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.