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Is It Unbalanced, Or Right For Gaming?

System Builder Marathon, March 2012: $650 Gaming PC
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It’s no surprise that our new value-oriented PC got smoked by the System Build Marathon’s overall performance weighting, considering we built it purely to game at native resolutions. If you're buying an affordable gaming display today, it'd probably be a 1920x1080 display. If you're using something a few years old, it might be a 1680x1050 screen instead.

In that context, we're comfortable dropping the influence of our CPU-limited low-resolution tests in order to focus on the best playable settings at those more interesting settings. In the chart below, we average performance in our six comparable games, considering only the highest-quality results in all but one of them. Metro 2033 was unplayable on both systems using 4x MSAA and the DoF filter enabled. So, we instead count the lower-detail benchmark numbers in this title.

On average, today's stock platform outperforms last quarter's by 9% at 1680x1050 and 10% at 1920x1080. It comes out on top in five of the six titles, leading between 5-16% at 1680x1050 and 9-17% at 1920x1080. A lone defeat is suffered in StarCraft 2, where the lower-end CPU inhibits performance to the tune of 3% and 2%, respectively, at both of our important resolutions. That’s a fairly insignificant loss, though, when minimum frame rates didn't drop below a very-smooth 72 FPS. If you're not looking to tamper with overclocking, today's build certainly offers more raw potential for a better native-resolution gaming experience.

Combining a 10% graphics core clock increase, a 12.4% graphics memory overclock, and lower system RAM timings leads to 10% higher frame rates, on average, from last quarter's build. That’s amazing overclocking efficiency, which must have successfully targeted the platform's main bottlenecks. This month we only achieved one-half of the core overclock, and less than a third of the memory boost. Staying within the bounds of AMD's Overdrive applet certainly handicapped our overall potential. Yet, even this small boost was enough for this quarter's overclocked PC to secure quantifiable victories in Battlefield 3, Crysis, and Metro 2033.

In reality, both builds offer solid gaming at 1680x1050 and 1920x1080. While we hope game developers continue pushing the limits of PC hardware, a majority of popular games aren't as demanding as the titles we test. Often, the difference between a Radeon HD 6870 and 6950 come down to the amount of anti-aliasing you can apply and still see playable performance.

It takes an entire platform firing on all cylinders to deliver a smooth gaming experience. Beyond hardware, even the efficiency of game code or the maturity of graphics drivers need to be considered. Although we know how important a graphics card is for pushing high detail settings at native resolutions, we don't want to undermine the role a capable processor plays in games. The wrong CPU can artificially limit performance at low resolutions, and hold us back from seeing a GPU's maximum potential.

Today’s system accomplished its goal of providing a higher degree of raw muscle for 1920x1080-based gaming. How much you’d benefit from the decisions we made depends on the games you like to play, the resolutions you use, and the details settings you select. I'm a graphics fanatic, and always find a way to appreciate bigger and badder graphics subsystems. 

Our test suite makes it clear that last quarter's $600 PC, with its Core i5-2400 processor, better serves the demands of a broader audience. Today's Core i3-2120 falls flat in demanding productivity applications. We're just glad that it doesn’t throw our system out of balance for our intended purpose.

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