however perplexed that the once good 4850 which is compared to my 9800GTX+ is deemed a weaker GPU now. I thought the Far Cry 2 tests shown in previous TOMs comparisons garnerd higher frame rates? I know that the systems were comparable.... Anyway keep up the good work and this is a Quality comparison/chart/review.
  • 1 Hide
    Saiyanz , November 10, 2009 7:51 AM
    This is a great review that people who are building pc's actual need to see.

    I was quite surprised by the power of the HD4890. It thumped the GTX285 and more powerful cards when using a dual core CPU. Even in Crysis which always seemed like it favoured Nvidia cards in past reviews. It is probably that the previous reviews all used overclocked quad cores and/or the ATI drivers have really improved.

    It also seems as though the Nvidia cards need a more powerful CPU in order to get equivalent performance to the ATI cards.
  • 9 Hide
    Bloodblender , November 10, 2009 8:07 AM
    It's just these kind of articles that make TH shine over the other sites. Well done!
  • 1 Hide
    astrodudepsu , November 10, 2009 8:10 AM
    Looking forward to the rest of the series. Well done.
  • 2 Hide
    skora , November 10, 2009 8:27 AM
    Thank you Paul and team for sacrificing many weeks on this project. Its great to have something to point at and say this is why you shouldn't do that. It will be great to be able do direct price/performance comparison for the same results of a less expensive OC'd system and stock system.

    Can't wait for the rest!!!!!

    Also, whats the chance of getting a how to run you're own benchmarks article so we can test our systems against yours using the same method?
  • 10 Hide
    osse , November 10, 2009 8:38 AM
    This is good, this must be the first time in computer history things are beeing done right. And this is sure the best way i ever seen a review done, in my 18 yrs as an entusiastic computer builder. Looking forward to all the updates to come.

  • 1 Hide
    masterjaw , November 10, 2009 8:45 AM
    My PC says 'bring in the part 2'. Is this would be a series also like the best GPU/CPU?
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