System Builder Marathon Q1 2014: System Value Compared

Three Strong Systems Face Off

System Builder Marathon, Q1 2014: The Articles

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!

Day 1: The $2400 Reader's Choice PC
Day 2: Our New Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $750 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected


Although Paul, Don, and I typically get vastly disparate budgets, we typically try to push as much performance as possible from the money we're given in the System Builder Marathon. That methodology changed a little this quarter when budget machine builder Paul Henningsen went rogue by starting with a $50 off-the-top cut. Our typical spread of 1x, 2x, and 3x budgets would have resulted in an $800 budget. But he decided that there simply wasn’t much he could do to noticeably improve performance with that last $50.

At the opposite end of the scale, I wasn’t ready to turn his $50 reduction into a $150 haircut, which would have been necessary for us to honor the usual price spread. After last quarter's Marathon, readers requested that I make two major changes to my previous effort, and those alterations wouldn't fit neatly into an otherwise-similar $2250 machine. Don didn't have a problem with that; by sticking with my original $2400 budget, he could keep his $1600. And as we saw a couple of days ago, he needed all of that plus some.

That’s where the real fun begins. Nvidia trimmed the prices on its GeForce GTX 780 and 780 Ti in response to AMD’s Radeon R9 290 and 290X. Shortly after that, a shortage of cards caused a surge in Radeon pricing. Don suddenly found himself able to switch from a pair of GeForce GTX 770s to a single GTX 780 Ti, and still had money left over for an upgrade from Intel's Core i5 to an i7, a higher-end case, and a Blu-ray disc burner.

Price drops on the GeForce GTX 780 weren't as significant, so the requests I received to use two left me without the money to keep the Blu-ray drive or Ivy Bridge-E-based CPU on a machine that, considering price alone, should still be able to do everything better.

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Q1 2014 System Builder Marathon Components
Row 0 - Cell 0 $750 Gaming PC$1600 Enthusiast PC$2400 Reader's PC
ProcessorIntel Core i3-4130: 3.4 GHz, Dual-Core, 3 MB Shared L3 CacheIntel Core i7-4770K: 3.5 - 3.9 GHz, Quad-Core, 8 MB Shared L3 CacheIntel Core i7-4770K: 3.5 - 3.9 GHz, Quad-Core, 8 MB Shared L3 Cache
GraphicsZotac ZT-70301-10P GeForce GTX 770 2 GBGalaxy 78NNH5DV8GGX GeForce GTX 780 Ti 3 GB2 x EVGA 03G-P4-2781-KR GeForce GTX 780 3 GB (SLI)
MotherboardAsus H81M-K: LGA 1150, Intel H81 ExpressASRock Z87 Pro3: LGA 1150, Intel Z87 ExpressASRock Z87 Extreme4: LGA 1150, Intel Z87 Express
MemoryAdata XPG-2 AX3U1600W4G9-DGV: DDR3-1600 C9, 8 GB (2 x 4 GB)Corsair Vengeance LP CML8GX3M2A1866C9B: DDR3-1866 C9, 8 GB (2 x 4 GB)G.Skill Ripjaws X F3-1866C9D-16GXM: DDR3-1600 C9, 16 GB (2 x 8 GB)
System DriveWestern Digital WD10EZEX: 1 TB, 7200 RPM, 64 MB CacheSamsung 840 EVO MZ-7TE120BW: 120 GB, SATA 6Gb/s SSDSanDisk Ultra Plus SDSSDHP-256G-G25: 256 GB, SATA 6Gb/s SSD
Storage Drive(Uses System Drive)Western Digital Black WD5003AZEX: 500 GB, 7200 RPM, 64 MB CacheSeagate Barracuda ST2000DM001: 2 TB, 7200 RPM, 64 MB Cache
OpticalAsus DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS: 24x DVD±R, 48x CD-RLG WH14NS40: 14x BD-R, 2x BD-R, 16x DVD+RLite-On iHAS124-04: 24x DVD±R, 48x CD-R
CaseRosewill Line-M MicroATXNZXT Phantom 410 CA-PH410-B3NZXT Phantom 410 CA-PH410-G1
PowerRosewill Capstone-450-M: 450 W Semi-Modular, ATX12V v2.31, 80 PLUS GoldCorsair TX650: 650 W ATX12V v2.3, 80 PLUS BronzeCorsair HX750: 750 W Semi-Modular, ATX12V v2.3, 80 PLUS Gold
CPU CoolerIntel Core i3 Boxed Fan (included)Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVOThermaltake CLW0217 Water 2.0 Extreme
PWM Fan(Uses CPU Fan)(Uses CPU Fan)Antec Spot Cool Blue LED Fan
Total Cost$755 $1615 $2310

Time and again, you've seen us demonstrate that the sweet spot for getting the most performance from your dollar requires a budget in the $700 to $1100 range, or thereabouts. That's a moving target, but it still leaves us expecting Paul's $750 gaming PC to win our quest to maximize value. 

