System Builder Marathon Q1 2016: Value Comparison

How do this quarter's builds stack up against each other, and those of last quarter, in terms of overall value?

System Builder Marathon Q1 2016

Here are links to each of the four articles in this quarter’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

  1. $1275 Professional Workstation
  2. $1232 Prosumer PC
  3. $662 Budget PC
  4. System Value Compared

System Value Compared

It's round three between Chris, Thomas and myself in the SBM. This time around we ditched all restrictions and were free to build anything we wanted. Chris branched out and explored the professional side with workstation graphics. Thomas made version 3.0 of his prosumer build by including both flash and mechanical storage and upgraded to a Skylake Xeon that allowed impressive overclocking range. I abandoned my initial Xeon plans after learning the other two used the exact same CPU and instead made a general purpose computer for the low-budget crowd that saw much smaller success in overclocking. We've seen how they compare to their predecessors, now comes the time to see how they compare to each other.

System Components Comparison
 Q1 2016 $1275 WorkstationQ1 2016 $1232 "Prosumer" PCQ1 2016 Budget PC
ProcessorIntel Xeon E3-1275 v5: 3.6GHz-4.0GHz, Four Cores, 8 MB CacheIntel Xeon E3-1230 v5: 3.40GHz-3.80GHz, Four Cores, 8 MB CacheIntel i3-6100: 3.7 GHz, 2C/4T, 3MB L3
CPU CoolerStock Intel CoolerDeepCool Gammaxx 400DeepCool 200T
MotherboardASRock Rack C236 WSIASRock Fatal1ty E3V5 Gaming/OCASRock Z170 Pro4S
GraphicsAMD FirePro W5100 100-505737, 4GB GDDR5Asus GTX970-OC-4GD5 GeForce GTX 970 4GBAsus Strix GeForce GTX 950 2GB
MemoryCrucial Ballistix Sport BLS2K8G4D240FSA 16GB (2x 8GB) DDR4-2400G.SKILL Ripjaws V F4-2666C15D-16GVR: DDR4-2666 C15, 16GB (2 x 8GB) Mushkin Redline DDR4-2400 C13, 8GB (2 x 4GB)
System DriveSAMSUNG 850 EVO 250GB SSDSAMSUNG 850 EVO M.2 250GB SSDWD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDD
PowerAntec EarthWatts Green EA-380D, 380W ATX12V 80 PLUS BronzeEVGA 600B: 600W ATX12V, 80 PLUS BronzeAntec VP-450 450W, ATX12V, 80 PLUS Bronze
 Core Components $1,090 $1,001 $515
CaseLian Li PC-Q04B mITX Case + Fractal Design R2 140mm Fan
Rosewill WolfStone ATX Tower
Rosewill Redbone U3
 Total Performance Components Cost $1,155 $1,061 $558
Storage DriveUses System DriveWD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDDUses System Drive
Optical DriveNoneNone
None
 Total Hardware Cost $1,155 $1,112 $558
OSWindows 10 X64 OEMWindows 10 X64
Windows 10 X64 OEM
 Complete System Price $1,275 $1,232 $662

Chris went the wildcard route this quarter seeking to build a true workstation with professional grade graphics and ECC memory. Market availability threw a monkey wrench his way as the correct RAM type he wanted was all out of stock at time of purchase. He also suffered from poor graphical performance. While workstation cards don't lack for processing power, their drivers aren't optimized for games. Chris knew this going in, but still wanted to experiment for it, which we applaud him. Even with his dearth of gaming framerates, his Xeon serves up excellent performance everywhere else.

Thomas seems intent on finally getting his prosumer build perfect. His ace in the hole this time of course is the BCLK overclock he was able to pull off. Taking a supposedly locked Xeon above 4 GHz instead of dropping an extra $100 on an i7 has been an enthusiast's dream for years.

My course this time was fraught with frustration, as seems normal with my builds. I'm sure Chris and Thomas see their own share of it too, perhaps I just complain about it more. While I had hopes of a fantastic overclock to match Thomas, it was not to be. Instead I had memory stability issues. My saving grace was a good overclock on my GPU, something the 950 is known for. Is that and a mild overclock on the i3 enough to finally take down the king of the SBM given my machine's drastically lower total cost?

