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Build A Balanced AMD-Based Gaming PC On A Budget

Build A Balanced AMD-Based Gaming PC On A Budget
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We’re revisiting an age-old question with a modern twist: can you build a balanced gaming PC with a sub-$100 CPU and not be limited by graphics performance? When you pick the right parts, a capable machine is easily within reach for very little money.

Although we spend much of our time talking about and testing ultra-high-end hardware, sometimes it can be far more special to create something magical on a budget. Given a shift away from the high-end segment (but an eagerness to remain relevant to enthusiasts), AMD has a handful of inexpensive multiplier-unlocked models that power users can tweak without the burden of on-die graphics eating into the thermal budget.

For example, the Athlon X4 750K sports two modules based on the Piledriver architecture. Each module includes a pair of integer cores and a shared floating-point unit. Typically, you'd expect to find this configuration on AMD's APUs belonging to the Trinity family, with 100 W thermal ceilings and Radeon graphics. In this case, however, the company disables the GPU altogether, dedicating the 100 W ceiling to its x86 cores.

Learn About Piledriver

For more information about AMD's Piledriver architecture, check out AMD FX-8350 Review: Does Piledriver Fix Bulldozer's Flaws?

Newegg sells the Athlon X4 750K for $80, which is a solid bargain since that K suffix indicates an unlocked multiplier that's easy to overclock. And once it's properly tuned, it has little trouble keeping up with the $125 Core i3-3220.

Just that one well-thought-out choice already saved us $30 on our budget-oriented build. We can use that money elsewhere. But how much more can we save if we similarly think through each one of the components in an inexpensive configuration?

It All Depends on the Right Combination

Bottlenecks are a bad thing, regardless of whether you're looking at top-end gear or more mainstream hardware. In fact, a limitation is more likely to adverse the value-oriented setup, since its absolute performance is lower to begin with. We already know that it's possible to build a well-balanced system at a very low price. So, our first order of business after tapping the Athlon X4 750K has to be finding a discrete graphics card able to complement that CPU. The goal is to find something with enough 3D alacrity to let us turn on more advanced detail settings, like anti-aliasing.

Using our Graphics Card Charts, we poked around for the right board able to game comfortably at 1920x1080. And our main requirement is that frame rates remain playable. 

Most CPU reviews are written using high-end graphics cards to deliberately isolate processor performance, alleviating GPU bottlenecks. In theory, that's admirable. But applicability to the real world is limited, since you'd never drop a GeForce GTX 780 Ti into a motherboard with one of these Athlon X4s in it. So, we turn the tables and start at the bottom of the graphics hierarchy instead.

We'll Pick Two Solutions: Bare Minimum Or A Step Up

During the course of our story, we'll naturally be considering the value of the parts we pick. The plan is to present two different configurations at a couple of price points. First, we'll look at the product of using the least-expensive components possible. The second machine puts a bit more emphasis on quality and looks.

Everyone's needs (and budgets) are different, so you may prefer one system over the other. Or, perhaps a combination of their parts is more suitable. Of course, less expensive components don't necessarily have to be lower-quality or ugly. Being frugal can even be a strength, so long as you're exercising that value in the right places, and not indiscriminately across the board.

Display 75 Comments.
  • 14 Hide
    esco_sid , May 29, 2014 2:47 AM
    It does not make sense to spend $80 on a case for a budget entry system why all the focus on eye candy at additional cost ? for the money you can get better hardware such as fx-6300 setup with better graphics card that's what i would be worried about while on a budget.
  • 5 Hide
    Memnarchon , May 29, 2014 4:37 AM
    The minimum version is a trully great budget build, while the Red Devil is more ITX luxury build. An SSD and $80 case on a gaming budget? ;p
  • 9 Hide
    Zeh , May 29, 2014 4:43 AM
    Nice article, but I guess it's really important for readers to understand that the extra stuff is completely optional and the main point is #415 gets you a very decent (if not Good) gaming PC.
    We have $315 spent on eye candy, SSD and a little bit more thermal headroom, which is 76% of the 'cheap' budget.

    Personally, I would only get the SSD. Maybe the MB with Wifi if I'm building something really small and would like to avoid cable clutter. Definately not gonna spend $50 on a bit more mhz, neither $55 on a case for cheap hardware,
  • 3 Hide
    sparkyman215 , May 29, 2014 5:38 AM
    Error on page 4, paragraph 9: sticker -> stickler
  • 3 Hide
    ddpruitt , May 29, 2014 5:54 AM
    Now the trick is to benchmark both systems. Let's see if the "Bare Bones" build can keep up with the eye candy Red Devil build. I doubt there's a huge difference in performance, or perceptible noise levels. For a system that costs almost twice as much you might be able to be handle cost by going for functionality instead of looks. 240Gb SSD (or potentially more), better CPU or better GPU, though to each his own.

