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Benchmark Results: Battlefield 3 And StarCraft II

System Builder Marathon, March 2012: $650 Gaming PC
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Battlefield 3

We’re incorporating a new quartet of games into our 2012 System Builder Marathon test suite, replacing former favorites that often taxed our budget-friendly graphics hardware. Of these new games, Battlefield 3 is the most graphically-demanding.

In order to get acquainted with the game’s hardware demands, (and unlock every mission), I played through the entire campaign on the overclocked December $600 PC (yes, sometimes play accompanies work). The Ultra quality preset was far too taxing at 1920x1080, and frame rates also dropped too low at 1680x1050. But things smoothed out acceptably at 1920x1080 using the High  quality preset. Unfortunately, it turns out we won't be using High in our SBM series.

This is obviously a graphics-heavy test, evidenced by noticeable resolution scaling already at Medium detail levels. Armed with a Radeon HD 6950, this quarter's PC leads our previous configuration, despite its respectably overclocked Radeon HD 6870. Even still, both machines are easily playable at test settings really meant for a $500 machine sporting less powerful graphics hardware.

Battlefields 3’s Ultra quality preset was exactly where I hoped the Radeon HD 6950 would flex its muscles and allow the current PC to deliver a better gaming experience than what last quarter's build could muster. There are more graphically demanding areas encountered within the game, so I’d argue that an average of 45 FPS is a safer minimum target than our typical 40 FPS mark.

The current machine leads, delivering good performance through 1680x1050. But the platform still falls shy or where we'd want to be at 1920x1080. Likewise, the former PC is capable through 1280x1024. But, as mentioned, it's too slow at anything higher than 1680x1050. This quarter's build takes a victory in Battlefield 3.

StarCraft II

This 60-second Fraps-based benchmark is demanding right at the start, but eases up as enemies are eliminated from the map. We’ll stay consistent by running the same four resolutions, but note that in StarCraft II, lower settings don't do the game justice.

Including 1280x720 in our testing often helps establish where bottlenecks are happening. If you remove that resolution, we're going to be inclined to overemphasize the importance of the GPU. But because we have it, we see a drop in performance as the aspect ratio gets wider, indicative of a CPU limitation. The fact that the Core i5-based machine easily wins at every resolution backs up our hypothesis, while also providing evidence that this game exploits more than two processing cores.

Similar CPU-limited results emerge at the highest graphics and texture settings, although the two builds are now grouped more tightly together. It’s interesting to note that the stock Radeon HD 6870 is definitely working hard at 1920x1080, as average frame rates drop off more precipitously, while the Radeon HD 6950 in the current build is still held back by its host processor, losing only 2 FPS.

Both systems breeze through this multi-player map. While graphical demands bring the average frame rates of our stock machines at 1920x1080 to within 2 FPS of each other, minimum frame rates are more CPU-limited. The current build never drops below 72 FPS, while the December PC maintained 10 more frames per second than that. Despite very playable performance from both machines, we must award victory to last quarter's PC. Its more powerful processor delivers smoother performance in the game's biggest and most intense battles.

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  • 22 Hide
    yukijin , March 26, 2012 5:24 AM
    so now that all the 6950's are deactivated or $289+, is this build invalid? because a 7850 is looking really good right now...
  • 17 Hide
    SpadeM , March 26, 2012 6:54 AM
    whysobluepandabearI appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch. Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks. To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.

    It's not an issues of whether they had the money or not, it's a matter of principle, you set your budget and goals at a certain point and then you make choices. Sure, not everyone will be happy with what they chose but that's what forums are for.

    Anyways, anything a bit over 60fps (on a 60hz monitor) really isn't that bad, i mean you might lack the bragging rights but at the end of the day, it's about gaming and feeling satisfied that you shot enough monsters. To further empathize that having 70 fps constant is not total shit because another GPU can serve you 130 (as if you're going to notice without watching the fps counter) my one suggestion for this SBM would be to introduce a different style of graphs. Below 30fps all the colors of the bars to be grey and over 60 the same thing. This to focus the attention on most relevant (to my opinion) segment. I've seen a lot of ppl chase those fps numbers, buying expensive GPUs only to have them sit in a bad enclosure, sub par motherboard or weak CPU.
    Even in gaming, i believe balance is key.
  • 16 Hide
    whysobluepandabear , March 26, 2012 5:45 AM
    I appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch.

    Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks.