Gaming
Battlefield 4Version 1.0.0.1, DirectX 11, 100-sec. Fraps "Tashgar"
Test Set 1: Medium Quality Preset, No AA, 4X AF, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality Preset,  4X MSAA, 16X AF, HBAO
Grid 2Version 1.0.85.8679, Direct X 11, Built-in Benchmark
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 8x MSAA
Arma 3Version 1.08.113494, 30-Sec. Fraps "Infantry Showcase"
Test Set 1: Standard Preset, No AA, Standard AF
Test Set 2: Ultra Preset, 8x FSAA, Ultra AF
Far Cry 3V. 1.05, DirectX 11, 50-sec. Fraps "Amanaki Outpost"
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA, Standard ATC, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 4x MSAA, Enhanced ATC, HDAO
Apps
Adobe After Effects CCVersion 12.0.0.404: Create Video which includes 3 Streams, 210 Frames, Render Multiple Frames Simultaneosly
Adobe Photoshop CCVersion 14.0 x64: Filter 15.7MB TIF Image: Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates
Adobe Premeire Pro CCVersion 7.0.0 (342), 6.61 GB MXF Project to H.264 to H.264 Blu-ray, Output 1920x1080, Maximum Quality
iTunesVersion 11.0.4.4 x64: Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 minutes, default AAC format 
Lame MP3Version 3.98.3: Audio CD "Terminator II SE", 53 min, convert WAV to MP3 audio format, Command: -b 160 --nores (160 kb/s)
Handbrake CLIVersion: 0.99: Video from Canon Eos 7D (1920x1080, 25 FPS) 1 Minutes 22 Seconds
Audio: PCM-S16, 48000 Hz, 2-Channel, to Video: AVC1 Audio: AAC (High Profile)
TotalCodeStudio 2.5Version: 2.5.0.10677: MPEG-2 to H.264, MainConcept H.264/AVC Codec, 28 sec HDTV 1920x1080 (MPEG-2), Audio: MPEG-2 (44.1 kHz, 2 Channel, 16-Bit, 224 kb/s), Codec: H.264 Pro, Mode: PAL 50i (25 FPS), Profile: H.264 BD HDMV
ABBYY FineReaderVersion 10.0.102.95: Read PDF save to Doc, Source: Political Economy (J. Broadhurst 1842) 111 Pages
Adobe Acrobat 11Version 11.0.0.379: Print PDF from 115 Page PowerPoint, 128-bit RC4 Encryption
Autodesk 3ds Max 2013Version 15.0 x64: Space Flyby Mentalray, 248 Frames, 1440x1080
BlenderVersion: 2.68A, Cycles Engine, Syntax blender -b thg.blend -f 1, 1920x1080, 8x Anti-Aliasing, Render THG.blend frame 1
WinZipVersion 18.0 Pro: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to ZIP, command line switches "-a -ez -p -r"
WinRARVersion 5.0: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to RAR, command line switches "winrar a -r -m3"
7-ZipVersion 9.30 alpha (64-bit): THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to .7z, command line switches "a -t7z -r -m0=LZMA2 -mx=5"
Synthetics
3DMark ProfessionalVersion: 1.2.250.0 (64-bit), Fire Strike Benchmark
PCMark 8Version: 1.0.0 x64, Full Test
SiSoftware SandraVersion 2014.02.20.10, CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic / Multimedia / Cryptography, Memory Bandwidth Benchmarks

Synthetics

Thomas' machine enjoys the graphical lead due to its stronger GPU. Chris' machine, while enjoying great physics scores, is sorely lacking on the 3D side, a trend we'll see a lot of. Mine sits somewhere in the middle. Mine is quite obviously behind in the storage as the only machine without a SSD.

My budget build scores nearly half in the arithmetic as the other two, fitting since it has half the CPU cores. While Thomas' overclock nets him a big lead in total encoding, notice the penalties he incurs in the other cryptographic categories due to losing AVX. This is the exact behavior I avoided by lowering my overclock. Without AVX even my lowly i3 beats a Xeon despite a much slower clock rate. Chris wasn't able to tune his RAM due to his workstation board. While I was able to get a good bump in my memory bandwidth, Thomas edges me out a little bit.

Gaming

It appears Arma has some sort of framerate cap at 136fps on standard detail. My guess is it only uses four cores and at stock rates each CPU has a similar clock. But as expected throughout, Thomas' investment in the much stronger 970, as well as his stronger GPU, pays off with big wins over the other two machines. Chris' build gets decent framerates at lower details, but struggles to even reach playable levels at the higher settings. My cheap 950 doesn't impress like a 970, but it gets smooth play at every single-screen setting, with the exception of Far Cry 3 on ultra.

Apps

Nothing is surprising here. My tiny i3 puts up a good fight, but simply can't compete against two CPUs with more than double the resources available. Only in the single-threaded tests does it make a good showing.

