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System Builder Marathon, Q2 2014: Our Budget Gaming PC

Presenting Our New Budget Gaming PC

System Builder Marathon, Q2 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 Budget Gaming PC
Day 2: Our Mainstream Enthusiast System
Day 3: The Balanced High-End Build
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected

An Introduction To The System Builder Marathon

What does it mean to build your own PC? Generally, this refers to the process of selecting and assembling the various hardware and software components able to satisfy your computing needs. For example, do you want to play the latest and most detailed games? If so, your family's three-year-old desktop probably won't cut it. A great many off-the-shelf machines lack the add-in graphics card you'd need for ample performance. Worse, they're often missing the slots and ports needed for an upgrade.

Unless your time is more valuable than your money, we typically encourage PC gamers to consider building their own machines. The process isn't for the technically-challenged. And there plenty of great boutiques that cater to folks who want beefy parts, but aren't comfortable tinkering inside of their cases. Yet, at some point, even seasoned pros had to get their feet wet with a first build or major upgrade.

Now, our System Builder Marathon is not a “How To” on putting your own machine together. If you're brand new to this and looking for a step-by-step reference, check out How To Build A PC: From Component Selection To Installation, which we just updated for 2014. Rather, the Marathon is an ongoing look at the hardware market, what's available, and how it performs. Tom’s Hardware has a team of editors who tackle one build each, publishing their experiences successively once per quarter. We use our knowledge (or curiosity) to highlight some of the best platform options. Typically, we differentiate our configurations based on price brackets or build goals. 

The System Builder Marathon turns into a friendly competition amongst Thomas, Don, and I, during which we chase the highest performance and best value. Once we get our machines put together, we run them through a suite of synthetic benchmarks, application workloads, and demanding 3D games. At times, our themes or individual builds zero-in more specifically on a specific purpose. We also test each PC in two ways. First, it's evaluated in stock form, with all of the hardware running the way it was intended. Then, we tune all of the parts as enthusiasts looking for even more speed through tweaking and overclocking.

None of the gear we use is cherry-picked. Review samples sent by hardware vendors are sometimes screened to deliver the best possible experience. There's none of that here. Rather, we partner with Newegg to choose from the company's retail inventory. This partnership serves a dual-benefit in that we're able to give every machine we build away to the Tom's Hardware audience once we're done running our benchmarks. 

Changes To Our Format

Many of you are probably already familiar with the Marathon. This quarter, you'll see our format change a bit, largely based on your feedback. First, we are focusing specifically on the prices of components that affect performance, leaving the parts that don’t impact benchmark results out of the value equation. In other words, the case, optical drive, and operating system have no bearing on our price/performance calculations. Everything else falls under the “Price of Performance Hardware”. In this way, we free ourselves to experiment with higher-end enclosures and add-ons like Blu-ray drives without a negative impact on comparative value. Some of our readers don’t want to see a $20 DVD burner interfere with their processor and graphics budget, while others believe that a Blu-ray burner and $150 case are necessary. We get that.

Of course, we continue to provide the total cost of all components, now including an operating system, in a final “Price As Tested”. Taken together, this information should paint a clearer picture of value, while acknowledging the personal nature of cases, optical drives, and even the OS.

We continue to see a lot of interest in budget-friendly gaming platforms. A "$500 Gaming PC" was once a staple of the Marathon. So, to give this quarter a theme, we lowered our budgets and targeted PC gaming. Distilled down, our rigs can typically get by with $50 dedicated to a case and optical drive, though the resulting configuration wouldn't necessarily be something we'd want to build. That's why we took our $500, $1000, and $1500 budgets, subtracted $50 from them, and used the result as our performance-oriented targets. Because we are now purchasing (and giving away) Windows 8.1 with our systems, my lowest-cost machine tips the scales around $600 as-tested.

Meet Our Budget Gaming PC

I like to tell folks new to PC building that they should do their homework, understanding the mechanics of how components work together, what they cost, and how they affect performance. I've built a great many PCs and I stay current on what's available, so I already have a good sense for the hardware in my budget. So to start, I added supporting components (memory, storage, and power) to my shopping cart as filler, if only to see what I'd have leftover for the platform's foundation. Prices and availability fluctuate daily, so I didn't get crazy about fitting under a ceiling. Every initial pick is reviewed and tweaked as necessary before checking out.