It'll be more interesting to see whether my $2400 PC can continue to dominate Don's $1600 effort across most benchmarks. Since our two top machines now use the same CPU, the only hope for my build is that Don somehow screwed up his $1600 configuration.

Thomas Soderstrom
Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews cases, cooling, memory and motherboards.
  • blackmagnum
    Paul always wins. Why not switch it up sometime?
  • neiroatopelcc
    You really should add noise measurements on those builds. I'd much rather have a low noise system with mediocre performance than a fast but loud system. For that reason I returned my 7990 card in december and decided to stick with my trusty old 6950 that wasn't causing tinitus
  • redgarl
    Value is such a contradicting analysis. If your goal is to be 4k ready, the the two cheapest build are not going to make the cut. It's all depending on your needs.Also, for any single graphic card, I would cut on the CPU. There is no need to link a 4770k with a single 780 GTX.
  • vertexx
    Nice work with the targeted High End Gaming value analysis! I'd 2nd switching it up so that Paul doesn't always win....

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. Is it true that gaming only gets 20-30% of the overall performance weighting? If so, I'd suggest moving that up to at least 50%. Even though I'm one for a balanced system, I still think the amount of $$ you're spending on the graphics capability should be reflected more in the overall performance rating.

    2. There is quite a bit of back-and-forth on the impact of power consumption on these forums, and I think this competition would be a great place to factor in and raise awareness on the real costs of power consumption. I understand that electricity costs and system use varies greatly. But I would add in another value analysis incorporating the present value of 3 years' electricity costs using a discount rate (simple excel function 'pv'). Of course you would have to make some broad assumptions around average power, hours of use per day, whether or not you idle the system 24x7, and electricity cost, but I think the present value of 3 year electricity cost would make a decent impact on your value calculations across these systems.
  • neiroatopelcc
    12974969 said:
    Of course you would have to make some broad assumptions around average power, hours of use per day, whether or not you idle the system 24x7, and electricity cost, but I think the present value of 3 year electricity cost would make a decent impact on your value calculations across these systems.

    I would suggest making a forum poll regarding this. From my steam library I can tell that I've been playing games on average 2.25 hours a day over the last 5 years, and since the bulk of my games are on steam (1400+) it's not much below my real usage. However despite being a gamer I find myself having the computer either idle or playing youtube etc for an amount equal to the time I'm playing games. Assuming I'm around average, with regards to gaming:idling ratio, that'd mean perhaps 3 hours gaming and 3 hours idle/video playback a day on average.
  • Gin Fushicho
    Your link is broken.
  • geoffrey4283
    I'm not sure if this is what Gin Fushicho is referring to, but SurveyGizmo has been subject to a DDoS attack for the last ~24 hours, making your contest survey inaccessible.
  • winwiz
    Yes to me and most people I know, cost for power and noise is more important than 199 FPS in BF4
  • geofelt
    A typo:Your $750 build used a i3-4130, not the i7-4770K listed in the tested configurations
  • de5_Roy
    the links at the top of the page aren't enabled. the 4th link for value comparison is disabled on all 3 of the sbm pages.

    i didn't agree with any of the motherboard choices in this quarter's build. despite that, all three builds were very interesting in terms of performance, choice of parts and builds.
    my takeaway from this is that ddr3 1333 is not the baseline for cheap system memory anymore. 2x 4GB ddr3 1600 and higher, especially 2x 8GB ddr3 1866 or higher memory is optimum for performance. don not enabling xmp for the $1600 pc's stock performance analysis helped me understand this.
    haswell i7 ramped power and heat really high after 4.4ghz and bit more voltage. both were higher than don's previous o.c. of i5 4670k with asus z87-a board. i still don't like asrock. can you guys compare o.c. clockrates, temperature and voltage of haswell cpus used in sbm in q4 to see which combo was better? imo it'd help with how haswell behaves in real pcs instead of open test benches or test pcs.