Power & Temperature

Though it's taken some licks, Chris' machine boasts the lowest power draw all-around. All three machines exhibit very low thermals, a testament to the improvement in computing efficiency in recent years.

Overall Performance & Efficiency

Thomas' build leads in every category. In contrast my budget PC trails in every category except gaming. That may look bad, but remember my build was half the cost of the other two. Since the other two haven't doubled my scores everywhere, there may still be a chance.

Chris takes the cake in terms of efficiency thanks to his incredibly low power draw.

System Value

Drumroll, please! My budget machine wins the performance value race at stock settings by a wide margin. Once overclocking is taken into consideration, it's a photo finish between me and Thomas. Though mine technically wins by two-tenths of a percent, that can simply be rounding error. In any realistic sense, our machines are tied. Remember when I talked about that extra $3 on my case for the red color and how if that cost me the value win I didn't deserve it? If anyone has a good recipe for crow, send it on over because it looks like I've got a plate to eat.

Once the OS cost is taken out, the value race goes convincingly to my machine at both stock and overclocked settings.

If you want to make this just about the gaming benchmarks, my machine again takes the win. However gaming experience isn't just about value numbers, it's often about sheer framerate, at which Thomas' machine easily would win.

The value win goes to my general purpose build again when we consider only the core platform components.

I am rather surprised about the results of this. When I hit the overclocking wall, I was sure the Thomas would take home the win again. Instead I tie him in the overall and sweep every other category. But what does this really say? To me it reinforces the idea we've hit upon for months (years, really). That is to build with a purpose.

To the uneducated eye, Chris build looks like a huge disappointment. Now yes, he got hit hard by missing the ECC RAM which challenges whether the build can truly be considered a professional workstation. But even with that, his build gets destroyed in any kind of graphical benchmark by a machine that costs half as much. So what? The thing wasn't meant to play games. It was meant for professional content creation workloads. If we ran the SBM machines through a suite of heavy rendering that would take advantage of his FirePro's acceleration, the other two machines would have been embarrassed as well.

Another interesting point is that Thomas and I approached this from almost completely different ends and still arrived at almost the same place. What this says to me is that the value sweet spot for computers is still between $600 and $1200. If you figure it works on a curve, the center point at $900 seems to be the ideal price range right now. That sounds right to me considering you could get an i5, GTX 970 and SSD for that money ( which I think would be a formidable opponent ).  But once again, that's just a basic guide.  You'll still get the most out of a home-built computer by tailoring the components to your specific work load.

Eric Vander Linden is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • DonkeyOatie
    I lead my Middle School (11 - 14) students in building their own computers. The have a bit more flexibility in parts selection and pricing, but the conclusions are the same. Build to a Purpose, get SSD, and the sweet-spot is around $900. Their challenge is that I 'insist' on mITX or mATX systems to teach them good cable and airflow management. (SLI GTX 980tis and a i7 5930 will run well in a Thermaltake Core V21)

    It will be interesting to see what the first VR builds look like. My students are already talking about it.
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  • Onus
    Eric's PC is very similar to what I'd want for myself; just add a SSD, and it's done. Other differences are niggles. A GTX950 should max my mostly older games even at 2K, and even GW2 should be mostly "High." As nearest to where I'd start on a budget, Eric wins the value competition by default. Thomas's build is similar to where I'd like to end up, except I'm less comfortable with the Xeon and would prefer a different PSU.
    BTW, your initial table needs fixing; it lists the wrong cases and may have other issues. The pictures are right, but the table is wrong.

    PS. That Fritz wanted to pick on Thomas is pretty funny.
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  • SpAwNtoHell
    I have to conffess Eric hat of to you.... As i find the other 2 systems kind of unbalanced for gaming and general use for graphic workstation chris's build is not bad for a cheap graphical workhorse... Wont get in detail there why and how come, i will let someone in the domain explain better. I done many times erics build with small variation in terms of market prices and depending of what the user would use the build for, and yes i ask what programs are used everytime including how future proof the system to be and 90% aim for FHD gaming playable, online usage and office work... And except i choose to split that 1TB hard drive is 250ssd +750hdd the other only thing is graphics as sometimes i get to source at almost same price or very close price gtx 960 strix or evga vs gtx950 strix. As a bottom note wich i find crucial for win 10 x64 is that skylake is more fluid and constant game wise compared with runing it on win 8.1-8-7 but again i3- 4130 wont benefit from win7-8-8.1 to win 10 but for i3 6100 is like changing hardware only buy changing os. So my advice would be unless dual gpu used or top flagship gpu like fury, 980ti, titan x, and if gaming is a proarity use the cash for storage gpu or MB unless un a budget.