    To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.
Other Comments
  • 22 Hide
    yukijin , March 26, 2012 5:24 AM
    so now that all the 6950's are deactivated or $289+, is this build invalid? because a 7850 is looking really good right now...
  • 15 Hide
    tristan_b , March 26, 2012 5:43 AM
    What yukijin said.
  • 16 Hide
    whysobluepandabear , March 26, 2012 5:45 AM
    I appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch.

    Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks.

    To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.
  • -3 Hide
    Anonymous , March 26, 2012 5:51 AM
    How do I win this????
  • 5 Hide
    mortsmi7 , March 26, 2012 5:55 AM
    Let me get this straight... you raised the budget $150 "as a result of steep price hikes on mechanical storage", then only spent $85 on a HDD. You really just wanted a more expensive graphics card. You could have taken the $70 processor savings and the $65 under-budget HDD savings and nearly have had a $500 build.
  • -8 Hide
    de5_Roy , March 26, 2012 6:37 AM
    very good read.
    nice to see where core i3's limits lie.
    i wonder if you guys will consider amd's new fx 6200 or fx 8120 for the $1200 build, with 78xx series in cfx.
  • -7 Hide
    serhat359 , March 26, 2012 6:45 AM
    if I had $600 for a PC, I would go with i3-21xx, 6870, a better mobo and a better case.
    it is probably the best thing to do
  • 17 Hide
    SpadeM , March 26, 2012 6:54 AM
    whysobluepandabearI appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch. Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks. To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.

    It's not an issues of whether they had the money or not, it's a matter of principle, you set your budget and goals at a certain point and then you make choices. Sure, not everyone will be happy with what they chose but that's what forums are for.

    Anyways, anything a bit over 60fps (on a 60hz monitor) really isn't that bad, i mean you might lack the bragging rights but at the end of the day, it's about gaming and feeling satisfied that you shot enough monsters. To further empathize that having 70 fps constant is not total shit because another GPU can serve you 130 (as if you're going to notice without watching the fps counter) my one suggestion for this SBM would be to introduce a different style of graphs. Below 30fps all the colors of the bars to be grey and over 60 the same thing. This to focus the attention on most relevant (to my opinion) segment. I've seen a lot of ppl chase those fps numbers, buying expensive GPUs only to have them sit in a bad enclosure, sub par motherboard or weak CPU.
    Even in gaming, i believe balance is key.
  • 2 Hide
    confish21 , March 26, 2012 6:58 AM
    Great Job! These builds keep me at Tomshardware!

    Only thing 1 thing, you said an I3 was used instead of an I5 on this page...
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/build-gaming-pc-overclock,3159-8.html
    You can check the 600 dec build here...
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/core-i5-overclock-performance-gaming,3097.html
    Pretty sure an I5-2400 was used.
  • 4 Hide
    jerreddredd , March 26, 2012 7:46 AM
    I'm glad they used a i3 2120 for the CPU, but I wish they would have used some of the newer cards like the HD 7950 or the GTX 560 Ti 448. these are roughly the same price. Spending and extra $20 on a PSU was a waste. the EA430D and 380W are the core of the budget build. I would like to see some testing of a few of the less expensive PSU ($50 or less) to see which are junk and which aren't bad.
  • 10 Hide
    Crashman , March 26, 2012 8:33 AM
    SpadeMIt's not an issues of whether they had the money or not, it's a matter of principle, you set your budget and goals at a certain point and then you make choices. Sure, not everyone will be happy with what they chose but that's what forums are for.
    Exactly. These parts were picked 5 or 6 weeks ago and Paul wanted to get maximum gaming performance this time. I prefer balanced systems, but then again I don't build something called the "$xxx Gaming PC"
  • 9 Hide
    pauldh , March 26, 2012 8:39 AM
    mortsmi7Let me get this straight... you raised the budget $150 "as a result of steep price hikes on mechanical storage", then only spent $85 on a HDD. You really just wanted a more expensive graphics card. You could have taken the $70 processor savings and the $65 under-budget HDD savings and nearly have had a $500 build.

    $150? Check the text again. We raised it $50 (from $600). quote- "Although our previous system ducked in under $600 with a small promotional savings factored in, duplicating our efforts when the series went live required more than $650 as a result of steep price hikes on mechanical storage. Consequently, we bumped the official budget up to $650 this quarter, keeping a level playing field with the prior config."