    For bonus points it would be nice to compare the budget build to a console in the same price range, but alas an Apples to Apples comparison isn't possible.
  • 4 Hide
    Onus , May 29, 2014 6:00 AM
    I really want to like articles like this. I lurk at the "budget" end of the spectrum myself, and some of the analysis on this one is really good, but I absolutely agree with Zeh; so much optional stuff was covered that it really distracted from what I expected to be the main point.
    I would have liked to have seen the bottom dollar build done first, followed by a discussion of what upgrades or enhancements might be substituted.
    Also, at least a few benchmarks are needed, if only to show that yes, this is a competent gamer, especially if "good" but less-than "UltraMaxOhWOW" settings are used.
  • 5 Hide
    vertexx , May 29, 2014 6:01 AM
    Nice article. This is definitely the way to present gaming system design, especially with graphics card selection based on CPU scaling. I really think the "Best Gaming CPU/GPUs for the $$" series could benefit from this approach. Instead of separating the CPU/GPU, you really want to look at the best combo's for the $$.

    I think you handled the "baseline" vs. "Red Devil" options well. The great thing about a budget build is not necessarily being a race to the bottom, but it's all about saving money so you can spend some on smart components that will add to the enjoyment of building and running the PC. With the case selection, that's a smart selection. Who wants to build a PC in a case that you're going to want to replace in 6 months? Perhaps you could have offered a cheaper alternative, but I like the choice to spend the extra $$ on the case.

    The only letdown I have is on memory scaling. There is a very long thread of debate in the Best CPUs for the $$ article about how strongly memory scaling impacts the 760K CPU because of its lack of L3 cache. The key seems to be that you also need to overclock NB freq. Because there are simply no reviews out there with a fully overclocked 760K platform, I was really hoping when I saw this article that the memory scaling would have been included.

    @Damric - if you're reading this article, perhaps you can chime in.

    Overall though, this is a great read! I can't wait to see a OC'd 760k vs. the upcoming OC'd Pentium in a budget shootout. If this is done, you really need to look at game selection and analyze games that optimize for more cores vs. the single-threaded performance in which the Pentium will excel.

  • 0 Hide
    Bill Reinhardt , May 29, 2014 6:09 AM
    Steam machine??
  • 1 Hide
    Falcorion , May 29, 2014 6:10 AM
    On the GPU selection page at the top it should read "Finding the Right GPU" not "Finding the Right CPU".

    Also, is there a reason we completely dismissed the r7 265?

    In fact it seems like you looked over a LOT of good value choices for a budget system.

    Tom's Hardware selections for a lot of their tests lately have had weird hardware choices....
  • 1 Hide
    Falcorion , May 29, 2014 6:21 AM
    Also, I wanted to add that your builder installed the PSU the wrong way, the fan should be facing the vent on the bottom, not the metal plate below the motherboard.
  • 9 Hide
    damric , May 29, 2014 6:48 AM
    Thanks, TH for bringing this platform to the light.

    A few things I'll add:

    The baseline build is fine. Pretty much every member of the Overclock.net 750K/760K fan club is pushing an HD 7850/7870 (R7 265/R9 270), so the build is balanced very well, but slightly favoring the GPU, which is good. The Super Flower PSU is not available in the USA. SF does not ship here. You can get SF Golden Green PSUs rebranded as Rosewill Capstone though. I have one in my 760K rig, imagine that :) 

    Now, on the enhanced build I say go with the 760K for $10 more.. What you get with this CPU is the improved Richland memory controller. It's even better than the ones in the FX Visheras. Good 2133CL9 or 2400CL10 is not that much more expensive, at maybe $10 more. This combination will make up for lack of L3 cache, as THE RAM will have close to the same latency as the L3 cache on the FX chips. You can verify this in Sandra or AIDA memory and cache latency tests.

    $40 for a CPU cooler is way too much to pay for a CPU this cheap, as at this point you might as well have gone with a faster i3 which can use the stock cooler. You shouldn't pay more than $12-18 for an aftermarket cooler, just something with some basic heatpipes will do. The TX-3 would be perfect at $18. No need for fancy TIM, just use the included stock thermal grease.

    And again, fix the PSU listing, as SF doesn't ship to the USA.

    Thanks again.
  • -2 Hide
    Traciatim , May 29, 2014 7:07 AM
    So this leaves you with the upgrade paths to -> Nothing. Could you do a comparison of this machine vs a Haswell Pentium model of somewhat similar price? Something like the 3420 or 3440? At least then in a year or two you could grab an i3/5/7 and a video card and rejuvenate your old machine.
  • 2 Hide
    damric , May 29, 2014 7:11 AM
    Quote:
    So this leaves you with the upgrade paths to -> Nothing.