    As a ps: i have in the house every generation processor since sandy bridge and the only processor i had not tested myself for homies yet is the new xeon and the gpu 980ti...

    Myself i think Eric is the winner here in terms of budget, gaming combined with general office use, if you want 144hz get a higher on the ladder gpu, same for rez( i do not refer to 4k), you need faster storrage put a ssd on or nvme need bigger storrage chuck a bigger hdd and adjust psu to suit the graphics.
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  • RedJaron
    Anonymous said:
    BTW, your initial table needs fixing; it lists the wrong cases and may have other issues. The pictures are right, but the table is wrong.

    Whoops, thanks. Result of me rushing to get this out. Thomas had a big emergency so I volunteered to cover this for him. I've let them know to fix it.
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  • Math Geek
    lots of good information in this SBM. i like the variety of builds.

    i'd love a similar priced face off next time around. something like an oc'ed i3 done with a better and proven mobo for it. perhaps an fx 83** again on a decent oc board and then an i5 build.

    more than anything i am curious how they would compete inside of a similar budget. these 3 seem to be the bulk of argument in the forums at a certain budget level (about $750-800ish) and i'd be curious who would win and how they'd stack up. i've read plenty of numbers and i think it would be a very close match.

    or perhaps for the fun of it a super budget build with an a10 and an r7-250 in xfire. i've seen some decent numbers from this set-up and wonder how it would do from a value perspective.
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  • Onus
    I'm really pleased about the last few SBM cycles. They've either offered some good new data points, or vindicated (or disproved) old ones.
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  • DonkeyOatie
    Yes. That's why a 'sweet spot '$800 - $900 build with an AMD FX CPU as one entrant would be useful vs Skylake, vs anything else. It will not be long before a VR benchmark needs to be added.
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  • rayden54
    These are a lot more interesting than the others (which are all very similar concepts), but I personally wouldn't build any of them.
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  • RedJaron
    Anonymous said:
    Yes. That's why a 'sweet spot '$800 - $900 build with an AMD FX CPU as one entrant would be useful vs Skylake, vs anything else. It will not be long before a VR benchmark needs to be added.

    After seeing some people complaining about my "obvious Intel fanboy-ism" since I went with the "expensive" i3 instead of the obviously superior FX chips, I was thinking about making an FX-6300 system next quarter so I could pit it against the budget build from this week ( like my 860K vs i3 last quarter ). I have no idea how that would be a fair fight since the FX is at least two generations behind in micro architecture efficiency and it has half the memory bandwidth of Skylake.
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  • Math Geek
    i'm not really concerned about fanboy's idea of "fair. i just think it would be interesting to see an i3 vs fx-8*** vs an i5 for some new numbers to work with. plenty of old numbers to see but almost nothing that puts it all into one place like the SBM does. fx being a bit cheaper might allow for a better gpu than a new i5, the oc'ed i3 would surely allow for a better gpu as well than an i5 build (staying with the same budget of course)

    like you said an fx compared to your other i3 and 860k builds brings even more comparison into play

    perhaps an i3 with a better gpu would be comparable to the fx or even i5 build. i think the i3 and fx builds would end up pretty closely matched (in gaming benchmarks anyway). in the end i am very curious as to how the value aspect of it ends up.

    i know no matter what the numbers say, there will always be whining but many of use understand and appreciate the risks taken in these builds and love the new information it brings to light
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  • RedJaron
    Oh, it's not them that are thinking about fairness, it's more me. Kaveri vs Haswell is one thing since they seemed pretty close on paper. But Vishera isn't anywhere near Skylake. It kinda seems like a waste of a SBM to confirm something we already know.

    If a lot of people want to see it, I wouldn't mind running one, but I'd say the result is already known at the outset.
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  • Math Geek
    that is very true. we do pretty much already know to expect. that is why the SBM must be so hard for you guys. hard to come up with something new to try out. this SBM was interesting with lots of new stuff we have not seen in the SBM before.
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  • chlamchowder
    But for gaming, what users care about is playability, not the highest benchmark score. Haswell and Skylake will push higher framerates than Kaveri and Vishera, but the difference between say, 65 and 110 fps, won't be visible on a 60 Hz screen. And a lot of games are perfectly playable in the 30-60 fps range.