    The $500 Gaming PC does in fact have a long history at Tom's Hardware, but during the past few years we've often raised that limit to explore more attractive (higher) levels of hardware such as the recent Core i5-2400 and HD 6950.
  • -1 Hide
    giovanni86 , March 26, 2012 9:32 AM
    Not a bad build, can't really recommend this to any of my buddies but i do look forward to the next build. Is it just me or like maybe 5 years ago these builds used to cost 2x what they cost today =P Like performance was 5-7k.
  • -8 Hide
    tmk221 , March 26, 2012 9:50 AM
    I don't like this build. I think they should use afterburner or some other software to overclock gpu. That card would go much further imo. Also I think that phenom 2 x4 965 BE would yield better performance as you can overclock to ~4ghz.
  • 9 Hide
    pauldh , March 26, 2012 10:03 AM
    yukijinso now that all the 6950's are deactivated or $289+, is this build invalid? because a 7850 is looking really good right now...

    The HD 7800 series was not available until weeks after our window of opportunity (for ordering) had expired. So you will not see 7800s (or the GTX 680) in any of this month’s builds.

    Sure, the 7850 is an option now if within budget. Although a firm $650 component cap would mean dropping to a Sandy Bridge Pentium, or AMD FX-4100 build. Otherwise, there’s the cheaper GTX 560 Ti, which could leave funding for a different case and/or mobo.

    Good catch, ALL 6950s had been deactivated, now there is a single 2GB in stock for $290. Not likely, but worth keeping an eye on, since last gen parts often drop in price to offer tremendous value (before drying up altogether).

    jerreddreddI'm glad they used a i3 2120 for the CPU, but I wish they would have used some of the newer cards like the HD 7950 or the GTX 560 Ti 448. these are roughly the same price. Spending and extra $20 on a PSU was a waste. the EA430D and 380W are the core of the budget build. I would like to see some testing of a few of the less expensive PSU ($50 or less) to see which are junk and which aren't bad.
    Thanks, yeah, the Core i3 is very attractive for gaming, but we see overall how much it gives up in productivity.

    On the GPU side - The HD 7950 is far more expensive, so I assume you meant the 7850. As stated above, those were unavailable for any of this month’s builds. The GTX 560 Ti 448 was of course available, but at a much higher cost. It was way out of reach (back then) for a $650 build.

    confish21Great Job! These builds keep me at Tomshardware!Only thing 1 thing, you said an I3 was used instead of an I5 on this page... http://www.tomshardware.com/review [...] 159-8.htmlYou can check the 600 dec build here...http://www.tomshardware.com/review [...] ,3097.htmlPretty sure an I5-2400 was used.

    Thanks! i3-2400 was a typo. Fixed!
  • 4 Hide
    molo9000 , March 26, 2012 10:20 AM
    I personally wouldn't buy or recommend to buy a dual-core processor in this day and age. Some gaming benchmarks look good, but most people would be better off with a similarly priced AMD quad-core or a higher priced Intel quad-core, especially if the system is meant to last a few years. (which it is. Budget gamers don't upgrade every 2 years)


    btw: Battlefield 3 singleplayer benchmarks are VERY misleading. Multiplayer is a completely different animal.
  • -4 Hide
    Anonymous , March 26, 2012 10:58 AM
    gtx 480 run at $250 much better than 695
  • -6 Hide
    edwinjr , March 26, 2012 11:18 AM
    Where is system builder marathon for $500?
  • 0 Hide
    Onus , March 26, 2012 12:20 PM
    This build does a lot to confirm the need for balance. Confirmation vs. revelation is not a bad thing; consider the "revelation" in that $1200 SBM of just how badly an FX-6100 sucks. I'm not going to niggle over the parts in this build; my niece has commented that the E4400 rig I built for her some 5 years ago is now somewhat sluggish, so I'd love to win this one as a solid upgrade for her.
    Incidentally, I appreciate the initial remarks about the budget in this one. While I would like to have seen an additional $500 build, I understand why you did it this way, and am glad to see that you'll be returning to that budget next time.
  • 0 Hide
    jaquith , March 26, 2012 12:32 PM
    Thanks for the article.

    I refer to these builds often, I have a terrible time choosing components with budget minded builds. It's easy to say i7-2600K, $200+ MOBO, 8GB+ DDR3-1600 RAM, $200+ SSD, etc.

    For the most part everything is very playable with the exception of Metro 2033 at higher details/etc, and as one person pointed-out the HD 7850 is the HD 6850 replacement it might give some extra oomph but from what I recall 2~4FPS which is still short of 35+FPS needed.

    Obviously, a (i5/i7) 4-core is going to aide in productivity and in some gaming.
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