Memory prices, especially, move violently from one quarter to the next, sometimes affecting the other hardware I can afford. This budget gaming box will run Windows 8 and rely on a single hard drive. So, I added the cheapest 8 GB dual-channel DDR3 kit to my cart, and told myself that I'd consider 4 GB later as a last resort.

From there, approximately $300 remained to secure the graphics card, processor, and motherboard. Obviously, the $330 GeForce GTX 770 utilized in last quarter's $750 Gaming PC had to go. And this time, the best values were all AMD cards: the Radeon R7 260X, R7 265, and potentially a R9 270. We don't give credit for mail-in rebates, which come and go, so those models would set me back $120, $150, and $190, respectively.

Many modern games knock entry-level host processors to their knees, so I wanted to go with an Intel Core i3 or AMD FX-6300. That'd limit my budget to AMD's Radeon R7 260X, with $50 or $60 leftover for a motherboard and heat sink. In attempt to retain as much relevance as possible in games at 1920x1080 (Full HD), I dropped down to the most basic game-worthy processor options.

Budget System ComponentsPurchase Price
CPUAMD Athlon X4 750K (Trinity)$80
CPU CoolerAMD Boxed Heat Sink and Fan-
MotherboardASRock FM2A75M Pro4+, Socket FM2+$59
RAMTeam Group Dark Series 8 GB (2 x 4 GB) DDR3-1600 TDBD38G1600HC9DC01$65
GraphicsMSI R7 265 2GD5 OC 2 GB$150
Hard DriveWestern Digital Blue WD10EZEX 1 TB$60
PowerEVGA 100-W1-0430-KR 430 W$40
Price of Performance Hardware$454
CaseRosewill Redbone U3 ATX Mid-Tower$45
OpticalAsus 24x DVD Burner DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS, OEM$20
Total Hardware Cost$519
Operating SystemMicrosoft Windows 8.1 64-bit, OEM$100
Price As Tested$619

My focus wasn't on upgrade potential. Otherwise, I would have preferred an Intel Haswell-based Pentium, which could later be replaced with a Core i5 or i7. Rather, my only concern was competing as aggressively as possible right here and right now. Our parts were ordered back in May, so my best shot was with AMD’s Athlon X4 750K, the least expensive host processor I could buy sporting a fully unlocked CPU multiplier. My tweaking would be limiting primarily by AMD's bundled cooler and ASRock's affordable A75-based motherboard.

This platform combination left me with $150 for a Radeon R7 265 graphics card. There were no worthy platform options within range that could have helped me free up the $40 I'd need for a Radeon R9 270, unless I was also willing to drop to 4 GB of RAM. In the end, I decided to break the budget just a bit in order to double available storage capacity.

  • LookItsRain
    I myself just could not see buying a setup like this because of complete lack of a CPU upgrade path.
    Reply
  • revanchrist
    Please stop those nonsenses so called upgrade path. People who buy budget pc won't upgrade their pc before 2-3 years of usage at least. And by the time they are actually upgrading, they will be buying new CPU and new motherboard aka a whole new platform. But still i'll say a combination of G3258 + H97 and overclock it or a i3 4150 + H97 without overclocking will be a better option.
    Reply
  • bemused_fred
    THANK YOU for finally including the cost of the OS! This is a HUGE budget consideration, ESPECIALLY for those working on low-cost builds.
    Reply
  • Electromikey
    I'm personally not surprised at all that the ASUS burner was DOA. I've owned four of them, and each one has died within a month of purchase. Not a fan.
    Reply
  • Steve Simons
    I'd love to see a "vote on the components" build at some point. Each decision would have 3-5 choices with your analysis of why a choice might be good or bad. Then, as readers and enthusiasts, we can vote for our choice and see what wins.
    Reply
  • allanitomwesh
    Liking the new format and for once,I actually agree with the choices made on this rig!Good show there henningsen,I think it is important to consider that this month's rig,compared to last time at $750,has enough difference in price to graba monitor and keyboarg mouse combo,for a complete system,and that is a win.
    Reply
  • Steve Simons
    I'm not an expert by any means, so take this with a grain of salt. Would dumping the RAM down to 4 GB have opened up the better graphics card?