    If you can still get playable performance at the same settings with Kaveri or Vishera (instead of Haswell or Skylake), you could save a good chunk of money that could go towards a better graphics card or SSD.
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  • Math Geek
    that's kind of what i am thinking myself. the "value" of the fx chip if it has any. most are happy enough with consoles so a solid 60 fps or so no matter what cpu it is should keep anyone happy. not sure where the super high fps thing comes from but some have just decided that if someone has more than them, then they are not gaming right.

    same idea is what keeps vegas in business and why they make $1000 video cards. not cause anyone actually needs them, but it gives them a nice big e-penis to flash around i guess
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  • RedJaron
    The SBM is not about gaming. Gaming performance is a very small part of the final calculation, just as it's a small part of computing in general around the world. I also think many people vastly overestimate the effect CPU has on gaming performance. Yes, at the low end, it can be pretty harsh. The 860K demonstrated that. However, most mainstream CPUs will be more than adequate, at which point they take a distant back seat to the GPU. But even if you are right, while that extra 40 fps may not be noticeable now, consider what that means for longevity. If you've got that framerate surplus now, it suggests the machine will be able to adequately play games for a while to come. If you're already on the edge of playable right now, what does that suggest will happen next year as games get more resource intensive?

    And the supposed huge price gap between Intel and AMD is very small on the mainstream. The FX-6300 is $110 while the i3-6100 is $125. That $15 gets you much better single-threaded performance for all the other tasks outside of gaming.

    It simply makes no sense to me right now to build a brand new computer today centered around a CPU that's almost four years old.
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  • chlamchowder
    Anonymous said:
    It simply makes no sense to me right now to build a brand new computer today centered around a CPU that's almost four years old.

    Firstly, excellent point about gaming being a small factor. If you run applications that demand CPU power, those older AMD CPUs are a poor choice. Also, good point about Vishera being very outdated and outclassed. Scratch vishera from my previous post - it's not competitive today.

    For Kaveri though, there is a scenario where it'd make sense. The 860K is $70, which is about $50 cheaper than an i3. Take someone who (at home) games and does light productivity work involving web browsing and office applications. Any heavier work is handled by remoting into a work machine instead of bringing gigabytes of data home every day. Then the performance impact is small because web activity is bottlenecked by network performance and office applications remain very responsive on weaker CPUs. At the same time, practically all modern games will be playable with a good graphics card.

    As for future-proofing, it's impossible to see the future of course. But historically, games have increased demands on GPU power far more than CPU power, and CPUs have aged very well. An i7 920 from 2008 will still push playable framerates for almost all of today's games when paired with a modern midrange video card. A 9800 GTX from 2008 will struggle on games today even with settings turned down. In addition 512 MB of onboard memory is limiting (causing stuttering), and DX 11 support is missing.

    So for future proofing with respect to gaming, I think it's better to put $50 into a better graphics card, perhaps with more video memory. Outside of gaming, a larger SSD ($50 can take you from 240 GB to 480 GB) or more RAM ($50 is more than enough to go from 8 GB to 16 GB) also feels more solid for future proofing.
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  • RedJaron
    It is true that some CPUs have aged well. Those were the ones that were already fairly strong. The i7 you mentioned is older yet stronger than the 860K. If you're not aware, I've already done considerable testing between the i3 and 860K in the last two SBMs. The 860K never looks particularly good. It's a good enough CPU for someone on a very tight budget, but I don't think it's worth overclocking. That's because the amount of extra money you would need to spend to get a good overclock out of it puts it into the price range of the i3, when you consider total platform cost.

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  • chlamchowder
    Anonymous said:
    The 860K never looks particularly good.

    Yeah, it's not worth overclocking. Or more accurately it's not worth spending additional money to get a good overclock.

    But while the 860K benchmarks lower than the i3 every time (not disputing that), the 860K fits into a small spot with people who game and do office work (or other things that don't demand tons of CPU power). From the SBM benchmarks with the 860K + GTX 970, non-overclocked:
    Arma 3 Ultra @ 1080: 41.8 fps
    Grid 2 Ultra @ 1080: 82.8 fps
    BF4 Ultra @ 1080: 84.9 fps
    Far Cry 3 Ultra @ 1080: 62.1 fps

    Those are all perfectly playable framerates. For 3/4 games, it's higher than the 60 Hz refresh rate most monitors operate at. And the lowest (41 fps) is still better than consoles, which tend to target 30 fps.

    Of course a faster CPU is always better, but saving $50 on the processor and putting that towards other components might go further in making the computer more pleasant to work with. For example, getting a 480 GB SSD (vs 240 GB), and loading games off the SSD IMO improves gaming experience far more than pushing more frames once you're above 30 fps. Even spending the $50 on a video card with more VRAM might be better for future proofing.

    But yes, you'd have to be on a very tight budget for the 860K to make sense, especially since it's an old architecture and Zen should be coming.
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