    Wrong. FM2+ is alive and well. Soon the Steamroller based Athlons will be coming, and there will also be Excavator APUs and CPUs on this chipset. AMD has already confirmed this.

  • 4 Hide
    vertexx , May 29, 2014 7:14 AM
    Quote:
    So this leaves you with the upgrade paths to -> Nothing. Could you do a comparison of this machine vs a Haswell Pentium model of somewhat similar price? Something like the 3420 or 3440? At least then in a year or two you could grab an i3/5/7 and a video card and rejuvenate your old machine.


    I'd like to know how many people actually upgrade their CPU without also upgrading their motherboard. My guess is its a pretty small minority. Within a year, it's too much to spend to upgrade let say from a $140 i3 4130 to a $220 i5. Within two years, you're probably wanting a new motherboard if you really want to upgrade. I think the best "upgrade" path is to buy the best "platform" you can afford now and then upgrade components later.

    In this case, the "buy now" is the baseline components in this article. The upgrade path is those extra components that make up the Red Devil build.
  • 5 Hide
    envy14tpe , May 29, 2014 7:46 AM
    This article is purely a teaser. We all want to see the benchmarks..yesterday!
  • 0 Hide
    Traciatim , May 29, 2014 8:31 AM
    Quote:
    Quote:
    So this leaves you with the upgrade paths to -> Nothing. Could you do a comparison of this machine vs a Haswell Pentium model of somewhat similar price? Something like the 3420 or 3440? At least then in a year or two you could grab an i3/5/7 and a video card and rejuvenate your old machine.


    I'd like to know how many people actually upgrade their CPU without also upgrading their motherboard. My guess is its a pretty small minority. Within a year, it's too much to spend to upgrade let say from a $140 i3 4130 to a $220 i5. Within two years, you're probably wanting a new motherboard if you really want to upgrade. I think the best "upgrade" path is to buy the best "platform" you can afford now and then upgrade components later.

    In this case, the "buy now" is the baseline components in this article. The upgrade path is those extra components that make up the Red Devil build.


    I do on tons of machines I've had. It's not quiet as common anymore since the CPU's from the same sockets in the past few years don't have much performance difference if you already have a pretty performance rig, but in this case the low budget you can get in to a decent rig now and in 2-2.5 years upgrade it to a used i5/i7 and a new-ish video card and you'd extend this rig out to 4-5 years for a budget of 500 bucks every 2-2.5 years.

    Sure, FM2+ is going strong now. I'll only believe the new CPU's that get released for it are a worthy upgrade from the 750k when I see the real processors and see benchmarks from multiple sources. I certainly don't trust AMD enough to buy stuff with the hopes their new releases, but right now you have a defined upgrade path with the Pentium->i3/5/7 route. If AMD happens to follow the 'efficiency is good' route that has been teh trend in CPUs these days you might end up with things that perform about the same as the 750k but just use less power and are just slightly faster, kind of like people with current sandy/ivy bridge rigs (like myself) who want to upgrade but have nowhere to go.

  • 5 Hide
    Vlad Rose , May 29, 2014 8:38 AM
    So, you spend $80 on an Athlon X4, and another $40 on a CPU cooler to be able to overclock it so that it can perform equal to a stock $125 i3? Sounds like a waste overall trying save $5 ($120 vs. $125). Not to mention the increased wattage draw as a result.
  • 0 Hide
    Shin-san , May 29, 2014 8:51 AM
    I feel that the build is pretty good. $300-400 is a good target for a budget system. I would also like to see the "durable" option, where I feel parts of the Red Devil covered it well
  • 2 Hide
    vertexx , May 29, 2014 9:19 AM
    Quote:
    So, you spend $80 on an Athlon X4, and another $40 on a CPU cooler to be able to overclock it so that it can perform equal to a stock $125 i3? Sounds like a waste overall trying save $5 ($120 vs. $125). Not to mention the increased wattage draw as a result.


    Yep - good point, but this route is much more fun! And who wants to show off a stock cooler?

    (I'm with you though, because if you're not overclocking you can skimp on the motherboard and do something for ~$60 for a real budget build. Plus, you have less power & cooling required).

    It all depends on what the user wants. If you want to tinker, then this build is great. If you want lowest budget period, then I think the intel route is still better. Heck, my youngest son's PC is a pentium G on an H81 ITX board with a hand-me-down AMD 7850. It's built in a Silverstone SG05 using a 300W FMC SFX PSU. That build was really cheap (especially since I'm making him run Linux on it.... haha). It's a perfect Steam box.
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