    The reason why I ask is that budget builders, if they do choose to upgrade anything, typically upgrade RAM (due to the extreme ease at which it can be installed). This way, as they save their pennies they can make the jump from 4 GB to 8 GB while still having the better graphics card that should serve them a bit better and longer than the one in the current system.
    Reply
  • Traciatim
    I hope you stick with the budgets in the future, it seems pretty silly comparing machines from quarter to quarter with wildly fluctuation budgets. It's also nice that budget actually means entry level budget and that the cap is $1500. It seems like after that amount it just ends up throwing money at things because they sound cool rather than really changing the performance of the machine all that much.

    Hopefully next time we will get the see the G3258 in the budget gaming rig since even Tom's own article showed the 3258 pretty much destroying the 750k in games across the board . . . or maybe AMD could come up with something that's actually worth buying over other offerings?
    Reply
  • pauldh
    13573428 said:
    I'm not an expert by any means, so take this with a grain of salt. Would dumping the RAM down to 4 GB have opened up the better graphics card?

    The reason why I ask is that budget builders, if they do choose to upgrade anything, typically upgrade RAM (due to the extreme ease at which it can be installed). This way, as they save their pennies they can make the jump from 4 GB to 8 GB while still having the better graphics card that should serve them a bit better and longer than the one in the current system.

    Actually, you are right on target. This is a big decision for budget-buyers to consider. And here is where I was most torn also. For me it somewhat comes down to current market prices. The way they rise and fall you may grab an 8GB kit later on for the price of a 4GB kit now. Though the reverse has already happened too. We bought 8GB kits for way less in the past. If budget/funding forced me under R7-260X, I'd have dropped to 4GB.

    In this SBM series we run our benchmark workloads from the HDD, not RAM Drive, so it (dropping to 4GB)wouldn't show up in our benchmark charts much at all (beyond a few apps, tops). Yet jumping to R9 270 would have yielded notable gains in frame rates, and even offered higher max playable settings. Yet it also feels like a bit of a cheat on my part; a benchmark win, yet also a "daily livability" loss.

    IMO computing life with 4GB isn't as productive or enjoyable. Stuttering or hitching in games, lengthened time just to exit games or switch between tasks, and even web browsing slowing to a crawl when too many tabs are open.

    I got in the habit of outfitting 8GB when RAM was more affordable, especially when the entry-level mobo in use is limited to two sticks. This one supports four, so starting with 4GB becomes more practical. There's some potential for compatibility issues when adding very different memory kits. (single-sided+dual-sided) But nothing I'd worry too much about.

    I'd say budget builders more than anyone should consider building in steps. That's one good reason to build rather than buy. Be it the mobo, CPU, Graphics, PSU, RAM, It's nice know part(s) of your platform has/have staying power, even if you can't afford to do it all well, right from the start.
    Reply
  • pauldh
    13572758 said:
    Please stop those nonsenses so called upgrade path. People who buy budget pc won't upgrade their pc before 2-3 years of usage at least. And by the time they are actually upgrading, they will be buying new CPU and new motherboard aka a whole new platform. But still i'll say a combination of G3258 + H97 and overclock it or a i3 4150 + H97 without overclocking will be a better option.

    While I most certainly understand what you are saying, considering the double post directly above it, I'd also like to reiterate budget builders are the ones who should probably MOST consider the upgrade path. If you can afford to hit the upper-mainstream now across the board, fine. You may likely be happy for a few years until your next build. Or at least you'd have the platform to stay with a GPU upgrade, if desired.

    But if you can't, then why settle for the disposable platform mentality and not consider advantaging upgrade potential into your plan? Remember some folks aren't keen on starting over with a fresh OS all to often. A large CPU bump while retaining the mobo, can be a huge plus for those who always feel they lack free time. Starting with a Pentium and later popping in Core i7 has huge lasting potential for those short on cash only, but not in computing desires. For my son, I even started with Celeron so he could build his own with me, and now that rig outfits i5-2500K, and the Celeron ported over to a cheap office PC. It was part of the plan all along, but the cheap chip got us up and running quicker within my budget. Best of all, it only took me minutes to upgrade.
    Reply